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Battlestar Galactica DVD cover

I didn't want to write this review.

I mean that in several ways. Most obviously, I didn't actually want to write this review. Unfortunately, Strange Horizons found reviewers who did want to rather thin on the ground. But also, I had never wanted to write this review. I didn't want it to be necessary. So I didn't want to write it. But neither did anybody else, and I'm a sucker.

In John Webster's revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, the bullied and bullying assassin Bosola famously remarks, "We are merely the stars' tennis-balls, struck and banded / Which way please them" (V.iv.55-55). Bosola would have recognised what it now means to be a character on Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica. If the show has always attracted attention for the issues it deals with, the way in which it deals with them, and the positions it does—or doesn't—take on them, it was also once a show which dealt with the issues from a base of sound and consistent interpersonal dynamics. That is, its characters were people we could believe in and make sense of, individuals with personalities which informed their actions and reactions.

However surprising the twist, it tended to make sense—and its repercussions tended to be fierce. In the early episode "Bastille Day," Apollo couldn't seek to enlist the help of prisoners without accommodating the malcontent Tom Zarek, who was simultaneously sympathetic and wrong; even in "Litmus," one of the more thematically muddled of the first season's episodes, the characters and their reactions remained inviolate, from Tyrol's baffled affront to Adama's careful firmness. In a show which has never been consistent in theme or even internal mythology, this character-based approach was the glue which held the show together. However shocking the revelation or roaring the explosion, the viewer could trust that no event on Battlestar Galactica existed in a vacuum. It was this, above all other things, which made the show worth watching. If season two's "The Farm" was troubling for all the wrong reasons, it nevertheless sat in the middle of an exhilarating run of episodes (probably the finest extended run the show has ever managed, and possibly still the series' high point) which filled every second with another bit of plot but never seemed to run out of space or humanity.

Those days, however, are long gone. In its third season, Moore's show has become something quite different. The signs were there at the end of the show's sophomore run—its last episode, rushed and ragged, served provisional notice that Battlestar Galactica was now a series more interested in thrills and spills than any sort of thoughtful coherence or real moral complexity. And, this season, so it proved from the off.

With the human survivors of the original Cylon attack camped on New Caprica, and a skeleton fleet not fit for the task of protecting them in retreat, season three begins with the story of a human resistance to a Cylon occupation. Thus enabled to address difficult questions about what are and are not acceptable asymmetrical tactics, Battlestar Galactica chickened out. In "Occupation," the season premiere, the show fumbled every conceivable question about the tactic of suicide bombing, from its efficacy as a tool of war to the morality of its contexts of use, by making its suicide bomber a soldier, and his targets a paramilitary arm of the occupying forces. It was as if the show wanted to pay lip service to the idea of being edgy and courageous without laying any of the tedious, difficult groundwork—Battlestar Galactica wanted to enjoy the effect of the outwardly contentious without in truth something which approached even mildly controversial.

In "A Measure of Salvation," the crew engaged in a debate about the ethics of infecting the Cylon race with a deadly plague (we'll ignore for a moment Lee Adama's sudden and convenient transformation into a toaster-hating uber-pragmatist), but ultimately the decision is taken out of their hands and the only character to act—Helo, who ensures that Galactica's biological Trojan horse is rendered useless—gets away with his mutinous behaviour scot-free. There were fair questions to be asked by this episode: could the humans be justified in using a terrible weapon to ensure their (increasingly doubtful) survival, and have the Cylons entirely given up the right to enjoy the viewer's sympathy? Instead, "A Measure of Salvation" simultaneously simplified the issues through the use of Lee's newfound vengeful bent and then dodged the black and white question they did ask. Michael Angeli, the segment's writer, in this way followed what is by now a tried and tested Battlestar Galactica policy—strike the pose, dodge the bullet.

But the moment at which this reviewer realized that Battlestar Galactica wasn't itself anymore came a little earlier in "Exodus, Part II." Saul Tigh discovers that his wife, Ellen, has been passing information about the resistance to the Cylon occupiers in an attempt to save her husband's life. Tigh confronts her, secures her confession, and promptly poisons her. Michael Hogan—enjoying a superlative period of unimpeachable performances—does his redoubtable best with this histrionic material. By this point, Tigh had already spent weeks in a Cylon prison, suffered through torture and lost an eye, ruthlessly administered a resistance and organised suicide bombings, and descended further into his persona of the misanthropic alcoholic. This is still not enough for the writers of Battlestar Galactica. They also require he be betrayed by the woman he loves, and that he execute her for this trespass. As Hogan sobs manfully onscreen, the viewer might be forgiven for asking how this man, who wouldn't even give up whiskey for the greater good, can suddenly be able to sacrifice his wife; but, in truth, the viewer may be too stunned by the sledgehammer being repeatedly brought down upon her head to notice.

