Thursday, May 22, 2008

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Battlestar Galactica S2

Broadly speaking, the second season of "Battlestar Galactica" is divided into three arcs: Kobol, Pegasus and New Caprica. I'll be tackling them in that order.

The Kobol storyline (episodes 1-7) continues from the end of the first season - the Fleet has been divided between an imprisoned Laura Roslin and Colonel Tigh (replacing the incapacitated Adama). Things spiral out of control very, very quickly, and on that level it's a very engaging story. Until Kobol comes into play again.

I've mentioned that I find the metaphysical/religious aspect of the series somewhat incompatible with the realistic tone established in the miniseries - it's certainly valid to explore a human religion based on the Olympic Pantheon, but when we're expected to take millennia-old prophecies as "real" in the sense that they're informing where the story's headed... well, honestly, this isn't "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". It's a little too convenient that every plot development has some pseudo-Biblical context that confirms its significance.

However, if the Kobol arc's good for anything, it's demonstrating a particular talent of the BSG writers: character death. There's a tendency to give minor figures like Elosha and Crashdown just enough screen time that when they die, it means more to us than an anonymous Redshirt.

Somewhat surprisingly, once Kobol is left behind, the religious subplot is abandoned as well, and the status quo snaps back to early season 1. Now, I was personally pleased with that particular development, but on the other hand, Kobol takes up a third of the season and ultimately doesn't amount to anything beyond vague foreshadowing.

Episodes 8 and 9 ("Final Cut" and "Flight of the Phoenix") serve as a sort of prelude to the next major arc. They're a good example of enjoyable filler, and Tyrol naming the Blackbird after Roslin got me all misty-eyed. It was also nice seeing Lucy Lawless again, especially in such a subversive role.

The Pegasus arc (episodes 10-17) kicks off with the Admiral Cain trilogy ("Pegasus" and the "Resurrection Ship" two-parter), an easy pick for my favorite episodes thus far. Everything that's good about BSG, that works for BSG, is distilled in "Pegasus", an episode which asks (and answers) an interesting question: what if Adama had abandoned the Fleet at Ragnar at the end of the miniseries, to go off and fight Cylons? What would the show be like without the civilians bringing humanity to the military machine? Helena Cain (another revised female in the mold of Starbuck, Roslin and Boomer) isn't a monster, she's Adama taken to a logical - if frightening - extreme, someone with no greater cause to serve than war. She's who Adama would have been, had he not met Laura Roslin. Remember that Roslin's first question to Adama was whether he planned to stage a military coup and declare martial law - Cain would have said yes in a heartbeat. And we can see this so clearly in her dehumanization of Gina, not very far from the way Adama sees Sharon #2. So all in all, I found Admiral Cain to be a fascinating and compelling character, and I'm sorry she was written out so quickly; on the other hand, the New Caprica storyline simply wouldn't have worked with her.

"Epiphanies" follows the "Resurrection Ship" two-parter, and... okay, here's my problem with that episode: Laura Roslin should have died. Don't get me wrong, she's my favorite character in the series, and I honestly think the show would be a lot weaker without Mary McDonnell's acting chops. But part of what makes Roslin so compelling is that she's on borrowed time, and she knows it, and she does her best to do as much good as she can for as long as she can. Naming the Blackbird after her was a way of acknowledging that, the hope that she'd given them, but after all the "dying leader" prophecies and the progression of her illness, to cure her cancer with a blatant deus ex machina was incredibly irritating, especially since the New Caprica arc was going to overturn the status quo anyway.

The Pegasus arc also bears the distinction of featuring the worst episode of BSG I've seen: "Black Market". If I step back - way, way back - I can see the motivation behind this story: we've had episodes dealing with the realistic difficulties facing refugees, such as water shortages and low morale, and it makes sense that we'd take a closer look at economy, trade and the eponymous "black market" in this context. The problem is that it's not "Battlestar Galactica". It's "Sin City In Space". "Black Market" reads like someone just copied phrases out of the Frank Miller handbook - we have a gold-hearted hooker mommy and an evil kingpin and an antihero tortured by his past, and it's so transparent you just can't take it seriously. Worse yet, the antihero in question is Apollo, of all people, and the plot necessitates not one but two major retcons to his history in order to make it work. And when your plot dictates and rewrites the characters, rather than the other way around? Yeah, that's made of fail, as they say.

