Saturday, November 11, 2006

Jumped is Jumped

Just when I honestly thought things were more or less back to normal, Battlestar Galactica goes and pulls more crap out of its ass just to prove me wrong. So OK, I've learned my lesson. Once a show has jumped the shark, it can't unjump.

Last night's episode wasn't a total disaster. Visually, there was something really nice about it. James Callis' acting skills were on full display. And the image of Baltar as Jesus - while it might come across as pretentious to some - really worked for me. It was way cool seeing the Cylons fall victim to their own religious bullshit for once - and a nice illustration of the fact that their religion is as much a weakness as a strength. More on this later.

What went wrong was pretty much everything to do with the plot.

  • Why was Helo included in the decision to use the virus against the Cylons at all? If you're going to wipe out someone's race, you don't generally include in your briefing someone who is married to a member of that race! But it's doubly weird in this case because Helo isn't such a high-ranking officerin good standing to begin with; he's not normally included in decisions this weighty. It's clear that he's only here because the writers need him to have a moral crisis leading him to snuff the Cylons before the Colonials can kill them in the presence of the Resurrection Ship, thus "uploading" the virus into their birth chambers. That is, he's here because the writers need him to know the plan. But there are other ways to accomplish this. Rumors leak, after all - there's nothing wrong with having Helo overhear Adamas Sr. and Jr. discussing plans, etc. More interesting still would have been to have Helo figure it out himself. I mean, surely everyone wonders why they're suddenly on a suicide run, luring Cylon Basestars near the nebula with Galactica itself as bait? It's not at all inconcievable that Helo could have pieced it together - especially with Athena's help. The resolution would have been more tense this way - because it would have required quick thinking on Helo's part. He would only have a couple of minutes prior to launch to short out the life support in the holding cells, and he would have been very aware of the risk of waiting too late and accidentally "uploading" the virus himself. The way it's done here, however, is completely predictable and not at all engaging.

  • Sharon/Athena's reaction is bullshit. I don't care how born-again dedicated she is to the Colonial cause now, no one sits back and allows her race to be killed off just to "keep her word." It's HUGELY implausible that Helo would be acting alone in sabotaging this mission. (This is, of course, yet another reason why it's also unlikely Helo would have been included in the briefing when the decision was made - they would expect him to blab to Athena.) What's even worse: Sharon is included on the mission!!! This stretches credulity well beyond the breaking point. I get that Adama doesn't want her to think he doesn't trust her - but c'mon, he could easily have explained pulling her off the mission as an act of respect - not wanting her to have a hand in the destruction of her former comrades, etc. It wouldn't have even been a lie, really. Would that have led to weirdness between Adama and Sharon? Undoubtedly. She might eventually swallow the explanation that he's pulling her for ther own good - but there would be lingering doubt. But since when has this show ever shied away from emotional complexity? There was a time when grey areas like this were the norm.

  • Helo's moral discomfort is misplaced anyway. Lee's plan isn't going to work to begin with. Hera, we're told, is immune. If the baseship Baltar is on were infected, he couldn't help but notice this, since he and Hera would be the only survivors! He's an accomplished medical scientist; it wouldn't take him long to come up with a serum. I mean hell, it took Dr. Coddle all of about 5min., right (speaking of whom, what happened to his cool chain smoking habit)? And he didn't believe he was fighting for his life. Now, granted, Helo and the others don't technically know that Hera is with the Cylons, but they must surely suspect it. Anyway - they know Baltar is, and that's probably enough. They can't honestly believe that their "biological weapon" is really going to wipe out the entire Cylon race! A more realistic assessment would be that it would have an effect on the Cylons similar to what their sneak attack had on the colonials: it would mostly wipe them out. This should be something that Helo can live with. After all, the continued existence of the Cylons at their present strength is a threat to the survival of humanity. Even if Helo's right that outright genocide is wrong (and there are plenty of reasons to believe he isn't in this case), he can't seriously think it's wrong to at least even the odds!

  • Another miracle cure. It was bad enough when President Roslin's cancer was miraculously cured by Hera. Now Sharon is also immune to the virus because she gave birth to Hera? This is entirely too much.

