20
Jan
09

Battlestar Galactica and the Gilded Age of American Television

Tonight Sky One begins broadcasting the second half of the final season of Battlestar Galactica. I’m a huge fan of this programme and I’ve been looking forward to this for months. There are many reasons why I love it, but chief among them I think is that it’s the one sci-fi show that stands up with the so called Gilded Age of American Television.

Television – particularly American television – was at one time considered the lowliest entertainment medium. Critics like Mark Kermode could freely admit they ignored the medium altogether. Then The Sopranos came along and suddenly TV realised it was allowed to be brilliant. It was followed by such sublime wonders as The West Wing, The Wire and Six Feet Under, the latter being a show I truly loved despite my desire to hate anything Alan Ball is involved with (American Beauty was unwatchable to me). These shows easily matched and in some instances surpassed the flair and style of their counterparts in film, while their serial nature allowed a level of characterisation previously reserved for literature. This was the culture to which Battlestar Galactica attached itself, and unfortunately no other sci-fi programme has seen fit to follow suit.

Instead sci-fi television has become preoccupied with hi-concept nonsense involving one central plot arc that envelope the entire series. This format was pioneered by 24, becoming standard with the success of the unnecessarily perplexing Lost and the downright awful Heroes (sorry, Heroes fans, but the whole things is basically a Marvel comic without costumes). The attraction of these shows is that they generate a lot of water-cooler/internet-forum chatter, making them much easier to market. Of course BSG too has all these elements, what with its “who’s human and who’s Cylon” baitings and the almost eternal mystery of what condition will Earth be in when and if it’s found (as it turns out, bloody awful). The difference is that BGS didn’t do this at the expense of real, self-contained drama. Each episode is fully fleshed out and stands up on it own (except for one or two duds), rarely feeling like it’s going through the motions.

Of course when discussing BGS one must look at its frolicking with allegory. With the military-industrial humans and the evil religion-bent cylons, the show is obviously trying to say something about the war on terror. However, much like The West Wing, Battlestar Galactica is fully committed to avoiding easy solutions. These allagorical roles are often muddied and occasionally even completely reversed. For instance, when Admiral Cain turn up she served to highlight the worst excesses of Neocon dogma. And the episodes set on New Caprica, where the put-upon humans resorted to using suicide bombers against their occupying cylon forces, were such a naked critique of the Iraq war that they might as well have called it New Fallujah

The visual effects also deserve a mention. The centurion cylons may look a little plastic, but the battle scenes are simply gorgeous and are equal to the best that Hollywood can deliver. For example, this (ok, the shitty Youtube video doesn’t do it justice, but you get the idea). What I love most about this particular episode is the almost incidental way the battle takes place. Despite the beauty of the visuals, it’s merely a side-story. The real tension of this episode is the deathly battle of wits between the two captains. It sums up why I love Battlestar Galactica.

So that’s it. If you’ve nothing else to do I suggest you watch this tonight. You could do a lot worse (like Heroes).

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