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BSG: The Long Goodbye – Battlestar Galactica and the Trouble with Twenty

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Battlestar Galactica and the Trouble with Twenty

March 25th, 2009

[After reading Media Studies scholar Jason Mittell’s thoughts on the finale over at Just TV, I got thinking about the narrative structure of the finale, and how different it was from the season that came beforehand. As a result, we have our third part of The Long Goodbye: the most formalized attempt I’ve made at describing Season Four’s struggles.]

It is impossible, and probably not even desireable, to go into a series finale without some sense of the agency of the show’s writers, creators and producers who are behind the strings pulling things together. By the very nature of the media hype surrounding the event, especially for shows which have garnered critical or commercial success, there is going to be a focus on the person “responsible” for what people are about to see. In many ways, it’s about blame: if things go awry, if decisions are made which anger long-time viewers, there will be someone who can be held up to the clambering crowd of naysayers as the individual who sent their beloved series down such a dangerous path.

Battlestar Galactica is no exception to this rule, and its finale had numerous moments wherein you could feel Ronald D. Moore exhibiting creative license, making decisions to leap forward in time, to explain away potential plot holes, to prescribe meaning to things in a way which didn’t feel as organic as we may have liked. But that’s his prerogative, this show having been his “creation,” and it’s also not a fundamentally bad thing: while it may end up being divisive, as a show that was designed to get people talking many of his decisions in the finale were well-crafted and connected with the series’ existing identity.

And yet I do have a problem with this idea, just not in the context of the finale itself. My problem is with the fact that the same type of sense of the producers controlling the flow of traffic, withholding information or making deliberate decisions, has been present from the very beginning of the season in a way that wasn’t as productive. There was very little organic about the way the season was organized, as if proximity to the series’ final destination sent them careening around in circles for eighteen episodes before deciding in the finale to get on with it already. The result was, in a bit of a fascinating twist, the realization that for the most part this Finale could be viewed directly after Season Three and still be an effective emotional climax to the series.

With that realization, the omniscient writers and producers who were in charge of this journey are suddenly held accountable not just for the end, but for everything that came before it – considering this question closer makes the ultimate case for the value of shortened cable seasons as opposed to the lengthened order the series was provided.

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BSG: The Long Goodbye – The Critical Response to “Daybreak”

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The Critical Response to “Daybreak”

March 21st, 2009

[I always write my reviews without reading what other critics have written, not because I don’t respect their opinions (precisely the opposite) but rather because I feel as if I have nothing to add once I finish reading them on occasion, and I want to feel motivated to write and produce blog material. And while I may have gone with the “volume” approach with the Series Finale, this doesn’t mean that other critics haven’t been able to far better focus on some of the issues I really wanted to emphasize myself. So, let’s take a trip through the critical response to the finale as we start our Long Goodbye.]

Critics love Battlestar Galactica, and those that don’t do feel kind of bad about it. This is one of those “events” in the world of television criticism, where it becomes the dominating topic of discussion within critical fields, and while there is a mostly positive buzz surrounding the finale this doesn’t mean that there isn’t some disagreement. So let’s, below the fold so as to not spoil anyone, start sorting through the reviews for some things they made me reconsider, and some things that I want to question.

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Series Finale: Battlestar Galactica – “Daybreak Part Two”

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“Daybreak Part Two”

Series Finale – March 20th, 2009

“Ever since we found out who…what we are…”

When the Battlestar Galactica Miniseries first began, there were two main questions: who are these people who are leading humanity forward after this devastating tragedy, and what is the nature of the Cylons who caused that devastation? It was part of that central binary the show put forward, humans vs. Cylons, but from the very beginning these are not two separate questions. In the character of Boomer, this balance between who/what was inherently questioned, as those who straddled the line between human and Cylon were forced to confront these types of questions. When the Final Four Cylons were revealed, they all fell on different sides: Tyrol accepted “what” begrudgingly in the quotation above, Tory downright embraced it, while Tigh refused to abandon “who” and continued to emphasize his personal identity.

At this point, we as viewers are all people straddling this line between “who” and “what” in the shadow of “Daybreak,” a series finale which struggles less from pressure within the show itself and more from the external pressure of fan expectation. The problem is that we, as fans, grapple with similar problems: are we concerned, moving into the finale, about who these characters are and what journey they have taken, or are we too caught up in the “plot holes” or the questions to which we demand answers? It’s not a new binary amongst viewers: for ages people have been complaining about episodes for having too few explosions, or for being too slow, or for not doing enough to advance the show’s complicated plot structure. Whereas for most of those episodes, I’ve noticed strong character development, effective mood building, and an almost cathartic sense of pacing that is part of what makes the series more than just science fiction.

