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Battlestar Galactica (2005-6)
Developed by Ronald D. Moore
review by Jonathan McCalmont
Spoiler Alert!The best things in life never last. Whether it's that restaurant that serves a chocolate terrine so tasty it's as if a chocolaty Jesus came on your face, or that redhead at work that's been giving you the eye over a hot copier. Soon enough the restaurant's owners will sell out to someone who doesn't even know what a terrine is, and you'll notice, all too late, that the redhead from accounts has mysteriously big hands. When the new Battlestar Galactica first appeared a couple of years ago its complex and symbolic plot of religious fanatics, torture and hidden assassins seemed to perfectly capture what was going on in American politics as the Christian neo-cons and Islamic extremists of Al Qaeda seemed to compete for who could be the biggest packs of twats on the planet. It seemed to be miles away from the moral retardation of Star Trek and even one-upped Buffy by not only being rich in human emotion and densely symbolic but also concerned with international politics (a topic far more exciting than the life of a teenager). However, despite a longish break between seasons and a long break in the middle of the second season, Battlestar Galactica has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous as it becomes a series in search of both a theme and a plot.
As I've argued before, it's no coincidence that American series tend to dip in quality after the first season. From The Sopranos to The Wire to Six Feet Under, the fact remains that the first series tends to be strong and then the next series is either a mess or it spends its time wandering around forlornly trying to tidy up the loose threads of the first series. This is because while the writers and producers have an almost infinite amount of time to polish and plan the first season before pitching it to the networks and making it, they rarely have more than six months to write the follow-up. The proof of this law of show business is very much in the pudding that is the second series of Battlestar Galactica.
The ending of the first series saw the fleet split in two along broadly religious lines; half the fleet believed that the President was a prophet and that these times had been foretold in ancient religious texts. The other half believed President Roslin to be mad, and supported Commander Adama's coup. As the season ended, the narrative was left in an unstable situation meaning that one of them had to be right and the issue had to be solved, taking with it the fantastic ambiguity and agnosticism that had fuelled the first series. However, it isn't long before series two has it that the President was in fact right. Unfortunately, the cut and dry manner in which the tension at the end of the first season is resolved proves to become a habit in the second season, as the plot effectively re-sets on three separate occasions.
Firstly, the first few episodes of season two concern themselves with the brief and shambollic command of notorious drunkard Colonel Tigh. Unable to retain the respect of his men and quick to act out of anger, Tigh oversees the accidental murder of dozens of innocent civilians. But nothing comes of it because Adama wakes up and apologises to the President and Colonel Tigh's disastrous command is instantly forgotten in much the same manner as the religious and political disagreements that split the fleet only a few weeks previously.
Secondly, after drifting aimlessly Battlestar Galactica decides to resurrect old chestnut and fan favourite the 'Battlestar Pegasus' from the original series. However, where the first series' Pegasus was commanded by an outrageously camp Lloyd Bridges as Commander Cain, the new Pegasus is commanded by a ruthlessly expedient female Admiral Cain, whose methods are at odds with the more liberal attitudes that have evolved onboard the Galactica. What begin as disagreements quickly turn to tensions and then to all out confrontation as Cain's views on Cylons (that they are things rather than people with rights) lead to a friendly Cylon being raped and her rapist murdered. Soon, the two Battlestars are launching ships at each other and gearing up for war. Somewhat depressingly, though, the issue is resolved and the brief exploration of whether or not Cylons are sentient is shelved along with the issue of the role of faith in politics that underpinned the first season, and the nature of military dictatorships explored early in the second season.
The series then wanders aimlessly again, occasionally toying with poorly plotted and ham-fisted allegories for stem cell research as in Epiphanies and individual episodes that don't advance the larger plot such as the tired and lacklustre Black Market and the misjudged and predictable Scar. However, in the final handful of episodes the season picks up as it starts to deal with the Presidential elections that oppose Roslin to the traitor Baltar. As the humans consider whether to settle on a newly discovered planet and the Cylons decide to attempt to co-exist with the humans, a suicide bomber sets of a nuclear explosion killing thousands of humans and destroying a number of ships. This leads to the third and most breathtaking rebooting of Battlestar Galactica as the storyline skips forward, to reveal mothballed Battlestars and humans living on a planet controlled by Cylons.
Showing admirable production values, some good performances and a commitment to exploring ideas both human and philosophical, Battlestar Galactica effectively sets itself apart from more run-of-the-mill sci-fi dramas. And yet beyond the cosmetic differences there lurks a show with serious writing problems. The basic problem with Battlestar Galactica is that it is a transparently top down creation. By this I mean that the plot and characters evolve in the manner they do because of the whims of the writers. Now, at first glance this is a spectacularly banal point as, ultimately, the writers create everything, but consider for a minute a series such as Deadwood. Deadwood (and The Wire for that matter) are bottom up series insofar as the characters are so well designed and crafted that once you throw them into a certain kind of environment, the episodes essentially write themselves, their bloody and unfortunate conclusions both tragic and tragically obvious to anyone who watches with an eye for how the characters are constructed.
To put it another way, the conflicts that animate those series are front loaded into the characters and the situations in such a way as to make the series driven by their characters, as opposed to Battlstar Galactica where the characters are clearly driven by the week-by-week creative whims of the writing staff, which was manifestly not the case in the first season. The result is that it is difficult to suspend your disbelief as the wild and wildly expedient changes in the characters are obviously there because the writers need to close off a particular subplot or engineer a particular situation. In essence, the characters are without a direction meaning that the show's producers have to give them a new one each week, resulting in a lack of cohesive or coherent plot arcs and a complete breakdown in the evolution of a number of characters. At this point, fans will jump up and explain that it's perfectly reasonable for Adama to completely change his mind about the President and go from considering her a dangerous psychotic to a lovely woman, but I would argue that writing a character that is prone to radical mood swings and changes of opinion is in fact indistinguishable from poor characterisation because it is poor characterisation.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the handling of the Cylons' secret plan. Throughout the first and second seasons we were told again and again that the Cylons had a plan, and that they were manoeuvring the humans into place. While anyone who has ever watched The X-Files or Carnivale will realise that there was no plot, and that the writers were making it up as they went along, there was at least a suggestion of a longer plot arc that had been worked out. However, in the final three episodes of this season, the plan changes from the original secret plan to the idea that the humans and Cylons can live together in peace to a third plan in which the humans are kept as prisoners by Cylon soldiers. In three episodes the motivation of the Cylon characters changes twice, practically at the drop of a hat. Are we really to believe that the writers of this show have any control over where it's going at this point?
The final reboot at the end of season two is not so much a daring change of direction as it is an admission of failure. The three different attempts at finding a theme, the drastic changes in the central characters, the unsatisfactory manner in which old plot lines are closed off and the Cylons that are overly eager to re-invent their entire species' attitude towards humans stand as undeniable evidence that Ronald D. Moore and his team of writers simply could not make the original format work for longer than one season. The rare flashes of intelligence that Battlestar Galactica shows in its treatment of Cylon psychology and the relationship between the military and civilian authority suggest that there's still a hunger to be bold, intelligent and challenging but with a move to a more prime-time slot announced for the third series the writing team behind Battlestar Galactica need to recapture the magic that made season one such compelling viewing and exorcise the demons that made season two such a complete failure.
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