January 30, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: "The Oath"

"Madame President, we are in danger of losing this ship."

As expected, "The Oath" picks up almost exactly where last week's episode left off, with the fleet on the brink of civil war. As Adama, Tigh, and Roslin struggle to stave off the growing civilian unrest spurred by the Quorum's anti-Cylon resolution, Gaeta and his growing military insurrection move to take over the Galactica, first by freeing Zarek from the brig, then by taking Adama and Tigh prisoner. There's shooting, there's danger, there's intrigue. And at the end of it all there's the apparent death of Adama and Tigh. What more could you ask?

Not a lot really. The episode definitively returns Galactica to its more action oriented roots, foregoing the big questions just as last week's did. Unlike last week's anti-climax, however, this episode has the benefit of being nothing but climax, a rousing action adventure featuring the return of the potent Lee/Starbuck and Adama/Tigh combinations that had been so energizing in the past. Even Roslin steps up in this one (albeit only after being spurned into action at the thought of losing her new boyfriend to an onslaught of mutineers), commandeering Baltar's pirate signal to deliver her message of Cylon hope and change to the whole of the fleet.

While neither this episode nor the last actually bothers to conclude a given storyline, at least in this one the producers of the show were kind enough to realize that fact, gracing us with the old "To be continued..." in the process. As I mentioned last week, I think that the producers of Galactica, now untethered to a need for ratings or easy marketing ploys, likely crafted the final ten episodes of the show as one big collective. As such, I strongly suspect that most if not all of the remaining episodes will either have an explicit or an implied "To be Continued" aspect to them. While this is to be expected in a serialized show of this type (just look at Lost or 24), it does make it difficult to watch outside the framework of DVD.

All that being said, "The Oath" is an excellent action piece that delivers on many of the things that have made Galactica great over the years. If the show can't give me the answers that I want, than this will definitely do.

Other things to think about:

Time Keeps on Tickin' - I don't want to harp on this every week, but the plain fact of the matter is that we are now down to seven episodes left in Galactica's run. The question remains: When do we start moving towards a finale? The producers of the show made an interesting call in having the fleet discover Earth so early in the season, but the result of that call is that these post-Earth episodes lack focus, a reason for being. What I like about that is that it makes us, as the audience, feel a bit more like the crew of the Galactica themselves. They, after all, are also wandering in the desert, if you will. The difference, however, is that we know exactly how long their wandering will last (or at least how long we get to witness it). This makes it much more difficult to sit idly by while plot lines torn from the first season of the show take center stage.

Oaths - The word "oath" is used in this episode at least twice and both in the service of the mutineers. First, when Zarek baits Lee by playing up the conflict between his father and the oath he swore to be the representative of Caprica. Second, during the opening minutes of Gaeta's mutiny, as he and Adama argue about which is truly upholding their oath to protect the people of the fleet. One of the best things about Galactica throughout its run has been it's ability to craft difficult situations and place it's characters into moral quandaries. While definitely not as potent as earlier season scenarios regarding abortion or suicide bombings, this episode does create an interesting dilemma by allowing Zarek and Gaeta to put forth such strong arguments. Despite our unique perspective on events (knowing what we do about the Final Four/Five), to the members of the fleet these "people" killed billions of humans, and it is only because of them that humanity was relegated to fleeing across the stars. There is very good reason to follow Zarek and Gaeta in this episode, and it is not at all surprising that they are able to recruit so many to their cause. Given the same facts, I can't honestly say that I wouldn't have been a part of Gaeta's revolution, and that's one of the things that makes Galactica so great.

Making Sense out of Mutiny - Last week I complained that the insurrection plot line felt too much like the show was simply stalling for time before tackling the big questions. Since then, I've been trying to figure out just how Galactica's producers could tie this revolution into the greater themes of the show. My best guess goes back to something I said when I wrote about "Sometimes a Great Notion", that the series endgame must be based around the unification of the human and Cylon nations. If that guess is correct, then this little rebellion could determine the fate of two civilizations, a fact that will only become more apparent in hindsight. Look at it from an outside perspective. If there really has been a third party bringing the two sides together (as I think is likely given the events of "Maelstrom", and the presence of the in-head people), then this plotline is where all those efforts are most at risk of falling apart. In other words, it's possible that the importance of this plot line
(which, incidentally, will take up at least three episodes of the show's final ten) and the danger it presents to the show's endgame may wind up being properly felt only once we have a better understanding of what that endgame actually is.

Death Wish - It's fun to see the transition both the writers and Katie Sackhoff are making with the character of Starbuck. Seeing Starbuck save Lee simply by indescriminately shooting at the mutineers reminded me of just how bad ass and uncomprimising Starbuck used to be, before the great softening of the Lee/Anders era. Now that she thinks that she is essentially playing with house money (seeing yourself dead in a field will do that to you), she is reckless and bold and more than a little agressive. It's like seeing the old Starbuck again. While I think her "death" has forced her to teeter on the edge of sanity, it is nice to revist an old friend.

