Friday, March 31, 2006

The Excitement Wears Off: Scattered Thoughts at the End of Battlestar Galactica's Second Season

First, a word about the title: it was originally my intention to write this piece as a counterpart to the one I wrote last September, and to continue to treat, as I have done in everything I've written about Battlestar Galactica this winter, the summer season and the winter season as distinct and separate entities. Along came Niall and pointed out that a more natural and obvious splitting point for the season is "Home II". According to Niall, the first seven episodes of the second season should more accurately be called the end of the first season, and while I'm not certain that I'd go as far as to say that (I still think that they indicate the writers' worthy willingness to take their time wrapping up a tricky plotline instead of resolving all the issues raised in "Kobol's Last Gleaming II" in a single episode), there's no question that "Home II" represents a turning point in terms of the show's plots, themes, character arcs and overall quality.

By the time we reach "Home II", the major plotlines of the first season have been resolved and the stage has been set for the issues and complications that will make up the second season. The first season revolved primarily around the conflict between the fleet's civilian and military authorities, as represented by Roslin and Adama. By "Home II", the questions of supremacy between the two, and of whether the fleet would adhere to democratic principles and the shape of the now defunct colonial system of government have been irrevocably answered (respectively: Roslin, and yes), and the remaining episodes of the second season deal with threats to that relationship and that system of government, both from within (Baltar, various interest groups within the fleet) and from without (Admiral Cain, the Cylons).

I'm going to start this discussion of the second season--here defined as "Epiphanies" through "Lay Down Your Burdens II"--with an uncharacteristic and, especially given the tone I've taken towards the show in almost everything I've written about it recently, surprising act: I'm going to say something good about it. If there's one thing that Galactica has done very well over the course of its second season, it's to intelligently and gradually establish the shape of Cylon society, to give us insight into their psychology and ethics, and to generate a coherent and believable philosophy for them, one that explains their actions and failings. This is the only continuous and well-constructed character arc in the season, and it takes place primarily in the background and beneath the surface--in B plots, standalone scenes, throwaway conversations and lines of dialogue. It's delightful and refreshing to discover that Galactica's writers are still capable of this kind of subtlety.

One of the biggest problems I had with Galactica at the end of the summer season was the writers' seeming lack of interest in exploring the shape of Cylon society and, more importantly, their unwillingness to look away for a moment from human depravity in order to condemn Cylon immorality. Where were the individualized Cylons, I demanded. Where was the fifth column, or the human who would go to the trouble of confronting the Cylons with the monstrousness of their actions? In that respect at least, the second season seems to have been written with me in mind, although the writers delightfully chose to veer away from neat and simple variations on the plot points that I wished for. At no point did a shining beacon of truth and decency stand up to chastise the characters for their deficiencies. The same Cylons who establish the fifth column are the ones who demand humanity's surrender. The Cavils are frighteningly cavalier about the slaughter of billions. The 'human' who finally points out that the Cylons lack a conscience is the Baltar--Baltar!--in Caprica Six's head.

As Dan Hartland very accurately and somewhat presciently pointed out when he wrote about the summer season in Strange Horizons, the crux of the conflict between the humans and the Cylons is the issue of individuality. The glimpses we've had of Cylons in their natural habitat over the course of the second season confirm that uniformity is the foundation of Cylon society. Cylons presumably achieved sentience without passing through individuality, and are therefore incapable of comprehending its meaning and the value of individual lifeforms. When the Cavils describe the decision to take human form as a retrograde and mistaken move on the Cylons' part, one that forces them into a form of thought and behavior that doesn't suit their inherent machine-ness, they are saying everything I've ever thought about the human-form Cylons and hoped that the writers would confirm. And indeed, when we see Cylon society in "Downloaded", it comes across as a sad mimicry of human society, emulating the form without understanding its function--from sitting in coffee houses to making babies.

