Saturday, March 21, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: 'Daybreak: Part II'

It’s not easy to write a satisfying ending for a two hour movie, so imagine how tough it is to write a satisfying ending for an eighty hour TV series, to sum up everything that made a show what it was, and pay off all those character and narrative arcs in a way that leaves people satisfied. For some shows, the finale is the series high point, Angel, Twin Peaks and The Office all went out at the top of their game, while others end on a more perfunctory note, hitting the beats and going out in a good, but unexceptional way, think Buffy or The Wire. Battlestar Galactica’s finale is much like the series itself, filled with moments of incredible brilliance like nothing else I’ve ever seen, but also a bit frustrating along the way. I have issues with some of the narrative construction, but the takeaway from this episode is pretty much all positive. The show went out on a really fun, exciting moment, and left me totally satisfied.

There’s a lot to discuss here, so let me cover the first half of the episode first, the assault on the colony and subsequent destruction of Cavil’s forces. On one level, this entire sequence hit that Star Wars sci-fi battle joy place that lurks deep inside me. I love this kind of stuff, and seeing the crew embark on a desperate assault against Cavil and his forces was exhilarating. The effects team was top notch in building those trippy backgrounds and environments for the fight. That said, some of the gun closes looked a bit too CG, and took me out of the story for a moment. But, the general intensity of everything that was going on carried it along and built the tension to a really high level.

The intercutting between ground assault and space battle recalled the end of Return of the Jedi, as did the hypnotic spread and cross of ships across the stars. I also really liked the nearly abstract way that gunshots provided the only illumination for many of the battle sequences.

What bothered me about this sequence is that after all this buildup, it felt a bit too easy for the crew to get Hera back and defeat Cavil. There was a lot of gunfire, but except for the shot where Doral walked out with a gun and just started killing people, you never had the sense that there was any sort of coordinated opposition. I suppose the point was Cavil’s hubris, but you’d think that he’d have more than one person guarding Hera. And, what was his plan for getting Hera back, just walking into the room and taking her? Seems a bit chancy for a guy who’d spent years trying to get revenge on the final five. I don’t buy it, and it hurts the sequence dramatically. In terms of atmosphere and execution, it’s an amazing sequence, but looking back, the stakes just weren’t there. Centurions went into action, but casualties seemed remarkably low for the “last stand” we’d been prepared for.

This section of the finale reminded me a lot of the last episode of Buffy, where all our characters undertook a desperate assault against a seemingly infinitely powerful foe. I have a lot of issues with the Buffy finale, but a single shot made the stakes work for me there, and that was Anya being casually cut through by a Ubervamp scythe. To see a character who’d been on the show for years cut down with such a lack of buildup made it clear that no one was safe, that this is a war and it doesn’t matter who’s a main character, anyone can die. We never got that here, after all the gunshots fired, everyone walks out fine. Except for Boomer, but her death wasn’t really a battle casualty. To have Lee, or Helo go down like Anya did would make it feel more real and emotionally engaging. After it’s all over, that sequence was wonderful in the moment, but didn’t contribute that much to the overall scheme of things. I’m still glad it was in there because it was awesome, but I think it could have been handled a little better.

But, an element that did work was the Baltar/Six last stand. I loved the two of them kissing each other in the heat of battle, and also Gaius’s bemused surprise that he could actually stand up for himself. He’s earned Six’s respect for real now, and she can genuinely love him, in a way she never could on Caprica. These two characters have been written down some convoluted paths, to the point that it was hard to remember who they were supposed to be. They were two of my favorite characters for much of the run, but I lost track of them in the last season. This episode brought them back, both by going back to the touchstone of the miniseries, and by just writing them better, by knowing who they are and playing off that.

This led into one of the episode’s high points, the running Hera/opera house vision sequence. The much built up opera house scene finally plays out, and it’s really cool to see it all come together. In the context of the show itself, the sequence is supposed to foreshadow these events, in the context of the production, I’m guessing they shot the opera house without knowing exactly what it would refer to, then set all this up to mimic it, but either way, it’s a fantastic sequence, that’s shot and cut in a way that builds a hypnotic rhythm, the sense of something very important transpiring. When Six and Baltar pick up Hera, you have the sense that they are stepping up to destiny, that this is the moment where Baltar can finally prove his worth. He brings Hera before the Final Five, who look down from their perch truly god-like. That shot was amazing, one of visual high points of the episode.

Baltar speaks of angels and gods guiding us forward, finally clarifying exactly what the nature of the “head” characters is. So much of this episode is about recognizing that our own individual actions are part of a much larger communal destiny, shaped by a larger intelligence that we might call god, though he apparently doesn’t like to be called that. Some intelligence has brought them to this point, it’s why they saw the opera house, it’s what the entire series has been building to.

