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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hunter and I have been working our way through BATTLESTAR GALACTICA lately. We're up to Season Three, Disc Two.

(SPOILERS, PROBABLY)

I've noticed a bunch of odd things about this very watchable series. There are often big gaping logic holes in the science fiction. E.g., the human Cylons can't communicate with each other, or their ships, at long distance, except for when they die, and every bit of information they have is magically uploaded to a body on a resurrection ship, which may be interstellar distances away.

Another thing I've noticed -- and this is a beef I have with a lot of science fiction -- is that the futuristic technology is actually fairly backwards with a few magic exceptions. There are shiny semi-intelligent robots (cyborgs really), and faster-than-light travel. But when the good guys kill a few Centurions, the other Centurions don't seem to know about it -- they don't seem to have a way to communicate at long distances, such as might be achieved by radio waves. The DRADIS system can't detect ships in atmosphere, which makes it substantially less effective than radar, say.

And there's the issue that pops up in so many shows about the military. Practically everyone ignores orders. Starbuck steals a raider. Lee Adama jumps the Pegasus into battle, possibly jeopardizing the last few survivors of the human race. Chief Tyrol and Helo kill an officer. Helo saves the entire Cylon race from elimination -- possibly the grossest act of treason committed during the entire run of the show. There barely seem to be any long-term consequences for any of this.

And then there are the plotholes within the show's own rules. We're told that Galactica is the only non-networked Battlestar in the fleet. Yet mysteriously another Battlestar, Pegasus, shows up. It was presumably networked, but somehow survived contact with the Cylons.

And there are any number of mysteries left behind. How does Athena share memories with Boomer? Where did the mysterious Number Six appear from, and go to, when Baltar wasn't talking to the Number Six in his head?

But TV isn't about plot logic and science fiction TV is not really about carefully worked out science fiction. It's about a family in trouble. in this case "family" is pretty broad, but it's still a bunch of people who care about each other who are in dire straits. We'll put up with a lot of plotholes if the rest of it is entertaining. My own rule is that you can get away with all sorts of plotholes so long as either (a) they come up in the first few minutes of a story, so they're essentially part of the premise; or (b), they make things harder, not easier, for the heroes. We're used to there being no justice, so an unfair bit of trouble feels infinitely more natural than an unfair bit of help.

And the show does a lot of surprising things right. There's a whole undercurrent of current events. There are suicide bombers, torture, insurgents, and people being tried without jury. Many BSG shows are, at least in part, "about" the US occupation of Iraq, with the humans playing Iraqis and the cylons playing the US Army. And the show has a neat habit of fooling with your sympathies. Baltar randomly picks a human to accuse of being a Cylon. Adama leaves the guy on a space station. Oh no! But guess what? He really is a cylon. Roslin tries to steal an election. That's terrible! But it turns out -- it would have been a lot better if she had. Who's right?

I have noticed a couple of shows where I wasn't too happy with the story telling for crafty reasons.

In one episode, Lt. Gaeta is nearly executed for being a collaborator with the Cylons during the occupation of New Caprica. Of course, Lt. Gaeta, we all know, was the top resistance spy in the collaborationist government. Only he doesn't tell anyone, because he's afraid of double agents.

Unfortunately, the entire episode hinges on nobody knowing that Gaeta was the spy. But what would Lt. Gaeta have done the moment he got back on Battlestar Galactica after the successful rescue of the human race? That's right. He would tell absolutely everyone that he was the guy feeding the resistance all the information. Why wouldn't he? Wouldn't he want the big medal on his chest? The hero worship? The adulation? The babes? Instead throughout the episode he suffers quietly while all sorts of people give him grief for being a collaborator. He goes out of his way not to defend himself when the executioners are about to chuck him out the airlock. Why? Because that would make it too easy.

There is a whole sub-genre of comedy plots about The Stupid Misunderstanding. I was never a THREE'S COMPANY fan but I understand the show made a habit of it. That should tell you that if you're making a serious episode about a Stupid Misunderstanding, you better really earn the stupid misunderstanding. The victim of the misunderstanding can't just forget, or randomly fail, to clear up the misunderstanding, especially once he knows the misunderstanding is out there.

There's a faint hint in the episode that Gaeta feels guilty he didn't do more, and that's why he hasn't told anyone. But to make that score, you really need to make that part of the story, not just a throwaway line. You'd have to see him remember the crimes he was forced to participate in. And then you'd have to convince us that he doesn't consider saving the entire human race enough.