Seriously, What's the Plan with Baltar? - After this week's episode and last's I'm beginning to rethink my feelings on the importance of Baltar within the framework of the show. This week, once again, Baltar is essentially relegated to one or two scenes mostly related to the fact that he has apparently all but given up his religious crusade. Throw in a pirate wireless signal, and "bam" you've got the entirety of the Baltar storyline. I can't honestly say that I have any idea what the creators of the show have in mind for our favorite destroyer of worlds at this point, of whether they have anything in mind at all.

Unspeakable Losses? -During Roslin's speech to the fleet, she implores humanity to recognize the similarities between the Cylons and the human race. One of the things she references is that both sides have "suffered unspeakable losses." Okay, one side definitely had their race just about exerminated, but what did the other side lose. The resurrection hub? Seriously, I think Roslin has some good points to make here, but equating the loss of Cylon immortality to the killing of billions of people wouldn't convince me to join the alliance if I were floating on some random ship of the fleet. The moral equivalence is disturbing.

Specialization of Labor - Just a minor point, but we see in this episode that the Galactica has the ability to cut off the pirate signal which Baltar had been using to broadcast his religious messages to the fleet. First, why was this never used before, particularly in those episodes in the first half of the season where Baltar's "cult" was seen as a real threat to the safety of those on board the Galactica. Second, if you're Gaeta, and you're really the only one who knows how to "isolate the signal" in order to turn off the pirate broadcast, why do you stand in the middle of the command center rather than manning your original post? The oversight allows Roslin to speak to her people, and it could prove a costly one for our young, legless mutineer.

Time Cards - If it seems like I've been talking about the use of time cards a lot lately (like, here and here), it's because the shows that I have watched have been using them in interesting ways. Whereas a show like Lost needed timecards in its premiere (and arguably still needs them) to give the audience any hope of keeping the timeline of events on that show straight, the producers of Galactica instead use explictly denoted
(06:20, 10:27) timecards in this episode to create an almost documentary catalog of the hours leading up to the insurrection. This serves a dual purpose, as it both allows the producers to show that the alarming chain of events portrayed in this episode is happening over the course of hours, not days, and it allows them to create a sense of tension during the proceedings (24, of course, being your go-to source for ticking clock tension). I'm trying to recall if the show has ever used this device before, but I'm not having any luck. Let me know if you can think of one.

"It's been an honor to have served with you my friend." - One of the last things Adama says in the episode, this short statement gives us just a brief insight into the emotions he still feels towards his old friend and comrade Saul Tigh. The growing acceptance of the Cylons (particularly the Final Four/Five) among the senior members of the fleet, as a matter of fact, seems to be leading the show towards the answer to one of its greatest questions. What's the difference between a Cylon and a human? It doesn't matter. As Tigh said in the Season 3 finale, he'll be the man he wants to be until the day he dies. Seems Adama has accepted that, and that in short course we will be asked to do the same...
More after the jump...

January 28, 2009

Lost: "Jughead"

Back in the middle of Season 3, there was talk on the Internet that the producers of Lost were considering a flashback (remember that's all there were back then) centered around the island itself rather than on any of the individual castaways. This flashback would show things like the arrival of the Dharma Initiative and maybe the landing of the Black Rock. While the producers of the show never got around to doing this island-centric episode (preferring instead to tease us with tantalizing hints of island history), it is clear in "Jughead" that Season 5's wildly warping time travel adventures have finally given the producers the mechanism they need to play with this history while still telling stories that explicitly matter to the current narrative. The combination of revealing background and forward-moving narrative present in "Jughead" is a potent one, essentially taking the best aspects of Lost and combining them into one action/adventure juggernaut. Suffice it to say, I quite enjoyed the episode.

"Jughead" revolves predominantly on three plot lines which ultimately become two by episode's end. The first, that of Desmond tracking down Faraday's mother in England, takes place in 2007-2008, contemporaneous with the current adventures of the Oceanic Six (this is pretty definitively established through the introduction of a roughly two-year old Desmond/Penny love child named Charlie) . The other two take place in 1954 (exactly 50 years before the crash of Flight 815) and revolve around the various hostage situations the island-based survivors found themselves in at the end of the "The Lie."

At the end of last week's episode the island survivors were taken hostage by (in the case of Faraday, Miles, and Charlotte) or took as hostages (in the case of Locke, Sawyer, and Juliet) flaming arrow wielding warriors in American-looking garb. In this episode, we find out that the warriors in question are actually "Others" who have attacked our time traveling main characters because they believe them to be American army personnel responsible for the addition of a significant new island resident: an atomic bomb.

