Friday, March 20, 2009

Falling star

The life and death of Battlestar Galactica.

Tonight sees the end to Battlestar Galactica, a show that has received a gratuituous amount of critical praise--at least, for a show set in the realm of science fiction. Usually, sci-fi shows are dismissed by critics, no doubt due to a reaction against shows considered "nerdy" but as nerdy might not still be the sort of epithet that it once was, BSG (as everyone calls it) has managed to gain some breakout success, and has helped put the Sci-Fi (or, as it will soon annoyingly be called, Syfy) Channel on the map. If ever a show has trumpeted being referred to as the best show on television more than Galactica has, I don't know what it could be.

In fact, the fulsome praise directed at Battlestar Galactica requires something of a pushback. BSG is not the current generation's equivalent of Star Trek. In fact, it is doubtful that the show will stand the test of time in any sense. Galactica has its merits, which have propelled it farther than anyone could expect a basic cable remake of an awful 1970s Star Wars knockoff to go. But, especially in its later seasons, it has proven to be much less than the sum of its parts, getting in over its head exploring weighty themes and abandoning the engagingly pulpy-but-brainy style that made it as popular as it is. In fact, during its run, the show has become more listless, cyclical and self-indulgent than The Sopranos was at its worst, though Sopranos was never nearly as dull.

Battlestar Galactica sprung to life from a miniseries that debuted in 2002. Its premise was simple and compelling--humans have been essentially eradicated from existence. Only a 50,000-odd set of survivors, in a ragtag space fleet commanded by Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos), has survived and is trying to find the mythical human colony of Earth. The miniseries had its weaknesses, as virtually every character scene fell flat--the conversation between Adama and his estranged son, Apollo (Jamie Bamber) felt very TV, too earnest and stagy to pass for real life conversation. The interaction between Apollo and his dead brother's ex-fiancee and ace pilot Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) felt roughly the same--lacking in verisimilitude. But there was good stuff, too: Galactica combined some jaw-dropping special effects with some interesting ideas, and the themes introduced in the miniseries were initially explored in the series: how do people continue on after such profound loss? Does Earth really exist? If cylons look like humans, can they be stopped? What level of free will do they have? The series examined other themes as well, in particular the extent to which religious beliefs affect one's actions, tensions between the military and civilian government, and, that old sci-fi mainstay, what does it mean to be human?

Those early seasons were quite strong. Most of the time, the show managed to keep a few plot threads going at once: there was Helo trying to survive on the bombed-out planet of Caprica, Sharon trying to figure out whether she was a cylon or not (which she is, and which we all know), as well as the story of the week on Galactica. The show was characterized from the start by a rather grim tone, with a rather palpable feeling of doom, but there were little touches of humor and humanity here and there: fans generally rooted for communications officer Dualla and presidential aide Billy to hook up, self-absorbed Dr. Baltar (James Callis) quickly became a scene-stealer and often got the funniest lines, and during one episode we found out that Adama is actually one sentimental motherfrakker (frak being the series' greatest contribution to the English language) who can't leave Starbuck to die after a crash because he can't bear to lose the last connection he has to his dead son, and neither can his living son (who also has a thing for her). The show quickly took on something of a feminist hue--which was quite welcome, considering how testerone-ridden the material could have been--with the women being the tough and uncompromising leaders and the guys generally being the weepy, conscientious ones. And the show managed to build to a genuinely shocking season finale where a clue to Earth leads all hell to break loose, Adama gets shot (by Sharon), people are stranded on a planet abandoned (save for cylons) and the alcoholic Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan), one of the show's greatest creations, is left in command. This led to the show's second season, its best and most assured--the first half was arc-heavy and propulsive, leading to a three-episode run where the crew encounters another human ship, only to find out that it is commanded by a cold and arrogant officer who bucks no criticism and causes a dangerous standoff. The Pegasus episodes were among the show's best, and did a surprisingly thorough job of showing the unintended consequences of the end point of the worldview of George W. Bush, one overly focused on payback and "doing whatever needs to be done", including torture, to get back at the cylons. Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes) is an embodiment of this sort of mindset, and the show treats her rather harshly. Under her, Pegasus turns into an amoral hellhole full of testosterone-charged officers bragging about raping and torturing their female cylon prisoner, the ends always justify the means and decent people are too afraid to fight back. But the show puts its message pretty starkly: it is not enough to survive, one must be worthy of survival. If ever there was a message that needed to be sent, and a time it needed to be sent, it was these episodes at that point in time.

