Friday, 8 August 2008

End Of Season Review - Battlestar Galactica

Is it fair to say that sci fi fans are split into two factions over the best genre shows on TV right now? In my time reading talkbacks and comment sections online, Lost talkbacks are often invaded by hardcore Battlestar Galactica fans dissing the island-based dissertation on free will for "making it up as it goes along", and Battlestar Galactica talkbacks feature, well, less attacks, but perhaps that's because Lost fans are more polite. Yes, I am firmly in the former category, and so my perception is distorted by that fandom. Lost pushes all of my buttons, whereas BSG makes me angry almost as often as it makes me happy. This picture expresses the chasm between the two fanbases (at least as far as I see it).

It was not always this way. The opening mini and the first season were as good as TV gets. It was relevant, it was exciting, it was cleverly referential with regards to the original series, and it featured the most incredible effects yet shown on TV. It's shallow of me to love the show for that, but Zoic's effects work was simply staggering. That was merely the cherry on top of a lot of really terrific drama. I was absolutely thrilled that SciFi was making something so challenging and clever.

Over time, my opinion changed. By the end of season two we had had way too many placeholder episodes, which meant the finale crammed in several episodes' worth of drama into an hour of TV. It was good drama, but rushed through in an unsatisfying blur of action and revelation and unconvincing fatsuits. The other sin of that season (and the subsequent season) was the amount of time spent focusing on possibly the least interesting couple on TV at the expense of a lot of other exciting avenues. Yes, no Apobuck 'shipper am I. Or Starders, or Apoulla, or any combination.

Apollo and Starbuck bore me to tears, and we have spent way too much time watching them come up with reasons not to just start spacehumping. My least favourite Apobuck moment came when Starbuck used religion as a reason to not just bang Apollo's grumpy brains out. We have no idea what the provisions of her religion are, as none of these details have been explained convincingly (more on that bugbear later), so this just smacked of contrivance. The main reason for their inability to just get it on (other than that they are boring, badly written teenagers who love the drama of their relationship) is that Starbuck was involved with the now "dead" Zack Adama, Lee's brother, who looms over them and Apollo's dad, the flat-out AWESOME Bill Adama, from "beyond the grave".

The amount of time spent agonising over a character who is not actually on the show is dead air, and as such seems odd. Unless, of course, Zack is the final Cylon. The fact that the prequel series Caprica seems to revolve around the Adama family's connections with the scientist who created the Cylons suggest it might be. The arrival of Zack will justify all of the attention on two boring-ass flyers at the expense of so many other more interesting relationships. How the son of a human could be a Cylon has yet to be explained, but we're convinced it will be him (kudos to the AV Club commenter, whose name escapes me, who suggested it a few months ago). If not, why the hell are we devoting this much time to these guys? Now that they've reached earth together will they become Adam and Eve? Surely a show as smart as this one won't be so stupid as to do that.

If I had problems with season two, season three tested our patience to the limit. After a very very strong opening featuring some of the most astonishing drama on any show last year, the show got into a funk, with Baltar doing something something on the Cylon Basestar, Tyrol staring at a carving for two episodes, Apollo and Starbuck getting pissed at each other, and lots of other truly dreary nonsense that I'm blotting out because those empty scenes are taking up space in my head I could use to get excited about the Watchmen trailer (shut up over-sensitive fanboys, it looks great). By then, even some top quality space explosions couldn't keep me interested. An attempt to watch the Razor TV movie faltered in the middle of a huge battle sequence due to lack of interest (and I've yet to finish it). How is this possible? Usually I live for this stuff.

I thought it would take a miracle to make me give a damn about Battlestar Galactica again, but in the end something less dramatic but equally as wonderful happened; Jane Espenson wrote two episodes of the show and introduced some quality writing, something the show was sorely in need of. That's not to say that the fourth season of BSG was instantly made flawless, because there were plenty of annoyances, longueurs, and poor performances. That's also not to say the rest of the BSG writing team are uniformly dreadful; Ronald D. Moore, Bradley Thomson and David Weddle (and Mark Verheiden, occasionally) still do sterling work, but we still get some horrendous dialogue, cringe-making dramatic devices, and confusing expansion of the BSG mythos. If you don't believe me about the terrible devices, consider Gaeta and his lost leg. A strangely dramatic plot-thread for a minor character, but made almost unwatchable by the conceit that, in his post-op delirium, he keeps warbling tuneless, pretentious songs reflecting that episode's moral dilemmas. Even more improbably, anyone walking into the recovery room was obligated to comment on how lovely it was. Gah! I know you've been living without music for a while, but it didn't used to sound like that. Oh well, at least it wasn't a Dylan song.