  • The virus is a bit implausible anyway. So the idea is that this is an Earth virus. The Colonials are immune because humanity built up antibodies to it some 3,000 years ago, when the 13th tribe left for Earth. Now, the Cylons must certainly have used humans as the blueprint for their own human forms. After all, they look and feel human, and they come into regular contact with humans without dying of debilitating illnesses. It stands to reason that they are naturally immune to whatever diseases humans are immune to. Why is this one inexplicably overlooked? Because it's 3,000 years old? PLEASE! If the Colonials are still immune to it 3,000 years on, then so are the Cylons. More to the point, how is it even remotely possible that a disease that got transplanted to a new planet by carriers who were immune to it survived intact for 3,000 years??? Surely it would have mutated and evolved by now? Meaning: it's already a stretch to think that Dr. Coddle could recognize it in the first place, but even if he could, I doubt humans would still be immune to it in its new form. 13th tribe Earth humans, sure, but the other 12 tribes? Highly doubtful. ESPECIALLY given that the Cylons are not. But OK - I guess the implication is that this beacon has been there for 3,000 years - this is the selfsame virus that is on record from the time the 13th tribe left. Fine - but this makes it extremely unlikely that the Cylons aren't immune by virtue of having copied present-day humans. Further, while I get that viruses aren't "alive" when outside of a host, and therefore don't need to metabolize, it still seems unlikely that one could survive on the surface of a space probe for 3,000 years. Surely stellar radiation of some kind would break it down? They're near a nebula, after all.

  • Screwing with Gaeta again. Gaeta is surprised to hear that Baltar is alive? Give me a break. He was there when Baltar was offered safe passage off of New Caprica! Even if he is surprised, it doesn't seem like Gaeta to be all that affected by the news. This smacks too much of that silly "true believer" scene in Exodus pt. II. Gaeta acting as aid to the elected president I can buy. Gaeta as a true believer in Baltar I just can't.

  • Where is Colonel Tigh? It's getting really annoying how they just drop threads and characters for whole episodes when they can't be made to easily fit. I would like to have seen at least one scene with Tigh. What makes this one worse than most examples of this is that Tigh would have been more highly motivated than most to kill off the Cylons. He would have thought to prevent Helo from doing what he did - might have even gone behind Adama's back to have Helo locked away for the duration of the mission. He certainly would have protested Sharon's participation in the mission. And there's no way in hell he would have let Adama just quietly pardon Helo and Sharon for sabotaging the mission. And yet, he's nowhere to be seen. Veeeeeery convenient for the writers...

  • If medical knowledge from 3,000 years ago is detailed enough that they know this virus is an old one, why was Earth ever a legend? Early on in the show, Adama's quest for Earth is revealed to be propaganda. He doesn't really believe in it, he's just giving the crew something to focus on. Earth and the 13th tribe are believed to be fantasy. In this episode, it's presented as established fact. Inconsistent.

  • In an odd way, I no longer believe in Baltar's cowardice. At the outset of the show, Baltar is completely selfish, interested only in his own survival even as humanity dies (something Caprica Six interestingly calls "moral clarity"). But a lot has happened to him since then. On New Caprica we saw a changed man, a Baltar actually doing some soul-searching. I think he has grown a lot, and his pleading as he's being tortured no longer seems in character for him. Nor did the "apology" right before the torture session. Overall, the plot arc involving Baltar and the Cylons is the one thing that still truly shines about this show, but they need to be more sensitive to the changes he's undergone. After all, early-series Baltar didn't believe in love either, but he's since discovered that he loves Caprica Six and has definitely acted on that knowledge (when, for example, he frees one of her copies from Pegasus and gives her an atomic weapon). Enough has happened to Baltar at this point that I no longer believe survival is his primary motivation. (And indeed, we get some evidence of this in the occupation arc. Baltar seems ready to let one of the Dorals kill him rather than sign the execution order. His vision of Caprica Six has to plead with him to change his mind.)

Not everything was bad. I liked the reminder that Roslin is tougher than Adama. I admit, I liked Adama better (and found Roslin annoying) at the outset of the series. I didn't like seeing him (eventually) capitulate to her on the question of sending Starbuck off on a mission to Caprica. But once that was done and clear, I accept Roslin as top dog. It's especially interesting given that she seems so frail most of the time. Adama projects a tougher exterior, but she's made of sterner stuff. That's cool. And so I really appreciate that it's Adama who has second thoughts about the genocide plan, not Roslin. She makes her decision with no regrets. It was an especially nice touch to have Adama pass the buck to her (by quoting law that says he needs presidential authorization to use biological weapons), her call him out on it, him admit it, and then her not even bat an eye assuming full responsibility for the decision.

