TV’s Best of the Decade: No. 13 — ‘Battlestar Galactica’

12.19.09 8 years ago 24 Comments

Sci Fi

We are, I suspect, going to have a bit of a problem here, not with the placement of “Battlestar Galactica” on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade, but with my approach to the series.
During its actual TV run, I watched maybe half-a-dozen episodes of “Battlestar Galactica” and it went under the heading of “OK, but not for me.” I didn’t let it bother me when it made other critics’ annual Top 10 lists. I barely blinked when its finale had many of my best friends in a tizzy in the spring. And when the TCA named it Program of the Year this summer, I hadn’t voted for it, but that was fine.
When it came time to assemble this Best of the Decade list, though, I knew there were a few shows I didn’t watch that probably deserved at least due consideration, but it wasn’t like I was going to be able to plow through all of them in a single month, not while actually doing my job. So I made “Battlestar Galactica” my commitment, prepared to bail early if I reached the end of the first season without rising about respectful ambivalence. 
Two things became clear pretty early: The first? I liked “Battlestar Galactica” a lot and it was certainly worthy of a place on this list. The second? There was no frakking chance that I was making it through the whole series in a month. As you may have noticed, I’ve occasionally been doing other things.
I had to choose a stopping or a pausing point where I felt comfortable stepping back and saying, “Yes, I’m still in media res, but here’s where I can take a break and let ‘Battlestar’ breath. For now.”
So here’s where I stand: I’ve made it through the first three seasons, through a miniseries and 53 episodes. And I’m prepared to put “Battlestar Galactica” at No. 13 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade…
[More after the break…]
I’m not required to be this transparent. You, dear readers, don’t need to know that I didn’t finish “Battlestar Galactica.” I could have talked in circles around the end and glossed over parts of its overall meaning. I mean, I’m gonna finish it. I’m gonna finish it soon. But I wasn’t gonna finish it before finishing this list… I figured I might as well admit it.
So I’m missing the fourth season and depending on which of my respected associates I talk to, that’s either a good thing or a bad thing. I briefly knew the ending in March, but forgot about it since it didn’t matter to me. Some people insist that if I watched the show to its end, “Battlestar” might soar all the way up to No. 1 on my list. Other people insist that if I watch the show to the end, I’d drop it off my list entirely. If you like, I can pretend that I’m splitting the difference between those two extremes.
You can say that this is like walking out of a movie after an hour-and-15 minutes and attempting to write a review. You can say it’s like reading 300 pages of a 400 page book and writing a review. 
But TV is journey-driven, not destination driven. This was a fact I’ve tried convincing people when they tell me how horrible the ending for “The Sopranos” was. It’s a fact we may end up having to trot out this May when “Lost” unleashes a finale which, no matter how many answers it provides, will not answer everything. Nothing done in the finale of either show did or could do any damage to the hundreds of hours of previous enjoyment, whereas a stupid ending to a movie or a book can absolutely undo the pleasure of two hours in a darkened theater or a couple weeks of nightstand time.
I promise that when I finish “Battlestar” — assuming commenters here don’t decide to ruin things for me out of sheer belligerence — I’ll write a post updating where the show might be better placed on The List. [I have a couple post-list commitments and follow-ups promised to people.]
I don’t know who the last Cylon is. I don’t know if they reach Earth. And I don’t know where the heck Starbuck vanished for a couple episodes when everybody thought she was dead even though I knew she wasn’t dead. There’s a lot I don’t know.
Without those answers, it’s hard for me to build this posting/essay/article around a central thesis or two, as I’ve tried to do with most of these Best of the Decade entries. But maybe 750 words of transparency, explanation, self-justification and hemming and hawing count as a thesis? Maybe my thesis is how even though I haven’t finished “Battlestar Galactica” and even though placing an incomplete viewing project this high on this list is eating at me, there are obviously enough things about the show that work for me already.
So why is “Battlestar Galactica” here?
Big Ideas.
Genocide. Torture. Biological weaponry. Racism and Xenophobia. Socialism (or an examination of economic disparities and social stratification). Abortion. Capitulation. Legal justice. Blind faith. Democracy. The power of the media. Moving on after unspeakable tragedy (and, by extension, 9/11).
I don’t know that anybody has accused Ronald D. Moore and David Eick of being subtle in their use of subtext and allegory on “Battlestar Galactica,” but the sci-fi genre isn’t one that requires subtly. It mostly requires commitment — figure out what you want to say and use the genre to say it. The show is a portrait of humanity under duress and the question of how far you can go, how many rights and how much infrastructure you can erode, while still maintaining that core of humanity. 
