Friday, January 14, 2005

I got a look at the first three episodes of Ron Moore's new Battlestar Galactica last night. Satellite channel Sky 4 in the UK apparently got a hold of the new series early last fall, and has been broadcasting it all season long. Which would be all fine and good, except that Sky likes to put a station-identification logo permanently imbedded in the upper left corner of what would be the 4:3 section of the screen, if the show hadn't been filmed and broadcast in widescreen. Also, PAL material tends to come out funny when viewed on NTSC equipment, and all of the male characters had that characteristic PAL helium-whine.

All that aside, they were great episodes. It's rock-solid material, easily equal to the mini-series in all qualities. Spoiler-space for those of you not blessed with parasitic access to the gordiehoweverse:

The episodes don't have names, or at least, the versions I saw were nameless. If they had them, however, I would fully expect the first episode to be entitled "Thirty-three Minutes". We're introduced into the series in media res, as the rag-tag fleet races against an unexplained countdown. Fighters are scrambled, chaos on the communication lines as civilian ships slowly and painfully organize their planned "jumps" out of the scene to the next rendezvous point. As the count-down hits zero, the Cylons jump in, charging for the fleet. The defenses of the Galactica unload on them, as the rest of the fleet winks away, leaving the Galactica in a final rush to catch her fighters on the run, jumping away just before the first nukes pass through their position. They arrive at the rendezvous, and re-start the countdown clocks. Here we learn that this is something like the two-hundredth iteration of this particular cycle, and they've been running without rest or pause for five straight days. The episode itself is just as relentless and breathless as the fleet itself, with restless, urgent drums rushing the characters from each brief crisis to next, every face growing paler and every hand shakier as the minutes tick down on dozens of mechanical clocks and primitive digital displays.

The plot-threads started in the miniseries continue, seamlessly, through the three episodes viewed. Gaius Baltar continues to struggle against discovery, madly alternating between arguments with his ghost-Cylon haunt, and desperately "maintaining" before a bemused President Roslyn and an increasingly-skeptical Commander Adama, who insistently demands a "Cylon Detector" from the scientist, who made the mistake of claiming he could do so in the mini-series. Captain Lee "Apollo" Adama continues to serve as a bridge between his father-the-Commander and the President, and the scenes between the three are clearly being written as a sort of metaphor for a blended family, the President at one point exclaiming in frustration to Commander Adama that "he's *your* son", sounding for all the world like a step-mother arguing with her new husband over a problem-child from a previous marriage.

The episodes' context in the post-9/11 world is bleedingly obvious. Outside of the office on the Galactica which is being used for low-level fleet communications, the corridor is covered in the sort of "have you seen this person" collages which briefly dominated the streets of Downtown Manhattan in the wake of the attacks. In the place of the thankfully-declining body-counts of the 9/11 disasters, is a chillingly simple board mounted in the President's impromptu office, updated with a "survivor's count", with each loss tabulated with mournful exactitude.

To counter-act the somewhat claustrophobic prospect of a TV series set entirely in a series of corridors, barracks, flight-decks, and CGI, the writers re-introduced the character of "Helo", left behind on the nuked, wrecked planet of Caprica. I had expected this character to just drop out, slaughtered by the Cylons like the rest of those left behind on the colonies, but instead, his continued fight for survival on a planetary surface, which seems to be under a perpetual soaking down-pour, breaks up the dimly-lit ship-board scenes of the rest of the cast. They were able to use the revelation of "Boomer" as a hidden Cyclon to place her in both places at once, bear-leading "Helo" across the green wilderness of Caprica, while still playing her part in the primary plot on board Galactica. This hasn't paid off yet, but they've certainly planted enough questions about what the hell the Cylons are up to with this sort of thing. My guess is that the two of them are being used to ferret out survivors in the colonies for disposal, but it's just a guess right now.

The show has been extremely arc-heavy so far, to such an extent that I'm not sure if you could actually run it out-of-order without terminally disorienting all but the most fanatical viewers. It feels more like a season of the Sopranos than what I'm used to getting from broadcast or basic cable. There's very little given to the slower members of the prospective audience, which might be a ratings-issue. This isn't the tissue-paper piffle for slow-tops which characterized the original, disco-glam Battlestar Galactica, which often resembled nothing so much as Branson, Missouri in Space.

I'm really looking forward to seeing the rest of this, but I'm increasingly getting the feeling that this show isn't for the long haul - they're running through the plots at a dead run, and I wouldn't be surprised if they're intentionally writing for a one or two-season series.

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