However, this majesty leads to some troubled stuff. After Cavil agreed to exchange Hera for resurrection technology, I felt like there was another twist coming. With an hour left in the episode, it couldn’t all be this easy. But, what we got was problematic in many ways. The Final Five stick their hands into the vat, and share each others’ memories, including the memory of Tory killing Cally, which prompts Tyrol to choke her. There’s many levels of wrong here. One is what I’ve previously discussed about the convoluted backstory of the final five and the way that it’s antithetical to the development of further stories. These peoples’ identities waver and fluctuate depending on the needs of the plot, and Tory’s behavior in the first half of the season is a consequence of that. She kills to preserve her secret, but also enjoys it. So, presumably being a cylon allows her to indulge a dark side that she would otherwise sublimate.

I think that’s interesting stuff, but it was never really explored in depth, and she got sidelined in the backhalf of season four. The other final five characters were manipulated to the whims of the plot, and I never felt like I understood who they were, or what drove them to do what they did.

The other level on which the Tory death bothers me is Tyrol isn’t punished for it at all. I get that Tory killed his wife and that’s a big trauma, but shouldn’t someone have tried to stop him from choking her. Consider the fact that they believe their entire survival hinges on all of them getting together to enable resurrection. Where’s some leadership there, and what about the simple fact that it’s not right to kill someone, no matter what she’s done? I also don’t get Tigh telling Tyrol he would have done the same thing, considering he killed his own wife on New Caprica.

This leads to a pretty convoluted sequence where all hell breaks loose, nukes are fired and everyone thinks they’re going to die. I don’t get why Cavil kills himself here, it doesn’t make any sense with the character they’ve created previously on the show. I read a post finale interview where Ron Moore says that Cavil thought they were all going into the black hole, and he figured why not just end it now. But, that doesn’t make sense to me. I feel like he’d have gone down shooting, and at least tried to kill the Final Five along with him. Moore also said that the ship was meant to seem more like it was going into blackhole, but we can only see what’s on screen, and his decision to commit suicide just doesn’t work. It feels like they’re just trying to wrap up all the plots so we can get to the next stage of the story. There’s so many better potential ways to get rid of Cavil, this one didn’t work at all.

But, it did lead into another chill inducing sequence, where Kara finally puts all the pieces together and enters the FTL coordinates for Earth. I love the way the music built as she typed the keys, an echo of the piano playing sequence from a couple episodes back. This is her destiny being fulfilled, and it was great to watch. It also lead right into the startling moment where we see that the Galactica has made it to Earth, this time, the real Earth.

This leads us into phase two of the episode. The Galactica lands on Earth, and this time, it’s our Earth, in the distant past. I love this twist, it’s the sort of really audacious, crazy thing that only sci-fi can do. Stories should be like this, they should jump through time and space, and make us think about who we are and why we’re here. This is why genre fiction exists, to provide a lens to view things in a different way. I love the fact that the show was so tied to contemporary events, but I also like that it can step back and think about eternal questions, like the origin of humanity and the nature of god and fate. These are questions that people will always ask, and they’re just as relevant to our lives as suicide bombers and military coups.

After so many hours spent in the dark confines of the Galactica, the African plains seem endless, and the people who spent years trapped in those ships can’t seem to spread out fast enough. On one level, it bothered me that everyone split up so quickly. Why wouldn’t Adama want to stay near Tigh and Lee, why should he want to live on his own? The obvious answer is that it’s for the poetic power of him speaking to Laura near her grave, but I also think there’s a legitimate point of view saying that these people have been through so much together, they want nothing more than to be alone, to find themselves again and live out quiet, reflective lives.

For Kara, her time’s up. Her destiny is realized and she’s no longer needed. This all links together with the ‘head’ characters that Baltar and Six sees. She’s another agent of that same divine being, and with her destiny realized, she simply vanishes. I would have really liked to see one last scene with her and Leoben, perhaps reprising the Leoben as god imagery from when she died in season three. He is her angel, guiding her forward, and I wanted a pay off on that. He did shoot a new scene in the episode, so he was around, it seems odd that they didn’t pay off that long running thread in some way.

The entire thing with the ‘angels’ and god felt very much like a meta comment on the nature of writing. When the head characters tell Baltar and Six that their lives will be less eventful, it felt like an acknowledgement that the show ends here because we’ve seen all the interesting stuff. From here on out, things will happen to them, but just normal things, normal life. Kara’s destiny could be read as a role in the story, she needed to come back to perform specific actions to ensure that events occurred as planned, and once she’s done, she vanishes from the story.

Her role, and the head characters, feels very much like John a Dreams or the Harlequinade in The Invisibles. In both cases, there is a specific destiny to be achieved, humanity must find Earth and start again, and people will be manipulated to ensure that destiny is achieved. Kara, much like John a Dreams himself plays her role then is gone and never seen again. On an intellectual level, it works. On an emotional level, I’d have liked to see one more scene with her, maybe with her reuniting with the piano player, who we know is her father, and returning to the universal essence that she left to help guide humanity again. Anders did tell her that he’d see her on the other side, perhaps implying that they will be reunited now that both of them have helped humanity get to Earth.

