24 March 2009

back on topic (or, why I've come to my disdain for Battlestar Galactica)

Vanessa and I have been making our way through the portions of the show that I like (miniseries, S1, S2, Razor, and the first few episodes of S3 - we're on the first disc of the "Season 2.0" DVD at the moment), and I thought it might be good if I tried to get back to my titular popular culture rantings by attempting to explain, in a long form, why I don't watch Battlestar Galactica anymore, and why I don't care (this could be the first in a series of complaints about television shows that I used to like, but don't anymore - maybe I'll do one on Lost).

Actually, I didn't plan to care from the get-go. Why would I give a shit about a remake of Battlestar Galactica, even if it was spearheaded by the architect of some of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation ever, Ronald D. Moore? Who would be able to say, let alone do, anything interesting with the impossibly cheesey, wanting-terribly-to-be-Star-Wars source material that was the original Battlestar?

Of course, when I saw my first episode ("Bastille Day," the showing of which I was dragged to under vehement protest), I quickly reckoned I was wrong. Dead wrong, in fact. Moore & company did what the best remakes/reimaginings/covers do (Tool's "No Quarter," The Magnificent Seven): they took what was best from the original material, and twisted it into something... different. Something significant. Something their own. Sure, it was a little heavyhanded, but aren't most of the best episodes of Trek, no matter the era, just the same?

And this Galactica (BSG from here on, to save time) was fucking dark, man. No compromises. When Apollo got beaten down by dozens of Tom Zerek/Mark Rudd's (or William Ayers', depending on who your favorite member of the Weather Underground is) flunkies aboard the prison ship, you could feel every. single. punch. That's what you get with that faux-doc style that BSG apes from Bourne so well: the fantastic anchored in the real. Real people disagree with each other, even hate each other. Even when things are bad, or at their worst, people still find ways to hit rock bottom and keep digging. Colonel Tigh. Starbuck. Case closed.

That's what made Adama and Roslin such fascinating and magnetic characters. They never lost sight of the real stakes of the situation, and nothing, nothing was going to get between them and giving humanity its best chance to survive. Not friction between civillians and the military, not fuel, not supplies, not democracy, not even their closest friends and family would distract them from that most important of missions: keeping as many people alive as possible.

"Hand of God" is, and was, without question, my favorite episode of the show. It was practically perfect in every way, bringing things to a head with such aplomb, such tangible joy (Helo figures out that Caprica Sharon's a Cylon, Baltar's uncovering more of what might be in store for him, the combat scenes that've mostly only been hinted to so far finally get a chance to shine) that I couldn't help but be swept up in it. Plus, and this was kind of a key thing, the story started at the beginning of the episode, and ended at the end of it. I miss that in this post-24, post-Lost world, television shows that understand what an "episode" really is.

I watched the rest of the first season pretty much in order, from "Bastille Day" forward. Then I watched the minieries (out of order, but sue me. I didn't care at first). The miniseries is good, I think, in that it doesn't really fuck (frak) around or waste a whole lot of time. Most of the questions it raises are interesting (particularly the stuff about fate, which is different from religion, in my mind - Baltar, Sharon, even Adama's speech where he says that you can't run from the things that you've done anymore... or something), and it shows us what the show will consistently be best at: the space battles. While some people (most people, probably) will tell you that Galactica's at its best treading in the waters of moral ambiguity and questionable judgment, I will say that, for me, the only thing the show did that didn't start to grate on me after a while was have spaceships shoot at other spaceships. And, I think it got better at it as it went along.

Season 1 moved at such a breakneck speed that it was virtually impossible to avoid getting pulled in. All the right elements were there: intrigue (political, military, and romantic), action, less-than-subtle-social-commentary-that-I-thought-would-get-better-as-the-show-went-along, dynamite characterization, and a hell of a lot of interlocking short- and long-term goals (which any show flat-out requires for any sort of longevity, particularly in this post-Buffy and -Angel world we're in). When the Chief, Cally, Baltar and he-who-would-eventually-be-Vader's-secret-apprentice-in-The-Force-Unleashed crash-landed on Kobol, BSG Sharon found out she was a Cylon and shot Adama not once, but twice, on the bridge of the ship, Apollo and Roslin got arrested, and Starbuck found Helo and Caprica Sharon (later, "Athena," I think)... Man, that had to go on a list of awesome season-ending episodes. It could not be denied.

