Battlestar Galactica Complete Season 4: The Season Itself

13 02 2010

I think the ultimate finale of Battlestar Galactica deserves its own post, but that won’t be up for a while since I want to talk to some friends about it a bit more before I put my thoughts online.  There’s a line of dialogue towards the end of it that I need to sort out that is pretty crucial in my interpretation.  So here I’m just going to be discussing the season proper up until the thing with the console happens during the finale.  I think my TV reviews are going to be spoilery, but I’ll keep the movie reviews spoiler-free, so

***MAMMOTH SPOILERS***

LIKED

Everything I’ve always liked – It’s still Battlestar Galactica.  Whatever reasons you had for watching it up until this point, they’re still here now.  The production values are extremely high.  All of  the deep, varied characters that have been built over the previous three seasons are still here.  All of the great ship and costume designs obviously persist and the new designs this season are the most ambitious yet.  The writing is still original and nuanced.  The performances are still mind-bending.  Almost everything I loved about the previous seasons is here, with only a couple of exceptions, so bear in mind when reading the negatives that this show is as strong as it has been and the fourth season was maybe the strongest since the first.  There’s an urgency about it that, I think, allowed them to avoid duff episodes like Scar and Black Market from previous seasons.

Characters – As I think there is a tendency to do in a lot of long-running shows the last season moves away from the initial hook of the show and focuses a lot more on the characters that have been built up throughout the show’s run.  Fortunately for Galactica they’ve built up some of the most nuanced and compelling characters ever seen on the small screen.  Almost everyone develops in some way over the course of the season and those more minor characters who don’t, like Doc Cottle, stay gloriously the same, so that we enjoy every second of their screen time.  A few characters stood out this season:

Gaeta: who had one of the most tragic and shocking stories in the entire show.  His descent from one of the less offensive, but reliable and talented members of the crew to the bitter leader of the mutiny was both well-planned and well-executed; his lack of recognition from other characters in the show serving as a personal tipping point following the loss of his leg; the fact that his mutiny was not unjustified particularly in light of how Roslin and to a lesser degree Adama had been behaving; and his deep regret proving to be the undoing of the mutiny as Gaeta was always at heart a good man, pushed beyond his limits by events he couldn’t control.

Adama: Edward James Olmos continued to give us what I think is one of the best characters we’ve seen in the past decade. It’s impossible not to love Bill Adama.  His character has the benefit of almost always being right from the shows writing and that means we trust him, even when his actions seem questionable.  He commands utter respect, shares the audience’s skepticism over the religious writings, understands the role he plays and is just a complete fucking badass.  In this season he starts to put his personal concerns first, but at as a limited a detriment to the fleet as possible.  His willingness to believe Starbuck and how that leads to Gaeta’s injury and the mutiny mean he doesn’t come away clean but that his heart always seemed to be in the right place.; his utter disdain for the mutineers, showing his colours as a military man through and through.  Even though I disagreed with his refusal to acknowledge a vice-president in the absence of the president, regardless of his feelings towards him, he was proven to be right as Zarek went to extreme measures in the mutiny.  Some blogs didn’t like the more personal aspect of Adama’s story but I thought that it served to make the character human, and strengthened the character, when he broke under the pressure of losing three of his great loves: the Ship, Saul and Laura.  I loved the portrayal of a man reaching the end of what he could endure, despite already having endured so much and Admiral William Adama is as memorable a character as I have ever encountered.

Cavil: I think this character came the most out of the blue.  Certainly in the first season it was nice to have Dean Stockwell as part of the cast but in this season they really brought the character into his own.  They made him  megalomaniacal and deeply, deeply flawed.  He was perhaps a little bit too grandiose for the overall tone of the show but I thought that given that he was quite clearly borderline insane it sort of fitted with the direction in which they took the character.  And, as much as I don’t care for the big expository episode itself, his monologue in which he whinges like a petulant, but articulate child about all the things he wants but doesn’t have was utterly compelling and made me understand how dangerous he was with the power he wielded.

Acting – Of course none of this investment would be possible without the performances of the actors portraying these characters and the acting is as good as it’s always been.  Those actors given more screen time and asked to do more with their characters than before all rise to the challenge.  Many of the Cylons have multiple characters to the same actress and Tricia Helfer does a commendable job of differentiating the sixes.  Sorry to again speak in superlatives, but this is one of the finest ensemble casts I’ve ever seen, on par with Deadwood or Six Feet Under.

