Monday, September 11, 2006


Prefect Slog(Warning: There's a definite danger of SPOILERS up to the end of Season 2 – I’ll try to keep them to a minimum, but you know how it is.)
Imagine what it must be like for fans of the original series. Somebody resurrects their favourite show – and they’ve gone and ruined it. It’s just not the same any more.
Well, thank the gods, I say, but then, I am in the happy position of never having been a fan – and I don’t know anyone who’d admit to being a fan of the original. I mean, I quite enjoyed the movie, but I was like 10 or something, it was shortly after Star Wars and my Dad took me to the cinema. But, unlike Brideshead, it’s best not revisited. If anything the title acted as a deterrent and the new Battlestar Galactica was a series I approached with a great deal of caution and a cynical eye.
Luckily, the producers realized that the thing to do with a show like Battlestar, apparently, was to resurrect it umpteen years later and give it a massive makeover. Render it largely unrecognisable. Of course, it is still marginally recognisable (the Vipers are merely a MkII), but it’s like one of those bizarre casting decisions where they pick an actor to play the same character at a different point in his life – and there’s just no way they are the same person. Battlestar is a whole new character and in this case the change works very much in its favour. this new incarnation has such a brooding intensity, it soon became a compulsion.
It owes some of its weight to the exceptional production design. Clearly when they knew they were tackling military sf, they took words like ‘military’ and ‘hardware’ seriously. The space battles are all very CNN and the ground actions all very Blackhawk Down. And they went retro – this is a Russian-built Battlestar – and even built in a convincing plot basis for that aesthetic, with the older hardware securely incompatible with the latest Cylon viruses. So it’s all Bakelite phones, no smooth surfaces, thank you very much, and no holodeck. The crew of this starship take their duties seriously and off-duty they play hard. Actually, a lot of them get drunk and play cards, but a good brawl is also good for relieving the tension.
They’re soldiers. Worse, many of them are pilots and are cocky with it. The problem, as always with military types, is crafting some individual character into the person-in-uniform (and the uniforms, by the way, look the business). This they manage, successfully engaging me with the majority of the regulars and throwing in some interesting semi-regulars along the way. The dialogue is not snappy or excessively lively (in the least), but that would seem like an affectation and thoroughly out of place here. This is not The West Wing in space (although in some respects it clearly is!) The humour arises naturally, unforced, if it arises at all – chiefly but not exclusively from Gaius Baltar’s neuroses, psychoses and generally unbalanced attempts to walk a very fine tightrope - and real character surfaces in the performances as much as the writing.
The result is added weight for the series, and all credit to the actors for filling out their uniforms so admirably (special mention to Grace Park as Boomer, heheh). The combination of Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell is a particularly potent one and with such commanding screen presence between them, it seems as though the rest of the cast (relative unknowns, although if you care to IMDB them you’ll find they all share similar CVs – supporting roles in Stargate SG-1, Dark Angel and other Canadian-based series) raise their game to act at their level, Commander Adama is a Caesar – an old-school general who has had to play the political game – and he, like his ship, is a relic rescued from retirement and handed a purpose – and a desperate one at that. He’s fair, compassionate and ruthless, charismatic and contemplative. Alongside him – or even pitted against him – is Laura Roslin, the schoolteacher obliged to become president. Greatness is thrust upon her and her journey from education minister to fully-fledged President of the last of the human race is, in Mary McDonnell’s expert care, fascinating to watch. Both she and Adama bend and break the rules – even when we’d like to think they wouldn’t. Desperate times, desperate measures – which is what you would expect, This is not Captain Janeway (blech!) holding on to her prime directive despite being light years from Starfleet Command, out in the back-ass-of-beyond quadrant with precious little hope of getting home (yeah, right) to file a report.
In a similar bucking of the too-good-to-be-true-or-remotely-exciting Trek trend, there are episodes like Water, which explores the question of limited resources – and the most basic resource at that – which is just the kind of concern you would expect to confront a starfaring fleet out on its own, not to mention on the run. The best of its drama arises, like the humour, naturally out of the central premise and the responses to the developing situation are, in much the same way, ‘what you might expect’ – and yet, along the way, the series still manages to surprise. Episodes like 33 demonstrate an outstanding grasp of drama and the tense intervals of suspense are expertly judged. SF elements are sprinkled throughout like seasoning, but they are not the principal driving force. It’s one of those humano-centric SF universes – no aliens with distracting crinkle-cut chips on their noses – and the story is very much centred on the humans – as well as, of course, their Cylon enemies.
There are, as with all series, poorer episodes and, shall we say, less effective aspects as a whole. Richard Hatch as Tom Zarek is unconvincing, in part because I find him a wooden actor, but mostly I think because he’s like the occasional bursts of the original Battlestar Galactica theme music (although for the record, I have nothing against the music itself) – an intrusive and unnecessary tribute. Reminders of the original series that simply don’t belong, because this is a much better series than that. There are contrivances too – particularly when it comes to maintaining Baltar’s precarious position – and his eventual progression – in the fleet hierarchy. A smarter person than I observed that he obtained a nuclear warhead far too easily and I recognize that it certainly raises doubts and questions in retrospect. But the point for me is that I was hoodwinked – the drama was sufficiently involving that I didn’t question it at the time. My reasoning plugged the gaps – I sort of assumed additional security measures were implicit – and I’m tempted to add (at the risk of repeating myself) that I could wish New Who might be as proficient at suspending my disbelief. But let’s leave Doctor Who out of this, shall we – we were talking about the less effective aspects of Battlestar.