Hard on that episode is another episode where the humans have a chance to wipe out the entire Cylon race with a virus. All they have to do is execute some virus-infected Cylons within range of a resurrection ship. The problem here is that this is what Joss Whedon calls Schmuck Bait. Obviously the humans are not going to wipe out the entire Cylon race. That would end the show. So we know they'll fail. That means the show isn't about whether they'll succeed,, but how they fail. Which means that how they fail has to be surprising, inevitable, completely convincing, and must contain a great emotional truth, ideally about what human beings are like.

But, in the event, the plan falls apart for stupid reasons. We get some unconvincing argument from Helo about how this would be "genocide," as if any sane person would feel bad about killing the Cylon race after they murdered almost the entire human race, and while they are currently at war with the human race. (Were there currently a Cylon peace offer on the table, there might be an argument, but there isn't.) Then, nobody watches Helo, though he is the only crew member who has (a) opposed the plan and (b) married a Cylon. Then, nobody watches the Cylons who are to be executed. They are only the most powerful weapon the human race has at its disposal. In fact, the execution team isn't even sent to their cell until the Galactica has jumped into range of the resurrection ship. By then, Helo has killed all the infected Cylons by reversing a few cables that are conveniently available in a hallway.

And then Adama decides not to prosecute Helo.

If you are going to hang the entire episode on a plan to destroy the Cylons, and you're not going to destroy the Cylons because you can't, you damn well better give us ironclad reasons why the plan doesn't go off. You may have to work overtime to get it right. But if you don't, all you're left with is a bunch of lame sentimentality in an otherwise admirably hard nosed show.

If this were a Joss show, then he would perform his usual jiu jitsu. Helo tries to execute the Cylon prisoners. But Athena stops him. But something else goes wrong with the plan. The infected Cylons, guessing the plan, have bravely, horribly killed themselves.

Or the plan goes ahead, but it is all a plot by the Cylons to check to see whether the humans would, given a chance, wipe them. They're considering a peace treaty, you see, but after the humans take the bait, they decide there can be no peace.

Is there a single moral to these two failures of craft?

Maybe it's that you have to earn your ending. In both cases, the ending is a foregone conclusion. Both episodes contain a form of schmuck bait. No way are the Cylons going to all die off. And while Lt. Gaeta could die, he's not going to die because he neglected to mention to anyone that he was a huge resistance hero.

As written, the episodes are all about what will happen at the end. But we know what is going to happen at the end. Maybe that's what caused the writers to take short cuts to get there

The episodes need to be about how we get to the end.

It's a good rule to apply to any episode, really. You may know your ending, but you still have to earn it. You can't take emotional or moral or logical short cuts to get there. Story telling is about the journey, not the arrival.

Labels:

9 Comments:

The Pegasus/non-networked thing is actually explained later (there's a movie-length episode called "Razor" that shows the original Cylon attack from the Pegasus POV).

I'm with you on the episodes you mentioned, though.

Overall, a very entertaining show.

By Blogger ryanpaige, at 4:23 PM  

You wrote: "We get some unconvincing argument from Helo about how this would be "genocide," as if any sane person would feel bad about killing the Cylon race after they murdered almost the entire human race, and while they are currently at war with the human race."

The entire point of the episode, and much of the series, is that humanity is trying to find how it is distinct from cylons. For Adama, the fact that he feels reluctance to killing an entire race is why he respects Helo's treason. For Helo, he knows that cylons are not all the same, and thus killing them all would require sacrificing innocents. To take your comment to its logical conclusion, nuclear war is justifiable, as genocide of your enemy is warranted. I find many sane objections to this!

And while it might be a matter of taste, I find that BSG earns pretty much all of its holes - the tech differences are part of the world (which is not futuristic, but just different), you're misreading Head Six's role, etc. Once you're caught up, go on some boards/BSG wiki to clarify the things you're not getting.

By Blogger Jason Mittell, at 6:06 PM  

I agree with you about the tech issues, Alex, but there are a few things you’re missing in the show.

