I just got done watching a friend’s tape of the latest entry in the Battlestar Galactica (also known as BSG) good-episode sweepstakes, a two-hour TV movie called Razor. Ever since the amazingly whacky and laughable finale of the third season, I’ve cashed in my BSG hat. I got tired of watching the series bog down in pandering towards “message of the week” and flounder about in pathetic attempts to remain “edgy” and “cool’. Ugh, another one bites the dust.
For those of you not on the BSG wavelength, the current show running on the SciFi channel is a re-imagining of the original series that ran in the late seventies. The show tells the story of the survivors of a massive inter-planetary genocide, who are fleeing their enemies in spaceships towards a mythical planet named “Earth”, where they believe they will find sanctuary. The fleet of spaceships are led and protected by the last military ship, called a battlestar, known as “Galactica”. Their enemies, robotic humanoids called Cylons, attempt to find the spacefleet and destroy them thus making their conquest of the galaxy complete.
The original series has quite a fan following. While it is dark in places, for the most part the show is “safe”, with good guys and bad guys more or less easily identifiable. The special effects and music were exceptional for the time. The episodes are fairly average on the whole, with a few turkeys (a medieval and a wild west themed episode for example) and some magnificent episodes that really stand out.
The new series takes the story and injects elements of “dark realism” which are popular in today’s shows. The program has a grittier, less moralistic tone, with suffering, human greed and sudden death pushed to the forefront. The special effects and music are again top notch, and the writing approach has created some memorable scenes. The actors are all fabulously good, and the creative team behind the show have taken some groundbreaking steps in sharing information on the internet.
There’s a sort of animosity between the fans of the old and new shows, which was rather pronounced until the new show demonstrated its chops. I’d be the first to say re-imaginings blow chunks, and I am a hardened fan of the old series (I grew up watching it), but I think the new show stands on its own. Both shows are excellent, and the new show in no way disrespects the old. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the way the new show has run with the old material, in many ways giving us some really innovative looks at science fiction.
So, why the beef with show now, you ask? Well, it’s hard to summarize my feelings about the direction of the new BSG without giving a long-winded background on the show to provide some context. Here’s why I’ve given up on the show:
1. The Cylons Are Just Emulators
The cylons have created human versions of themselves to infiltrate and sabotage the humans. It is this ability that allows them to make the initial surprise attack that wipes out most of humanity, and to make things difficult for the remaining survivors. The cylons have been attempting to complete their imitation of human beings, by exploring the concept of “love” and trying to reproduce like humans do. To this end, they have taken to capturing and torturing humans to examine their reactions, and some cylons have pretended to join the humans to further aspects of their “experiments”.
The show has been suggesting that the cylons have been genuinely trying to become human (much like Pinocchio), and the show has been trying to blur the distinction between man and machine. My guess is to keep the audience “guessing” as to who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.
The problem is, the cylons fail in one crucial test for humanity – elementary morality. I have yet to see a single cylon express remorse for the murder of what must be billions of human beings (the cylons nuked the twelve planets the humans, or “colonists” lived on). Not one of them has felt any pangs of conscience over the thousands of humans tortured and experimented on. Not one cylon has turned against their own people to oppose the continual hounding and massacre of humans in the fleet (Athena does not count, she is “experimenting” with the human-cylon hybrid Hera, and is only giving out information to keep herself alive).
So that reduces the cylons to at best an impersonal force, like a storm or an earthquake, and at worst to a hostile organism like Kudzu or Ebola. The show pretends that the cylons are “people”, when they most obviously are not. I’m just tired of the show presenting machines as if they were human beings, when adaptable emulators are all they really are.
2. The Humans Are Just Dark Hats and Victims
That leaves any human interest and character development in the hands of the colonial fleet. Unfortunately, the humans have not been reacting well to their situation. With a few exceptions, every human we’ve seen has gone insane, abandoned their morality, or joined a fringe group of whackos. While this is realistic, it makes for some really ridiculous storytelling, because you’re presented with people who are all bad guys, or the victims of the bad guys.
The human race has been reduced to thirty-nine thousand people, and dropping. This is literally a life-or-death, extinction event for an entire species. Instead of exploring the possibilities of this unique event, the show has everyone acting as if it’s just business-as-usual! The draconian and extreme measures the colonial government takes are the wrong ones. They’ve reverted to the classic despotism, supported by the military leadership, even though the politics of the fleet is no bigger than a small town!
The way in which the humans all drop to the dark side is easily explained, given the enormous psychological tragedy everyone is carrying. I just wish I’d see some character or another stand out and make a moral stand without later caving in. The fleet has been running, on and off, for about two years now. There should be children on the assembly line now who are straining the resources and testing the commitment of all these dark hats. President Roslyn tortures suspects and takes away civil liberties, while Commander Adama threatens to kill the family of a union leader representing strikers who are tired of working in the refinery ship. Starbuck airlocks people suspected of collaborating with the cylons and Colonel Tigh murders his own wife for betraying them. These are the people I’m supposed to care about? I’m rooting for the cylons!
