Wednesday, April 18, 2007

BSG: The Lull Before The Storm?

SPOILERS AHOY! for BSG Season 3 (although I'll do my best to keep them to a minimum!)

If Battlestar Galactica happened to be a presiding government, it would have arrived at that difficult mid-term period round about the middle of this current (third) season. So it should come as no surprise that at some point after the almost triple whammy of The Passage, Eye Of Jupiter and Rapture – eps 3.08-3.10 – there is an all too easily discernible slacking off of tension and if the audience were an electorate I imagine there’d be a great deal of voter apathy. What feels like too long a string of ‘quiet’ episodes and even one of the party faithful (me
:) ) found himself waiting, like a becalmed mariner, for a breath of wind to stir things up and get things moving again.

At the time of watching through this ‘lull’, I began to wonder if this was some bold experiment on the part of the producers: removing the Cylons from the picture for quite a protracted period, relative to the length of the season, felt as though it must have been intentional, regardless of how successful or, ahem, otherwise the experiment turned out. I’ve since learned that it was down to budgetary constraints, arising from all the moolah they splashed out for the initial run – or should I say, rush - of episodes dealing with the occupation and liberation of New Caprica. That’s what they call in the business ‘a shame’.

Still, money is just part of the framework every show has to work within, so I’m not going to grumble excessively on that score or cite that as an excuse. In fact, I’d rather view the show from within the story, so to speak, than examine ‘external’ factors of the production.

In that respect, taken individually, those episodes still have something to offer. They are, for the most part, worthwhile snapshots of fleet life, exploring some of the socio-political nitty gritty of this ultimate refugee ‘community’ struggling to hold on to some semblance of civilization and at the same time confronted with having to re-examine its values and rules and rebuild a society from the ground up. An especially tall order when there’s no ground, really.

Taken together – and in comparison to the BSG we have come to know – the end result is a show that treads water for a span in the middle. It’s because we know that BSG is so very capable of examining all those social and political – and personal – angles against the backdrop of an actively ongoing story arc. The problem with these ‘snapshots’ is not so much that they are ‘quiet’ but that, together, they are verging on ‘stills’. It’s entirely fair enough and right that the series should take things down a gear from time to time between the points of high tension – I’d be a nervous wreck otherwise – but somewhere along this string of episodes the ongoing narrative drive essentially stalls. It was still compelling viewing for me, but – aside from the fact that I do love even some of the less likeable characters - the compulsion was starting to come more from me than from the show.

Because of their placement – right there in the middle, where the meat of the sandwich should be (and as a vegetarian I don’t use such phrases lightly) - there is a danger of these episodes characterizing the bulk of the season, which would be both a great shame and – thankfully, when I pause for only a second to consider the highlights – which were nothing short of awesome – highly inaccurate. The string, after all, is just four episodes long. Somehow, it just feels longer and by the time we get to Dirty Hands (3.15), where the refinery workers are revolting (insert obligatory gag here), patience has run out to the point where I’m thinking, “Jeez, you people are the last of the human race on the run from certain extinction at the hands of a deadly race of cyborgs and you’re still striking for better working conditions!”

Tip for the future: don’t appoint me as head of any labour conciliation service should any similar situation arise. Just put me in a Raptor with Boomer.

When I last posted here about BSG, I was at the halfway point and, coincidentally, that was where I’d flag the beginning of the go-slow. Also coincidentally, right after they ‘boxed’ D’Anna (Lucy Lawless) – disappointing enough in itself for me! And, as I say, it runs – or crawls – all the way to Maelstrom (3.17).

And interestingly, by the time that one shows up on the radar, we are so acutely conscious of the Cylons’ absence and almost gagging for their return, that we are entirely ready and/or willing to believe in Starbuck’s elusive phantom raider. Even this delusional threat notches up the tension and, as a bonus, served as a reminder of one of the show’s key strengths: its generally authentic feel for the military machine and mind. Every phantom blip - even the idea of a lone raider - is taken seriously. There’s none of that Starfleet complacency here. It’s the kind of response you’d expect from the commander of a US Carrier battle group to a radar image that could be a solitary hostile.

And I like Starbuck, I think Katee Sackhoff does a grand job with the role and her death had real impact. And thank goodness, not before time.

