Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Blogging Battlestar

Ah, summer. Time for getting outside in the nice weather during the day, and mourning the lack of interesting television at night. Around our house, summer is the season for rerun marathons, where we grab some of our favourite SF series from the DVD shelf and power through a couple of episodes per night until the story is done. Last year it was Babylon 5 & Crusade, Firefly, Doctor Who, and The Tick (animated and live). Even though we had the complete collection of the new Battlestar Galactica (at least, once they got around to distributing the last half of the final season), we gave it a pass - it was still too fresh in our minds after the finale last spring.

But now we've had a year to distance ourselves from the experience. Now it's time to watch it through again, without the annoying season or half-season breaks or commercials. Now we can see the entire series with the special movies inserted in as close to the chronologically appropriate places as possible, along with the webisodes. Now it's time to savour what made BSG great, and give proper consideration to where it was weak.

As part of our re-watch, I plan to blog the experience: commenting in short form on the Twitter feed; babbling at length here on this site.

Tonight: the premier miniseries.

It began with the end of everything.
It began with the end of the Colonial civilzation.
It began with the end of Cylon self-control.
It began with the end of Galactica's service and Adama's career.
It began with the end of Laura Roslin's health.
It began with the end of the estrangement between Adama and Apollo.

It began with the juxtaposition of the old and the shockingly new: an old-style Colonial shuttle (giving us a nod to the old series that, despite extreme cheesiness, had enough good in it to warrant another try) and a whole new look to the Cylons - bigger, badder centurians, humanoid models that were ultra-scary in their sexiness and intensity, and angular, piercing-looking basestars that forced the eye to slide along their lines, much like Six stalking through the hall of Armistace Station.

The premier wastes no time getting down to business, with the Cylons blowing the shit out of the station and, in the process, showing that they're more than happy to sacrifice their troops, and in the cavalier nature of this, hinting at what's to come, that really, they're not sacrificing anything more than hardware - the software, the personalities behind the invasion, will keep coming back again and again.

From there it's a breathtaking sweep in towards Galactica. Same basic shape as the old concept, but sleeker, tougher, and far more dangerous-looking than the old version. This Galactica isn't the pride of the Colonial fleet either. Rather than being the second-largest battlestar behind the flagship Pacifica, this Galactica is an older model that's had her day and is ready to stand down and become a museum as she's replaced on the line by newer vessels.

Her commander is the same: Edward James Olmos as Adama is quiet and compact, but with a steely-focussed gaze and with an air of command so powerful it doesn't have to be projected - it's just there and everyone knows it. In contrast, Lorne Green was big, loud, excessively noble, dressed in flamboyant robes as often as his fleet uniform, and always seemed to be detached, his attention drifting on philosophizing on things in the distance - grand, far-off visions of ancient histories and great powers, as opposed to the down-and-dirty day-to-day survival matters Olmos grapples with.

And there are other differences among the crew: chief among them being Starbuck. The original was an ace flyboy who was kind of whiny and who was so over-the-top as a ladies' man it seemed he was overcompensating for something. The new Starbuck, Kara Thrace, is an ass-kicking, hard-drinking tomboy who's not bad to look at. What we don't know at this early moment is that she's also some kind of angel who will get the fleet to safety on Earth. But that's an unnecessary character arc within the larger story and ultimately kinda lame - okay, okay, it's very, very lame - and it's much better for the story at this point to simply focus on her as a human being.

Once the story gets going, it's incredible. All of the characters are intriguing and believably well-rounded. The pacing is a perfect balance between gut-wrenching space battles, interpersonal tension, and moments of quiet, with everything moving the story forward towards Galactica and the fleet being squeezed into a position where the only hope of survival is to run from their home system into the cold emptiness of space.

As a pilot episode, the miniseries definitely succeeds in leaving the audience wanting more. There are questions that beg to be solved (and in some cases, let's face it, beg to be solved in much more logical, satisfying, and, if nothing else, more realistic ways than they turn out to be answered by the end of the series) and characters who are engaging enough that we want to stay with them a while longer to find out what happens to them.

But the real strength of the miniseries is that it works as a stand-alone feature. It's strong enough to watch on its own and, from time to time, I've been known to pull it off the shelf and experience it again for that very reason. It tells a coherent, gripping story of a group of people dealing with the destruction of their civilization, their resolve to survive and the acceptance that to do this means fleeing rather than fighting for their homes. It's also the story of a new group coming into ascendance, though, because of their alien natures as machine intelligence, it's fitting that we only get to know a few of the Cylon characters, and then only a little bit. If NBC and the Sci Fi Channel (as it was then known), had decided not to proceed with the series after the airing of the pilot miniseries, that would have been enough - they would have created a great stand-alone feature. Sure it would have left the audience wanting to know what happened to the fleet after its escape, but the bottom line is the miniseries did a great job of telling a single, big story: that of the destruction of a civilization and the escape of its refugees in an attempt to create hope amidst an uncertain future. It bears saying again: this would have been enough.

That the series was given the green light was a sign of just how great the pilot was. Say what you will about how the series panned out over the years, the miniseries was a start that was filled with promise.

Now it's a matter of watching the other episodes of BSG to see how the writers chose to honour that promise.
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