Fortunately, "Black Market" is just an anomaly, as the rest of the Pegasus-related episodes ("Scar", "Sacrifice" and "The Captain's Hand") are consistently high-quality. "Scar" deserves special mention for its use of continuity (ie: the hints that Scar is the same Raider Starbuck lobotomized in "You Can't Go Home Again") and Starbuck's painful disintegration; the timing seems a bit off, because all the scenes of Starbuck being denied permission to return to Caprica during the Cain trilogy were cut, but if you take that into account it works fine.

The season wraps up with the New Caprica storyline (episodes 18-20), in which everything falls apart in a very permanent and spectacular way. "Downloaded" gives us the Cylon perspective for the first time, following Boomer and Baltar's Number Six lover (who, as it turns out, is not the Virtual Six he's been talking to) after their respective deaths. This leads us to the two-part finale, "Lay Down Your Burdens", and a rather shocking twist: halfway through the last episode, we're catapulted a year into the future, crystallizing the new status quo in a way that makes total reversal utterly impossible. Everything changes in the interrim that we don't see: whole interpersonal relationships flourish, characters get married or promoted to unexpected heights, and I throw up a little in my mouth because Lee Adama puts on forty pounds and he looks horrible. It's change, in its purest and most real state, and that's something we don't get often enough in serialized fiction.

Overall, the second season meets, and in some cases exceeds, the standards set by its predecessor. On to season 3!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Season In Review: Supernatural S3

Once again, I find myself giving Eric Kripke credit for thinking outside the box. "No Rest For The Wicked" is likely the most shocking season finale I've ever seen, because the last ten minutes of the episode so boldly defy conventional thinking. I'll be vague for the sake of avoiding spoilers, but familiarity with the medium and its tropes leads you to expect that certain situations will always be resolved in certain ways, because "that's how things work". So it's quite jarring when those same situations are resolved differently (or aren't resolved at all, as the case may be).

I've mentioned before that I think the writers' strike had some positive fallout; given how badly "Heroes" was spiraling out of control, I shudder to think what might've happened if they'd gone on for the full twenty-two episodes. And since "Supernatural" tends to cluster the plot-centric episodes around the beginning, middle and end of the season, I doubt losing six episodes had any impact on the storyline beyond cutting out some filler.

And filler was a major problem this season, moreso than in previous years, because this storyline had a time limit attached to it: having sold his soul to resurrect Sam, Dean is given one year to live before he's dragged off to Hell. While he's determined to wreak as much havoc on the supernatural world as he can, Sam's obsessed with finding a way to break the deal. Meanwhile, loose threads from previous seasons are wrapped up rather neatly (Gordon Walker gets his due in "Fresh Blood" while the FBI and Agent Henriksen are finally dealt with decisively) and new characters - Bela and Ruby - are thrown into the mix.

Kripke was ultimately true to his word, at least where the lack of romance was concerned: Bela and Ruby were both antagonists to the Winchesters, frustrating our heroes at every possible turn. Bela even got a bit of pathos for her final appearance, though Ruby's twists and turns became so convoluted that it just didn't work for me. Still, as a way of momentarily breaking Sam and Dean away from their usual back-and-forth dynamic, both characters worked out just fine.

On average, this season was more or less consistent, quality-wise, with its predecessors: there was a lot of repetition with the boys' interactions ("I don't want to die"/"I'm going to save you") in lieu of character development, because at this point there's really nowhere left to go with them so long as they're cut off from a larger social network (whatever happened to Ellen anyway?). Episodes vacillated from "eh" to "good": the Gordon episodes were well-written, "Mystery Spot" was a highly amusing take on time loops, and "Ghostfacers" was a cute callback to the wannabes from season 1. Other than that, pretty much par for the course, and that's not a bad thing.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Diana's Adventures In TV Land: Battlestar Galactica S1

One of the more frustrating aspects of life on the other side of the Atlantic is that I often find myself at a distance from the mainstream discourse. This is a problem when it comes to TV, because I never "discover" a good show until it's been out for ages, at which point there's little need to talk about it. On the other hand, I benefit from the delay as a viewer, because by the time I've caught on, the show usually progresses enough that I can watch entire seasons consecutively, giving me a much clearer overall perspective.