The least of them, to my mind, to varying degrees, have been as follows:
1) The robotic Cylons, where I think the CGI is fine but they suffer, I think, from a curious psychological effect which I should call the Tumness Syndrome, in that, while watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I had a similar problem with Mr Tumness. As a fawn, walking along on digital digitigrade legs, I couldn’t quite overcome the sense that he should be constantly falling over. Likewise, the robotic Cylons look none too stable, but in the first place this is such a small quibble and only included out of my fair-minded effort to be picky and in the second place they are effective war machines in any shot where you can’t see them full-length.
2) The background mythology, lifted from the original series, and the idea that we Earthbound humans are in fact descended from the BSG colonies. There’s archaeological evidence to the contrary and it’s all a bit like fundamentalists who claim humanity’s only been around for a few thousand years. But in the end, it’s no greater a conceit than Doctor Who’s (damn, there it is again) theory that Adric wiped out the dinosaurs (much as we celebrate it – although we mourn the dinosaurs) and I can certainly get on board with it for the purposes of enjoying the series.
3) Laura Roslin’s miracle recovery from cancer – about which I am strangely ambivalent. On the one hand, it strikes me as a bit of a cop out and dramatically speaking the preferred option would have been to have her die. There was a bigger, bolder turn of story to be had from he death. (And in fairness to the series, it is a show that at least strays outside of its comfort zone frequently enough that I did believe they might kill her off.) But on the other hand, I love the character and Mary McDonnell’s portrayal and I would have been sorry to lose her from the series. Hmm.
4) The One-Year-Later jump in the Season 2 finale, where the leap is a shade too sudden and we are forced to adjust to seeing our favourite characters in civvies – and it's a big adjustment. Starbuck with long hair! No! I was a while bridging that gap, when I should have been focusing on the events unfolding. Worst of all these though was Commander Adama’s moustache. What were you thinking, Bill? Hopefully his first act in the wake of the Cylon attack will be an emergency shave. Defcon Wilkinson Sword.
So far in all of this, I have ignored the impossible-to-ignore post-9/11 theme. It’s a massive issue, of course, and it was always bound to be contentious. It is worth noting, I think, that I know it can be disregarded – I know someone who does just that and enjoys the series on its own merits, free of all that War On Terror subtext. (Where, by ‘sub’, I mean ‘in plain sight’.) Without going into the huge depth it ideally deserves, I’ll just say that I’ve managed to embrace the series with and/or without all that. For me, it’s integral and unobtrusive: I’m aware of the analogy, but it doesn’t get in the way in the slightest. It’s worth bearing in mind that the ‘analogy’ is an exaggeration: BSG’s premise is far removed from our worldly woes in that it deals with the very near extinction of the human race and, frankly, if anyone expects humanity to go ‘gentle into that good night’ then they could do worse than consider a career in Starfleet. You can expect people to rage against the dying of that light, and boy will they rage. Maybe – quite probably – we won’t like what many of us might become in the face of such a threat. Maybe – if we can’t, or choose not to – ignore the ‘9/11 stuff’ we don’t like what we’re becoming. But I can only speak from experience as a viewer, and BSG has, to its credit, explored numerous sides of its own arguments – probably with more sides still to explore - even-handedly and without the enforced artificiality of black and white. I don’t like some of the characters’ actions, but I like that I don’t like them. The characters are presented in pseudo-Anna Karenina-fashion: i.e., not only do they inhabit a doom-and-gloom epic, but this is how they are and it's not for the narrative to judge them. I’ve found it thought-provoking, entertaining, gripping, compelling and somewhere along humanity’s flight from certain destruction (I also like the way the population count varies at the head of each episode) it became must-see TV. Which is quite an achievement for a remake of some old series I never cared for.
Of course, every show has its detractors and I gather that some folks see BSG as rather one-note. Someone else smarter than me (there are a lot of them) gave the opinion that it was one-note but played skillfully on a range of instruments. Or words to that effect – it was a while ago and I don’t have the original quote to hand – which is a damn shame, because it sums it up pretty darn well. I also gather that the show has garnered critical acclaim and even hailed as ‘genius’. Genius, I don’t know about – it’s one of those words that tend to be bandied about a little too casually – heck, it’s even thrown at New Doctor Who in the hope that it might stick. Ha. Genius, to my mind, is where everything works brilliantly and, that being the assumption, Battlestar Galactica might be said to demonstrate that from time to time, and New Who too with less frequency. It’s not remotely important. What’s important, by my reckoning, is that Battlestar Galactica produced a three-parter midway through the second season that had me absolutely compelled to watch all three episodes in succession in one evening. The experience was, to be honest, exhausting, but only in a way that the best edge-of-your seat TV can be. And because of the format, I had to watch it on a computer screen, which I generally hate having to do. That’s a true measure of quality right there.


