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Sunday, July 20, 2008

TV Review: Battlestar Galactica

First three seasons

Miniseries: ****

Season One: ***1/2

Season Two: ***

Season Three: *****

Having some free time I decided to try and catch up on one of those shows that the critics throw praise at and say that I should have started watching years ago (So, look for my review of Mad Men in 3 years). That said I set out to initially watch the miniseries, see if I like it, and go from there. The next thing I knew, I’d watched the first three seasons.

I’m reminded of the old Itchy and Scratchy where Satchmo is smoking extra-tar cigarettes, and says “I don’t know what’s in em, but I can’t stop smokin’ em.” At first I didn’t know if I necessarily liked the show, but I couldn’t stop watching it.

Those familiar with the original will find the set up familiar. But that’s it. Mankind builds the cylons to be our servants. They of course, become self aware and rebel. After a long war the two sides decide to a cease fire and to go their separate ways. Forty years later the Cylons, who through biomechanical means now look exactly like us and have developed a fanatical monotheistic religion (as opposed to the humans who are polytheistic and worship versions of the Greek gods) , make a surprise attack to the human’s home planet of Caprica killing all but about 50,000 of the human race. The surviving fleet decides to look for its ancient relatives on Earth. The Cylons have other plans.

Sci-Fi is at its best when it’s neither Sci nor Fi. The Twilight Zone was one of the greatest TV shows ever in its ability to address hot button political issues through thinly veiled parables. The Monsters Come Out on Maple Street was about Cold War paranoia, but is every bit as applicable today as it was then. In fact, some episodes are even more relevant today than ever. The Planet of the Apes films, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still are all political films at heart and a big reason the initial Star Trek series was popular was because of its subtle comments on race, gender, and war.

That said there has not been a sci-fi series as deeply political as Battlestar Galactica. The first series was a strange pastiche of Star Wars, Disco, and Mormon theology. This is the only series on TV that in every episode interrogates the moral and ethical implications of living in a post 9/11 world. Needless to say the show is also the darkest on television.

It’s both very much about the War on Terror, and Iraq, but it’s also deeply committed to exploring the philosophical ideologies behind each view. News programs have just reported on suicide bombings but BSG devoted two full episodes debating the morality of such tactics. We see episodes about torture, terrorists, rigged elections, insurgencies, patriotic witch hunts, war profiteering, tragic friendly fire, and religious extremism is the underlying question in the show. The fact that all of this is not preachy and even enthralling is a testament to the writers, editors, and actors. A scene with three characters discussing the moral implications of using biological weapons which could result in genocide isn’t just plot in between shoot outs, but the most intense and interesting part of that particular episode.

We also have representatives of nearly every political thought. And if that’s not enough each episode is just as infused with existential theological questions (what’s the point of life when you’re race has essentially been destroyed? What makes something human? ) to such an extent, while still leaving it ambiguous enough, that one could teach a philosophy class using this series as a text. This makes it not surprising I found three books on Amazon already about such applications for the show.

The initial set up of the show is masterful and sets up one of the major debates of the show, fate or free will. And for a sci-fi show with so many philosophical issues, the characters are all deeply layered and deeply flawed. And the actors, nearly universally, are brilliant. Edward James Olmos as the old Captain of the ship and Mary McDonnell as the secretary of education, dying of cancer, who must become the leader of the human race, deserve Emmys. In large part, because of the strength of the cast, even with everything else going on around them this is still a human drama about relationships complicated by a strange new existence, and at its heart a story about the reconciliation of father and son. The one exception to all this is that of Gaius Baltar, and his inner (?) dialogue, that gets a bit too much time, and is painted a bit too broadly compared to the rest of the characters.

The first two-seasons have some filler episodes and some growing pains in trying to figure out how much it wants to keep to the same structural tone from episode to episode. But the show is never boring in fact it’s rarely not compelling, though at times it’s difficult to watch.

There are episodes when a show goes from great to all-time great, when it goes from a series to something more mythological. Sometimes you can even pinpoint the exact moment a show becomes an all-time great like on Lost when Ben takes off his gas mask in The Man Behind the Curtain, on the Simpsons where a pathetic Bart pleads with a French cop in The Crepes of Wrath, when Brody turned the camera onto the detectives on Homicide, or on The Wire when Bubbles stands up at an NA meeting, What this show does in the last 30 minutes of the second season finale is one of the gutsiest and most brilliant reversals in television history and moves it from a great show to one of the all-time greats. From that point on the show feels far surer of itself which makes it even more potent and intense.

Whether or not this is the best space opera in history really doesn’t matter because this may be the defining show of our time.

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