Though the fact that the island has an atomic inhabitant is certainly a revelation (and the one most explicitly referred to in the episode's title), the main through line between the Desmond plot line and that of the island's inhabitants can best be summed up as "The Life and Times of Charles Widmore." Desmond is the first in the episode to discover significant information about the secretive British magnate when he finds out that he had been funding Faraday's time travel research (the same research seen in "The Constant") throughout the 90's. When Faraday's experiments put a woman named Teresa Spencer into a coma, Widmore covered it up and paid damages to the family. Why did Widmore do this? Though the answer is not given to us in this episode, you can bet that it has something to do with taking back "his" island (as he proclaimed in last Season's "The Shape of Things to Come"). Of course it's never been entirely clear why Widmore considers the island to be his...until now.

The second (and more important) major revelation is made by the island-based survivors back in 1954. Towards the end of the episode, as almost all parties congregate at an American base camp taken over by the Others, one Richard Alpert (looking immortal as ever) chides one of his charges for leading the survivors back to their base. His name: Charles Widmore.
So many questions...

Did Widmore eventually become leader of the others? Was he asked by Jacob to protect the island as Ben was? Ben said in the Season 4 finale that after he had turned the frozen donkey wheel of fate, he would never be permitted to return to the island. Did Widmore get exiled in the same way? Is Widmore funding Faraday's research in an effort to return? Widmore was on the island in the 50s and suddenly not on the island in the 70s. Did he fund the Dharma Initative? Was Ben and Richard's rebellion against Dharma really a rebellion against Widmore?

With this episode, Lost really began filling in the gaps of the history it has been laying out for years, while still leaving open tantalizing questions. It confirmed Widmore's connection to the Island, while still leaving open the question of his origin as an Other. It explained at least one connection Faraday has to the Island, and implied the reasoning behind scenes last year in which Abaddon explained to Naomi that the science team on Widmore's freighter (including Faraday, Charlotte, and Miles) was essential to his employer's plans. It even "closed the loop" (quite literally, more on that below) on understanding the meaning of Richard Alpert's previously cryptic visits to John Locke in the 1960's (as seen in "Cabin Fever").

Background and plot development, two great tastes that have always tasted great together. Lost in its finest form.

Other Things to Think About:

H-Bomb-Hmmmmm, I wonder if the fact that a massive nuclear weapon is present on the island will ever come up again. While the episode never gets around to explicitly stating what the Others will do (did? Time Travel makes tenses hard) with the bomb, it seems highly likely that the bomb is still on the island, and was probably buried as Faraday suggested. Introduce a gun in the first act, and all that...

Who is that girl I see?-While I didn't discuss it much above, its clear that Teresa Spencer and her relationship with Daniel Faraday will be a plot point revisited later in the series. At a bare minimum, Teresa's coma is clearly meant to remind us of "The Constant" and the time-sickness which was at the heart of that episode. Did Faraday start practicing on humans, with Teresa's coma as the result? It certainly seems likely. Adding to this mystery are Faraday's comments to the female Other who escorts him to the "Jughead" bomb in 1954. When he comments that she seems so familiar to him, it's unclear whether we the audience are simply meant to assume that he is thinking about Teresa (thus connecting the two narratives of the episode), or whether there is something more. Knowing Lost, my bet is the latter, but it's not at all clear from the context of the episode what that might "something more" might mean.

On a side note, while it seems likely that Faraday practiced his time travel technique on himself in addition to Teresa, note that time sickness alone does not explain Faraday's presence in the Dharma cave at the start of the season. Time-sickness, remember, just involves the traveling of one's consciousness into a past version of themselves (allowing a Quantum Leap, if you will). Faraday was physically present in the Dharma Initiative 70s in a way that he shouldn't have been. Faraday was time-travelling (or is a distant relative of Richard Alpert).

No Oceanic Six-No big revelation here, it's just interesting that what would seem to be the most important plot line of the season did not make an appearance in this episode. While you could argue that Desmond is also a member of the Six (at least for purposes of Ben's "bring everyone back" mission) he's separate enough from the rest of the crew that their absence in this episode was felt.

No Time Like the Present-I love Lost there's no question about it, but the producers are really taking a big leap in the way they are presenting this season. Let's summarize (focusing on this episode). Desmond escaped from the Island in early 2005. His baby was born in (probably) late 2005 (What? He missed Penny...), and his adventures in this episode take place in late 2007/early 2008. On the island, the action takes place immediately after Desmond's rescue. To the version of Locke, Sawyer, Juliet, etc. that we are watching, the year is early 2005. Remember that: when cutting between Desmond and Locke, for instance, Locke has physically lived three years less than Desmond. In addition to this, the island action in this episode takes place in 1954. So, in this episode alone we have intercuts between 2008 and 1954, except that a number of characters in the 1954 scene are from 2005 (not 2008). And the show is now eschewing time cards. Look at that description of events! I think as we move along, this great show is unfortunately going to get even more unapproachable for people. If there's anyone you want to bring aboard, now is the time.

