Review: Battlestar Galactica – “The Plan”

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“The Plan”

October 27th, 2009

There has been an odd lack of excitement surrounding “The Plan,” which isn’t exactly surprising. On the one hand, the show’s finale proved somewhat divisive, which could have turned some fans away from revisiting the series. On the other, there is more long term interest in a project like Caprica which could run for multiple seasons than a one-off movie, which might have fans focusing more on its impending premiere. However, I really shouldn’t fit into either of these camps, as I’ve yet to get truly excited about Caprica (although I am certainly intrigued) and I quite loved the finale. And yet, nonetheless, the DVD release of The Plan (in stores today, October 27th) snuck up on me in a way I had not anticipated, and its release seems to lack the fanfare one would expect for what will be our last time spent with this universe (or this time period in this universe).

Perhaps it is best that one goes into this one with low expectations, however. As someone who loves this show, having written an undergraduate thesis about it and spending four hours writing about the series finale into the middle of the night with no regard for my personal health, the purpose of this film should excite me. Promising to explain the Cylon plan to destroy humanity, and to detail how the individual Cylon models came to play their roles in the first two seasons of the series, one feels as if there is some really compelling material to be had here, the kind of stuff that would have me wishing I could go back and rewrite my chapter on the Cylon/Human binary all over again.

And yet, “The Plan” is a qualified failure, raising some intriguing issues but in an indulgent fashion that in its relentless need to fill in the gaps of where this is happening relative to the show’s narrative proves more distracting than informative, more confusing than enlightening. I feel as if there is an intriguing narrative waiting to be found somewhere in this mess of a two-hour television movie, but that narrative is lost when it is so clearly segmented to fit into the series’ existing structure. While we’re busy playing the game of “spot which footage was from the show and which was shot new for the movie,” there’s something interesting going on here that’s just not coming through as clearly as it needed to.

In individual moments, this feels like Battlestar Galactica – as a whole, it feels like a DVD extra where you can click a button and see what the Cylons are busy plotting at that particular time, something which would be more interesting if they hadn’t tried to turn it into a motion picture event.

If this were the story of a leader who, after plans go awry, finds himself ill-equipped to finish the job but hell-bent on doing it, only to have his soldiers prove themselves disloyal to the cause as they are one by one picked off by emotional commitments which weren’t part of their strategy, I think this could be a legitimately compelling narrative. Yes, the theme that love lives on beyond death is cheesy and simple, but there is something about Dean Stockwell as a leader of men and women that makes this idea compelling on the surface. As individual stories, the journeys of Simon (who has a family he is unwilling to let die at his own hands) or Six (who fails to complete her task when she begins to feel sympathy for Baltar as all Sixes eventually do) or Boomer (whose duelling instincts tear her apart to the point of overwhelming any sense of autonomy she had) are all kind of interesting, and with Cavil at the heart of the storyline there is something really interesting about those individual tales.

However, unfortunate, this isn’t the story of those people: it’s being sold as the story of how the Cylons blew up Earth and how they plotted against it, and when you start slotting these stories into the show’s existing narrative through either retconning (inventing the character of Simon’s wife to work as a knuckledragger) or through placing new scenes within existing storylines (Six’s feelings towards Baltar, the various scenes of Boomer telling Cavil about her troubles) things become more complicated than they need to be. While Boomer’s story was interesting, we already saw the exact same type of storyline happen in the show itself, and seeing the other side told us nothing new outside of the existence of a little wooden elephant as a sort of trigger. Knowing that Six had feelings for Baltar is highly irrelevant to anything we might want to know about Cylon culture, and Simon’s story tries to duplicate the realizations of Cylon identity that the fourth season just about played out with a character we’ve never met before, and one given basically no storyline development. If they were parts of some other series that didn’t actually have anything to do with Battlestar Galactica, they would have been intriguing, but the sense that we’ve already been down those roads couldn’t help but pervade the entire film.