Unfortunately, the show's other takes on contemporary issues have tended to be lacking. One episode focused on the abortion issue without saying anything of real-world importance. Ditto political corruption and the Iraq War. The vaunted "New Caprica" story arc from the show's third season, in which our heroes are taken prisoner after settling on a new planet, tiptoes around provocation on subjects like suicide bombing and violent insurrection without actually being provocative. Unlike the original, old Star Trek which often tended to be nakedly allegorical about the social issues of the 1960's, Battlestar Galactica often cops out of commenting on contemporary issues by taking what I'll call the Crash two-step, which is to introduce weighty issues but not to develop them with any sophistication, such that viewers feel that they've engaged with an issue without actually being challenged by it. The aforementioned issues have been "Crashed" by the show, but it is difficult to think of particularly potent political observations outside of the Pegasus episodes. To be honest, these attempts never really felt like a con game so much as a sense that the writers were in over their heads, and one could indulge them for a time, as the show was really, really entertaining. But the notion of exploring real-life issues at all went out the window with season three, when the show fixated on different (and less vital) themes like identity and prophecy. These were the bad times.

After a while, the show became bloated and self-indulgent. New Caprica exeunt, the crew plodded through space without much in terms of things to do or narrative momentum. Instead of being under constant threat from cylon attack the Galactica went about its business generally free of danger--and the cylon absence was noticed. The third season was when things started to go off the rails: the show decided to examine the innards of cylon society, to delve deeper into the religious mumbo jumbo, to obsess about the Apollo-Starbuck relationship, and to focus on a number of one-off storylines that were almost immediately dropped. One could be charitable and say that the show was trying to fill out some of the empty spaces in its universe, though it was more likely a bid to get more viewers on board by shying away from the series' arcs in order to make the show more accessible to non-fans. The attempt was unsuccessful in both interpretations. Ultimately, though, the show lost its electricity, so to speak, and certain other flaws came to light at this time. Why was every episode, regardless of what happens, shot at a breakneck, breathless pace? Why do we have to hear about the five final cylons every episode as though it's the most important secret in the world, despite nobody caring about it before? And, finally, can't someone on this damn ship crack a smile? The self-conscious darkness of the show became overpowering, as mirthless characters went about their duties while the show plodded along, hints about Earth casually strewn about the storyline with nothing approaching a crescendo in the show's main story arc. The crowning glory was spending three episodes on Baltar's trial, which could easily have been handled in one. Yes, come for the cylon dogfights, stay for objections from the defense counsel. And these were some of the better season three episodes. Any other show would have been cancelled.

