Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Season 4, Episode 4, "Escape Velocity"

When the prophet Zoroaster popularized the concept of monotheism 2500 years ago, the world wasn’t exactly torn apart in a blizzard of religious confrontation. Thanks largely to Cyrus I, the Persian King of Kings who accepted this strange new belief with magnanimity and urged his subjects to do the same, monotheism existed peacefully alongside the Vedic gods of antiquity. If there’s one thing to learn from the tumultuous events of “Escape Velocity”, the fourth episode in Battlestar Galactica’s fourth and final season, it’s that monotheism’s emergence on the ragtag fleet is going to be a much messier affair.

The nexus of “Escape Velocity” was very obviously Gaius Baltar’s disturbing vein of monotheism clashing with the powers that be, and as with monotheism here on Earth, it seems that Baltar’s message is ultimately destined to win out. For that, Baltar has had an unlikely (and unwitting) ally in Laura Roslin, whose transparent attempts to destroy him, whether by trial in last season’s finale, or by politicking this week, have essentially created a sympathetic figure where once stood the most loathed person on the fleet. Roslin’s hatred for Baltar has long surpassed the boundaries of rationality, considering she amnestied everyone on New Caprica and remembers him before the holocaust only in fevered images. Coupled with her increasing inclination to totalitarianism, Roslin’s detestation of Baltar has twice pitted her against Lee Adama, who, despite being consistently re-drawn as a character, has usually acted as the fleet’s conscience. Baltar’s big speech enumerating his new ontology, however influenced it was by his own personal hallucination (the Six in Baltar’s head has always assured him he was destined for something bigger, and, with the phantom shirt-tug, she’s now taking active steps to ensure he fulfills that destiny), was only possible because Roslin’s blustering moral certitude provoked Lee to action, as it did during Baltar’s trial. If Ronald Moore is setting up Lee to be the Hatfield to Roslin’s McCoy, as many fans are predicting and the events of “Escape Velocity” suggest, it’s going to be difficult for Roslin to win that feud, and even more difficult for fans to actively root for her. Such a sweeping and believable shift in audience loyalties—imagine watching in seasons 2 or 3 and actively cheering on Baltar to get one over the stoic Roslin—is a tribute to Moore’s impressive narrative acumen, and gives faith that the show can’t help but go out strong, unlike The X-Files, say, or Buffy.

Not much else happened in “Escape Velocity” but not much had to: it was a time for these characters, having gone through so many changes of late, to take some time to reflect. A bewigged and haggard Roslin dropping hints about the funeral she wants; Tigh finally acknowledging he needs to come to grips with Ellen; Tyrol accepting he settled for the best of limited options. A weaker show might founder in such introspective seas, but Battlestar Galactica seems to thrive in them—the series’ best moments (“Scar”, “Unfinished Business”, “33”) have always focused more on the journey than the destination, and “Escape Velocity" continued that tradition.

One other thing. I was getting annoyed by the constant visual tricks that this season seems to be foisting on us (Tigh shooting Adama in the eye in the premiere, Tyrol hearing Adama berate his child as an abomination, Tigh seeing Ellen in Caprica-Six) before I realized it was probably just a manifestation of the cylon projection system described in season 3. That brings up some interesting metaphysical questions, though: are these hallucinations wish fulfillment? Can the four control those images? These are the things that I should really stop thinking about.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Patriot's Draft

The Writers Guild versus the AMPTP might soon measure amongst the most significant events of our recent national public-political discourse. Stateside opinion of this president’s agenda has descended into an absurd nonsensicality, an afterthought inherent to an administration crippled by its overseas endeavors. Our recent presidential campaigns have been muted by permeating senses of foregone conclusions, both bleakly desperate (2004) and cautiously promising (2008.) And by now the once vaunted “New” Congress has proved infinitely more interested in on occupying itself with the affairs d’Clemens and Belichick than seizing upon any major policy movements. Meanwhile, a major labor dispute has now come and not really gone, helping to define in no small way the terms of a major domestic industry’s growth for the immediate hereafter with few Americans knowing (caring?) about the matters at stake, not only as relate to professional writers, but our own very lifestyles.