Flaming Arrows are Fun-There was some speculation last week that there were in fact two groups of people who attacked the island survivors during the midnight flaming arrow fun-run. This was dispelled in this episode by two factors. First, the episode took explicit steps to show us a uniformed Other holding a long-bow. Second, from a narrative perspective, once we as the audience know that the uniformed attackers are not some regular army, but are instead Others, the notion that they could be in uniform, have (some) British accents, and fire flaming arrows (as well as rifles), doesn't seem so far-fetched. The survivors were attacked by just one group-The Others, 1950s edition.

"My People" -At the time, Locke's reluctance to shoot at an escaping Other was odd, but easy to chalk up to Locke's strange affinity for the island and the Others. Looking back on it after the Widmore reveal, however, it's clear that Locke couldn't have shot Widmore even if he wanted to (at least not to death). Whatever happened, happened, right? And Charles Widmore did not die on the island in 1954. At least I don't think he did...

Widmore Delenda Est? - Latin's a funny language. All at once it is both a language of high culture as well as a language of ancient history. It is a so-called "dead language" but it's words appear everywhere from diplomas ("Summa Cum Laude") to legal contracts ("pari passu") and form the foundation of many of our own as well. Why then do the Others speak Latin? The simplest answer is that they needed a code language and Latin was still in vogue in the 50s. The harder answer, and certainly the one with more possibility, is that the Others as a group are far more ancient than we have heretofore seen. The age of culture on the Island has been hinted at by things like the Island's four-toed statute, but here we have our first connection between the Others and the Island's apparently ancient origin. What if the Others speak Latin as a vestige of the group's roots in the actual Roman Empire? What if Lost becomes a period piece in its sixth season? I'm sure that could never happen...right?

Is Faraday Bad?-While I personally think that Daniel Faraday was only a victim of his own scientific curiosity when it comes to the small matter of Teresa Spenser, the fact that he was working for Charles Widmore when it happened essentially forces the audience to question Faraday's loyalty. Is he a spy for Widmore? At the end of the day will he turn on his "friends"? Stay tuned, as they say. There are no doubt many more revelations to come.

Baby "Charlie"-The makers of Lost sure know how to play with our emotions. Since the very first scene of this episode established the existence of Desmond and Penny's offspring, what longtime Lost viewer could stop themselves from guessing as to the name of the adorable baby Hume. Since I figured "Telemachus" was a bit too on point (see Odyssey, The), my next guess was someone related to the Island. But who? Charlie, of course. A namesake for the man Desmond lost half a season (and seemingly more than half his mind)to trying to save from death. Between the touching score and the reveal of the baby's name, even I was touched. Of course we should not forget that Mr. Pace was not the only Charlie on the show. How could Penny and Desmond name their child after the man that tried to kill Desmond on at least two separate occasions (yacht and freighter)? Charlie, indeed. You mean "Charles" perhaps. I am not fooled Lost...

City of Angels-When towards the end of this episode Desmond discovers that Faraday's mother is in Los Angeles, all the pieces begin to fall into place. First of all, judging from the speed in which Ben appeared at Oracle Lady's (formally Mrs. Hawking, though I'm sticking with Oracle Lady) place of business in the previous episode, she is most definitely in Los Angeles. Don't anyone be surprised when she is revealed to be the elder Faraday. Perhaps a greater question, however, is whether or not there is any significance to the city of Los Angeles in general. It was the destination city of Flight 815 after all. And now all of the Oceanic Six find themselves in or heading to the City of Angels. Is this simply a convenient plot device (Sun's presence in LA, in particular, has yet to be adequately explained)? Lost doesn't usually dabble in conveniences, though I'm willing to grant them one given the strength of these opening three episodes.

Importance of Name Recognition-Just a little follow-up to the point I made last week about time-travel looking a bit like omniscience. It's a fairly common scene to see in movies or TV: the protagonist, blocked from entry or some important piece of information, suddenly gains the needed access through the fortuitous mention of a simple name. Did you notice, however, that this device was used not once, not twice, but three times in this episode? Juliet uses Alpert's name to gain the trust of the Others, Desmond uses Faraday's name to gain the trust (so to speak) of the Spencer family, and Locke uses Jacob's name to explain himself to Richard Alpert. It just goes to show you how important information is in the grand scheme of things. Even if these people weren't time-traveling, simply having information could have a profound effect on future events. I mean just look at Richard Alpert...

Who is Richard Alpert?-Though this episode leaves open the possibility that Richard Alpert is a traveler like the rest of the island time-jumpers, it's becoming increasingly unlikely. Simply put, because Richard is absolutely everywhere (or should I say everywhen)-1954, 1956 (Locke's birth), early 1960s, 1970s (end of the Dharma Initiative), 2000s, etc.-it seems far more likely that he is immortal, or very old, or something beside a "simple" time-traveler. Just what he is and what he represents is an open question, but one I feel will have profound implications on the rest of the story.

