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!