Saturday, February 28, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: 'Someone to Watch Over Me' (4x17)

My biggest problem with Battlestar throughout its run has always been its frustrating inconsistency. After an incredible premiere, they rambled through most of this chunk of episodes, before returning to greatness here with an episode that focused on a lot of neglected characters and had some really chill-inducing moments like only this show can do.

I really loved this hour, I think all the stories in it worked, and it built things up to a level of tension where I can really believe that we’re three episodes from the finale now. But, let me first address some of the issues I’ve had with the show since its return from hiatus. There’s been a major shift in purpose and focus since the show returned from the strike. I feel like the cylon/human alliance plot was set up nicely over the course of the first half of season four, but we sort of jumped forward to the point where it’s a foregone conclusion without really seeing the growing pains it would have. I suppose that’s what the whole putting goo on Galactica and munity subplots were supposed to do, but those all skirted around the issue, they didn’t deal with the alliance itself. Where’s D’Anna? Where’s Leoben? They’re the strongest cylon personalities, and I’d like to see how they’re dealing with all this.

I think the biggest issue is that Moore and co. realized that they had to wrap up all the storylines and actually pay off a lot of the mysteries. That led to the construction of the whole the final five were humans who became cylons who then could reproduce so they were indistinct from humans who then got into a war with cylons and traveled across the galaxy to make the skinjob cylons and then got trapped in the human world by Cavil story. It’s a really complex thing, and just explaining it took an entire episode. I loved that episode, but the show, don’t tell problem has been there going forward. All that information just closed off old storylines, it didn’t open up that many new possibilities, and to a large extent, it made the fleet we’ve been following for all these years just pawns in a parent/child conflict between Cavil and the Five. I suppose the point is to have the people of the fleet and the rebel cylons break the paradigm that’s doomed humanity for so many years, but it takes away some of their agency.

Here, the five talk about not wanting to be gods, but what it’s really done is remove character agency. All these people were placed into roles, and their motivations are determined by vague memories of the past. We don’t have a sense of them creating their own story, they’re just playing off of a script written long ago that they can’t quite make out. This has all happened before, this will all happen again was interesting when it was about Kara, because she always maintained agency, but feared getting caught up in trying to live out her destiny. At the end of The Invisibles, Jack says predestiny doesn’t matter, we’re here and we’re living out our lives in the moment. That’s what Kara was doing, with the five, it’s impossible to tell, and that makes them subject to writers’ whims rather than defining their own story.

But, they spent most of this episode sitting at a bar, so it wasn’t a huge problem. We thankfully got to spend some time with Sharon and Kara, two of my favorite characters who have been out of the spotlight for a while. Kara apparently hallucinates a ghost version of her father to talk to, and uses him to process her own issues about her parental abandonment. I like the way talking to the pianist is a way for her to try and understand her father’s point of view. He was committed to his art, and didn’t want to be held back by his wife. That sounds at least somewhat admirable, but how does it feel to Kara, who’s the one left behind. Is she less valuable than his art?

This storyline ties in nicely with the way we previously saw Kara abused by her mother. Her mother broke Kara’s fingers, a way of preventing her from following her father’s artistic path. That’s a well done retcon, enhancing what we saw before without contradicting any of it.

The question that arises now is whether Kara’s father is Daniel the missing cylon. That would knit a lot of things together, and would explain why her father knows the cylon song. That moment was absolutely brilliant, like only this show can do. Hearing the song gradually become the cylon revelation All Along the Watchtower piece, accompanied by that slow zoom on to Tigh and Kara getting lost in the music was perfect. It was something you can only do in cinema. A moment like that makes up for a lot of the troubled elements throughout the season. It’s also part of why the show is frustrating, they can be so good, why can’t they hit that level all the time?

Tyrol and Boomer had some great stuff too, but did raise some questions. The impression I got from season one was that Boomer honestly believed she was human, and was horrified to find out the truth. Even after they killed her, she teamed up with a Six in “Downloaded” to help the humans, so I’m not sure why she’s turned into a hardline Cavil person, who’s this ultimate femme fatale operative here, taking joy in messing with everyone in the fleet. Maybe I don’t remember something from the lengthy hiatus the show took, but the motivation doesn’t seem quite consistent.

But, I did enjoy pretty much everything she did, and if you accept the character development, her manipulation was great. You buy into her and the dream life she’s built for herself and Tyrol. I also loved the skeeviness of making sure to fuck Helo where Athena could see. That’s the kind of scene you can only do in sci-fi.

And, her escape from the Galactica with Hera kicked the story into high gear after it lagged for a bit. Halfway through this episode, I was thinking this did not at all feel like a show that was three episodes away from its finale. But, by the end, the pieces start to come together, even as the Galactica starts to fall apart. I’m guessing like Babylon 5, the titular space ship won’t be making it to the series finale. And, I’m also assuming we’ll be seeing the return of Cavil shortly.

The juxtaposition of Roslin’s collapse with Hera’s departure was evocative. We’ve already seen them tied together in the opera house vision, what will Hera’s departure mean for the future of the fleet? Can the Cylon/Human alliance continue without the embodiment of that alliance.

Ultimately, I’m less concerned with the narrative resolution than with getting more of the great character moments we got in this episode. I loved the Kara story, and I hope we get more moments of beauty like hearing her gradually build the song. If there is a final space battle, I hope it’s a trippy, evocative one. The show’s got itself back in a good place, I hope they bring it home strong.


David Golding said...

I really loved this episode. Yet again with Kara's father, I find myself needing to look up musical references. Beautiful to hear music as music, rather than as cheap connective tissue for a montage.

I got a lot of great SF vibes off this one too. BSG always reminded me of VR5 with the use of colour on location, but Boomer's house projection really brought that out---have you ever seen VR5? Roslyn waking up as Hera departs was a classic B5 image. And there was some Farscape in there that I won't mention. All of which added to the episode in the same way the Hendrix reference did.

Personally I think Boomer's motivation is freedom. She didn't want to find out her human agency was a lie, she didn't want to be part of Cylon groupthink, and now she sides with Cavil who is offering an unconstrained vision of the future.

On the general question of agency, I like how the show destroys ideas. The Cylons have a nice idea for New Caprica, but it turns into a quagmire. Ellen had an idea about how easy it would be to shrug off her human history, but blew up at Tigh the next episode. We are always less free to act than we think.

Patrick said...

I haven't seen VR5, but I can definitely see the B5 connection. I loved the dreamlike quality of the episode, that's the thing that BSG does better than any sci-fi show before. Babylon 5 was written well, but the filmmaking very rarely came anywhere near the level of the writing. The same is true of Joss's work, and one of the great joys of BSG is the fact that it's a fully realized world in both filmmaking and writing.

Predestination is definitely a key idea of the series, the destruction that has happened before and will happen again. I guess the big question now is whether they can break that cycle.