“Daybreak” is an episode that, more than answering which side of this binary people should fall on, should destroy it altogether. This isn’t about plot, or character, but the intersection of these ideas. In the show’s fourth season, amidst some admittedly complicated and on occasion bungled storylines, one thing that has remained consistent is the idea that the definitions of human and Cylon are melding together. Much as Edward James Olmos argued against race being used as a cultural determinant during the United Nations panel earlier in the week, we should be beyond the point of considering these people purely along the lines of human vs. Cylon, just as we should be beyond the point of considering the show in terms of plot vs. character.

So, let there be no red line drawn down the deck: with this epic, sprawling, action-filled and philosophically-driven finale, Ronald D. Moore has accomplished what he set out to do. He manages to meld together the cheeky with the solemn, the profound with the surreal, the whimsical with the emotional, in a way that gives you that sense that destiny is not a four-letter word, that plot and character are neither slave to the other, and that whatever this show accomplished it will go down in a fashion befitting of one of television’s most effective pieces of programming, period, independent of its science fiction heritage.

So say, if not us all, then at least this particular believer.

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Battlestar Galactica – “Daybreak Part One”

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“Daybreak Part One”

March 13th, 2009

Methinks that Ronald D. Moore has placed a red line right down the ranks of the Galactica faithful, which is something that he seems to revel in – it is not that the beginning of “Daybreak” is inherently a bad episode, but rather that it represents a very cautious approach that is treating this three-hour finale as an episode in and of itself as opposed to an extension of the episodes that came before it. The result is another in a long line of setup episodes, weaving in and out from his main character’s past lives in Caprica City in a way that makes thematic sense to the show as a whole, but doesn’t actually feel like it connects with the mutiny, or the rest of the fourth season thus far.

There’s something to be said for this kind of approach: with a cast this large and with a timeline this varied in terms of both action and reaction, it’s easy to see why returning to who these people were before “the Fall” would be of some value. And yet, at the same time, I left the episode not pondering how much these characters have changed but rather how much they’ve remained the same. Something about the way the episode was structured made it a bit too easy, the parallels between their former lives and their current predicament too simply stated, for us to forget some of what has happened to them, to remove the context of forward momentum and replace it with a potent nostalgia.

The result is something different, not something wrong: when Adama has his heroic speech, we are properly on the edge of our seat, properly considering the gravity of this situation, and properly realizing just how epic this is going to eventually be. But we’ve been waiting for something epic for a long time now, and by layering that suspense with the catharsis of the flashbacks we’re taken out of the season and placed into a series perspective perhaps too disconnected from the season thus far.

I’m left wondering not whether Moore is steering this ship in the right direction for the finale, which has the right kind of epic qualities as we need it to have coupled with a strong connection to these characters and their past lives, but rather whether this finale remains unchanged from the plan originally designed for when the second season was to be only 13 episodes – I have a feeling that it wouldn’t have been any different. As a result, while it feels like we’re heading in the right direction for a series finale, I don’t quite know if it feels like an ideal capoff to the season in and of itself.

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Battlestar Galactica – “Islanded in a Stream of Stars”

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“Islanded in a Stream of Stars”

March 6th, 2009

“You know sometimes I wonder what “home” is. Is it an actual place? Or is it some kind of longing for something, some kind of connection?”

The entirety of Battlestar Galactica has been about a search for a new home. From the end of the miniseries, when Commander William Adama told everyone that they had a map to a new home called Earth, there was always a preoccupation with finding someplace to settle, someplace to rebuild what they had before, somewhere to plant the roots that had been so violently uprooted by the Cylon attack. But from the very first moments of ’33,’ it became very clear that this wasn’t going to be a simple journey, and at every point where they felt like they had found home (In season 2’s visit to Kobol, appropriately titled “Home,” or on New Caprica at the start of Season 3) it was taken away from them by some cruel reality from their past.

But every character on the show has nonetheless remained buoyed by something, some sort of vision or location which connects them to something imaginary yet more real than anything they were experiencing. It’s almost a metaphor for the show itself: even with all of its spaceships and explosions and epic battles, the show has found grounding in human emotions and human relationships in the same way that its characters, faced with the surreality of their years of struggle, return to that which offers the most peace with themselves. We saw our first direct example of this last week, wherein Boomer had actually built a home for her and Tyrol that, when she was sad, she would go to in order to get away from it all.

