Sunday, March 12, 2006

Battlestar Galactica (1x01-1x04)

Last week, I watched the Battlestar Galactica miniseries, and loved it, one of the best series openers I've ever seen. So, understandably I was excited to see where they go in the series. After seeing the first four episodes, I don't think it's quite as strong as the miniseries was, but it's still great TV.

The first episode of the series effectively continues the harrowed on the run feel of the miniseries, by introducing the threat of cylon ships every 33 minutes. So, we see the crew at their most strung out, reduced to their basest functions, just moving forward. This premise sets up a really interesting conflict, which is basically how long can they go before they lose the will to live.

The episode again sets up an ethical conundrum, when the Olympia reappears, carrying with it the threat of cylons. Already, the president is getting hardened by the job, being a leader requires tough choices, and the need to sacrifice this ship is one of them. She is vindicated later in the episode, but I was glad to see that the moral implications of what they did were dealt with later.

The conversation that Apollo and Laura have in 'Water' is designed to explicitly address the issues surrounding the war on terror, and Bush's admit no mistakes mentality. The show suggests that in a state that's under attack, to admit defeat is to invite second guessing, and even though Laura may not say she's sorry about what she did, she certainly is. I assume this isn't meant to apologize for Bush, it's more about the need for a leader to hide their own emotions and think more of the image that they present to the state.

I'd actually be interested in seeing more of how the regular civilians perceive what's going on. I'd love to see a couple of new characters who are just ordinary people affected by the events. This would give us a new perspective on all that happens, though I suppose it would feel rather disconnected because they wouldn't be able to interact with any of the other major characters.

I think the second episode, 'Water' was the most interesting of the four I've seen so far. I'm always drawn to material that deals with the issue of what is human, and how real humans interact with synthetic humans. It seems like Shannon is quite literally a split personality. At times, the cylons use her to do what they want, without her being aware of it. The scene in the ship at the end of the episode, with the detonator is the most explicit example of this, and notably shows us a cylon who is so deep in her human cover that that personality takes precedence over the cylon programming. It raises the question of whether a cylon sleeper agent can be reprogrammed to stay in her civilian cover.

Concurrent with these issues is the story of Six, someone who remains desperate to interact with Baltar as a human emotional level. I loved the sequence at the end of '33,' where Six makes Baltar repent. The essential paradox of a robot who has a deep faith in God is brilliant, and is the plot thread I want to see explored more.

On the whole, Baltar and Six are easily the most interesting characters. I think it's largely because some of the rough edges on the characters from the miniseries have been smoothed out. It's unfortuante that they've all gotten to that grudging respect stage so quickly because it means there's not that much strong character conflict. I suppose that's a consequence of the need to set up the characters first, before we can really care enough about their problems with each other.

But Baltar and Six remain ambiguous. Baltar is someone who's utterly selfish, always looking out for his own interests. The very fact that he hasn't told anyone about his experience with Six says a lot about how much he values himself over humanity as a whole, and as a viewer, that essential conflict is exciting. I love the way they play Six's discussions with him against his discussions in the outside world.

I'm wondering if Six's mission with Baltar is not part of the general cylon agenda. I'm not sure how the cylons work exactly, is every number Six connected, sharing one large mind, or are there a few "souls," the specific memories of one Six ending up in the body of another when she dies. Considering what happens with Boomer, there's at least some differentiation among the models, because the one on the Galactica has a different agenda from the one on Caprica.

I guess my main frustration with these episodes is that they got bogged down in these standalone stories and haven't done as much to explore these issues with the cylons. Admittedly, if you're planning on doing a bunch of seasons, you don't want to reveal everything right away, but I really want to find out more about the cylon world and how it works.

Along those lines, the storyline with Helo is really interesting. I'm not sure what Cylons would need with him, other than as an experiment in exploring how humans react under extreme circumstances. The fact that Helo survived would seem to indicate that there's at least a few humans left on the planet, and I'm not sure how they'll feel about being left behind.

I could see why they did the "Bastille Day" episode, but I wasn't that big a fan. On an intellectual level, it's interesting, but I feel like it was too much of a classic standalone plot, building up this guy into a huge intellectual hero just to serve the needs of this one episode. Zarek will probably show up again at some point, but in terms of this episode, it felt too much like an X-Files standalone, where our heroes are put in peril, but ultimately nothing that big happens to anyone. There's too much a sense of safety for our characters, which is precisely what the miniseries lacked with its massive destruction.

For example, the bit with Cally seemed to set up a real consequence, rape, but they backed out on it and had her only get shot instead. If she was really hurt, that would raise the emotional intensity and make the decision to spare Zarek at the end more troubling. I can understand the decision to not have a female character get raped, but I feel like here something was needed to raise the drama beyond an intellectual debate about the nature of freedom. It was interesting, but not emotionally involving.

The fourth episode returns to the more adventurous narrative style of the miniseries, cutting together three different timelines. In some respects, I think this was motivated by the desire to use those effects shots of Starbuck going into the planet as much as possible, but it also ends up creating a rather disorienting opening, and then really making you understand Kara better than we have prior to this. Each of the episodes seems designed to focus on one of the major characters and illuminate his/her personality, and of the three, this is the best.

And it also brings some good tension to the characters. In TV, a lot of the time there's a tendency to denigrate soap opera, but at the core of every great TV series, from Twin Peaks to The Sopranos, is an element of soap opera, and by soap opera, I mean a focus on the development of emotional relationships between the characters. The show so far seems to mainly focus on plot, with character stuff in the background, but this episode does a good job of blending character development with narrative. Ultimately, it's usually best to scale back the story and play up the characters' involvement in it. Of course, the ideal stories are the ones that reveal a lot about the characters, and move them forward.

But, on the whole the show is working really well. There's the same great verite style and feeling of realism to everything that happens. While some of the standalone stories aren't great, there's a whole bunch of interesting stuff developing in the background. They're still working out the kinks, but things are looking good for the future. I'll report back once I've seen more.


Keith G said...

I'm glad you're enjoying the series, even if you have some reservations about it. Meanwhile, I've just seen the second season finale and... my brain is hurting because Ron Moore seems to have flipped everything on its head.

Best show on TV without a doubt.

Patrick said...

Nice, I heard some vague things about the season two finale, but it sounded like a major premise shakeup. I'll be psyched to see what it is.

Since writing that, I've seen two more episodes, which were each better than any of the first four, so it seems like the series is improving.