Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Battlestar Galactica: 'Crossroads: Part II' (3x20)

It's taken me a little while to figure out my feelings about this episode. I watched it yesterday and really liked parts of it, but also had some big issues. A just completed second viewing made me feel better about it, andperhaps even come to terms with my issues surrounding the series in general. If nothing else, the issue left us with countless issues to ponder durng the series' nine month hiatus.

I'll start with the big revelation, that four of our long running characters are actually cylons. Much like Kara's 'death' a couple of weeks ago, this revelation is what you're left pondering after the epiode, the center of most online discussion and controversy. It's a bold move, one that fundamentally changes the series' status quo. With last season's finale, Moore created a scenario that seemed to change the show forever, then spent the better part of this season limping back to the old setup. Yes, the scars of New Caprica haunted the rest of the season, but I still feel it was a mistake to retreat from the bold setup we had in the first four episodes of the season. More on that later.

What this revelation does is essentially destroy the line that exists between cylons and humans. The show had always flirted with the idea that there was little difference between the two groups, but if Tigh is a Cylon, and has been with the humans for forty years, and aged, the line is completely destroyed. Now, Moore has already said that these four are a different kind of cylons. This is where we get the opportunity to backtrack, it's possible that the four, and whoever the fifth is, are emissaries from the thirteenth tribe, sent to show us the way to Earth, or something like that. As far as we know, they're not doing the projecting that the other cylons do, and have little connection to the other seven. They must be older because the human style cylon models didn't even exist when Tigh was born.

Much like Kara's death, I find it hard to judge this revelation at the moment. It opens up a lot of interesting storytelling possibilities, and in that respect it's a good decision. But if Moore opens those doors and then retreats back to the old status quo, it could cripple the series. It's not enough to limp through a lot of the season then sprint to a fabulous finish. A truly great series shouldn't have as big a disparity between episodes as Battlestar does. Considering all the elements of the mythology, and the huge cast, there's no reason that any episodes should feel as throwaway as some of the midseason stuff this year.

A lot of it comes down to the writing, those episodes could have worked, and they were well produced, but the stories just never quite click. The introduction of random standalone episodes gave me the impression that this episode was important. If Helo's time as refugee leader was really going to mean something, it wouldn't have just suddenly cropped up in that episode, and then disappeared just as rapidly. There's so many issues available to the show now that these four are cylons, there needs to be a tighter focus and more philosophical exploration next season. Basically, I want more consistency and focus.

A more expected revelation is the fact that Kara is in fact alive, and apparently her destiny is to lead the fleet to Earth. I'm really glad she's back, and am curious to see how whatever she experienced on Earth has changed her. The character has always been so combative and full of rage, will she carry these qualities with her in her new capacity as prophet? She seemed more mellow in her Viper, but she did seem herself. And is it a coincidence that she showed up with the cylon fleet? The obvious interpretation is that Kara is the fifth of the five, but that remains to be seen. If the five are connected to the thirteenth tribe, that would make sense, if they aren't, then she's likely working with another force.

Elsewhere, the end of the Baltar trial was solid, but overshadowed by everything else in the episode. Lee's speech was a bit too long, but paid off some nice continuity points. I was glad to see him use some of the same defenses I had for Baltar, though a speech like that seems just as targetted at the writers as it is at the characters. Baltar himself has been taken away by his followers, and it would be interesting to see him take on the role of a strong oppositional voice within the fleet next year. The stuff with his book worked well, and I have been saying that we really need someone to oppose Roslin and Adama, perhaps Baltar is the man to do it.

But this episode wasn't really about the story, it was all about the execution, the shooting, editing and music were truly something special. Throughout the season, I've had my issues, but on a moment to moment basis, the show is consistently dazzling. With the possible exception of The Sopranos, I've never seen a show that's as well shot as this one. Throughout the series, the handheld photography has given the show energy and a feeling of realism that's rarely present in science fiction. I love the way the camera flew through space at an odd speed, careening towards characters' faces like an invisible predator. We saw this used for the characters who turned out to be cylons, and at one point on Laura Roslin. If Kara isn't the fifth, Roslin is the likely candidate. That would also provide an explanation for why the cylon blood cured her cancer, and get them out of the dilemma of having her be sick and have to find a cure again. Plus, we already saw the connection between her, Sharon and Six in the wonderfully filmed opera house scene. The moment where Six looks up at the Five was just one of countless visual highlights in this episode.