The terms of the writers’ return remain undisclosed to the public, but it is probable that the writers will receive a royalty rate lower than the proposed reparations for DVD sales would have provided once the agreement is ratified, as well as royalties for new media still well-below the desired broadcast television standard. Though, thankfully, nobody will be losing their homes or starving in Los Feliz in the immediate future for this agreement, there remains no end to the dirty tricks at the disposal of our multinational overlords to squeeze entertainment workers for every last penny. Online media- on the back of content bereft of the costs of manufacturing, shipping, storing and retailing physical properties- may very well yield profits soon into the billions. And as other proposals that might limit the continued dominance of corporate media powers seem doomed to fail, an eventual revelation of the strike’s resolution turning out to be the “Home Video Swindle: Redux” seems not only plausible, but exceedingly likely. Come the maturity of an integrated, online age for all popular entertainment, we will see more and more importance implicit to such issues as those highlighted in the recent strike. Yes, our scripted television shows are coming back on the air, but for thousands of people who work in the industry bracing for the possibility of more upheaval, their livelihoods are very much still up in it. A settlement shouldn’t suggest anything has truly been settled.

HBO’s John Adams miniseries wrapped up its 7 episode Emmy-grab this past Sunday night. I share many of the criticisms of the series that have been commonly reported in critics’ circles. The performances throughout are consistently decent yet somehow disappointing, many episodes are given to interminably boring stretches devoid of any sense of historian David McCullough’s transcendent passion for its source material, and that this gritty age of telefilms’ insistence on realism has culminated in a most brutal extreme, seemingly independent of any storytelling purpose. Yet it still evident to me that Adams is possessed of at least one strength which elevates it from utter mediocrity: John Adams was a simply brilliant mind and a dynamic speaker in heated debate, whose talents here lead to several excellent scenes depicting the political contests of our nation’s birth and early years. Paul Giamatti, in the series titular role, plays his finest moments with a dour ferocity of belief in the import his duties, which take him from the courtrooms of colonial Boston to the hostile would-be architects of America at Independence Hall and even an Audience with King Crankypants the Second himself.

Sadly, these excellent scenes are spread too few and too far between diversions that, despite substantial runtimes, still feel too shallow and limiting in their depictions of Adams as a person. We endure lengthy treatments on his restless periods in Europe (the French here are hedonist airheads, the Dutch wry moneychangers) and infrequent interaction with his family that mostly settles for presenting the man in the simple dyad of sensitive husband, overbearing-yet-distant father. But more than anything, his endless frustration permeates our every sense of the man. While often depicted fretting that he may not have done enough to secure a future for his fledgling country, certainly seems convinced enough of his accomplishments as a legislator and diplomat to brood endlessly over his recognized place in history for them. Adams was all-too aware it seems, even in his own time, that he was destined to the second-tier of our historical remembrance, behind men more popular (Thomas Jefferson), weighty (George Washington) or merely adept at whoring for attention (Benjamin Franklin.) To this day the greatest tribute paid to him is a 752 page biography that most Americans will never so much as use to level a coffee table (and now, 8 or so more hours of HBO’s post-Sopranos programming.)

Our neglect for the contentious farmer’s son from Massachusetts parallels our current role as consumers regarding the status of entertainment workers. Mixed thoughts and opinions converge for me as I experience a viewing of HBO’s John Adams miniseries via a less-than-legal internet source. Tuning into Hulu, with its high quality streams and conveniently stable servers has taken on something of a conflicting feel for me. It is a fact that our continued support for online content has enabled the technology that makes it so much clearer, faster and more plentiful and profitable) than ever, yet this is also maybe the single largest source of the leverage used by corporate powers to shirk fairness and continue to dominate its own, largely anonymous workmen’s class.
John Adams, the series, asks us to glorify the most unlikely qualities of likability that define our uniquely American spirit, and to elevate the collective effort of those who raised our nation by celebrating the most relatively nondescript of our sacred statesman. Adams, the man, lost his place on Mount Rushmore not for undeserving, but as the cost of his inability to be both indispensible and beloved at the same time. Tuning into Big-Money outlets like Hulu for our 30 Rock fix now feels, in some small way, complicit with a similar kind of marginalization to that which Adams has endured in our collective consciousness. It is after all our demand for new media that has pit another great American institution- Labor- against the times.

