Friday, November 20, 2009

You're not my type

I'm now at the end of Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica, having not been entirely won over by the mini-series. Spoilers obviously follow.

Season One continues with more of the same – people in uniform being cross in dark corridors, having to make difficult decisions and being spectacularly stupid. The more it tries to convince us it's clever, with debates on politics and morality, the more tedious it becomes. “Speculative fiction” – the posh name for sci-fi – is a synonym of ponderous. But the dogfights and explosions are very exciting, and as the show continues there's some exemplary flourishes and twists.

The opening episode is a bold idea – the Cylons attack every 33 minutes, so no one has had any sleep. But why don't they organise shifts for the staff; and why don't they work in shifts anyway?

There's a nice moment when our heroes have to shoot down one of their own ships, but perhaps the story played it safe by showing us the ship is empty. How much more horrible to see innocent passengers on board, and having to shoot it down anyway? Apollo also acts like he's never shot anyone before, but he's an experienced pilot in the fleet.

Episode two displays an extraordinary fumble of infodump, telling us something outright in the story-so-far captions that we've not been told before. There are Cylons who don't know they're Cylons.

This becomes a major part of Season One, as our regulars are increasingly stupid. Boomer finds herself planting bombs all round the ship, and there are explosions killing people. But she and her boyfriend still don't think to mention this to anyone for weeks and weeks...

It's good to see Richard Hatch in episode three, and when he's cross at the new, young Apollo I assumed some kind of in-joke. The Dr, strolling in, thought this was all a bit 24, with terrorist stuff intercutting with the office politics round the President. And she's right: it's very like 24, with heroes “forced” to do terrible things by the writers, which are quickly forgotten by the next episode. Shocking Stuff happens all the time, but it doesn't always feel like the writers are quite keeping up.

By this point it's becoming clear that any plot hole or appalling coincidence can be lain at the feet of the Gods. The opening titles tell us the Cylons have a plan – a plea to the viewer to stick with the show, that it will all make some kind of sense. But it keeps feeling random. The Cylons can follow them, then they can't. It's like the Cylons attack just to keep it from being insufferably dull and pompous.

The fifth episode sees Starbuck stranded on a rock, and reminded me a bit of Dirk Benedict's last appearance as the character in Galactica 1980 (that episode, leaving him stranded, didn't have traumatise me as a kid). There's a brilliant idea that the Cylon ships are living beings themselves.

But there's also lots of stupid stuff too. There's the guy on Cylon-occupied Caprica (which I keep thinking of as COC) who doesn't want to be spotted yet still shouts to his friend. There's how often the Adama boys put everyone else at risk.

I'm also a bit bored by the sex. It's all a bit Hollywood and beautiful, too posed and plastic to convince. Imagine it done with the same dour realism as the uniforms and corridors. Balthar being a bit sordid or quick could give us an insight into his character.

Balthar's weird. We're meant to empathise with this guy who betrayed the human race and who continues to plot and scheme against his people. When we see him smashing the computer in episode seven, it's played as if it's funny. And why, when he knows Boomer is a Cylon, does he not tell anyone else? Surely he's putting himself and everyone else at risk. And in episode nine he's actively searching for Cylons...

In fact, by the end of season one I was beginning to lose patience. Balthar's “popularity” with the masses in inexplicable – he's twitchy and strange and uneven. Boomer decides to kill herself when Balthar's already “proved” that she's not a Cylon. There's the tedious boxing match in episode twelve, a montage so oddly cut together for a moment I thought Adama was in bed with his son. And there's the wild coincidence of Helo just happening to find the same arrow that Starbuck has crossed all of space for.

Yet, as with the mini-series, there's a whole bundle of things to keep watching for. Starbuck calls Balthar “Lee” at just the wrong moment. Richard Hatch becomes a regular character. There's the cynical doctor who smokes in his theatre.

And Season Two picks up pretty quickly. There's still a lot of coincidence, and people acting oddly and out of character because it suits the plot. But the moral dilemmas really pick up, and we start to see lots of sides to the characters. Sometimes it's a bit blunt – one mentions abortion a few times but seems to think its dealing with real issues, and the presidential stuff generally is pretty na├»ve about politics.

I'd have liked the episode where a journalist records a documentary about life on Galactica to have all been the documentary footage, and there's a weary sigh now every time Blonde Cylon turns up alongside Balthar.

But the Pegasus episodes are very exciting, and it suddenly feels like everything's moving. The ideas and dilemmas seem smart, and there are fewer stupid or lucky solutions. The last few episodes of Season Two are really very compelling – depending on what we know about characters and their relationships with one another. The body count remains high, but once it starts killing regular characters everything matters much more.

There are a handful of beautiful flourishes in this season which seem to have influenced new Doctor Who. There's the swaggering confidence of declaring “One Year Later” in the midst of your season finale. There's Roslin's nice president making steely, hard decisions – like Harriet Jones destroying the Sycorax. And in humanity struggling not to set a violent precedent for its own future, there's all that stuff about the Dr forging his mates into guns.

There's still stuff that's odd: the President-Elect can visit his Cylon lover - and deliver her a nuclear bomb - without anyone seeming to notice. And surely the plucky regulars who don't live by the rules might have turfed him out of office before that first year was up. And Adama's moustache is... well, I hope they rethink it for Season Three.

I loved the episode from the Cylons' perspective, though again I'd have preferred it without the cutting back to the normal stuff. How brilliant for Blondie to hallucinate her own Balthar! And Dean Stockwell's performance and character are superb.

No comments: