Sunday, February 12, 2006

News From the Bizarro-verse and Other "Sacrifice" Thoughts

I didn't exactly plan to start a running Battlestar Galactica commentary, but I just had to sound off on this week's episode in order to share a scary statistic and an even scarier thought. The statistic is that thus far in its winter season, Galactica is two for six. Sure, "Resurrection Ship I" kicked off the season with a blast and last week's "Scar" was a brilliant mixture of character development and thrilling heroics, but in the interim, the writers have been feeding us a steady diet of mediocrity--The One Where, In Lieu of Plot, Here's Fifteen Cumulative Minutes of Jamie Bamber Shirtless; The One Where We Wave Our Hands and Roslin's Cancer Goes Away; The One Where, Instead of Using a Perfectly Good and Decently Foreshadowed Existential Crisis We Already Had Ready For Him, We Saddle Lee With Another Existential Crisis That We Pulled Out of Our Asses; and, of course, Friday's episode, The One Where the Only Person In the Fleet With More Than Two Brain Cells to Rub Together Ends Up Dead.

Seriously, has anyone sat down and worked out the sheer amount of dimness that was required to make "Sacrifice"'s plot work? First there's Sesha and her friends, who genuinely believe that they're going to get somewhere by taking people hostage and threatening to shoot them. Did they not have cop shows in the twelve colonies? Doesn't everyone with a halfway functional brain know how hostage situations play out? Those people were dead the minute they shot off their weapons, and it boggles the mind that they actually thought Adama would deal with them. The only question was how many of the hostages were going to end up in body bags. Then there's Starbuck, who has somehow forgotten that she's a pilot, not a marine, and doesn't have the expertise for armed combat outside of a cockpit (which, granted, raises the question of why she was put in charge of the assault team in "Bastille Day"). Ellen Tigh's stupidity in blowing Starbuck's cover is pretty much the reason that shooting breaks out (Starbuck may have been wrong to go into the room, but she was right to reach for her weapons once her cover was blown--she would have ended up dead or one of the hostages otherwise). And, of course, Adama and Sesha race each other to finish line to see which one of them can commit a greater act of idiocy--is it Sesha, who honestly needs to have it pointed out to her that the grey, frozen and slightly decomposing corpse of the first Boomer was not killed recently, or Adama, who pulls a switcheroo so obvious that a four year old would see through it and yet fails to demand a release of hostages before delivering the corpse, thus necessitating further gunplay (Roslin is right to blame Adama for Billy's death, but not because he wouldn't hand Sharon over but because he so thoroughly squandered this opportunity)?

Far more disturbing than the fact that they're borrowing tricks from the Stargate: Atlantis writing staff is the fact that, for all their talk about writing morally complex stories, Galactica's writers have consistently chosen, thus far in the winter season, to paint their characters' antagonists as one-note caricatures. The argument can be made that the fleet's bereaved civilians deserve justice, and that harboring a Cylon agent and lying to the fleet about it is a miscarriage of Adama and Roslin's responsibility to the civilian population. And since even Adama begins to suspect Sharon of manipulating and misleading him, Sesha's argument that Sharon needs to be killed in order to protect the fleet is clearly meant to have some merit to it. However, as presented in this episode, the woman is clearly deranged, and her motivation--grief over the death of her husband--is not only overstated but unappealing. As many commenters have already said, every single person in the fleet has lost someone, and the episode fails to make us feel for Sesha and her compatriots--the unfortunate flashbacks of Ray's death are simply overkill, and frankly do more to raise questions about the writers' priorities. They keep us completely in the dark about Dualla and Lee's burgeoning relationship, but they have time to repeat that ineffective flashback three or four times?

"Sacrifice" would have been a much stronger episode if we could have sympathized with Sesha or been swayed by her argument, but not since the death of Admiral Cain have Galactica's writers chosen to give us such a complicated villain. The pro-Cylon activists in "Epiphanies" are painted as deluded fools and terrorists, whose arguments are incoherent and under-explored. They are being duped by a Cylon agent, and their representative is a semi-psychotic who couldn't argue his way out of a paper bag and is playing the tired old 'we're the political arm' game that we all know is the universal identifier of someone who can't be trusted or reasoned with. The black marketeers, who characterize themselves as providing a necessary relief valve for the fleet, are actually nascent mobsters who steal medication, murder anyone who gets in their way, and, just in case we weren't sold on their evilness, run a child prostitution ring. There are arguments to be made for treating the Cylons like people and trying to reason with them. There are arguments to be made for allowing illegal trade in the fleet. None of these arguments are showing up on the screen, and the resulting stories are flat and simplistic.

