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Battlestar Galactica: Season 2

This isn’t about Sharon. It’s about something much bigger than that. It’s about the long term survival of the Fleet. It’s about the way we conduct ourselves in all of this.

Laura Roslin, Sacrifice

You know, when we fought the Cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question, why? Why are we as a people worth saving? We still commit murder because of greed, spite, jealousy. And we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we’ve done.

– Commander Bill Adama, Miniseries

This year, mankind is its own worst enemy. The remnants of humanity are driven to the bring of civil war not once, but twice. The series lands in its sophmore season running, though it seems to run into a bit of bother balancing itself over a full year. That isn’t to say that it isn’t still spectacular television – far from it – but that there are moments here when the series appears to lose focus (if only for an episode or two at a time). Still, it remains one of the most interesting and dynamic television dramas ever conceived.

bsgstorm

It's some kinda storm out there...

There’s a lot of acceptance creeping in here. Both Starbuck and Baltar separately accept that their lives on Caprica are gone. Neither really misses it anymore. Just as Adama had long ago stopped seeking for promotion. Hope can be a dangerous thing to let go of – it makes us numb. Sometimes we need to hope, as Adama and Roslin conceded with their rumours of Earth and Tyrol acknowledges with the plan to build his own ship in Flight of the Phoenix. Sometimes we have to hope and aspire, regardless of how impossible it all may seem, and no matter how bleak it may be. Those who accept the darkness and the despair and the numbness (as Lee threatens to, Tigh does occasionally and the Pegasus crew have completely) are lost.

The temptation to give up is strong. After what she’s endured, Gina considers giving herself a permanent death (she may even have helped Baltar figure out the purpose of the Resurrection Ship so that she could die without resurrection). She ultimately succeeds. Tyrol’s true spiral into hopelessness and depression begins when he finally lets go of Sharon. The settlement on New Caprica represents a similar abandonment of hope or of a goal, of settling for less.

We must be wary of accepting ‘the realistic option’ and rejecting ‘the aspirational dream’. Adama contemplates a pragmatic and illegal assassination in dealing with his newly appeared superior, so as to protect his fleet and the remains of mankind. Tigh seeks to dismantle the idealistic civilian government to impose a more logical and structured military system. Baltar must reject the fantasies within his head and replace them with a real, albeit damaged, version of his ideal woman. All of these decisions lead to disaster – the only exception being Adama’s decision to cancel the attempted assassination. Tigh’s harsh and inflexible rule leads to the death of civilians. Baltar’s ‘real’ woman ultimately leads the Cylons to New Caprica. One could even make the case that the election of Baltar himself represents a victory of the pragmatic over the ideal – as does the compromise of New Caprica, literally and metaphorically halfway between the old world of the colonies and the promised land of Earth. And we certainly know how that ends up.

The greatest threats this year come from within. Last year it was the Cylons, or their sleeper agents, or the prisoners which we had cast out and were lead back in by Tom Zarek. This year it’s the media which threatens the fleet, it’s the President herself inciting rebellion, it’s the arrival of another colonial fleet, it’s the peace movement, it’s the electioon of Gaius Baltar. Despite the initial Cylon engagement in Valley of Darkness (and you’ll not that they are fighting within Galactica itself) or the subsequent Cylon ‘logic bomb’, it is mankind which pushes itself to the brink this time around. The clear implication is that – had the Cylons not wiped us out – we would probably cause our own destruction left to our own devices (and, yes, the Cylons themselves are proof of this concept).

The real core of the season (which fittingly divided it across the middle) is the three-part Pegasus arc (Pegasus/Resurrection Ship, Part 1/Resurrection Ship, Part 2) which is included here with an extended version of the opening episode. Serving much as Kobol’s Last Gleaming did last year to tie everything up until that point together (both thematically and in terms of plot and pacing), the arc serves as the heart of the year – expressing the core themes of the year and articulating them in the context of the entire show so far.

scar

By the end of this run, even the Raiders have scars...

The episode intentionally echoes any number of past episodes – the torture of Cylons is taken a step further than in Flesh and Bone, the plot to assassinate Admiral Cain has disturbing parallels with the attempted assassination of Adama at the end of Kobol’s Last Gleaming, there’s a direct callback to Adama’s prescient speech from the miniseries, the massacring of civillians for refusing to supply the military with resources resonates with the accidental deaths in Resistance. The entire episode is a very twisted reflection of an episode of the classic series (The Living  Legend), which also resonates with the crew of Pegasus being a twisted reflection of Galactica. And Cain herself is an effective stand-in for Starbuck’s abusive mother.

