Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote,
Niall Harrison
coalescent

Lay Down Your Burdens

Watching the season two finale of Battlestar Galactica today, I couldn't help thinking of a scene from Angel's second season. It's the one in 'Epiphany' where Angel, full of guilt and remorse and not knowing what to do next, has a sit-down chat with Lorne in Caritas. "I don't know how to get back," says Angel, and Lorne replies, "Well, that's the thing--you don't. You go on to the new place. Wherever that is." Actually, what I was really thinking of was not that scene, but what David Hines said about it:
*Exactly* right.

Dramatic television characters are like chess pieces. If you want to continuously develop one's position, you have to keep moving him to new places. If you just shuffle him back and forth between the same two squares, he's not actually going anywhere ... and you're wasting turn after turn.
(As an aside, I miss David Hines. He regularly and then semi-regularly posted reviews of Buffy and Angel to Usenet from about mid-s2 of the former to mid-s3 of the latter, and is still one of the sharpest and most entertaining tv critics I've read--even when I think he's being completely crackers. His take on the first half of Angel's second season, for instance, is definitive, and he was good on Buffy when it was good and when it wasn't. Sadly I haven't seen him review anything for several years.)

Anyway, I think Hines is spot-on about character-shuffling as a trap that so many long-running tv shows fall into; one of the reasons I like Angel so much, despite its faults, is that it avoided that trap, more or less. But watching 'Lay Down Your Burdens', the observation came back to me, because Galactica's writers seem to have gone a bit too far in the opposite direction.

You can see why they did it. Minor highlights such as 'Scar' and 'Downloaded' aside, the show has been average-to-suck since the two-parter 'Home', way back in the autumn. (If you want detailed reasons why, see Abigail Nussbaum's blog, and also the comment by coffeeandink in this post about Ron Moore's worldbuilding.) There has been a sense that the writers have said what they wanted to say with Galactica as it was, or at least had lost the ability to say things effectively using the format they'd established. The solution they went for is an obvious and time-honoured one: reboot the format. That's not wasting their turns; that's burning through their stories as fast as possible, to come out the other side that much sooner.

And for the whole of 'Lay Down Your Burdens I' and the first half of 'Lay Down Your Burdens II', I had no problem with that. In fact, the first half of part two is a continuity-lover's dream--they pick up on just about every dangling plot thread and either tie it up with a neat bow or render it irrelevant. One of the things that's so fascinating about tv as a storytelling medium is how messy it is; while an author can go off and work in seclusion to produce a final, shaped story, a tv writer has to contend with umpteen real-world issues, from the popularity of the show to the availability of actors, and juggle them all as the story evolves. So I can be quite forgiving of episodes where the hand of the writer is a bit too clear (up to and including Angel's 'Inside Out'), as long as I can see what they're trying to do. In 'Lay Down Your Burdens II', I could see what Ron Moore was trying to do, and I was right there with him. The detonation of the nuke was a perfect ending: again, you could see it coming, but it was in service of clearing the air and setting up the new version of the show.

Unfortunately, the writers carried on beyond that ending. 'Lay Down Your Burdens' has the same problem as A.I.--that film should have ended with Halley Joel Osment under the ice, reaching out for eternity, and would have been a dozen times more powerful if it had, but there was that unwise far-future coda. It's as though when writing 'Home', Tim Minear had decided to tack on a cut-down version of the first two episodes of the following season as well. It's giving the audience too much. In a sense, it's a failure of trust. In their desire to re-energise the show's viewers, and make it clear that they were Moving On, rather than ending on an action that demonstrated their intent unambiguously, the Galactica writing team decided to tell us how things pan out One Year Later, when everyone has bad hair and a new plot.

hernewshoes makes an interesting point here about the relative strengths of prose and television when portraying lapses of time, and to an extent I agree with it, but in the case of Galactica's story I think the jump was a good idea. I think the whole shakeup is a good idea, in fact; as vonnie_k puts it, Moore has adamantium testicles for going through with it, but in principle there's nothing bad about bringing Galactica down to land. (Presumably it's for a while, rather than forever.) But the execution of it in this episode was horribly botched. I find that time passing off-screen can reinforce the sense of a tv show's internal reality, so what I would have liked them to do is end on that nuke blast and then pick up seven months later. That's long enough to start storytelling fresh, and leaves enough time between our re-entry into the story and the cylon detection of the blast to establish the new setting before upsetting its applecart.

Instead, they've given us what should have been half of season three in half an hour. Possibly the worst-served relationship is that between the Chief and Cally--I agree with coffeeandink when she says that the Chief's meltdown isn't in and of itself an impediment to a developing relationship, but as presented it looks like they skipped straight from grievous bodily harm to pregnancy, which is just unnerving. But everyone gets shortchanged, from Starbuck and Apollo to Baltar and Roslin--and how much more impact would the return of the cylons have had if we'd had six or eight episodes without them? Instead, the writers have burned through too much story; moved on to the new place, but not bothered to join the dots. As I said, I actually like the basic premise (the community-building has always been one of the aspects that most interests me about the show), so I'll be watching in the autumn. It won't be with too much hope, though, because the writers have just demonstrated that while they're aware they weren't doing too well with the old format, they're not entirely certain what they're doing with the new one, either.
Tags: battlestar galactica, tv
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