If the hostage-takers are unappealing, the main characters barely even show up on the screen. Adama's lines seem to have been spliced together from snippets of previous episodes, and his interactions with Tigh and Sharon fizzle instead of crackling. Lee, who obviously wasn't going to die, doesn't have much to do beyond bleed, and although both Katee Sackhoff and Mary McDonnell hit the ball out of the park in, respectively, the scene in which Starbuck tells Adama about the botched reconnaissance mission and Roslin's breakdown in the morgue, they have little to do during most of the episode. The fact that the "Sacrifice" doesn't fail entirely can be directly attributed to Billy Keikeya, who in many ways is the episode's heart and soul. I understand that Paul Campbell's departure from the show was partly his own decision, as his relatively small role was keeping him from pursuing other work. It's the right decision for him and I wish him well in his career (and hell, if things don't work out, we can always discover that Billy was a Cylon), and there's no question that the character got a proper send-off.

In his last day of life, Billy is smart enough to realize that Roslin has to be honest with the fleet, and brave enough to say so to her and Adama's faces. He makes a bold move with Dee and, once he realizes how thoroughly he has misjudged her feelings for him, gives her a much-deserved dressing-down (I have no problem with the fact that Dee doesn't love Billy, but keeping him around as a fallback while she propositions Lee is tacky). In the bar, Billy is the only person who bothers to argue with the hostage-takers, and his response to their argument--"They're all good men"--is clear and precise. I don't believe that Billy's final act of courage was an attempt to be the soldier that, he thinks, Dualla desires, but a genuine expression of his willingness to stand up and fight. Billy took his vitamins the day he died and, although things didn't exactly work out for him, he spent that day being the best possible version of himself--smart, courageous, morally staunch, and dignified. I'm glad we had the opportunity to see him that way. But for fuck's sake, you can't put Billy Keikeya in the same room as Ellen Tigh, put a gun to both their heads, and have that fine young man be the one who ends up getting carried out feet first.

I understand that there are Galactica fans who genuinely enjoy Ellen's antics, just as there were fans last season who thought Six's All Vamp, All the Time act was appealing. I feel for these people and I hope they get the help they so obviously need, because Ellen Tigh is thoroughly, and deliberately, disgusting. In everything she does, in every single word that comes out of her mouth, she is despicable. Cowardly, lascivious, dishonest, disloyal, and, worst of all, criminally, painfully stupid, she is clearly an attempt on the writers' part to get our gorge rising, and I don't appreciate it. Ellen is a caricature who couldn't find a second dimension with two hands and a flashlight, with no appealing or redeeming characteristics. For all that the winter season has been problematic, Galactica should still be above her kind of character. I understand that the resonance of Ellen's death wouldn't begin to approach the tragedy of Billy's (hell, I would have been cheering in the streets if she'd gotten a bullet to the head), but the character needs to go, and her death would have been a perfect opportunity to drive a wedge between Adama and (the criminally underused, these last six episodes) Tigh. Instead, Billly's death precipitates a cooling of Adama and Roslin's relationship, and I'm sorry, but we've already done that and we know who comes out on top. Ellen's purpose in "Sacrifice" was to advance the plot through her stupidity and selfishness (if she'd stayed in the bathroom with Lee, it's likely he wouldn't have been caught and eventually shot, which as previously mentioned is also Ellen's fault), which, once again, is lazy writing. The character needs to be gotten rid of, and it pains me to see the writers squander such a perfect opportunity to do so.

I honestly don't understand where the Galactica writers' heads are these days. They seem to have cast character continuity by the wayside (did you know that they actually shot scenes of Starbuck having an empty and meaningless assignation on Cloud Nine? Did they not watch last week's episode?) in exchange for disposable plots that don't really work with the show's overarching plotlines. When I wrote about the summer season, I expressed concern about Galactica's standalone episodes, but it never occurred to me that the writers were so willing to sacrifice the overall feel of the show in order to tell whatever story had caught their fancy, or that they were truly incapable of marrying Galactica's mood and tone to a non-arc plot. Which brings me to the scary thought I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, and I want you to sit down or hold on to something before you read this: for overall entertainment value, Battlestar Galactica's winter season has been running a distant second to Stargate: Atlantis. Hell, I actually enjoyed Friday's Stargate: SG-1 entry more than I did "Sacrifice", and not just because it reunited Ben Browder with leather pants. Which, assuming that I haven't shifted into the bizarro-verse, is not a sentence that I ever anticipated typing. Even with four episodes still unaired (and, I suspect, with the arc about to heat up again), the winter season is already shaping up as the least successful block of episodes in the show's history. It's time for the writers to take their vitamins, remind themselves of the kind of show they're trying to make, and get back on track.


