Thursday, May 30, 2013

"Battlestar Galactica" - The Miniseries

Spoilers for the Battlestar Galactica miniseries after the jump:

As I mentioned in my announcement of this feature, Battlestar Galactica is a series that had a tremendous influence in my life. As someone who was too young at the time to be allowed to watch HBO shows such as The Wire and Deadwood, it was my first real exposure to a high-quality, serialized TV drama. And while there are certainly shows I've experienced since then (the two I just mentioned, for starters) that surpass it, the show's commitment to its incredibly grim tone, nuanced examination of moral dilemmas, frequently thrilling (albeit depressing) storytelling, and phenomenal character work ensured that it remained high in my estimation. I've longed to revisit it in the last few years to see if it holds up on second viewing. So here we are. Welcome.

And so far, it does (and then some). It seems almost unfair to call the BSG miniseries the best drama pilot I've ever seen, because it has one big frakking advantage over a traditional pilot: namely, that it's a three hour miniseries, making it around four times the length of standard episode of television. Even most extended pilots don't come close to that, and the show uses all the extra time wisely. There is a brief prologue that gives us a little historical background on the Cylon War and depicts the first strike in the Cylons' breaking of the armistice. But after that it takes around 45 minutes for the actual attack to begin. And those minutes are a superb combination of agonizing tension, absolutely perfect character introductions, and striking cinematography and mise-en-scène.

Those last two elements are something I didn't pay much attention to in my initial journey through BSG, but it was almost impossible upon second viewing to miss early moments such as the understated but extraordinary tracking shot that follows various characters as they walk around inside Galactica. It proceeds as a series of brilliantly planned handoffs, with one character exiting just as the camera picks up another person (or people) and follows them in a different direction. In this way we get an immediate sense of the battlestar's layout, as well as the opportunity to observe Commander Adama and others behaving in a naturalistic way. The camerawork will almost certainly not always be quite this good, but for this pilot at least, it's consistently breathtaking. (And we haven't even gotten to the beautifully choreographed space battles yet.)

As far as character goes, it's remarkable how well developed many of BSG's characters are in the early going, considering how many of them there are. Yes, some are reduced to a few basic traits initially. That's unavoidable when there's this much story to get through, even for a three hour pilot. But those traits are generally interesting and lay the groundwork for greater development to come (I won't mention specifics, but there are definitely a number of relationships that will prove important as the show goes on), and every character makes an impression on you immediately. And most of the major characters—including Bill Adama, Lee, Starbuck, and Saul Tigh—are already far richer and deeper than we're conditioned to expect from a pilot.

There's so much history here: all of it shown (thankfully) rather than explained using tedious voiceover narration. Tigh and Adama's early conversation, however brief, shows us that their relationship is far more than merely that of commander and X.O.. The characters' relationship feels deep and authentic after just a few moments of watching them together on screen, and the same can be said of a number of other key relationships, especially Starbuck and Lee, who have that great early scene in the brig that does so much to define both characters as far more than the types (talented but reckless hotshot pilot and son harboring anger towards his father, respectively) they initially seem to represent. Zak Adama's death has left both of them—as well as the commander—wounded.

But their emotional scars, Laura Roslin's cancer, and most of the other storylines introduced in the first 45 minutes soon take a back seat to the destruction of the Twelve Colonies. An event such as this has been lurking in our minds ever since the prologue, and the scenes between Gaius Baltar and a Number Six model are fittingly dread-inducing as a result. But devastation of this magnitude is still staggering, and it plays out in uncompromising fashion: helped, of course, by the tremendous special effects and haunting cinematography. I had forgotten how powerful that distant shot of a group of survivors slowly coming into view over the horizon of a destruction-strewn Caprica was, and it chilled me to my core. (Although in terms of pure horror nothing can quite compare to Number Six calmly examining a baby, then casually breaking its neck. The show lets you know pretty quickly just how brutal it's capable of being, and I imagine at least a few people at the time turned it off at this point. I can't say that I blame them.)

The destruction is certainly not limited to land, either. Gaius giving Number Six access to the defense mainframe has allowed the Cylons to access and shut down any modern computer system they wish. Galactica is saved by its antiquated technology (were the situation a little less grim, Adama would owe a big "I told you so" to Laura Roslin, who earlier criticized his refusal to allow networked computers on the ship), but the newer vipers soon fall prey to the Cylons in another sequence that is at once riveting and grueling to watch unfold. The show's decision to show the last moments of the commanding pilot might strike some as being too much, but to me BSG's unflinching depiction of desperation and death is one of the many reasons it's still one of the best shows in TV history.

This feeling of desperation results in perhaps the single best moment of the miniseries. A Cylon ship has just spotted the fleet and jumped away, and Laura Roslin and her advisers are forced to have a frantic debate about what to do. Their dilemma: many of the ships they've rescued are incapable of making the required faster than light (FTL) jump. Lee spells it out in bleakly matter-of-fact terms: "I'm sorry to make it a numbers game, but we're talking about the survival of our race here. And we don't have the luxury of taking risks and hoping for the best, because if we lose, we lose everything." After weighing the matter for a couple of seconds, Roslin agrees. That's it. No agonizing moral debates: just the quick decision to abandon thousands to their fate, for lack of a better option. Horrifying, yes, but there's literally no time for anything else.

