Say this for the Battlestar Galactica producers: they swing for the fences. Tonight's season finale--the more-or-less last show until 2008--had courtroom melodrama that would have made Matlock blush; back-from-the-dead shockeroos; and Bob Dylan (well, really Jimi Hendrix, depending on how much one takes authorship to heart). I'm not totally sure I liked it, but I certainly respect it.
Probably the most admirable aspect about this one was that it directly took on the many, many implausible aspects of the storyline--all the betrayals, the cut corners, the contradictions, the tangled motivations, and the fact that the same ten or so characters have now, through three seasons, been thrown into almost every mathematically possible alignment and confrontation--and threw it back in the viewer's face. I'm sure discussion on the interwebs will focus on the Big Cylon Reveal and the resurrection/reappearance/hallucination that ended the show, but the real climax for my money came with Lee's rambling-but-brilliant answer to the question of why Baltar deserved a trial. Summed up, it was this: we're no longer a society, but just a bunch of people thrown into tubes flying through space, hoping to survive; we've all done horrible, unforgivable things to each other; they've all been forgiven. So why make this one exception?
My only objections are stylistic. The "All Along the Watchtower" motif was more camp than I can comfortably handle in my docu-scifi, and this episode retained the tension, unnecessary IMO, between the compelling philosophical questions that the show addresses when it's at its best, and the soap-operatic plot arcs that the writers sometimes fall back upon. (Maybe the problem in part is that some of the characters--Anders and Tory, for two--just look like soap opera performers.)
But this also is probably a reflection of the evidently endless battle between the network and the producers, the business side and the creative side. Salon.com published an interview with show honcho Ron Moore yesterday that gets at this nicely: asked about how to keep and grow an audience in a serialized narratve, he has no answer.
It's a genuine problem I have no solution for. We have long conversations with the network about the extent of the serialized nature of the show. It's certainly not something they're in love with. We the writers are always pushing to make it more serialized because it makes for better storytelling. We've done a few stand-alone episodes here and there, and they're almost never very successful for our particular series. They're not what the audience tunes in for. But the network's legitimate concern is just what you were saying: The audience tends to attenuate over time. It's hard to bring new people on board. There's the hurdle of them having to catch up on all the old episodes, and any hurdle you put in front of the audience is just a bad thing. I don't know what to say.
In a perfect world, I guess what he'd say is "Why the fuck should I pander to the audience? Let my work stand or fall on its merits." But this isn't a perfect world, and until we get billionaires willing both to fund their own favorite entertainments and to let the creators of those entertainments tell their stories without any interference, that answer won't ever be heard.
As it is, I feel like they try to split the difference in two ways: one, those standalone episodes, which with a very few exceptions have been the weakest entries in the series, and two, with some of the cheesy peripherals such as poll questions you can answer by texting on a cellphone or awful alterna-rock played over the coming attractions. These things detract from the quality of the show for me, probably in part because they feel forced and extraneous to the main thrust of the story.
All that crap fades, though, and what you're left with is the story itself. The show asks its viewers to swallow more now--that old favorite characters, including some of the most stalwart personalities in the story, are Cylons and have been all along--and I'm not sure I can do it; I'm not sure I trust them to validate my making that leap. But I like that they're thinking big and trying something that, if it works, will be spectacular. I'll be looking forward to the DVD/TV movie/whatever they're calling it, evidently dealing with a backstory of the Pegasus and the late, lamented Admiral Cain, toward the end of this year; and around when we have a winner in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, the resumption of the show that, after the last two weeks, again can call itself "the best on television" with something like a straight face.