12.7.09

Battlestar Galactica

You gotta love it, right? Well...

Just finished season three. Many of my quibbles with the series remain, but lets be positive for once. I wanna talk about what Battlestar does RIGHT.

First, by golly the show is gorgeous! I mean, would you look at just how pretty it is! Pretty! All those shiny spaceships! I'm drooling every time another Zoic studios jewel of a shot comes zooming by. But that's not all. The shaky grainy interior shots! The way the camera acrobats between objects -- whipping, twirling, tracking around, pulling in. It's a dizzying dance that entrances the viewer, hammering home every beat of the story. And it's not just the movement: every shot is colour-timed to perfection. Directors play around with shutter speeds and lenses to construct beautiful frames. And then there's the sets! And the locations! Never has a genre show been put together so masterfully.

My slavering (and slobbering) allegiance to Joss Whedon means I must mention (and alliterate) how Firefly did all of the above first. So a 'nyeah' to you mister Ronald D Moore! But, actually, who cares. The Battlestar team learned well from Firefly's innovations, so kudos to them. Geniuses steal, and all that.

But may I also put to you, friends, that the Galactica is peopled with some damn fine acting talent. I'm not just talking about the sublime Gaius Baltar. Look at how effortlessly Edward James Olmos captures both Adama's authority and tenderness. Look at how Mary McDonnell can switch from steely battle-axe to wan prophet. Watch the way Katee Sackhoff can show every flicker of emotion on her face. And no one can sell drunk angry bastard better than Michael Hogan. Even the actors that usually get a hard time from critics, such as Jamie Bamber and Grace Park, do a fine job according to me (AND I KNOW ALL!). Park has a difficult task having to win over the audience while being sneaky and evil, but she pulls it off. And Bamber (who's British, don't you know) can pull off scorching performances. I just watched his speech at Baltar's trial, and it was electrifying. Yes. Scorching and electrifying. He's like Pyro and Storm, with cheekbones you can shred paper with. And may we not forget the guest stars. Bruce Davison (Robert Kelley in the X-Men film) plays a similar role treating a superstitious minority group in "The Woman King". The entire episode's success rests on his performance, and he delivered in many and various spades. And we must, MUST! not forget Baltar's attorney (Firefly's Badger), who was so ridiculously cool he made me want to do bad things when I'm on my own in my room.

And may I further suggest, ladies and gentlemen. May I stress in the most honest and sincere terms, that it is these fine actors that make Battlestar's writers look so brilliant. Because honestly (HONESTLY!) to these ears, the scrips they are given sound crushingly pedestrian. Perhaps my standards have been set rather high. I'll admit, I've been feasting on a regular diet of Sorkin, Simon and Whedon, and maybe I've become spoiled. Or maybe not. Maybe I just know what brilliant writing is. And friends, Battlestar Galactica is not brilliant writing.

In the nuts-and-bolts area of dialogue and character, the show is too often uninspiring. Scenes are riddled with cliche. Wit is almost non-existent. Lines rely heavily on ponderous meaningful silences. The characters themselves flip-flop drastically between episodes. Consistency, apparently, isn't a virtue when it comes to Galactica officers. In all, it's pretty astonishing how the actors manage to mine such perfect nuggets of humour and pathos out of the poor materials they are given.

But there is more. Good science fiction means an intelligent examination of human society in alien and extraordinary situations. The Battlestar set-up, humans fleeing from genocidal robots, is pregnant with possibility -- to talk about religion, politics, human rights, class war... anything. Battlestar touches on all these concerns, but it touches as lightly as possible. Ideas and allusions are just references, footnotes. They are not explored in any great detail. This was my main bugbear with the New Caprica arc. My expectations were colossal -- a scenario that mirrored the Iraq conflict, but cast the humans as the resistance? Brilliant. And yet as events unfolded I discovered that there was no real point being made. Suicide bombers, peacekeeping efforts, hearts-and-minds, mass shootings. And then we're off. Why couldn't you say something about the conflict, the nature of war, the arrogance of the invaders and the tenacity of the oppressed? Put yourself out there. I want to know what you believe.

Sometimes a position is taken, a debate is stirred up, and even though arguments are usually simplistic, this is where Battlestar works best. I don't mind telling you that when watching the closing scene of "Dirty Hands", an episode detailing an industrial dispute, I teared up. Now I'm no crybaby. (...) To be moved so fundamentally by a piece of television is rare. How did it happen? That episode talked directly about class and oppression, and how vital social mobility is in a society -- to be able to work at who you want to become. It distilled that idea and dramatized it. And I in turn, not only understood it, but felt it -- responded not only intellectually, but emotionally. Viscerally. That is what great art is. And Battlestar is capable of it.

But only when the writers think creatively about the show's set-up. When they ask a question (how is stuff made in the fleet?) and come up with interesting answers. There was too little of this in the standalone, non-Cylon episodes. One thing that should have been dug into deeper was the nebulous relationship between military and elected officials. Where does jurisdiction lie? To what extent can rights be curtailed in the interests of survival? Countless episodes could have been made testing these difficult waters. The writers could have exposed the frightening fragility of democracy, and how all power is at root military power. Roslin and Adama should have been on opposite sides, each respecting the other while fighting their case to the end. Every non-Cylon episode could have been about this conflict. But instead? Roslin and Adama are the best of friends, and may well get romantically involved in the next season. And we in turn get to watch training missions and boxing matches instead.

I've already discussed the limitations of Battlestar's exploration of religion. I only want to add that all the earth-mother talk, mystical visions and divine inspiration is seriously testing my nerves. Religion in science fiction should be tackled sociologically, dammit! I'm getting worried that in the end, the writers will just ask me to swallow all the feng-shui nonsense. Best believe, I won't be happy.

Hell, turns out I can't just talk about what Battlestar gets right. Ye Gods am I a miserable bastard! But it's all done out of love, you see. The show is fracking amazing. But to leave it at that is to be too complacent, for whilst it's beautiful visually and sonically (did I mention sonically?), and the cast is superb, there remains a vast amount of untapped potential. Ask yourselves. Why should we put up with 24 in space, when we could have The West Wing in space? Now wouldn't that be even more fracking amazing?

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