Monday, March 5, 2012

Waiting for Reapers: Another Chance for Battlestar

On March 6th, I’ll have Mass Effect 3. This was an event written in the bedrock of the universe. I am beyond prepared. By my count, I’ve played Mass Effect 2 (one of my GOTY 2010 Picks!) to completion twelve times—two of them this year—and I could easily do another. ME has almost the perfect alchemy, with a fascinating universe, characters I adore, and themes that resonate. But, I don’t want to burn myself out before I even have it, as unlikely as that seems. Then along came a column entitled “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Sci-Fi Universe of Our Generation”. Needless to say, I agreed, but it got me thinking about what else could even be considered in contention. The column listed a few contenders, but only one seemed credible—the 2004 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. There are a few connections between the two, actually, with a few similar themes, styles, an homage, and a pair of actors. I have my opinions on BSG, but they’re a bit old. Has time changed them? Now here’s something that will give me my spaceship fix until the 6th.
            Admittedly, I was predisposed not to like BSG before it had even begun. Not because I had any affection for the original, God no. I have memories of the original, but they’re dim at the very best. No, it’s because when BSG was announced, I was at war with the Sci-Fi Channel. I was a Farscape partisan, which had been treacherously cancelled about not long before BSG was first announced. Though the campaign was still going, the idea of Farscape returning for some closure seemed a distant hope at best. Bitterness had set in. Sci-Fi needed to burn, and when each press chat about BSG seemed to contain thinly veiled insults directed at my precious show, it was very easy to turn against it as well. But in the end, we got what we wanted—Farscape did get to close properly with a miniseries. The war was over, but, and no doubt the crew of Galactica can attest to this, while war and peace may come abruptly, the attitudes, mindsets, and emotions don’t have switches that can be turned on or off. It would take another four years before I would make an effort to watch BSG at all, just in time for its last, divisive season. For various reasons, I dubbed it “Ok”. Have these scars been healed?

            Well, I had a litany of criticisms back in the day. And I’ve found they’re still valid. What’s changed is the shows virtues seem much, much stronger now. Of course, there are also those rare elements that hindsight has been less than kind to.
            I’ll start with a few of my criticisms first, just to get it out of the way. Even more so than infamous contemporary Lost, the mythos of the show, and many of its more mysterious events are terminally muddled, or get unsatisfying resolutions. Truly unsatisfying. After the finale, I said I’d have preferred they’d brought back Lucy Lawless, just to have her say “A wizard did it.” It would have been worth the laugh. The show played fast and loose with what would happen next, and in the end, that habit bit it in the ass hard.
            Also, I really had problems with Starbuck, which was a pretty big issue, because she was a pretty big character. I just never bought her—either because of the writing or the acting (or, more likely, both), whatever I was supposed to get from the character never came across. When I was supposed to find her edgy and awesome, she felt like an immature brat, when I was supposed to find her conflicted, she felt shrill, and when she was imprisoned and shot through a fish-eye lens…well, I’m not sure what the point of all that was, but it didn’t work. And the fact that she is a key player in the unsatisfying resolutions doesn’t do her any favors.
            This time, however, I’m able to pick my cherries. I know what stuff to pay attention to, and what stuff is just going to be cast aside. I know that the Cylons are going to rather unceremoniously dump their vaunted Plan, and they aren’t going to tell me when they do. I know when I should gird myself for a particularly screechy Starbuck scene. I know a couple of episodes I can, and should, just plain skip. This time, I could focus on the good bits.
            The grit of the setting and circumstance of the show and its characters, and the physical grit of their environments is simply brilliant. There’s always been promise in rendering space battles like naval engagements, and the execution in BSG is the strongest I’ve seen. A typical battle is full of noise and prattle and jargon flying around Galactica’s awesome CIC, very high energy and fundamentally exciting. When these engagements get coupled with the show’s examination of Realpolitik in the devastated culture it’s built, as it does in excruciatingly escalating battle of chicken at the end of the episode “Pegasus”, the results are nothing less than genius.
            It’s very refreshing, and even fun to see actual, tangible politics grappled in a sci-fi setting. I’m not sure the show added much freshness to the torture discussions post 9/11, but seeing, say, Baltar tried for crimes are usually standard sci-fi supervillainy is a new and funny twist. The tricky balances of survival, physical and moral, are fertile ground, and BSG reaps well there.
            And know what? Some questionable character directions and Starbuck aside, there are some great characters here. Obviously, the entire show turns around Adama and Roslin, and Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell along with them, but Apollo, Helo, the many Sharons, the many Sixes (played by Tricia Helfer, Tyrol carry only a little less weight. Even Baltar, who fell down a bit in light of the late revelations, was still great fun to watch most of the time. But the true hero of my viewing was and remains drunk-ass Col. Tigh, he of the one eye and the skank wife. Tough and gruff and loyal and bitter, Tigh was prone to bad choices and tough calls, simultaneously pathetically weak, and inhumanly strong, a hard man with many cracks in his façade. Tigh was great to watch in every was Starbuck wasn’t.
            Love for Tigh ties into my final, and major criticism of BSG—it’s rather dispiritingly deterministic. Talk of destiny and the cyclical nature of events were always a big part of the show. One of its many refrains is “All this happened before and all this will happen again” after all. Here, then, are the unsatisfying revelations I talked about earlier: throughout the show, several mysterious agents and actors spoke of “God” and “God’s plan”, and it turns out they’re being literal. God, through his resurrected angel Starbuck, finally breaks the cycle of war and leads human and cylon to Earth. But even that doesn’t work, as the actual actual end implies we modern people are headed down the same path (don’t ask). Leave it, then, to Col. Saul Tigh, at his most bad-ass, to make the show’s lone plea for human agency: "My name is Saul Tigh. I'm an officer in the Colonial Fleet. Whatever else I am, whatever else it means, that's the man I want to be. And if I die today, that's the man I'll be." Words he lives by, we quickly see.

            Agency has never been a question for Commander Shepard and Mass Effect. Against hopelessness, against inevitability, against crushing defeat, there is little choice but to fight back, pointlessly or not. That notion, along with the details and expansiveness put ME a cut above BSG in my thinking. Though BSG did a pretty good job tiding me over.               

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