Saturday, October 28, 2006

Good Episode, Poor Writing

Yesterday's episode of Battlestar Galactica was a breath of fresh air. I still maintain that we're not yet out of the woods. The show still suffers from logistical problems, mostly due to character inconsistencies as a result of having abandoned a lot of continuity in the second half of the second season. However, the overall plot direction is showing a return to the complex handling of difficult themes that characterized the show's early days; this is a welcome (and long-overdue) sign that things are slowly returning to normal.

Let's start with what was wrong:

  1. What's with Tigh and Adama? I feel like we've never been given a good explanation of what's going on here. Tigh has always been a deeply flawed character, fine - but when the show started Adama had faith in him. Now, it's not that his decision to promote Lee to Admiral over Tigh to command Pegasus didn't make sense. Tigh seriously screwed up his shot at command when Adama was incapacitated, and Lee had, on several occasions, proved himself a capable leader. Fine. What's annoying is that absolutely no screentime whatever was devoted to Tigh's reaction to this. There's reason to believe that Tigh wouldn't actually be all that bitter about it. He's said several times that he doesn't want command; mostly he serves Adama, whom he deeply admires. But at the very least Tigh's wife Helen would have issues with this, and whether or not Tigh respects Adama Sr. and his decisions (which he clearly does), he has personal animosity toward Adama Jr. So I feel a bit cheated that we didn't get scenes dealing with this involving Tigh, Lee and Helen at the very least. Now we see Tigh sitting on a secret jury which is kidnapping occupation collaborators and spacing them, a fact which he doesn't mention to Adama? I dunno - maybe we're supposed to believe that their relationship is sufficiently strained by this point. And logically, I guess that makes sense. Tigh fought the resistance on the ground while Adama (both of them, actually) was still on the Battlestar. This fight cost him his wife. Throw in any buried resentment over Lee's promotion, and you have a plausible explanation. Only...well, human relations are complex. I need a bit more than plausible to convince me that those old bonds are severed. In the early episodes, Tigh positively worships his commander. However plausible this implied rift, I just don't feel it, sorry. I'm having trouble stomaching the idea that Tigh sits on this jury and Adama knows nothing about it.

  2. Kara's turning into a comic book cutout. I don't like what they're doing with Kara. She's become one-dimensional - and overnight at that. They were doing so well. What was going on with her and Loeben - that was very interesting and deliciously creepy. That's the kind of thing that made this show great - pushing things just beyond the comfort level, but remaining iron-clad believable, never gratuitous. Loeben's psychological games are well-written and thematically interesting. Now, granted, this experience (of being tricked into believing she'd forcibly had a child with someone she hates) is no doubt traumatic for Kara. I completely buy the rethinking of her relationship with Anders, and I absolutely believe that she wants to fight back at something, anything, as she says. Also, the fact that she just charges ahead recklessly - well, that's nothing if not in character for her. What I don't like, though, are the pat phrases coming out of her mouth. Kara was always hotheaded, emotional and reckless, but she was never a walking cliche dictophone, nor was she ever this shallow. Inner conflict is compelling when the actor isn't fully aware of her motivations. But in Kara's case, it's clear that she is fully aware of her (not-so-)subconscious motives and knows that they're destructive, regrets them, and follows them anyway. Hardly the "fuck you" attitude we've come to expect! I especially didn't like her outright explanation to Anders that she was lashing out as a way of working through her problems. Give me a goddam break. People who are lashing out only talk like that in pulp fiction - so there went my suspension of disbelief in a puff of pale blue powder. What we've been led to expect from her is a kind of manic cruelty in these situations. We've seen it before - and the writers trusted the audience then to know what was really going on. Why not now? What we now get instead is a commentator talking through the mouth of a character. A script plan rather than dialogue. No thanks. Ditto that awful scene at the end with Gaeta where she demands that he beg. Why? Because she needs him to? Fine - but you don't get prisoners already showing steely resolve to beg by begging them to beg! I mean, I get that she needs Gaeta to suffer as part of that misdirected revenge motive she has that she spelled out to Anders in clinical detail. We're kosher on that point. What doesn't work is that she again knows it, doesn't care, and spouts comic book dialogue rather than real human words. Her whole tirade to Gaeta comes across not as the emotional unwraveling that it would have been in the show's early days. Rather, it comes across like the plot device that it is. Yes, we get the offhand mention of the dogbowl that saves Gaeta's life. Check. Oh yeah, and make sure the viewer knows that Kara's coming unhinged. Check. If that's "natural" narrative then I'm the funkiest dancer in Harlem.

  3. The "fat" theme with Lee is still going nowhere. So Lee is making an effort to control his weight now. Great. And Adama is chiding him for it because he doesn't seem to quite believe Lee's sincerity. Fine. What I still don't get is why any of this is happening at all, what theme or plot thread it serves, and what it's supposed to mean.

