Many anal-retentive Bothans died to bring us this information.

I was just watching a few minutes of the original “Battlestar Galactica” series, and because I’m a nerd, I noticed that the displays and panels in the Vipers were full of English text. Because I’m a really big nerd, I started to wonder what that means in the context of the series as a whole.

There was a big deal made about the season 3 finale’s choice of music — it’s supposed to be some momentous sign that the colonists haven’t just been following a myth, and they really do have some kind of connection to Earth.

But modern English is all over the place in “Battlestar Galactica.” Some of it you have to have for dramatic impact:
There are only twelve Cylon models. PS: Would you like to go with me? Check one.
So you can say that they’re just auto-translating whatever language the colonists speak into a version of English that exists thousands of years later. Which is fine, but they’ve also got it in places where it doesn’t matter — in badges and logos, books, and plastered on the side of the ship. The only real attempts at indicating they’re a truly alien group of people is that they’re still polytheistic (very cool), and that they cut the corners off all their paper (I still don’t get that).

The only reason I would’ve noticed any of this at all, is because another franchise already tackled the “problem.” I can still vividly remember seeing The Empire Strikes Back for the first time (Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, represent!) and every little detail just blowing my nine-year-old mind. When Luke is arguing with R2-D2 about flying to Dagobah, all of R2’s speech is translated onto a screen in the cockpit:
From the original version of TESB
There’ve been dozens of documentaries and making-of promotions about the Star Wars movies and how they put insane amounts of effort into production details. But it still impresses me that they thought to invent a language not just for the aliens, but for the main characters. All as a reminder that the story is taking place you know where and you know when.

But I also remembered something from the first movie — I’m not sure how, because I was only six years old at the time. But this has still stood out in my mind just as clearly as any of the other memorable images:
From the original version of Star Wars
That’s from when Ben Kenobi disables the tractor beam, and apart from the numbers on various displays, it’s the only bit of English text in the whole movie. (There are letters and numbers that flash on Darth Vader’s screen during the final battle, but they’re fuzzy, hard to make out, and aren’t there long enough to read).

The reason I’m only embarrassed to recognize this kind of thing, instead of being completely ashamed, is because I know I’m not alone. The special edition of the movie, in addition to the Greedo nonsense, wacky Jabba, and that damn shockwave, added this:
From the special edition
The same text, now in Basic. (Yes, the common language in Star Wars is called Basic, sometimes called Galactic Standard. You think after all this I’m going to pretend I’m not enough of a nerd to know that?)

I’m not sure if it was changed for the 1978 theatrical release, or if it was just put in for the “special” edition. But still, somebody involved in the production cared enough about creating an alien universe that they put in that detail. And they were thinking of this kind of thing as far back as 1979. Obviously, world-building alone can’t save a movie — the Star Wars prequels had insanely detailed concept art and production design — but I think it’s part of what makes the movies classic.

In case it sounds like I’m faulting the new “Battlestar Galactica” for not doing this, I’m not. They had more hours of content in their first half-season than all of the Star Wars movies combined, and having to constantly translate everything would’ve just been nerd-wankery that would’ve gotten in the way of the story. Their sets are just as detailed, like with Tigh’s fighter squadron logo hanging on the wall, or the minor but ingenious touch of writing “NO STEP” on the Viper bodies just like on a real aircraft. Especially when you compare it to the original series, which pretty clearly all took place on sparse sets somewhere in a Los Angeles studio. The reason the new series has so much resonance is mostly because of the writing, but also because at every step in the production, they’ve treated it as part of a real story that’s really taking place in a real world. Right down to the sparse sets on the Cylon basestars, which seem so alien because they look like they were filmed somewhere in a Los Angeles studio.

Plus, the production designers for “Galactica” realize how to make the civilization non-Earth-like exactly where it counts. A big part of that is the music, which they’ve chosen from the beginning to be foreign and vaguely mystical-sounding. Just like Star Wars wouldn’t have worked as well without the classical space-opera soundtrack, BSG has a constant subtle reminder that you’re watching an alien civilization with an alien religion. So the reason the song from the season finale worked so well at “breaking the fourth wall” and throwing everything off balance isn’t because it’s the only connection to Earth that we’ve ever seen, but because it’s the only pop song we’ve ever seen.

And because I’ve been taking so many screenshots, here’s one from “Battlestar Galactica” where you can totally see Starbuck’s nipple:
Nip shot!

Too much confusion

'Scuse me, while I kiss this CylonThe season 3 finale of “Battlestar Galactica” aired tonight. According to the SciFi channel, season 4 doesn’t start until 2008. Word on the street is that there’ll be a two-hour movie “bridging” the season, not continuing from the finale, but introducing things that’ll be resolved in season 4.

In my whole history of watching things, I can’t remember when or if I’ve ever had such a hard time deciding if I liked something. My gut reaction throughout was “oh hell yeah.” But there was just as much “what the hell is going on here?” I really can’t say whether I thought it was unbelievably, unacceptably cheesy; or was one of the coolest things I’ve seen on a TV series. Which means, I guess, that it was the latter.

