Tonight the very last episode of Battlestar Galactica will run its course, closing out what may have been one of the greatest science fiction shows ever to run on television--dark, unpredictable, and surprisingly well-acted. I'll miss it, but I'm glad it's going out on its own terms.
BSG has always been driven by twin engines of character and crisis. It is, as I wrote once, a show about constantly ratcheting up the pressure on its protagonists in new and interesting ways. Eventually, everyone either cracks or is compressed into their core, like Saul Tigh standing up to declare that "Whatever else I am, whatever else it means, that's the man I want to be. And if I die today, that's the man I'll be." The writers have not always been successful at this dynamic--Lee Adama's fat suit period, for example--but they've hit the mark more often than not, with devastating results.
Along the way, they've also managed some impressive social commentary. The show has addressed both sides of insurgency, talked about waterboarding and torture, discussed abortion, been called chauvinist and defended as feminist. There have been episodes about vengeance, abuse of power, and reconciliation. And surprisingly, few of them have tried to wrap the issues up in a bow for the viewer. BSG is comfortable with moral ambiguity in a way that most television sci-fi has never achieved. The UN even held a panel this week about the show, albeit using it as a way to introduce the students in attendance to the important issues that international government faces.
I have to note one of my favorite parts of that panel, when Eddie Olmos channels Admiral Adama for a passionate rant on racism and human rights:
...I detest what we've done to ourselves. Out of a need to make ourselves different from one another, we've made the word 'race' a way of expressing culture. There's no such thing--and all you high school students, bless your heart for being here. You're a hundred champions right now that are gonna go out understanding this. The adults in the room will never understand it. Even though they'll nod their heads and say 'you're right,' they'll never be able to stop using the word 'race' as a cultural determinant.At that point, the gallery literally erupts with people shouting "So say we all!" It's a tremendous moment. And it is impressive that any television show, much less a show on the (temporarily) Sci Fi channel, could inspire that kind of discussion and passion for social justice.
I just heard one of the most prolific statements, done by one of the great humanitarians [gestures to Craig Mokhiber, Deputy Director for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights], he's really trying to organize and bring us together, and he used the word race as if there is ... an Asian race, an indigenous race, a caucasian race, or a Latino race. There's no such thing as a Latino race. There never has been. There never will be. There's only one race, and that's what the show brought out. That is the human race. Period.
Now, the pressure comes, why did we start to use the word race as a cultural determinant? The truth is that over 600 years ago, the caucasian 'race' decided to use it as a cultural determinant so it'd be easier for them to kill another culture. That was the total understanding. To kill one culture from another culture. You couldn't kill your own race, so you had to make them the Other. And to this day, I spent 37 years of my adult life trying to get this word out, and now I end up well-prepared, as the admiral of the Battlestar Galactica, to say it to all of you:
There is but one race, and that is it. So say we all!
Leading up to this final episode, the pace may have lagged a little. Personally, I've always enjoyed BSG's willingness to mess with its audience by killing off characters or radically rearranging the setting. There was talk at one point, during the writing strike, that the show might have ended with the episode that became the middle of this season: humans and cylons landing on Earth together, only to find an uninhabitable, radioactive wasteland. I still kind of wish they'd done that.
But I'm glad they're getting a chance to wrap things up, and also that they're quitting while they're ahead, relatively speaking. With a show like this, the worst thing that could happen would be to drag it on for another four or five seasons. It's definitely better to go out with some kind of plan, instead of a whimper and a cancellation notice. So grab your gun and bring in the cat.
Boom boom boom.
Bear McCreary, the composer for Battlestar Galactica (as well as a number of other shows and movies), has a blog where he explains how he adapted Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" for the season three finale (when it goes into the archive, that entry will be located here). Putting the song into the show was a bizarre--but fascinating--step. Too bad we'll have to wait until January 2008 before we can find out what it means.
McCreary's blog actually features a few other interesting previous entries, especially the ones on the instrumentation he uses, and where he actually breaks apart the small musical themes that are used to score behind each character. Did you know? That irregular, single-note beat that opens the prologue to the show ("The cylons were created by man...") is actually in 9/8 time, and is played on the Javanese gamelan. Now you know.
First Draft included this in Athenae's weekly Galactica post. Since it has spoilers in it, I can't watch it for another couple months, so I'm saving it here.
Perhaps the most surprising change of the third season premiere of Battlestar Galactica has been the madness of Col. Tigh. Previously the alcoholic, easily-manipulated Executive Officer on Galactica, Tigh was captured and tortured between the end of last season and the beginning of this. Now he stalks around as head of the insurgency against the Cylons, one eye gone, muttering dark words in support of suicide bombings and other brutal resistance. "Which side are we on?" he asks. "We're on the side of the demons, Chief. We're evil men in the gardens of paradise, sent by the forces of death to spread devastation and destruction wherever we go. I'm suprised you didn't know that."
Tigh was never a stable or laudable character. Like much of the cast of Galactica he had significant weaknesses. It's a show about putting pressure on its protagonists, and where other shows would use that pressure to make diamonds of their heroes, on Galactica its purpose is expose those flaws and sometimes (particularly in the case of all-too-human Baltar) to crack them open entirely.
