Sunday, March 05, 2006

Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries

For a while now, I've been hearing that the new Battlestar Galactica is an excellent series, and eventually I heard it enough that I decided it was time to check it out for myself, and I'm really glad I did. The 3 hour miniseries that kicks things off is one of the most effective first episodes of any TV series I've seen, and I'm instantly interested in seeing the rest of the series.

In thinking about works of fiction, I realized that a lot of the stuff I really like involves a "personal apocalypse," a journey in which the characters are broken down and come out the other side changed. I would argue a work that really succeeds in doing this is more epic than what's genuinely considered a major film, such as a war film or historical epic. The film that prompted this concept was Magnolia, a film that when you describe it doesn't seem that important, it's just nine people whose stories interact with each other. However, the film makes you sympathize with the characters, and really understand them, and then proceeds to destroy the worlds they live in and leave them changed by the end. It's not something that's important on a cosmic scale, but for the people involved in the story, what's happening is the most important thing that ever will.

Basically, you should set your film at the most important point in your characters' lives, the point at which the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and this is something that Battlestar does for humanity as a whole. This is the day where the lives that everyone lived are completely destroyed, and they're forced to rebuild anew, both humanity as a whole, and many of the characters we follow.

A few weeks ago, I did a post in which I contemplated the idea that it was impossible to make a great film based on real events, such as the Holocaust, that remain emotionally charged. The reason for this is that it's difficult to separate your intrinsic reaction to the events, the disgust at what happened, from the reaction to what is depicted in the film. It's like using real events is a shortcut to an emotional reaction. And at the end of the article, I suggested that the best way to examine these real events is not to do a film based on history, but rather to set the story in a hypothetical future where you can fully explore the event without having to deal with the reactions that people have to things that really happened. Battlestar Galactica does exactly that.

The show is designed to examine the way that America reacted to the return of a major threat after the letdown of the Cold War, specifically the events of 9/11, and this series does a better job of directly engaging with the questions we're facing now than any of the movies that attempt to use historical events as the basis for examination of similar issues (i.e. Good Night and Good Luck, Munich). With the camoflague of science fiction, BG is able to address a lot of really pressing issues, while at the same time telling a strong character based story, and that's pretty much all you can expect from a piece of fiction.

Now, I haven't seen the original show, so I'm not sure how much of this was designed to draw from or expand upon what that did, but the business about decommisioning the Galactica at the beginning seemed to be a meta comment on the idea that this concept is old and not really suited for the modern world. Alternatively, it's meant to parallel US military policy pre 9/11, where military equipment belonged more in a museum than in action. Or perhaps it's just a shortcut to provide exposition, either way, the really long shot going through the ship was well done and an effective way of setting things up.

To backtrack a bit, the opening was really effective. In some respects, the titles are a copout, violating show, don't tell, but at the same time, I feel like just getting the exposition out of the way in this manner, rather than trying to fit it into dialogue is smart. We need to get to know about this world, and this was the fastest way to do it, if something works, it doesn't matter if it's "cheap" storytelling, especially when the stuff you're talking about isn't really part of the story you want to tell. The introduction of Six was quite striking, and the subsequent space stuff, where the debri smacks the camera, sending it into orbit pretty effectively let you know what the style of the show would be.

The effects work reminds me a lot of Firefly, particularly in the documentary style camerawork in the effects sequences. As I mentioned before, the "camera" in that opening sequence seems to get hit and sent off into space, even though there's obviously no camera. However, I think that's quite effective in making it feel like a real world. This is an extension of what Star Wars did with the arcing camera movement through space, lending a reality to the effects work that wasn't present in the traditional static model shot.

Some of the effects work looks obviously CG, but on the whole it's fantastic, particularly the big battle with the Cylons at the end, while the ships are waiting to jump. And even though the zoom may be a trick taken from Firefly, it's so well integrated into this show's style that it's just another tool, not a gimmick. Even though I liked Firefly, I think in this one episode, BG goes beyond what they did in the whole series.

Joss' work definitely has a slow burn period, the first season of all his series are just ok, and in the case of Buffy and Angel, don't even begin to hint at where things will go. However, in today's TV market, you don't really have the chance to do a slow burn and take time to "find the series." This show reminds me of Six Feet Under or The Sopranos, in the way that the first episode seems to lay out exactly what the series wants to do, and also tells a riveting semi-standalone story in and of itself. If there wasn't a series after this, I think it would still be a satisfying watch, with a bunch of loose ends, along the lines of the first hour and a half of Mulholland Drive.

