Battlestar Galactica: Season 2

Battlestar Galactica Season 2.0A few weeks ago I reviewed Season 1 of Syfy network’s re-imagining of the 1970’s cult TV show Battlestar Galactica, and came to the conclusion that the show had a great deal of promise but was weighed down with a bit too much style instead of substance.  Thankfully Season 2.0 improves on many of the first season’s shortcomings, and while it still seems like a guest at Thanksgiving dinner relegated to the kid’s table, while desperately wanting a seat with the grownups, it is showing definite signs of maturity. Battlestar Galactica is built on the premise of eschewing convention and devying expectation. Many science fiction tropes are turned on their heads (doctors are no more able to cure diseases or repair limbs than their 20th century counterparts, communication happens via analog telephone, and people cannot be magically whisked from one location to another via magical teleportation beams), and difficult situations are not given easy answers followed by pithy platitudes in the closing minutes of an episode.  Characters make tough choices, and often not the ones we might expect.  Season 2.0 continues this tone admirably, but injects some much-needed characterization and humanity into things as well. It’s not perfect, but it’s a well done and very respectable sophomore effort.

My biggest criticism of Season 1 was that the show was light on characterization but heavy on explosions, and from the first episode of Season 2 this problem is addressed, though not exactly how I would have liked.  Commander Adama, arguably the best character on the show, is effectively out of commission for the first four episodes, which leaves the slightly-more-than-somewhat incompetent Saul Tigh in command of the entire fleet.  I appreciate the shift in focus here, as it allows viewers to get to know Tigh in a more meaningful and personal way and also see how difficult the responsibilities of commanding a ship can be.  Tigh is put into some really tough scrapes and has to make some difficult choices, and it is somewhat refreshing watching a less-than-stellar individual take command for a while.  There is also a healthy dose of politics injected into the series too, as the fleet begins to splinter with some ships following President Roslin on her quest to find Earth and the rest sticking with the military.

Battlestar Galactica Chief Tyrol

Chief Tyrol, who could give MacGyver a run for his money any day of the week.

The absence of Adama’s leadership is painfully felt in these early episodes, it speaks to the quality of the writing that the frustrations felt by the crew at Tigh’s lack of leadership are keenly felt by the viewers too.  The theme of Season 2.0 is that of divergence, as the fleet is split physically and ideologically, Starbuck goes back to Caprica to retrieve a talisman which is supposed to guide the fleet to Earth, and the crew of the Galactica struggles to adapt to changing leadership.  Lee Adama is forced to choose alliances that damage his relationship with his father, and I’m eager for the day when he will finally be given the chance to stretch his wings and take command.  It’s more about politics and relationships in Season 2.0, and thankfully, less about shocking viewers with gratuitous violence and sexuality.  Though these elements do show up from time to time, they are less overt and slightly more warranted in terms of the storyline.  There is also more in terms of creativity, like the episode Final Cut which strikes a markedly different tone from the rest of the series as it essentially follows a TV reporter who is given total access to the Galactica for one day. It’s an interesting concept and I appreciate the show’s willingness to take a risk with it.

Battlestar Galactica remains, if nothing else, a refreshing change of pace from the usual TV fare, though it’s still obviously trying to find its footing while stretching its legs creatively at the same time.  The characters are given more time to just be themselves in Season 2.0, such as the episode in which Chief Tyrol takes it upon himself to construct a stealth ship just to keep himself and his crew busy. Edward James Olmos remains a force to be reckoned with, while Starbuck continues to be the one we are supposed to like but doesn’t quite cut it.  Even though the Cylons are basically on coffee break for much of Season 2.0, the fear of their attacks is enough to keep things moving at a brisk enough pace overall.  And so while there is still room for improvement, Season 2.0 is an impressive sophomore effort and one that should be near the top of the list for any fan of science fiction.



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Battlestar Galactica: Season 1

Battlestar GalacticaI used to wonder why there were no toilets in Star Trek. The crew of the Enterprise did many things, from negotiating alien diplomatic treaties to discovering new life forms to working out their own personal issues, but going to the bathroom never seemed to be something that concerned Captain Picard and his intrepid crew.  Or Kirk, Sisko, Janeway, and for the most part, Archer.  Instead the ships and vehicles of Star Trek were sterile, functional, and polished to a high-gloss shine, and never bothered with the more base human elements like waste excretion.  By contrast, Battlestar Galactica, and the starship central to the show that bears the same name, is full of bathrooms.  And that’s only the beginning.

It’s hard to review Battlestar Galactica without comparing it to other science fiction shows, since science fiction, like most forms of creativity, is inherently derivative.  Without Star Trek: The Next Generation there would be no Battlestar Galactica.  Without Star Wars to inject new life into the genre there would likely be no Next Generation. Without 2001: A Space Odyssey there would be no Star Wars or Alien. And so it goes, back to the original Battlestar Galactica from the 1970s, the original Dr. Who, the original Star Trek, Flash Gordon, Metropolis, and far back still to the ancient roots of storytelling when men first looked up at the sky and wondered what else could be out there.  But like all good science fiction, Battlestar Galactica injects its own life and creative spin on a tried and true scenario, and though the results so far are somewhat middling, the show does have promise and I am eager to see where it goes in Season 2.

Battlestar Galactica Adama

Commander Adama, showing off his cheerful side.

