In case you didn't know, the Cylons have a Plan. Viewers of Ron Moore's acclaimed Battlestar Galactica remake have for the last two years been told just how cunning and calculating the show's antagonists are at the start of virtually every episode. Created by man, yadda, yadda, evolved, yadda, rebelled, yadda, many copies, et cetera, Plan. The Cylons, in case it had escaped your attention, have a Plan.
No one has the slightest clue what it is.
Battlestar Galactica is simultaneously a show compulsively attached to continuity and one with a logic which often doesn't bear the most superficial of inspections. One of the great questions barely obscured by the show's sometimes contradictory treatments of the Cylons can be very simply expressed: who are the Cylons, and what do they want? What on earth is this plan of theirs, anyway? The cynical viewer could be forgiven for coming to suspect that she is told at the beginning of each episode that the villains have a plan because, if it were left merely to the events depicted in the show, it'd look like the robots were stumbling around without even a sketch of a map. And here's the really funny thing: in its second season finale, "Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2," Battlestar Galactica completely reinvented itself and, apparently, the modus operandi of the Cylons. Who were the Cylons, and what did they want? Well, I'm not sure we'll ever know.
"Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2" is an ambitious piece of television: it manages to wrap up not just the cliffhanger from the preceding episode, but in addition, more or less every other dangling plot thread from the rest of the show's history, and still finds time to change drastically the series paradigm. By the end of its ninety minutes, Battlestar Galactica is no longer a show about a fleet of less than 50,000 humans, the only survivors of a massive act of genocide, on the run from a victorious robot army. It's a show about a colony set up by the human survivors of a massive act of genocide under occupation by a victorious robot army. At the same time, the characters have been developed perhaps further than during the entirety of the show's run to date, the show's internal politics have altered beyond recognition, and, oh yeah—the Cylons have gone and got themselves a new plan. Ron Moore reboots his show right in front of our eyes.
It's not like it was impossible to see it coming: after an exhilarating and thoughtful opening half, season two's back end had seen a procession of disappointing episodes, some of which even Moore would only weakly defend with mutterings about "production problems." From the bone-crunchingly bad science of "Epiphanies" to the tired noir of "Black Market," even the decent instalments had at least one notable flaw which rankled when seen in the context of an endless march of mediocrity: the out-of-sequence plot points of "Scar," for instance, could have been forgiven had they not been sandwiched between character ret-conning for Lee Adama and a confused melange of a hostage-taking entirely devoid of tension.
True, Battlestar Galactica has never been the most ground-breaking of shows. Largely, it has relied on moments of eloquence rather than constant revolution. There is a scene in "The Captain's Hand," for example, in which Apollo is finally given command of Battlestar Pegasus by its incompetent and ill-prepared captain. Rather than showing Lee stepping up to the plate with immediate confidence and swelling music, the
camera zoomed out, leaving the fighter pilot isolated and not a little lost as he intoned quietly, as if trying the concept on for size, "I have the bridge." Galactica has always delighted in adding humanity and emotional complexity to what are essentially stock situations.
Ultimately, it was in applying this alchemy that the latter half of the second season fell down. After the serial of its first half, it could have proved refreshing to turn to the sort of stand-alone episodes which are the bread and butter of other shows, but the show failed to mine its backstory or respect its continuity sufficiently to make a success of this change in tone. Characters were twisted and coerced by writers into acting in the ways now necessary (the most glaring example of this being the non sequitur of a relationship between Lee Adama and Anastasia Dualla), whilst little effort was made to fit each episode's concept to the show's previously established lore (Chief Tyrol was making moonshine last season—exactly where does Cloud Nine get its enviable selection of exotic drinks?).
Something had to be done. The work started in "Downloaded," which saw two Cylons—the Six from the show's originating miniseries, and the Eight who masqueraded as the raptor pilot Boomer during its first season—begin to voice their doubts about Cylon policies towards humanity, and agree to work together to change them. This was certainly a significant development, and the format of the episode—focussing almost entirely on the Cylons rather than the humans—a refreshing shift in perspective, but still more was needed. Battlestar Galactica had lost its way so comprehensively that it had to redraw the map.
In principle, then, "Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2" is a fine thing. In jumping the hurdle of the fleet's presidential election, in giving us an insight into the changes which the events of "Downloaded" had already wreaked upon the Cylons, in resolving the frustratingly stalled sub-plot involving Gaius Balthar, a nuclear warhead, and a Cylon within the fleet, and in having that fleet decide to colonise a newly discovered planet, the episode consciously seeks to create a new place from which the show can start next season. And then comes the doozy, the thing I haven't mentioned yet. Then comes the skip in time.
The last twenty or so minutes of the episode take place a year after the events of the preceding hour. Within those twelve months, New Caprica City has been colonised by 39,192 souls, all protected by a now skeletal defensive fleet. We are reintroduced to our characters (this much is necessary—as Admiral Adama points out, the show has skipped ahead by more months than the fleet was running). It is this process which reveals the weakness at the heart of this superficially strong episode.