Stuart Douglas said...

Excellent, even-handed review Simon, with which I can only agree 100%.

As you say, it doesn't all work, but the vast majority does, which is enough for me.

Plus I could care less about the 9/11 allegory, ignore it totally and enjoy BSG for what it is - easily the best sf show on TV just now.

TimeWarden said...

I've liked Edward James Olmos since I saw him as M Emmet Walsh's right-hand man, Gaff, keeping an eye on Harrison Ford, in "Blade Runner" back in '82. He was great in "Stand and Deliver", 6 yrs later, taking centre stage as a schoolteacher intent on getting dropouts to pass a calculus exam only for his students to be accused of cheating on achieving good grades!

SAF said...

Stuart said: "Plus I could care less about the 9/11 allegory, ignore it totally and enjoy BSG for what it is - easily the best sf show on TV just now."

Indeed. I just feel I should have been more overt in my acknowledgements - I'd still be waiting to see Season 2 if it hadn't been for you :) Merci beaucoup!

Timewarden said: "He was great in "Stand and Deliver", 6 yrs later, taking centre stage as a schoolteacher intent on getting dropouts to pass a calculus exam only for his students to be accused of cheating on achieving good grades!"

Absolutely. I recall the movie very well and it compares very favourably to the better-known "Dangerous Minds" which, despite having Michelle Pfeiffer instead of Edward James Olmos, lacks a certain something.

Stuart Douglas said...

"I'd still be waiting to see Season 2 if it hadn't been for you :) Merci beaucoup!"

'Twas a pleasure. And I now have a shiny 'proper' copy of Farscape to watch - if it's as good as you say I'll be firmly in your debt :)

SAF said...

It won't be the same without those Polish subtitles. We hope! :)

SK said...

Hm. I supose I am hardly qualified to comment, but I gave up on this after sniggering through the initial serial (though I gather even die-hard fans of the series admit that it's dismal) and then the first episode, 33, which I found predictable and incredibly boring, with the crew taking absolutely ages to (a) work out what was blatantly obvious from the beginning, and then (b) to do the thing that it was blatantly obvious that they were going to have to do, but which was built up into some huge pseudo-moral-dilema.

I'm just about willing to believe that it gets better, that it comes up with some original ideas or twists, and that the President develops a consistent character instead of alternating between the most pathetic wet and a hard-as-nails Jack Bauer type just based, for all I could see, on whether the writers want to shock tghe audience; but my initial experience was such that I am not prepared to put much effort into seeking it out. Maybe if it comes to Channel Five I might give it another try.

SAF said...

Hmm, I've not seen anything inconsistent about the path of Laura Roslin from 'schoolteacher' to President. It's all been convincing, for my money, as she finds her feet and tests her strength in her new role, while at the same time combatting her illness and coming to terms with her possible role in the prophesy. But that's me. Still, for what it's worth, I do tend to find that once people have made up their minds, they're generally not easily changed, so you might want to save yourself some time and give the C5 run a miss. I'm pretty selective with what I watch, out of necessity - simply can't follow everything and you have to pick and choose, so if something's not your cup of tea, I'd recommend you go with your first instincts. Although, to be fair, there have been series I didn't take to at first and I have been glad I got into them later (Babylon 5, for instance) and even found myself appreciating their beginnings more as a result. So, who knows...

Stuart Douglas said...

And, to be fair, the mini-series couldn't be duller if Richard Ayoade was in it.

I'd recommend giving it another go, but then again I thought 33 was great.

SAF said...

Stuart: "I'd recommend giving it another go, but then again I thought 33 was great."

But you, sir, are a fellow of indisputable taste. (And someone who likes the Strangerers, but we needn't dwell on that. ;) )

Stuart Douglas said...

Actually, while still liking it a lot, it did end up going on two episodes longer than I had thought it was going to.

Paul Darrow is great in it, though (and of course I can't say poften enough - Mark Williams and Jack Doherty are in it, therefore it is brilliant).