Monday, October 09, 2006

Battlestar Galactica - 'Occupation/Precipice' (3x01 & 3x02)

Fuck, that was an amazing piece of art. Watching these episodes, I was thankful that something so powerful and challenging and well made exists. I really enjoyed the first two seasons of Galactica, but this is the first episode to recapture the feeling of total apocalyptic feeling crushing down around the characters in the way that was so shocking in the miniseries. It's full of devestating sadness and very powerful, charged images. Not since the glory days of The X-Files have I seen a series come out of the gate this strong.

The silent except for music, cutting between characters opening is a technique that's used during a lot of the series' more important episodes, most notably the first season finale. Here, we see fragments of the new world, brief glimpses of the characters in the reality that's been built in the gap between seasons. It's a world where everything's going wrong, the humans on New Caprica are oppressed, those on Galactica feel totally powerless and even the cylons are dissatisfied with their lack of success in molding the human population to their ideal. The flashes of light and dark are extremely evocative, putting us into the mood of the story before we even know what's going on in terms of the narrative.

Throughout the episode, the production is just phenomenal. I love the look here, the high contrast lighting and oppressive greenish tint. It's not at all pretty, and it's a bit uncomfortable to watch it, but it's critical in establishing the mood of the world. The music was also fantastic, building tension in a way that didn't stand out as emotionally manipulating. The heavy, almost tribal drums were very effective, particularly in the finale of Precipice, when Callie was running away from the firing squad.

Let me talk about that scene right now, because it encapsulates so much of what makes the episode totally unique and powerful. After watching Schindler's List, I wrote up a blog about the trouble making films about real events. Basically, when you make a film about the holocaust or 9/11, you're bringing so much cultural baggage that it's impossible to evaluate the story on its own merits. That's the beauty of genre, the ability to twist reality into a form that can be more objectively evaluated, and also make a more cutting commentary on the reality of events.

There's two primary metaphors at work here. One is playing this scenario as a stand in for the mess we're in Iraq. Basically, the cylons went in to try to bring their idea of freedom to these people, but wound up getting caught up in a cycle of violence that has thrown their mission awry. Some of the cylons are still idealistic, but most didn't have noble intentions from the start. That puts the heroes of our show in the position of the Iraqi insurgents, bombing US military troops and trying to retake their own messed up country. It's a bold statement, and the sort of thing you just couldn't get away with in a show actually set in Iraq. But the points are the same, and with this storyline the show has reannounced itself as the most politically relevant show on television.

The other key metaphor is to Vichy France. I wasn't thinking in those terms until the final sequence which plays up Nazi parallels in a really boldly deliberate way. Zarek and Laura are trucked off in a car, and you could clearly see some kind of tattoo on his wrists. Then they're all lined up in front of a ditch and the cylons open machine gun fire. This is an example of taking a culturally powerful image and using it to support the story rather than being the story in and of itself. I've always felt that war movies should be set in the future, because then you can show the horror of war without having to worry about the need to represent a specific historical reality. That's what this does, and it's the first piece of TV I've seen that has thrown the characters into such total chaos, a bleak reality with only a little bit of hope for the future.

One of the most interesting threads in the episode is Kara's imprisonment. I love when she stabs Leoben, it's her fierceness that makes the character so interesting. On the one hand, I was a bit disappointed that just as I was reveling in the character's violent abandon, they bring in a kid to potentially soften her up. But, I think there's a lot of potential in that arc, and as long as they don't domesticate Kara, it should be cool. I think the final moment, of her holding Leoben's hand is incredibly creepy, and yet warm. This is a guy who's so desperate to feel love, he's waited four months just on the faith that eventually she will say that she loves him. The thing that makes the cylons work is their ambiguity, even though they imprison the humans, they're still desperately jealous of their capacity for feeling, their capacity for love. I'm a little unclear if Leoben is the father, it's never been established what's going on with the cylon equipment, but if they built this whole thing to make cylon/human hybrids, the possibility must exist.

Another really interesting thing was watching Caprica Six and Sharon's distaste for the way the cylon occupation has been run. They had noble intentions, which have been totally lost. I think keeping this element of the cylons is essential, if they're just generic evildoers, the story doesn't really work, but the if the cylons really are trying to help the humans, then there's a tasty level of ambiguity. Looking ahead, I feel like the two of them could eventually be the ones to help the human resistance and the cylons find a truce.

That leads me to the other Sharon. The scene with her and Adama was wonderful, you get the sense that Adama is totally exasperated with the people he's working with, sick of their incompetence and unprofessionalism, his son most of all. Sharon is the only one who understands him, and it's a great scene when he gives her the mission, placing his trust in her, a trust I feel is not at all unjustified. That was the highlight of the Galactica stuff, which was generally the weaker part of the episode. The one moment that felt false to me was the Adama/Lee heart to heart. Lee just never really worked as a character for me, though I do like his new smart aleck fat man persona.

Basically, the season finds everyone on the show pushed to the edge. Just on their faces you can see that there's not much left for them to give, the cylons are gradually wearing them down, be it Tigh, who has given up on moral principles and is going with a win now, worry later strategy. Baltar is totally powerless, retreating further into his own head, we've reached the point where characters consider suicide the only viable option. The bombing at the end of the first episode is really disturbing, and it was jarring to cut from the floating dust and bodies to an upbeat commercial. More than any show I've ever seen, this one feels like it needs a minute to ease you into the commercial.

Watching this episode was almost humbling for me, I felt like I wasn't worthy of seeing something so good on a weekly TV series, but this is just another example of the possibilities of television storytelling being radically altered. This is the most probing commentary I've seen on the Iraq war, and the war on terror in general, from any piece of fiction since 9/11 happened. It's not too soon for it, now is the time to ask why our country is being turned into a police state, with no moral concerns whatsoever. We are the cylon occupation government, and it's their folly that's created the chaos that is Iraq, that is New Caprica.

And in the midst of all this chaos, we have characters that I really care about. The intensity of the action has made the characters even more sympathetic and relatable. In the miniseries, there was the sense that everyone was in danger, and anything could happen. That wore away as the series went on and settled into a predictable pattern, but this season premiere destroys all existing patterns and returns the show to a world where there is no security for everyone. By making things so bleak, it makes the victories that much rewarding, and the danger for our characters really suspenseful. This episode had me fully engaged, and I can't wait to see where the series goes from here. This is the most successful reinvention of an existing series I've ever seen, and easily the series' best episode.


crossoverman said...

I think your observation that the Cylons are America makes the whole thing work a lot better for me now. I was a little down on the episode(s) - though I recognised how bold RDM was being in the time jump and the bleakness and the parallels to the current situation. Though obviously making the human resistence equal Iraqi insurgents (complete with suicide bombers), the Cylons as America makes their motivation - and changing tactics - more palatable. Story-wise. Clearly they can't agree amongst themselves (see: the U.S. Congress)

I'm excited to see where the whole thing goes, though.

Patrick said...

I read your review, and I could definitely see how this would play as too bleak. The thing that jumped out at me about the show was the intense devestation of the miniseries, the idea of this world that's completely fallen apart. If things are so bad, then the few good moments have a lot more meaning, and this is the first time since that miniseries that the danger feels real.

Beyond that, I love the exploration of the cylons. They're the most interesting element of the show, and I'm curious to see how this develops. I'd like the occupied world to be the status quo for at least a season, but I'm guessing things will change in some way before that.