by David Liss
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Small Picture columns.]
Over the course of this grim season, almost imperceptibly, the core group of characters is developed into a fully realized, dysfunctional, often unsavory bunch, very much unlike anything in the history of science fiction on television. Though the show's universe was still relentlessly cheerless, Battlestar Galactica managed to find ways to heighten its pacing. The excellent mid-season cliffhanger "Pegasus" proved to be a real turning point, and the season two finale, "Lay Down Your Burdens," to my mind, is one of the most ambitious and successful narratives in the history of television. With the Cylon occupation of New Caprica, various cast members marrying off and making bad bargains, the basic underpinnings of the show's universe were ripped away. It was dramatic and exciting, but it left the writers with the very tricky task of putting things back together without resorting to that most dreaded of television devices, the reset button.
The first few episodes of season three were dedicated to establishing a course back to something like business as usual, but the events of this plot line have left a significant footprint on the unfolding story and the characters. Of course, Battlestar Galactica is at its best when it is unraveling tangles of personal problems and plot crises, but there have been some serious missteps in season three, and they may present some very real problems for the show's long-term success.
The separation of Baltar from the Colonial fleet may be the most serious of these mistakes. In a show with almost no comic relief, Baltar's cowardly instinct for self-preservation at least offered a refreshing change of pace. He is by far a much less interesting character now that he has paired up with the Cylons, where his life seems to consist mostly of begging for his life and lounging around naked with the sexy female Cylon models. These languid boudoir scenes are tedious, but more importantly they are also part of a larger problem -- we've learned a great deal about the Cylons this season, and it seems to me, far more than we want to know.
The Cylons were terrific when they were mysterious and unknowable. Now that we've gotten a better look at the daily lives of the Cylon "skin jobs," they come across as petty, childish and self-absorbed. The show's introductory sequences warns of us that the Cylons "have a plan," but it turns out they don't have a plan at all. They never did have a plan, but it's far worse than that. The Cylons, as they've been painted this season, don't have a clue. From a distance, they were a ruthless and maniacal species that had pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps to further their own creepy evolution. Up close, they are more like a bunch of depressed suburbanites trapped in an eternal group therapy session from which even death offers no escape. They hardly seem capable of organizing their own lunch menu, let alone the destruction of the human race.
Now that they've given up on their plan to destroy the human race (wait, explain to me again why that is) they have to have a new goal to make themselves menacing -- they want to find Earth. I'm not entirely sure why that should be since they neither like nor wish to destroy humans, so it's unclear why they should wish to find more of them. Suffice to say for now that the race between humans and Cylons to find Earth restores to the show the tension that the let's-not-destroy-humanity-after-all turn clearly sapped away.
All of which brings us to the mid-season cliffhanger, "Eye of Jupiter," which in many ways is a welcome change of pace, particularly from the previous episode "The Passage," which effectively captured the tedium of some of Galactica's early season one episodes. Many of the plot lines that have been building for some time get effectively tweaked here. Apollo's marriage to Dualla is on the rocks as he carries on with the increasingly insane Starbuck. Apollo wants her to divorce her husband, Anders, but she reveals that she doesn't believe in divorce. This bit of scruple feels to me more like a plot device than a believable part of Starbuck's amazingly well-developed character. She is, after all, a functioning sociopath, and we've rarely seen her put ethics in front of desire before. On the other hand, for the show to avoid mawkish stasis, these two characters can't be allowed to live happily ever after.
On other fronts, Athena and Helo learn that their child is alive, and that is certainly going to cause some trouble down the line, since Athena's loyalty is so clearly bound up with her trust in Adama. Far more interesting, however, are developments on the "algae planet" where the Chief has discovered the Temple of Five, which is said to contain the Eye of Jupiter -- supposedly pointing the way to Earth. This is good news, since it precipitates the return of Baltar to Galactica, however temporarily, as part of a party of negotiating Cylons -- a party that includes, thankfully Dean Stockwell. His Brother Cavil character, the only being in the Battlestar Galactica universe familiar the concept of irony, has become a breath of fresh air, capable of taking the show's parade of dour moments and offering a little levity, though these moments remain in very short supply. What Battlestar Galactica has in spades, however, is great show-downs, and this episodes plays to that strength. The Cylons want the Eye, but Adama is prepared to destroy the Temple before letting it fall into Cylon hands, all of which leads to a Cylon attack on the planet-side Colonials.
"The Eye of Jupiter" ends both well and badly. The bad part is the supposed threat to Starbuck. No one believes this character is going anywhere, so it doesn't particularly raise tension to make us wait several weeks to find out if she's still alive. She is. We all know it, and it is frankly beneath this show's excellent writers to attempt to create tension where none exists. On the other hand, the Cylon attack and the threat to destroy the Temple could lead anywhere. Battlestar Galactica has demonstrated it is willing to destroy a great deal of its own infrastructure in the service of good storytelling. On any other show, I'd say the Eye gets damaged or ends up being less useful than we were led to believe. On this show, I don't think any possibility is out of the question, including the Eye being a clear map to Earth and ending up in Cylon hands. I'm hopeful it will go in a very uneasy direction. Too much time in the Cylon's bedroom has given the show a kind of inconsequential feel it can shed only with blood and suffering. Fortunately for us, blood and suffering are Battlestar Galactica's bread and butter.
David Liss is the author of four novels: A Conspiracy of Paper, The Coffee Trader, A Spectacle of Corruption, and The Ethical Assassin. He can be contacted via his web page www.davidliss.com.
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