Saturday, April 26, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: 'Escape Velocity' (4x04)

I think more than any show I really like, my opinions on Battlestar swing wildly back and forth from episode to episode. After the second episode of the season, I was a bit down on the series. Things just weren’t clicking for me, and I wasn’t seeing a clear path forward for the characters or narrative. It wasn’t the lack of narrative progress that was bothering me, it was the fact that scenes seemed to say the same thing over and over again after we’d already gotten it. But, the past two weeks have really turned things around, and right now, the show is as strong as it’s ever been, outside of the New Caprica episodes.

I didn’t get a chance to write up last week’s episode, but that’s not because I disliked it. It was a really brilliant episode, full of the kind of subjective surreal filmmaking techniques that this show does better than any other. It’s frequently hailed for its ‘realism,’ which is media code for shaky camera, but one of the things I love about the show is how it’s able to represent not just the external reality we’d see in a documentary, but also the tumultuous internal worlds within the characters’ heads. We are able to understand how Cally feels, her entire life, from those opening scenes. It’s easy to see why she’s frustrated and on the verge of total breakdown. The same sort of technique is used in last night’s episode to show Tigh’s uncertainty when talking with Six, and also to contrast Baltar’s external behavior with his internal doubt. This is what movies should do, not just let you watch the characters going through stuff, we should feel what they feel.

There’s two major plotlines really intriguing me right now. One is the final four cylons’ struggle to understand what they are. The central question is, what determines self identity. Is it what we believe ourselves to be, or is it what the world tells us we are? They know that they’re cylons, but what does that mean. Tory finds herself with superstrength, was that always there, or did her understanding of herself as a cylon fundamentally change her? Why can’t she just go on as she was, no one needs to know what she is.

For all three characters on the Galactica, it’s the guilt that troubles them. Are they culpable for the destruction of human civilization, on some subconscious level did they contribute to that destruction? For Tyrol, the guilt manifests itself in the fact that he doesn’t care about Cally being dead, on some level, I think he finds it a relief, but the fact that he doesn’t care worries him, because it means that he’s more a cylon than he thought he was. Where does the human end and the cylon begin?

This is where the stuff with Six and Tigh is interesting. She says that we’re like you, only more, presumably referring to humanity. They feel more and are more in synch than the fractured humans. Tigh has been losing it ever since he killed Ellen, and that guilt returns now because he realizes that he has punished Ellen for doing something far less bad than what he is.

This all gets wrapped up in a sado-masochistic framework, where pain becomes the way to know that we’re alive, the means of discovering our deeper humanity. This is presented in the scene with Tory plucking Baltar’s hair. It’s an odd scene, but makes sense as a thematic overture for the episode to follow. She tells the other cylons that she’s moved beyond guilt, she doesn’t seem to care that she killed Cally, she is beyond traditional morality. In this way, she’s quite similar to Roslin, who says the closer you get to death, the less you care about societal conventions. Tory probably feels like she will be found out eventually, so she can do anything to sustain her life, and in the mean time, she’s going to experience as much as possible.

Now that the cylons have moved beyond the shock of finding out who they are, we’re getting some interesting schisms. They’re all together now, but both Tigh and Tyrol seem to be one bad day away from snapping and giving the whole thing away. Tory appears to be more in control, but we’ll see if that sticks.

Elsewhere, Baltar continues his role as a prophet, and continues infuriating Roslin and Adama. I’ve always found Baltar more likable and engaging than Roslin or Adama, even though I’m sure Roslin and Adama are the best leaders, they’re just not as fun to spend time with. It always bothers me when Roslin blames Baltar for what happened on New Caprica. I think it was perfectly logical to settle there, if you’re on a boat at sea searching for a place you don’t know the location of, that may or may not exist, and you come across another island, it’s not that ridiculous to settle? I think it’s easier for them to blame Baltar for all their problems than face up to the fact that Roslin would have probably had to do the same thing in that situation.

The thing I love about the Baltar storyline is the way we’re not sure what’s true and what’s not. It’s quite possible he’s delusional and saying whatever he can to protect his own self interest. However, it’s also possible that the Six he sees is a messenger from God, that’s what she’s said all along, and maybe it’s Baltar’s destiny to begin a new age on the fleet. But, is this one god the same god of the cylons? Maybe this is the path to reconciliation for cylons and humans. It would be fitting that Baltar, who caused the initial destruction of Caprica, would be the one to find a way to heal the rift.

The best scene of the episode is Baltar getting knocked down and seemingly dragged up by the invisible Six time and time again, leading up to his huge speech about the love God has for all of us. It’s phenomenal stuff, watching him believe more and more in his message. In such a nihilist show, with people falling deeper and deeper into despair, maybe Baltar is the light they need? When does it stop mattering whether he really believes what he’s saying or not?