Cabin Fever-One of my favorite revelations over these first three episodes has been the slow explanation of Richard Alpert's mysterious test of John Locke in last year's "Cabin Fever". As I mentioned in last week's post, Alpert's giving John the compass in the Season 5 premiere hinted that the compass was the correct answer to the question of "Which is yours?" Alpert posed to the young Locke. Here we see the loop closed, as John gives the compass back to a bewildered Richard Alpert, telling him to find him when he is born on May 30, 1956 (anyone know anything significant about that date?). We know that after this sequence (to Alpert) Alpert attends Locke's birth, and tests young Locke about the compass. Seeing things from Alpert's perspective, things finally make sense. This sequence gives me great hope that even the most inexplicable elements of Lost will ultimately be explained. One question, though, if Alpert understands that only Locke from the future has the compass (and that Alpert himself gave it to him), why does he expect young Locke to recognize it at all? Maybe something more is going on here...

More after the jump...

January 23, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: "A Disquiet Follows My Soul"

Well, they can't all be winners right? Truth be told, the second episode of Galactica's final ten had the near impossible task of moving the plot of the show towards its multi-episode endgame while simultaneously servicing the deep emotion of its characters. The resulting "A Disquiet that Follows My Soul", unfortunately, winds up being the worst of both worlds. A show with very little characterization dedicated to the service of very little plot.

There are really only three things at issue in "Disquiet": The rising power of Tom Zarek in the face of a Roslin/Adama administration that has all but completely lost the will to fight; The growing antipathy of Felix Gaeta given the crew of Galactica's willingness to join forces with the Cylon race; and the surprising paternity of ex-Deck Chief Tyrol little baby Nicky. While this last bit of plot is an interesting curiosity, particularly with respect to the Hera question (more on that below), the bulk of the show is really focused on establishing Zarek's rise, Roslin's fall, and Gaeta's state of mind (i.e. the opposite of pro-toaster).

The set up for this likely civil war is the proposal by the rebel Cylons (Six's, Leoben's, and Eights) to give superior FTL technology to the fleet in exchange for a seat on the Quorum (a 13th seat...fitting I would say). While Adama and Roslin are inclined to agree to the offer, Zarek uses his position as de-facto head of the Quorum to characterize Adama/Roslin's endorsement as a desperate attempt to hold on to power after the failure that was the journey to Earth. In so doing, he foments the passage of a Quorum Resolution limiting the ability of Cylons to board the ships of the fleet unless the captain and crew of the ships in question agree to the boarding.

Roslin, now off her chemo-equivalent and basically unwilling to lead, chooses not to deal with the rising tension. Adama, on the other hand, chooses the military approach, ordering his marines to escort the Cylons to the ships of the fleet regardless of any lack of permission. When the fleet's only (?) remaining fuel ship mutinies, Adama sends Athena and some Vipers to establish Galactica's authority over the matter. Galactica then picks up a message from one Tom Zarek authorizing the fuel ship to resist Galactica's advances, and the fuel ship jumps to parts unknown. Adama, now without a target, orders Athena and her troops to arrest Zarek.

As a brief aside, though Adama authorizes deadly force in the arrest, we never get to see this confrontational scene. Instead, we cut to seeing Zarek already in Galactica's brig. Why a dramatic arrest scene didn't make the script or the cut is beyond me, but perhaps budgetary concerns played a role.

Now under his control, Adama "convinces" Zarek to part with the coordinates of the fuel ship, and Athena and her troop bring the wayward ship home. Though it is later revealed that Adama was bluffing the existence of a file on Zarek's dirty politics in order to induce Zarek's confession, the scene plays out strangely even without the reveal of the bluff. The plain fact of the matter is that Zarek gives up the fuel ship's location without too much of a fight at all.

Now its possible that time constraints prevented the Galactica writers from writing anything that was too drawn out on this score. In my view, though, it's far more likely that being put in the brig and forced to disclose the location of the fuel ship was Zarek's plan all along. I mean, how does this look to the rest of the fleet? The Quorum resolution on its face seems pretty reasonable. If Cylons are going to be allowed on your ship then you have to agree to their presence. Pretty democratic. By forcing Adama to violate the resolution, Zarek has positioned himself to make Adama's moves look like those of a military dictator (this has always, quite frankly, been Zarek's opinion of the Adama's since all the way back in Season 1). I think we are going to see some real fireworks next week as the fleet responds to Adama's actions.

Unfortunately, while the episode features all of this excellent build-up and rising tension, it doesn't have a true climax. The episode ends roughly where my summary above does, with the sole exception that we get to see Zarek talking "revolution" with an increasingly irritated Felix Gaeta, and Adama and a very bald Roslin taking their place in the newly appointed Admiral's love lounge. While the acting, as always, is excellent (particularly Mary McDonnell's continued portrayal of a broken Laura Roslin), the whole thing feels like a middle of the day episode from 24: no real beginning (handled by the far superior "Sometimes a Great Notion" last week), and no real end (presumably to be handled next week).

