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Battlestar Galactica: season three (2006)
Developed by Ronald D. Moore
review by Jonathan McCalmont
Spoiler Alert!I must admit that I was dreading my return to the world of Battlestar Galactica. I had so loved the first season's subtle blending of emotional drama with political allegory that the second season's more ad hoc approach to plotting had actively repulsed me. In some ways this was inevitable as it is always the ones we love that hurt us the most but, in other ways, this was not just about my disappointment. The second season of Battlestar Galactica was a mess because the writers were operating without direction or anything approaching strategic thought; ideas were picked up and cast aside, characters would radically shift personalities and viewpoints while the first series' exemplary continuity was replaced with a Star Trek-style willingness to use the reset button once a plot arc had run its course.
All of these signs pointed firmly to the fact that Battlestar Galactica was no longer about artistic vision or telling a story, it was about churning out content. Unfortunately for us all, this third season not only failed to show a return to the form of the first season, it showed an even more alarming slide into shallowness of thought and execution as big events, big revelations and big plot twists arrive in gags, almost but not quite overshadowing the series' now rare but still present moments of genuine insight and intelligence.
At the end of series two, the bulk of the surviving humans are living on New Caprica, a world once promising to give the human race a new start, now delivering only misery as the cylons take over the administration of the planet and begin to slowly crush humanity's spirit beneath their elegantly styled stilettos. Confronting the cylons are the resistance, commanded by the now one-eyed Colonel Tigh (who has adopted the use of suicide bombers) who clings desperately to the hope that the Galactica and Pegasus will return to save them. Return, they eventually do but not until many lives are lost and the cylons leg it with now ex-president Baltar. Once the fleet safely reassembled, the series delves in and out of three different plotlines.
The first plot line deals with the need for justice following the cylon occupation and the number of humans who decided to collaborate. Initially, this leads to secret tribunals being formed as members of the resistance meat out their own brand of justice right up until they nearly execute a resistance spy and the 'Circle' sheepishly realises that actually they're just exorcising their own emotional problems and that justice doesn't enter into it. Despite this realisation being reached early on in the series, the plotline drags out for much longer as former president Baltar is recaptured and forced to face trial. The prompts Apollo to retire from the service and become a lawyer (for about two episodes) but the trial falls apart when Apollo rightly points out how many previous atrocities and mistakes have been swept under the carpet and the court then sheepishly realises that it was just looking to exorcise its own emotional problems and that justice doesn't enter into it.
The second plotline deals with the religious aspects of Battlestar Galactica. Built on the firm foundations of the first season's clash of religious worldviews, this thread interweaves the human and cylon beliefs and sees numerous people visited with visions and beliefs that they're some kind of messiah. Indeed, three major characters come to believe that they're important religious figures while a different five turn out to actually be important religious figures. No need for a revival on Galactica then. This plotline additionally sees Starbuck momentarily killed off as a part of the ongoing quest for Earth and a lot more of Baltar's bulging eyes that make it look as though he's trying to pop his eyeballs out of his skull purely by repeatedly clenching his buttocks.
The third plotline is largely parasitic upon the first two but is arguably more interesting in that it deals with the continuous political development of the fleet and colonial society. This sees Helo cast as an outsider for drawing attention to the issue of racism and then clutched to the admiralty's manly bosom as he finishes the series as Galactica's XO while Chief Tyrol turns his attention to the class inequalities in colonial society.
Battlestar Galactica has become a series that is built around big emotional moments. Every little mini-arc leads to one, whether it's Tigh's decision to poison his wife in the New Caprica stories, Apollo's falling out with his father during the trial of Baltar, or even Starbuck revealing the abusive nature of her childhood and the emotional repercussions of her short-lived demise. I'm glossing over a number of others. Such an internal structure is neither surprising nor uncommon in modern American film and TV. Six Feet Under, for example, had a plot mechanism that guaranteed that by the time one family crisis was resolved and the character returned to happiness, another would spring up to replace it, thereby kick-starting the conflict that would drive the series. Indeed, even at the cinema, it is difficult to think of an American indie film that does not revolve around painful introspection and the quest for emotional truth, be it The Royal Tenenbaums, I Heart Huckabees, Sideways, Wonder Boys, or The Virgin Suicides.
Battlestar Galactica is very much written in the same mould as these films as its chief currency is not really space battles or fight scenes but rather an endless procession of fucked up relationships. As evidenced by the amount of alcohol that gets drunk on screen, there is not a single relationship in this series that does not have 'issues' that are explored at length by the writers. This gives Battlestar Galactica the kind of 'grown up' and 'complex' feel that tends to wow the kind of easily impressed mainstream critic who can be found writing things such as "despite being sci-fi, Battlestar Galactica is actually surprisingly good..." However, despite the cosmetic similarities to a number of great dramatic films, Battlestar Galactica's most obvious cinematic analogue is Gore Verbinski's The Weather Man.
