Monday, June 16, 2008

Too Little, Too Late: Battlestar Galactica Thoughts

Last year, when it was announced that Battlestar Galactica's fourth season would be its last, I responded to the show's producers saying that "This show was always meant to have a beginning, a middle and, finally, an end" by quipping "Good luck trying to cram all three into a single season." I wasn't expecting Ron Moore and his writers to take me up on the challenge.

Alright, so that's overstating the matter, but there is no denying that in the first half of its fourth season Galactica, which for a season and a half has seemed, not even aimless, but deliberately mired, has regained its momentum. In terms of the show's story--not the Law & Order-style ripped-from-the-headlines political allegory, not the perfunctory issue-of-the-week-in-space anthology show, not the execrable soap opera starring impossibly pretty people behaving like total assholes, not the woo-woo New Agey drug trip, but the actual story of humanity's struggle to survive a genocidal attack and find a new home for itself--there's been more, and more definite, movement towards a conclusion in the last ten episodes than in the thirty episodes preceding them. If we combine the show's first season and the first seven episodes of season two, we get an intense, incredibly compressed, and very nearly self-contained story about the weeks and months immediately following the apocalypse. A first chapter in a saga, in which the characters get to know one another, discover their commonalities and differences, and clear the first hurdles towards developing some sort of working relationship. The first half of Galactica's fourth season isn't exactly the next chapter after this one, but it's a hell of a lot closer to it than the intervening season and a half ever were.

In fact, if one examines the major developments in the first half of the fourth season (surely there's a less cumbersome name? Given that the second half apparently won't air until 2009, and that the mid-season finale provided a very definite stopping point, doesn't it make more sense to call the ten episodes just completed the fourth season, and the upcoming ten the fifth?) it's startling to discover how many of them could easily have followed the mid-second season "Pegasus" arc, or at least the second season finale. Lee leaving the fleet and entering civilian politics was clearly the logical next step after his crisis of faith in "Resurrection Ship II." The questions of Cylon individuality which became prominent in the fourth season premiere, and have driven the Cylon civil war ever since, were clearly indicated in the show's first season and a half, and would have built well on the appearance of the traumatized and individualized Cylon Gina (and later on the events of "Downloaded"). The humorous tone of "The Hub" seems to call back to "Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down," and other instances in the show's first season when its writers acknowledged that even in the grimmest of situations there is always something to laugh about. Most of all, the recurrence of Roslin's cancer seems to invalidate the events of "Epiphanies," and given that the solution that episode provided for her cancer was contrived and tecnobabbly, it might have been better to keep her sick.

With very few alterations, many of Battlestar Galactica's episodes during the second half of its second season and the entirety of its third season could be jettisoned, and the result would not only make sense as a story, but would probably be tighter and more compelling. I'm not talking merely about the throwaway 'issue' episodes like "Black Market" or "The Woman, King," but about entire plot arcs. The settlement and occupation of New Caprica? Made for some interesting (and then infuriating) television for four hours and was then rolled right back, with very nearly every character returning to their previous position in the fleet and the aftermath of occupation only haphazardly dealt with in the ensuing episodes. The trial (and, earlier in the third season, trials) of Baltar? Seem to have little or no bearing on the show's plot, and to have existed primarily in order to give Lee a chance to give yet another big speech. Starbuck's downward spiral? Was a horrifying, retch-inducing arc which transformed a character for whom I had felt at least some sympathy into one of my least favorite characters, not only on this show, but on all shows. And then it was simply done away with, as Starbuck regained some semblance of normalcy only to die. In fact, the only necessary element in all of Galactica's third season is the revelation of the existence of the final five Cylons, and the identities of four of them.

When I wrote about the fourth season premiere "He That Believeth in Me," I noted hopefully that "there's almost a sense that season 3 and its histrionics have been swept away, and that season 4 is picking up from season 2 and maybe moving in a direction that might make the show watchable again," and while, as I've just finished saying, the first part is indeed true, I'm not sure I'd call the result much more than watchable. A big part of the problem is that a sizable portion of the season 4.1 was given over to Kara Thrace and her now-you-see-'em-now-you-don't shenanigans. Once again, Starbuck behaves in a manner that is not only self-destructive but destructive to others (and this time around, she's also being stupid, such as when she threatens Roslin in "Six of One"), only for the writers to hit her 'act like a human being' button right as she's crossing the line from exasperating to Ellen Tigh, at which point she suddenly remembers how to comb her hair, wear clean clothes, and do her job. None of which, incidentally, does anything to advance the plot of even the fourth season--it's Leoben who ultimately leads the fleet to Earth, by suggesting the alliance between humans and Cylons, not Starbuck's hunch about where to go, which comes to nothing.