The above paragraphs detail, for me, what I'm going to refer to as the "rise" of Battlestar Galactica. With a couple of little hiccups along the way, I'm going to start addressing the "fall," and I'm going to begin with what I think most damaged the show for me: the jump in the episode order following the first season's conclusion. For illustrative purposes, I'll begin with a list:

Season 1 - 13 episodes
Season 2 - 20 episodes (with a 3.5 month break in the middle)
Season 3 - 20 episodes
Razor TV movie (technically the first 2 episodes of S4)
Season 4 - 20 episodes (with a 6 month break in the middle - not entirely their fault, due to the Writer's Strike, but still. It also started 1 year and 1 month after the conclusion of Season 3)

On paper, 7 extra hours of television probably doesn't appear too demanding/affecting, and, at the time, was terribly exciting to me and my friends as now-dedicated fans of the show. "7 more episodes of Battlestar for Season 2? Fuck (frak) yes!" However, that decision (which I'm sure was motivated more by $$ than anything resembling "art") gutted what I've said before (and will likely say again) was most noteworthy about the show, that it was lean and mean. 13 episodes don't give you any time to fuck (frak) around, not if you have a plan (which it sure seemed they did in that first season); you have to accomplish precisely what you set out to accomplish. That set the tone for the show; the plot moved forward in every episode, sometimes two or three times. Galactica, unlike every other show on television, wasn't interested in wasting my time in the pursuit of more advertising dollars. A few episodes can bog a show down terribly (take Season 3 of The Office versus Season 2), but when a show races ahead the way that first season of BSG did? Forget about it. Season 2 would remind me only perfunctorily of Season 1.

[ASIDE: Okay, fine, I'm ascribing a level of artistic and moral dedication to an industry, and a network, that's been scrambling for dollars from the moment it was birthed. I understand that doesn't make perfect sense, or much sense at all. What I'm complaning about probably ranks up there on the level of "retooling," if it ranks anywhere at all. Shows, and people, and networks, change - "Sy Fy," right? However, dear reader, when a show is called "the best thing on television," when its stars go to the UN building to talk about human rights and their program's relevance to our society today, it had better be one bulletproof fucking (fraking) show. I had better not be able to poke any holes in it that I'm not willing to overlook/forgive, and those holes sure as hell better not be able to deflate it to the point that it starts to come back to earth. I'm the first to idolize something when I love it; I'm rarely interested in seeing my false deities crash and burn in front of me. This isn't being written out of spite. Well, it is, but not because I feel a need to be the douchebag that ruins Battlestar for everyone. Now that it's over, I just feel like I can finally say my piece. END ASIDE]

I found little compelling about the first half of Season 2. I never thought Tigh was a strong enough character to carry storytelling weight on his shoulders (and don't even get me started on that wife of his... I know you don't have to like characters in order to enjoy watching them, but when they're as flat-out uninteresting as Ellen Tigh, and eventually get resurrected in one of the stupidest scenes I've ever seen in any television program, ever (I'll admit to watching the "Catch the Frak Up" segments on the SciFi webpage, and to catching snippets of episodes online, and to reading synopses online - IMDb's synopsis for the final episode is a thing of nerdy beauty)... I get it, she brings out the worst in her husband, and without Bill Adama around to counter her, she becomes some sort of low-grade Lady Macbeth. And she sleeps around. And she's the final Cylon model (I was utilizing my "low readership = I write what I want" philosophy right there). So what? Make her interesting. No? Shit.

I didn't like how the show came to a dead stop for episodes on end while the fleet lingered around Kobol, and Starbuck/Helo/Caprica Sharon kept dinking around on Caprica while they "tried" to get back to the ship. Sure, we might've lost Sam Anders (a likable character in a show with far too few of them), and the Lucy Lawless fauxumentary episode, and maybe even "Downloaded" (the first step towards humanizing the children of humanity, you say? An excruciatingly important episode, you say? Fuck (frak) that, I say. Beginning of the fucking (frakking) end, I say), but if they were that important to the story, they would've found a way to work them in during a 13-episode run. We for sure would've lost "Black Market" (sadly, I would be willing to sacrifice Bill Duke), but not "Scar."