The decision to take on human form, however, has had irrevocable effects on the Cylon psyche. Even as they express their distaste for the attempt to emulate humanity, the Cavils are demonstrating their individuality--from telling us that they disagreed with the decision to become human in the first place to describing themselves as atheists. Cylons like Sharon, Boomer, Gina, Caprica Six and Scar have moved away from the Cylon commonality and from its accepted values and opinions. Primarily, these changes seem to have taken place as the result of pain and suffering--Sharon's grief for Hera is far more humanizing than her love for Helo. The results of these transitions towards individuality are, for the most part, chimeras--creatures neither Cylon nor human, whose emotional reactions are unpredictable, dangerous, and vindictive. Even as they begin to comprehend the complexity of the world they live in and of their own psyche, the Cylons cling to simplistic notions of right and wrong, and are all the more terrifying and dangerous for their inability to reconcile the two. The Cylons are slowly and painfully becoming people--but without guidance, without a moral code, without experiencing affection and kindness, they are unlikely to become very good ones.

There are imperfections in the second season's Cylon arc, although they don't manage to take away from its overall brilliance. Gina's decision to kill herself remains inexplicable. We can guess at possible motivations--grief over her suffering on the Pegasus, a residual loyalty to the Cylon agenda that prompted her to let her people know where the humans had settled--but we have no conclusive, or even suggestive, evidence either way, especially considering that before "Lay Down Your Burdens II", we hadn't seen Gina since "Epiphanies". It's also not at all clear to me why the Cylons have chosen to go back on their decision and (led by Boomer and Caprica Six, of all people) returned to enslave humanity. I assume that the second question, at the very least, will be answered in the third season, but its being left dangling seems sloppy, and unworthy of an otherwise excellent character arc.

I'm assuming that the Cylon occupation is the result of a more genteel, but no less misguided, attempt on the Cylons' part to get a grip on the question of human individuality. Instead of killing humans for the sin of warring amongst themselves, the Cylons are going to rule humanity and protect it from its own worst impulses. Which, strangely enough, brings Galactica into a sort of parallel with Joss Whedon's late, lamented Firefly. In both shows, the human protagonists are confronted with a rigid and inherently inhuman concept of goodness and correct behavior, which is enforced by people who fail to understand that the very essence of humanity lies in the ability to choose, and sometimes to make the wrong choice.

Unlike Whedon, however, Moore and his writers refuse to shy away from the darker and less savory ramifications of the freedom to be human. Firefly was a celebration of the right to be wrong, but its characters invariably stopped short of actions that were demonstrably evil or unforgivable. The human characters on Galactica, in contrast, commit murder and rape, and quarrel over the insignificant and the meaningless. They hurt themselves and the people they care about, and constantly misgovern their lives. Even the Cylons who gain a measure of humanity through their suffering frequently express that humanity by behaving inhumanely--they choose cruelty over kindness, vengeance over forgiveness, anger over empathy.

From the show's beginnings, Moore has reveled in showcasing humanity's depravity, to the point that we almost wondered whose side he and his writers were on. The second season's Cylon arc, however, finally offers a justification for the glee with which he announced that 'our bad guys are polite and religious; our good guys are drunks and thugs'. This is no longer a gimmicky attempt to showcase the show's darkness and maturity, but a genuine expression of its central theme. It is precisely his willingness to look the evil of humanity in the eye that makes Moore's conclusion all the more powerful. Again and again, Moore brings us back to moments of simple, tiny, insignificant human decency, and reminds us that for all that the evil that humans are capable of is truly terrible, without it we wouldn't have a chance of humanity's goodness, of happiness and of love. It's at moments like these that we remember that Galactica has a theme, a central idea, and a direction.

Which, sadly, is something that we are all too apt to forget. As beautiful and satisfying as Galactica's treatment of Cylon society and characters over the second season has been, its treatment of the human characters and of human society has been shoddy and embarrassing. Unlike invented Cylon society, a monolithic construct only at the beginning of its fragmentation and therefore relatively easy to describe, human society (which on the show is clearly intended to mirror our own) is complex and multi-faceted. Galactica's writers have consistently failed to convey that complexity, and in fact seem eager to veer away from a believable and intelligent treatment of events in the fleet.