Of course, this moment results in many weeks of Tigh sulking around Galactica feeling sorry for himself. Then he gets a nicer eyepatch and everything's OK. It's perhaps too easy to be flippant about this level of emotional manipulation, but Battlestar Galactica deserves to be roundly mocked for the portentous simplicity of its recent episodes. "Collaborators," written by Mark Verheiden and the first full episode which takes place after New Caprica has been evacuated, sees Tigh and a half-dozen others take it upon themselves to charge, try, and execute humans who have helped the Cylons. It was the single bright point in an otherwise deadening procession of "issues" episodes more interested in shocking the viewer than making them think. A fairly compelling examination of the instinct for vengeance, if "Collaborators" nevertheless succeeded in keeping the hands of most of the series regulars tolerably clean, it asked the right kinds of questions in the right kinds of ways—without flinching and without hedging.

By this point, though, the viewer had already begun to lose interest. Moore these days seems almost exclusively interested in the endpoint rather than the journey. So "Unfinished Business" needs to be a story about Apollo and Starbuck's relationship, and thus crafts an entirely unconvincing sequence of flashbacks to justify the resuscitation of their on-again off-again love affair. We are expected to accept this ret-con of the characters without question, even as we beg to know why not a hint of this sudden backstory has been dropped before. Similarly, in "Hero," Adama reveals that just prior to the Cylon attack on the colonies he had led an illegal incursion into Cylon space, thus arguably provoking the machines' devastating onslaught. The viewer resents such massive elements of backstory being conjured from nowhere. This is not merely another permutation of the show's hopeless attempt to equate the humans with the Cylons—there is simply nothing humanity could have done to fairly invite the holocaust delivered upon them by their robotic creations. It also exhibits a simple lack of respect for anything but the moment. If Battlestar Galactica wants to tell a story about Adama feeling guilty for causing Armageddon, it will tell it however it can. There is no pleasure in watching a series happy to rewrite its own mythology for the quick shock (predictably, in subsequent episodes, Adama's revelation has not been mentioned again).

The Cylons themselves, with more screentime than ever before, continue to act like a band of over-equipped quixotic teenagers. Their new Plan, for those of us still bothering to keep score, is to find Earth. This results in a sort of intergalactic Wacky Races, in which the human and Cylon fleets are never far behind each other but neither ever quite in the lead. Lucy Lawless as Number Three, arguably overtaking Tricia Helfer as the show's principal Cylon, gets to enjoy religious visions and taunting James Callis as Gaius Baltar, but has become a sort of repository for all that is inconsistent and frustrating about the robotic race: their quasi-religious bluster, their simultaneous lack of deep philosophy, their incoherent strategies, their limping characterisation. If one week Three is torturing Baltar, and the next she is sleeping with him, we can explain it to some extent by way of Baltar's colossally entertaining psychoses—but it has much more to do with writing that seems incapable of joining its own dots.

This is a problem familiar to veterans of the second half of season two, in which episodes frequently over-ran and frantic editors cut scenes like so much summer grass, only to reinsert them into the "previously on" sequences of later installments. It still seems astounding that TV writers can fail almost every week to write their episodes within the constraints of their medium, but season three has seen the same phenomenon recur to familiarly detrimental effect. In particular, the disastrous "The Passage" failed to sell either of its two storylines—one about the past of Viper pilot Louanne Katraine, the other focused on Galactica's efforts to replenish the fleet's food supply—because neither was given enough room to breathe. The drama of the episode subsequently fell flat, simply because the whys and wherefore of what precisely was happening—how did the fleet's food so suddenly deplete, why has the shadowy figure from Kat's past never sought her out before—are left unaddressed. Other vital plotpoints—the purpose and strategy of the fleet's jumps into and out of a star cluster with high radiation levels, for instance—are explained, but in so rushed a fashion that the viewer is left playing permanent catch-up.

All of this is doubly frustrating because it is not as if Battlestar Galactica does not still have its rather good points: the show's cast is full of talented actors capable of adding depth and believability to the material they're given, and the direction and high production values of the final product are often cinematic, and never short of effective. Galactica has punch, but has lost its follow-through. Its impact has been reduced. When writers fall back on characters remarking just how unlikely is a particular plot, as Felix Gaeta does in "The Eye of Jupiter," the December cliffhanger episode presumably meant to leave us all wanting more, there is something lazily wrong at the heart of the show.

Moore now demands our attention by way of hollow spectacle—a suicide bomber here, a biological plague there, a false sprinkling of false culpability for seasoning—and delivers his message with all the subtlety of a line drawing. Lee's depression is signified by a fabulous fat suit, while his affair with Starbuck ratchets up so rapidly that his confrontation with her husband has all the posturing of teenage angst without any of the emotional complexity. If the show is still capable of startling imagery and intriguing ideas (the Hybrids which control the Cylon base ships; the moment where Zarek and Roslin, about to be murdered by a Cylon death squad, comment wryly about the consequences of doing the objectively "right" thing), ultimately its now total sacrifice of character and world to issue and explosion still robs most of them of the ability to make a lasting, meaningful impression. Battlestar Galactica hasn't merely made its characters into tennis balls. It's just plain lost its serve.

 



Dan Hartland’s reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs intermittently at thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.
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