This meta commentary is reinforced by the appearance of Ron Moore himself during the 150,000 years flash forward. Moore looks at an article that reveals that Hera is in fact the “mitochondrial Eve,” the root from which all of humanity grows. What that means is that we’re all actually cylon/human hybrids, and that the entire point of the series was to bring about humanity as we know it. Perhaps that was the Cylon plan mentioned in the series’ opening credits early on.

In the context of a fictional universe, isn’t the writer god? When Baltar and Six walk through a modern city, they speak of a higher power, but the man they’re looking at is the root of the universe. He’s the one who moves the pieces around, the one who makes Kara disappear. The meta commentary is more implicit than in a Grant Morrison comic, but the Moore appearance makes it very clear. Why do these events have to happen, because they are the fuel for the narrative universe. Events will cycle unending until someone steps in to change things. We watch the TV series, then it becomes real before us. We are making the robots that will become the cylons, the unwitting authors of a fictional destiny made manifest in our own reality.

I think people will have trouble with the “ooohhhh, robots are scary” montage at the end of the show, but it works for me because it underlines the connections between the fictional universe and the reality of what’s happening in our world. We could be them, we probably won’t be, but it’s possible, and maybe some of us will journey halfway across the galaxy to find another world and make it happen there again. I like the audaciousness of using the entire history of human development as but a piece of the larger mythology of the series. It recalls All Star Superman #10, in which we find out that our entire world was created as an experiment by Superman to find out what would happen in a world without him. That revelation makes us realize that the comic we’re reading is like a dream memory of “reality,” cutting through the fictional world that we call reality. It’s similar to Flex Mentallo’s closing revelation that superhero comics are the lone surviving testament from the real world we’ve forgotten.

The closing revelations would position BSG as a subconscious retelling of a creation myth, an explanation for the world we have, both a past and a future. The show isn’t a piece of fiction, it’s a channeling from our distant past, and the only way to find out if what happened before will happen again is to live and see our own future. Moore has said that he could never do a direct followup to the series, that’s because our lives are the followup, our history the sequel.

Ultimately, the series closes up on a satisfying and thought provoking final scenario. It’s not as instantly classic and emotionally catastrophic as the Six Feet Under finale, or as controversial and iconic as The Sopranos’ finale, but I think it found a nice middle ground between the two. The show went out on a strong note, and wrapped up at the right time. For all its ups and downs, this show did things no series on TV ever has before. It looked better than almost any other series in the history of the medium, and is the very rare show where the execution actually outpaced the writing a lot of the time.

The show’s writing sometimes seemed lazy, like they’d coast for a while, then blow your mind and make you forget about those weaker episodes in between. But, the New Caprica arc is arguably the best four episode run of any series all time, and I think the miniseries is one of the best introductions to a series ever. And, this is a truly great series on the whole, and one of the best recent sci-fi works around. And, even though we’ve got The Plan and Caprica coming up, it will be missed.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dollhouse: 'Gray Hour' & 'True Believer' (1x04 & 1x05)

On the eve of the much hyped episode where Dollhouse “gets good,” it’s as good a time as any to catch up on the show’s two most recent episodes. Perhaps the best way to sum up my feelings about the show is to just say that I watched “Gray Hour” Tuesday, and “True Believer” on Wednesday. Before this show started, it would be hard to conceive of sitting on new Joss Whedon for over a week, but I just didn’t have a huge urge to watch either episode. The greatest strength of Whedon’s previous shows was their relentless addictive quality, the way they drew you into a world and got you so attached to the characters that you barely even care what’s happening plotwise, just spending time with the characters is enough.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, the series’ premise seems explicitly designed to prevent that kind of attachment. The show remains intellectually interesting, I like every episode I see, but there’s nothing to love there. It’s the kind of show that I could easily see myself drifting away from if it didn’t have Joss’s pedigree. I very rarely decide to stop watching a show, most of the time, I’ll just have a whole stack of episodes back up on me, until it’s a few months later and I just wind up never watching them. And, it’s largely Joss’s name, and the promise that episode six will be great that’s keeping this show from going down that path.

As I said, there’s a lot of stuff to like. The “man reactions” plot in “True Believer” was great, both for its infusion of humor into the premise, and for raising some interesting questions about the nature of the actives. And, again, I found myself wanting to spend more time with that plot than with the main action. I heard someone describe the actives’ dialogue as sounding like the way that actors in a porn sound, oddly inhuman, and I think that’s a perfect description. It reminds me a bit of “Pornomancer” from The Filth, and I’d like to see more of that weird sleaziness explored.

