I tried watching Battlestar Galactica again last night after having basically missed the whole 4th season. (I think I got caught up through Razor via pirated DVDs in Iraq, then never quite picked up the habit again.) At this point the show is in full-on climax, of course, and I have no goddamned idea what’s going on. So nearly every sentence uttered and every act and gesture is loaded, groaning with meaning — but I have no idea what the meanings might be.
I’ve noticed that this is a bigger problem for fantasy shows than for realistic shows. If you sit down today and put on the fourth season of The West Wing or Dallas, you may miss a few things, but you’ll pretty much have a handle on it after an episode or two, because the human motivations behind political races and family intrigue are familiar to us from our everyday lives. (With a little practice, you can even follow the story of shows that aren’t in English. Not that I’ve ever sat in the taqueria watching telenovelas. Certainly not.) But a show like BSG creates its own code of values and motivations as it reveals the special conditions of its universe, and that code necessarily becomes denser, even unto the point of impenetrability, as the writers tease out the consequences of those conditions.
So I don’t want to jump to any conclusions about the quality of the writing in this final season of what has been, at times, an astonishingly well-crafted show. I’ll only point out two things based on a single viewing of “Islanded in a Stream of Stars.” First, the dialogue seems to be written in fairly broad strokes these days, with the specifics of the emotional content of the scene being left to the actors and to the offsite storage banks of the viewership’s collective investment in the characters. And second, the plotting now revolves entirely around problems that could only exist in this show, whereas the first three seasons always seemed to me to neatly combine the most exciting kinds of plots from family dramas, military actioners, and political process shows.
When Adama wrested control of the fleet from the President early in the show’s run, it was a terrifying demonstration of the fragility of civil order, and even though the citizens lived in spaceships rather than cities, the idea was clearly applicable to our own consensual democracy. Even the Cylons, as long as they didn’t dominate the show, were useful as analogs of certain classes of real human beings, and it was to the show’s credit that the analogies shifted over time. But once the writers jumped over into the realms of prophecy and magic and mystical pop songs, any individual episode became, necessarily, opaque to a viewer who hasn’t followed the plot devotedly, because he has no ability to guess at the emotional or intellectual weight of the information he doesn’t have.
BSG may still have disturbing and fascinating things to say about human frailty and the nature of warfare. But if it does, I can no longer decode them.
Despite all that, BSG can still teach its lessers a thing or two. When Tricia Helfer and Grace Park slide easily from role to role within a given episode as they juggle multiple physically-identical Cylon characters, they shame the comparatively unsubtle Eliza Dushku and her handlers at Dollhouse, who have yet to figure out how to make her into even one interesting character, let alone a different one every week.
This week’s episode, “True Believer,” shows us glimpses of a more interesting show — or at least, a future change in direction — when it hints more strongly than ever that Echo and other “actives” aren’t quite as blank as they’re supposed to be after their “treatments.” But when nearly every other aspect of the script is so unbelievably bland and unconvincing, you don’t want the writers to plant the seeds of new paranoiac threads — you want them to concentrate on making their A-stories work.
In the continuing search for a reason for the Dollhouse to exist, this episode is no help. Echo is programmed to be a spiritually hungry hitchhiker in order to infiltrate the compound of a Branch Davidian-style cult. After an incident during the cult’s weekly trip to the grocery store, in which it appears that at least one of the cult members may be being held against his will, the ATF is granted a sneak-and-peek warrant to check the place out. I’m pretty sure ATF doesn’t deal with kidnappings, but for plot purposes it can’t be the FBI, or good old Tahmoh Penikett might show up and recognize Echo.
(Penikett, by the way, got one of the few really cool fight scenes of the series a couple of weeks ago when the Dollhouse tried to trick him into going into a Russian mob den. The trick worked — his character doesn’t seem that bright — but man, he kicked some serious Russian ass!)
So the gimmick this week is supposed to be that they can turn Echo’s eyes into broadcast cameras, enabling the ATF to look inside the compound, although the procedure renders her temporarily blind. Now, I like a good “blind faith”/”was blind but now I see” allegory as well as anybody, but there’s still no good reason here to raise all kinds of complicated questions about where this outrageously advanced biotechnology is coming from when the ATF could obviously achieve similar results through much simpler means. (Hell, as far as I can tell, there are only about 25 people in the whole compound, and it looks like they pretty much all go to the grocery store together — just wait until Tuesday rolls around again and plant some cameras.) I don’t know, guys… I don’t know. I thought the second episode was going to give us an interesting use for the Dollhouse “actives,” as the Most Dangerous Game. But that one was ruined, too, when it turned out the hunting scenario wasn’t part of the deal with the Dollhouse; it was an extracurricular, if highly ineffective, assassination attempt. So far none of the uses to which the “actives” are put really justifies the price that such an R&D-heavy company would undoubtedly have to charge. The Dollhouse still has no business model — it has failed to monetize zombies.
Some people disagree. This guy thinks I’m not smart enough to see how Whedon is undermining the whole constraining, you know, TV system, man.
How could you possibly enjoy this story? There’s no blinking arrow saying ‘This Is Right.’ Order is provisional, law is ad hoc, love is electrically-induced, pity is corporate, memory is false, the good guys are nuts, the bad guys mean well, and everything the lead character knows about her personality the viewer also knows.
I wish this guy were writing the show instead of a blog.
Alex Epstein hit upon a possible fix for the blankness of the central character, or at least a clever way to tie Echo’s disparate selves together. The problem, though, is not that Echo gets erased every week and turned into somebody new. The problem is that the people she turns into are boring and indistinct. If Whedon and his writers could really come up with compelling scenarios for Echo each week, and if they could work with Eliza Dushku to create a unique, fascinating young woman for each situation, no one would care that there isn’t a lovable central character. The problem is not that their audacious gamble was a bad idea — the problem is they have yet to execute it well.
On the other hand, I like everything I’ve heard about Kings. Check out this review — it makes it sound awesome.