Friday, March 20, 2009

Farewell, 'Battlestar Galactica'

"Battlestar Galactica" is one of my very favorite TV shows of all time. But when the final episode airs tonight, I won't be sad to see it go. Truth is that this ship shoulda been decommissioned a year or two ago. (Judging by the previews, it seems that the aircraft-carrier-like ship -- now beaten, bruised, and scarred with more pockmarks than Admiral Adama's weathered face -- won't be going gently into that good fight.) More on the show's flaws later. For now, let's celebrate the show's many virtues and why it should be rightfully regarded as one of television's greatest artistic achievements.

For starters, "Battlestar Galactica" dragged science fiction into the 21st century as an artform. Series creator Ronald D. Moore, formerly a writer on "Star Trek," introduced something akin to a punk mindset to TV sci-fi. While devising the series Bible, he laid out the following detailed manifesto for his vision:

Taking the Opera out of Space Opera

Our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of the science fiction television series.

We take as a given the idea that the traditional space opera, with its stock characters, techno-double-talk, bumpy headed aliens, thespian histrionics, and empty heroics has run its course and a new approach is required. That approach is to introduce realism into what has heretofore been an aggressively unrealistic genre.

Call it "Naturalistic Science Fiction."

The idea, the presentation of a fantastical situation in naturalistic terms, will permeate every aspect of our series.

In "Battlestar Galactica," the remnants of human civilization undertakes an intergalactic exodus after its planets are wiped out by the sentient robots mankind created. The genius of Ronald D. Moore's show was taking the premise of the original Glen A. Larson series -- an ambitious late '70s attempt to update television sci-fi for the "Star Wars" audience -- and honing in on its sudden relevance to current events. (See EW's excellent oral history of the show's development here.) Sept. 11 dictated the course and tone of the re-imagined show as it fearlessly delved into topical issues such as religious fundamentalism, suicide bombings, torture, foreign occupation, the nature of political power, the promises of security in exchange for rolling back civil liberties. More than any other television show, "Battlestar Galactica" chronicled the Bush era by acting as an allegorical looking glass.

Those issues are still unresolved and prevalent, of course. Obama, for example, may be rolling back troop presence in Iraq, but he's stepping up the offensive in Afghanistan. And his actions on the civil liberties front are shaky: He's claimed he has the (unconstitutional) right to detain Americans without charges, to name just two ongoing issues. But no matter, "Battlestar Galactica" explored those issues as much as it could even as the series began to creak under the own weight of its unresolved mythology. The show began to suffer from the same problems that "Lost" had in its third season: With no end date in sight, the show knew its final destination but, much like its fleet of rag-tag survivors, it wasn't sure how to get there.

That uncertainty meant there was a fair bit of padding at times but, more crucially, the writers became uncertain of what to do with its characters. (It wasn't even sure who the characters were -- the secret identities of the "final five" cylons were only dreamed up in the writers' room during Season 4.) Long-term character arcs were sacrificed in favor of creating drama for the sake of each episode. For example, Adama's fluctuating feelings about whether to cyclons swung like dramatic pendulums from one extreme to the other instead of unfolding as a naturalistic evolution. ("The Wire," which is the greatest show in the history of the television medium, offers a masterclass in constructing believable long-term character arcs.) The ever-candid Katee Sackhoff has expressed frustration about how, come season 5, she had no idea how to play Starbuck because she had no idea who (or what) her character was, or why she acts the way the script dictates.

Fortunately, the show had such great actors in its peerless ensemble that their performances went a long way to paper over the cracks. I'll single out two actors in particular. Edward James Olmos was given the role of a lifetime here. His stern gravitas makes him such a believable leader (by all accounts, he assumed this role on the set, too), but Olmos also imbued the character with tremendous gentleness. Mary McDonnell is the very epitome of grace, but her Roselyn believably discovered unexpected reserves of steeliness as she inherited the mantle of president of the fleet. That both actors were overlooked by the Emmys and Golden Globes just underscores the degree to which award shows are little more than popularity contests. Only the show's astonishing visual effects were recognized by Emmy.

This isn't quite the end for "Battlestar Galactica." Just this incarnation. Universal is developing a "Battlestar Galactica" movie that will once again reinvent the story. Seems pointless to me since it would be hard to top what this "BSG" accomplished. I'm far more excited that Olmos is directing a TV movie called "The Plan," which views the attack on Caprica from a Cylon perspective. And Moore will soon unveil the pilot of "Caprica," a prequel set 50 years before the events of "BSG." Worryingly, the previews make it all seem a little too Soap Opera-ish but I have faith that Moore will elevate the material beyond "Gossip Girl" in space.

But those projects are still far off. Tonight I'll salute the conclusion of one frakkin' great science fiction series.

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