Or am I just framing a self-serving argument for the torrent abuser in all of us? Are we privateers or pirates? I’m really not sure, though I think I can say that, today, being a buccaneer bootlegger has never quite felt so patriotic.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Season 4, Episode 3, "The Ties That Bind"

A scant week after one of the worst episodes in its history, Battlestar Galactica returned Friday night to offer a nearly perfect hour of television, touching on all the themes that make the show so great without once striking the wrong note.

If last week’s episode was the series at its weakest—relentlessly didactic, stuffed with obvious dialogue and inconsistent character development—then “The Ties That Bind” was a stern reminder to audiences that Battlestar Galactica still has plenty of verve. From the oppressive confines of the Demetrius to President Roslin’s voiceless anguish during her chemo drip, it was a triumph of visual storytelling, and yet another point in favor of my belief that today’s best cinematic storytelling can be found on your television.

There were so many oh-my-god moments in “The Ties That Bind” that it’s difficult to discuss them at all without sounding synoptic. Cally’s murder, of course, was the most important, as her demise was not only the most gut-wrenching moment of the episode but also its central axis. The antipathy towards Cally has been growing steadily over the course of the series, and the producers often toyed with viewers’ hopes that she just frakking die already, repeatedly placing her in life-and-death situations from which she barely managed to escape. But in death, Cally joins her colleagues Louanne Katraine and Ellen Tigh as characters we loathed, but whom, in the end, we can’t help but mourn.

That there can even be sympathy for a woman who was prepared to send her baby out of an airlock is a testament to Nicki Clyne’s ability to convey Cally’s desperation at being in such a miserable frame of mind. Taking drugs to numb the pain of being in a loveless marriage with a man who savagely beat her (it was nice to hear Cally admit that she played on Tyrol’s guilt to get him to marry her), stuck in a job she hates but can’t escape, and, finally, finding out that her husband and her baby are cylon, Cally, who has always been the most avowed cylon-hater on the ragtag fleet, simply felt her only recourse was murder-suicide. I’m not saying that her circumstances make her decision defensible, and I’ll stop short of comparing Cally’s situation to the murderous mothers coming out of Mississippi every other week, but going into that airlock was certainly an understandable decision, and I don’t think there’s another show that could have made me feel that way.

In any event, when history judges Battlestar Galactica, it won’t mistake Cally for a strong female character. Though she certainly had her moments, biting off the ear of an attempted rapist, or her defiantly telling Boomer to frak off in a New Caprica prison cell, in the end, Cally was just a stop-lossed wannabe dental student, thrust into the flurry of events by dint of circumstance rather than any special destiny. She was the everywoman, and she’ll be missed.

Of course, the real horror of Cally’s death is that she had come to her senses, decided not to kill herself and her son, but was forced out of the airlock anyway by the newly cylonized Tory Foster (now with super-strength!). Because of all the shows on television, only Battlestar Galactica has the audacity to actually have Cally follow through with her ghastly plan, there was a palpable sense of dread when she walked into the airlock, clutching her child. But Tory’s appearance offered Cally, and us viewers, a way out. I wanted so desperately to believe in Tory’s good intentions that after she brutally sucker punched Cally, it felt like she punched me, too.

I can’t think of any equivalent to the total, cruel destruction of a major character on a TV show (maybe Angel killing Miss Calendar?), but it was done so artfully that I can’t possibly find complaint. That starts with Rekha Sharma, who, after having been treated as an afterthought during most of her tenure in the show, has proved herself worthy with the past two episodes. Her performance in the airlock was nothing short of a revelation, her manner and inflection alternating between tenderness and malice.

There will of course be debate behind Tory’s intentions. Is her programming finally taking over? Was she protecting herself and her compatriots? Did she just hate Cally as much as most viewers did? Whatever the case, she’s clearly made her bed. It’ll be interesting to see how Tyrol, who has always been anchored by his relationships, transitions from here out. His wife is airlocked, his deck crew friends are all gone (dead or on the Demtrius). The only human relationship he has left is Admiral Adama, who, in a nice parallel to his bedside visit with President Roslin, wordlessly consoled Tyrol in the episode’s closing moments.

