Sine intellectus non

Speaking of TV shows: did anybody else understand what the hell was going on with this week’s “Battlestar Galactica?” (Called “Sine Qua Non.”) It felt to me like what would happen if you took all the components of a BSG episode, fed them into a computer:

  • Stand-off at gun-point
  • Apollo makes speech about making tough choices to survive
  • People see things that aren’t there
  • Character thrown in brig
  • Fist fight
  • Idyllic near-death experience
  • Character in brig paces
  • Political discussions
  • Spaceship does faster-than-light jump
  • Mention Raptors and Vipers
  • Return of bit character from past episode
  • Include Starbuck: yes/no

and then hit the “Randomize” button. Okay, we’re good to go! — wait, we didn’t click the “Lucid” checkbox? Damn, too late. Maybe no one will notice.

I was glad to see (spoiler?) Adama admit he totally loves Roslyn 4-ever, but they could’ve done that in a future episode, just by having the Basestar return and find him there in a raptor, reading her book. That’s all they needed. Apart from that and the little revelation that Cylons can indeed get other Cylons pregnant, this seems like a filler episode that could (and should) be easily forgotten.

But Lucy Lawless is back next week, so that’s promising.

We're gonna need a bigger boat.

Speaking of series that blur the line between science fiction and “real” stories: this week’s episode of “Battlestar Galactica” hit me like a ton of space-bricks. It’s called “Faith” and the rest is spoilers and you’re gonna have to give me a second because I think there’s something in my eye…

I was already annoyed with the episode even before the opening credits started, because its episodic television underwear was showing. Characters were doing stuff not because it made sense, but because the writers needed them to go from here to there and squeeze a cliffhanger in the middle. So there’s a big standoff with everybody yelling at each other and pointing guns and I was hoping that somebody would just shoot already. And then they did, and it wasn’t as cool as I’d been hoping for.

But then it all started to kick in, and they tapped right into the section of my brain that can have me bawling at a TV show. I can make a list of all the parts that made me gasp and/or tear up and/or were intensely creepy:

  • Showing an FTL jump from the cockpit
  • Jumping right into the middle of the semi-organic Basestar wreckage
  • Starbuck finally seeing the gas giant and “comet” from her vision
  • Six’s violent attack, and the crew member trying to talk and take a few steps before falling down dead
  • Roslin’s description of her mother’s (or her own) fear of death
  • The hybrid’s long sustained scream as she was about to be unplugged
  • Emily Cancerpatient running to her family on the shore
  • Adama telling Roslin that she’s the one who gave him faith in finding Earth

This is the only episode of “Battlestar Galactica” that’s really moved me like this — going from genuinely scary (that scene with the hybrid really creeped me out, reminding me of the scene in Miller’s Crossing where the Dane gets attacked), to genuinely moving without being maudlin. It’s the potential of the whole series that’s always been hinted at, but in my opinion was never quite achieved.

“The X-Files” tried to hit on the same themes of death and purpose and faith and belief, struggling to be more than just genre television, but ultimately imploding from the mass of its gimmicks. It almost never worked; Scully’s cancer was more tedious than moving, and many of the episodes managed to be good but not all that deep or meaningful.

A lot of “Battlestar” has the same problem, actually: whenever they try to be relevant, it seems like ham-fisted allegory or a clumsy attempt to shoehorn “meaning” into a sci-fi/action show plot. (Worse is when they try to shove “shades of gray” into a situation that hasn’t earned it.) The characters and stories are strong enough that it’s usually good television, but I always feel like I’m giving them credit for being intelligent enough to make an effort, not that it’s made me genuinely feel like they want me to feel.

All of the scenes with Roslin and Emily Cancerpatient totally worked for me, though, even though their version of the afterlife wasn’t all that original. (And they were especially moving performances when compared to Gaeta’s “don’t let them take my leg” stuff, which just struck me as fake drama coming out of nowhere). And what was genius was finding a way to have it not be just a standalone episode, but fit in with all the themes of the series — the search for Earth, the Cylons’ questioning their existence, and all the characters trying to figure out their purpose, their individuality, and their identity.

Plus, apparently there’s going to be a Cylon Basestar in the Colonial fleet now. That’s kind of cool, right? And Lucy Lawless is coming back!

And if anybody was wondering like I was, but didn’t feel like looking back through the end credits: the other cancer patient was played by Nana Visitor from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”

Frakky Friday

The fourth season of “Battlestar Galactica” starts this Friday, and I couldn’t be more excited even if I were the guy from Anthrax.

The home page is currently overtaken by a bunch of video clips intended to drum up anticipation and make you buy a Walkman phone. The “Phenomenon” clip has a bunch of people from other shows talking about how much they love “Battlestar,” ostensibly outing themselves as nerds but really just coming across as a bunch of people who know how to talk on camera when surrounded by studio lights. (Not that they’re insincere, just that I’ve seen what it’s like when real nerds effuse about their favorite television show, and it tends not to get you hyped up about anything other than eugenics). My opinion of Brad Paisley went up 1000%; my assessment of the guys from “Robot Chicken” remains unchanged.

