Sitting Too Close to the Screen: Battlestar Galactica

Our mothers always told us that sitting to close to the television set would lead to lazy eyes and possible blindness- an obvious myth. But for some of us, sitting too close did mean great change. When every bit of your vision is filled with the flashing pixels, it is all too easy to fall forward, Through the Looking Glass-style, into the set, and find ourselves in new worlds. In these reviews, I will focus on shows where I sat too close and tumbled through the screen. They are shows that helped shape who I am as artist, not through escapism- but through inspiration. They also kick serious butt. 

Battlestar: Galactica (2004-2009)

aka: The Epic of Gauis Baltar

Growing up we had a television, VCR, and N64, but the first time I had access to any actual channels was my freshman year in college. A student in the dorm stuck up a poster advertising that he was selling everything he owned for the noble cause of buying a substantial amount of marijuana. When I approached the young man and discovered he must have had some success already in this endeavor (high as the Chrysler building) I took advantage of the situation and handed him a twenty. Returning to my room with a new microwave and television, I plugged my new toys in and learned the awful truth: ninety-eight percent of all televised programming is actually a paid advertisement for something called “Oxyclean.” Anyway, since then I have honed the skill of sifting out high quality entertainment like Spike TV’s “Deadliest Warrior.” I now have my weekly dose of addictive TV fun.

There really is an enormous amount of incredible TV being made these days; shows worthy of film history textbook credit. Yet, as far as I am concerned, the pinnacle of recent television came a few years back in a most unlikely place: SciFi. And here it is time to warm up our FTL drives and dive head first into the world of Battlestar: Galactica.

For months my brothers had been insisting that I try the show, and time after time I resisted. With the exception of Face Off (one of the few non-cooking reality shows I can stomach) I had never seen anything come out of SciFi worth my time. But at last, when I had time to try something new as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire were between seasons, I began watching BSG, and within a few weeks had worked my way through the glorious, captivating, expansive world, transfixed by the character arcs and pitch-perfect science fiction adventure. The show immediately brought to mind “2001: A Space Odyssey”, not just in terms of genre or theme, but in the fact that it somehow managed to rise above ordinary cinema and touch on something equaled only in great art and literature. The story becomes a vehicle for something much bigger. It’s transcendent; it becomes philosophy, psychology, a work about human nature. Granted, the genre of science fiction lends itself to this end, touching on the origins and final moments of a species to analyze where its place in the universe really is. BSG utilizes everything television storytelling has to offer to accomplish this mission.

There is only so much you can touch on in a 90-minute film. True, many directors have managed to stuff a heck of a lot into a good flick. (The film version of 2001 conveys chapters’ worth of Clark’s novelization in a mere frame!) But in general, literature is looked to as the medium to best convey grand stories in complex ways. Tolstoy can delve into both history and the psychology of his characters far easier than a film editor who has a fixed amount of space to tell the story. This temporal constraint of film means it is far more difficult to touch at truth. Once again, it can be done, but far too often movies simply rely on actors running around and loud music, instead of painting landscapes of light on celluloid that take the audience on journeys they never expected, as it should be. Television is different. BSG takes four seasons, two tv movies, a number of webisodes, and a prequel season to expand the concepts, characters, and subplots and present a whole to the audience, and begin to approach the level of intricacy henceforth on reached in epic novels and dense book series. Its real beauty is that it stops there. You don’t have the hundreds of novels, fan fiction, conventions, a billion crappy movies and a disappointing reboot (yes, I said it), and two hundred separate shows that have tainted the brilliance of Star Trek (go Wrath of Khan and TNG!) and the horrible tv series that followed Star Gate (way to ruin an awesome movie). It must have been all too tempting to carry BSG farther, stretching it out over a dozen years. The money was there to do so, but creator Ronald Moore thought- and was right to think- that he could say what he wanted to say in four seasons. A brave move. (Though I admit I would happily watch a new episode of the show every week for the rest of my life.)

For the sake of those you haven’t seen the show yet (shame on you!) I’ll leave out spoilers, ignoring many specific moments to focus on the bigger picture.