Telepresence said...

Hm. I mostly agree with you, I don't think they've handled the non-arc episodes very well. I have two points of departure:

1. I'm finding the Stargate shows unbelievably shoddy and dire lately. I've been a long term watcher, Stargate SG-1 as soon as it went to syndication and Atlantis from the beginning, and I've always kept my expectations for the show limited, but nowadays most episodes cause me physical pain. When I'm upset with Galactica, my thoughts tend to run something like "Oh, I wish they'd done that a little differently.", or "That was an odd choice.", as opposed to the Stargate shows where I think "Jesus, are they drunk? Can they run the script past a seven year old to check for logic?" I realize the Stargate franchise isn't intended to be the TV equivalent of Shakespear, but even the fluffy sci-fi adventure flavor has fallen to sub-Andromeda levels.

The other point isn't so much a disagreement as an observation, which is that I believe I read somewhere that for some reason (don't know why), some of these Galactica eps are airing out of production order, which is screwing with some of the character progression/continuity (for example, I believe Starbuck's assignation on Cloud Nine was supposed to have taken place before the events of Scar, and that originally she was supposed to be impaired either by drunkeness or hangover when she shot Lee, while Lee's recovery from the shooting explained his lack of flying in Scar.) But they've had to re-edit and rejigger and cut certain scenes. So it's all higgeldy piggeldy. No idea what caused them to do that. As I listen to Ron Moore talking about all that had to be cut or changed in Sacrifice, and the things they didn't have time to do, etc, and based on some things he said in the Black Market commentary, I get the impression that the production staff is for some reason having difficulties with the 20 episode schedule for season 2. I don't know if the network is interfering more, or if the budget is a problem, or if it's pure production logistics or script revision time crunch or what, but reading between the lines you get the distinct sense that switching from 13 eps to 20 has been a challenge and Moore acknowledges they need to do better season 3.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Shoddy and dire might be a bit extreme as a description of SG1, but I've certainly been finding it dull and perfunctory recently (but Friday's episode was fun plus Ben Browder in leather pants is always a good thing). SGA, though, has been sort of fun lately, in a completely ridiculous way, and I enjoy the characters. There's certainly an issue of expectations here - I'll trash BSG for making the characters stupid in order to advance the plot when SGA has been doing nothing else all season - but the Stargate shows have been living up to my expectations of them and BSG hasn't. I don't think either show has sunk to Andromeda's level, though. Every now and then, I'll catch a few minutes of that show's fifth season and wonder what kind of drugs I'd have to take in order for the dialogue to even start making sense.

Those are some interesting observations about the episode order and the issue of 13 episodes versus 20. It does seem strange that the writers should be having so much trouble with the extended season, especially as they presumably write the summer and winter seasons separately. It's good to know that they realize they're going off-kilter, though.

niall said...

Billy took his vitamins the day he died and, although things didn't exactly work out for him, he spent that day being the best possible version of himself--smart, courageous, morally staunch, and dignified.

I think you're being a bit generous here--it is after all standard tv practice to give characters their best scenes just before they die. Some of the ones here just seemed forced; I'm thinking in particular of the proposal, because I didn't think of the two of them being anything like that serious, and because we would have felt for Billy enough when he saw Dee and Lee together without that additional rejection.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't think it's necessarily that important that the proposal make sense within the relationship, which, after all, we've seen very little of since the beginning of the second season but was nevertheless ongoing. Plus, remember that this is wartime and people get married quickly in these situations. I'm surprised that we haven't heard references to other crew members who have tied the knot since the attack. I can accept as a given, without too much evidence, that Billy loved Dualla and wanted to marry her, in which case the fact that he proposed makes sense for the character as we knew him.

You're probably right that the writers deliberately built Billy up so that his death would hurt more, but I still think that the way they did this was true to the character - the best version of him, as I said. Since the miniseries, Billy has been a source of quiet strength and unexpected toughness - I particularly liked him in the scene in "Epiphanies" where he's showing Baltar Roslin's office and when he tells Roslin he won't go with her to Kobol (which, admittedly, was also done because Paul Campbell wanted some time off the show to pursue other projects).

Kate Ebneter said...

Here via LJ's galacticanews. With regards to this:

(did you know that they actually shot scenes of Starbuck having an empty and meaningless assignation on Cloud Nine? Did they not watch last week's episode?)

...that's actually not true. There was such a scene in the script, but they never filmed it. It was cut because of time and budget constraints and also because they didn't think it fit with the events of "Scar," although Moore says in the podcast that he wishes that they'd kept in some explanation of exactly what Kara was doing on Cloud Nine.

gene lee said...

Good review. I agree with most of your sentiments, except for one:

Starbuck pulling her guns was actually a huge mistake. Much of what she did went against the training people get when handling hostage situations. If you noticed, they started shooting when she prepared to fire at them. And she did so without thought or guarantee to the safety of the hostages.

It cost two marines, a civillian, and a mortally wounded CAG.

Given the previous situation with Lee that was resolved without mass gunfire, plus his warning about shooting within a spaceship, chances were very high that Kara would've been shuffled with the hostages had they discovered her weapons... but if it was to be a recon mission, then why the guns?

Adama was specific in his order that she was to find a volunteer and that it was supposed to be a recon mission. Period. Instead, Kara kind of bastardized his orders by enlisting herself and then resorting to shooting when they asked to check her kit again.

Ultimately though, I find Adama at fault for cultivating this situation. As unwise as her choices were, Kara thought she was doing her best and was "trying" to fulfill Adama's orders. Its not necessarily her fault for being put into a position she is not qualified for.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Starbuck pulling her guns was actually a huge mistake. Much of what she did went against the training people get when handling hostage situations. If you noticed, they started shooting when she prepared to fire at them. And she did so without thought or guarantee to the safety of the hostages.

See, but I doubt Starbuck has had any training handling hostage situations. She's a soldier, not a policewoman, and so is Adama, which is one of the many reasons the situation turns out so badly. The main objective of a hostage negotiator would be, as you put it, safeguarding the hostages, but for Adama and Starbuck, the main objective is to take down the hostage-takers.

Which brings us back to "Bastille Day", the obvious parallel for this episode (also featuring Apollo, Dualla and Billy as hostages), in which Apollo as the most unsoldierly soldier in the fleet manages to defuse the situation with almost no blood on the deck. Granted, he had better material to work with - and it really says something about Sesha that she makes Tom Zarek look reasonable - but the writers deliberately and, in my opinion, unjustifiably chose to make Apollo a passive participant in the hostage situation, instead of having him once again try to resolve it from within.

Anonymous said...

Haven't they hinted pretty strongly (anvil-over-the-head strongly) that Ellen is a Cylon, which would make her behavior in this episode less of pure stupidity and more of general troublemaking? Granted that chip is one that should be cashed in soon, but it makes her character more interesting to think that her ditziness is deliberate.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm pretty certain that the theory that Ellen is a Cylon is something that came out of fandom - I certainly don't see anything on the show that makes her a particularly likely candidate.

Plus, I'd like to think that even the Cylons have standards.

Frankly, I think I'd be very happy if no more human characters (certainly not major or recurring ones) turned out to be Cylons. Once, with Sharon, was creepy and disturbing. Twice, with D'anna Biers, was mildly surprising. Three times will officially make the device old hat.

Jenah said...

I happen to think you were dead on with your review. I do truly hate the way however, they did finally kill Billy. Obviously they had made the decision to kill him since the actor is leaving the show. But I found the manner of his death torwards the end of the episode to be trite and over the top.

A more effective death would have been when Sesha first pointed the gun at him and Ellen Tigh - before Adama backed down. Bam! Billy would have been shot. Bam! Ellen would have been shot.

Sure scores of folks would have flooded the streets whooping in joy since the wicked witch was finally dead and off of their screens - but equally we could have mourned Billy's sudden and shocking demise - as opposed to how it really played out.

But that would have taken guts and creativity - which I haven't seen, as you say, since they killed Cain.

And it would have opened up the doors creatively for all affected characters.

One more thing - I truly - truly - despise the fact that Kara appears to be some sort of one-stop-military answer and wonder woman. It has bothered me since Bastille Day [interesting you brought that up] and bothered me even more during Sacrifice.

I understand that there is some cross training that could be explained [for example when viper pilots lose their ships and are on the ground it makes sense they would have combat training]. But to have her lead the assault is ridiculous.

Sloppy. Preposterous.

At least she did frak up and shoot Lee.

FYI - I am jenahville on LJ

temmere said...

"However, as presented in this episode, the woman is clearly deranged, and her motivation--grief over the death of her husband--is not only overstated but unappealing. As many commenters have already said, every single person in the fleet has lost someone"

It still baffles me that they felt the need to invent some random battle for her husband to die in, as if the initial Cylon attack was somehow insufficient to explain her grief and rage. It really felt sometimes like they just plum forgot that attack ever happened.

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