Moving this into the realm of Cylon projection is reflective in the fact that the search for a home has become even more complicated when you include the Cylon side of this equation – they too had their initial home destroyed by some unknown force, and were forced into a bitter search for purpose. And they too thought they had found the answers, whether it was the Colony revealed in this episode (where the Final Five built the Other Eight Models) or Caprica and Boomer’s plan to settle the Cylons on New Caprica with humanity. But for whatever reason, fate and destiny never led them to the point where either Cylons or humans were able to find a home that was their own, that brought them not just complicated questions or theories but rather something approaching the peace that only the imagination could create.

While the second half of this season has had a number of episodes which serve as a clearing of the air in an effort to make distinct the themes the show is looking to delve into in the two-part finale to come in the weeks ahead, this one is the one that is most broad-reaching: whether it is Adama’s realization that his search for Home never really even started, or how the principles of fatherhood drive both Helo and Tigh into very different perspectives of what makes a place or home, or how Laura Roslin has always held onto her own dream-like projection, or eventually how someone like Kara Thrace acknowledges that she’ll never quite be home until she accepts just who she is. The only thing that ties everything together is that, for all but one of them, none of their conceptions of “home” have anything to do with Caprica and its ruins, Kobol and its gods, or even Earth and its destruction.

They’ve been “Islanded in a Stream of Stars” since the attack began, but the island meant something different to every single one of them; the problem has not been that their actual location or condition have been wrong, but rather that the various different secondary realities have been in conflict. Now, as we move closer to our conclusion, the people aboard Galactica are starting to rise to the occasion, finding in themselves not just their place of peace but also the self-awareness necessary to either let go of their inhibitions or accept that their vision of home might not be what they’ve been searching for all along.

And the result is an emotionally powerful penultimate episode of a series that, having always been about a search for home, has at the very least found itself one in the annals of television history.

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Battlestar Galactica – “Someone to Watch Over Me”

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“Someone to Watch Over Me”

February 27th, 2009

For an episode driven by the power of melody to transcend minds and to bring people together, there was a return to a familiar rhythm to “Someone to Watch Over Me,” a return to form for Battlestar Galactica as it heads into its final three episodes. What’s been missing in the last few episodes is the sense that this is all coming together to add up to something, that what we’ve been seeing and the answers we’ve been searching for have been worth our time. While, perhaps, the content of “No Exit” or “Deadlock” will make a difference in the end, neither episode in and of itself added up to something profound, something progressive, or something that gives us some peace of mind that the show knows where its most powerful material lies as it heads towards its finale.

But this week this all changed under the guidance of Bradley Thompson and David Weddle, delivering their last episode with a deft sense of pacing and momentum. It is an episode that leans heavily on the past to demonstrate the power that it has over us, and then allows that to play out in the present in a way that is simultaneously revelatory and, more importantly, diversionary from the laidback, almost nonchalant path the show has been on since the end of the mutiny. The result is a clear path to the future, centering its storyline on the two major unanswered questions and using both of them to drive us into something approximating a climax. More importantly, though, the actions in the episode are ones which actually have broad implications for almost everyone: while the most recent drama has remained far too isolated to one side of humans and Cylons, here we finally have something that everyone can get really frakking pissed about.

And, well – finally.

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Battlestar Galactica – “No Exit”

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“No Exit”

February 13th, 2009

You know, sometimes you speak too soon.

When I posted that extended rant this morning, I knew that it was very likely that tonight’s episode, “No Exit,” would actually do much of what I wanted to have done:  a greater glimpse into the Cylon side of this fleet, a return to questions of human/Cylon connectivity, and more of an investigation into the central issues that I felt drove the mutiny in the first place. As a fan of the first two issues in any episodes where they enter into the show’s narrative, then, this one is a doozy: it answers questions about the Cylon creation process that we never even bothered to ask, filling in gaps of logic, philosophy and science in the history of these people like a Cylon bioorganism would fill in the holes within Galactica’s hull.

There’s a whole lot to discuss on that front, so I’m going to get this out of the way before we even get below the fold. To be honest, I still stand by my earlier thoughts about the mutiny arc, and actually felt this episode confirmed much of it. While there is some strong Cylon material here, there is still a disconnect between human and Cylon that feels odd when you are discussing the combining of these two forces at almost every turn. This episode raises some amazing questions of Human/Cylon identity, do not get me wrong, but because those questions appear as highly philosophical conversations on one side and as much less in-depth decisions on the other, there is still that sense of imbalance that struck me with the mutiny arc as well. We’ve switched to the opposite problems: the Cylons have apparently spent 18 months having these fascinating conversations, and yet the humans haven’t been afforded the same luxury quite yet.

All in all, “No Exit” draws itself further into philosophical and expositional territory than any other episode in this half-season, resulting in a slower but deliberate pace that offers more than enough food for thought – let’s focus on that, and maybe I’ll rant a bit more at the end.

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