However, even at its best (and its best is very very good), the show has lacked a spark in its writing, possibly due to budget and network pressures, or, as I sometimes suspect, the mythology of the show has been insufficiently worked out in advance. I once started a huge post about my frustration with the show, and perhaps I'll get back to that soon. Right now, I want to go apeshit over Espenson's expanded role on the show, which saw her get solo credit on two episodes, a step up from co-writing a season three episode with former 24 producer Anne Cofell Saunders (who has left BSG to work on Chuck). Her first episode was dismissed by some talkbackers as a placeholder, and though it didn't feature space battles or mythos-defining weirdness, it did have words coming out of people's mouths that didn't sound like they were written by a robot. Or an infinite number of Grace Parks working away on an infinite number of archaic typewriters.

If I never warmed to BSG the way I warmed to Lost or Deadwood or Friday Night Lights or anything from the Mutant Enemy Factory of Awesomeness, it's because the dialogue never came alive. Even when I was really enthusiastic about it (from the opening mini-series to about the halfway mark in season two), I wished the dialogue had some sass, or spunk, or surprise. When spoken by the show's best actors (I'm thinking Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonell, James Callis, or Tricia Helfer) that dialogue sounded just fine, but then talented performers can transcend something flat. However, when handled by some of the less polished performers (it gives me no pleasure to aim my stinkeye at Grace Park, Katee Sackhoff, Michael Trucco, and some of the other random actors playing minor characters littering the screen), the shortcomings of the writing becomes all too apparent.

With Espenson on board, even that placeholder episode felt fresh and entertaining and relevant. Even better, her second episode, the penultimate one of this mini-season, had all of the visual wow and big drama that the talkbackers thought was lacking before, and even though she was lumbered with the kind of poorly explained dream sequence stuff that so often irks me on this show (by which I mean Laura Roslin's visions of her death), she imbued them with humour and humanity, and avoided the purple melodrama that can often seep into these moments. I just wanted to ambush the rest of the writers with a screening of it, all the while yelling, "This is how you do it!"

Even better, the finale, written by Weddle and Thompson, was infinitely better than the dire season three finale, and though it flirted with the same Dylan nonsense that blighted that previous episode, mainly it was concerned with getting on with telling the story and blowing our minds. Which it did, with five minutes of exultation, heightened emotion, and finally a total loss of hope. As shocked as I was by the final shot of Jeremy Bentham in Lost, BSG's bravura pan across the leaders of the human/Cylon coalition and the desolate surface of a ruined earth might have been even more astonishing. In that moment I was relieved that I had stuck with the show even when the third season had annoyed me so much.

Of course, the ten episode mini-season wasn't exclusively Espenson-level writing and mind-blowing reveals. The quality level still rose and fell rapidly, often within the same episode. Though I was grateful that the focus on Apollo/Starbuck, the plot that had derailed the previous season, had been dialled back, we still had her and Anders acting out their risible and dreary psycho-drama. Even knowing that she is unwittingly the number one Cylon pin-up (with both Leoben and Anders obsessed with getting into her unflattering space-pants) didn't make it any more interesting. Having the two of them stuck on a garbage scow with the cream of the fleet (a plot device that made absolutely zero sense) was televisual torture, made worse by the histrionic performances from the entire crew.

Back with the fleet, things were sporadically interesting with patches of blurg. The Tyrol/Cally plot was resolved with Cally getting blasted out of an airlock, a turn of events that pleased us greatly. Aaron Douglas and Nicki Clyne had been lumbered with the worst kind of kitchen-sink drama, with Tyrol hiding from his shrill wife and horrible kid, a domestic situation complicated further with the revelation that he was a Cylon and their child was a human/Cylon hybrid. That fact alone created immensely important drama that changed the whole direction of the show, and...

Oh, that's right. Their hybrid baby is seemingly nowhere near as important as Athena and Helo's kid. Ron Moore pretty much admitted that at last year's Comic-Con, but has yet to explain why one is important and the other is not. You'd think that the decision to make Tyrol a Cylon was a spur of the moment thing, but BSG would never just make it up as they go along, would they? That's Lost I'm thinking of. [/bitter] That said, Tyrol's reaction to Cally's death was terrific, and brilliantly written by Espenson. His breakdown in the Galactica bar was a season highlight. As Tyrol was also well-served by Espenson (and Cofell Saunders) last season, it's fair to say I only like him when she writes him. Fingers crossed we get more of that in the last ten episodes.