If despondency and the constant threat of extinction is one cornerstone of Battlestar Galactica, another is the struggle to survive, and to build a life in spite of it. That goal informs another of the finest scenes in these opening hours, in which Adama and Roslin discuss their separate views of the best course of action to take next. She's right: the war is over. And though it takes a bit of time for him to realize it, he's already been established as a firm but generally reasonable and empathetic leader: by not being too hard on Chief Tyrol after his whispered insult of Colonel Tigh, for example. So it's not too much of a stretch how quickly he changes his mind. (On a related note, I forgot just how great the scenes between Roslin and Adama are. There are many fine performances on this show, but Mary McDonnell's and Edward James Olmos's are among the the very best, and any time they're on screen together, the resulting scene tends to be spectacular.)

All of this in turn leads to a fittingly intense and beautifully cinematic action scene, in which Adama and the rest of Galactica's crew attempt to buy the civilian fleet enough time to jump away from a Cylon Basestar. While it's certainly an exciting scene (featuring lots of thrilling aerial action, including Starbuck pulling off an absolutely awesome maneuver to save Lee at the last minute) BSG once again makes it something of an ordeal to watch, particularly during those nerve racking last few moments, as the ship absorbs hit after hit while waiting for Lee and Starbuck to get back on board. This is not a Battlestar destroying Cylons left and right, but rather a Battlestar just trying to survive the physical toll of battle. Again, living to fight another day is often the name of the game on Battlestar Galactica. Not triumphing. Not vanquishing foes. Just survival.

And yet the miniseries ends on a note of hope, courtesy of a stirring speech by Adama, in which he claims he plans to lead the fleet to Earth. Of course, this being BSG, that speech is later admitted to be a complete fabrication, designed to inspire some small measure of hope: "Because it's not enough to just live. You have to have something to live for. Let it be Earth." On the one hand, this is yet another exceedingly depressing moment, in which a goal beyond mere survival is revealed to be a complete lie. But on the other, it represents Bill Adama's belief that there is in fact something to live for out there, even if he has no clue what it is at this particular point in time. He has not given up. No one has. Moments like these—grim but with a small kernel of optimism tucked away in between the bleakness—are quintessential BSG, and something the post-apocalyptic shows I've tried to watch in recent years have not come close to getting right. (Though in fairness, I gave up on Falling Skies and Revolution pretty early: the former after six episodes and the latter after its pilot. So they could have gotten better at this. But the point is that BSG mastered this balance at an extremely early stage, and continued to demonstrate that mastery throughout its run.)

There are perhaps a few things that don't work, although at the moment I can only think of one that really stood out. Number Six appearing inside Baltar's mind is certainly an intriguing development (one of many the pilot introduces over the course of its running time), and their sarcastic and darkly humorous back and forth banter provides a few laughs in an otherwise exceedingly grim episode. (I personally don't think tempering grimness with laughs is strictly necessary to any show's success, but it's worth pointing out that BSG can certainly make you laugh when it wants to. It just usually prefers to crush your soul with its unrelieved gloom.) But I had forgotten about that scene in which they have sex right in the middle of Galactica, which is just kind of awful and completely unbelievable. True, we know that Gaius is obsessed with sex, but he's also not stupid enough to start having sex with an apparent hallucination where literally anyone could see him. Sorry, I don't buy that for a second.

But it's an extremely minor quibble in an otherwise almost always enthralling opener that immediately demonstrates the depth of BSG's storytelling, as well as the show's uncompromising vision of a society literally fighting for its very existence. And that's without even mentioning the tremendously rich characters, who I didn't talk much about here, but will certainly discuss in more detail as we progress through the series. Hopefully you'll join me next week, when we'll begin discussing the somewhat less epic in scale—but no less rich from a storytelling and thematic perspective—first season. I'm really looking forward to it.

Other Thoughts

- Ah, yes: "frak". I don't know if anyone else feels the same way, but this has always been a slight annoyance to me. I get that they were unable to use the word it's substituting for, since this is a basic cable series. But it just sounds kind of silly, which is not ideal for an otherwise extremely serious show. Other basic cable dramas get by fine by simply using other curse words. BSG might have been better off doing the same.

- Grades are probably going to be mostly A's, at least until we get to the third season (which, though still good overall, is shaky in places). There are a few episodes here and there that I remember being slightly weaker, but not that many. Of course, it could turn out that I wind up loving the series a lot less on rewatch, so you never know. But judging by the miniseries, I kind of doubt it.

- I don't recall BSG featuring a whole lot of close quarters fights, but the one here between Adama and Leoben is effectively brutal and efficiently choreographed.

- Reminder: no spoilers in the comments. If you want to say how awesome (or bad) you think next week's episode is, that's fine, but any references to specific plot details will be deleted. I would be open to starting a weekly spoiler thread for those who wish to talk about future episodes, if there's sufficient interest. I don't expect there will be, but if you wish, feel free to leave a comment to that end and I'll take it under consideration. Who knows? Maybe these reviews will wind up being more popular than I'm anticipating.

Grade: A

Next Week: "33"

Very Vague Allusions to Future Events

Roslin and Adama seem to come to an agreement about the division of power within this new civilization they're creating. He'll handle military matters, but her government will do everything else. This of course means the end of all conflict between the two, right? I mean, what could go wrong with this arrangement?

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