The primary emphasis of the post-"Home II" episodes was on the increasingly strained relations between Roslin's government and the fleet, but in spite of the writers' alleged preference for describing inter-human conflicts over human-Cylon ones, when the time came to depict the humans who made up Roslin's opposition, they were invariably written as stupid, evil, or (most often) both. The Peace Now activists in "Epiphanies" are deluded and violent (they also disappear after their appearance in this episode, suggesting that their sole function was to act as a not-too-convincing excuse for Baltar to give Gina the nuke). The black marketeers are deliberately made black hat evil in order to force Lee into a silly noir-ish plotline. The religious Geminons become anti-abortion zealots who threaten to scuttle the elections over the issue. The conspiracy nuts in "Sacrifice" express legitimate grievances through illegitimate violence and cause the deaths of innocent people. And, of course, more than half the fleet is swayed by Baltar's absurd colonization plan and elects him over Roslin.

Throughout the second season, our contact with the civilian fleet comes through power brokers, political players, and extremists. There has been no representation of the average survivor--the people who are just trying to stay alive and make a new life for themselves. Realistically, we should be seeing ad-hoc civilian institutions arising within the fleet. Grassroots movements, led not by politicians but by ordinary citizens eager to do something about their situation, to feel useful and full of purpose, should be emerging in order to solve the problems of the average civilian--distributing food and supplies, arranging for medical care, providing education and day-care services, counseling the bereaved and the traumatized, placing skilled individuals in jobs where they can be of use, providing job training for those without usable skills, and organizing cultural activities. We've seen no indication that such groups and organizations exist, for the simple reason that, for all that they've moved away from many of the old Galactica's core assumptions, in this instance the writers are still following their predecessors' lead--the civilian fleet, as far as they are concerned, is cargo.

This attitude towards the civilian population is especially noticeable in Roslin's behavior throughout the second season. For all her insistence on the importance of the civilian population, Roslin can't seem to escape her perception of them as sheep to be herded. Roslin repeatedly avoids (in fact, there's no indication that she ever considers) engaging in a debate with the fleet. She tells the civilian population what they ought to think, instead of challenging them to a discussion, and is both disappointed and curiously unsurprised when they rebel against her.

The political situation within the fleet is unrealistic and suffers from a forced attempt on the writers' part to draw unjustified parallels to our own political reality. Roslin may be President, but her constituency doesn't number in the billions--realistically speaking, she's the mayor of a mid-sized town. I understand perfectly how the fear of devaluing the legitimacy of her government and of raising questions about the necessity of democracy within the fleet would prevent Roslin from, say, trying to dissolve or at least reshape the quorum of twelve, but there is absolutely no reason for her to campaign--or, for that matter, to deal with any political issue--in the same way that President Adar did. Roslin shouldn't be addressing the population through a press corps (which Moore went to a great deal of trouble to preserve in the miniseries in order to, once again, create an awkward parallel to our own political reality). She should be visiting individual ships, attending rallies, talking to the voters face to face, making connections with civilian leaders. Both morally and politically, the Roslin that we've seen in the second season doesn't deserve to be President. She has a pragmatic disrespect for democratic ideals and institutions that came to a head this season when she repeatedly sought to act outside the restrictions of her office--from ordering assassinations to fixing elections--and she seems to lack even the most basic grasp of how politics works, and of the fact that she is her people's leader, not their mother.

