Frakked by an Angel

My opinions of the series finale of “Battlestar Galactica.”

I’ve gotten to be a solid supporter of “new media distribution,” cutting out cable and satellite providers and all that, but there’s one aspect of all this that really needs to be fixed: how to do big-event programming when so much time-shifting is going on. While I was waiting for the “Battlestar Galactica” series finale to become available on iTunes, I had to pretty much avoid the internet entirely, since there are so many social networking sites filled with people who can’t wait to talk about what happens.

I wanted to go into this one knowing absolutely nothing — even down to what people thought of it in general — so I’m going to extend the same courtesy and put everything behind a spoiler warning.

Continue reading “Frakked by an Angel”

All Will Be Revealed… At Once

Apparently the revolutionaries of the last few episodes were armed with low-caliber exposition rounds, Teflon-Flashback coated to penetrate the armor of the Rules of Dramatic Writing, including “Show, Don’t Tell.”

But I kid “Battlestar Galactica” only because it annoys me so much. This week’s episode (“No Exit”), was paced and written as well as it could be, and it had some fine performances from everybody — especially Kate Vernon as Ellen — making the best they could of the material. But it was pretty much an exact manifestation of what I was afraid of once it became clear that the series had too many loose ends to deliver a satisfying pay-off.

The first miniseries was a great bit of television, but what really got me hooked on the series was the storyline that built up to discovering Kobol: the idea that the series hadn’t just created a sci-fi drama series, but had actually developed a fairly complex history and mythology. Especially since that mythology wasn’t the typical believer-vs-heretic scenario you see in science fiction, but was nuanced and mature, just as religion and faith are in real life. There were True Believers and non-believers, but most people just existed in a middle realm of atheism or lapsed faith or simply belief that had fallen by the wayside because it simply wasn’t relevant anymore. It gave all these 45-minute-long bursts of drama some real weight and depth, and fit in perfectly with the overall theme of the show, that pure good and evil are rare and are overwhelmed by the billions of shades of gray.

So I’d been hoping for a process of divulging bits and pieces of backstory over time, instead of a night of some pretty good actors reading from the Wikipedia entry on The History of Battlestar Galactica (Reimagined Series). The show’s always been impressive for what it can accomplish on a limited budget, but this was the first episode I can remember where the budget limitations were painfully visible. Could they not have had more memories on Earth? A flashback to the science lab, or even to the creation of the first human-like Cylons forty years ago? Focus an entire episode on these key events, instead of flashing back to someone telling someone else about these key events? Or just have Anders babbling Hybrid-like semi-nonsense, instead of giving regular 5-minute recaps?

My problem with the way it was handled isn’t just that it offends my Dramatic Sensibilities. It’s that I couldn’t follow it all. There was too little to reinforce it or tie it all together. If you want to know the facts, it’s all summed up in this community effort on the Chicago Tribune’s website. But if I wanted to read fake sci-fi history, I wouldn’t be watching television.

So as not to end on a complete downer: everything that was done is thematically strong, I think. Again, those themes of humanity, of people encompassing both good and evil instead of being purely one or the other, and the idea that we have more similarities with our enemies than differences. And I don’t doubt the big Cylon civil war they’re building up to is going to be pretty epic, and it’ll have some heft to it instead of just being effects sequences. And one of the commentors on some blog brought up a point I hadn’t considered: using Cylon biotech to repair the Galactica has implications not only towards Cylon/human hybrids, but on possibly repopulating Earth.

Or, I suppose, the next episode could jump forward a year, and we could spend the remaining episodes watching characters explain to each other how it all went down.


Last week, I complained that it was clear “Battlestar Galactica” had done me wrong, because they put out a very good episode that I couldn’t enjoy because there were still just too many problems with the series as a whole.

This week’s episode (“Blood on the Scales”) was even better. It started with a space battle and the aftermath of a grenade, and rode on that momentum for the next 45 minutes, barely letting up. It was so well-done, in fact, that it forced me to face facts: I’m not going to make it to the end of the series unless I stop expecting the show to play by my rules. I had to hit the Zen of BSG (also known as The Serenity of A Writers’ Room That’s Painted Itself Into a Corner), and just take it for what it is: an hour of drama and tension a week. And, it should be repeated, Mary McDonnell, who’s consistently good.

Back when “The X-Files” was good, I’d get annoyed at people on the internets who’d complain about its continuity errors. (Same for comic books). I figured if they could make an outstanding hour of TV using these characters, then what’s the big deal if they don’t all fit together neatly? Now that’s coming back to haunt me.

I still say that BSG set a pretty high bar for itself: beginning every episode with the reminder that the Cylons did have a plan, reminding us of the fleet population, giving us allegedly symbolic Last Supper photos to ponder, and packing every episode full of prophecies and portents and promises of great things to come. But now that I’ve realized I’m not really attached to any of the characters, and that the big stuff they’ve been building to is almost certainly going to disappoint, I can just sit back and watch the explosions, executions, and arguments. And this one delivered. Mostly.
Continue reading “Redemption”

A Disquiet Follows My Mid-Season Break

Or, “We Never Said They Had a Good Plan.”

So last week was the big return of “Battlestar Galactica” (with “Sometimes a Great Notion”) after months of speculation after a huge cliffhanger and the promise that all our questions would be answered. I didn’t really say anything about it at the time, because I was waiting for the second episode to see if I was just disappointed in the anti-climax, or if the series had finally lost me.

After this week’s (“A Disquiet Follows My Soul”), I’m inclined to think they lost me. The problem is basically that now, I can see the strings, and my suspension of disbelief is completely blown. I think Rain nailed it when she blamed it on lazy screenwriting, although I’d say it’s only half laziness/lack of inspiration, but also clumsy self-importance.

From the start, the series has prided itself on being mature and “edgy,” but at least through the miniseries and the first couple of seasons, it earned that reputation. Now it just seems like self-parody at best, or self-delusion at worst. It’s the “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” style edgy; no thought behind it, just “what’s going to shock people?” It’s catering to the type of people who say things like, “Even at its worst, it’s still better than most of what’s on television,” ignoring the fact that television is getting better, and these days shows like “Knight Rider” are the exception, not the rule.

The big reveal of Earth we’ve been building up to? Look how happy they are and psyche! it’s a wasteland! Suck on that, complacent middle American TV watchers! Following the story of a basically sweet, hopeful character? Blam, suicide! Did you jump? Huh? Did you? And now we’ll blow your mind with the reveal of the Final Cylon! Are you astounde— okay, yeah, we didn’t really expect you to be all that excited about that, frankly. It’s a series of cheap shots, and not particularly clever ones at that.

And what’s got me convinced it’s a long-term downturn and not just a couple of not-particularly-inspired decisions, or a couple of episodes that are “off,” is this interview with Ron Moore that basically confirms these writing decisions are just that arbitrary. Not necessarily what makes sense as far as a series-long dramatic arc, but what’s going to go for the quick surprise or the cheap shock or, more often, the “dark” angle. Because we all know that “dark” means “smart.”

I’m still going to watch the final eight episodes, obviously, since I’ve come this far. But I’ve pretty much given up hope that they’re going to pull off a satisfying ending. Even without the cheap semi-adolescent plotting gimmicks, there doesn’t seem to be any solid season-wide pacing, or any weight to the big reveals. Why did they go to the trouble of bringing back Lucy Lawless’s character just to throw it away? Why is the fact that 2000-year-old Cylons were found on Earth just mentioned once and never repeated? Why does Starbuck’s discovery just result in a lot of clumsy scenes designed to look cool, instead of any notion of a real plot development? Is this “BSG” or “Heroes?”

Iz not so great, aktually

lolkara.jpgThis “half-season” of “Battlestar Galactica” ended last Friday with an episode called “Revelations.” I don’t really have much to say worth a spoiler warning, but if you want to know nothing about the episode, you might want to skip this post.

Maybe the series has always been like this, and I just couldn’t tell because I was watching the episodes out of order, but it seems like the show has been wildly uneven in quality. Two episodes ago was a muddled, directionless mess of an hour, immediately followed by one of the best episodes of the entire series (“Hub”). The finale was more of the same: there were story moments and individual scenes that were just fantastic, but I just wasn’t that impressed with the episode as a whole.

I liked pretty much everything they did, plot-wise, but I wish they had stretched it all out over the last 8 or 9 episodes instead of trying to cram everything significant that will happen to the human race into 45 minutes. Everything was rushed and muddled. Lately my biggest gripe about TV shows is that the characters’ motivations get lost; it doesn’t seem like they do stuff because the characters want to, but just because the writers need them to get from here to there. In this episode, it seemed like characters did stuff just because they were afraid they wouldn’t have time to before the scene ended and we cut to somewhere else.

But a few of the moments were great. It got so tense that I actually had to pause it and get up to pace around the apartment, which I’m guessing is the kind of reaction they were hoping for. But I was anxious only partly because of the tension the episode had built up, and mostly because I kept saying, “Don’t screw up the whole series, don’t screw up the whole series…”

I don’t know, maybe that’s an intentional dramatic device — they’ll show you an episode so bad, or a plot development so ridiculous, that you have to be a little scared of them. They’ve got a gun to the series’ head and are holding it hostage, “Keep watching, or we’ll blow it to hell! We’re crazy enough to do it!”

The ending was fine, but it was more “oh, so that’s the option they picked” than “holy cow, I didn’t see that coming!” I guess the last 10 or so episodes are going to be all about the Final Fifth and what happens next. I’m not so upset anymore that it’s going to be 2009 before any new episodes air. I’m curious to see how it all ends, but I think BSG and I could use some time apart.

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.

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”