The basic gist of the storyline, as outlined in the title sequence of every episode, goes like this:  The Cylons were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan. When the show begins, the Cylons initiate said plan by laying waste to Caprica, the human homeworld, and the 12 planets that were colonized by humans.  Now the remnants of our race are left to struggle and survive in the midst of the vastness of space, a ragtag group of roughly 50,000 individuals spread out among several dozen spaceships.  The Cylons were designed to be artificial life forms, subservient to humans and useful for taking care of many aspects of life.  But in the decades since the Cylons broke away from humanity they have evolved and now appear to be some type of genetically engineered human/robot hybrids, many of whom look just like humans and who may or may not have infiltrated the surviving band of humans.  It’s an interesting scenario, though the are-you-human-or-are-you-Cylon concept wears thin fairly quickly. Fortunately healthy diversity of both characters and conflicts keeps things moving along at a brisk enough pace, even though the show often devolves into more of an explosion-filled daytime soap opera than I would prefer.

Battlestar Galactica, despite reportedly being made on the cheap, is an absolutely stunning realization of futuristic space life.  Everything has an incredible sense of palpable authenticity, from the small fighter craft to the massive lumbering cargo ships, and the set design looks concrete and functional.  The Millenium Falcon from Star Wars was famously described by Luke Skywalker as “a piece of junk,” but it was a spaceship with character and life.  Similarly, every inch of the Battlestar Galactica sets strive for that same level of realism, and when you see greasy mechanics struggling to overhaul a spaceship engine, a dirty mess hall with games of space poker going late at night, or a devastated planet with bombed-out buildings and hovels, it feels almost documentarian.  Space dogfights are exceptionally well done, and it’s a testament to how far CGI has come to be able to whip out scenes with dozens of ships blasting away at each other for a weekly serial show like this.

Battlestar Galactica Grace Park

Lt. Sharon "Boomer" Valerii, ready to kick some Cylon tail.

But for all the pomp and imagery of Battlestar Galactica, things are somewhat lacking in the character department, which sadly is where the real connection of a show like this has to be made with the audience. There are a handful of individuals we are supposed to care about, like plucky young fighter pilot Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), tough-as-nails Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos, standing and delivering like it’s going out of style) and his alcoholic sidekick Saul (Michael Hogan), empathetic but hard-nosed president Roslin (Mary McDonnell, using the same character notes Roland Emmerich gave her for Independence Day), Doc Baltar (James Callis), resident space hussy Number Six (Tricia Helfer), and a handful of others along for the ride too. But aside from a smattering of true character moments, most of the people here are window dressing who exist simply to ratchet up the dramatic tension.  Gruff old Commander Adama always does what has to be done…but what if thousands of lives hang in the balance?  What then? President Roslin has to maintain order, but what if people high up in the military might be (gasp!) Cylons!  What then? And Doc Baltar, an unstable man plagued by constant hallucinations of a Cylon temptress, almost becomes an exercise in self-parody by the end of the season when he is promoted to the role of vice president.  It’s as if no one around him has any idea he is not only wholly ineffective at his job, but entirely unstable and unreliable as a man.  And yet we are asked to believe his character trajectory in the same way that the action/drama show 24 asks us to believe that a president’s daughter can go from flunkie to Chief of Staff of the White House in the matter of a couple hours.

Battlestar Galactica Fleet

The visuals are amazing, particularly considering the tight constraints of a TV production schedule.

As I mentioned earlier, though, there are some genuine moments of engaging character struggles, such as when Starbuck is stranded on a planet and Adama wrestles with the question of whether saving one life is worth putting many other lives in danger.  But science fiction is best when it examines human issues or gives us a lens through which we may view the human condition. Spaceships, lasers, aliens, hyperdrives…it only works if we are invested in the characters and they are examining issues that speak to us in the here and now. And when characters are tackling issues in bathroom stalls, hallucinating every time they appear on screen, and sleeping with each other as often and as casually as they might play a game of cards it’s hard to identify with them and, by extension, the show itself. To be sure, Battlestar Galactica is visually arresting and a lot of fun to watch, especially the fast-paced space dogfights and nail-biting chases through the streets of Caprica. But I can’t help but get the feeling the show is also a vehicle simply for generating Nielsen ratings, with an onslaught of sleazy how-much-can-we-gat-away-with-on-TV sex scenes, constant faux-swearing (the word “frak,” a facepalm-inducing substitute for another four-letter word, is peppered liberally throughout each episode so much that it’s actually comical), and episodes that seem to be more about pushing the envelope of televised violence and CGI wizardry than actually giving me a real, substantive reason to watch.

There’s a reason Star Trek has no toilets: they did not serve the story. Sure it would have been kind of funny or realistic to see Riker walk out of the men’s room from time to time, but Gene Roddenberry and his cohorts never let those moments happen at the expense of the story.  Battlestar Galactica, with its constant effort to portray realistic outer space life, sacrifices characters on the altar of spectacle.  Not all the time, mind you, but often enough.  I am hopeful for Season 2, however, and I also have to consider that many shows spend the first season struggling to find their footing. The overall plot is fairly interesting, with the idea of humanity struggling against absolutely overpowering odds and a relentless enemy, but so far the show reminds me of a fireworks display on the 4th of July: an impressive cacophony of light and sound, but ultimately somewhat hollow.


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