Wednesday, May 7, 2008


So, Battlestar Galactica is back, and it's actually been pretty good so far. Certainly, it's a vast improvement from the middling third season, whose failure I think I've figured out: there were no cylons. Well, that's not entirely true. There were cylons, but they weren't doing very cylon-y things, like, you know, trying to exterminate the human race, for example. (I exclude, of course, the totally awesome opening quartet of 3rd season episodes, as well as episodes in which the cylons did appear as antagonists). What were the cylons doing all season? Well, they were examining their theology, searching for the final five cylon models (four of which we know at this point), and generally engaging in the kinds of things that I didn't find that interesting about the cylon race, rather than the stuff that was interesting (like the aforementioned attempts to annhilate mankind). From day one, the series's premise was simple: humanity is destroyed. A small group is trying to find the rest of the humans on Earth. The cylons are never more than a step behind. Simple, as most good premises are, but with a lot of potential to explore different things. But the show (pre-season 3) was at its strongest when it kept to this formula, and it was at best mediocre when it departed from it. See Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down; Black Market; or that dopey hostage episode for verification of this rule.

Season 3, though, seemed to hint at several things, but one in particular: the crew behind the show forgot what made the show successful to begin with--i.e. the premise described before. That humanity was nearly extinct went unmentioned during the season; the quest for Earth was on the slow burner. And, most unforgivably, the cylons were hardly the fear-inducing toasters of yesteryear--after all that "kill the humans" stuff for two years it seemed that the cylons just couldn't be bothered to try to find Galactica during the past season, and the mystique surrounding the cylons vanished as the writers moved aggressively to explore every nuance of cylon society. The results were not entirely uninteresting but they had a side effect of taking all the tension out of the show. And I suppose that all the praise for the show's characters finally went to the writers' heads as they crafted so many episodes that turned interesting, tortured relationships that simmered under the surface to long, boring melodramas to which the only proper response was, "just frak already." Just remember this: with the exception of the mid-season cliffhanger and its resolution, from episode four until the final episode of the season (20) the crew was not in any danger from the cylons, and rarely were they in danger from anything else. Season three of BSG often felt like a first season, but then again, BSG had an awesome first season that managed to introduce the universe and its characters effectively and poignantly. Season one induced wonder. Season three induced weariness.

So, let's just say I wasn't terribly excited as season four arrived. I was worried that nothing would have been learned, that we'd keep seeing the same melodramatic bullshit, the same focus on the mystical aspects (which are acceptable and interesting until a point), and more cylon emoting. To some extent my worries were well-founded: cylon-human conflicts have not been plentiful so far this season, and the religious stuff is as prevalent as ever. I suppose the genie isn't going back in the bottle on those two, and I've accepted it. I can only hope that Ron Moore is going to find some way to wrap up these threads into a neat package. But when one tries to take the show on its own turns--well, actually, it's been really good so far. I have not been bored even once with the stories this season, which is an improvement. And rather than just having heated theological and eschatological arguments en vacuo, in this season the cylons have moved straight into a full-scale civil war, and the most recent episode has floated the possibility of the humans perhaps forming an alliance with one of the sides in the cylon war. Could Adama eventually wind up becoming like a cylon-equivalent Nixon? I still think the decision to show us the innards of cylon society (starting with "Downloaded") was a huge mistake, and was responsible for making the show significantly less exciting--fear is often the result of a lack of knowledge, after all, and Dean Stockwell's character has become, well, not scary. Learning about cylon society second hand, from Athena (for example) was more compelling, in my opinion. But what's done is done. At the very least the creative team is trying to make it work, and so far I can't really complain.

Still, the show still suffers in comparison to what it was. In my opinion, Season 2.0 (I hate the name, as does everyone else) is by far the best run the show ever had. Every single episode is brilliant, addictive, and emotionally fierce television. The first four episodes of the season in particular represent a sort of zenith for this generally high-achieving series--an apex that the show never again quite reached. Helo and Kara on Caprica. Baltar, Tyrol, and the rest on Kobol. Adama shot, Tigh in command, Roslin in jail. That season managed to juggle so many different characters and plot threads with a virtuosity almost equivalent to The Wire, while simultaneously building up and paying off long-standing story arcs. Now, those episodes aren't necessarily the best of the series (the three Pegasus episodes, and perhaps the Free New Caprica storyline at the beginning of season 3 are superior), but they transcended the show and provided for a more consistent, fluid and well-paced chunk of storytelling than has ever graced the show, and they didn't skimp on the action. Season 2.0 represented the high watermark for Galactica's run, a daunting television achievement that no doubt helped get those "Best Show on Television" endorsements rolling. And then the show indescribably fell down, and only now is it starting to show some signs of life. I can only hope that it ends strongly, as did another late-season slumper, The Sopranos. I suppose we'll just have to wait and see, though we won't have the final chapter of the saga for six months while BSG perilously pushes the envelope of what constitutes a "season" of TV.