My guess is that "Disquiet", like an episode of 24, will play quite a bit better when it is put in context with the rest of the final ten episodes. Either way, I think it's clear that the producers of Galactica
no longer feel constrained by the usual strictures of episodic television making. As a result, we may be getting one long eight-hour movie over the next two months. While this is likely a good thing in the long run (read: on DVD), on a week to week basis this means that we could very often wind up as we did this week-watching half a movie with no climax and no discernable independent reason for being.

Other Interesting Things:

Echoes of the Stand-Early in the episode we see Tigh and the captured Six enjoy the wonders of ultrasound with personal favorite Dr. Cottle. In looking at their Cylon love child, Six explains to the more human among us that the mere birth of this child will herald the saving of the Cylon race. This, she further explians, is because no cylon/cylon pairing has ever produced any offspring. While a bit of a stretch, when watching this scene I couldn't help but be reminded of the plight of Frannie and Stu's baby in Steven King's materwork The Stand. In that book, the population of the Earth has been wiped out by a super virus with only a small portion of the human race having immunity. One of the major beats of the story's climax relates to whether or not the baby of two such immune people (Frannie and Stu) will be likewise immune once born. If the baby is not immune, then the survivors of the virus will be the last humans to walk the Earth. If the baby is immune then it will survive and the race will live on. The very act of being born and surviving is the miracle. Much like little baby Tigh.

Tigh's Honesty- Since "Sometimes A Great Notion" ended with Tigh's realization that Ellen was the final Cylon, we didn't know until Lee's slip-up whether or not Tigh would reveal that fact to his "friends" in the fleet. With Lee's press conference blunder (telling the press that the fleet brass believed that "she" died some time ago), we now know that Tigh told at least Adama about Ellen. That says something interesting about the relationship Tigh and Adama still share. It also explains at least some of Adama's apparently growing ease with working with his Cylon XO. Finally, it raises the question of whether Starbuck knows that all 12 Cylon models have now been identified. To be sure, the presence of a whole planet of different models opens the door for Starbuck (or anyone else in the fleet) to still be a Cylon, but has no reason to know that. If she knows about Ellen, then her sense of self must be even more off-kilter than it was before. That could be something interesting to explore in the coming episodes.

What's the buzz, Baltar?- Now, I have thought from the introduction of the "dying leader" prophecy that Roslin was not its subject (more on that below). My nominee for this position was always Baltar, and his rise as the almost Christ-like figure of the first half of Season 4 buoyed my beliefs on this front. In this epsiode, however, Baltar gets only one scene, and in that scene, while he is certainly still the leader of his "cult", it is a very different kind of leadership than it was before the discovery of Earth. Baltar, you see, has turned against even the "One True God" espoused by his in-head friends, and is fomenting rebellion against such god in his sermons. I am more than willing to admit at this point that I have no idea what the writers intend to do with this character. As a religious leader, I still think there is a strong chance that he is the dying leader prophesized in Pithia, but I simply don't know what this rebellion against god is intended to portray. And where were his ultra-religious in-head friends for this little rebellion? I hope the writers know what they're doing here.

The Hera Question-One of the problems that people had with the reveal of Cylon Tyrol at the end of Season 3 was that his baby with wife Callie was necessarily half-Cylon. While this isn't a problem in and of itself, the show had made quite a big deal of the first half-Cylon child, Helo and Athena's baby Hera, during the show's first few seasons. By backdooring the introduction of another half-Cylon baby, many fans thought that entire swaths of the action in Seasons 1 and 2 had been completely devalued. Adding to complaints, much of the action in the first half of Season 4 revolved around Tyrol's lack of love for his "shrew" wife. Since the earlier seasons had established that "love" was a necessary ingredient for human/Cylon procreation, Tyrol's apparent lack of love for Callie was all the more distressing. So the producers of the show did a bit of a retcon (retroactive continuity change) here, and established that Tyrol was not, in fact, the father of baby Nicky. This gave Tyrol some wonderful scenes to play and nicely answered the Hera Question to the benefit of all. I approve.

A Dying Leader-As I mentioned in my thoughts on Baltar above, it has always seemed too easy for me that the creators of Galactica introduced a prophecy plotline regarding a dying leader into a show with a president we knew to be dying of cancer at the time. Narratively speaking, it's far more common for a show (or movie or book or play) to introduce a prophecy angle expressly for the purpose of having that prophecy be misinterpreted by the main characters. When it is later revealed that the prophecy actually applies in a different way then originally assumed, both the characters and the audience can be surprised. To me, Roslin has always fit too perfectly and exactly into the role of the "dying leader". As such, I have often looked to other characters to see who could fulfill this role "unexpectedly" at the end of the series. In this episode, we are treated to a throw-away line made by Colonel Tigh to Adama about just how bad Adama looks. Now Adama has been through a lot at this point, but could this be a sign that he is in fact dying and will ultimately be considered to be the prophesized dying leader? My guess is still "no", but that's both because I still like Baltar for the role and because I think that through all the darkness and despair, the producers of Galactica are building up to a happy ending for Adama and Laura. Either way, we shall see soon enough.