I particularly like that in "Scattered" it's revealed that the Galactica's computer is less advanced than even Star Wars' beloved R2-D2. R2 units, it's stated in the Essential Guide to Droids, can hold multiple sets of hyperspace jump coordinates in their active memory. The Battlestar Galactica, though, can only hold one set, and apparently purges all the others once it's made a lightspeed jump, requiring them to return to their previous location and recalculate the numbers if they want to go anywhere else (like, say, find the rest of the fleet). Kudos, Galactica. I think that's even less advanced than some of today's nuclear submarines.

The second half of S2 was a marked increase in quality, thanks to the arrival of Bizarro Jerry [the Battlestar Pegasus, and the "Big Bad Harv" to Adama's District Attourney Dent, Admiral Helena Cain (formerly Ensign, and later Lieutenant, Ro Laren on TNG and Lynne Kresge on 24, Michelle Forbes)]. Like the best zombie movies (or anything that inverts the "other as enemy" conceit in favor of exploring what it means to have dissent in the ranks), the Cylons all of a sudden stopped being the most pressing threat. Instead, our humans had to watch their backs to make sure the new humans didn't stick some sort of military-issue knives in them (particularly when Cain transferred Apollo and Starbuck over to Pegasus, and installed her own guy as deck chief on Galactica). Sure, they had to put that all aside in order to take out the Resurrection Ship (one of the flagging good ideas the show had before the end of the season), but that just ratcheted up the tension even further.

I also reached a turning point in my feelings for Gaius Baltar, and, more significantly, Imaginary(?) Six, when he went aboard the Pegasus to interview their Cylon prisoner. Face-to-face (sort of) with a tortured, barely-functional "sister" of hers, Imaginary(?) Six flies off the handle, screaming at Baltar about the abused woman with whom he's confronted, about how no one has the right to treat anyone else this way. She makes a decent, if generic, argument against prisoner torture, until you remember that this is the mental imprint of a woman who was a prime player in the genocide of fucking (frakking) humanity. Once you help wipe millions (billions?) of people out, you've lost the moral high ground. Period. And Baltar never even considers throwing this back in her face (I guess he wouldn't, but still); some fast-thinking genius.

This actually ties directly into one of the other things that frustrates me greatly about the show, the legions of missed opportunities. Sure, Baltar and Imaginary(?) Six don't throw down over what actually constitutes moral behavior, not to mention superiority, and maybe if I asked Ronald D. Moore about it, he'd tell me that was intended to spark conversation among audience members, but I'd just call it lazy. [ANOTHER ASIDE: I've never read an interview, listened to a podcast, or emailed Ron Moore about the show. Perhaps he's addressed these issues I'm raising. I don't care. END ASIDE] But, this storyline failure isn't really what irritates me the most. The fact that they ran through commanding officer upon commanding officer of Pegasus, until it became more than clear that the plan was to put Apollo in charge of his own Battlestar, sacrificing who knows how many interesting stories about trying to move on, to reunify the last pieces of humanity, or even just more awesome space battles (!!!) in favor of advancing a plot point that, in retrospect, doesn't really matter, that's not even the most aggravating thing.

What still chaps my ass is what they did with what was, at the time, one of the most amazing plot twists I'd ever conceived of. Instead of following the year that humanity attempted to make the best of a bad situation on New Caprica (and, truly, all the positive comments in the world with regards to Adama forcing Roslin to accept the outcome of the election, for good or for ill. One of the best moments of a character being true to himself in TV history, I think), in the waning moments of the S2 finale, BSG jumps ahead a full year, to the Cylon occupation of the human settlement on New Caprica. Anders and Starbuck, married. The Chief and Cally, married (with a baby on the way). Apollo and Dee, married (and both working aboard the Pegasus). When the Cylons come, the Battlestars get the fuck (frak) out of there - an interesting coda to Adama's initial desire to fight the war to his bitter, bloody end at the show's start, leaving the rest of humanity to fend for itself until they can come back for them.

Here's my problem: at this point, the show was clearly going to be about the Iraq occupation, only it made the ballsy decision to cast the characters with whom we were most invested as the occupied, not the occupiers. The "Resistance" webisodes were fascinating, and I'd put them up against almost anything else the show had ever done. They asked a very heavy version of the "What if?" question, and got some good answers (particularly from Duck - the Wash-looking suicide bomber - and Colonel Tigh). I was prepared for an interesting occupation, except that, at the beginning of S3, they pressed the reset button. Admittedly, Galactica & Pegasus' rescue of humanity was fucking (frakking) amazing; the show deserved the special effects awards it won, unquestioningly. Baltar gets left behind with the Cylons, and Lee sacrifices his command to save Galactica, and humanity. Once again, the fleet's on the run, with only the Galactica and its rag-tag crew to defend humankind from the Cylons.