The thing about storytelling is it takes time. The impact of something almost always lies not in the thing itself but rather in the care of its set-up and the detail of its aftermath. A similar format change was squashed into the final episode of the penultimate season of Joss Whedon's Angel, for example: having fought evil law firm Wolfram and Hart for four years, the show's protagonists then went to work at its offices. Potentially disastrous and in its fifth season execution ultimately disappointing, the change itself built strongly on the preceding season's themes, and was sold to the audience on the strong back of the established character traits of the title character. Crucially, the audience felt and were shown the consequences of the episode's rapid developments. But "Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2" is running scared from the old format, so scared that it doesn't give itself any time to pause for breath. The episode is a tacit admission that, yes, the writers aren't really all that sure they want to or even can write within the series's old set-up. Those of us disappointed by recent Galactica have known the show needs some form of saving; but the writers seem to have decided that it needs changing. It may not be coincidence that Galactica is going prime-time next season, and a new format may well appeal to new viewers.
Change in itself, of course, is not bad—in fact, rebooting Galactica could well be a stroke of genius. "Spaceships on the run from implacable foe" is perhaps not a concept with huge dramatic scope, and the fundamental effect of retooling the show is to find a way to tell the human versus Cylon tale in a fresh, new way. It has been suggested that the movement from stories about a scared and beleaguered fleet to ones about an occupied colony is an effective way to keep pace with the real-world progression from 9/11 and its aftermath to the situation in Iraq, which is of course notably different in character. The series was certainly developed in part as a response to current affairs, but its confusion in depicting the Cylons has always weakened its status as analogy: it is hard to argue for the moral equivalence of the Cylons when their initial act of genocide is so out of proportion.
Indeed, Abigail Nussbaum has convincingly argued that the show's "Cylon Problem" has its roots in this uncertainty over whether to deal with them as a purely science fictional conceit or as a parallel to real-world developments. Here's the rub, then: if the change of format is designed to reflect the real world's change of political climate, it is spectacularly soft-headed. The attacked are not now the occupiers but the occupied, the initial attackers now victorious (let us ignore the fact that Iraq wasn't linked to the real world's initial attack in anything like this clear-cut fashion). If the format change has political rather than artistic purposes, it leaves little comfort for those hoping it will set right the mess which is the Cylon/terrorist analogy.
What the rebirth can do, however, is cast new light on the show's characters and situations, and on its very concept: if we attempt to shout down the sorts of putative concerns discussed above (and it is worth giving a retooled show the benefit of the doubt), then the events of this episode could be precisely the reinvigoration Galactica has seemed to be in need of. (How worrying, though, that it needs such drastic attention after just 30 or so episodes.)
The problem with "Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2," then, isn't the drastic change it wreaks on the series. Rather, it is its method. Ron Moore has admitted he fell in love with the idea of shaking up his show at the end of a season, rather than starting its third with the "one year later" caption. But what this choice means in practice is that the episode has no chance to reflect, to count the cost of its monumental events; worse, it has no time to parse them effectively—we are left with largely hollow posturing rather than any sense of import.
For example, Dean Stockwell's Cylon informs humanity that his people have chosen to leave the humans alone, and regret the attacks on the 12 colonies; half an hour later, they're back with a whole new plan. For those of you keeping score, that's three Cylon plans in just ninety minutes. Similarly, Cloud Nine is destroyed in a nuclear explosion and then, erm, gets talked about for a few minutes. Following the year's worth of jump, characters are entirely shortchanged—we know Starbuck has changed because she has transformed into a hen-pecking wife, although anything approaching a real explanation is left to the bewildered imagination—or, even worse, leave us somewhat disturbed—having last been seen swollen and beaten after Chief Tyrol attacks her in a senseless rage, Cally is next seen swollen and pregnant with his child. Narrative vertigo can be fun, but it can also make you nauseous.
The overall impression is not of a show confidently stepping forward towards a grand new format, but rather a series galloping full tilt from a paradigm it's not sure it can write very well anymore, heedless of everything it has set up. Having followed Galactica and expected some follow-through on the old issues, the viewer is instead presented with an episode which pays lip service to addressing them but in fact is merely getting them out of the way. It is a curiously unceremonious narrative, a nervy rather than a gutsy performance.
It's difficult to argue that Galactica's third season will be bad on the strength of this twenty-minute "pilot"—given the time he should have given himself here, Moore will likely do with the new format what he did with the old. But presented with a season two that started brilliantly and ended by eviscerating itself, one is left with an ominous query: what is Battlestar Galactica, and what does it want?
It's far from clear that anyone has the slightest clue.
Dan Hartland is a British writer of various words, of which some are occasionally about science fiction. He retains a perspective decidedly outside of the genre, one which could conveniently be described as well-wishing frustration. He awaits the day he can do this for a living and copy-write for fun.
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