Effects/ Artistic Design – One of the things that really kept this show compelling was the ability to be come absorbed in the world, to be anxious at the outcome of every major conflict and the only way to achieve this is to build and present a tangible reality.  I felt that the design of the ships and the costumes and their ultimate execution in the show constantly astounded and pushed the boundaries of what we can expect from a TV show.  In this last season in particular the designs for the Cylon ships became even more outlandish and the concept and appearance of the accretion disc where the true climax of the series happens was stunning.  I really enjoyed the increasingly twisted Cylon vessels and respected that they were all created simply to be spectacularly destroyed.  The battles became grander, but more crucial and were a thrilling to watch, with an emphasis still on tactics and formation that I enjoyed so much in the naval-inspired engagements of the previous seasons.

Sound Design – One thing I only really noticed upon watching this last season is how effective the sound design is.  How the sound of the Dradis is unique and foreboding and always makes me assume the cylons are coming; the low-frequency hum as the red eye of the Cylon centurion sweeps across; the noise the different fighters make, Cylon and human.  All of it is designed so that everything has an immediately recognisable cue and it really lends these elements a familiarity and makes the show more absorbing.

Endless, Unrelenting Suffering – All of the other seasons had reprieves somewhere.  There has always been a sense that all of the survivors were living on borrowed time, particularly in the constant jumping sequence of the first episodes and the time one Cylon-occupied New Caprica, but never before for an entire season have I felt the weight, magnitude and breadth of all the shit that is raining down on these characters.  The sleeper agents, home lives, betrayal, the first mutiny, the second mutiny, the shattered dreams of earth, slow death, suicide, helplessness, blind arrogance, fear all constantly consuming every facet of the show.  I watched this in two extended stints encompassing Christmas Day and I found it pretty tough going to suffer along with the characters over that brief and intense period and the ability of the show to make me feel that level of compassion but also keep watching is a real achievement.

Dead Earth – The culmination of all of the “signs” that they were following leading to a dead, broken planet was delicious.  The shot of Adama bending over and rubbing the dirt through his fingers juxtaposed with the moments of hope and joy from beforehand was heartbreaking and the washed out photography of the planet immediately let us know that this was not what they had been looking for.  I also appreciated the philosophy exemplified by this moment.  We weren’t left with them finding a planet at the end of an episode and then being crushed at the start of the next, we saw this at the end of that episode and then the show dealt with the consequences in the next episode.  It just feels like a subtler storytelling method.

Mutinies – Both mutiny storylines were compelling, complex and heartbreaking.  Helo really stepped up as the true heart of the series.  He’s more easily relatable than Adama and lead the way in accepting Athena, is a bit of a badass and is also almost always right.  The build-up to his relieving Starbuck of command is subtle and gradual as he does all he can to hold the crew together under the command of a negligent and obsessed captain until he feels he has to act.  The speed with which the mutiny ends was also impressively fresh as Starbuck comes to her senses in some way.  But Gaeta is shot in the leg and Helo won’t bring him back to Galactica until Starbuck is satisfied that she’s finished and in doing so Helo contributes to the second mutiny.  The idea of dissent begetting dissent was really wonderfully showcased here.  Then the second mutiny, the big one, that saw the cripples Gaeta take control of the fleet from an Adama-Roslin leadership that was not acting in the interest of the fleet, but of themselves, which was true to an extent.  How this showed characters’ willingness to be carried away and the feelings towards Adama bubbling under the surface and how Zarek showed himself to be a dangerous opportunist.  All of this resulted in some of the most riveting storytelling I’ve ever encountered and the resolution of the plotline was satisfying and fitting.

Cylon Civil War – This whole story about the splintering of the Cylon force as they disagree over steps taken with regards to the treatment of the humans and also the “lesser” Cylons was fascinating.  I was actually a fan of the time spent with Baltar among the Cylons in Season 3 and I enjoyed our time with them equally on this occasion.  The schism really showed how the experiences during the show had affected the different Cylons and how they’d diverged from their original programming and cemented their identity as sentient beings and not just machines.  The uneasy Truce that followed and the brinksmanship employed during it with Deanna were wonderfully tense as well.