Much like The Weather Man, Battlestar Galactica is a profoundly dishonest and manipulative piece of writing. Good drama relies ultimately upon clarity and honesty. A good dramatic character is carefully constructed so that when their failings are laid bare before the audience, they have a real sense of dramatic truth about them. Drama is ultimately fuelled not by emotion but by emotional truth. The series writers have simply failed to grasp this simple fact.
Consider, for example, the fate of Chief Tyrol whose loyalty to the Galactica is tested when he realises the Dickensian work conditions of the fleet's factory ships and the complete lack of social mobility within the fleet. Horrified by what he learns, Tyrol calls a general strike, only to call the strike off when Adama threatens to execute the chief's wife. Evidently, on New Caprica, the chief was the head of a union. We know this because the "previously on Battlestar Galactica..." vignettes tell us. However, the actual New Caprica episodes hardly even mention labour unions and the episodes in between scarcely mention the chief's history as a socialist firebrand.
Nonetheless, we are expected to believe that the chief agonises over his decision to call a strike. In truth, the decision to become a union man seems capricious, an impression underlined by the fact that Tyrol seemingly bears no ill will to Adama for threatening to execute his wife because he dared to complain about 11-year-olds working 18-hour days on factory ships. There is no emotional truth here because the chief casually becomes a union leader when the plot demands it and casually stops being a union leader when the reset button is hit. Battlestar Galactica gives us spectacle and it does a good job of contriving moments that look a lot like proper drama but there is never any depth to any of it as the characters are routinely rewritten to suit the needs of the next episode. Given this constant state of flux, Starbuck's death and resurrection come as no surprise whatsoever.
Once you understand the writers' paper-thin loyalty to their own creations, it also becomes obvious why Starbuck is such an important character in the series. Starbuck is fucked up and as such she's liable to do anything at any time. This is a real boon for lazy writers as it means that Starbuck can be used to plug whatever hole the plot demands and it can all be explained by having Tigh or Apollo shake his fist at her and declare her a basket case but the best damn viper pilot in the fleet. What is worrying about the direction Battlestar Galactica is headed in is that more and more of the characters are kept in that same fucked up holding pattern... all the characters are emotional cripples and therefore you don't have to worry about drastic changes to their personality so it doesn't seem odd that in one episode Adama thinks to himself that Apollo has really pulled things together and a few episodes later, Adama doesn't want a man like Apollo serving under him. Helo undergoes a similar transformation where despite being steadfastly loyal to his friends and his cylon wife, an episode suddenly demands that he be seen as an outsider and so steadfast but dull Helo is reinvented as a serial contrarian.
The writers even go so far as to attempt to explain this tendency away by drawing attention to all the 'mistakes' that have been 'forgiven' during the programme's three season run. Like many bad action films that draw attention to their own absurdity, Battlestar Galactica's awareness of its own shortcomings neither explains them nor justifies them. It's just more grist to the writers' mill and the writers are more than happy to remind us that we've swallowed a lot of shit being swept under the rug in the past and we're bloody well going to swallow Baltar being forgiven his crimes too.
The only thing that keeps this series from completely imploding is the fact that it really, really looks the part. The special effects are excellent as ever and the acting is systematically fantastic. A casual viewer will undeniably come to this series and see something that looks like an incredibly well made and intelligent piece of TV but unfortunately, once you look beneath the surface you find nothing of real substance or insight. Battlestar Galactica is the genre TV equivalent of one of those North Korean show villages... it really looks the part but at the end of the day there's nobody at home.
What ultimately makes watching Battlestar Galactica is that it really isn't far away from being really great TV. The New Caprica plotline expands on the 'war on terror' narrative of the first series and takes the series into the quagmire of Iraq as the dispossessed humans take to suicide bombing in the hope of someway harming the cylons. Again, the spectre of politics rises as the writers explore not only racial tensions between the different colonies but also class differences between the well off Caprican political class and the poorer working class colonists trapped on factory ships. It really wouldn't take much for Battlestar Galactica to return to the heights of the first series but every time an interesting idea appears it is rolled up by the end of the episode and never mentioned again. These fleeting moments of insight and unrealised potential are what brought me back after the disappointing second series and they're what kept me watching the DVDs. Unfortunately though, I suspect that the writers are now too used to the reset button, and their ability to rewrite characters, for Battlestar Galactica to ever return to the heights of its initial run, and with only one long season scheduled before the show finishes, there's not much chance of that happening.
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