Baltar's transformation into opportunistic messiah was also welcome, after he was reduced to a wibbling loser last season. Seeing him stumbling into his destiny as ineffectual self-help guru with his customary mixture of bluster and self-loathing was great fun, as was his growing influence within the fleet, as his monotheistic religion becomes more appealing to the increasingly desperate refugees. One of the aspects of BSG that has interested me the least is the slowly building focus on religion. The show has always had a religious aspect, but I tended not to pay much attention to the details of the conflicting religions of the humans and Cylons, thinking them little more than signifiers of the shows comment on contemporary tensions, but as the fourth season wore on I had the horrible feeling that I should have been paying attention all along, and we were going to get to the final stretch of the show without a proper working knowledge of the significance of all of that guff about the twelve Gods and what have you. Was I going to have to go back and rewatch the whole show to catch all of this stuff?

By the time the finale had rolled around, I felt almost certain that the Cylons and the humans are all worshipping the wrong thing, that there is a force shaping their destinies but it is not the God we think of, but some force of physics or space/time or multi-dimensional space (Roslin's visions during FTL jumps makes me wonder about that) that is beyond comprehension, and certainly beyond the superstitious teachings of the twelve tribes and the Cylons. At least, I hope so. I find the religious plotline far more interesting as a tool to dramatise tensions between the characters than as a complex but ultimately uninteresting mythology running through the show. That way lies The Sacred Scrolls of Borzon and The Temple of Astroculite and much other silliness that doesn't fit into this plot, though regrettably it has wandered in that direction from time to time. Thankfully the show appears to be using God as a source of conflict, which is believable and way more interesting.

Plus, as an added bonus, James Callis has been fantastic as a reluctant messiah winging it in front of an adoring following and coming up with a philosophy even more vapid than Oprah's latest pet belief system The Secret, if that's possible. At the end of last season he was walking around in robes looking like Future Space Jesus, which was amusing but sledgehammer subtle. At least now he just looks like a cult leader, which is pretty much what he is.

I've been bitching about a large proportion of the plotlines, but there were stories within the mini-season that I really liked. While I was irked by Ron Moore's admission that Roslin's cancer remission was another spur of the moment writing choice (a choice that AICN BSG talkbackers were in denial over, having spent three years making snotty cracks about Lost being made up on the fly), it's given Mary McDonnell yet more chances to show off her considerable acting skills. Confession time: before BSG I couldn't stand McDonnell at all, finding her rictus grin performances in Donnie Darko and Grand Canyon unwatchable. I could just about get over my antipathy in Sneakers, but that's because Sneakers is the awesomest. Setec Astronomy! Yeah, that's right, bitches.

In BSG, however, she has been uniformly magnificent. This season has provided her with some of her best acting opportunities, as Roslin's humanity and morality get tested by the ever-worsening situation within the fleet, the continuing fallout from the occupation on New Caprica, the urge to overrule the council as they vacillate and bicker, and her wavering faith, which has caused her to misinterpret signs and omens, as well as damage her empathic connection with those around her. Best of all, she almost killed Baltar after he finally confessed to accidentally betraying humanity, before a vision of her own death showed her the error of her ways. It was an acting tour de force that made the regular PointyShouty moments look even more feeble by comparison.

If that scene amazed me, a few minutes later I blubbed like a perspective-free fanboy as Roslin was reunited with Bill Adama, and finally told him she loved him. His response, "About time", is only beaten by Ben Linus' emotionless, "So?" from the Lost finale. Edward James Olmos has been my favourite actor on BSG from very early on, and his stoic decision to wait for Roslin in a Raptor with only her favourite book for company was a season highlight. Of course, in the finale the breakdown he has probably been fending of for years finally happened upon finding out that his best friend, Saul Tigh, was (improbably) a Cylon all along. Olmos performed the shit out of the moment, meaning poor Jamie Bamber was forced to brace himself against the acting maelstrom next to him.

The Cylons finally achieved their full potential, having previously been mysterious monoliths of force with only hints at their inner turmoil. Slowly we've seen cracks emerge; Leoben's obsession with Starbuck, D'Anna's breakdown, the rebellions of the Six's and Athena's. Sadly those moments were often sidelined in order to return to yet more Apollo/Starbuck angstifying, a narrative choice that drove me to distraction. This season flirted with the same lack of focus, as a Cylon civil war broke out for thirty seconds in the middle of an episode and then went unmentioned for a couple of weeks while we got to watch Tigh hallucinate at a Six instead. It was a tad frustrating.