Practically every scene in the episode worked really well. I liked the scene with Adama and Roslin, watching Adama’s squirminess at her worsening condition. He doesn’t want to face up to that, even as she gets more and more unhinged on her way out. The big conflict in the offing is Lee’s rebellion against his father and Roslin. Will he be the one to finally knock her out of office?

If anything, this season seems to be about the conflict between old and new orders, and the gradual restructuring of societies. Here, we’re watching the older generation fade away. Roslin is dying, Tigh has lost sense of who he is, the hardliners are on the way out, and they’re no longer able to shape the fleet’s destiny like they’d want to. Baltar is just the first to harness the forces of evolution and change that will alter the fleet. Over on the Cylon ship, the same kind of thing is happening, a new generation overthrowing its elders, plunging the fleet into conflict. Lines are blurring, and everything seems uncertain going forward. The season really came back strong with these last two episodes, I’m loving where the show is right now, and looking forward to the stuff with Kara next week.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Doctor Who: 3x07 - 3x13

Before I delve into Battlestar, I’ve got to write up the end run of Doctor Who season three. I just finished the epic, brilliant season finale, an episode that hit the same core emotional place that season one’s “Parting of the Ways” did. This is the kind of psychedelic pop storytelling that Grant Morrison talks about, turning our everyday problems into galaxy spanning conflicts, and presenting us with another incarnation of the godlike problem solver, the Doctor.

The whole backhalf of the season was really strong, the best sustained run of episodes the show’s produced so far. I’ll delve into the earlier episodes a bit later, but first I’ll tackle the Master arc. The show picks up a bunch of energy starting in ‘Utopia,’ with the return of Captain Jack. I didn’t realize it until now, but he’s a big part of what made me love that closing run of season three. I think the show is strong when there’s somebody else around besides the Doctor and his companion. It opens the show up a bit, and allows for more deviation from the formula. In TV, I generally like a bigger cast, it allows for more emotional engagement and real danger. We know that the Doctor and Martha are not likely to die, but a third person hanging around with them very well may.

Plus, Jack is just a great character. I love the tension between him and the Doctor when he’s in the engine room in ‘Utopia.’ That episode may have a bit clichéd postapocalyptic future world, but that doesn’t matter since it’s all about building a feeling of dread. There’s tension all around, between our core characters and a feeling that this scientist guy must be something more than he appears.

I didn’t know who The Master was before watching the episode, but, much like with the Daleks back in season one, just the way they treat the revelation that this guy is “The Master,” you know he’s a major villain, and that shit is going down. When they open that watch and reveal him, it’s one of the best moments on the show so far.

That leads into the best episode of the season, “The Sound of Drums.” While the payoff to the arc is quite good in its own way, it’s the buildup of evil over the course of the penultimate episode that makes it really work. There’s a real sense of fear and impending doom, aided by the great musical score. The theme running through these two episodes makes everything feel sad and broken the world spiraling out of control, inexorably towards death.

The best moment of the episode is the revelation of The Master, as he kills the American president and brings down an army of orbs down onto the world. This is a perfect example of how the show can raise the stakes better than virtually any other out there. How many shows can have a guy call down six billion allies to destroy one tenth of the world’s population, all while sitting aboard his floating airship? John Simm is a huge reason the arc works, he’s a really over the top villain, he takes such joy in what he does. My favorite moment of the episode is him throwing on an 80s pop song while our characters are plunged deeper and deeper into suffering. Martha’s family is taken, The Doctor is age a hundred years and him and his wife are just having a great time, watching the orbs descend to Earth.

In a lot of ways, it’s impossible to top that moment. We know some other stuff will happen, the Doctor will somehow win, but it’s that moment when you realize just how high the stakes are, how messed up everyone is, that lingers emotionally. It’s a lot like that moment in season two when the Dalek prison ship opens and millions of them come flooding out, that’s the high point of the conflict.

But, that’s not to say the final episode wasn’t amazing in its own way. I can see people having a lot of issues with this, the deus ex machina nature of the ending kind of makes it feel that none of what we saw matters. But, there’s so many incredible moments, I don’t mind that, and I think it even kind of works.

Tracking back a little bit, that initial one year later title card was the first major “oh shit” moment of the episode, and it just kept building from there. I really liked the black ops stuff with Martha, the real feeling of desperation around her. They did a great job of building an entire doomed world in one episode, though again, I wish this had been at least a three parter, or that The Master was more integrated into the earlier parts of the season. He was such a great character, I’d have liked to see more focus on him. His crew was around, but not the man himself. The ending did a good job of integrating stuff from earlier in the year, but much like with season two, the ending is so huge, yet so compressed, it could have used another hour to develop.

