21 Apr 2012
I knew I had fully ensconced myself in the world of Battlestar Galactica when after I had gone to bed after watching the miniseries, I dreamed about Cylons. And what, it only took some 9 years? Hearing of its love by several writers I respect, Galactica was simply one of those shows I put off until recent events of a friend’s viewing party forced me to start watching the miniseries that started the show. After that, I was hooked. Can you blame me? After Band of Brothers and The Pacific, I would now ranked Battlestar Galactica one of the best miniseries of the decade, if not all time. Its precision in introducing its world and characters is just astounding. Plus, the action they’re able to pull off on a TV budget is just astounding. Personally, it also represents a creative injection that’s further evidence of what can be achieved in science fiction TV. So, sparked by dreams of Cylons (a plot device which is used throughout the first season), I took voyage on the Battlestar Galactica.
And the results for the first season are… mixed? I say this because while Battlestar Galactica constantly flirts with greatness, and even achieves it at points, there are certainly aspects and mistakes made by the writing staff that sort of undercut what they’re doing, at least from an entertainment standpoint. Let’s start with what they do well, but warning, there will be SPOILERS. You have been warned.
First off, let’s admit it right now that 24 is overrated. I say this because while revolutionary for the time, the show does not hold up well in hindsight. While it may have seemed innovative in dealing with terrorism on a network drama at the time, the show often dealt with its themes in the heaviest hand possible. Its intentions and importance, and bad guys, are often very telegraphed. Now, while Galactica may have the advantage of having some slight hindsight, in dealing with a post-9/11 world 3 years after the fact, while 24 did it while it was happening, Galactica should be applauded for its nuance and subtlety.
After all, Cylons are representations of religious-fundamentalists, who use terrorist tactics. But unlike 24, Battlestar Galactica deliberately portrays its “bad guys” as being exactly like us. Despite characters on the show constantly trying to put them in the box of being machines, the Cylons constantly try to prove themselves otherwise. They have emotions, pain, political ambitions, religious beliefs, and the ability to be very philosophical. While other portrayals of terrorists take the easy way out of using ethnicity as a reason why you should be against them, Galactica does the opposite. While many may consider “33” or “Hand of God” as their favorite episode of the season, I love “Flesh & Bone” because of this ballsy dichotomy the show plays in our interactions and views of “terrorists.”
In the episode, a known Cylon, Leoben, is found in the fleet and interrogated for details on his mission, and then for the location of a nuclear warhead he says he’s hidden. A particularly philosophical Cylon, Leoben doesn’t fear death, and using mind games, eventually brings his interrogators down to the level of repeatedly waterboarding him. In the end, there is no nuclear warhead, but Leoben plants the ultimate warhead, a seed of doubt that the head of the military himself is a sleeper agent. It’s not true of course, but doubt is planted. Upon hearing this news, the President herself orders the death of Leoben saying, ‘you don’t keep a killing machine like him alive.’
I don’t know if Battlestar Galactica ultimately gives direct answers to any of the questions it raises, but it certainly brings them up for us to mull over. No matter how much we want to classify our enemy as lesser-beings, they are often on our same level. We mustn’t underestimate them, or lose our humanity in trying to convince ourselves that they have truly lost theirs. In the case of this particular Cylon, he doesn’t fear death, but does fear his soul not finding its way back to God. At the end of the episode, we see his interrogator by repenting for her sins in torturing him by praying that his soul is taken care of.
Which brings me to the religious aspect of the show. Often TV tends to push religion aside whenever possible, since it doesn’t make for good narrative tension, and the fact that your audience has already stead fast on their opinions on the matter. Thus, it is even more ballsy to portray its “bad guys” as believing in only one God, who has a plan for the universe, and acts much in the way of the God of the largest religion on Earth, Christianity, or perhaps more appropriately for the comparison, Islam. The “good guys” are devoutly polytheistic, much in the way the ancient Greeks were. Atheism on the other hand is shown to have no place in this universe, since its lone subscriber, Gaius Baltar, is constantly led and punished by God for his lack of faith. Whether this is true or not, these times are so tough that even the atheist is persuaded to take sides on religion. Again, I don’t think anything is really said with this, yet, but I find the constant struggle, discussions and portray of religion to be fascinating, since its something most shows would run away from at all turns.