Adama/ Roslin – The second half of the season was really concerned with Adama and his relationship with the dying Roslin and how they fall in love and come to depend on one another.  That stolen kiss on New Caprica was one of my favourite moments in the whole show.  Here we finally see that moment, and all of their shared strife, defeat and triumph bring the two together in a physical relationship, while both continue with their usual roles.  The tragedy is that Laura is dying of cancer and both know that even if they survive the Cylon War they will not be able to celebrate their emancipation together for very long.  I found this entire arc moving and natural.  A lot of shows tend to keep characters apart, because their courtship is a part of the show.  But the exploration of their relationship, particularly Adama’s utter honesty with himself over its nature was original and enjoyable.

Lee’s Efforts – Lee’s career move into politics gave us an interesting, if brief, look at what motivated the man.  In the fantastic court case that closed Season 3 we saw the stirrings of a man with a strong sense of justice and fair play and here we see him try to act on that in the political sphere.  I found myself agreeing with Lee the strongest out of all of the convictions of all of the characters and I enjoyed his side story as he comes under Zarek’s wing only to use his intuition to know not to get too close to him and how he felt crippled by the personal squabbles of the Quorum.  All of this was rendered moot in the wake of the mutiny and the ensuing war but I would have happily spend more time with this subplot.

Awesome Moments – These are just a few moments that I remember in particular being amazing:

Tigh offering himself as a bargaining chip during the hostage situation

When Tigh and Adama stay behind in the airlock

Adama and Tigh dual wielding an assault rifle and a pistol during the mutiny

The horror as Athena watches from her incapacitated position in the locker room

Six and Baltar realising they can both see…ugh…”angels”

Lee saying “I wanna explore!”

DIDN’T LIKE

Niggles – I had a couple of niggling complaints throughout this season that I think I’ll get out of the way first before I move onto the big stuff:

Nudity: Whenever I say this it’s going to sound like I just wanted to see tits (yeeooooo) but that’s not the point.  People in Battlestar Galactica have sex.  They do.  And when they do the characters are naked, as people are wont to be when engaged in such activity.  But the angles and the positions and everything go to such EXTREME lengths to make sure that we never see a penis or even so much as a nipple, god forbid, that it became DISTRACTING.  The lack of nudity distracted me.  It broke my suspension of disbelief.  People are not at all concerned with covering themselves up from someone they’ve just fucked and they don’t sit like that and they don’t do that with the cover.  For being honest enough to address sexuality I just wish either they’d stayed further away from the sex and had it a lot tamer or just stopped being concerned with the idea of nudity at all.

Roslin’s Bald Skin Cap:  This one really got me.  It was so fucking distracting.  Peoples’ heads are not shaped like that.  They do not do that.  She looked like the Borg Queen from First Contact without the tubes.  Now, if Mary McDonnell wasn’t prepared to shave off her hair then I don’t know what they could have done instead but in every scene about her dying I lost my emotional investment because of that fucking cap.  And there was a shot where there got an actual bald woman to sit with her back to the camera and it was then so obviously not her.  Grrrr.

“Frak”: I don’t like it when they use frak as a verb.  I know what they’re doing with it.  It literally means “fuck”.  That’s all it is.  Yet you’re allowed to say it and not fuck.  It’s absurd.  I get it.  But it sounds really, really goofy when they use it as a verb.  One line in particular is something like “You don’t know whether to shoot me or frak me” and it just made my toes curl.  I didn’t like it.

All Along the Watchtower: I like their version of this song.  I really do.  It’s great, as is the rest of Bear McCreary’s score, but its inclusion as a diagetic source just confuses me.  It doesn’t make sense to me.  I understand that it’s just a cypher, but it still doesn’t sit properly with me.

Endless, Unrelenting Suffering – I think we’d better get used to my putting things in both sections.  It might happen every time.  Like I said in the previous section this was one of the most physically trying things I’ve ever done in terms of watching TV.  I mean Requiem for a Dream and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days are both rough going but at least they fucking end.  2 hours and you’re done.  But in this it just goes on.  It was extremely draining and I don’t think I would advise watching it like this.  Maybe watch four episodes at a time and then watch Amelie or something.

BULLSHIT! – The number of times you get to call bullshit in this show is unreal and in the final episode you’re calling bullshit faster and more frequently than the characters can deliver their dialogue.  There are things that just don’t make any sense or are waved away with the pithiest remarks you can imagine.  Undoubtedly the biggest one of the whole show is Starbuck’s departure in the finale.  That can fuck off.  But during the season the most irksome was the explanation of how Tigh aged when the other Cylons don’t.  “Uh, he’s another type of Cylon, why CAN’T he age? HMMMM!?”  There was an awful lot of shit like that going on.  AND WHO LEFT THAT NOTE ON ADAMA’S DESK IN SEASON 1!?

