Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Battlestar Galactica: Season One

I started Battlestar Galactica without knowing anything about it besides the fact that a friend gave me the DVDs. The course of the two part miniseries that kicks off the season did not seem particularly unpredictable at first. Man created the robotic Cylons; they rose up against us; we won; now, everyone get ready to gasp, they are coming back for blood. Still, the unfolding chaos was extremely well done. Some of the characters – such as Katee Stackhoff’s Starbuck and Jamie Bamber’s Lee – seemed dangerously close to being brash archetypes, but everything I saw had heart, Edward James Olmos won me over immediately with his portrayal of Commander Adama, and I was soon sucked into each of their stories. Furthermore, amidst the chaos of the war’s eruption, the show had numerous wonderful and small moments. Two pilots fit as many refugees aboard their ship, but they can save a bare fraction of the crowd. Then, spotting a genius scientist that could contribute so much to humanity after the war, one of them gives up his seat. As his only chance of escape flies away, he raises his hand in farewell.

Only one thing seemed off: the pacing. The war seemed to be flying by. In fact, Commander Adama and the rest of the cast onboard the old-fashioned, about to be decommissioned and museum-ized (and what a nice touch, that!) Battlestar Galactica don’t have their guns loaded when the rest of the human fleet is annihilated. Slowly, it dawned on me that, while Battlestar Galactica was quite capable of showing humanity fighting a defensive war for its survival, it had its eye on a bigger prize. Indeed, by the miniseries’ halfway point, humanity has lost its war. By the end of the miniseries, even Adama has given up the idea of combat.

By the start of the first regular episode, we are left with Adama and the Battlestar Galactcia escorting a ragtag fleet of civilian refugees away from our devastated system while the Cylons destroy the rest of humanity. We are heading towards the mythical and long lost earth, Adama says – but, though he doesn’t admit it, even he doesn’t know where it is. We are alone in space, we are all that’s left, and we are pursued. And we have a damn brilliant premise for a TV show right there, I think.

It’s not a premise that the show squanders. The transition from explosive, fast paced miniseries to episodic storytelling is brilliantly made with 33, in which flight turns our survival from an epic clash to a never-ending test of endurance which will end us if we fail once. Into all of that comes a terrifying realization: the Cylons can, if they so choose, look just like us. They are among those of us that are left, and their strikes from within might be enough to finish us off.

The show’s morality is not so simple, though, to paint anyone with genuine flesh and blood as good, and any discussion of its characters would be incomplete without James Callis’ Gaius Baltar. He is the genius scientist I mentioned earlier, he is the man who (unknowingly seduced by a Cylon agent) allowed the attack to take place, he is the one who hallucinates the Number Six Cylon speaking to him, he is key in the fleet’s power structure – and he is a brilliantly amoral bastard. The show does an early and excellent job establishing his intellectual prowess, and it then does just as good a job throwing him out far past his depths. Episode after episode, we see his confidence stripped away until he is at the utter mercy of Number Six. In the few realms in which he is outside her influence, we see him abandon right and wrong and cleave to simple survival while the rest of the fleet, still trusting in him, knows nothing.

He is not the show’s only standout character. Battlestar Galactica has a massive cast and does the best job I’ve seen on television of giving the feel of a military organization with more than four or five blokes in it. More impressive still, that varied class is developed. Characters like Lee and Starbuck are half heart and half swagger, capable of depth when focused upon and capable of riveting motion when on the sidelines. Michale Hogan’s Saul Tigh, the ship’s XO, is an often present but rarely focused upon character who, when given a bit of the spotlight in episodes like Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down, shows a powerful but quiet strength and struggle. Such understated arcs give the viewer confidence that, though we don’t get to study every crewmember of the ship, each of them likely does have a powerful story.

My favorite personal arc in the show, though, is definitely the question of the Cylon’s humanity as exemplified in Grace Park’s Boomer. Early on, the audience learns that the pilot is a Cylon agent, but even she does not know her true origins. We see her face the piling evidence against her, and we see her growing terror at the possibility and determination to prove herself worthy and human. Early in the season, her relationship with Chief is likely the show’s warmest element; his leaving her and the action she takes in the season’s penultimate episode, meanwhile, are heartbreaking.

Boomer’s story, and the question of whether Cylons are truly alive or even human, is contrasted against Tahmoh Penikett’s Helo’s adventures on Caprica. Helo was the pilot who gave up his seat in the miniseries. Left behind, he is now navigating a deserted world in the company of a duplicate of Boomer’s model of Cylon. She’s there to manipulate him to some nefarious purpose, but the two fall in love.

All of that might have been interesting, but Helo’s storyline proves the show’s only real annoyance. Simply put, nothing happens. The two just wander around on Caprica, and the entire thing seems utterly without significance to anything or anyone else in the universe until the final episode. The arc does also raise and then forget some uncomfortable questions that, if they weren’t about to be answered, should probably have been left unsaid. For one thing, since the majority of the city they are in actually seems perfectly intact, where did all the people go? Why isn’t it rubble? Where are the bodies? Why are there no other survivors?

A far more interesting source of questions and conflicts is that of the fleet’s political situation. By following the constitution’s chain of succession far into the double digits, the fleet has appointed Mary McDonnell’s Laura Roslin President, and the interplay between the military and political branches of command is fascinating and surprisingly well handled. Principles and practicalities come into conflict, and one must wonder how desperate the situation must be before democracy and right should be cast aside. Other impossible choices are often presented with the same skill, such as when the characters are forced to destroy a civilian ship, passengers aboard, that the Cylons have managed to track time and time again. Such successes go a long way towards forgiving the show’s occasional thematic flops, such as its weak attempt to evoke 9-11 by discussing a “no fly” list that prevents a known traitor from moving about; it is true that prisoners cannot fly, but the reasons for that have rather more fundamentally to do with the fact that they are not allowed to do anything than with a specific barring from aviation.

In terms of dramatic moments, the show does have the occasional jarring failure. No less than two plots rely completely on future military technology having no safety features and simply being dropped by various incompetents, the strangest part of which was that there was already an established saboteur plot that could have picked up the slack with something deeper than “oops!” Elsewhere, we have an address to prisoners that is, for some inexplicable reason, preceded by freeing them from their cells, and you have the usual insistence on characters making objections to dubious plans not in the planning stage but in the “burst in and save the day” one when it would really be better to just get on with it.

Such qualms, though, are only so noticeable in comparison to the show’s high quality level. Battlestar Galactica throws a well drawn cast into a stunning situation and delivers on that setup. The universe feels filled with promise, and I look forward to seeing what it can throw at the fleet and at me in future seasons.


  1. The third, I think, season was a little ropey but still some of the best stuff on TV at the time.

    Your reviews have a way of making me re-think things I've already watched or read.

  2. Thank you! That is a great thing to hear indeed.