With this third season premiere, Battlestar Galactica has ascended to a new level. Never before has its vital political insight and broadly relevant allegory been more dominant and daring. And on a purely narrative level, it’s the most engrossing stuff on TV today, and the most unpredictable.
The end of last season’s finale, following the ballsy one-year time jump, was pretty bleak. The feature-length third season premiere, set three months after the Cylons’ arrival, is markedly bleaker. It’s hard to recall a TV series that put its characters through such all-encompassing misery without it being a dream or alternate timeline episode. The decision to throw us into the midst of key developments only heightens our alienation. Tigh is in Cylon detention, a bandage over one eye. Starbuck is imprisoned in a twisted facsimile of her Caprica apartment by Leoben, the Cylon she interrogated and became drawn to in a first season episode, who now reciprocates her former fondness with freakish intensity. Gaius Baltar is now president in name only, ruling under the thumb of the Cylon leaders. Galactica, Pegasus, and the remaining civilian fleet are far away, haphazardly planning a rescue despite having made no contact with New Caprica. The resistance, led by Tigh, Tyrol, and Anders, is about to plan a major strike. The pre-occupation world of Battlestar genuinely feels like a pleasant memory, which demonstrates the enormity of the current situation.
To the uninitiated, the above will hardly resonate emotionally, and that’s actually a strength of this premiere: it draws so intensely on the investment that we’ve made in the characters, ratcheting up the tension or subverting relationships, that it’s gripping and wrenching to watch because so much has been earned. When the two Adamas’ first scene sees the Admiral (who now looks eerily like Deadwood’s Al Swearengen) callously attacking Lee for not getting off his “fat ass”, it’s hard to watch because Ron Moore and the writers are so dedicated to their characters changing in profound and irrevocable yet credible ways. Battlestar may not yet be achieving the kind of masterfully understated characterisation of its cable cousins on HBO, but this season, it’s clearly on its way. And it was already one of the best shows on TV anyway.
But to the uninitiated, the above plot points hopefully sounded tantalising, since this show is foremost rock-solid drama and character work (Sci Fi are making huge efforts to welcome new viewers – check out a 3 min or 45 min recap called “The Story So Far” on the official website). And note that if one doesn’t know what a Cylon is, the above sentences are not necessarily describing a science fiction show. But Battlestar is in no way ashamed of its genre; the concept of downloading is so prevalent in the premiere, as are the Cylon centurions, that Battlestar is clearly SF (unlike Lost, which dances between genres and can often disguise itself as realism). Where Battlestar triumphs is a balance that prohibits its high-concept SF tropes from defining the look, direction, and format of the show like so many of its predecessors. Print SF is wildly varied in style, and the best stuff weds resonant characters with otherworldly and technological ideas, usually in a fashion where the latter affords a unique and broad insight into the nature of the former.
That’s Battlestar in a nutshell, and what marks it as the finest science fiction series ever to grace television. The bar has been raised so high that even the science fiction literary world is buzzing about it, and some could still learn a thing or two from its wide range of naturalistic characters rather than the chronically unsurprised and emotionally vacant figures that populate some genre fiction. Plus, the political and moral discussion of this show is second to none on television. The West Wing gave us immense detail, but could never present us with the elaborate thought experiments and ethical dilemmas that quality science fiction is capable of. The superb ambiguity of the genocidal Cylons now occupying the human settlement (observe the real-world parallels for yourself) allows issues like suicide bombing and collaboration to be engaged in startlingly slippery ways. And just in terms of the show’s success in depicting these issues at all, I’ve rarely felt so emotionally charged by the practice of collaboration while watching a film or show as I have with these episodes of Battlestar, as the paradigm shift coerces established characters, not guest stars, into doing so. Yet it isn’t demonised: the confused former deck-hand Jammer is hardly amoral, and Gaeta is informing the resistance from within Baltar’s camp, yet Tyrol still deplores him as much as the other ‘traitors’.
Ron Moore and co. are firing on all cylinders, so it is little surprise that this episode lives up completely to the lofty expectations of that courageous cliffhanger. The Starbuck/Leoben storyline does seem a little incongruous with the occupation though, perhaps because it seems at odds with the Cylon’s apparent new agenda. But it could be fundamental – who knows? That’s the other terrific thing about this show, which only the new season of Lost is coming close to (next entry will be on that one, btw): it’s virtually impossible to predict where this is going. The innovation and risk is so substantial that the normal parameters of television storytelling cannot be relied upon. If Battlestar, Deadwood, Lost, and The Wire (or the majority thereof) are overlooked at next year’s Emmys in favour of yet more 24 or Grey’s Anatomy, I will officially give up on that doddering anachronism and its innate but nearly deceased potential to promote and reward quality product. Those open-minded enough to look past the Battlestar Galactica title should be satisfied that they are progressive viewers enjoying the best that American entertainment has to offer – screw everyone else, quite frankly, as long as it stays on the air. Fingers firmly knotted that Sci Fi doesn’t pull a Farscape on this one.