Lack of Consequences – It’s been a while since i watched the show, over a month in fact, but when I did a got a sense that there was sometimes a lack of consequence to certain actions.  The biggest exceptions are how Tori’s murder fucked EVERYTHING up at the end which I really loved, The Mutiny as a result of Gaeta’s injury (but we’ll get back to that) and Anders’s injury as a result of the mutiny.  However, in the latter two no-one was held directly accountable.  I mean, Anders shot Gaeta but suffered no direct consequences.  Sure, he was paralysed in the ensuing mutiny, but he wasn’t held to account.  The same with Starbuck and Roslin and Adama.  There didn’t seem to be any immediate, direct repercussions from a lot of their questionable, or wrong, decisions.  We never really learned how the mutineers were dealt with or what the scale of those who mutinied was.  They were allowed to fight at the end but I never knew how crippled the fleet was without them.  I’m struggling to think of other examples but I wrote it down so it must be true.

Focus on Characters – As much as I praised this in the first section I also missed all of the finer grain stuff from the earlier seasons.  The more in-depth explorations of politics and trade unions and military vs political power or the examination of how people dealt with the war.  When the show moves towards a character focus you lose a lot of what defined it as a SHOW.  Even though you’re happy to spend time with the characters and I understand a sudden jolt into a bit of social commentary would talk the show backwards against the inertia of the characters’ colliding stories I still missed those wonderfully insightful little episodes from before.  We did get a look at hour for some of the characters (Adama especially) the war essentially improved their life, and I loved that, but I wanted more.

Rampant, Unaddressed Hypocrisy – The crucial thing here is the word unaddressed.  I felt that a few of the characters, particularly Roslin (who I went from loving to despising and wanting to die except that it would hurt Bill) were being amazingly hypocritical throughout this season and before.  But the show never calls them on it, it never draws attention to it and shines a light saying, “Hypocrite!” and to me that always feels like a tacit endorsement of their actions which makes me feel like that’s how the VIEWER is supposed to feel.  Some movies only work if you view them in the way they were intended.  For example, House of Flying Daggers ONLY works if you believe and believe IN the “True Love” that blossoms between Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Ziyi’s characters.  I didn’t.  I wanted Andy Lau to win because he’s had his heart broken and the writers betrayed their character by putting in a cheap scene of him trying to rape her to make him into a villain.  It was a happy ending for me, and that is NOT the film.  In this, I just, I had no desire for Roslin to hold on to her post any more.  I didn’t think she deserved it.  I was almost wanting Zarek to take over and the show never made me feel like this was what I was supposed to be thinking.

Lack of Peripheral Cylon Characterisation – Who the fuck are Simon and Aaron?  Particularly Simon.  The Aaron Cylon played a bit more of a role in the earlier seasons when he was an infiltrator, but all of the other models had a personality and a purpose.  Those two seemed to exist purely to vote with Cavil in this season and they stood out as being the shallowest, least interesting characters in the show.

Baltar – This is a big one.  What happened to Baltar?  He was far and away the best character on the show; the most compelling, interesting and conflicted; the most fun to watch and to ask “How the fuck is this man still alive?”  He was wonderful.  But he spends this season doing almost nothing.  Being something utterly counter to what he had been before without the show ever really exploring his motivation for it.  For the whole season I was uncertain as to whether or not he was buying into what he was saying and maybe this was the point.  But in the “unrated” version of A Disquiet Follows My Soul” there is a line where he explicitly states that he doesn’t, so is this cannon?  I was too perplexed to find Baltar’s story interesting and while it may have seemed delicious to the writers to have Baltar, the great scientist become a spiritual leader through his self-preservational instinct, I found it to be unsatisfying and missed what I had come to expect of the character in previous seasons.  It doesn’t strip him of his title of one of the greatest characters ever seen on television, but all of that work was done in seasons 1-3.

Tigh and Caprica Six – While I enjoyed how incredibly strange this storyline was the sudden revelation that the two of them had fucked and no-one noticed or reported anything was a little jarring.  Having praised Battlestar for its mature storytelling in terms of “cliffhangers” I don’t know what dramatic purpose it served to reveal that the two had had sex with 6’s pregnancy.  I also felt it was unclear as to whether there would always be a miscarriage in a Cylon-Cylon pairing or whether it was just this time.