I really liked the relationship between Six and Gaius. Prior to the attack, the primary element holding my attention was Six's exploration of humanity. She seems to touch on territory similar to Roy Batty in Blade Runner, and also shares his ultra-blonde look. I really like the idea that she wants to experience love in humans, vicariously experiencing the emotion she herself cannot feel. The scene with the baby simultaneously implicates her as a being who will kill without remorse, but also someone who is intrinsically curious, viewing humans as specimens to observe. There's a lot of potential for her character in the series, the emotionless being beginning to feel is one of my favorite characters journeys, present in two of my favorite Buffyverse characters: Anya and Illyria. Notably, she does seem to have some affection for Gaius, beyond just using him as part of her mission.

The early parts of the miniseries had that slight awkwardness that's always present at the start of a series, the struggle to introduce all these new characters without making it too much of an infodump. Couple that with the fact that they have to deliver a lot of technogarble dialogue and some of the actors didn't come off that strong. It's all about disappearing into the world, sometimes if I see just a random piece of a Buffy episode, things will jump out at me as ridiculous, things that in the context of the series you just accept. A lot of really emotional scenes read as melodramatic viewed in isolation, but when you're in that moment, they feel perfectly real.

So, in a sense, all fiction is a journey to a constructed world, taking you from an outsider to a resident. The reason that sci-fi struggles to gain mainstream acceptance is the fact that it's more of a commitment than a series set in the real world. You can't just watch a random episode and understand what's going on, you have to follow the whole story and become immersed in the world to really appreciate it. That's why shows like Buffy or BG have a small, but extremely dedicated audience. It's a commitment, but it's certainly worth it.

Anyway, as the series moved along, the awkwardness started to vanish. I began to believe the characters, and I quite literally learned the language of the world, so that hearing about Cylons or making an FTL or praising Kobol seemed perfectly natural. Similarly, I didn't see the effects as CG, they just were, and the acting seemed natural. To watch the show is to travel to their world and be a part of it, and by the time the bombs went off, I was there, absorbed in what they were doing.

Part of what makes that easier to do in this show than in most sci-fi stuff is the style. The constantly moving camera makes things seem real. Even if I'm aware of being manipulated by the technique, on a subconscious level, it triggers this sense that this is really happening and that if the camera's moving all around like this, it's not a set, it must be something real. I always use handheld myself, and I think it makes things more dynamic, particularly the constant circling shots. I liked the way they would cut between tight closeups on individuals and the longshots, frequently with a slight continuity or lighting mismatch between them. The effect of this was to give each closeup an emotional significance, opening a window into the character's world.

One of the most effective uses of this was in the introduction of Laura. I love the way this scene was so underplayed, we've seen this scene in countless movies, so here it's done primarily through the visuals, and just one line, about the test results being positive, tells us all we need to know.

The best thing about the miniseries was the willingness to incredibly dark right from the start, and put the characters in a totally chaotic situation. It was tough watching the fighters get shut down and destroyed. Similarly, the sequence with Laura and the Botanic colony, with the absurdly drawn out countdown cutting between Laura tormented and the girl in the garden, seemed to be setting us up for the moment where he says "1..." and she barges in to stop them. However, she made the tough decision, and seeing the cylons coming after them vindicated her choice, but at the same time, we're aware that all those people they left behind have to die.

By making things so dire, it becomes much easier to root for the main characters. The basic problem with the traditional three act narrative is that we're so aware of it that it's difficult to really get involved in the hero's quest. We know he'll succeed, even if his old mentor or sidekick might die. That's the basic problem in any good vs. evil confrontation where there's a clear manichean worldview, a character who is really evil isn't likely to win, so wilth the outcome foreknown, it's easy to take a perverse interest in wanting to see the hero fail.

I think one of the most important thing in making your heroes sympathetic is to put them into situations with no right answer, and have them lose a lot. That's what Battlestar does, it gives our heroes a lot of moral quandries, having to frequently sacrifice lives to save lives, so that doing the "right" thing doesn't feel so good. This is evident in the sealing the vent sequence, another clear 9/11 parallel with the firefighters hurrying into the blaze, struggling to evacuate survivors from an inferno.

At the same time, if you don't have your heroes suffer real pain, the audience won't be that excited when they succeed. You have to earn the victory. This is what Claremont did during the Mutant Massacre era of X-Men, put the characters through hell, forcing them to watch their comrades die and leaving them without a home, and that's pretty much exactly what Battlestar does as well. And by doing this, Claremont makes it incredibly rewarding when they do finally succeed in Fall of the Mutants, they've been down so long, you really want them to hit back and succeed.

