Friday, December 2, 2011

2005 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation, Short Form – “33,” BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

Following a successful SciFi Channel miniseries, this is the first episode of the ongoing remake of an early ‘80s Star Wars rip-off/cult classic.  Most fans think the series went off the rail in the last season, though a vocal minority liked it from start to finish.  I think I represent an even smaller minority that was never entirely smitten with a show that most would consider the decade’s finest sf on television. Whatever side of this debate you’re on, I don’t think there’s any question that “33” is a fantastic hour of television.

The Twelve Colonies (distant relatives of we humans) are recovering from a long war they fought with rebelling robot servants called cylons.  Then, the cylons launch a massive sneak attack, annihilating all of the twelve homeworlds.  Only about 50,000 humans survive in a small fleet of ships huddled around the titular space battleship (er, Battlestar) Galactica.

In this episode, the cylons pursue the fleet of survivors.  Every time the fleet makes a faster-than-light jump, it takes the cylons exactly 33 minutes to catch up.  It takes the fleet about that long to get ready between jumps…which means that everyone is pushed to their absolute limits just to tread water.  Ship crews have to scramble to get the jumps ready, and fighter pilots have to fight regular rear-guard actions to help them get away.  Everyone is pushed to edge of exhaustion (and sanity), which is just where this show likes to have its characters.  In order to buy themselves some breathing room, the characters have to make a terrible choice (as usual).  It’s an excellent introduction to the show’s themes and moods, even moreso than the preceding miniseries.

It’s easy to see why people loved the show.  First of all, it looks amazing, especially considering it has only a basic cable budget.  It borrows a few of the docu-style tricks from Firefly and benefits greatly from advances in computer graphics that make full cgi space battles and cylons look good.  This may be the best-looking sf tv show ever.  The show is full of fast-paced action, but also takes time for character moments.  Mary McDonnell, Edward James Olmos, and Katee Sackhoff all deliver wonderful performances as major characters President Roslyn, Admiral Adama, and Starbuck (though after that, the cast is a lot more uneven). There are big twists, dramatic character deaths, and compelling mysteries. And, Star Trek TNG and DS9 Ronald Moore veteran brings his signature exploration of social issues (especially religion and war) to the series.

Of course, for most viewers, things went awry in the end.  It’s fairly clear that the writers didn’t know all of the answers to the questions they raised, a problem that has been the downfall of great shows like The X-Files and Lost.*  The big mysteries get more complicated and more bizarre over time, and the writers lean on a massive deus ex machina to not only rescue the characters, but to explain what the hell is going on.  It’s amazing how many questions God and some hand-waiving can answer, but, boy, is it a lame answer.

Why was I down on the show even before it went off the rail?  There’s a lot about the show I did like;  the aforementioned effects, action, and plot twists kept me involved, but sometimes my netflixed DVDs would sit around for a few months unwatched.  I watched the entire series…eventually.  I have two issues with the series.  The first is maybe a little pedantic, but I think the Zodiac mythology is a needless holdover from first series.  This world is so like ours, and yet its prevented from referencing the rich history of our own world.  As a result, it always feels detached, unmoored, and yet overly familiar.  I would’ve preferred either a future setting or more development of this alien setting.  Plus, the “search for Earth” plotline opens up a Pandora’s Box of bs in the final run of episodes.  But, at least we learned that Bob Dylan songs transcend time and space.

A more serious problem with the series is the melodrama.  Oh, the melodrama!  There’s a fine line between high stakes character development and ridiculous highwire soap opera, and BSG dances over the line about once per episode.  Everyone’s a moody raging alcoholic, primed to rebel/go into a rage/have dirty, inappropriate sex/change religions/become suicidal/betray everyone/etc at a moment’s notice.  I enjoy the excitement that all this brings to the table, but there’s something to be said for subtlety.  And, as the overwrought moments piled up, it’s easy to lose track of who the characters really are.  The show was famous for amped up multi-part extravaganzas that CHANGED EVERYTHING a couple of times per season.  These were really fun, and delivered the vast majority of the show’s best moments.  But it became harder and harder to believe the eventual resets to the status quo at their conclusion.  It was all kind of exhausting.

So, it was never a contender for my favorite sf tv show, but I’ll give it credit for being often entertaining, and drawing a broader audience than most space operas.  It’s unfortunate that a golden age of space opera tv from the early ‘90s seemed to come to an end with BSG in 2009.

*I haven’t seen Lost, so I’m not personally attesting to that show’s downfall.  I do get a general sense of dissatisfaction from the fans though.  I don’t think anyone can argue that the overarching plot of The X-Files was in any way satisfying though.

Episode Grade: A

Series Grade: B

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