Saturday, March 21, 2009

To Praise and Bury BSG
Since there will never be a more congenial platform for excessive geekery than one's own blog, I'd actually planned a series of posts on "Battlestar Galactica" this week to celebrate the show's achievements and mark its conclusion. These were to include my twelve favorite BSG episodes (twelve Cylon models, twelve colonies...) ever and my surprisingly (or perhaps embarrassingly) detailed alternative vision for the fourth and final season, which I think the writers screwed up to a great extent. But for whatever reason--sloth, I guess--it didn't happen. Instead I'll just share some thoughts on what made the show intermittently great, and more than occasionally disappointing, and try to articulate where I think it sits in the historical evolution of television and science fiction.

While I don't really intend to get spoiler-y and dissect plot points and raise the many unanswered or unsatisfactorily answered questions left at the show's end, if you haven't seen the finale and plan to do so, it still might be wise to avoid reading all this until afterward.

The frustrating irony of Battlestar Galactica was that over its four seasons the show came to focus primarily on its mythology--the who/what/when/why questions of the Final Five and Starbuck's death and return and Earth--and the personal and emotional journeys of its characters. But in my view, the show really achieved greatness only when its story arcs focused on conflicts within the remnants of humanity, typically setting up two morally compelling positions held by individuals or factions of influence that proved to be irreconcilable. Ultimately what drove the narrative was the theme of actions and consequences: the genocidal attack that began the story, wiping out more than twelve billion humans and leaving the race all but extinct, was prompted, if not merited, by the humans' enslavement of the Cylons decades before. As the line of "personhood" between human and Cylon was blurred and finally erased over the course of the show, the question became whether the remnant of humanity, and/or their pursuers, deserved to survive. The show worked out its answer primarily and most effectively through the often fatal clashes between its human protagonists.

In the first season, these focused on collisions between military and political leadership that revolved around process versus outcomes, means that were questionable or outright deplorable set against ends that were not just desirable but necessary. In the episode "Litmus," then-Commander Adama refused to allow a "witch hunt" through the military court of inquiry, even though that witch hunt might have yielded knowledge about Cylon infiltration and sabotage that would have saved lives... and left the viewer wondering, hoping really, if Adama's bet on retaining the bonds of trust among his military personnel would prove a wise one. Later in the season and into the next season, starting with "Kobol's Last Gleaming, Part 1," simmering disagreement between the Commander and the president of the Colonies--a woman unelected and possibly unstable, and in the grip of religious certitude fueled by knowledge of her own impending death from incurable cancer--split the fleet (and the story) into thirds, and provided the narrative foundation for a series of tightly written, excellently acted episodes.

Thus the template was set: BSG stories that placed protagonists in conflict, gave respect and consideration to both sides, and built upon what had gone before within the show would create a new standard for intelligent science-fiction drama. They did it again, probably reaching the dramatic pinnacle of the series, in the middle of Season Two, when the Battlestar Pegasus showed up under the command of Admiral Cain. Where Galactica and the civilian fleet under its protection were leaving known space, fleeing the Cylons, and hoping to find sanctuary with the possibly mythical "Thirteenth Tribe" on Earth, Cain and Pegasus had ransacked and abandoned surviving civilians and were conducting a series of hit-and-run assaults on the Cylons--hoping somehow to find a way to return to the Twelve Colonies and win a war that Adama had given up as lost at its outset.

Cain's was an absolutist military rule, featuring summary executions and the torture and rape of a Cylon prisoner. In the ethos of the show, she and her crew perhaps didn't "deserve to survive"--but her leadership on Pegasus was unquestioned and unchallenged, and indeed her conduct after the Fall of the Colonies was much closer to military protocol than Adama's had been; the repeated and flagrant violations against military practice led Cain to integrate the crews of the two ships, ratcheting up tension between the commanders. She'd also enjoyed far more military success against the Cylons pursuing both ships. When a conflict arose between the crews, with Galactica personnel assaulting and inadvertently killing a Pegasus officer, Cain sneeringly dismissed Adama's urging for a military tribunal by observing that he had dissolved his earlier court of inquiry: again, chickens had come home to roost. Ultimately the battlestars came to the brink of shooting war, and subsequently Adama and Cain each plotted to assassinate the other; both stood down at the last possible second. But Cain's past sins ultimately cost her her life, as the escaped Cylon prisoner killed her.