See, just because life has handed you a rough deal, doesn’t mean you get a hall pass for bad behavior. I didn’t set up the show’s original premise, which was “do we deserve to survive?” The first episode presents the human race with the judgment of “you can’t hide from the things you’ve done” and “it’s not enough to survive”. Well, if that’s the case, the human race is already extinct, because there’s no one worth saving!
So, getting back to Razor. The movie is meant to tide fans over during the long wait between seasons three and four. I hear season four is the last one, where presumably the fleet will reach earth and we the audience will find out what fate awaits the two sides. Unfortunately, Razor is mostly a filler installment, where the writers go back to explore some of the gaps in time from previous seasons, and is less a story than an infodump for people curious about previous events.
I’m not a huge fan of flashbacks or “back then” episodes. A story must always move forward, and keep in the present, or else the audience’s participation becomes passive. Razor takes place in the past, focusing on the perspective of a character named Kendra that’s already dead, and whom we’ve never met until now. She gives us an outside perspective on the main characters of the show (and boy does their ugly dark side look nasty from a detached viewpoint). In between, Kendra flashbacks to the moments that made her what she is – a person who has lost all feeling and surrendered herself to the moral outlook of a superior officer she once served. A superior officer who was a moral monster that ended up dead. So you can guess poor Kendra is going to end up in the grave, even if you don’t catch the fact that she never appeared in the mainline series at any time.
If that isn’t enough, we get some further flashbacks from one of the main characters to explain via exposition the current mission situation the characters are all faced with. That means you have multiple points of view, from multiple points in time, in a movie that’s already an exploration of the past. I was able to keep up, but I found the narrative switches jarring and poorly handled. Some of my friends said they had trouble figuring out what was happening a lot of the time. I can sympathize.
To summarize, Razor takes place at a time period when Commander Apollo (a main character) takes command of the Battlestar Pegasus after the previous commander died saving the ship from a trap he put the ship in. In the second season, the fleet met up with another battlestar that had survived the cylon attack. The original commander of the Pegasus (Cain) and her crew were all psychopaths who started trying to take over the fleet and scrap it for spare parts, until Cain was murdered by a cylon agent who escaped prison. Her second in command took over, until he was murdered by black marketers for wanting too big a cut of the action. You with me still?
The only officer left from the original Cain cabal is Kendra. Apollo wants her to be his second in command, mainly to show the remaining Pegasus crew that their new rulers honor Cain’s legacy of murder and torture. She accepts because, what else has she got to do? The story then gets rolling. The fleet comes across an old cylon ship from the first cylon war that is still fighting and resisting the cylon call to return home. Kind of like those old World War II pockets of resistance you come across in old movies. The outdated cylons capture some prisoners, and the humans decide to attempt a rescue mission and plant a nuclear device to destroy the ship. The humans succeed in rescuing some of the prisoners, but Kendra has to stay behind to manually detonate the bomb.
While this plays out, Kendra goes back to when she first came aboard the Pegasus. She relives the cylon sneak attack on the colonies and how the Pegasus escaped (by doing a blind hyperspace jump). We also get to see her during key moments of when Commander Cain utterly loses her marbles, and the crew joins in with her. At one point, we get the flashback from the other character, Admiral Adama of the Battlestar Galactica. He remembers the first cylon war and his initial encounter with the old cylon ship the humans now face.
While the space battles in BSG are always amazing to watch, the character interaction nearly always baffles me. Never mind the overt problems I mentioned above, I just have a hard time connecting with what’s going on in the story. Kendra has descended into drug abuse and non-connectivity with her fellow human beings, and believes herself damaged beyond repair. She ends up acting out the same unconscious death-wish Cain had. Her effect on the story ends up being zero. Meanwhile, the portrayal of Cain, which I suspect most fans were tuning in for, has no nuance. She’s an obvious loony from the start, and she cracks up immediately after her ship escapes. Her snap decisions come off as capricious and random, the result of a complete psychological collapse. How are we supposed to follow her story if it’s set in stone?
The old cylon ship story is pretty cool. I loved seeing the old cylons from the original series make an appearance. I kept thinking, where were story ideas like this during the second season? Unfortunately, it’s the same old zero character effect on events we started getting in the second season. Since the only casualty is Kendra, who doesn’t matter anyway, the destruction of the cylon ship has no resonance. The surprise revelation of the cylon hybrid is a waste, since it has no effect on the characters. It’s only there to tell us the audience information on what we should be interested in (Starbuck’s destiny). Yawn.
That’s pretty much BSG in a nutshell these days. Characters you don’t care about, who have no effect on the story (such as it is), in pretend-dark edgy situations of anvil-style moral messages, with lots of space battles that look cool. I give Razor the double thumbs down!