Friday, May 23, 2008

If you aren’t already a passionate addict of the Sci-Fi series, Battlestar Galactica, now in the midst of its fourth – and final – season, I wouldn’t recommend that you start now, for reasons that will become evident shortly. If you are, however, you are being treated to some of the very best theater in the history of the medium. The drop-off in quality between Battlestar and, say, The Sopranos, is enough to give one a nose bleed.

Readers of this blog will know that I respond strongly to the quality of writing both in film and television. If, as I’ve argued before, the finest single hour in fiction television history is the “Two Cathedrals” episode of West Wing – the Mrs. Landingham’s funeral / National Cathedral / swearing at God in Latin / rain-drenched president being asked if he will run for a second term, having hidden his MS for much of the first (not to mention the flashbacks to Bartlett’s prep school days) season-ending episode that concludes with the late John Spencer’s words “Watch this” – every episode of Battlestar seems to be at least in that range. This puts it up there with some of the very best extended television ever – the first season, say, of Twin Peaks or the miniseries version of Angels in America.

I know I’m not alone in this impression. The gazillions of users of give Battlestar a rating of 9.1 on a scale of ten. While IMDB doesn’t rank TV shows, it’s worth noting that only two motion pictures in history rate that high – The Godfather and Shawshank Redemption – and none rank higher. The Sopranos does score higher overall, with a 9.5, and Band of Brothers ranks higher yet, at 9.6, in the mini-series category, which IMDB for some reason does track. Still, these are all rarified heights. Let’s just say that there’s a consensus as to the quality of Battlestar G.

This is not to confuse this series with its 1970s antecedent by the same name, which starred Lorne Greene in the role of Commander Adama, Richard Hatch¹ as Captain Apollo & Dirk Benedict as Lieutenant Starbuck. That series lasted just 21 episodes, tho it does score a respectable 7.1 rating from IMDB users. But it’s little more than a springboard from which the current series’ producers & writers took flight. In the current version, Starbuck is a woman (Katee Sackhoff in the most macho role on TV), Apollo is now Admiral Adama’s son. Edward James Olmos, long a terrific character actor (viz. Bladerunner) who heretofore has gotten leading roles primarily when the character was supposed to be Hispanic, plays Adama, Mary McDonnell is the other big name star (she was nominated for Oscars for Dances with Wolves and Passion Fish), playing a Secretary of Education who is the lone surviving member of the political administration on the planet Caprica when it is nuked out of existence by rebel androids called Cylons. With roughly 40,000 survivors – whoever was off-world on a space ship at the moment of attack – the humans anoint her president and decide to make a run for the mythical planet of their ancestors, earth.

That’s as much of the plot as I can give for the simple reason that the show has roughly one major plot twist every fifteen minutes. Over four seasons, that’s a lot. But even over one show, that’s extraordinary. Miss an episode and you’re hopelessly confused one week later. Why are we in an alliance with Cylons? Why is the president working with the traitorous Gaius Baltar? Why is the president talking to The Hybrid?

The secret of Battlestar Galactica, however, is neither its acting – tho it’s been first-rate throughout, nor its direction (like The Sopranos, there have been a lot of directors, even including Olmos) – but the writing of Ronald Moore, a Cornell poli-sci grad who cut his teeth as a television writer/producer on Star-Trek: The Next Generation & Deep Space Nine, and who is the chief writer here. Like West Wing when Aaron Sorkin was writing all of its shows, Galactica works because of the incredible density of its plotting & the sharpness of its dialog, with a coherence that is possible only when one person is responsible for guiding the vision. Thus, as I’ve noted here before, one episode found Chief, the head mechanic for Galactica’s fleet of one-person attack vessels (Vipers), organizing a work stoppage over issues of justice & put the exact words of Mario Savio’s famous “shoulder against the wheel” speech right into the character’s mouth. Toward the end of last season, four of the 12 models of Cylons discovered for the first time that they were, in fact, androids living among the humans when they began to hear what sounded like music reverberating from ship’s electronics. The song that was audible only to them turned out to be “All Along the Watchtower.”

A lot of the very best television, anything with a serious or complex story arc (think West Wing, Twin Peaks or even Max Headroom back in the day), tends to run into the network suits after a season or two, demanding stories that are more self-contained. That’s what allows a series to build an audience, because viewers can come & go at will. But the really best TV does just the opposite – it starts with its maximum possible audience and gradually loses those who can’t keep up. Invariably the suits win. The network, after all, is their toy. Declining revenue is never their idea of a good time. But when forced to live with permanent modularity, these shows all sag & dissipate very quickly.

You could tell almost the exact moment with Sorkin abandoned West Wing – it ramped downward to an entropic close, even as it projected what could have been an exciting presidential race being won by a post-racial ethnic patterned after none other than the junior senator from Illinois. Or remember when David Lynch checked out of Twin Peaks – the second season was a sad shadow of the first and its final episode ended up being directed by the attorney who put together the financing for Elephant Man. In its most recent episode, Battlestar had a major plot element driven by a dream sequence that occurred a season ago. How many viewers can be expected to get that? How many members of the audience are going to catch the words of Mario Savio? Or consider the period on the planet New Caprica when Saul Tigh, Admiral Adama’s right-hand man, put together a group of suicide bombers, right at the moment when suicide bombings were daily occurrences in Baghdad? With those sorts of demands on the attention & allegiance on an audience, there is almost no direction for Battlestar’s audience to go but down. You can’t start in the middle and hope to make sense of anything. You just need to hie thee over to Blockbuster (or Netflix) and get what’s available on DVD, trusting that eventually you will get it all.

Which is why ending the series after the fourth season makes a lot of sense – tho there will be spin-offs, such as the prequel Caprica, due next season. The decision requires the show’s creators to finish this story arc before they lose any of their powers or their control. It will be fascinating watch them try to bring this rodeo to a grand finale. In the plot as it now stands, the Cylons have devolved into a civil war of their own. The humans on Galactica know seven of the twelve models of Cylon (all the rest are copies of these twelve). Viewers know four of the remaining five. And everybody is guessing about the fifth. Who will it be? (My vote all season has been the president – I still think it’s her.) Will the humans get to earth? Will Cylon & human be able to co-exist? What will become of the hybrid baby, Hera? What of the four Cylons living underground as human? Are they even on the same side as one another? The questions are rather endless.

As best I can tell, the series has 12 remaining episodes and is scheduled to end early in 2009. That means that there will be a hiatus, not necessarily a bad thing – the word on the street is that Moore & Co. reworked the entire fourth season during the writers’ strike. A hiatus now would just give them more opportunity to infuse even more subplots as this rollercoaster barrels toward its conclusion. This promises to be one hell of a ride.


¹ Hatch plays a minor role, that of Tom Zarek, in the current Battlestar, the only actor in both versions.