Tuesday, March 07, 2006

You, Sir, Are No Stanley Keyworth and Other "Lay Down Your Burdens I" Thoughts

I actually had no plans to write about Friday's Battlestar Galactica episode, "Lay Down Your Burdens I", which I found decent but forgettable--certainly not an worthy counterpoint to last season's "Kobol's Last Gleaming I", which it was obviously meant to recall. Then last night I caught a rerun of the second season West Wing episode "Noël", one of the most harrowing hours of television I've ever seen, in which Josh is finally forced to confront the aftereffects of the trauma he experienced when he was shot at the beginning of the season. Like Chief Tyrol in "Lay Down Your Burdens I", Josh is aided in this struggle by a spiritual advisor--psychiatrist Stanley Keyworth, played by Adam Arkin. A comparison between these two retellings of the same story reveals, I think, quite a bit about what's wrong with Galactica these days, and what needs to be done to set things right.

The first thing that needs to be said when discussing these two episodes is that Aaron Sorkin doesn't own the copyright on the 'troubled main character is forced to confront their weakness with the help of a tough-talking, uncompromising spiritual advisor' plotline. It's a story that's probably been done dozens of times. In the comments to my previous post about the Life on Mars season finale, Niall Harrison made a very interesting point about the difference between predictability and inevitability: "the difference between stories that are diminished because you know what's coming and stories that are enhanced because you know." I suggested that the difference lay in the amount of story that one could predict--knowing how the story is going to end is not necessarily a hindrance to enjoying it; knowing precisely how you're going to get to that ending will usually ruin your enjoyment (the A plot of "The Captain's Hand" is a good example of the latter case). As Niall points out, however, there are stories in which knowledge of the plot's precise breakdown doesn't prevent the audience from enjoying it, and both "Noël" and the Chief Tyrol plotline in "Lay Down Your Burdens I" are that kind of story. We know exactly how the confrontation between the main character and the advisor character will proceed, if for no other reason than because we've watched television before--how our hero will rebel against the notion that he needs help; how the advisor will refuse to coddle and indulge him; how, at the crucial moment, the hero and the advisor will begin working together, struggling against their now common foe, the hero's illness.

That "Noël" is such a memorable and brutal piece in spite of its predictability can be ascribed to the both the actors and the script. The consistently superb Bradley Whitford brings an extra layer of prickly vulnerability to Josh's usual combination of intelligence and arrogance, but Adam Arkin more than matches the quality of his performance. In spite of the fact that he appears only twice over the series' run, Stanley is one of its most vivid, not to mention beloved, characters. In comparison, Dean Stockwell's character is, with only one exception ("Maybe I'm a Cylon and I haven't seen you at any of the secret meetings"), so by-the-numbers that I'm not even going to bother to look up his name--I'll just call him Al, in honor of a far more memorable performance.

Both the intensity and the subtlety of Sorkin's retelling far exceed those of Moore's. Last night was probably the fifth or sixth time that I've seen "Noël", and I still felt the urge to leave the room or change the channel when I realized that Josh was about to lose all perspective and start yelling at the President. If I ever bother to re-watch "Lay Down Your Burdens I", I know that I won't have that kind of visceral reaction to the Chief's attack on Cally. It was certainly a startling thing to watch the first time it happened, but without the element of surprise the scene is almost laughable in its crassness. Why is the Chief taking a nap--in his underwear, no less--on the floor of the inexplicably empty hangar deck? Why code Cally's search for him with the visual and verbal cues of a slasher flick? Why does the Chief look like if he's having a bad drug experience, not a nightmare?

Our heart breaks when we watch Josh first avoid and then confront the fact that he has been irreperably damaged by his traumatic experience. The episode's use of visuals and music manages to bring across the hellishness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder--how it prevents its sufferers from taking any joy in their normal, everyday life by constantly forcing them to relive its worst moments. The Chief's dilemma, on the other hand, can strike us in one of two ways--either we start to seriously wonder whether the character is a Cylon sleeper agent (and, can I just say, please no--the device is now officially overused), or we know that he's a nutter. I don't think the Chief actually believes himself to be a Cylon, but like many members of the fleet, the stress of his situation has taken its toll on him, and it is neither surprising nor unusual that he should revert to paranoid self-doubt and suicidal thoughts. The script and Douglas' performance, however, fail to make us feel the Chief's pain or pity him for it--which is remarkable when we recall that this is one of the few truly decent and lovable characters in the cast.

The purpose of this comparison is not to complain that Aaron Douglas and Dean Stockwell are no Bradley Whitford and Adam Arkin, or that Ronald D. Moore is no Aaron Sorkin (although I'm not sure that that last comparison is so unfair. Many reviewers have drawn parallels between Galactica and The West Wing, and at the top of their game I think that Sorkin and Moore, while obviously possessing different skill sets, are roughly equivalent in terms of their writing talent), or even that "Lay Down Your Burdens I" falls short of "Noël"'s brilliance. The crucial difference between the two episodes is in the amount of care and attention that Sorkin and Moore put into these plotlines. "Noël" was famously written because Bradley Whitford stopped by Aaron Sorkin's office one day and said "You know, I got shot." Once spurred to address this trauma, however, Sorkin essentially held up his entire season in order to give it the delicate, thoughtful treatment it deserved. The Chief's plotline in "Lay Down Your Burdens I" was obviously written in order to fill up space (which, at the very least, gives me hope that "Lay Down Your Burdens II" will be a packed and exciting episode, in much the same way that "Resurrection Ship I" was), and while we could have a long discussion here about the Galactica writers' problems with pacing, plotting, and just in general making effective and intelligent time-management choices (which would once again bring us to the issue of using the previouslys as a dumping ground for not one but two unseen scenes, including a tearful confrontation between Starbuck and a dying Roslin in "Epiphanies"--how the hell did that end up on the cutting room floor?), as far as I'm concerned the issue here isn't how the writers divide their air-time but what they do with it. There's nothing wrong with writing a plotline because you need to fill up space, but once you choose to do so, there is no excuse for giving it the perfunctory and unthinking treatment that the writers gave the Chief plotline in "Lay Down Your Burdens I".

Not that this careless attitude towards B plots, or even A plots, is new to the show. Moore has said that the abortion storyline in "The Captain's Hand" was something that he wanted to raise and not deal with too seriously, and the result was that he treated both his viewers and his most intelligent character like idiots. I've written before about the Galactica writers' tunnel-vision--they have one specific story that they want to tell, a 9/11 allegory about the political and religious struggles that emerge after a species-extinction event, and they concentrate on that story to the exclusion of all other aspects of their invented universe. In the winter season, however, the writers have offered us precious little in compensation for the stories that they've ignored. We don't have time for a sophisticated treatment of the Chief's psychological trauma, or for an intelligent debate about reproductive rights and obligations in the fleet, or for a believable exploration of Lee's existential crisis, or for any exploration at all of his burgeoning romance with Dualla, because we're too busy doing what, exactly?

The fact is that Al and the Chief's session is a tiny part of "Lay Down Your Burdens I", but with the exception of Kara and Anders' reunion (because it's just so good to see Kara--the only character, I might point out, who has had a consistent, believable, and prolonged character arc this winter season--be so happy after so much pain) it is the only part of the episode that has lingered in my mind a mere three days after watching it, and even that is only because while I was watching those scenes I kept thinking of Josh and Stanley Keyworth. A great deal happens in the episode, some of it quite important, but almost none of it with the emotional resonance that I've come to expect from this show. Roslin and Baltar's political struggles are unremarkable (it's not really the topic of this post, but at some point I'm going to talk about the wrong-headedness of the show's treatment of politics in the fleet. I understand why she wouldn't like to come out and acknowledge it, but Roslin isn't actually running for President--she's running for mayor of a mid-sized town. The distance that the show enforces between her and the electorate is completely unbelievable) and their outcome is a foregone conclusion. It was interesting, for about five seconds, to see how the discovery of a potentially habitable planet might affect the fleet, but the way in which Baltar used the planet as a political tool was predictable, and since the writers aren't interested in a debate over whether to settle or keep moving (a worthy question, in my opinion) they handicap the issue by making the planet only barely habitable--a fact which Baltar conveniently ignores and which Roslin fails to convey to her constituents (someone remind me why this woman deserves to be President?).

Simplistic. Predictable. Conventional. These are not words that I ever anticipated using to describe Battlestar Galactica, and yet over the recent weeks they have become the only applicable terms. It's been suggested that the writers are having problems dealing with the extended season--writing 20 episodes is a greater challenge than writing 13--but the problems that have been plaguing the show are systemic, not structural. There is no longer any indication that the writers are infusing Galactica with their heart and soul. Their plots and character arcs are desultory and unexciting, and with only a few exceptions the best that they seem to be capable of is a vague decency. Episodes like last week's "Downloaded" suggest that the old Galactica's fire is still burning somewhere, but wouldn't it be nice if the writers could grant their human characters even a fraction of the attention that they lavished on these Cylons?

1 comment:

Post a Comment