Thinking on a Battlestar

Verena and I have been re-watching Battlestar Galactica. Well, it’s re-watching in my case; Verena hasn’t seen it before. Now, as you may know, I am prone to complaining about BSG, my main complaints being its militarism, its confusion of personal issues and responsibilities with politics, its lack of humour, and its attempt to create a serious, edgy atmosphere by making the camera shake a lot.

So which of these complaints are still there? Well, I’ll give you a detailed answer when we’re done re-watchνng everything up to the end of (the first half of) season 4. But for now, here are my first impressions (currently at season 2, episode 13 – “Epiphanies”).

  1. I was partly unfair about the humour. I used to say that only the character of Gaius Baltar and the episode “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” contained any humour. Not so. There are plenty of amusing lines in the first season, though very few (if any) are actually funny, let alone hilarious. Still, this makes the first season a hell of a lot more affecting. Later on things are more grim, but they affect us less – because humour is a vital part of human behaviour, even in the worst situations, and without it the characters seem less real. And on a storytelling level, humour creates a contrast to the tragedy that allows both to shine more clearly. Babylon 5, Firefly and Rome (basically my three favourite series) all achieved this to a great degree – which is part of why they were so affecting. (Galactica is exciting and interesting and touching, but it has never brought tears – of any kind – to our eyes.)
  2. The effects are excellent, but the ships are dull. One does feel a certain fondness for the Galactica after a while, but the ship design doesn’t help. I guess it’s just an aircraft carrier, but still… there’s something dull about the look of the CGI. Extremely well-done, but kind of dull.
  3. I remember that when I first watched the show, I really liked it until “Epiphanies”. Same effect this time as well. I have the impression that in the middle of the second season, the writers starting pulling their punches, and some really sloppy writing creeps in. “Epiphanies” could’ve been a DS9 episode. (I’m a Trekkie and always will be, but sloppy writing has always plagued Trek. Especially technobabble and out-of-nowhere solutions – like to Roslin’s cancer.)
  4. The characters also start making incomprehensible decisions that seem more motivated by the writing team’s desire to do this or that (usually create conflict) than by what would make sense for the character to do according to what we’ve seen. Like everyone suddenly deciding to kill Helo and Boomer’s baby, or Starbuck’s behaviour in the Pegasus episodes. WTF?
  5. Personal guilt is not a replacement for political responsibility. When President Roslin makes immoral choices, which result in people’s deaths, she writes it down on a piece of paper – and we’re supposed to admire this. When soldiers shoot civilians, the show’s answer is that the people of the military do not need to be punished because they will feel guilty anyway – and we’re supposed to feel sorry. Furthermore, we constantly see political choices being personal ones – the kind of logic that leads people to assert that the only reason Iraq was invaded was because of Bush’s daddy. This is not how politics work, and perhaps the show’s greatest flaw. (A lot more on this in the longer article that will follow later.)
  6. Some of the characters may be despicable, but the acting is excellent and the cast is fantastic. It’s also great that there are so many minor characters who appear regularly and then become more important. It’s a shame, on the other hand, that there are so few black actors in the show. I’m not big on the whole political correctness thing, but it is actually quite noticeable in BSG. Still, in general, there’s plenty of people of various backgrounds, and that’s great.
  7. The music is good, except for that heroic Scottish-sounding thing they play in the patriotic scenes, which is awful and makes some of the scenes quite ridiculous. On the whole, though, the show’s music – even when it is not original – does give it a lot of texture.

The most important thing, perhaps – and I may not have appreciated this before – is that this is a serious attempt at telling a good and deep story. It fails in a million ways, but it does try to seriously examine or at least present topics that are important and meaningful. As such, I think it ultimately beats Lost, which started out excellent, and which continues to occasionally have episodes that are very, very good – but which has become more of an attempt to stuff more and more (and less interesting) twists into each episode, and has forgotten that storytelling should be about something.