Thursday, August 02, 2007

Battlestar Galactica -- 2003 Miniseries

I'm planning to go through all episodes of Battlestar Galactica and review them as I go along. I'm not used to writing reviews, but hopefully I will learn in time.

Actually no, I've decided to do that with Babylon 5 instead, but I had already written the first review of BSG when I changed my mind, so I'll post that one.

The BSG Miniseries (the pilot):

Obviously, spoilers abound.

Background: Humans create cylons (intelligent robots). They rebel. A war follows, which ends in a draw. The cylons leave into space. Then no one hears from them in 40 years, then they come back with a vengeance. They destroy almost all of mankind; everyone except a fleet containing about 50k humans. The biggest ship in that fleet, a battleship, is called Battlestar Galactica.

The starting point of the show is the same day they come back, a few hours earlier. Everything that happened before that we learn through exposition.

Before the attack we are introduced to a number of characters. The setting in which they are introduced is mostly 'daily life' situations. That's probably deliberate: they want show a contrast to the rather extreme premise of the show (most of mankind exterminated). One moment they drink coffee, cut their hair, and drive their children to school. The next a cylon fleet kills them all. So long suckers. They don't actually do exactly those things I said (maybe the coffee, I don't remember); those are just metaphors for everyday life. Also, they don't kill them all, just almost.

The everyday life phase is not entirely everyday though; it's a heavily slanted towards explaining that whole cylon thing, through various devices (such as a speech held by a general -- "it's now forty years since the cylon war, yada yada", and a guided tour of Battlestar Galactica, which the viewers happens to catch some of). Which of course is a good thing. The viewer needs to know those things, and it's not too intrusive (especially since it's three hours long. With a two hour movie I'm sure much of that would have felt artificial and rushed, but now it's pretty well done.)

Then the cylons attack, and they barely manage to escape. The attack is a well planned one and they aimed for total destruction, but there are specific and believable reasons why some humans survived. I won't go into that.

The worst part of BSG in my view is the storytelling. The basic design (few surviving humans trying to flee the cylons and finding a new home) is interesting, as well as many of the ideas used (the sense of paranoia created to the fact that cylons look like humans, and can even be programmed to think they ARE humans), but the implementation, the actual plots they build with these ideas, isn't top notch. [Actually, it may not even be the plots that are the problems, but their implementation. The series of events, described abstractly, could be good. I'm not sure. I know I dislike the dialog; that much is for sure.] I cannot at this point satisfactory explain exactly what's wrong (except for a few things), but hopefully it will be clearer in time. The flaws in this regard are especially evident when contrasted against the excellent storytelling in shows such as Babylon 5 and Buffy.

And I feel the characters aren't believable at times. Here is one example: The (newly appointed) president, who has cancer, says at one point (after the extent of the cylons ongoing attack is known, and her surviving this attack is uncertain):

"I wish I could say [the cancer] was the least of my worries. But the world is coming to an end, and all I can think about is that I have cancer and I'm probably going to die."

Come on! You are on the brink of being killed by cylons (a much more acute threat than the cancer); almost all friends and family, as well as most of humanity, has been killed already, and you worry about the cancer? Not to mention that fact that the cylon attack is still very new, and it should be a rather shocking thing to experience. Her reaction is completely unbelievable. And spare me any explanation such as "yeah but humans aren't always reacting rationally you know; blah blah". That's nonsense, because my objection isn't that her reaction isn't "rational".

Sometimes the dialog is slightly better, as in the following exchange: (It's before that attack. A cylon is speaking with the scientist who unwittingly, but still immorally, helped the cylon attack. He has just found out about what he's done (but doesn't know the imminent attack), and is worried that he might be charged with treason and executed.

Cylon woman: "It won't matter, because in a few hours no one will be left to charge you with anything."
Gaius: "What exactly are you saying?"
Cylon woman: "Humanities children are returning home. Today."

The look and sound of BSG is very good, but I won't go into that.

Another good thing about BSG is the drama and tension created through having to consider (and make) tough decisions, which includes sacrificing the innocent. (However, 24 is probably even better in that regard.) I'm tired of last-second-rescues and TV shows where nothing ever really is at stake. At one point the commander in chief has to decide to leave a fleet of civilian ships (including a little girl in an artifical garden she had talked to earlier) to certain death because of approaching cylon attackers.

Unresolved issues:

Escaping the cylon fleet (and finding a new home -- they actually look for earth; the show starts in another solar system, and earth is basically just a myth to them, but they need something to search for, purpose of some kind, so that's earth.)

We get to know that one member of the BSG crew (and which one) is a cylon without knowing it. That's a good a plot device which is used frequently is various ways in later episodes (not just, or even mostly, in regard to this particular crew member.)

"Father and son conflict" between two of the main characters.

Immoral scientist, believed to be good by the others, is on board the ship (in close cooperation with the leaders).

The mentioned scientist is haunted by an unexplained woman only he can see.

Conflict between Starbuck, a main character, and a superior officer.

That superior officer has a drinking problem, which is bound to cause problems later on.

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