I know what Jane Espenson and Edwards James Olmos were going for here, a film that is equal parts thematic rumination and fan service designed to “say goodbye” to the show for its cast, crew and fans. And every now and then, you get a moment which feels particularly interesting that kind of makes the project worthwhile. However, none of those moments felt like they were actually part of any broader plan, and none of them shed any light on what was really happening behind the scenes during these attacks. I loved a scene like Tricia Helfer’s southern-drawl Six listing off to a drunk Cavil the various ways the others had all failed him as he reached out desperately for his bottle, the kind of comedy that Espenson does well and which Helfer and Stockwell both nailed. But, in the end, what did that add to our understanding of these Cylons and their plan? Something like Cavil stabbing the young orphan boy was also legitimately chilling, but when the story meandered its way through the film without ever amounting to anything (we only got a name out of the kid) did it really accomplish much beyond being an intriguing setpiece? On that point, did the entire movie accomplish much of anything?

I don’t think it’s so simple as to suggest that knowing how it ends somehow ruins it. The film didn’t need suspense to work, it needed something that was legitimately intriguing or exciting. The one storyline that seemed like it couldn’t go wrong, showing Anders in the early days of the Resistance, played out in such a rote fashion that it never amounted to anything. Of the Final Five, he was the only one who was not on board Galactica or in the fleet when the attacks happened, so I was expecting for his journey to be particularly enlightening. Instead, it started with every war cliche in the book, and then turned into a game of Caprica Cavil attempting to awaken the Cylon in Anders while in the process awakening the human in himself. I think there was something to be had there, the idea that when the Cavils eventually meet aboard Galactica (as we saw at the beginning and end of the movie) they are at two fundamentally different places in terms of their opinion of the attack on humanity. However, because so much of what happens in between needs to navigate its way towards narrative guideposts in the form of events that transpired during the first and second seasons, we never really get to play out their differences except for in the prologue/epilogue, which doesn’t provide as much commentary on that subject as I would have liked.

There is no question that the film leans on Dean Stockwell in a major way, placing Cavil in the sort of leadership role that came to the forefront in the fourth season, once the uprising of Boomer and Caprica and the rise of D’Anna were over and done with. I can’t help but imagine how much more interesting the film could have been if we had seen something more along the lines of “Downloaded” (where we see the Cylons acting entirely independent of humans) as opposed to this mismatch of new and old material. The idea that Cavil ended up in the fleet with this ragtag group of secret agents, separated from their Cylon commanders and unable to mount an offense on their own, is actually really interesting, but the potential never feels realized. The almost slavish attention to detail, fitting in the events the Cylons are undertaking, feels like an undercooked attempt to appeal to non-fans to fill in the gaps, or to play to those with poor memories of the events unfolding – however, by spending so much of its time doing our work for us, it missed out on living up to the promise the project had.

The retconning, and the focus on all sorts of Galactica events, also points out a whole bunch of logistical concerns. How, precisely, did so many Cylons cycle their way in and out of the chapel aboard Galactica without anybody seeing it – not only would the chapel be busier than they depicted it, considering how many people had died and all, but in particular Doral and Leoben would have been searched for and not able to move as easily as the show made it seem. That there could be two Sixes who, even with different hair colours, looked so alike wandering about the ship in the middle of intense paranoia is similarly unbelievable, and these types of mental leaps could have been avoided if they had spent less time reminding us of those particular realities. If they had been less worried about showing us what we know, we would have been less reminded of how they were so conveniently slotting these events in where they wouldn’t logically fit. They would always run into these issues with this type of project, but elements of the film’s construction actually made them more apparent instead of hiding them.