But beyond the fact that Kara Thrace is now my least favorite character on the show (with Adama a close second; that said, I don't think there's anyone in the main cast I still like except for Tigh, and that only because of his gruff heroics in "Revelations"--I was ready to give him up when he took up with Caprica Six), there are other problems with the story delivered by the first half of season 4. For one thing, now that the plot is actually moving, it's easier to notice that the show's writers don't seem to know too many interesting ways to get it where they want to go. When the stories the writers are telling are as forgettable or ill-conceived as "Unfinished Business" or "Black Market," it's easy to assume that the episodes are failing because no one, no matter how talented, could spin gold out of this dross. But take an episode like "The Hub"--probably the best hour in the recent bunch, and a far sight better than most if not all of season 3--and the predictability and tiredness of the writing shines through. "The Hub," with its mystical visitations from a no-nonsense ghost/spiritual guide who hands the main character some painful-yet-necessay home truths, feels like a second-rate retread of better Buffy episodes (the most obvious parallel is "Intervention," another Jane Espenson-penned episode in which Buffy goes on a vision quest to meet the first Slayer because she fears that she's incapable of love, but there are also similarities to "Conversations With Dead People"). There's nothing clever or new or unique about it except for a format that's been done better by others. It's as though Galactica were taking a page out of the Stargate handbook, and regurgitating some common SFnal TV trope (repeating the day, main character wakes up in mental asylum and is told she hallucinated the entire series) without bothering to make it its own.

But for the greatest failing in Galactica's fourth season, the real reason why the show hasn't climbed further than watchable, why it has in fact tragically settled into the mundane valley and is fast losing its grip on my interest, look no further than the title of this post. It's all very well and good for the fourth season to behave as though the third season hadn't happened, but it did. More importantly, all of the developments that should have taken place in order to bring us organically to where we find ourselves at the end of season 4.1 didn't, in fact, take place.

Lee should have resigned his commission after "Resurrection Ship II," but he didn't. Instead, he hung around getting handed ever more inane stories like "Black Market" or the infamous fat suit, so that when the writers finally realize that the character works much better as a politician than a soldier, they have half a dozen episodes to make him president--a feat which they manage only by driving Romo Lampkin insane (a derangement which is, yet again, executed in a painfully pedestrian manner) and having Lee make a stirring speech, thus apparently demonstrating his worthiness for high office. The effect that Roslin's unilateral and secretive decisions has on the fleet's morale is something that we should have seen building up for months, but instead it's dropped on us in such a way as to make the Quorum of Twelve (and this isn't really relevant right now, but I've made this complaint so many times already I might as well repeat it here--why are we only seeing the politicians? In a population as tiny as the one in the fleet, why aren't we seeing actual civilians interacting with their government? "Sacrifice" and "The Woman, King" don't count) look like whiny brats nipping at Roslin's heels, and Lee needs to stand up and speak for them when their justifiable despair and valid criticism ought to have been obvious and palpable. Most of all, why did we spend a year dicking around with Cylon mysticism instead of getting to the meat of what they are and whether they can be moral beings, as season 4.1 finally got around to doing?

This isn't a case of the show building on what came before it, gradually constructing plot arcs, character arcs, and themes. Instead, Galactica's season 4 is giving off the whiff of Friends's season 10, when the writers realized that there was finally nothing stopping them from putting Ross and Rachel together permanently. It's hard to escape the conclusion that a similar reticence tied the hands of Galactica's writers in season 3 and the latter half of season 2--a crippling fear of changing the show's format, of doing anything too drastic or too new, of veering too far from the status quo. Knowing that the end is nigh has obviously freed the show's writers from this fear, but now they have to contend with the mess they've made. For all my reservations there's no denying that Galactica has measurably improved in its fourth season, and the shocking-yet-not-surprising ending of "Revelations" sets the stage for a potentially very interesting conclusion. It may well be that Galactica's strong beginning will be matched by a strong ending, but I will always think sadly of the show we might have had if its writers had been willing to give us a worthwhile middle.