Quick note: Although technically based on a late 70’s show of the same title, the series quickly takes the characters and story-lines to new levels, leaving the original far behind.

Basically, BSG is about the last remnants of humanity running from the Cylons. The Cylons are A.I. beings mankind created that got out of hand and rebelled. Now, the combat ship Battlestar: Galactica must guide and protect a few civilian ships on the quest to find the fabled Earth.

That synopsis might not all that sound ground-breaking, but the story takes so many clever turns, develops so many unconventional relationships, and gets the viewer so into the world that, frankly, I think it’s easily one of the coolest shows ever made. And I don’t say that lightly.

Perhaps the most memorable aspect is the surprises the show throws at you. This is common to TV series, but the writers of BSG really took there time fine-tuning when revelations are made and how. The other tastiest quality is the bravery of the writers to veer away from the ease of writing scary aliens into scifi, and instead focus solely on humanity. (Edward James Olmos actually had it put in his contract that if any aliens or monsters showed up, he could walk off the set and never come back.)

I think the most basic factor that distinguishes most movies from television shows is whether the focus is on plot or character. Both mediums develop both aspects of course, but a two hour movie is naturally going to focus is attention on telling a specific story, whereas several seasons of episodes lends itself to producing character arcs. We meet a character, develop impressions, and go on a journey to watch him or her change. That’s the beauty of everything from “M*A*S*H” to “Friends” to “House”. It is about believable personal change. If you’re looking for absolute perfect handling of this, look no further than BSG’s Gauis Baltar.

Maybe it’s just the writer in me, but every now and then I find a very real connection forming between myself and a fictional character (I literally mourned for about a week after the end of Boardwalk Empire season 2). Gauis Baltar was one character that I felt strong emotion about from the start. In particular, I HATED him. I actually called up my brother to complain about the character. I hated his hair, his corny accent, everything, and was on the brink of simply giving up on the show entirely because of this Baltar. But by the time I finished with the series, he had become hands-down my favorite television character ever. Rarely has any actor so convincingly conveyed the intricate contradictions of a human being, the reactions and relationships that change our perspective, the straight-up complexity of our species! It is remarkable to watch Baltar’s transformations over the course of the series.

Last week, Asher posted a piece about character development, stating: Certainly character development matters for television shows… But, I would argue, successful character development has more to do with gradually revealing existing depths to a character, rather than developing their character in a more literal sense (forcing their personalities and choices to change over time).  In fact, in many ways this second development is less true to life than a repeated examination of the choices that define us again and again.

I respect- and agree with- his insights on the matter, which is why it is all the more impressive that actor James Callis pulled off his character so well. We see Baltar alter himself so rapidly that from episode to episode he is virtually unrecognizable, but this isn’t simply because outside forces change his identity.

Human beings are the most adaptable creatures on the planet. We are oceans of potential, and most of us never even begin to realize or understand what we are or are not capable of. I was born to a middle-class white family in American suburbia, and admittedly have no idea how I would respond to starvation, or war in my backyard, or dealing with guilt and pride and insecurity while betraying/saving humanity from evil (?) robots. Gauis Baltar is not simply a man forced to change by the world around him. He is a emotionally fragile genius who searches for and discovers new parts of himself, and uses those parts to in turn change the world around him. And when he feels inner uncertainty, his intelligence allows him to at least gain outward control. He is fascinating, human versatilty incarnate.  (There’s far more to his motivations, but it is difficult to get into without giving away huge aspects of the story. Fans of the show will most likely I place to much merit in Gauis’ decisions and not enough in the outward forces affecting him, but I personally feel he himself is one of the primary driving forces. Though I admit what it says about man’s relationship with God is equally wonderful.)

Jumping from hero to villain and back again with a dozen decisions, he demonstrates the complex measures men go to for survival and enlightenment. It is an arc so delicately achieved it’s only true rivalries are in the great works of literature.