The cylon civil war material was equally good, but in a less immediate way. In my analysis last week I glossed over what had happened, but the developments in “The Ties That Bind” are too important to ignore, essentially fulfilling the hybrid’s prophecy from Razor:

“The seven, now six, self-described machines who believe themselves without sin, but in time, it is sin that will consume them. They will know enmity, bitterness, the wrenching agony of the one splintering into the many, and then they will join the promised land, gathered on the wings of an angel. Not an end, but a beginning.”
During the oft-maligned third season, many criticisms centered on the fact that increased focus on the cylons stripped them of their menace and mystery. That still holds true, but with the reveal of four of the final five, as well as the prophesied intertwined destinies of human and cylon, fleshing out the cylons, so to speak, was important narrative legwork. I’m not sure what the ultimate fate of humanity will be (I’m not sure Ronald Moore knows, either), but I know the cylons will have something to do with it. And when the end comes, I’d much rather them be a known commodity than just some faceless, monolithic killing force.

Of course, if the hybrid’s words are true about the cylons, they’re probably true about Starbuck as well: “She is the herald of the apocalypse. The harbinger of death. They must not follow her.” That dramatic irony is surely going to factor heavily into the upcoming episodes. But for now, all’s quiet, as the events served primarily to set up just who was on the ship (Athena, Helo, Gaeta, Anders, and Starbuck—who the hell is guarding Galactica now?) and to give Starbuck a speech that was a BIG GIANT SIGN to suggest that Starbuck is a cylon, claiming as she did that she feels untethered from her body.

For my money, I don’t think she’s the fifth. For one, it’s too obvious. For another, her description of alienation is totally opposite of Tory’s heightened sense of sensation. There was obviously something done to her in absentia, but I have a hunch it’s more supernatural than not.

The missteps, what few there were, naturally came with the Apollo stuff. Lee continues to be the least interesting character on the show, manipulated once more by Tom Zarek (after being the puppet to Romo Lampkin’s puppeteer in season 3’s finale). I think the writers have always had trouble with establishing Lee’s character, but in Zarek, they have a layered personality to balance him. A freedom-fighter/terrorist whose principles can get in the way of his humanity, it was nice to see someone on the fleet finally acknowledge some trepidation with regards to Roslin’s inclination towards totalitarianism, however benign (and scripturally justified) that totalitarianism can be.

Some other thoughts:

The cylon centurions have always looked frighteningly real, and even seeing them cleaning up some cabinets in the basestar didn’t detract from that menace.

Bear McCreary’s soundtrack has long been one of Battlestar Galactica’s secret weapons, and the Persian-inflected guitar filtering through Cally’s eavesdropping was the latest example of that.

There was a certain savageness to Cally taking a wrench to Tyrol’s head, but it was nonetheless realistic: two sickening thuds, Tyrol staggering but not going down, eyes bulging and unfocused. It was the best fight I've seen since Dan Dority grappled with The Captain in Deadwood’s thoroughfare.

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Politics Versus the Playoffs

The Democratic primary race lingers into April like a bad hangover, and each day's changes only taunt us with the prospect of its conclusion. We emerge this week from the doldrums with the Pennsylvania primary - a lull lasting for weeks until April 22, when the political winds came to a stop and the candidates were left without a primary or caucus to billow their sails. With no horse race to be won, the system created its own to be followed. The graph of Gallup's national head-to-head poll became inescapable (but what question does it ask? and what ones does it answer?) and each superdelegate added to a tally became a notable gain. To control one is to preclude your opponent from doing so. All moves are part of a grander strategy, and there are no events, only processes. It is not as simple as a Machiavellian conspiracy to control the demos: the candidates, the press corp, the "media," and the consumers coordinate, cooperate, create a relationship of supply and demand where the creation of "irrelevant news as commodity" is inevitable.

Shortly after Super Tuesday, the media narrative had evolved to contain the thread of similarity. That for all the differences willed into being, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were by and large the same. Though this narrative had the potential to evolve in any number of ways, conflict plays better than compromise. Rather than establish the points at which ground is shared between the two candidates, the media set to work in justifying the conflict that it would help perpetuate. If they are the same (and they are) the conflict is, on-face, incoherent. So, we construct difference - Obama as New Politics/Inspirational Leader/social change versus Clinton as Old Politics/Executive Leader/political change. But we could instead turn our attentions to how a campaign develops and maintains an absurdly skewed self-perception. How despite being confronted with near mathematical impossibility, and a chance of victory that depends entirely on tearing the party apart, the Clinton campaign persists by falling into the groupthink and narcissism that can become the heart of even the best political campaigns. The epitaphs were being written on the headstone of the Clinton campaign weeks ago, yet here we are.