The possibility exists that this is a deliberately created flaw in Roslin's character. She's an excellent leader of men, but doesn't seem to know how to talk to a crowd. Her response in such cases is to revert to her inherent imperiousness and assume that she knows better than anyone else ("how can they be so stupid?" she asks of the fleet when she realizes that they're about to elect Baltar, instead of wondering how she could have failed to lead them). The end result of this approach is the attempt to steal the election, to circumvent the fleet's choice for its own good--an essentially Cylon action (and Roslin has already been compared to a Cylon when she banned abortion in the fleet). It's possible that, just as the first season revolved around Adama coming to the realization that not everything that happened to him was personally motivated, the second season is Roslin's opportunity to learn to see beyond the impersonal. I'm not convinced, however, that the writers do intend for Roslin's behavior throughout the second season to be taken as a downward spiral--if for no other reason than that after the great leap forward in "Lay Down Your Burdens II", they show us Roslin engaging in the same pro-active civilian behavior that, according to what we'd seen up until that point, hadn't existed in the fleet. Roslin, in other words, is still perfect and always right.

Galactica's second season has been a master class in fitful character development, predictable plotting and inexplicably poor pacing. Fandom has already spilled buckets of virtual ink fuming about the constant use of the 'previously on Battlestar Galactica' segment as a dumping ground for deleted scenes which, even the writers seem to understand, were necessary for our understanding of the characters' development. Watching these scenes, one can't avoid the impression that there exists a shadow season--a much better season--that has been inexplicably denied to us in favor of one that was padded, repetitive, and featured a lot of flashbacks and dream sequences. We get Lee floating in a pond instead of Kara pitching a Caprican rescue mission and being turned down by Roslin. Fever induced flashbacks to Roslin's last day on Caprica instead of Kara making a final appeal to a dying Roslin. Overexposed shots of Lee's heretofore unheard-of dead, pregnant girlfriend instead of a proper introduction to Commander Garner. Dream sequences and tedious conversation between the Chief and Cavil instead of Baltar talking to Gina about the election, perhaps giving us some insight into her mental state and the reasons for her suicide. God only knows how many other vital scenes we'll discover when SciFi's official site uploads the winter season's deleted scenes.

Of the three major plot arcs that made up the human storylines in the second season, the best by far was the Admiral Cain arc, which combined stellar acting, challenging and difficult writing, and excellent character work. Even this story, however, has a weak and contrived resolution. Viewed in retrospect, its resonance is sadly diminished by the writers' unwillingness to acknowledge its consequences and ramifications. When I wrote about "Resurrection Ship II", I qualified my disappointment with it by saying that, even though Adama didn't go through with Cain's assassination, the fact that he considered it and even set it up had clearly had a profound effect on both Lee and Kara, which would no doubt play out over the rest of the season. Instead, the writers chose to replace Kara's crisis over being ordered to assassinate someone she respected with angst over Anders (and nothing was made of her apparent identification with Cain's ideology and her rejection of Adama's), and to transfer Lee's disillusionment with Adama and Roslin into a hastily thrown together (and just as hastily resolved) crisis over an old girlfriend. Even the fascinating Gina was all but abandoned after "Epiphanies".

The outcome of the election plot is foregone almost from the moment Baltar announces his candidacy (possibly even from the moment he reads Roslin's letter). But to get to the point where Baltar triumphs over Roslin, Galactica's writers have to drop her intelligence and political acumen by about ten notches, and even then, Baltar needs the help of Tom Zarek, Chip Six, Gina, Gaeta, and possibly the Cylon god in order to win the elections. The chain of coincidences and missteps on Roslin's part that put Baltar in office has the ring of contrivance--the writers can't believably convey Baltar as politically ascendant. The season's final plot arc, the colonization issue, had the potential to spark an interesting debate--is it better to rest in imperfect peace or to continue running towards a goal that may never be reached? The writers, however, are uninterested in this debate. Settling on New Caprica is unequivocally presented as the wrong thing to do. The writers don't even have the decency to make Earth the crux of the argument against settling--which would mean that we, who know that the journey to Earth is finite, would know what the right choice is, but the characters would be in doubt. They state outright that life on New Caprica will be difficult and possibly insupportable. The plotline, therefore, serves no purpose except to bring the characters to where the writers wanted them for the next story. It has no meaning or significance of its own.