The other thing that has bothered me over the last couple of seasons is how the show spends less time focusing on the mechanics of the fleet, how the humans are attempting to retain their connection to their history by creating a system of government and law, and how that system is unable to cope with the demands of life on the run. As we approach the finale we're dealing more with more "sci fi" elements, such as time looping and the possible intervention of a god-like force. Last year I was bummed out by the increased focus on prophecy (a bit of a bug-bear of mine, as it can lead to some lazy plotting in all kinds of fiction), but this season has been promising, especially as potential messiah Baltar is still pretty much the same horndog as ever, except now he has new ways to justify his sleazy behaviour.

Prophecy, when used to do little more than foreshadow future events, is a crutch for lazy writers. This half-season has hinted that there is more to the religious plot than we thought. Prophecy is still a key factor, but that wonderful final shot hints that the rails that our protagonists are running on might not be heading in the direction they expected. That's what I've been waiting for since the mini-series "prequel", so many of the reservations I've had over these ten episodes faded. I will still hold onto my coveted memory of the less glamorous aspects of the show, the politicking, the debates, the worrying about water or food or power. I loved that stuff almost as much as the explosions.

Funnily enough, it was that stuff that made Lost a trial to watch sometimes. I didn't mind it all in the first season, but Robinson Crusoe-esque food gathering and water collection drama has been done before, and for the first season there was a lot of that. It was perhaps a lighter and more fun show as a result, but I only really started loving it once Desmond appeared with tales of the Dharma Initiative. BSG, on the other hand, has followed a similar arc, but my interest has dwindled the further we've moved from the nuts-and-bolts tales. I guess it's because it's more interesting to me to see how the human race would struggle to survive following mass extinction and exile on spluttering spaceships than it is to see people chasing boars through a jungle.

That increasingly dense mythology isn't the only similarity BSG shares with Lost. We also have the exploration of the concept of fate via the sci fi trope of distorted time (if the "This has happened before, and will happen again," line is as important as it seems), reluctant leadership (Jack and Apollo), suspicion, and, most importantly, a refusal to reduce conflict to a Manichean battle, preferring instead to show good and bad and all the infinite gradations between through a distorted lens. By now we have multiple factions within both human and Cylon camps, and now both races are having to join forces, just as the Losties and the Others are moving closer together. Of course, they're not the only shows to explore what it's like to live on the hazy line between right and wrong. The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Mad Men, and Dexter all do it too to varying degrees of success, but it's good to see genre TV do it while remaining genuine sci fi and not some watered down amalgam of genres or another bratty child of the late-70s space opera movies that fathered the original version of this show. Plus, we get all of that moral ambiguity and ethical curiosity while retaining the large explosions. When has Dexter ever offered a spectacle as exciting as this? When has Mad Men? And no, I'm not talking about the insanity taking hold of Don Draper's brain.

The long and short of it is, the fourth season of BSG featured many of the annoying things that have made the trip so far such a slog, but the new focus that has come with the definite end-date has re-ignited my interest in it. When I'm feeling uncharitable, I'll bitch about it even now. Most of the sub-plots still hold no interest for me. Anders, Gaeta, at least one version of Boomer, Starbuck, Helo and Dualla could be written out (Dualla pretty much has) and I wouldn't even notice, unless it meant more screentime for the sorely under-used Doc Cottle or the magnificently oily Zarek, in which case I would rejoice. It can often look so dark as to be almost impossible to comprehend, though I will grant that sometimes that choice pays off. The peculiar pixellated imagery on the Cylon Rebel Baseship was a lovely touch. (This picture also features Tricia Helfer being awesome, as usual.)

The biggest variable on the show is Michael Hogan. Will he be amazing this week? Or will he make my head hurt with the growly line-readings and scenery-chomping? I think his acting ability is determined by some astrological event or something. In this season he let his inner crazy out a bit too often; the scenes featuring him and the Six he keeps hallucinating at were simultaneously creepy, incomprehensible, and moving. Still, he gets a Shades of Caruso Free Pass for his superb work during Tigh's Al-Zawahiri period. I'll just choose to forget subtlety-free moments like the one below in honour of those fine performances in the past.

All of that remains, and yet my interest in the show has been totally reawakened. I'm even considering rewatching it from the start in prep for the finale. That's a lot of watching to pack in on top of The Shield and Wonderfalls and maybe Buffy and all of the other shows we were going to watch during Summer hiatus that we didn't get around to. Not that I consider it a hardship. Roll on the final ten episodes, the spin-off show, and the follow-up movie, which is written by Jane Espenson and therefore will be awesome. You have my word on that.

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