Sunday, January 21, 2007

Battlestar Galactica: Showdown at slap o'clock

"Battlestar Galactica" is back and it's slap-tastic. Spoilers (posted early because I may be computerless for a bit) coming right up...

Ron Moore has said that, with the exception of "33," he's never been completely satisfied with the self-contained episodes, and that the arc episodes -- usually at the beginning, midway point and ends of seasons -- are almost always better than the standalones.

Now, I've liked a lot of standalones besides "33" ("Flight of the Phoenix," "Flesh and Bone" and "Scar," to name just three), but "33" is the only one that can hold a candle to a "Pegasus" or the entire New Caprica storyline, and these last two episodes on the algae planet have been an order of magnitude better than anything we've seen since "Collaborators."

So why is that? Why are the arc shows so much better? I can think of a few obvious reasons:
  1. Awesome cliffhangers (Adama shot, Pegasus and Galactica at war, "One year later," etc.);
  2. The entire cast is involved in significant ways, whereas many of the standalone shows tend to focus on one or a handful of characters;
  3. There are consequences to what's happened before and in what will happen after.
It's that last one that's the big issue, one of the main elements that's elevated "Galactica" over the "Star Trek" spin-offs and virtually all of modern TV skiffy. There is no reset button. Grudges are held. Lost lives and resources aren't magically replaced. What the audience has watched before matters, and it makes what they're watching now better.

Take a scene like Helo shooting Sharon. That's a huge emotional moment under any circumstances, but it resonates more because so much time has been spent on the theft of Hera, on Sharon's re-assimilation into the Colonial fleet, and on the basics of Cylon resurrection. And because the writers and the audience have put the time in on all of that, it becomes obvious what Sharon's asking Helo to do, and why, and what the ramifications of that will be, well before he does it. And then he does it in a way that I, at least, didn't expect, in mid-embrace, and it just slayed me, no pun intended.

Now compare that to, say, "Hero," which involves a character we've never seen before and will probably never see again, an inner conflict for Adama that doesn't track with anything we know of the character and that gets resolved in the course of the hour, relatively minimal stakes... that could've been a "Next Generation" episode involving an old friend of Picard's from the Stargazer with minimal changes.

Overall, I wouldn't put "Rapture" on the level of a "Resurrection Ship" or "Exodus Pt. II," but what made it good was how it either paid off or paid forward so many storylines: Sharon and Helo's stolen baby, D'Anna's messianic obsession with The Final Five, the Lee/Kara/Dee/Anders quadrangle, Caprica Six's disenchantment with her own people and Tyrol's spiritual background and struggles, among others. And even if some of those stories weren't the most riveting along the way (D'Anna's, notably), by the time we got to the end of them, I felt like my patience was mostly rewarded.

Some specific scenes I liked, other than Helo/Sharon:
  • The Sharon/Boomer showdown, and Caprica Six making what seems to be a very foolish choice by snapping Boomer's neck and helping Sharon escape. (Sharon always had one respected human ally on her side in Helo, while Caprica's only friend is even more hated than she is.)
  • Dee going for the premature slap-ulation to keep Starbuck awake -- and to punish her, however mildly, for screwing with her man.
  • Apollo and Anders doing a live grenade alley-oop, in a moment that could have been even cooler if I had a better understanding of the rules of Pyramid.
  • Helo looking much bigger than Madame President as he explained, "If you hadn't lied and stolen our baby in the first place, we wouldn't be here at all."
  • The callback to the paintings in Starbuck's apartment, which made me wish I didn't have my DVDs out on loan so I could check and see if the Eye of Jupiter was in the background of that scene or if the writers are just being retroactively clever.
  • Placing Baltar in a bodybag to keep his presence a relative secret.
  • The final scene with D'Anna and Brother Cavil. The rough cut didn't have the FX completed, so all I saw in the final shot was one of each, as opposed to hundreds. Given the CGI team's track record, I'm going to guess the finished product looked cool.
So what did everybody else think? And how would you suggest improving the standalones to avoid another slump like we had in between "Collaborators" and "Eye of Jupiter"?


Anonymous said...