And the show's forth season--less dull than the third, at least--has gone to great lengths to try to convince the relatively few people still watching that they should never have bothered in the first place. Wacky twists are now routinely introduced to the show in order to set up an ending that seems to be something less than the sort of grand finale that the miniseries suggested. We find out, randomly, that the child of one of the cylon characters isn't his child, but is actually fully human, because his late human wife cheated on him. This was done to make the only other half-human child the only one in existence in order to set up the kidnapping plot around which, incredibly, the show seems set to use as its swan song. Cheap, insulting, and silly, but the bad writing doesn't stop there. Boozy Tigh is reunited with boozy wife Ellen, both of whom are actually cylons, and she gets miffed to find that her husband--who thought she was dead for years--has impregnated another cylon. This coming from a character primarily defined by her infidelity. Pot, meet kettle. After spending the better part of two seasons being bombarded about who the final cylons were, we're effectively told that there is no difference between cylons and humans. Nicely done, we say, as we rub our rugburned knees. Baltar, the man who nearly managed to get the human race wiped out, is able to extract guns from Adama to enhance his own power, and the old man decides that giving more power to the least trustworthy character in the show is a good idea. Evidently the Galactica is commanded by an idiot, though Adama performed nearly as dumb a move earlier in the season by giving a command to an unstable and perhaps reborn (and suspected cylon) Starbuck to find Earth. That subplot ends with a mutiny and a character losing his leg, and yet there are no consequences for either action. And Adama decides it's a good idea to keep known cylons like Tigh on the crew before and after the mutiny. This is to say nothing of the fact that humans can jump through space faster than light but use corded phones, and the amount of references to Shakespeare and Dylan, among others. Oh, I could go on and on (they just abandoned the cylon detector? No questions asked?), but I suspect the point is made. The show has been retconning like mad in hopes of trying to make it seem like the show went right from day one, when it clearly isn't so. Inconvenient little factoids like the ones found here are enought to prove the point, though because Ron Moore enjoys talking about the show, there are little nuggets like this one, from the early days of the show:
Human-like Cylons are better from a creative standpoint because the backstory
now is that the Colonials created the Cylons. The Cylons went off and developed
on their own... and then they came back in this new form.
As one can see, this was the original concept of the human cylons--that the mechanical cylons had created human models. This was also hinted at during the miniseries, when Leoben the cylon ponders whether God took souls out of humans and put them into cylons. Here's what I think happened:
  1. The plan was that mechanical cylons--or some sort of cylon authority figure, like a queen--created the humanoid cylons.
  2. The episode "Downloaded" showed humanoid cylons in the cylon society, but since only seven of them had been revealed--and Moore didn't want to reveal any more at that time.
  3. Because with all those cylons around there would have had to be a few of the unseen models, there had to be an explanation of why the others weren't present.
  4. Hence, the mysterious "final five", but what's so special about them? Why are they excluded? And why don't the other cylons know about them? I don't know what Moore's original plan for Earth was (I suspect there was none), but I suspect Moore decided at some point that the final five were from Earth. Why not tie the revelations together?
  5. And this led to the idea that the final five were not only not created by the cylons, but that they created the other humanoid cylons.
It's ridiculous. The final five rescued five cylons from Earth but created seven new ones? Why not save seven more? And why only five? What's so special about these five? Perhaps the finale will answer these questions. Perhaps not. But it suggests a stunning lack of vision for a show that only lasted four years, and it is not atypical for the details of the show. Obviously, Moore should have explored the most interesting avenues of the story (though in later seasons he clearly didn't) but it's become clear that the show is a cruel joke on the few people who still bother to tune in, as for all the mythology Moore developed and for all the stringing along he did, there was precious little there.

Now, this might be excessive criticism for a television show. I mean, you wouldn't rip CSI: New York or American Idol a new one in this sort of manner. But I think BSG deserves it for a few reasons. Number one, because the show claimed to be something more than usual television from the start. Number two, because the show has received much critical acclaim. Number three, because it is still a fanboy staple and, as much of this culture is predicated around mainstream acceptance of things like comic books and sci-fi movies it has become a cause celebre among these types, and I do not begrudge them that. I like a lot of the stuff they do. Ultimately, though, BSG has become something far less than the sum of its parts--it is a rather dour and pretentious show whose writers don't have the chops to do justice to their themes of religion, war and suffering, and its stylistic and tonal sensibilities (more is more!) that became progressively more mockable as the series went on (Adama's painting scene in the series' penultimate episode was literally funny, in much the same way as Nic Cage's overly intense "HOW'D IT GET BURNED?!" moment from The Wicker Man was). What we have here, simply, is a show that provided some decent genre entertainment (and occasionally a bit more) for a while before taking itself way too seriously and becoming more of a catalogue of the pet interests of Ron Moore than a coherent series.

So it is with some ambivalence that I say goodbye to Battlestar Galactica, with an appreciation for the show's superior early years but tempered by the idea that it's long since been time. One hopes that, in time, the show's early years--which for my money are still solid entertainment--get the recognition they deserve, while the later years are justly condemned as tainted by overreach and self-indulgence. That is how I will remember them, to be sure.