Which brings us, of course, to the decision to shift the show's premise forward a year and to ground and demilitarize the majority of the cast, which seems to have elicited nothing but extreme reactions from fandom. One of Galactica's greatest strengths is its writers' refusal to commit to a status quo. There exists no baseline condition for the fleet and the main characters--it isn't a foregone conclusion that Roslin is President, that Adama is in charge of the fleet, or that the fleet is in motion towards Earth. This gives the viewers a taste of the inherent instability of the characters' lives, of the uncertainty with which they live every day. For this reason, I think the decision to leap forward works within the show's greater thematic framework. It was also a moment of incomparable neatness, the kind of gosh-wow-I-can't-fucking-believe-they-did-that twist that used to be a hallmark of the show's writing but seems, in the second season, to have faded away.

That said, I don't believe that the shift forward in itself is enough to either save or doom the show. True, the resistance storyline that is no doubt in store for the immediate future has a good chance of playing to the show's strengths--no pesky, over-complicated political stories; lots of arc-intensive, high-octane storytelling; finally a chance to make use of the military main characters in a way that makes sense--but the final outcome depends on whether the writers have learned their lesson. If the writers proceed from their new starting point with focus and precision, if they build continuous character and plot arcs and treat their characters and viewers with respect, the show will thrive. If, on the other hand, they continue to do as they have done this season, mistaking the wheat for the chaff, failing to challenge their viewers with interesting storytelling, sacrificing characters to facile and uninteresting plot points, it will flounder. Which, frankly, is exactly what I've been saying the whole season, and what I would have said even if the writers hadn't moved the story one year forward. In the end, it all comes down to the basics. I'm hopeful that the same writers who delicately and assuredly wrote this season's Cylon arc are capable of extending that skill to the human characters--it now remains to be seen whether they will choose to do so.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

A pleasure to read. Thanks for posting it.

S

Dan Hartland said...

I've wanted to comment on this since you posted it, but I think Niall would have made cross faces at me for pre-empting my SH piece. :P

I mostly agree with what you say, but don't go as far as you in my conclusions. See, I concur that the Cylons were by far the most interesting thing about the second half of the season (doesn't this say a lot about the lamentable human stories?), and also that what we got from them was, finally, some sense of unity of purpose.

But this is entertaining detail rather than the grand reveal, isn't it? It begs more questions than it answers. We get very little in the way of explication - instead, we get supporting glosses on what has gone before.

Mostly, like you I've been disappointed and not a little surprised by the writers' increasing difficulties in managing their stories and characters within the times and formats with which they know very well they must work. It doesn't fill me with burning hope for season three, reboot regardless.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

But this is entertaining detail rather than the grand reveal, isn't it?

I guess that depends on what grand reveal you were expecting - something along the lines of the master plan whose absence you were lamenting in your SH piece? The Cylons as we come to see them in the second season have the emotional and ethical maturity of teenagers. They are pathetically unsubtle - for all their airs and graces, a race of 13 year olds. A grand reveal would have felt out of place given the direction that the writers seem to be taking these characters.

As for the Cylon plotline being 'entertaining detail', as I said, I think the juxtaposition between the Cylons' unsophisticated morality and the humans' flawed one cuts to the show's heart. Or, at the very least, to one of them, and the only one that still seems to be beating true.

That said, I recognize that I've done a fair bit of extrapolation to get from the second season as it was aired to the Cylon arc as I present it here. It's not the first time I've done something like this when dealing with Galactica, and it's not the first time that I've been called on by other viewers who see less there. The question is, is this one of those situations where the writers expect the viewers to put the pieces together, or am I seeing what I want to see? The third season will tell.

Dan Hartland said...

Yes, clearly the Cylons are to one extent or another making it up as they go along - this is pretty much made explicit by the season finale. But by the same token I'm not sure this makes a grand reveal fundamentally impossible. To be fair, 'grand reveal' *is* likely too, erm, grand a phrase. But what you're lauding are essentially the same old clues and hints and confused signals, except a bit more obvious and entertaining because the rest of the show is being a bit rubbish.