Here be Spoilers (though I go no further into the series than Alex does in his post):

While the frequent disobedience of orders can strain credibility, I can overlook it because of the context: the survival on the human race is entirely dependent on the best and the brightest the fleet has to offer. If they go AWOL, but then come back, you take them back. You don’t hold grudges, you don’t second guess. One of the show's most prominent themes is forgiveness and its modes, and when the stakes are the highest they can possibly be, forgiveness is at times necessary to keeping everyone alive and together. It’s necessary for reasons that are logical on the one hand, because the fleet needs every single Apollo and Starbuck it can get. On the other hand the reasons are emotional: Galactica is no doubt a family (the show hammers this theme home with no subtlety), and Adama is its patriarch; “I love everyone on this ship,” he says in one episode. For Adama, an emotionally vulnerable man, a man so prone to his emotions that he is willing to risk the fleet’s safety to save Starbuck, or to challenge a superior officer in defense of his own officers, forgiveness is necessary to keep his own heart from killing him. For Adama the stakes are either forgive or lose, and he chooses to forgive. In “Home Part 2” he forgives Roslin, Apollo and Starbuck because he needs them too much to hold onto a grudge and let his family stand divided. It’s not logical, and in the military, in an every day context, it would certainly be unacceptable. But BSG is not set in an every day context.

Plot issues you bring up: In the very episode the Pegasus is introduced, in one of the first scenes of the first act following the teaser, Cain says to Adama “our network was offline while we were preparing for extended shore leave.” Hence the Pegasus’ survival. Athena and Boomer’s memories was a trickier question, but late in s1, or early in s2 (can’t quite remember), Athena-Sharon mentions that she remembers everything Boomer-Sharon had experienced up until the attacks on the colonies. This implies that both of these copies were given that same basic template of memories and then set off on separate missions.

The issue of Gaeta: everyone knew he was Baltar’s chief of staff. Do you really think anyone would believe him if he went around talking himself up as a resistance mole with no proof to back it up?

As for the vision of Number Six in Baltar’s head: that’s a plot threat that’s left deliberately ambiguous. Having seen the series a couple of times now, I feel safe in saying there’s no broken plot logic in the way they’ve fashioned her character and her relationship to Baltar. In fact, looking back from where the series stands now, the way the writers planned her out was rather clever. While it’s frustrating how long the writers draw the question of her true nature out (and I won’t say how long they do), the ambiguity surrounding her becomes more and more central to Baltar’s development over time, and also to some major themes of the series. It’s not left ambiguous for no reason. It’s important that we don’t know what she is. The writers certainly could have answered the question of her nature earlier in the series, and with great ease, but by the time the answer becomes clear it makes sense with the way they’ve framed our understanding of the character.

By Blogger RyanRB, at 8:46 PM  

I'm not confused about Head Six. I'm noticing that we never found out what became of the mysterious physical Six that showed up on Galactica when Baltar was having a snit with Head Six, who then disappeared when Baltar made up with Head Six.

But my beef isn't with the various plotholes -- or non-plotholes if you don't see them that way -- but with how they don't get in the way of enjoyment.

I did feel these particular two episodes were not the height of BSG's writing room's successes.

As for Gaeta, just to answer: yes, I do think the first thing he'd do is find whoever he was filtering info to. That's the first thing I'd do in his shoes. Wouldn't you?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 9:36 PM  

Congratulations on getting that far with BSG! As soon as I noticed Adama's completely inconsistent use of reading glasses I felt like I was watching 'Days of Our Lives', and was completely disengaged (geddit?) by Ep 02. Still, there must be a market for pretentious twaddle.

By Blogger blogward, at 10:02 AM  

Athena's been accepted on the ship because Adama basically said so, not because everyone had cakes and hugs and a pyjama party. She's not universally trusted by anyone but Helo. The Cylon stigma is something she'll never shake so as Jason argues, Helo is uniquely equipped to make that choice. And while Joss may have had the Cylons kill themselves (I can't help thinking of M. Night on Robot Chicken popping out and saying "what a twist!"), all that does is maintain the status quo of the show. Cylons and humans at war. I personally find it more interesting to see the lines being blurred between what a human would do for the Cylons and what Cylons would do for humans. Remember, the Cylons rethought their approach to the 'Human Problem' which is why they came to New Caprica. There are divisions on both sides.

Adama is also wondering if they may have provoked the Cylons to attack which brings up the question of "is Genocide the right course of action for us?" Is eye for an eye the way it's going to play or are we better than them.

As for the military issue, Ryan covered it as I see it. Pegasus was Military, Galactica was/is Family. Cain went to one extreme while Adama went to the other. It doesn't always make them popular, but are they going to shoot them for it? -1 on the whiteboard every few episodes? And doesn't Adama tell everyone a couple of episodes after the genocide ones (in the boxing one) that they're all soft and they have to be military folk again?