  4. So Tom Zarek is President of the Colonies after all. Of course he is legally. He was Baltar's VP after all. But if that's the case, then why did we see Laura Roslin sitting in the President's office on Colonial One sighing relief that things were "back to normal" if that was actually Zarek's office? When did she start recognizing his presidency? And when did he start issuing executive orders? (Zarek, as it turns out, gave the order for the secret jury that Tigh, Tyrol and (later) Kara are sitting on.)

  5. Yet another character no one's ever met jerking our heartstrings. They could have spared me that garbage about *fill in name, I didn't bother to learn it* mourning over his son who was "only 7 years old" (was that even the actor talking? Or did they maybe just dub in lines from any of about 5,000 movies?) after Jammer went out the airlock. These writers used to understand that you only get emotions from audiences in this savvy post-structuralist age if you build up to it. William Shatner couldn't even pull this off ("Kowalsczky! Those Klingon bastards! They killed Lt. Kowalsczky! He was like a son to me! If I have to tear this universe apart star by star...") in the 60s - what makes them think it flies in 2006?

So that's my shit list for this week. But I didn't want to end on that note because as I said above, this episode is a huge improvement overall - a hopeful sign that things are getting back to where they belong. Let me take some time to spell out what they got right:

  1. Zarek doesn't really explain his motives for cedeing authority to President Roslin. Not that I really enjoyed watching her ask him (more of that pat dialogue), but I find what Zarek is doing completely believable. I can't explain why exactly, but that's usually a sign of good characterization. In real life people's motives are often inscruitable, and it takes a talented writer to show you a character acting in logically mysterious ways but have you convinced all the same that it's exactly what would happen in a similar situation with a similar person in real life. There's Othello and there's Hamlet, and in this thread with Tom Zarek, ladies and gentlemen, we are in the presence of Hamlet. Never mind that it doesn't make logical sense, it makes personal and emotional sense. Good job!

  2. Gaeta is back to being Gaeta. There's no more of the "true believer" about him. He flatly says that "Baltar was president of the colonies. Remember? We all voted for him." Right. We don't exactly know who Gaeta voted for personally, but it's completely in character for that not to matter to him. He does his duty, and that's exactly what he was doing on New Caprica. Never mind that he didn't support the policy, and never mind that he didn't like Baltar. Gaeta does what duty requires. It's also in character for him to do "what he can" for the resistance, and not to bring up this fact in a pathetic attempt to save his life from vigilantes the way Jammer did. The writers got Gaeta's character absolutely right in this episode - which I personally really appreciate since, as I have said before, Gaeta is my favorite character. It's nice to see he'll be sticking around as himself, and not just as what some writer needed him to be for a couple of minutes (as we saw in the previous episode).

  3. Baltar - WOW! Not much to say about Baltar except WELL DONE. We see the actor's (and the director's, it must be said) skills tested and certified. Not to mention, the image of him sitting alone in the big room in the giant fleet of Basestars cut off from humanity - well, subtle it ain't, but as an expression of the emotional pit Baltar has been slowly sinking into throughout series, it really, really works. I also like the mind games they're playing with him. This is the Cylon enemy we know.

  4. In spite of everything, the "secret jury" theme worked. Yes, fine, it's obvious, not particularly deep commentary on the War on Terror. But it worked, I thought - and this in spite of the campy dialogue noted above. We saw the system abused as Tigh and others manipulated Tyrol emotionally to get convictions they wanted. We saw a completely convincing turn of events that had them almost execute as a traitor the one man (Gaeta) who arguably did more than any other for the resistance. (I am also personally pleased to note that I was wrong about what was going on with Gaeta and Tyrol. I thought Tyrol knew that Gaeta was his inside contact. It's nice to know he didn't; that makes that whole exchange in the first episode this season between the two of them believable.) But most importantly, we're convinced that there's a real moral grey area here. Zarek's secret jury, just as he says, can't easily be dismissed as immoral. It does help Roslin get rid of people who need getting rid of with plausible deniability - and this is something she needs. (I thought they handled her reaction well. She takes advantage of her opportunity to look down on Zarek, but they both know that part of her knows he's right.)

So the episode was more than just a net positive - it was a decided positive. It was, as the title suggests, a good episode that just happens to be weak on writing. The bare events of the story are all right on - it's the way they're dressed that's a bit lacking. This is especially evident with Kara, but it applies all round, I think. We got a good story poorly written, which I prefer to see as being a good story that happened to suffer from bad writing rather than bad writing that accidentally managed to tell a good story. I would prefer that they let some of these themes build - not try to tackle everything at once. But I also don't want to complain too much. Things are getting back on track. Here's hoping it keeps up next week!


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