In writing about the NBA, I am both gifted with and hindered by a complete lack of historical perspective. While I can't speak to "what it was like in the day," perhaps this is for the best. If the world has lost its sense of historicity, then the NBA is one of the locations in which the loss is most clearly evident. The NBA, as it falls increasingly behind the NFL and MLB despite their well publicized problems with video-cameras and steroids, is judged less by the League as it exists today, than by the cultural narratives that portray it. Past the halcyon days of Jordan. Players as Thugs. Less hustle than March Madness. It doesn't matter if these are true, it matters that they are taken as true. We've lost the need for authenticity in our historical representations, and so we are happy to accept those with which we are presented. If we challenge them, we will do so functionally - to prove a point - and recreate a competing narrative based not in historical authenticity, but in counterpoint to the dominant narrative. Faithful representations of the past, insomuch as they are possible, are worthless.

And even though the post-industrial/late-capitalist world is perhaps the best equipped to allow investigations into history, we simply don't. The expansion of the digital age has provided access to data, analysis, and commentary that allows us to look not just into events, but into portrayals thereof, and the way in which attitude and focus shifts over time. The Internet's democratization of information doesn't just solve for market inefficiencies, the short-term, capital-contextual utility of the sea-change, but drowns us in information from which we are to construct narratives for whatever morality lesson the story-tellers would have us learn.

Going back to the start of the season, there are signs of stories that still persist: Kevin Garnett as Messiah. Knicks as farce. Spurs as Playoff Machines. The Hawks accomplishing something. Which is perhaps not setting their bar too high for success, but no matter. These are all far less interesting than what is done with other, less comfortable storylines. Yi Jianlian had all but disappeared from discussion by the All-Star Break. A story abandoned and never recovered to be rewritten or even resolved. The "Shaq trade as failure" disappeared, but it less morphed from that story into a new one, than evaporated to be immediately supplanted by an altered version of the "Suns as Prospective Champions" narrative from the early season.

Kobe Bryant's trade demands, however, are perhaps the most interesting. This story began with world-destroying chaos - the sort from which only 9th ranked teams and apocalypse stories in sacred texts seem to emerge. But then the Lakers heard the call and we saw the ascendance of Kobe's supporting cast. When the Lakers became a contending team, it was perhaps the most compelling story to emerge from the season. Whereas opposed to the Garnett trade, which peaked before it started and was (merely?) flawless execution through the 82 games, we saw the evolution of Kobe and of the Lakers with distinct historicity. First, it was the development of Bynum: brought on by will and effort, but this was taken over by the Gasol trade and the mystique of architecture. And thus, with a team as stacked as the Lakers, we can look toward them as gods and peg their success on the mystical drive of play-off chemistry. We can both root for the most talented team in the NBA, and still look to their success as the triumph of an engine finally firing on all cylinders. They can be both the Golden State Warriors and LeBron James.

There are unquestionable problems with the place of sports stars in popular culture, but if the spotlight on Kobe Bryant has succeeded in one thing, it is that we watch this series fully aware of his context. Sport is interesting as mere contest, but it is altogether more interesting as a battle between wills, systems, and stories. We are gripped by the championship matches in sports movies as much because they are suspenseful games as because they are the final tests of the characters about whom we care. If the quarterback makes the play, it doesn't matter because you love the team. It matters because you need him to succeed.

We think we know Kobe. Whether we like him or not, we feel as though the glimpses we've had of his life are enough to understand him, and from this we pick a side. For all the commentary about his legal transgressions and prima donna whining, these are concerns ancillary to his game. If they do affect it, then it will be proven on the court. If he plays through them, or harnesses them to become something more, it doesn't matter: only the score does.