The series reached its peak toward the end of the second season, starting with a stunning episode, "Downloaded," that three-dimensionalized the Cylons for the first time and explored the evolution of this young species as well as some of the same moral questions that the humans had faced. The season concluded with a barn-burner of an election contest between the incumbent Laura Roslin, long since reconciled with the military leadership and staunchly supported by now-Admiral Adama, and her former vice-president Gaius Baltar, known to the viewer but not to the characters as the accidental author of the Cylon genocide. Roslin campaigned as the religious candidate, the leader of destiny whose importance was foretold in the sacred scriptures of the Colonials, absolutely committed to the mystical search for the possibly mythical Earth. Baltar ran as the pragmatic man of science, favoring colonization of a marginally habitable planet discovered in the course of their journey. Baltar won--but only after Roslin, previously presented as absolutely moral, was thwarted in an attempt to steal the vote. It proved to be a disaster as--again--past misdeeds led to present consequences. In this case, it was Baltar's decision to give the escaped Cylon prisoner who had murdered Cain a nuclear weapon; when she set it off, killing thousands, the blast signature alerted a Cylon fleet a light year away, and they eventually showed up to conquer the colony as the undermanned and outgunned Galactica and Pegasus jumped away.

The rescue of the humans at the start of the third season featured the best action episode of the series. But with two exceptions--the stirring trial of Baltar at the end of Season Three, and the shockingly great mutiny arc of the last half-season--this was the end of the show's moral and philosophical dimension. The second half of the series was a fairly conventional sci-fi drama, successful or not based on the quality of the stories and the craft of the presentation. Some intriguing plotlines were hinted at and fitfully pursued, and this is where I would have done things differently--made the endgame much more about Brother Cavil, Dean Stockwell's character who stood as not quite a parent to six of his fellow Cylons and not quite a child to the other five, and brought things to a conclusion on Kobol, the world from which the Colonial civilization sprang, rather than the somewhat cheesily sci-fi "Colony" on which the final battle was fought and the totally deus-ex-machina "Earth 2," a/k/a "our Earth," where the story ended. I would have killed off at least two major characters--Baltar and Roslin--as I think the story would have gained more from their deaths (martyring Baltar early in Season Four could have set up his cult as the Colonials' equivalent to Christianity, with the character Paula as his St. Paul figure) than their lingering. I felt the romantic storylines of the last season added little to the larger plot and often came across as a waste of time--the Ellen/Tigh/Caprica Six Cylon triangle in particular. It's hard to blame the show's creators and producers for lingering on characters whom they'd obviously come to love, but to me it represented their losing sight of what had made the show so frakkin' compelling through its first two seasons.

Annie and I have been watching "The Wire" all winter, and we're now almost done--near the end of Season Four. I think both the quality of this show and the way in which we've watched it--probably an average of four or five episodes a week, as opposed to the real-time manner of one per week then months or years of nothing in which we watched BSG--has colored my view of "Battlestar." Never have I seen any show that gives more credit to the viewer (sometimes probably too much credit) or was less sympathetic to its characters--killing them off or sidelining them for long stretches with something close to glee. The makers of "The Wire" understood something that BSG gurus Ron Moore and David Eick did not: that the show must be more than the sum of its parts. In the end, the obsession of "Battlestar" with those parts rendered the series less than what it once was, and what it ultimately could have been.

Which isn't to say that I'm not deeply grateful for the ride, or that I won't miss it very much.

For more on the end of BSG, including reviews from probably its two biggest fans among critics, see here and here.

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