At times, “Battlestar” almost seemed to be taking an issue-of-the-week approach, though I prefer the multi-episode examinations of certain topics, especially the ones that require a reexamination of previous assumptions. In that category, I’d place the “We Are The Insurgency” arc that starts the third season, where viewers were asked to identify with the plucky underdogs using suicide bombers and improvised attack strategies to take out the occupying force. It’s like “Red Dawn” only read entirely differently thanks to a new political context. I also appreciated the “Due Process is Important and Terrific” closing to the same season, in Gaius Baltar rotated between smug, Vichy-style capitulator and not-so-noble martyr for justice so many times I got whiplash.
There’s something remarkable about how well the “Battlestar” team balanced nearly every argument or moral quandary. I mean, you’re taking issues that in recent American history have become polarizing along political party lines and over the course of a series run, characters are identifying with positions which to us seem politically contrary. We ask questions like “Is Laura Roslin a Democrat or a Republican?” And the answer is “You moron, in this context, nobody had the time or luxury to be party-affiliated, they just make choices based on who they are as characters.” So Laura Roslin’s political choices seem to be both left-leaning and right-leaning, but the way the character was sculpted, they’re neither. They’re just Roslin-leaning.
Because the show relies so heavily on moral and ethical decision-making, nearly every character gets to be the noble hero at some point and nearly every character gets to seemingly be a villain.  People’s judgments change situationally. You know. The way they do in life? And there’s character growth as well, because the traumatic events from earlier in the series, the bonds between people, have payoffs later.
I’m actually a bit scared about watching the final season, because I’m afraid that the closing run of episodes may take a side on Gaius Baltar, on Laura Roslin’s politics, on Saul Tigh’s sanity, on Caprica Six’s motives on whether Apollo is his own man or just a whelp with Daddy Issues. The ending of so many of the show’s character arcs couldn’t possibly be as satisfying as the back-and-forth journey. Or could it?
Expansive storytelling.
Credit to Moore and Eick and to the team of directors, led obviously by Michael Rymer, that “Battlestar Galactica” never feels any more claustrophobic than it intends to. Yes, some episodes are mostly people in rooms yelling at each other or staring at computer monitors and getting really nervous, but the show avoided being visually or narratively monotonous. 
The secret is mixing things up just enough. In the early episodes, you had Helo and Not-Boomer down on Caprica. It wasn’t like what was happening down there was so exciting. It could have been summed up in a short sentence: “Helo becomes *really* invested in Not-Boomer.” But just being able to go down to Caprica, with its different color tones and different texture allowed viewers an easing-in process. A similar impact was achieved with the New Caprica arc. It got us off of the ship for a while. Even the time on the Cylon ship in Season Three varied the visuals, which was a payoff in and of itself.
Easing background characters into primary roles helps there as well. There’s only so much of Edward James Olmos growling and Mary McDonnell looking wise that any viewer is going to tolerate. So you make Felix Gaeta into a key character for a couple episodes, knowing he can be sent back to his supporting capacity later. He give more time to a Cally or a Dualla, because if the show is only about the Maxim cover models, even that gets boring. 
That leads me to…
A better-than-expected cast.
Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell had Oscar nominations. I never really doubted them. I also wasn’t surprised to see good work from Lucy Lawless and Dean Stockwell.
I was less prepared for how effective I found James Callis, Katee Sackhoff, Michael Hogan, Aaron Douglas, Tahmoh Penikett, Callum Keith Rennie, Kandyse McClure, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park and Jamie Bamber.
Amusingly, I knew most of the cast from the roles they got after “Battlestar” and in “Battlestar” hiatus. So I was familiar with Pennikett from “Dollhouse” and Rennie from “Harper’s Island” and Sackhoff and Helfer from myriad guest appearances.
I don’t want to make broad generalizations about either the acting level on most Sci Fi Channel shows or about the depth of the Vancouver acting base, but let’s just say the casting directors did a very good job.
Technical assuredness.
The effects in “Battlestar Galactica” get the job done. Period. They aren’t movie-calibre, but I almost never found myself thinking, “Boy, I’m enjoying this show less because the effects aren’t up to snuff.” Tremendous art direction and production design on the ship interiors help to gloss over any limitations in the effects, as did the show’s directors.
Every year, there was a lot of complaining about the absence of Emmy recognition for “Battlestar Galactica,” but that really wasn’t the case. “Battlestar” got regular technical nominations, plus several nods for writing and directing. The only person with a genuine beef, in my opinion, is composer Bear McCreary, who does seem to have been regularly ignored without cause.
My sincere apologies if you don’t think I’ve done full and proper justice to “Battlestar Galactica.” The show’s placement on this list is predicated on my effort to belated give the show its due and finishing the show up is very much on my To-Do list in 2010. I’m trying!
For now, “Battlestar Galactica” stands at No. 13 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
Coming up tomorrow? A show that has managed to survive far longer and to offer more surprises than we ever would have guessed when we first arrived on the Island.

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