Looking for Home-The opening titles have replaced the search for "Earth" with a search for "Home." Too true...

Spinning its Wheels-One of the things that really bugged me about this episode is just how little it did to move the plot forward; not with respect to a civil war plotline (which was nicely advanced), but rather with respect to what I view as the existential questions remaining for Galactica to answer (Who are the in-head people? What is Starbuck? Where is the 13th tribe? What is the role of the Earth Cylons? etc.) While perhaps unfair, it's worth noting that after this episode we only have eight episodes of Galactica left. If we aren't moving towards the endgame then we aren't moving at all. My fear, perhaps unwarranted, is that this whole civil war plotline is a mere distraction. That we will wind-up after episode four or so in the same place that we were at the start of this epiosde only with a mere six episode's remaining instead of nine. Adding to this fear is the fear that we have already pretty throughly explored the concept of a fleet civil war in the brilliant Pegasus arc of Season 2. If this plotline neither advances the main arc of the story nor shows us anything new, than I will be quite disappointed. Still, the writers have earned our trust to this point, and so I will put my faith in them. I just hope that the show isn't spinning its wheels instead of beginning the final push.

Well those are my thoughts, what are yours?
More after the jump...

January 21, 2009

Lost: "Because You Left" and "The Lie"

The answer is time travel.

Those of you who had squares marked "time travel" and "January 21, 2009" in your Lost ultimate answers betting pool, please come forward and claim your very own numbered bunny as a prize. Of course the rabbit in question hasn't been born yet, or maybe it's already died. Who can be sure? Either way, your bunny should be delivered to your momentarily. (Just watch out for those crazed, flaming-arrow wielding Brits while you wait.) Now, on with the show.

In the very first moments of "Because You Left", the opening hour of Wednesday's two-hour Season 5 premiere, Dr. Candle (Wickman/Haliwax) of Dharma Initiative fame (apparently definitively named here as "Dr. Chang") explains to an Initiative employee the importance of preserving the Island's "limitless energy" to allow the Dharma Initiative to "manipulate time". Bam! Revelation! If that's not enough, this whole conversation occurs while a bewildered Daniel Faraday looks on...during a scene in the 70s or 80s. How did Faraday get there, you say? I'm sorry, but it wouldn't be Lost if it didn't have some questions to go with those answers. As the premiere splits pretty evenly after this opening, I too will split up my thoughts.

Let's start with life on the island.

For the first time in a long time, the show makes regular use of a timing place card ("Three Years Earlier") to establish that the adventures of the Oceanic Six (occurring sometime in 2007/8) are taking place a significant time after the events we are witnessing on the island (probably occurring in about January 2005). Interestingly enough, because of the way the flash-forwards worked last year, this essentially means that the narrative retains the split that it bore prior to the end of Season 4, with the island content being the "present" when related to the timeline we had been watching, and the Oceanic Six content being an extended and linear "flash-forward" occurring entirely in the future. Truth be told, though, the timing place cards are soon dropped by the show, as it becomes apparent that they wouldn't mean a thing given what's begun to happen on the island.

You see, apparently Ben Linus' turning of the great frozen donkey wheel of fate in the Season 4 finale caused the island to, for lack of a better phrase, "become unstuck in time". At random intervals, those survivors still on the island experience a white flash and the whole of their reality changes. The camp they had built at the beach? Gone. The Swan station? Blown-up, then rebuilt, then blown-up again. The infamous Boone-killing drug smuggler plane? Bet you didn't know Locke was around to witness it crash did you?

Of course, the rules of this time travel are never very clear. Items the survivors had direct possession of (like their clothes and boat) appear to bounce through time with them, but things like the camp and their supplies do not. One thing that is clear, however (as hinted at in the opening sequence), Daniel Faraday knows a lot more than he is letting on. It is Faraday that explains to an incredulous Sawyer that the Island is skipping backwards and forwards in time (Sawyer does not seem pleased), and also that time is immutable ("Whatever happened, happened.") This dovetails nicely with what little we know about Daniel's background as a physicist and his consistent experimentation regarding time on the island. The fact that last season's "The Constant" ended with the cryptic notion that Desmond was to be Faraday's anchor for time travel (his "constant") also appears to pay off here in what may turn out to be one of the most significant sequences in the run of the show.

Despite warning Sawyer that Sawyer won't be able to meet Desmond in the past because Desmond didn't remember him when they met in Season 2 (stay with me), Faraday pounds on the door to the rebuilt Swan station to discuss the issue with the man himself. In that discussion, he exhorts the younger Desmond to remember those left behind once he's off the island, and to find Faraday's mother at Oxford. Faraday does this, all the while explaining to Desmond that he is somehow incredibly special. In the future, Desmond remembers this conversation in a dream and begins the long trip to Oxford. Just a guess, but maybe the laws of space/time aren't so immutable after all, at least not to one Desmond David Hume (See Pace, Charles). We'll see, but if Desmond can change the past, we may be in for some real twists in the very near future.