After that, it’s a short hop to the two-part finale – taking a temporary detour back through lull territory in The Son Also Rises – which, as I said in my Oklahoma-vacation ramble, we got to see on the night of broadcast, recorded on TiVo so we could zip easily through each ad break. And, I’m glad to say, zip eagerly we did.

Along with the expected drama of Baltar’s trial, with individuals called upon to re-open all their personal wounds in their quest for justice, we have a return to pace – and those familiar with the series will appreciate fully what that means – and, I think, form as real movement carries us to a great several-pronged climax, rounding off Season 3 in a manner befitting all those expectations set up by that terrific opening half and baiting several hooks for Season 4 with oodles of promise.

At that point, there’s something hypnotic about it again, especially with the surreal touch of Tigh’s musical mystery – shared by three others. (And it’s one we can all relate to – I mean, how often have you had a tune going round and round in your head and you know it, you just know it, but can you think of the title? God, it’s frustrating, ain’t it.) It’s not what they think it means, I’m pretty certain on that score, but the way it plays and builds as an undercurrent throughout is as powerful in its way as anything we’ve seen in the series to date. And although when the revelation hits we’re none the wiser, we’re too busy being struck on all sides (almost the least of which is the return of the Cylons in force) in a grandly orchestrated - in more ways than one – closing sequence and the end result is strangely uplifting as well as more than suitably tense and dramatic.

(And I’ve struggled to be vague there, for those readers who haven’t yet seen it.)

Of course, it’s only been in the aftermath that I’ve had plenty of time to think and I still don’t have any worthy or credible answers. In that sense, there is a niggling concern that the series may have plunged us into some kind of Lost territory, where the explanations for everything are going to have to be really very good indeed. They’ve set themselves a big challenge.

But I’m glad they did and currently I retain more faith in BSG’s ability to deliver on the promise in that season finale. Time – or, more precisely, Season 4 - will tell. The fact is, I’ve forgiven other shows worse than being caught napping for a handful of episodes, and based on the good viewing BSG has given me to date, it’d be niggardly of me to hold them to account for that. However this blog may come across, my impressions of the show remain overwhelmingly positive and unlike Baltar the series is far from being on trial.

I’ll be buying the DVDs, I know that.

There’s every reason to believe there’s a storm coming. And I need to brush up on my knowledge of Jimi Hendrix lyrics.


Stuart Douglas said...

Yeah, that about sums it up, although I had guessed how the final scenes (what the music meant and how they woudl react and the bit with the lone raider) about half way through the episode. It's a nice setup for next season which is, I believe, rumoured to be the last, and creates an interesting dynamic between all of the regulars.

I did enjoy it a lot, probably more than anything currently on TV, partuclarly because, as you say, there's a relaism there missing from every other sf show. You may not have been so keen on the miners episode, but now having seen them all I think that was my favourite episode of the season - it showed what I imagine actual reality would be - whether you're in space or on the ground, whether it's the 21st century or the 31st, whether you're on the run or not; if you work in terrible, dangerous conditions and it looks like your children might have to as well just to support and unsympathetic military and a pampered political class, then you will rebel. The fact that Adama refused to back down until he'd definitely won was superb - exactly the kind of characterisation based on reality which other genre shows just aren't capable of doing.

Oh, and it's Bob Dylan lyrics, not Hendrix!

Stuart Douglas said...

Oh, and a BSG 2 hour movie in the autumn, apparently, about the backstory of the Pegasus with a young Adama.

SAF said...

Oh, don't get me wrong, I thought the miners episode - like the other 'quieter' episodes - was a fine and worthy exploration of some of the aspects of fleet life. Spot on, realistic response from a hard done-by sector of the populace, and all the more so because it would be just when the enemy happened to fall quiet that they'd down tools and rebel. It was only its placement that led to my impatience getting in the way and, I am ashamed to say, my sympathies inclining far more to the right wing side of the issue than they should have done! On the plus side though, it made that face-off with Adama even more of a humdinger :) Seriously though, that was a brilliant moment - there was this utter conviction that he would have had Cally shot if the Chief hadn't backed down. Definitely a good portrayal of the military mind at work. And when I get around to watching it again, I am sure I'll appreciate that one more the second time around, when I'm not champing at the bit for the next episode!

(Ooh and great news about the prospect of a movie. Yes, please!)

(And D'oh! on the lyrics!)