It goes without saying that big stuff follows, so don’t read the rest unless you want to have the finale (and maybe the whole season) ruined for you…

Continue reading “Too much confusion”

Winding Down

Sayid waiting for a pushTVSquad forwarded along a New York Post story, which is pretty much completely unsubstantiated speculation quoting from an anonymous “tipster,” that the producers of “Battlestar Galactica” want to end the series after the fourth (next) season. This is similar to the claims the “Lost” guys have made that they’ve got an ending in sight and are figuring out how to bring the series to a close after “one or two” more seasons.

It’s a good idea in both cases, and I’m not saying that just because I really really want to see “Galactica 2009.” I can’t think of any series that maintained its quality after four seasons, and with high concept series with a definite premise (finding Earth, getting off the island), it just makes it all the more clear that you have to have an end in sight.

By all rights, the most recent “Lost” episode, “The Man From Tallahassee,” should have had me jumping up and down making awkward grunting sounds. It was exactly the kind of stuff I’ve been wanting to see in the series. Real answers to questions, including one that’s been around since episode 1. A flashback that mattered, and had a really shocking scene in it. Hints at something larger, with a mysterious power about the island. Strong performances all around. A big explosion.

And a sign that they knew what they were doing, and Locke’s actions a few episodes ago weren’t just unmotivated idiocy. He had a plan, and we’re only seeing now what his real motives were.

I read a review of the episode that complained this development just made it clearer that the writers are making it up as they go along, and now they’d written themselves and excuse to pull any plot development they wanted out of their asses. (Or their magic boxes, as the case may be).

I had the opposite reaction. I thought this was the first in a long while that really showed steps towards tying things together. Jack’s dad, Kate’s horse, Eko’s brother Yemi, and now Locke’s discovery — they’re all connected, and Ben has seen this kind of thing happening on the island and is trying to explain it. Not only were the characters brought back to focus with this episode, but the events were as well.

Still, it ended with my feeling pretty unimpressed. I’ve been saying for a while that the “feel” of the show is more important than the answers. That anything the writers could possibly come up with to explain everything is going to feel like a let-down, because the hints at greater mysteries are by definition more interesting than the explanations. Now I’m having to back up that claim, and it’s tough. Myst-like hatches full of antiquated video monitors and mail slots that lead to nowhere, and underground bunkers with secret UV messages and record collections and secret serums, are always going to be more interesting than bright yellow compounds with swingsets and pool rooms.

And they’re already getting a diminished return on investment with their shocking revelations. I can guarantee you that had Locke’s flashback shown in seasons one or two, it would’ve been horrifying and exciting. But last night, it was just a brief flash of interest, like any other instantly forgettable TV stunt. After another season of this, they’re going to have to bring out the big guns to be satisfyingly shocking and relevatory.

In preparation for next week’s “Battlestar Galactica” finale, and the long hiatus until the next season, I’ve been going back through and watching the DVDs, starting with the miniseries. I came to the show late, so I always had the impression that the series was much larger than what I was aware of. That some of the events of the series had more impact to those who’ve been watching all along, seeing more than just the glimpses shown in the “previously on…” bits.

I’ve been surprised by two things: First, that I’ve seen more of the series than I remembered. I’d somehow seen the entire miniseries and first several episodes, apparently, and there are just four or five from the second half of the first season that I’d missed.

Second, that they covered so much in the first three hours of the miniseries. I’d thought that they’ve been building layer on layer of intrigue over the past couple of years, but 90% of what’s going on now (minus New Caprica and the Occupation) was established at the beginning. That’s both good and bad — good that they have had solid ideas of the characters and the central drama since the beginning, bad that they’ve kind of been coasting on that for so long.

I think BSG would do well to have a clear ending in sight, explaining what really motivates the Cylons, what is this plan we hear about at the beginning of every episode, and perhaps most importantly, finally explaining exactly what the hell is going on with Baltar and his visions of Six. I don’t know if they could do all that in one season, but in the past they’ve shown they can. Whatever the case, a fifth season would most likely kill the show.

And I guess I’ve realized a third thing about “Battlestar”: the value of subtext. My memory of the series was that it was just overwhelmingly, unrelentingly dark and depressing. Watching the miniseries again now reminded me that it’s not, really; in retrospect, it’s even a little bit manipulative and melodramatic. Obviously, now I know what’s going to happen, so the surprise is gone.

But more than that, I’m watching to see specific plot developments instead of just the “feel” of the show. They communicate that feeling so well, without having to repeatedly state it directly. It makes the more recent episode seem all the more heavy-handed and deliberately obtuse by comparison. The best thing I can say about the series is that at least in the early days, it doesn’t overstate its message. During the miniseries, you’d get a line of dialogue like, “It’s the end of the world, Lee,” and that was enough. Lately, it’s been more “It’s the end of the world, and that is why we need to maintain strict demands on fuel production and remain anti-labor in spite of our push for democracy, and it is this kind of thing that shows what a gray moral area we now live in.”