Case in point: "Battlestar Galactica". A few days ago, I finally decided to check out the three-hour miniseries that served as the series pilot, and I've been hooked ever since. Now, it's certainly true that I'd heard people talking about this show in the past... but there's really no way to join a conversation that assumes you already know what's going on, and all the talk about Cylons and such went totally over my head. I'd also been under the mistaken impression that the show was a continuation of the 1978 series, which I had no desire to dig up.

So, bearing in mind that science-fiction isn't a favorite genre of mine, I suppose the first question is "why did I finally decide to check it out?" followed by "Why do I like it?"

Initially, what piqued my curiosity about BSG was an article I'd read about its female characters - specifically, the fact that several prominent men from the original series had been rebooted as women. That struck me as a bold move, especially considering how male-dominated this particular genre can be. Moreover, the women had been positioned as counterparts to the men rather than subordinates, in a way that pushed gender equality to levels I'd rarely seen before: President Roslin stands toe to toe with Commander Adama, Starbuck is a match for Apollo (in more ways than one), and Number Six is an excellent foil for Dr. Baltar. This isn't a minor issue for me: one reason why I lost interest in "Star Trek" and never cared for "Star Wars" was precisely because Kira was too over-the-top, and Troi and Crusher never did anything, and Leia is remembered for the slave bikini and the bagel hairstyle, and the less said about Amidala, the better.

There's also the fact that Jamie Bamber is ridiculously cute. Well, he is. What, I can't have my shallow moments?

So that's more or less why I finally sat down and watched the miniseries (the fact that it was airing at the time helped). By the time it was over, "Battlestar Galactica" had shot right past casual viewing and made me a fan.

Here's the thing: BSG may just be the most realistic science-fiction show I've ever seen. Going back to "Star Wars" and "Star Trek", the other reason I've got no affinity for either franchise is because their respective universes are built in a way that allows massive amounts of contrivance in the service of plot. For "Star Trek", there was always some technobabble crisis that was solved by throwing more technobabble at it. The main conceit for "Star Trek", and this is very apparent with "The Next Generation", is that technology has advanced to such an extent that anything's possible. And if anything's possible, nothing really matters, because there's always going to be some nonsensical equalizer that'll turn up at the last minute to fix everything. (The fact that there are at least fifty ways to time-travel in the "Star Trek" without leaving your room? Not conducive to dramatic situations.) And "Star Wars"? Hell, "Star Wars" acknowledges magic as an actual Force in the universe. The Force lets you see the future, control people's minds, use telekinesis, make impossible shots, and it's pretty much arbitrary in terms of who's born with the power to use it and who isn't.

"Battlestar Galactica" is so much more sophisticated, precisely because there are no easy outs. No time travel, no alternate universes, no gadget or MacGuffin that saves the day. When characters die, they die for real, and it's so much more powerful because humanity has been reduced to a very limited number, and every death has meaning. Thematically, it's got this delightful mix of action and political intrigue and human drama, with a much darker slant than I'd expected and a truly formidable foe in the Cylons. What truly impressed me, insofar as the miniseries was concerned, was how deftly cliches were avoided - when Roslin is forced to abandon the annoying moppet she'd befriended, there's no last-minute save. Killer robots: 1, irritating brats: 0. Actions have real consequences. The refugees face real problems - lack of fuel, water shortages, fear of infiltration, chaos and confusion - and these things can't be overcome through technology or magic but are dealt with the way we would have to deal with them.

The only problem I've had is the increasingly metaphysical aspect the show's been getting into, specifically the whole Kobol/Apollo's Arrow thing at the end of the season. Laura Roslin becoming this messianic figure of mythological proportions is something of a problem for me, because it draws attention away from how down-to-earth she is: one of my favorite Roslin moments is her inauguration, that shot of her surrounded by people yet totally alone, raising a trembling hand in the air. She's not ready for it, she can't handle it, and then she does. It's such a human moment, and that - the human element, the emotional and situational realism - gets undercut whenever myths and prophecies and such are brought up. It's one thing for Number Six to proselytize to Baltar about her God, it's quite another to break up the Roslin/Adama alliance over a "magic arrow".

Still, it's a minor nitpick at this stage, because as prominent as the metaphysical dimension has become, it hasn't overwhelmed the larger storyline yet and I'm dying to know what happens next. And fortunately for me (as a viewer), BSG is currently running its final season - by the time I'm caught up, I'll probably be able to keep watching straight through to the end. So there's a bright side to being left out of the real-time experience after all.