The show might have even been thrown off balance by the power of the character, had not the writers complemented it with Baltar’s love interest, the incredibly sexy Cylon “Six”…

…and a multitude of [almost] equally complex relationships: Adama/Roslyn and Apollo/Starbuck/Anders, incredibly fleshed out characters like Chief Tyrol and Saul Tigh, and Starbuck’s haircut’s ability to tell a story.

It is hard to do any real reviewing without giving away details of the story, which branches many times and in many directions throughout the seasons. I will say the casting is at times hit and miss. There are about a dozen strong female characters, which is refreshing, and a few of the actresses portray their roles beautifully and with conviction. Katee Sackhoof is a straight-up badass as Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, a quality she later displayed in 24, though Starbuck is a far more fleshed out character than her role in that series. Mary McDonnell helps ground the show as President Laura Roslin (my favorite female pres on tv). Model and acting-newcomer Tricia Helfer brings a surprising amount of life to the role of Six, as does fellow-beauty Lucy Lawless with the character D’Anna Biers. Both actresses impressed the writers so much their roles got far more screen time in later seasons then was originally planned.

In the middle of the talent spectrum is Kate Vernon as Ellen Tigh. At first I found her acting to be a little dry and one-dimensional, though by the end she had grown on me.

Michelle Forbes is totally flat as Admiral Helena Cain, as is protege Kendra Shaw played by Stephanie Jacobsen. Kadysen McClure’s portrayal of Dee Dualla makes her the least memorable of character in my opinion. Luciana Carro, Kat, tries way too hard to make her character as badass and deep as Starbuck, and comes across simply as bitch-royale. I personally think Rekha Sharma’s acting as Tory Foster might be the show’s worst aspect. There is nothing about the character I am impressed with. Finally there’s Grace Park, who plays Sharon “Boomer” Valeri, one of the chief characters. Not everything she does with the role is a complete failure- she delivers the soft side of the Boomer with ease. But her tough side leaves much to be desired, especially in contrast with Sackhoff.

Overall, it was a big moment for strong ladies on the small screen, who are often anything but believable. I attribute this primarily to the few “greats” who help keep the “eh’s” afloat.

As for the men, I obviously admire James Callis’ work on the show, and he is in good company. Edward James Osmos is ideal for his part, as usual. (The actor’s son plays “Hotdog” btw.) Helo, played by Tahmoh Penikett, is refreshing, less grand and more down-to-earth than many characters, as is athlete-turned-military-badass Samuel Anders (Michael Trucco). I’m also a big fan of Tom Zarek, who was played by Richard Hatch, who was Apollo in the 70’s show.

Jamie Bamber (Apollo in this series) starts out fine, but I personally feel he developed less, or at least less gracefully, then many of his peers. Alessandro Juliani’s Felix Gaeta was another disappointment to me, just seemed bland on screen.

For basic scifi fans, the show has awesome sets, ships, and battles, and is super brave in that they use bullets vs. lasers. It totally pays off, making for intense action like in Firefly fights, while keeping the elegant grandeur of old Star Trek Naval battles.

I will not be so pretentious as to say BSG has what it takes to pass the test of time and hold it’s own with Homer, Shakespeare, and Twain, but I for one will insist my children study both Gilgamash and Battlestar when learning the classics.

Check it out! Seriously, if you’re like me it might take a bit of time to get into, but it’s worth it. I know the whole series is on Netflix  streaming and Hulu Plus.

For those you have seen the show (Still no spoilers):

-The scene which personally affected me most and had me literally sitting on the edge of my seat and holding my breath was not one of the bigger ‘eye of Jupiter’ or ‘final five’ or even ‘this is it?’, but the scene where Baltar decides to take drastic measures in his cell and find out the truth. I felt as though time froze when the truth is revealed. Totally freaked me out! Number two spot goes to the revelation of the song.

-The scene that totally sucked! Absolute worst moment in the whole show was in the last episode when we learn who a certain little girls’ guardians turn out to be. Awful! They had originally had the obvious[ly right] ending but traded it at the last moment. Pure poop at the end of a golden tale.

…just for laughs…

Next week’s “Sitting Too Close” Post: All Creatures Great and Small

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