Which isn’t to say its portrayal in the context of the show is particularly good. As the season goes on, the show becomes more obsessed with religion to the point where several characters have weird dreams, visions, and even have prophesy given either by God, or the Lords of Kobol. If you were ever overwhelmed by the weirdness of LOST, then this show may not be for you. Apparently the aforementioned Gaius Baltar is going to be the father of a glowing Baby who will lead humanity, and is the child of a human and a Cylon? And all of this is told in an opera house that hasn’t existed for a couple thousand years? Um, yeah.
Which quickly brings me to the shows great strength, in its characterization. You already knew you liked these people in the miniseries, but the show continues this. Edward James Olmos as Commander Adama, the show’s decisive military leader is brilliant, many of its side and background characters are lovable, the entire command deck crew has sketched out personalities, and Gaius Baltar is actually the comedic gift that keeps on giving.
Traumatized by his knowledge that he inadvertently is the cause of the apocalypse/attack that has befallen humanity, Baltar is constantly presence by the figure of the woman who is actually the cause of the apocalypse, and who he had sex with for many years, who acts as his sub-conscious and thinking mind. Since she is only in his mind, but very real, and often present when Baltar is around others, Baltar is constantly dealing with a seductive woman bothering him while advising people like the President. The image of somebody walking in on Baltar, pants down and thrusting a table where his sub-conscious mind is, is never not funny.
But like I said, the show doesn’t always work like its supposed to. For example, the fight crew, while often handled well, is really dependent on the storylines they’re given. The space battles are always cool, but plots like resolving the memory of Zak Adama laid on the flashbacks and sap a little too thick. In fact, any romantic subplot between the crew at this point seems to leave a little to be desired. But again, they’re all dependent on the plots they’re given.
Which is especially in what I see as the show’s biggest problem in Grace Park‘s, “Boomer.” In the miniseries, the big reveal at the end is that the Cylons sometimes don’t know they’re in fact Cylons, and act as sleeper agents, which is the case with one of the pilots we’ve been seeing up until that point in the miniseries.
The problem here is that we, the audience, know she’s a sleeper agent, but nobody else does. At this point, the laws of plotting dictate that it’s not if she will be revealed as a sleeper agent, but when. Well, her mission isn’t carried out until the last minute of the season finale, which means the writers have to stretch out this reveal for some-13 hours, which we the audience have to endure. And it’s not like the show puts it off either, as Boomer starts committing acts of terrorism on the ship in episode 2. Two. TWO. In episode 8, Baltar even confirms she is one, but refuses to tell anybody, for… reasons… Plot hole.
If her antics on the ship weren’t enough, the episodes also show about 3-minutes of a copy of Boomer and a pilot running across the radiated remains of a planet, dodging Cylons, having sex during thunder storms. The show tries to inject humanity into the character, but it all fell deathly flat for me, and the show’s stalling only angered me as the season progressed. But it’s not only bad writing, but decidedly mediocre acting from Grace Park. This is ironic because Park has come out with the best career of anybody on the show.
I think the show also falters in its portrayal of Laura Roslin, President of the remainder of humanity. Admittedly trying to be a space version of The West Wing, the interest level generated by most of the plots involving the government side of the show are kind of anemic. It’s not terrible per say, but it could have stood a lesser-focus until the writers could come up with plots and interactions between the military and government sides of the show. Instead we get cancer, and dreams with snakes.
Overall, I’m happy with season 1 of Battlestar Galactica, but I kind of wish it was better, especially since its problems are so glaringly obvious. But they’re also TV problems. Which at the moment, means for me that Galactica is not the immortal show that some have claimed, but rather a flawed mortal one, with great elements. But these are only the thoughts of season 1. There’s like 3 more seasons, and other stuff which I will figure out when I come to it. I hear that I haven’t even seen the worst the show has to offer yet, but for now, I’m very compelled to keep pressing onwards.