Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: 4x11-4x12

We’re two episodes into this season of Battlestar Galactica, and so far, the show’s been full of everything that I like, and everything I dislike about it, pretty evenly split between the two episodes.

The season premiere was full of the sort of impressionistic storytelling and compelling blend of intense realism and surreal mysticism that characterizes the show at its best. More than anything else in that episode, I absolutely loved the look of certain scenes, and the strange feel they created. Kara burning her own body as the sun sets is as arresting an image as the show has ever produced, full of strange implications, but also absolutely gorgeous on a purely aesthetic level.

The rest of the episode dealt with the characters’ reactions to finding out that the Earth they’d been waiting for is a desolate, uninhabitable wasteland. On the one hand, I think this is a weak story twist, to have them abandon Earth and keep journeying through the stars. I’ve always found it frustrating that there’s an inevitable reversion to the status quo. Part of it is probably budget reasons, but to spend not even an episode on Earth feels like a lost opportunity.

But, the impact of finding an Earth that is completely uninhabitable was handled well. Dee’s suicide was a major shock, and you got a really palpable sense of despair on the ship. It was an incredibly heavy episode, one that drew me right back into the world of the show after nearly a year away.

Unfortunately, the season’s second episode was considerably weaker. Pretty much everything I dislike about BSG was contained in this episode. The show positions Roslin and Adama as heroes, and occasionally does these stories where they obtusely do whatever they want and complain when people won’t go along with whatever they want. Is it so ridiculous to let the quorum have some say in the direction of the fleet? I want them to align with the cylons, but I still think it’s absurd for them to say that the president can do whatever she wants, and that Zarek is a traitor simply for wanting to stick to democratic process.

Now, the question that always lingers is, is the show saying that Adama and Roslin are right? Maybe there’s an implicit critique of their behavior here. But, the way it’s framed, I don’t think that’s the case. This is the same as them stealing the election from Baltar, a totally self absorbed behavior that for some reason the show accepts as the right thing to do. The moral position of the show seems to be an almost fascist view that Roslin and Adama know what’s right, and it doesn’t matter if it’s not democratic, they’ve got everyone’s best interests at heart.

I think the political compass of the show has been distorted by the fact that Roslin and Adama now agree on everything. The essential tension of the show at the beginning was the hawkish tendencies of Adama versus the more idealistic, peace loving Roslin. Now, they’re the same, and there’s no character of equal weight to oppose them, particularly when they make such a big deal of staining Zarek’s reputation. It seems that we’re to believe that only a corrupt politician could oppose the noble Adama and Roslin.

I like Adama and Roslin when they’re away from politics. One of my favorite scenes in the entire series is the flashback to the two of them on New Caprica, talking about a cabin by the lake. But, when they’re placed in these political debates and act incredibly nasty, it’s hard to feel for them, and the show becomes a weird echo chamber arguing for nothing in particular.

That whole episode was just generally uninspiring. But, the season premiere was lyrical and beautiful as only this show can be, so hopefully it will be the good BSG that shows up for the rest of the season.


theoldboy said...

While the second episode wasn't the show at its best (simultaneously a character piece and something that omits seemingly important character development in the case of Tigh and Tyrol), I don't think the problems with it had anything to do with its moral implications. Ron Moore and co. are fully conscious of the fact that Adama and Roslin, as much as we care about them as people, have frequently made questionable decisions. Perhaps we're more inclined to agree with them because, unlike Zarek and the Quorum, we've been privy to so much of their lives (though this is one of my three favorite shows--the others being Deadwood and The Wire--I think it could have been much greater with the budgetary and creative freedom to explore every side of its story equally), but our agreement, or at least mine, is frequently fraught with an uneasiness the show clearly loves to work with. It's not quite as schematic as A&R doing the wrong thing for the right reasons and Zarek doing (at this point, merely saying, but it seems like some doing will happen pretty quickly) the right thing for the wrong reasons, but that is a rough approximation of the dynamic. Nobody's completely right. Is having an alliance with the rebel Cylons the wrong thing? Not from all we know. But to somebody who doesn't know what we know? It would sound frakking insane. A lesser show wouldn't even acknowledge that. This one spent most of an episode on it, and it seems like it will stick with the issue for at least another episode or two.

Patrick said...

I can see that, my problem is with the way the argument is framed. By revealing Zarek as a corrupt politician at the end, the validity of his argument is largely invalidated. And, framing his and Gaeta's deal as this ominous thing doesn't help. The ambiguity is present in the narrative, but the presentation makes it feel like there's only one right answer, and that's Adama and Roslin's.

The show has done similar things before, particularly the season three episode where Adama threatens to have Cally killed if Tyrol won't go along with his wishes. I appreciate ambiguity, but I feel like, unlike The Wire, the show is telling us only one side of the story, and we're left to infer the other views on our own. The beauty of The Wire for me is the way it expanded the cop/criminal dichotomy to a place where there was no certain morality, and you care just as much about D'Angelo as you do about McNulty. That level of world building just isn't present here, at least in a fleet level political opposition. The cylon world is much more developed, and those characters are more interesting, so the conflict between those two sides works much better.

theoldboy said...

I agree that the ambiguity isn't perfectly handled here--I did think the Gaeta reveal in the cell was too heavy-handed and I'll chalk it up to Ron Moore's directorial inexperience--but I don't think Zarek's argument is completely invalidated by his corruption, which is something we've known about forever, and which doesn't really have anything to do with what he's talking about.

What I like about the episode, and also what frustrates me about it, is how muted and anticlimactic it is. The subplot with the Tilium ship would have had a whole, action-packed episode built around it in one of the earlier seasons, but here its resolution is an afterthought because Adama and Roslin, both depressingly and understandably, have stopped caring about it. I suppose apathy and numbness doesn't make for great television, but it's a natural place for this story to be going right now.

theoldboy said...

And re: Wire comparisons, I seriously doubt that that kind of complexity and narrative cohesion is possible outside of HBO, particularly on a typically low-aiming network like Sci-Fi. As bold as Battlestar can be, there are clear limits to what it can do, many of which seem imposed upon it by its network rather than by the talent of the writers, who might not be Simons and Milches but who are undoubtedly in the top tier of semi-typical TV writing.

Patrick said...

I think BSG actually does achieve Wire levels of complexity and resonance from time to time, particularly during the New Caprica arc. I think those episodes stand as easily the best the show ever did, so intense and emotionally overwhelming, it was really frustrating for me when they retreated back to a status quo from which they haven't really deviated for the past few seasons. There's a lot of plot machinations with the new cylons and such, a lot of which is great, but none of which matches the power of the New Caprica stuff. An episode like this, while good, is very much the show hitting its usual beats and not really pushing things forward.