But, we spent most of our time with the mission, and I just don’t really care about the outcomes of these missions. They succeed, they fail, it doesn’t make a big impact on me because I’ve seen so many of these kind of stories on TV. The hour long network drama has a structural imperative that makes even new stories feel like something you’ve seen before. It’s only our emotional engagement with the characters that makes it feel fresh, and that’s just not there at this point.

Whedon’s previous shows had a wide range of great actors. So far, I’m not so sure we’ve got that here. Olivia Williams is totally one note as Adele DeWitt, and Franz Kranz as Topher is also one note, and annoying to boot. He feels like the Hollywood idea of a tech nerd, where Jonathan, Warren and Andrew felt more like real nerds. I think Eliza Dushku’s doing a pretty good job, but the cast standout is unquestionably Dichen Lachmann as Sierra. You believe her complete transformation into other characters. I love the moment where her eyes open as Taffy in “Gray Hour” and she becomes that characters, a totally different person from who she was in “Stage Fright.” And, she pulls off that drugged porn star vibe better than anyone when wandering the dollhouse.

At this point, I’m waiting for the show to kick it up a notch. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s not great. Hopefully this next episode will be the one to take it up a notch and finally start to get an emotional hook to go along with the interesting concepts.

Battlestar Galactica: 'Daybreak' (4x19)

Things have been pretty crazy this past week, I’ve been shooting a big infomercial, so I haven’t gotten a chance to write up this key penultimate episode of BSG. After moving all the pieces into place last episode, this one is largely about providing some strong character moments before the finale proper hits us with a whole bunch of action. It’s a successful episode, though one that’s hard to assess on its own terms since it’s very much part one of three.

Even though part of me feels like it’s not the best use of screentime with three hours left, I still love the decision to go back to Caprica before the Fall and spend some time with these characters as they used to be. It reinforces the idea that life hasn’t always been like this for all these people, that they have normal lives not so different from our own before the attack on the colonies. For Roslin, it seemed like having her sisters and father die was the worst possible trauma she could ever experience. It’s likely that suffering so much back then made it easier for her to deal with everything that’s happened since. Sitting in the fountain, she seemed to come to terms with things, she let her old self die and was reborn tougher, and stronger. It was an incredibly striking image.

The other scenes were less significant, but still effective. I particularly liked the Baltar story, which reminded me just how effective the Caprica Six character used to be. I respect the attempt to give her increased depth, but I think all the Sixes have been stripped of everything that made the character effective this season. She was all about the glamour of evil, the serpent of the old testament made flesh, a being beyond our morality, beyond our rules. Now, she’s just sort of there, ironically, her character development has stripped her of personality. But, back in the pre-Fall days, she’s a force to be reckoned with.

The episode’s greatest strength was the feeling of apocalypse hanging about. Things are drawing rapidly towards some kind of conclusion, and after an episode of buildup, I’m eager to see what happens when the Galactica finally gets to the colony and they confront Cavil. The promise of something involving a blackhole is particularly interesting.

But, there’s not that much to say specifically here, so let me discuss a few general points about the season before moving on. One thing that’s been bugging me is the absence of D’Anna and Leoben from the end of the series. Particularly with all this talk about Kara’s destiny, where is Leoben? He’d been a huge part of her arc since the beginning, why doesn’t she turn to him now? In theory, both D’Anna and Leoben should be hanging around with the other rebel cylons, what happened to them? I’m guessing it’s an actor availability issue, but it’s a pretty big plot hole.

The other general issue I’ve got with these recent episodes is the problems surrounding the revelation of the final five. I loved the episode where we found out who they were because it was just so out there. But, since then, the story developments haven’t made much sense. It turns out that the five aren’t really cylons, they’re pretty much regular people, who’ve been alive for a really long time, but the people they are now are constructed by Cavil, not who they really used to be. So, even though Ellen and Tigh have been together for 2,000 years, they haven’t been the people they are now for 2,000 years. Anders said that Tyrol and Tory used to be together, so why does the Tighs’ love last 2,000 years, while Tyrol and Tory don’t remember each other? If they wanted to go with the irresistibly drawn together thing, why not say Anders and Tory were together, explaining why they slept together when they first started hearing the music.

The problem with the final five revelation is that it’s the kind of thing that needs to be developed a lot more than it has been. We need more time with the characters to process what’s going on, and see how it affects their identity. Their entire personalities are Cavil’s constructions, shouldn’t that really mess with their sense of identity? I think it opens so many doors of implausibility and convolution that they’ve basically chosen to ignore the revelations, and that’s effectively ended any character development with the five. It’s a bit of X-Files syndrome, where a lack of advance planning backfires and results in a story that’s spending so much time explaining itself, there’s no time for emotion.

But, the core of the show is still strong, and I’m really excited for the finale. Hopefully they’ll give us one final classic episode.