In the sense that there is only one outcome that matters - the win - the NBA playoffs are a refreshing break from the Democratic primary race. Does Clinton need to win by double digits to walk tall into North Carolina, or can she squeak by and carry through to Indiana on a microscopic delegate gain? How many points will the "bitter" comments cost Obama? Will media backlash cut into Hillary's numbers? Phoenix might have forced Finley and Duncan to make heroic three-pointers to force the first and second overtimes, but it doesn't matter since the Suns lost and the Spurs won. However close it might have been, the Suns lost that game. However much it broke their spirits, they are only back 1 game. In politics, there are no binary outcomes, and those that seem to be are quickly recast into ambiguity and gradient so as to be better spun.

Still, we insist on turning discrete events into systems. 83% of teams that win the first game in Round 1 win the series, the ESPN ticker tells me, but this is meaningless when Round 1 has a disproportionate number of mismatches, and when the home court advantage should privilege the already better team. We can be told that each game will make or break a series, but the field is still filled with possibilities. No one has elevated their game without having someone down the court doing the same thing. Arenas/James. Duncan/Nash. And even though Chris Paul mattered more than Nowitski and Kidd, who combined for 19 boards and 42 points but couldn't shut down the Hornets in the second half, Dallas could quite easily set the series score back to even after the next game.

In theory, politics has the same dynamic. A winner, a loser; a binary outcome. But being part of such an expansive process, we forget its relation to the fights that take place in the run up to the ballot. We focus on the day-to-day with only an eye on how it all relates to the finish line. It's the finish line, however, that's causing us the most problems. In setting our sights on the Pennsylvania primary, we've forgotten that it only matters insomuch as it helps us pick a candidate. And in picking a candidate, we've lost sight of our end goal - winning the general election - as John McCain rebuilds his favorability rating and coalesces support in the right wing. And once we do get to the general election, we look to the fight over the prize - focusing on the electoral math of short term decisions and often ignoring what it means for the policy we eventually hope to implement. We'll keep supporting inefficient bio-fuels and indulging nationalistic saber-rattling security rhetoric to get the drop on the GOP and get the win.

Not that this is the wrong way to run a political campaign. Perhaps it's the only way to run a political campaign that has any chance of winning: if you don't keep a microscope on the here and now, your opponent will win because she is. But today, when the Western Conference playoffs are providing one of the densest fields in the history of sport, and the Democratic primary gets drawn back once more into the fight over whether or not Obama should wear a flag pin, I am keeping a much keener eye on the hardcourt than on the polling numbers. When Hillary steps aside (and she will step aside - the only question being whether she'll win Pennsylvania by enough to justify staying in until North Carolina), I'll be right back on the political bandwagon. Basketball, for all its glory, doesn't last forever, but I'll enjoy it while it's hear. And while it may not resolve into any significance beyond that which it has within itself, it's still pretty fun to watch.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Season 4, Episode 2, "Six of One"

One thing that’s always bothered me about Hollywood is the way it tends to gloss over the deaths of its minor characters. It’s annoying to see James Bond mow down a group of lackeys without a twitch of remorse. But on a show like “Battlestar Galactica,” where the sanctity of human life is measured by the number 39,676, such blithe disregard for it is simply an unpardonable sin.

The final moments of last week’s episode saw Kara Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) in such a desperate frenzy to gain access to President Roslin (Mary McDonnell) that she lobbed a grenade at two redshirts guarding Roslin’s door. It was a shocking but effective scene, agreeing both with what we know about Thrace from seasons past (she will relentlessly do what she thinks is right, and to hell with the consequences) and what was established earlier in the episode itself—namely, that Thrace believes that she and only she can lead the fleet on the proper course to Earth.

On an obsessively serialized show like “Battlestar Galactica,” that drastic action should have had far-flung repercussions, and during the show’s first few seasons it certainly would have—think back to Boomer’s (Grace Park) slowly-evolving horror at blowing up the fleet’s water tank in season 1, or Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan) drinking himself to oblivion in the wake of New Caprica. It would have been more organic to “Battlestar Galactica” to see Thrace profoundly changed in some way. Consumed by guilt, perhaps, or becoming a fanatic willing to shed blood to spread her unique word. But neither Thrace nor her peers in the fleet seem to give the matter much thought, and by the end of “Six of One,” Thrace is back to the person she used to be, and in charge of a separate mission to find Earth to boot.