The final twenty minutes or so of this episode were one of the most overwhelmingly moody and odd things I've seen from a TV episode outside of a dream sequence. The 'All Along the Watchtower' singalong was a little goofy, but I'm going to let it go because it was so over the top and weird. I love the shots tracking in on the four as they sing the lines, particularly the crazy rotation around Tori before she collapses and vomits in the toilet. There were a lot of astonishing shots in this episode, but that was the highlight for me. I also loved the crazy push in on Anders and Tori as they were having sex. When the four finally meet, there's this crushing sense of fate destroying them. None of them want to admit it, but they all know. That's why I love it when Tigh says screw fate, I am Saul Tigh, same as I was, it's not a lie if I believe in it.

I loved the score in this episode, the psychedelic middle eastern sounding music was like nothing we'd heard before in the series, but it worked really well. Those final ten minutes or so were sublime, the perfect fusion of visual and music. As the four go back out, we experience them living a lie, Tyrol watching the deck in slow motion, Tigh and Tori sharing a glance across the bridge. That shared glance was so well shot, perfectly conveying the way that they know something's going on, but the others are oblivious. I also like the way Tigh and Tori address Adama and Roslin, reassuring them that they're there, ready to serve.

While this is going on, the mellowed out 'All Along the Watchtower' cover gave a surreality to the viper battle. It's something we'd seen before, but the music made it feel like we were in a dream. Lee drifting out to find Kara just felt right in the moment, we had reached the place where it was almost pure subjectivity. And that final pullback to Earth was the capper. I was frustrated the season was over, but I was thrilled by the way it went out. I don't think the cliffhanger was as mindblowing as the wrapup to season two, but the execution was unmatched. Forget about the political relevance, this show deserves notice for the artistry it brings to television. TV has already shown it can do large scale narratives and character development better than any film, this show is demonstrating that it can also be more visually interesting and 'cinematic' than the actual cinema. Other than Miami Vice and Inland Empire, I can't think of any film in the last year that was as well shot as this finale.

So, I'm not sure about how these revelations will carry the series into the future, but I do know that this episode was fantastic in the moment, and perhaps that's all we can expect from the show. I think the New Caprica arc raised my expectations for the season too high. After the season premiere, I said "Fuck, that was an amazing piece of art. Watching these episodes, I was thankful that something so powerful and challenging and well made exists," and that's hard to live up to. I think I'm something of an anomaly in that I'd consider the miniseries the best thing the show ever did, at least up until the New Caprica stuff. Those two arcs boht had an urgency and danger the show never had in its on board Galactica status quo. I was frustrated by the return to the old ways, and other than the solid 'Eye of Jupiter' two parter, the middle of the season was devoid of any really great episodes.

But, every episode was well made, and entertaining as I watched it. So, maybe I should stop worrying about the big picture, and instead just enjoy each episode in the moment. Don't look for something that isn't there, don't complain that Baltar or Sharon aren't in the episode, instead appreciate what we do get. I hope that the show goes on an intense philosophical journey in the fourth season that perhaps redefines what it means to be human and goes to a deeper place than any previous TV show, but if it doesn't, it can still be good. And even if the stuff with the four goes horribly awry, at least they went down with a crazy blast of pop storytelling. This was an episode that wowed me, and though it doesn't quite salvage some of the season's low points, it shouldn't have to. It works on its own terms, and those final twenty minutes are as good as anything the show has ever done.


Peter said...

My biggest problem with the revelation of the finale is this: the question Moore has raised, "What does it mean to be a Cylon?", is fundamentally uninteresting.

The trouble is that the new BSG wasn't conceived as escapist fantasy. The Colonials and the Cylons were never given convincing, detailed backstories - just enough to be useful as metaphors, with the Cylons as terrorists in the miniseries and the American occupiers of Iraq in the third season opener. That's why the show works best when it's being topical, and gets so tired and pretentious when it focuses too deeply on its own mythology.