The first season suggested that maybe the humans weren’t necessarily the good guys in all this – Starbuck’s torture of a frightened and alone Leoben comes to mind. The second season certainly stokes the fire – Admiral Cain condones the use of rape as an instrument of interrogation and the climactic battle of Resurrection Ship, Part 2 features the disturbing sight of thousands of Cylon bodies being flushed into outer space as the humans destroy their Resurrection Ship. Is that any better than the nuclear attack on the human colonies? Maybe in degree, but arguable not in quality.

Perhaps, if time is cyclical, it is appropriate that this ‘middle’ season finds most of the crew at a crossroads between the past and the future. Despite the barbarism of her crew which indicates they have abandoned civilisation, Admiral Cain still latches on to the conflict as a war that can be won (she even suggests retaking the colonies). Starbuck is focused on the people she left behind on Caprica. The future equally beckons, with Earth getting ever so slightly closer (but not quite in view yet). The kicker is that – since time is cyclical – it’s like traversing a globe, if you move far enough in either direction you end up right back where you started. Not that the players have realised this yet. Torn between these two items, we can understand the desire to simply stop moving as they do in Lay Down Your Burdens. To let the past remain the past and the future remain the future. Of course, the problem with stopping is that it gives your sins a chance to catch up.

It’s no coincidence that Lay Down Your Burdens is structured to mirror the original miniseries, starting with an emotional speech from Adama, then a nuclear detonation, followed by the arrival of the almost-forgotten Cylons. All of this has happened before indeed. Baltar’s disruption of civil disobedience even calls to mind the similar strikebreaking strategy of President Aldar.

baltar

Talk about your lame duck presidents...

You could suggest, perhaps, that New Caprica represents an attempt to recreate the glory of the past (literally building a new colony in the image of an old one, where Roslin is a teacher again, for example) and it’s interesting that Baltar (who doesn’t miss his past life) should be the architect behind it. I don’t think it’s a recreation of the past – or intended as such. The city looks like a refugee camp, not a metropolis waiting to be developed. It’s a camping site which has become a permanent residence because the survivors are simply too exhausted to continue on. It’s a resting place for a very tired people, afraid to attempt to move in either direction.

The New Caprica arc has garnered a lot of attention as a direct echo of the Iraq War. We’ll deal with that more when we look at the third season of the show, but here it’s worth considering that the imagery of the Centurions marching through the colony calls to mind the arrival of the Nazis in Paris rather than the Coalition in Baghdad. But then the series has always enjoyed cleverly borrowing iconography from history books – take Laura Roslin’s swearing in (structured to reflect that of Lyndon B. Johnston aboard Airforce One) or the child picking flowers as the Cylon nuke hits the abandoned civilian ships (meant to recall Johnston’s infamous daisy advertisements) in the miniseries alone.

Growth and evolution are the order and theme of the season, from the evolving Cylon virus in Flight of the Phoenix through to the Cylons’ desire to evolve themselves – Boomer articulates the commandment to “be fruitful”, which is used to justify the atrocities we see in The Farm. It appears that the merging of humanity and the Cylons is the next step, although here we see a forced attempt through the experiments on the human women, as well as the embroynic Clyon/human peace movement on Galactica. The line falls between integration and subjegation. The Cylons consider huamnity their parents, so perhaps it is fitting that they adopt the same approach to humanity that humanity originally demonstrated towards them.

It’s interesting to note that the Cylons are defined by their desire to procreate (it seems to be their “plan” – at least at this interval) while humanity is defined by the death and destruction it can reap (as Baltar only really becomes a man upon killing Crashdown, at least according to the voice in his head). One might suggest that the Cylons are equally skilled at destruction (having successfully perpetrated a genocide). Even at their worst, the Cylons still reflect back on us, the absentee parents. Starbuck seems surprised when Helo explains that the Cylons gathered up and incinerated the remaining human bodies, not withstanding that it’s a direct and obvious echo to numerous horrors from our own past (though the burnt victims weren’t necessarily dead first) – similarly The Farm, despite its focus on procreation has unpleasant resonance with horror stories from our own history books (particularly the Second World War) on the experimentation upon prisoners of war. The Cylons are our children. And we taught them well.