41,398

NOW look where the Earth is! Let me drive.I’ve been negligent in my “Battlestar Galactica”-watching duties for the past month, so I spent the last couple of days getting caught up on the last four episodes.

I’ve got to be vague, here, since there may yet be brothers of man, out there, among the blogosphere, who are waiting for the DVD release to watch the show. I’ll just say that it’s been troubling, and I’m getting really creeped-out by my TV series-destroying powers.

It’s not even the obvious plot events that are bugging me, as much as the general up-and-down nature of the show. People keep acting wildly inconsistently — they’ve got a basic character type that they mostly stay true to, but within that, they’re all over the map. What’s an unforgivable sin one episode becomes standard practice a few weeks later. A guy can commit treason and get a “no harm, no foul” from the Admiral in one episode; a short while later, Adama is threatening to shoot the Chief’s wife to get back at him (and just a couple of weeks before that, he was getting all emotional trying to save her).

One of the strengths of the series, as I understand it, is that it tries to put everything in a moral gray area, and it tries to add contemporary relevance to the events instead of just making it a sci-fi action series. That’s all fine, except that when you don’t have a stronger backbone for the story, and real consistency across episodes, it all comes across as self-contained Ripped From Today’s Headlines stories. I’m glad they have the conscience to tackle real issues, but there are some places where stories about racism and labor disputes and class warfare just don’t fit.

The most recent episode (the one about Baltar’s lawyer) shows signs they might be pulling out of the tailspin. I honestly couldn’t tell you if the writing was actually intelligent, or if it was just obtuse but meant to sound intelligent. Whatever the case, it worked for me. And it looks like they’re finally committed to building up to something big.

This is the only series I can think of where I’ve disliked the individual stand-along episodes so much. Usually I look forward to them; as the “series mythology” stuff is generally tedious, and smaller episodes give writers the chance to experiment and present a fully-fleshed out idea. On “Battlestar Galactica,” they just get in the way.

Update: I guess I should’ve waited until after tonight’s episode to start complaining. Because tonight’s was pretty damn cool. And I can’t remember when I’ve ever watched a TV series and had no clue what was going to happen. I can’t even speculate how things are going to turn out next week.

And you don’t stop, you keep on eatin’ cars

There are many copies. And they have a plan. And they're HOT.I already confessed to how I broke up the Pixies and made the Pogues split. I don’t know how I do it; it just happens. I got into “Alias,” right before it went downhill and got cancelled. I waited until the last minute to start liking “Lost,” and then look what happened there. So it pains me to announce that I really, really like “Battlestar Galactica” an awful lot.

Don’t despair, though; I liked “X-Files” so much I even went to a convention, and that lasted a good four seasons before it went south. Same with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” So considering I just got into “Galactica” this season, and bought the DVDs last weekend, there’s probably at least a couple good years left. I would just hold off on getting that tattoo of Apollo & Starbuck 4-Ever, if I were you.

Tonight was the half-season opener, “Rapture,” and it was pretty damn cool. I haven’t been keeping track of the fan rumblings, and I still haven’t seen all of the miniseries or the first season, but it seems like these episodes are moving a lot faster than the early ones. I’m still amazed that they have the stones and talent to set up huge, story-changing events and cliffhangers, and then quickly resolve them. It’s just plain exciting to see people who aren’t so afraid to mess with their prize-winning formula that they’re frozen into inaction and navel-gazing. They’re eager to keep mixing things up, putting their characters through hell and then pulling them out. Making huge, sweeping changes and then tying everything together all in the span of a few episodes.

I could see how some people would complain that it doesn’t linger on the real implications and ramifications of what happens long enough for them to have any weight, but I think that’s just traditional TV lulling everyone into complacency. This series credits the viewer with enough intelligence to follow everything that’s happening and fill in the details on his own — if something big is happening, you’ll know it, without having to make the cast and soundtrack reiterate how important this is a dozen times. The drama takes precedence even over the plot, and that’s just a great change. It feels like the creators of the show are eager to mess around with the story and the characters, just to see what happens.

Of course, it looks like this episode permanently wrote off my second-favorite cast member. (Grace Park’s my favorite). That’s a huge disappointment, but then I guess that’s what happens when you’ve got a series that isn’t afraid to change.

I just read a rumor online that there will be at least one ore major cast member to go before the season ends. Normally I’d dismiss that as a cheap ratings gimmick — whenever you hear a show creator mention the need to remind viewers that every cast member is expendable, that’s a sure sign the show is creatively rotten, and depends on cheap gimmicks to keep it interesting and “edgy.” Character death just for the sake of character death is as weak as the cat jumping suddenly from a dark place in a horror movie. It has to extend naturally from a storyline, or it’s just a cheap thrill. But I’ve got faith in “Battlestar Galactica,” from what I’ve seen so far. If they do kill somebody else off, it’ll be given a good setup, it’ll probably be bleak as hell, and it’ll almost definitely be good television.