And my two cents on the Gaeta thing, I'd be willing to bet he tried to tell some people but nobody wants to talk to the guy because he was so close to Baltar. Tigh's reaction to him in command is evidence of that. He might have sought out Tyrol but he didn't know who received the messages he sent and they had no way of knowing it was Gaeta. I'm not sure how much time has passed but that was the first episode back on the ship, too.

I'll stop babbling now. ;)

Enjoy Season 4!

By Blogger Mike Jozic, at 4:10 PM  

Bah. I meant the rest of Season 3.

By Blogger Mike Jozic, at 4:13 PM  

I agree share Alex's disappointment with the cylon virus episode. I can understand why the possibility of wiping out the cylons seemed like schmuck bait, though given the build up of the virus in prior episodes, exploring that possibility seemed earned to me. What rang false was Helo's declaration, in front of the President and Adama, that it was genocide. It just seems like a simplistic assessment of the plan and a naive declaration to make. It's even worse that the argument persuades Adama. It's not that I can't imagine Helo's having reservations to the plan, but those should have been more artfully explored. (I think Helo is one of the more poorly realized characters on the show.) One of the ideas the show explores is human vs. artificial conciousness and existence; I think this episode was intended to be such an exploration but fails. Though I will point out that we see Helo's punishment in his demotion in "The Woman King."

I couldn't disagree more with Alex's assessment of "Collaborators," which I found a powerful, plausible exploration of the hazards of revenge. Alex objected that Gaeta would tell everyone he helped the resistance. But in the mess hall scene with Starbuck, we see he is trying to tell whoever will listen, but he is ostracized and has no credibility. The possibility of his death doesn't seem like schmuck bait to me--at all--because the episode began with the death of Jammer, a similar supporting character who had been with the show from the beginning. One point I think that is lost is how, following an event like the escape from New Caprica, chaos would ensue and social structures would break down. This event calls to mind Hurricane Katrina and the vigilantism that followed.

I've noticed on BSG the writers use an approach to their story arcs I call "broad strokes." For instance, in one of the first episodes a bunch of new pilots began training. I expected the next episode to show us their continued development, but we never saw them again until a latter episode in the season when they're flying a mission. Ron Moore expects us to fill in the rest, and that's fine. I could cite numerous examples. He's juggling a lot of story arcs on the show.

I've never heard anyone cite the use of reading glasses as a reason giving up on a show. That's interesting.

By Blogger David, at 9:18 AM  

Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. I watch Battlestar with a good friend of mine, who is obsessed, and find myself constantly asking questions.

"So, do Cylons have super-human strength? Sometimes yes, sometimes no? Only when it's convenient for the plot?"

"So, the Starbuck and Helo can do anything they want and always get away with it?" Some people on this blog have posted that it's more like a family and less like military. Realistically, there's a point at which, family or not, people become a serious liability. Jack Bauer (24) isn't predictable, much like Starbuck. Heck, who knows if he's going to even follow his orders. But you know if he doesn't it's because his superiors are idiots and they don't know what's best. Often times, in Battlestar, superiors do know what's best and the actions of the subordinates get them into serious trouble.

Please post again about your future experiences with the show. It's hard to find someone who watches the entire show and keeps a critical attitude toward it. Who watches every episode? Typically, it's dedicated fans who could care less about what's logical or what makes sense.

Ryan said, "The issue of Gaeta: everyone knew he was Baltar’s chief of staff. Do you really think anyone would believe him if he went around talking himself up as a resistance mole with no proof to back it up?" How about this as proof, "I was the one who turned over the dog bowl." (I think it was a dog bowl). No one else would know that. Proof. And as far as Six in Baltar's head, I wish I could delete those scenes. I feel like it's a giant tease.

Mike said, "And my two cents on the Gaeta thing, I'd be willing to bet he tried to tell some people but nobody wants to talk to the guy because he was so close to Baltar." My friend says things like this all the time -- they probably did that, but just didn't show it. That's not a good enough answer. If they did something that's important to the plot, they should show it, imply it, or something. Not just have you assume without any indication. That's a die hard fan's rationalization.

There's a huge plot hole in the season 4 premiere. I hope you write about Battlestar again Alex, as I would love to share that one with you.

By Blogger Jesse, at 1:56 AM  

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