It helps that I agree with her. One thing I guess I really don't understand about Western Civilization are these moral hangups about using WMDs. I have no problem with dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and would have happily done it myself given those circumstances. I'm on Roslin's side: when someone is threatening to oblitterate you, you don't owe them any moral sympathy. One of the cooler scenes in the early days of the show was when President Roslin threw Loeben out the airlock after putting on a really good show at pretending to have been affected by his speech. It was especially cool that Starbuck was so shocked by this. Roslin simply replies that Loeben is a Cylon - you don't coddle them. Of course, we know that Loeben has planted doubts in her mind about Adama, but these don't last. Roslin is tough. She keeps her head where others (Starbuck in the early case, Adama in the recent one) don't. And I think she's right about this. The Cylons gave up any moral parity with humanity when they nearly succeeded in wiping it out. That having been done, there is no basis for moral doubts about doing the same to them. Roslin is doing her job as president. Adama's second thoughts are understandable (given his new friendship with and faith in Sharon), but Helo's are just annoying. I guess it should be added here that Tigh isn't the only character that should have thought to put Helo under guard. Roslin actually sparred with him on the subject, and she was genuinely offended by his position. Her conversation with Adama at the end of the episode indicates that she wasn't at all surprised to hear that someone had sabotaged the mission. She even says there are really only two suspects - so it seems clear she never really trusted Helo. Are we to take this as a kind of relief that Helo saved her from the consequences of her decision? More likely, I guess, is that it's not that she minds the decision so much, but she realizes that others do. Having nearly wiped out the Cylons, she would then have to somehow maintain command in the face of doubts from people like Adama and Helo. This is indeed a very cool bit of character development for her - and I like the subtle way it was introduced.

I also liked the implication that it was Sharon that caused the basestar to self-destruct. She has an odd look on her face after interfacing with the computer, and again when it's announced that the ship will blow. Now, granted, these might simply be on account of the computer having been infected - but I appreciate the subtle hint that more is going on. (Of course, if I'm right this leads to other problems. If she really destroyed the baseship herself, then it's doubly weird that she participates in the mission without blinking an eye. Is it because she knows what Helo will do? If so, this is indeed Very Cool. And Very "Cylon" of her. They are master manipulators, after all. I, for one, am with Roslin on the "Sharon" question too. I don't fully trust her - in spite of everything.)

Finally, of course, I like what they did with Baltar. I don't guess there's a whole lot to say about that except that James Callis is a great actor, and this plot is thematically interesting. It's nice not only that we see Baltar using the Cylon religion to manipulate them, but also that there's a show on the air at all that deals this bluntly with the role that religion plays in shaping people's personalities and worldviews. It's supercool that the Cylons themselves have differing degrees of faith in God (including Cavil - who seems to be the "leader" and yet doesn't believe in God at all - indeed, seems to look down on the others for their religion). One problem here I didn't notice myself - but was raised by others online - is the question of what ever happened to Capirca Six's visions of Baltar? Briefly she had some - now they're just gone? Even while she's watching Baltar be tortured, and he's simultaneously having visions of her? Sounds like a plothole to me...

But when all is said and done, I could have done without this episode. It was visually pleasing, well-executed, featured some brilliant acting (especially, as usual, by James Callis as Baltar), and it tried to tackle an interesting issue. But ultimately, it failed. The plot was just entirely too leaky. Nothing here makes sense - and the most galling thing about it is that half of what was wrong (especially as deals with Helo) could have been saved by a bit more planning. It just goes to underscore what I have said before: that this show suffers from the same thing that always afflicted X-Files. The writers never bothered to think about where they wanted to go with it - with the predictable consequence that everything is adrift.

More serious, I think, is that they're passing up an opportunity for some truly interesting stories. Suppose Roslin had managed to upload the virus? Clearly, that won't completely destroy the Cylons - but it gives humanity some breathing room. They could have gone into a subarc about actively looking for Earth, believing that the Cylons have been destroyed. Of course, the Cylons will show up again - but probably in changed form (since their population would have been decimated). And in the meantime there's all the moral struggling about what Roslin would have done. Could she have remained president? Would Adama's conscience have caught up with him? More interesting still - if I'm right about Sharon and she can't be fully trusted, would she have exploited this to manipulate the colonists? With what consequences? (If I'm wrong, how long would she have remained sanguine about the destruction of her race? Wouldn't it have been interesting if it didn't bother her at all but continued to bother Helo? What would that have done to their relationship?) What would have happened to Baltar stranded on a deserted Cylon basestar? Would the other 5 Cylons have appeared? Is he, in fact, one of them? In short, the writers threw away a goldmine here.

Alright - lesson learned. Jumped is jumped. It was naive of me to think that this show would be back on track ever. You can't fix a broken show. This show is still enjoyable, and it's still better than most of what's on TV now, I guess - but it's not what it was in season one, nor will it be again.


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