Entertainment Weekly ran the picture at the top of this post (which you can get as a download for your desktop background), with the cast arranged like The Last Supper, a few months ago, and at that point I realized I’ve crossed into giddy fan territory with the show. I had flashbacks to when I’d dig through my brother’s copies of Starlog to find any trace of Star Wars, and I’d buy any magazine that had even a mention of Star Wars on the cover. None of that stuff had any real info, or even a fraction of the “insider” promotional stuff you can find on the internet these days, but you got into it just to keep reminding yourself “I’m still a really big fan of this!” I was getting afraid I’d become too jaded to get that excited about anything like this anymore.

I’ve mentioned it before, but the thing I like best about all the promotional stuff for BSG is that the cast comes across as people who just know they’re making something cool. There’s no sense that they think they’re better than the material, and little sense that they think they’re too cool for the fans. They’re attractive TV people who are even more comfortable around dorky fans than I’d ever be, and I’m a dorky fan and not an attractive TV person.

You’ll always hear it stressed that BSG works because it’s not science fiction, but drama set in a science fiction environment — but that doesn’t come across as defensive. And it’s not until you see or read an interview with the people involved that it’s clear the show has actually lived up to that premise. You’ll see Tricia Helfer or Grace Park or Mary McDonnell going on about Cylons and Vipers and hybrid babies and light-speed jumps, all as they pertain to their characters, and you realize that possibly for the first time, somebody’s made something with spaceships and robots that isn’t intended just for some geek fringe.

All of this I've seen before, and I will watch it all again.

I got back from Thanksgiving to find the “Battlestar Galactica: Razor” movie waiting for me. On a scale of 1 to 10 I’d rate it radical. (For comparison, the episode where they get off of New Caprica rates a holy crap that was wicked awesome, and the one where Starbuck gets kidnapped on a farm rates a 3).

Really, it only earns a “radical” for showing the old-school Cylon Centurions, and for dropping a few bombs as to the overall storyline, with Starbuck’s “destiny” and the Cylons’ plot. But the rest of the movie suffered, because it did the stuff the series doesn’t usually do — show big set pieces and the details of “side” stories. There’s a sequence where a bunch of Cylons attack the Pegasus at a shipyard, and it is pretty impressive, but it mostly serves of a reminder of how well the series conveys an epic space battle without actually showing the space battle.

And it’s the same for the story. We already knew that Admiral Cain was a bitch, from when she was on the series. The movie just revealed that wait, no really, she was a total bitch. There’s a half-assed attempt by Adama at the end of Razor to say that “I’m not sure I would’ve done differently in her situation,” but that just seemed like a feeble attempt to add depth and moral ambiguity to a character that had neither. And in the end, it made the whole Pegasus story seem smaller and less interesting. The more they show of the spacefights, the more you realize how small and forgettable they are; the more they show of the characters, the more you realize how two-dimensional and unlikeable most of them are, and how all the plot threads are a little convoluted and flimsy.

I mentioned that when I first saw seasons 1 and 2, I saw most of the episodes out of order, and missed a couple. As a result, I had the sense that everything was much larger and deeper than it really is. The show excels at suggesting more depth and scope than is really there; when you watch everything in order, it starts to stretch the plausibility.

For instance, I know that there are only 12 Cylon models, so it makes sense to keep seeing the same ones over and over again. But how come there are over 40,000 humans, but there are still only 4 or 5 people in the military? We keep seeing and hearing other ones, but it still comes back to Apollo and Starbuck being called in as not just the best pilots in the fleet, but the only ones capable of acting as bouncers for a summit meeting, hostage negotiators, mining facility inspectors, secret raids on Cylon Base Stars, etc.

There was a scene in Razor where they assembled the entire good guy cast into one place to stare at a spaceship on green screen, and it was kind of comical. You could almost hear the actors’ cars in the parking lot, their engines still running. This set up a cool plot element for the final season, and it tied into the “web episodes” pretty well, but it still suffered from the syndrome of having about 4 people in the entire galaxy to which everything of any significance happens.

But it ultimately doesn’t matter, of course. I’m still going through the episodes on DVD in order, and I’m still enjoying the hell out of them. I’d feel a little better if we didn’t have to wait until March for the final season to start, but at the rate I’m going, it’ll probably take me that long to get caught up.

So Like Us

Speaking of set detail and “Battlestar Galactica,” I think I may have uncovered more shocking evidence that the colonists have connections to Earth. This has all happened before, and it will all happen again:
From BSG's 'No Way Out' inspired episode
Powered by NEC
Like all of the Battlestars, the Galactica relies on NEC’s Multisync Series for the brightest, sharpest LCD displays in the entire galaxy. So see we all.

Has anybody on the internets made a parody video showing a Cylon waking up in the resurrection chamber and hearing the “Intel Inside” start-up sound? If not, pretend I made one and posted it here, because that is high comedy.

That same episode has what might be my favorite shot in the entire “Battlestar Galactica” series to date:
The Colonists' optical drives use OCDs
“I suspect this disc might be a fake, Commander. My first clue that it wasn’t an actual Colonial Defense Ministry disc is that we don’t have any devices that will play it because it’s not round.”

One of the comments from Ron Moore’s podcast about the series is that they never bothered to explain how the fleet got its infinite supply of cigarettes. I think the best explanation is that they form them out of all the excess paper they obsessively cut the corners off of.