Last week I observed that “He That Believeth In Me” marked a new “Battlestar Galactica,” focusing more on the series’ mythology than the workings of the fleet. “Six of One” shifts that paradigm even further, as the show seems to be concerning itself far more with plot than with character. Whether or not that’s a good thing is certainly a debatable point, since what irked most viewers of season 3 was the spinning-of-the-wheels quality to the character studies like “The Woman King” or “Dirty Hands,” episodes that many consider to be the show’s worst. But that kind of relentless plotting can sometimes lead to enormous oversights like the overlooked murder. At its best, “Battlestar Galactica” seamlessly incorporates both character and plot, but “Six of One” brings up some very valid concerns that the producers might wrap things up too quickly.

Some other thoughts:
  • Even a weak episode of “Battlestar Galactica” is eminently watchable, and for that we can thank Gaius Baltar (James Callis). I suspect that most of us would be horrified to meet ourselves, and Callis plays that impatience and derision beautifully. That said, head-Baltar meeting with the real Baltar probably demonstrates that there is some sort of deity—be it the one true God, or a more minor one—pulling the strings on this whole shindig.
  • It was nice to see that Tigh hasn't lost his enthusiasm for sending people out on horrible missions in order to serve a greater cause, and even nicer to see Tory Foster (Rekha Sharma) get her first big scene in some time and knock it out of the park.
  • The obligatory scene between Adama (Edward James Olmos) and Roslin was superb as always, despite some awkward dialogue. ("You can stay in the room but get out of my head"? Ouch.) These characters have changed so much since the miniseries that they almost seem to have switched roles, with Roslin the cold-blooded pragmatist and Adama the forgiving and patient teacher.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008


If your RSS happened to blow up this morning, you can blame me for not knowing what the hell I was doing. Or Brendan for not telling me what I needed to know.

Actually, don't blame me at all. It's all Brendan's fault.

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Battlestar Galactica: Season 4, Episode 1

For most of its first 3 seasons, Battlestar Galactica always kept its unique mythology in the background, tending instead to focus on the more immediate concerns of the fleet. Sure, there were a few minor episodes that flashed elements of a paganish mysticism. And President Roslin’s (Mary McDonnell) character has always been at least partially defined by her certitude that she is the prophesied dying leader who will lead humankind to Earth. But many of the elements of the series’ overriding mysteries came to the fore in season’s 3 finale, which saw the outing of Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan), Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglass), Samuel Anders (Michael Trucco) and Tory Foster (Rekha Sharma) as 4 of the final 5 unseen cylons, to say nothing of Kara Thrace’s (Katee Sackhoff) miraculous return from the dead.

Those revelations, coming as they did in the final moments of season 3’s finale, gave the fans hundreds of questions to chew on during the year-long hiatus. That's nothing new: Galactica’s finales have always been massive cliffhangers, either by showing the ominous march of cylon centurions through the marketplace on New Caprica, or the shooting of Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos). Still, while those previous events were mostly character-altering developments, the events of season 3 led to a fundamental shift in the series itself. Viewers were no longer asking, “What happens next?” but rather, “What the hell does this all mean?”

That dynamic is something viewers of Lost will certainly understand. But if there was any trepidation that this new Galactica would falter along the lines of that show—minutiae designed for the sake of weirdness, inorganic character decisions designed to forestall eventual revelations—the events of “He That Believeth in Me” laid those fears to rest. After a breathtaking battle sequence in the opening act (the best work the Galactica effects crew has ever done), the episode settled down to do what it does best: take a look at how the events of the show effect the characters in it.

If there was a theme to the episode, it was one of identity. “Be the man you want to be until the day you die,” Tyrol admonishes Anders, echoing Tigh’s speech in the finale, post-revelation (“My name is Saul Tigh. I am an officer in the colonial fleet. Whatever else I am, whatever else it means, that’s the man I want to be. And if I die to day, that’s the man I’ll be”). While the newly revealed cylons will certainly grapple with their outing, so to speak, I’m not so sure those revelations will profoundly affect their behavior. We’ve already seen one cylon be able to overcome her programmed hatred of humanity thanks to the power of love, and certainly 3 of the final 4 have deep relationships, too. (Only Tory is something of a wildcard, but that’s primarily because we haven’t really been exposed to her in any meaningful sense.)