All well and good, except that I refuse to accept the fact that you can press the reset button again after having pressed it so soon (actually, it seems like they pressed the reset button a few times during S2, and the first parts of S3. There are only so many dramatic, show-altering twists that I can take before I stop caring, and the show becomes Lost or 24). It's just like a Brett Ratner ending ("Don't like this one, bro? Then try this one, or this one! It's all good; it doesn't matter anyway!"). And from there, well, my interest waned, and quickly. I didn't care that Baltar uncovered dissent among the Cylon ranks, I don't care that Starbuck and Anders were going through some stuff, and I sure didn't care about the "revelation" of the remaining Cylon models. I mean, come on.

After this, after sidestepping what could've been a total redefiniton of the show (here's my thought: if it was all going to wind up being the same anyway, why not just make the S2 finale another hour longer, and end up with humanity on the run again? There's not a single part of the first few episodes of S3 that couldn't have been done in flashback, and this way the show wouldn't have had to lie to me), it just meandered until I totally gave up (around the time Starbuck "died"). I stopped watching Lost because it just felt like they were filling time, too.

The show hit a wall, insofar as pacing goes, and for a show so defined by its unrelenting speed in the beginning, this was pretty much unforgivable. I mean, didn't you jump over a year of trying to make a life on New Caprica just so that you could get back to running from the Cylons, and, hopefully, towards Earth? Now you expect me to deal with... walking-through-molasses-slow storytelling (the folly of having to fill 20 episodes, and not just 13)? Fuck (frak) that. I can watch Angel, or The Wire, or Deadwood, or practically any other show on HBO (or made by Joss, for that matter) if I want to watch a show that asks big philsophical and metaphysical questions, that tries to have a relevance right here, right now.

I'm not saying that the show betrayed me as a viewer, or that it lost sight of what it was supposed to be, or anything like that. Clearly, it did enough to captivate an significant segment of the TV-watching population. Cool. If there are that many people that love it, I can step aside and not be missed.

Joss once said that, "The audience matters." To me, it just felt like BSG ignored, or forgot, that (particularly in regards to the audience for the beginning of the show). I'm not a dumb guy; I challenge myself with the media I consume (mostly; sometimes it's fun to watch the original Transformers animated movie). This has nothing to do with BSG going over my head (quite the opposite, I think; that "ham-handed" commentary that I hoped would improve from the first season? Based on everything I've read/seen/heard, doesn't look like that improved one little bit, particularly based on the series finale). It's done, and I'm done with it. Maybe I'll grow enough as a person some day to give it another chance, but, in truth, there's so much other stuff out there that I enjoy, that engages me, that I have no interest in fighting with something that I just don't care about. I've worked out what remaining emotion I had regarding the show in this piece here; that's all he wrote. Mostly.

[ASIDE/CODA #1: I bought Razor because it was on sale for cheap this past summer. I actually found it very interesting, because it added new wrinkles to what had come before. It almost made me question some assumptions I'd made, and certainly turned Admiral Cain into a more sympathic character. It also made me more furious at the missed opportunities that could've come from Baltar/Imaginary(?) Six and the Pegasus vs. everyone else dynamics that just sort of slid by, ignored. It was overwrought in parts, sure, but it felt like the BSG I loved.]

[ASIDE/CODA #2: While "frak" is fairly awesome, it's just an illustration of how hypocritical the people that police the media in this country are. If "frak" = "fuck," why can one word be said on television, but not the other? This is undeniable proof that it's the word itself that is apparently offensive, and not anything that the word indicates. Good work, arbitrary signifiers. Bad work, FCC.]

1 comment:

timd said...

i also really had to kinda deal with and get past the season three reboot. i was able to, and still finish the show out and enjoy it, but i still have a bad taste in my mouth from it.

"that 'ham-handed' commentary that I hoped would improve from the first season? Based on everything I've read/seen/heard, doesn't look like that improved one little bit, particularly based on the series finale"

it got worse. which, for my tastes, means it got better.