Learning that Tori, Tigh, Tyrol and Anders are Cylons just doesn't mean anything to me, because it was never really clearly established what being a Cylon is supposed to be about. Other shows have dealt with the issue of sentient robots, but BSG never made a serious attempt to distinguish Cylon and human psychology. The religious issues that distinguish the two cultures seem to have been abandoned this season. Now we have Moore saying that these four are a "different kind" of Cylon, about which we naturally know nothing.

In the past the show raised questions like, "what does it mean to be an undercover terrorist", "what does it mean to be under constant attack", "when is torture justified", "what human rights do we owe our enemies", "how do we justify the civillian death toll of a resistance movement", and so forth. These are interesting questions, and have relevance to me as a viewer. "What does it mean to be a Cylon" doesn't, because Cylons don't exist, and because the show has failed to provide a sufficiently compelling backstory for me to suspend my disbelief.

Patrick said...

I'd definitely agree with that, I think you nail the reason why the miniseries and New Caprica are more successful than the rest of the show, they feel urgent and real, and we can relate to those stories in a way that we just can't to a bunch of people on a spaceship.

I don't think show's mythology is inherently uninteresting, it's just that having these four characters turns out to be cylons, seemingly at random, undermines the idea of cylon as different. The cultural divide between the two groups was what gave the series its fundamental conflict, and if we're headed to the revelation that everyone is a cylon, the series loses its thematic drive.

The best way for this revelation to work is to have Tigh, etc. turn out to be connected to the thirteenth tribe, a more evolved humanity destined to lead the others to Earth. But if they do that, Starbuck's stuff is redundant. I was never particualrly interested in seeing any of the people on the fleet revealed as cylons again, because they already did that arc with Sharon. And even though I thought the episode itself was incredibly entertaining and well produced, I agree with pretty much everything you're saying.

Luke said...

I have just watched the entire three seasons in the past two weeks, and as well as having a headache, I do have a form of enlightenment. The show is generally something good, but when you watch that many episodes back to back the inconsistencies and cuts become very apparent.

The major thing that got me at the end of season 3 was the way President Roslin spoke to tory, the woman didn't dress her down she chewed her up and spat her out, and that WAS out of chracter for her, no matter which way you cut it.

Her aide has been looking like a damned mess when she normally looks so prestine,so why would she treat her like that? If she had been shown to chew people up during the series I could accept it...but she didn't so I don't.

The sexual eliment between Tory and Anders? Why and how? A little back story would have been nice, they weren't even aware of each others existence before, if they are saying the Final Five had some form of connection that drew them to each other then what about the other three?

I read that RDM didn't want a particular sceene with Starbuck showing up (after her viper was destroyed) on Galactica, because it would add a supernatural eliment to the show, the man needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

Basing a show on myth, religion, faith and joint prophetic dreams is nothing but 'supernatural' and no amount of FTL, radiation, or wireless technelogy would change that.

Though the idea of the cylons wanting to be more human is something amazing, the psychology of absolute, hate, jealousy and desire, led these machines to merge biology and technology in the step to becoming more human, along with the known models obsession with wanting what humans had, Caprica, New Caprica and then Earth.

I think the 'spiritual' side can work if the keep it focused, and on track, so it doesn't end up being a mess like the Emissary and Prophet debarcle of Deep Space Nine, it won't be anything like Babylon 5 (too many critical errors have been made so far), but it can still be something thought provoking. IF they remain focused.

End of Line ;-)

Patrick said...

My biggest problem with the series is pretty much what you describe, the seemingly haphazard plot developments that may be awesome, but aren't really grounded in what's come before. A large part of the issue is the fact that they spent much of season three on pointless standalone episodes, I'm hoping for the last season they'll ditch those and focus only on really meaningful character stuff.

But, I think the show can top Babylon 5, simply because there's such a visceral feel to the individual moments. The overall narrative is less coherent and well laid out, but the individual moments are so much better. And, the show can still do things that stand among the best I've ever seen on TV, like the whole New Caprcia arc, or the insane final moments of this season.