The whole film has this sense of “tell me something I don’t know.” We know that Grace Park really grew into the role of Boomer/Athena, and she acquits herself well here. Similarly, we knew Tricia Helfer grew leaps and bounds during the second season, so her addition of nuance to some early Six appearances is certainly helpful. Michael Trucco is given some pretty rote military fare, at the end of the day, but he does pretty well with it. The two actors given more to work with, Rick Worthy as Simon and Dean Stockwell as Cavil, have opposite problems. Stockwell is great in the role, as usual, but there’s a sense of diminishing returns: his treatment of all of the various Cylons was more or less the same, and I much prefer the more philosophical Cavil (who, stuck with Anders, we saw less of overall) than the diabolical one from the fourth season (who was the one aboard Galactica). As for Worthy, he was by far the most underwritten of the Cylons (in a tense competition with Doral) in the original series so it was good to see him get a chance to give some shades to Simon. Unfortunately, it was too little too late, as outside of confirming he likes medicine everything else felt too new to really connect with the show as a whole. It’s one thing for things to be too close to the show’s narrative, but it’s another for it to feel forced and contrived out of thin air.

I don’t entirely know where all of this went wrong, but something about the form and content just don’t match up here. If this was sold as a webisode series, where we saw Simon and Anders’ individual stories in, say, 3 8-minute episodes each, and then spent a webisode or two with Leoben, Six, Boomer, etc., I think I’d be on board. But when you start to sell it as something entirely different, you run into problems. It toys with a major presence for the Final Five, but then see Rekha Sharma for a few minutes in the beginning and briefly at the end, and Kate Vernon makes only a quick opening appearance as Ellen Tigh before never re-entering the narrative. If the film wasn’t going to present a larger scale, if it was going to tell a loosely connected set of alternate perspectives on previous events that never quite gels as a whole, there were other ways to present this material that wouldn’t create expectation. The idea of spending more time in this universe is compelling, but there are ways to do it and ways not to do it. The basic idea behind the film was fine, but the script that has been constructed isn’t actually a television movie, and what it accomplishes is far from the potential of such a project with more care put behind it.

What we learn from “The Plan” is that, once the Cylons went from a world-destroying power to a group of individuals outnumbered in the fleet, their programming proved incapable of holding them back from emotions of love and empathy, driving each of them in turn to relate to their human side (however false it may have been) to the point where they were closer to their creators in their current state (walking amongst the humans believing themselves to be one of them). But by focusing more on events aboard Galactica than on their creators, and by spending more time placing these storylines into the broader narrative than actually crafting one of its own, the film falls off the rails. I didn’t need it to be surprising or suspenseful, or to fundamentally change my perspective on this universe; however, what I did need was for it to feel worthy of the series’ namesake, and that is something I do not believe it accomplished.

Cultural Observations

  • I remember a time when a scene like Simon’s wife standing in a room paranoid about her husband being called out as a Cylon for his suicide would have been so fun to watch, since we know that Tyrol and Tigh are both Cylons. However, the fourth season really did play that out, so it felt tired here.
  • Disappointing to not even get a glimpse of Mary McDonnell –  a lost altercation with Roslin coming into the Chapel in search of guidance and sharing a deep conversation with Cavil would have done wonders to keep me engaged during some of the longer stretches of tedium.
  • I want to make clear that I don’t think Espenson was entirely at fault here: the very premise of featuring so much old footage would have doomed this no matter what, and I am far more comfortable with her handling something less hamstrung in Caprica.
  • Didn’t notice a whole lot of new score from Bear McCreary, and the fact that he hasn’t yet posted anything on his blog about the project seems to indicate it wasn’t too intensive. However, should he post something later today, that’s where it will be.
  • One thing that will change when (or, if, really) SyFy airs this on television: the sexual content. The amount of nudity was actually kind of surprising to me, and the Simon/Wife sex scene (while thematically on point) was kind of over the top to be quite frank. I’m all for nudity when it feels right but some of it (the topless bartender, the scene in the showers) really didn’t work.
  • One positive: this makes Razor look like a tremendous success by comparison, doesn’t it?
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1 Comment

Filed under Battlestar Galactica

One response to “Review: Battlestar Galactica – “The Plan”

  1. I was disappointed in the movie too. It really didn’t show the “Plan.” When it was announced months ago, I had imagined it would have shown the Cylons preparing and planning the attack. There was the whole story of the final five returning in the middle of the preparations, creating the skinjobs which lead to the conflict which resulted in Cavil taking charge. Not to mention the whole story about Daniel, which could have been told. None of that was touched upon.

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