We should have known, really. When the second season ended by skipping ahead a year and completely changing the military dynamic of the series, it was a clue that the third season wasn't going to be a rehash of the first two. The cylon Sharon aboard Galactica has become the admiral's confidante, and a member of his crew. Baltar as president achieved power only to become even more a figurehead under the occupation. And Starbuck is now locked into an apartment with Loeben, the Cylon she waterboarded in the first season and who now insists that they were meant by God to be lovers. All of these are basically logical, but they're engineered to shine light on the same people from different angles, so that where we might once have seen something admirable it is now less flattering, or vice versa. Col. Tigh simply best illustrates this to me: formerly almost a running joke for viewers, he now radiates malice. Although he wouldn't have wanted to admit it, terrorist is a role that suits him, just as other Galactica characters have flirted with authoritarianism and genocide.
Waterboarding was a clue that Galactica has always been tinged with politics, but it's undeniable now. The use of "insurgency" and suicide bombers must bring certain conclusions to mind, as the writers must know, and turning them on their head to put the humans in the terrorist position will have conservatives screaming about moral relativism. I am less convinced that this was done out of liberal bias. It's more likely to be provocation, and nowadays that doesn't take much.
For example, one of the cliches of modern action movies is the scene where a hero is given an opportunity to solve his or her problem in a particularly brutal way. Tension is raised--will he really apply the electrodes?--before the protagonist casts aside the grisly instruments of torture and says the immortal words: "No, that would make us just as bad as them." I wonder sometimes if George W. Bush simply never watched any movies after, say, 1962. Perhaps that explains why he is capable of leading a movement to favor torture, rendition, and destruction of civil liberties--actions that imply we are "just as bad as them," and destroy our moral high ground. Only in this political atmosphere could Galactica's muddled moral compass be called liberal.
And it takes a simple mind to view this as "objectively pro-terrorist," or whatever phrases will be bandied about. The show clearly doesn't condone Tigh's suicide bomb tactics, any more than it condoned President Roslin's attempts to steal the election--another politically-charged plotline, especially since Baltar's victory proved so disastrous for the colonists. Galactica's stock in trade, both for plots and for its characters, has always been shades of grey. To reduce it to black and white is to miss the point, and to miss the finest moments that it has to offer. On most shows, when Caprica Sharon becomes Adama's advisor and puts on a fleet uniform, the moment would be treated with more reverence--a convert to the side of Good! But on this show, even those of us who have rooted for Sharon over all of last season find ourselves uneasy about her new loyalties. We know that these characters are more complicated than that, even if we don't know exactly which way their complications will lead.
Two of the Battlestar Galactica webisodes are up on scifi.com now. They're not badly done, but seem to suffer from the two-minute format. The long-format show crams a lot into forty minutes. Splitting it up so sharply might be making it hard to build the tension (some might say melodrama) that has been a trademark of the series.
From a futurist standpoint, the webisodes (a neologism I find less annoying than I thought I would) are a good mid-point between a typical Web non-presence and the in-depth obsessiveness of Lost's alternate reality games. Galactica has been good about rewarding fans online for a while, with the commentary podcasts and video blogs. Clearly it takes a lot of work to put these together, and I hope it pays off for them.
From a storyline standpoint, there seem to be a few callouts to civil war in Iraq coming up next season. Specifically, I'm thinking about the resistance infiltrating the Cylon police and hiding weapons caches behind religious icons. How much is coincidence and how much is intentional? That's never an easy answer with Galactica, which featured a torture scene with waterboarding in its first season. I'm looking forward to seeing if Ron Moore has anything to say about it on his blog.
Could be worse, I guess.
Just a quick note for anyone who hasn't checked out Battlestar Galactica: Scifi.com has an option now where you can watch whole episodes, including a full-screen option. It's a flash player, a little bit lower quality than the iTunes version.
Right now, they're playing Scar--which, granted, is probably one of the three weakest episodes from season two, and it might be a little hard to get into mid-season. But even at its worst, Galactica's still better than anything on network TV. Take a look.
Near the end of the Galactica miniseries, Commander Adama gives a speech to rally the troops, since the loss of a couple thousand people more after all of interstellar civilization gets nuked tends to be depressing. It's a good effort by Ed Olmos, especially considering that he apparently improvised about half of it, but it comes across feeling a bit like a standard sci-fi series premiere. And that's what it basically is.
I'm noticing these things after picking up the season one DVDs and watching the miniseries again. What stands out is that it doesn't really feel like Galactica. The basics are there--complicated interpersonal relationships, byzantine power struggles, characters with tragic weaknesses--but at the same time they are toned down in favor of more standard plot elements. There's a lot of technobabble in the three hours, considering this is a show that consciously avoids that kind of thing. What struck me the most is how clean and young everyone looks. The grime and constant stress of the actual show isn't present yet.
So what we're left with is a miniseries that's not bad, certainly very good by Sci Fi Channel standards. It seems like it might turn into a good, but not great, post-Star Trek series. Then it's followed by "33," which was suddenly leaps and bounds above that level, ratcheting up the tension and the premise--and I don't think the quality ever dropped until season 2.5. I'm a little amazed that I actually stuck around after the premiere, frankly. But looking back, it's such a great metaphor for the story arc across seasons one and two--an optimistic, hopeful beginning that then drops its characters into the machine and observes the changes that result. Watching (as I did, since I started late) the entire two-season arc in only 4 months only accentuates the experience.
I'm glad that the box set comes with the miniseries. But if you haven't seen Galactica and you'd like to give it a shot, don't see it as mandatory to spend three hours on it. If the premiere doesn't get to you right away or you don't have the time for it, try the first episode instead. It's the best show on TV. I don't think you'll regret it.