The failed escape attempt was a great sequence, you get the sense they’ve tried this many times before, to no avail. The Master’s trip to Earth, to retrieve Martha, was another fantastic scene. There were a bunch of episodes in season one that hit me on a really deep emotional level, much more than almost any show out there, and I hadn’t really felt that again until this episode. What gets to me about the show is the combination of these absolutely massive scale troubles and a very tight emotional focus. Martha’s speech about the Doctor in the refugee shelter is something that could just not work. On Babylon 5, they would have people give these kind of speeches about Sheridan, and it always felt a bit like JMS being self congratulatory about his own writing.

Perhaps because Doctor Who is such an enduring icon, it’s okay to talk about him in this way. It reminds me a lot of what Morrison’s doing over at All Star Superman, where he taps into the power of an icon through his storytelling. He’s not so much creating the character as just reflecting the power he already has. The Doctor is so powerful as an idea, that speech just works and really got to me, particularly when contrasted with the pathetic nine hundred year old Doctor trapped in the cage up on the ship.

So, as you might imagine, I really loved the moment when the Doctor ascends out of the cage and is reborn thanks to the power of an idea. The moment is a bit of a dud from a strict narrative point of view, it’s a cop out and makes little sense on a literal level. But, looking at it from an emotional point of view, it’s amazing. The Master is the avatar of control, seeking to make things his way and impose old order on the populace. The Doctor is the force of chaos, of free individual thought. In that moment, everyone in the world speaks up and says that they will not be oppressed. They invoke the name of the god of freedom and he is liberated.

I love the visual of the Doctor floating on a cloud of light, fully reborn. Turning him into the old guy, and the little creature was essential to making this moment work. He had been gone so long, it felt like a huge relief to have him back. The moment reminds me a lot of Rose absorbing the time vortex, it’s this glorious burst of energy and idea triumphing over the cold logic of repression. It’s the kind of thing you rarely see in a world where most stories are frustratingly bound by the strict logic of reality. Yes, it’s easy to abuse the idea that light and wonder somehow beat any bad guy, but when done right, it’s pretty awe inspiring.

The Master’s death itself is handled less well. It felt clichéd to have the Doctor stop Martha’s mother from shooting him, so that the burden of the death could be placed on The Master’s wife. I’m curious to see if she’ll return, perhaps with the power of The Master, but I think it would have been more interesting for her to be loyal to him to the end, despite his obvious abuse of her, like she was in a haze and deluded herself into thinking he wasn’t a bad guy.

But, the Master’s death scene, and his subsequent grilling was pretty effective. Though, I felt like it was so close to Return of the Jedi that I got taken out of the film for a second. I wish they’d found a way for the Master to survive, since he was such a great character. But, if he survives, he can never do something bigger than ruin the entire world over the course of a year, so it might be for the best that he died. But, it could have been interesting to see him trying to regain his powers over the course of next year.

We close the season with The Doctor losing another companion, this one by her own choice. It’s interesting that they chose to keep Rose so prominent in her absence, to the point that she essentially forces Martha out here. I know she’s coming back in the fourth year, so it makes sense, but I hope her return is worth putting Martha out. I liked Martha, but I think her arc, even more than Rose’s, shows the human toll of what The Doctor does. He may have saved the whole world, but would it even need to be saved if he hadn’t been around in the first place?

Before all this happened, there were a bunch of really strong episodes. ‘Blink’ was a great standalone story, with the series’ best use of time travel as a philosophical and narrative device. Most of the episodes use time travel just a way to get to the story, here time travel was the story and it worked wonderfully.

The ‘John Smith’ two parter was another highlight, a historical episode that really worked. I like messing with the formula, and this episode put us in a really interesting situation, first with the mystery of what had happened, and then with the Doctor’s reluctance to return to his own identity.

I’m now all caught up with the episodes that are airing in the US. I watched “Voyage of the Damned” earlier tonight, a pretty solid episode, that ended with what I interpreted as a tease for Rose’s return. I’ll probably just watch the episodes live as they air in the US, which I believe is only a couple of weeks behind the UK.

And while that’s going on, I’m going to watch the first season of Torchwood. I’ve heard mixed things, so I’m not expecting an instant classic. But, if it captures some of the Doctor Who magic, it should be worthwhile.

On the whole, season three was the show’s best. The first half was pretty shaky at times, but the run that closed out this year was pretty much all great. I don’t think The Master arc quite matched “Parting of the Ways,” but it’s definitely my second favorite story on the series.