In any event, while the episode’s most poignant moments lay in its dramatic irony (particularly poor Anders telling Kara he would still love her even if she were a cylon, with Kara retorting that she would kill him in a New York minute if he was), the episode’s best moments were those focused on the newly-exonerated Gaius Baltar (James Callis). Baltar is unquestionably one of the richest characters on television, ever, and much of that is thanks to Callis’ wonderful ability to extract some (dark) humor from what is a mostly bleak show. That was on full display here, particularly when Baltar’s disgust with his ragtag groupies didn’t extend to his taking advantage of one of them.

But Callis isn't some one-trick pony, and has anchored Baltar’s memorable arc throughout the series—from traitor to president to Marx to now, apparently, Jesus, complete with a cheesy string-lighted shrine from his groupies. Yet Baltar isn’t just Jesus, he’s also actively proselytizing for the cylon’s monotheism. Does that make him Zoroaster as well? John the Baptist? Galactica has never been one to shy away from allusions—particularly visual ones, as the shot of Baltar praying was reminiscent of thousands of Italian frescoes. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Some other thoughts:

The survivor count is getting depressingly low. They’ve lost 10,000 people (more than 20 percent ) in the span of 10 episodes.

Michael Hogan is turning in fantastic work every episode. He’s more expressive with one eye than most people are with their whole bodies.

The episode's only weak spots were Apollo-centric. For a show obsessed with its character continuity as Galactica is, it was odd to watch Apollo seem blithely unconcerned as to Starbuck's potential cylon-ness (this is the man who nearly exterminated the entire cylon race, as well as consistently belittle the Sharon-Helo relationship). In the same vein, Apollo turning in his wings to his father to get away from the military seemed an odd moment, particularly because much of season 2 was dedicated to establishing how similar the two really were.

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Choosy viewers choose skiffy

Americans don’t do smart. Or rather, we venerate the lowest common denominator, as Paris Hilton, Real World vs. Road Rules Challenge, and the 2000 election can all attest. I used to think that this anti-intellectualist streak was a relatively new development—after all, was not our nation once a shining beacon to the rest of the world, producing such august worthies as Benjamin Franklin? Henry Adams? L. Ron Hubbard?

But lo! How quickly one forgets the pet rock, to say nothing of William Jennings Bryan and the other mountebanks in our rogues gallery. Perhaps HL Mencken—America’s sternest biographer, as well as its keenest observer of the human condition—said it best: “The great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.” Remember that the next time you see another Jason Friedberg movie shoot to the top of the box office, folks.

That’s probably why science fiction is so loathed here. It’s the dominion of the pocket-protected twerp with his head in the clouds, when it’s not affixed to the monitor’s eerie glow. So whenever I tell my friends that Battlestar Galactica is the best thing on television (a role it assumes by default with The Wire’s passing), I’m met with blank stares, if not outright scorn.

But screw them. There’s never been a bolder, more ambitious show. Battlestar Galactica, at its essence, is about the destruction of humanity, and how its few survivors struggle to maintain their civilization as they stagger towards a fabled lost planet called Earth. It is ferociously learned, projecting western cultural icons onto a pastiche of Greek/Mormon/Jewish/Hindu mythology, lending a disconcerting familiarity to the proceedings. Even if those proceedings entail epic space battles with a monolithic race of humanoid robots hell-bent on humanity’s extinction, which is as cool as it sounds.

Like all superlative works of fiction, Battlestar Galactica tackles tough issues without ever sounding preachy. It’s the only thing I’ve ever seen that can attempt to humanize suicide bombers—and succeed in doing so. Its universe reflects our own, in that it abandons the common tropes of television to show a world where there are no moustache-twirling villains, no white shielded paladins. Just a group of humans trying to make do.

Battlestar Galactica’s fourth and final season premieres this Friday at 10 on the SciFi channel. I’ll be recapping each episode here at NH, though I imagine many of you will be totally lost. So to help you catch up on what is a heavily serialized show, the SciFi channel has created a primer of sorts, recapitulating the meat and bones of the show’s previous 3 seasons, which you can find below. See you Friday(ish).

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