I'm a prize over-thinker, too, so my criticism of your argument isn't so much that you're seeing too much. Rather, it's that in the absence of anything else we're both putting a lot of weight on all that we *have* got - the Cylon stuff. Sure, we get to know a bit, and we get to know it from a perspective we haven't had before ... but is this progression it really any different to the progression from the Genocidal Maniacs of the miniseries to the Biological Reproductioners of later episodes?

My current opinion on Galactica is pretty consistent, I think: it's not that I don't like what they're doing; it's that I'm not at all convinced by how they're doing it. And the fact that we've had all these background clues before, and time and again our conclusions are pretty much made irrelevant, doesn't get me bouncing with the happy for season three. :)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It's the night before Passover, Dan, and I'm beat and have a busy day tomorrow, so this is going to be a bit brief. I may not be back here before Thursday.

If I understand you correctly, you're arguing that the Cylon arc of the later second season is essentially an expansion of ideas that were already present in the show's earlier episodes. To a certain extent, this is obviously true (and a good thing, too) - we had hints of the Cylon obsession with humanity's sins and of their desire to emulate the outer trappings of human behavior. But these were rather faint hints. They came primarily from Six (who, we now know for a fact, is not precisely a Cylon) and from the disturbingly plastic Sharon. They also came swathed with Cylon theology, which in the second season has come to seem beside the point.

(Have you noticed how thoroughly the second season has sidelined the Cylon religion? How almost every Cylon that gains a measure of individuality immediately loses their tenacious religious faith? Isn't the fact that Cavil, the oldest and probably earliest Cylon model, calls religion a comfort for the weak suggestive?)

It's only in the later second season that we really start to see individualized Cylons and to understand their philosophy. It does get laid out for us - first by Sharon in "Resurrection Ship II" and then by the Cavils in "Lay Down Your Burdens II" (and if you wanted a grand reveal, I think this was it). I don't think that at the beginning of the second season, we could reasonably claim the same level of insight that we currently have into the Cylon psyche.

Dan Hartland said...

I'm not convinced that we couldn't have predicted that the Six and the Sharon would have felt differently to the other Cylons (as you point out, we rather knew they were different already). I'd still say that 'Downloaded' was logically entertaining extrapolation of what had gone before - it wasn't exactly brand new stuff. We can agree to differ here, methinks. ;)

It seems to me that you're uncontestable point about the development of the Cylons is when you refer to their abandonment of religion. You're right - we couldn't have guessed that. Of course, this was part of the dreaded finale, which gleefully hammers nails into the old concepts and invents whole new ones. We weren't *meant* to guess it because, essentially, it's not a part of the show of the past. It's a part of the show of THA FUTURE.

On top of that, the development of the Cylons in the finale is all well and good, but suffers just as much as everything else in that episode from the pace - there's no impact to it, no sense of things building so much as there is a sense of thinking being erected.

Anonymous said...

I am really late in this dicussion..... but I totally loved it and agree with the bulk of it, especially the part about the cylon arc tru the 2nd half of the season.

Both morally and politically, the Roslin that we've seen in the second season doesn't deserve to be President.

Definitely agree to this.

...the most basic grasp of how politics works, and of the fact that she is her people's leader, not their mother.

See, I can totally belive this because Roslin was a teacher first. She never expected to be this politically active/involved. She's not prepared for it. Also, one of the common attitudes prevailing among teachers is that they feel that they are always right (usually they are) and that the only right way is their way. Its why Roslin doesn't deal well with opposition. She's used to having her actions supported.

Stephen said...

Firefly was a celebration of the right to be wrong, but its characters invariably stopped short of actions that were demonstrably evil or unforgivable

Silly as it may be to leave a comment on a peripheral remark on an old post, I can't help noting that Whedon has said in various interviews that he was going to go in darker directions. This is probably more a result of Whedon taking a longer view in his arc -- and then not having time to follow through (save in rushed and incomplete form with the film) -- then anything else.

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