Friday, May 16, 2008

Is ‘Battlestar Galactica’ jumping the shark?


I don’t watch enough television to be able to say authoritatively that Battlestar Galactica is the best show running. But screw Two and a Half Men, I’m going to say it anyway: Battlestar Galactica is the best show running.

Not because of its clever, oblique political commentary, though that is impressive. Not merely because there are excellent performances from an evenly matched ensemble cast. And not because there are graphic scenes of robots having sex.

It’s the writing. BSG is a perfect television epic, with a strong characters and a smart, emotionally compelling narrative. This is the story of a world at war, a story of father and son, tangled romances, false prophets, desperate power plays. It’s Homeric. That the show is based in a distant, futuristic sci-fi-verse with FTL spaceships and a complex political backdrop — that mankind is being hunted down by the fruits of its own Promethean advancement, and that, in classic Philip K. Dick fashion, its man-machine servants have evolved to the point where their sophistication challenges the very idea of humanity — is only incidental. The genius of Ronald D. Moore and his crew is that they have used their brilliant premise in service of great human story, and, gods bless them, have resisted the classic trap of being seduced by their own creation.

At least until recently. A few developments worry me. One is that the story is becoming way too concerned with the mystical elements of the human and Cylon religions. These have gone beyond their proper place as details to flesh out character and setting, and have hijacked the plot. I don’t know if I can take another tearful explosion by Kara Thrace about her prophetic visions, or another smarmy speech by Baltar or Leoben about destiny and how we are one and God is one and the one is one and God is God is one is God is us and yadda yadda.

All of this is framed by the quest for Earth, which in itself is OK; that focuses the drama and provides a tantalizing endpoint, given the potential for a Planet of the Apes-style twist ending. But the motivation for this quest has gotten sidelined by religious gobbledygook. Let’s get something straight here: the humans of BSG are going to Earth to find a place to fucking live, not to fulfill prophecies. More important, we are going to Earth with them — and care about getting there — because it resolves the dramatic crisis. I don’t give a shit about whether there’s one true god for all the Capricans and Sagittarons and Cylons. (Nor do I care about learning Klingon or how the Enterprise refuels, for that matter.) The sad result of this is that I don’t care very much about Earth, either.

This has been bubbling through the story for a while now, but for me it was crystallized in the most recently broadcast episode, “Faith.” The offending scene: Laura Roslin’s vision of the afterlife. She is on a boat on a river with whoever that other Galactica cancer patient is, and on the banks they see their smiling, welcoming dead relatives. The other woman rushes blissfully into their arms. Roslin looks at her mother but can’t go to her: “I’m not ready.”

For the most part BSG’s scenes of high drama can be compared with those in Twin Peaks or The Sopranos or I, Claudius or any of the other immortal television series. But not this. This is at the level of a Hallmark-sponsored abused-wife movie on Lifetime. Shame on you, Ronald D. Moore.

In the same vein: the Hybrid. She/It has been eating up enormous amounts of screen time with prophecy babble; she’s a device to build up a sense of portentous mystery. But it’s a big miscalculation by the writers to think that they can hold our interest with this contrivance. It’s supposed to mean a great deal to us that the Hybrid suddenly says something that makes sense. But which is more compelling: a race of survival through uncharted territory, with the captain and crew losing faith in themselves and the dying leader starting to make misguided power grabs; or a character who talks a lot of Jabberwocky and then says something that the writer triple-underlines as MEANINGFUL?

Over-reliance on the supernatural usually indicates a poorly thought-out story. Is that happening here? I hope not. Because that would really fracking suck.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Actually, I started watching this recently. Isn't this all some space retelling of Noah's Ark, with the cylons being the angels? I mean, there are twelve angels at the gate in Revelations. Twelve cilon models. Of course I just started watching. But it seems like at the end it's gonna be one long Chick tract.