Downloaded suggests that the Cylons as a race can evolve to realise the errors of their ways and to learn the lessons from their genocide. The lessons might not be anything of value (choosing to enslave their former masters rather than simply kill them), but there is a desire to learn. It’s interesting that the Cylon occupation of Caprica is part of the new direction heralded by the Cavils aboard Galactica in the finale: the Cylons claim to be learning to distance themselves from their creators (by rejecting genocide), but slavery and occupation are equally human legacies. It’s odd that the Cylons use the euphamism of ‘occupation’ for their nuclear attack on the colonies (as Cavil does in addressing the President) before rejecting the concept: how would they describe what they are doing on New Caprica? History repeats itself for them as it does for us, evidently.

The religious themes continue into this year. The most interesting for me (retroactively) seems to be Sharon’s child, the human-cylon hybrid, as the holy grail. Baltar makes the astonishing discovery in Epiphanies that the child’s blood can heal virtually anything (even the President’s cancer), somewhat similar to the classical conception of The Holy Grail (take Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as an example). What’s particularly interesting now is that the holy grail in this case is the blood itself – echoing the suggestion that the Holy Grail of the Catholic Church is actually Jesus’ bloodline, descending to the present day. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence – Dan Brown had propelled the theory into the public domain with his 2003 book (though the movie wouldn’t make it to cinemas until after the season had aired) – but it’s interesting to observe.

cain

Cain... and more than able to kick your ass...

The second season is a spectacular, but there is a sense of fatigue that creeps in while watching the episode sprints. The series flows naturally through its first arc through to Home and then stalls a bit through the two stand alone episodes before moving into the Pegasus arc. The episodes until the end of the season are fairly solid when looked at individually (with the exception of Black Market), but very little actually happens. There’s a lot of setup (which pays off in the finale), and the threads are all interesting of themselves, but there’s little real or substatial feel of progress made until the election and the settling on New Caprica. It’s a minor complaint (in that the vast majority of episodes work very well when viewed in isolation and the season as a whole is just as solid (if not moreso) than the first), just something worth noting.

Speaking of things that have happened before and will happen again, I can’t help but notice Ronald D. Moore borrowing story beats from his earlier series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, that also included a multi-episode season opener involving a military coup (which admittedly was written before Moore joined the show), and the occupation of New Caprica (with characters stranded under enemy rule) echoes the sixth-season opening arc. Both are different enough not to seem like copies or stolen ideas, but the similarities suggest a common thematic ground underlining those two shows.

Either the quality of the transfer is getting better or I’m getting used to the grain on darker shots. The interference is still there (especially in space shots), but the picture quality as a whole seems to have improved. The special effects are nothing short of amazing this year. The battle between the Colonial Fleet and the Cylons at the climax of Resurrection Ship, Part 2 (and even the showdown between the two crews at the start of Resurrection Ship, Part 1) are breathtaking. There are moments when the CGI may not be the most amazing thing on television, but it’s never anything less than impressive.

Bear McCreary is on soundtrack duty here. I was amazed and impressed by his work on the last season and this opinion bears out (pardon the pun) here. I did have a slight problem with the overture he played on the introduction of the Pegasus – it was just a little bit too 80s-tastic. For a moment I was expecting Edward James Olmos to announce that Crockett and Tubbs were working the case of the unknown DRADIS signal. Still, this is the exception rather than the rule – even when McCreary turns up the “oomph” (as in his ‘Lords of Kobol’ theme in the same episode or with the incorporating of the classic theme music into the colonial anthem) it still works very well.

I don’t need to praise the cast or remind you that they were one of the best ensembles working in television. This year Michael Hogan is given a chance to shine, along with the other outstanding regulars. It’s nice to see Michelle Forbes and Dean Stockwell given some material to sink their teeth into as guest stars. Katie Sackhoff as Starbuck also deserves mention, as the actress behind one of prime time’s truly strong female characters (she’s lucky to share the show with Mary McDonnell, who is similarly impressive). Starbuck is charming, arrogant, self-righteous and all the more wonderful for her many, many flaws. I think the role of women in Galactica may bear some discussion further down the line, but this review/retrospective is long enough as it is.

I don’t need to tell you it’s among the best programmes on television at this stage. It’s smart, sophisticated, well-written, well-directed and well-acted. It’s a series which raises tough questions and isn’t afraid to let the audience answer them themselves. If you’re looking for a compelling space opera, an examination of religion or humanity, a biblical parable or even just a well told story, there is absolutely no reason not to be watching the show.

Interested in Battlestar Galactica? Check out our complete archive of reviews and discussions of the relaunched show:

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One Response

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