The miniseries succeeds in doing this as well, for 2 hours we watch the world of our heroes get eviscerated. We watch Boomer's co-pilot sacrifice his life for Gaius and we witness many displays of Cylon power. Thus, when Starbuck sees the fleet of Cylon ships, it's genuinely disconcerting. I don't really know who's a regular cast member, so everyone's expendable, and these ships have proved to be such a threat that you want the characters out before anything happens to them.

This sequence, in which they flee, is certainly the effects highlight, and also provides us with a lot of emotion. Visually, it reminded me a lot of the sequence in Empire Strikes Back where the ships are fleeing Hoth, but emotionally it brought back the sequence where the Falcon is trying to leave Cloud City, and after all this awful stuff has happened, you're really hoping that they can get that hyperdrive working and get out of there. Bringing back the emotions of that scene is definitely a good thing.

This leads to what I presume will be the status quo of the show, that they're off in search of Earth, without the knowledge that they're searching for a myth, all the while being pursued by the Cylons. The ending of the pilot offers us a bunch of additional 9/11 parallels, notably the idea that anyone could be working against us, and that might mean curtailing civil liberties. Laura and Adema seem to be set up as the opposite poles of political thought, representing liberal and conservative respectively. The fact that anyone could be a cylon will easily bring up "If you're not with us, you're against us" style thought, with any dissenters labeled as cylons.

I'm a little disappointed that the guy they left on the planet turned out to actually be a cylon. I think there's more interesting thematic stuff coming out of the idea that they made a mistake and killed this guy, but the end reveal that Boomer is a Cylon raises some interesting stuff for future episodes. I particularly like the idea that people may not even know they're Cylons, which is another throwback to Blade Runner. The other stuff I really liked from the second chunk was the Gaius' troubles with Six in his head.

I think what's so effective about the show is that it engages with traditional sci-fi themes, but makes them extremely relevant for today's society. We've got the traditional sci-fi concept of our own technology turning against us, but at the same time the Cylons are an allegory for the Muslim extremist movement, and after all, the US government were the ones who originally empowered Osama Bin Laden to serve our own ends. Now he's turned against us, much like these Cylons here.

So, pretty much everything in the series has a dual pleasure, and seeing something that layered is really exciting. The show is simultaneously a what if, and a why, examining the present by showing us a hypothetical future. That's what science fiction is uniquely capable of doing, and the fact that the genre is almost always blended with horror or action in recent years has limited the genre.

I love sci-fi, but so little of what I see is really engaging, and I'm really happy that this series is so good. I'll definitely be checking out the first season soon, and will be back with my thoughts on that. The series has a ton of potential, and from the buzz I've heard, it shouldn't disappoint.


Keith G said...

What's great is that you can easily catch up with the series proper - the first season is out on DVD, the second season is half our - before season three begins in June or July.

The series is incredible and it's not until late season two that there is anything like a weak episode. But as season two nears a close, it's still full of great performances, complex characters and truly thought-provoking stories.

My review of the mini-series is here:

Ellenore said...

Trust me, the series only gets better and more complex after the miniseries. Try to watch the episodes in order if you can.

Patrick said...

Excellent, I expected to watch maybe 45 minutes, an hour at a time for the miniseries, but I watched the whole three hours in one chunk, it was just that engaging. I don't think I've seen a first episode this good since I first watched Six Feet Under back in 2004.

I'll probably be picking up season one and the first chunk of season two this week and starting the run through them. Any idea when season 2, part 2 will be out? Hopefully before the new season begins.

And I'm glad to hear that they don't have really long breaks, I'm so used to the HBO model that three months between seasons seems like nothing.

Keith G said...

I'd be very surprised if Season 2, Part 2 (plus the full Season 2 package) isn't out before Season 3.

There might only be three months between seasons but there's also a three month hiatus in the middle of the season - which makes for an interesting structure.

Patrick said...

Do they usually do a seperate package for the whole season versus the half? Is there any advantage of waiting for that to come out over just getting the half now and getting the rest later? I'd guess the whole thing would probably be a little cheaper, but I'm figuring that at the end of season one, I'm not going to want to wait longer for new episodes.

Keith G said...

They split the season in half on DVD because the season was also split in half on television. So Season 2.0 came out on DVD before the second half had aired - allowing catch up time for people who missed it.

I'm surprised season 2.5 hasn't been announced already - or the entire Season 2 package hasn't been scheduled. (I figured there will be some price advantage in waiting - but you're right, you won't want to wait!)