The painting on Starbuck's wall was definitely there in "Valley of Darkness." Prominently so, in fact. You can see a screenshot here.

Well said on the rewards of story arcs, by the way.

velvetcannibal said...

Reposting what I wrote elsewhere:

One of the things I love most about this episode is a particular point of continuity from all the way back to the miniseries. Six has evolved so far from her original conception, as the baby-neck-snapper on Caprica just before the destruction of humanity. The first time we see her, she's taking the life of a child as if it's "better off this way." Years later, she's witness to this behavior and takes a completely different path.

That moment with Boomer felt so earned for Six. She's faced with a Cylon about to murder a human child like she did back on Caprica, and she chooses to save the child and snap the neck of the Cylon that threatens murder.

I really love the evolution there, and it's fitting that she went with Sharon to Galactica.

Back to now:

I really haven't agreed with you on the qaulity shift of the season at all. While the first 5 episodes were non-stop action and unbelievable storytelling, I found plenty to love about every episode except "Hero," really. Well, "The Passage" wasn't my favorite either. The others still asked tough questions or brought satisfying character development, and frankly, I needed a break from suicide bombings and genocide. I do think this week's episode and "The Eye of Jupiter" were above those after "Collaborators," but I still found many aspects of the episodes to be quite riveting.

That's my take on it. I haven't seen the drop in quality as much as a change of focus and pacing, a journey which I thought expanded the BSG universe and brought more layers to many of the characters.

Maybe I'm just a Jacob at heart.

Anonymous said...

See, I think they should get rid of the standalones altogether. I understand that 10 years ago, it was necessary for a show like, say, X Files to do a combo of standalones and story arcs, but this is a new time, and television has changed. The Shield, Deadwood, The Wire, many of the greatest serialized dramas rarely, and in some cases never, have standalone episodes.

BSG has been bold in many regards, but I've always found it strange how timid they've been about something like story arcs, which has been fairly well established as something that can add dramatic tension and, as shows like 24 will attest to, doesn't necessarily have to kill ratings. With 10-episode half seasons, it shouldn't be too difficult to have 10-episode arcs each half-season.

Taleena said...

I found D'Anna much more compelling that you did and James Callis' use of her religious madness the most facinating part of the show.

In fact, without Baltar 6 and 3 I'd be much less interested in the show. Baltar believes in Baltar and science - in that order It is downright creepy to see Callis, looking like a wild eyed Jesus turn D'Anna's religious fervor to his own use.

Baltar is morphing into a messianic figure in his mind to justify his betrayal. He is using religion without the redemptive kindness of religion's purpose, to save himself from his own guilt.

Caprica 6 has tread the opposite path towards kindness. I knew as soon as Tyrol captured Baltar that 6 was in the shuttle with Athena.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I like the breathing room the standalones offer, even when they're less than stellar; "The Passage" didn't do much for me, but "Hero" and especially "Unfinished Business" rocked.

It's not like the show's themes screech to a halt in these one-offs, and, frankly, they strike me as realistic -- who, after all, can claim to have a life comprised of a single, solitary arc? (We wish.)

Instead, they function nicely as tightly focused explorations of character detail -- underlined words on a the pages of a long, complex book, if you will. I welcome the diversion.

Anonymous said...

At least they put her in "cold storage... indefinitely," rather than killing her off outright. I wonder whose idea it was, theirs or hers?

Alan Sepinwall said...

I agree that doing away with the standalone episodes would be a mistake. I'm just trying to figure out ways they could be better -- if not as intense as the arc stuff, then at least better-executed than they've been in a while.

Anonymous said...

The painting in Starbuck's apartment, now that I know it was really there in the earlier episode, is the first "Babylon 5"-type moment this series has had (planting story elements 1-4 years ahead of revealing their relevance). And even then, it could've been a fluke--they may not have had any idea they would use that design later when they put it up on her wall. Still, it's a good try.

Anonymous said...

Another reason for the standalone episodes is because they use fewer characters, thus, fewer actors (and maybe less special effects), thus, the episode is cheaper. Shows like Battlestar don't have the same budget as, for instance, ER. I like the character development, but sometimes the writing isn't as sharp as in the arc episodes. Still, I've been satisfied this season.