Chief and Cali – I don’t know why I didn’t enjoy this story-line.  It wasn’t character driven.  It was examining how the chief’s happiness with Cali in peace time didn’t last but I thought it reduced these characters to a cliché as a couple with everyone on the deck inexplicably turning on Cali as the needy wife.  It just didn’t sit well with me.  I did enjoy the revelation of the true father of Cali’s child and thought that was all tied up well enough and Cali’s death was really quite tragic, but I thought the storytelling was just a little heavy-handed and I’ve come to expect something more subtle from the show.

EXPOSITION! – There is an entire episode of this show that is just a conversation between Cavil and Ellen Tigh, whose identity I was fine with although not exactly thrilled.  In this episode the writers explained to the viewer what the fuck was going on.  And it’s nonsense.  It’s the worst way possible to present this information because everything else had unfolded so naturally and because it all comes so thick, fast and unengagingly that I didn’t take any of it in.  I still have questions as to the precise nature of the 13th colony which presumably were answered here but it was like trying to pay attention to a lecture and I shouldn’t have to watch the episode twice to pick up crucial plot details.  Worst of all it was dull.  Even though it had my much-beloved Cavil rant, everything else was lacking.

24 Syndrome – In season 5 of 24 they killed EVERYONE and gave us the best season since the first because of it.  Coupled with their killing of a major character pretty much per season that meant that in season 6 there was no-one of any value left for Jack to interact with or for the audience to care about and it hurt the show.  Right at the end when the fleet needed an admiral and a president, the show had used up anyone of any note and they came up with Hoshi (who?) and Romo (what?).  The scene of the passing of command lacked any emotional weight because we hadn’t seen any of these characters approach or want these roles.  Gaeta would have been a great choice for admiral before all the shit went down and maybe if we’d gotten to know a bit more about one of the Quorum for president, but as it stood it was something I didn’t care about.

The Romo Lampkin Episode – Jesus Christ.  Where do I even begin with this mess.  Romo was a great character in Season 3.  Fucking brilliant.  Enigmatic, awesome, RIGHT.  He was wonderful.  And that was all we needed of him.  Understandably people loved him and maybe they wanted more, but unless the writers deliberately went about taking a great fan favourite character and making him fucking stupid and shitting on him on purpose just to piss people off then I don’t know what was going on with this episode.  The two possibilities are, as above, they did it to poss everyone off because they were…bitter that people loved their character?  Or they were genuinely trying to expand on this character, in which case they went with the worst fucking ideas possible.  I don’t even know what happened in this episode and its whole structure was bullshit. And Romo went nuts over, over what the fuck I have no idea.  It was so stupid it MUST have been deliberate.  But then I have no idea why they did it.  It was a fucking mess and one of the worst episodes of the whole show and I can’t conceive of why it ever got past the draft stages.

Character Niggles – I started with niggles and I’ll finish this section with them, but these are more in terms of events in the show, as opposed to observations as a viewer.

Ellen Tigh Sex Paradox: Ellen goes nuts at Tigh for essentially fucking his daughter, but HE DIDN’T KNOW.  But never addresses or mentions the fact that she did EXACTLY THE SAME THING WITH CAVIL.  In fact, Cavil was the only participant fully aware of his actions in these trysts, so fuck him.

Zarek: I understand that Zarek has always been portrayed as unpredictable and dangerous.  But I didn’t really believe when he just had the Quorum shot.  It didn’t make much sense to me.  It seemed unnecessary, both conceptually and tactically and since Zarek wasn’t portrayed as having lost his mind I found it hard to accept.

D’Anna: Unless I missed something she just fucking vanishes after the hostage crisis.

Seelix: Seelix was my favourite tertiary character, mostly because I though she was hot and looked good with short hair.  She was involved in the mutiny but we didn’t get to see her after that.  Racetrack got her redemptive death in the final battle, but nothing for Seelix, who I missed.

Despite all of the complaints I really enjoyed this up until the end.  I might do a post on the very end of the show at some point, but I would just like to say that it was bullshit.  Particularly the central conceit about everyone abandoning all of their technology but apparently not their SYNTHETIC FIBRES.  It was fucking nonsense.  And Starbuck?  And the bit in the future.  And the shit with the “force”.  Bollocks.  Fucking bollocks.

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