Anonymous said...

I stopped watching after the first episode of the fourth season. I don't understand what's happening anymore, and I don't care.

It's not as if they were lacking in talent or material. It's as you said Abigail, the story might get on track again, but the problem is you can't ignore what went on before.

Very sad, because I used to love this show.

- paul

Nic White said...

3While I agree with the points about how most of the crap in season 2.5-3 could have been condensed into a sensical product, I haven't been having too much of a problem not letting what happened before affect my enjoyment of the dramatically better season 4.

The threads that were any good from before have now been tied into the story and it's actually making sense to me again. I don't like it as much as I liked season 1, but it's been pretty damn good thus far.

Hindsight is way too easy.

Foxessa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Foxessa said...

The fact is, that fairly early into Season one it emerged that these guys just aren't talented, at least not at writing, directing, composing shots and editing. They've got no sense of rhythm, for starters. Second, they are mediocre minds who think they are original.

You've a patience beyond mine. I quit at the end of the second season, and have had no urge to resume watching.

[first version of this post removed by me because of a most embarrassing typo]

Love, C.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

There were several instances in Galactica's first season that impressed upon me the writers' willingness to buck traditional forms, both visual and narrative, but of course I can't remember any specific examples (except for maybe "33," and the way it established its premise in a few lines a dialogue and then got going with the actual plot). I certainly felt, at the time, that there was plenty of writing talent driving the show, but I think I'd be nervous about going back to the first season. It may be that I was so excited by the show's strengths that I failed to notice its weaknesses.

Raz Greenberg said...

Personally, I fail to see the potential in the ending of "Revelations" - and I actually enjoyed most of the episode throughout. But the ending demonstrated exactly what fragged "Battlestar Galactica" from day one in terms of writing: nothing ever happens naturally, nothing is ever revealed in a convincing manner, nothing ever leads to the other in a logical manner. The show just keeps pulling one rabbit after another from its magic hat. Every plot twist (and this has been escalating as the show progressed) feels less likely than the one came before it, and the end result is not only uninteresting - the ending of "Revelation" was downright insulting. It was a classic "Ha! Fooled you all!" ending, making everyone in the show look very, very stupid for chasing the galaxy's biggest wasteland for three and a half seasons. What the showrunners forgot, however, is that other than the characters, the audience were also involved in the same chase, and treating them to this anti-climax was a slap in the face.
Yes, I know there's another half of the season coming. I know the showrunners will probably find a way around all this. I'm not sure it can be done convincingly. I'm even less sure I care.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't disagree about Galactica's tendency to go for 'gotcha!' moments at the expense of its plotting (when discussing the season 2 finale, Dan Hartland called this the show eviscerating itself), but I actually think that the state of Earth makes a great deal more sense than many of the last-minute twists that preceded it (I still haven't worked out, for example, just what the Cylons - led by Boomer, of all people - thought they were going to accomplish by occupying New Caprica, and the less said about the third season finale the better). I have a pet theory that humanity has been shuttling back and forth between Earth and Kobol for millennia, which does at least offer an interpretation for 'all of this has happened before and will again.'

And once again, I can't help but wonder whether this ending would have played better without the season and a half that preceded it teaching us to expect nonsensical twist endings.

Anonymous said...

I think basttle star was one of the best shows on Sky 1, i enjoyed the space adverture.


I for one mis the show, it was excellently shot on camera, the sets were fantastic, the graphics very proffesional and not cheap in any way. The characters were great and the cast well suited.

We seem to take good shows on the tv, and before we start to get sense of the show, its cut down in its prime.

You know some times guys, some tv shows like battle star galactica are a excellet show and should be kept alive, as it has a great story to it, like it or not battle star is a good show through and through.

It could of easy gone to a 10 Season show easy, it had solid potential and some great battles could of come out of it for a space adventure.

It blows stargate universe out of the water by miles, Stargate universe to me seems to drab in nature and moody and dark.

Where as battle star gallactica, brings the fight to the screen, there is more going on, more plots and objectives are filled with battle star galactica.

Very dissapointed they axed BSG, and i feel the makers of the show feel the same way about Battlestar Galactica ending so early, it has massive potential and even a movie could be made based on this show, and its use of the same people for the acting,



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