While all this is happening, Locke, the island's newly appointed protector, is being bounced around through time like all the rest. Unfortunately for him, he doesn't have the comfort of other travelers alongside him (the "others" to which he was geographically proximate at the time of the first flash do not travel with him, interestingly enough...). In cryptic meetings with a long dead Ethan Rom and an unaged (as always) Richard Alpert, however, we do get to see just how this whole time travel thing can make one look, well, omniscient. Richard, after all, has always looked like he knows exactly what is going on, so when we see Locke say things he simply could not know to a bewildered Ethan, we begin to get a different perspective on just what time travel can do for one's stature. When Richard then gives Locke a compass eerily similar to the one he presented to a young Locke during his boyhood days ("Which one belongs to you?") the pieces begin to fall into place. No doubt this time travel stuff is going to be tricky both for the audience and for the writers, but we sure are going to have fun while it lasts aren't we?

(By the way, if Ethan meets Locke here, well before the crash of Flight 815, why does he not remember him when he joins the castaways in Season 1. I would have to go back and check, but it can't be the case that they were simply never in the same place, can it? And certainly Ethan would remember a person that simply vanished while he held them up at gunpoint, wouldn't he? Unless, of course, something else happened to Locke's body when he "traveled"...)

But island life is only half the story.

Picking up immediately after the Season 4 Finale, the bulk of the action off-island revolves around just three of the Oceanic Six: Kate, Jack, and Hurley. Aaron is, of course, too young to play a major role, and Sayid spends much of the premiere unconscious. Sun has some significant scenes regarding her alliance with "apparent" (big quotes here) series bad Charles Widmore, but overall, the action involves just the big three.

Jack, as we learned last season, has decided to team up with Ben Linus to gather his friends and return to the island, but that goal isn't really moved forward much in the premiere. At episode's end, we still don't know the parameters of his mission (Does he need Desmond? Ben?), nor the reason for it, but we do get a few fun hotel scenes with Jack and Ben suggesting that they could make a mean "Odd Couple" spin-off. There's something to look forward to.

Kate on the other hand, is forcibly knocked out of her idyllic suburban life by the arrival of lawyers (ugh!) working for a shadowy unknown client. When they ask to get a blood test comparing her blood to Aaron's, she does what she does best: she runs. While she eventually contemplates calling ex-fiance Jack for help, she instead jumps at the opportunity to turn to the ever trustworthy Sun, who herself is still smarting over the death of her husband. Though Sun insists that she does not blame Kate for Jin's death, her chilly delivery of the question, "So how's Jack?" let's both Kate and the audience know where Sun feels that the blame truly lies.

Comprising by far the biggest portion of the Oceanic Six's off-island adventures, Hurley's story is mostly one of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. After being "liberated" from the mental hospital by Sayid in last season's finale, Hurley and Sayid make there way to a motel where enemy agents (from Widmore? Ben? Someone else?) are waiting for them. When Sayid is knocked unconscious after killing the two attackers, Hurley is forced to bring his wounded friend to his parent's home. Unfortunately, that home is now being staked out by the cops due to the media seizing upon Hurley's story as that of a mentally imbalanced serial killer. After a series of scenes in which Hurley deals with his parents and the pressure of the Oceanic lie, he is finally approached by Ben to take the journey back to the Island. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on one's point of view), Sayid had earlier given advice to Hurley to do the opposite of whatever Ben says. Seeing no other choice, Hurley runs out of the house and confesses to Sayid's murders.

As has been the case on the series from the start, Hurley plays the role of audience proxy in the Season 5 premiere. From the start of his arc (taking place during the events of the Season 4 finale) he complains about the lie he is forced to tell at Jack's request, pointing out the obvious: that a lie isn't really necessary when the whole freaking island just disappeared. When he breaks down and tells his mother everything (including his confusion over the plot of Season 2) we are right there with him. And when he decides that absolutely anything is better than following Benjamin Linus into battle
we are again right there with him (Ben may be a relatively sympathetic figure as of late, but I don't think we ever really forget that he killed his father and exterminated an entire research team). Hurley has a tough go in this episode, but he is, as ever, the heart of the show.

In the premiere's final cryptic scene, Ben meets up with the cloaked "oracle lady" (who, herself seemingly unstuck in time, most recently informed Desmond that he wasn't allowed to buy Penny that engagement ring in the Season 3 standout episode "Flashes Before Your Eyes") whom he asks about what will happen if he can't get Hurley to join him on his return to the Island. The Oracle's "God help us all" reply is surely a sign of good things to come.

As you can likely tell from this short review, the Lost Season 5 premiere is almost the categorical opposite of the Battlestar Galactica premiere I reviewed last week. Where Battlestar was all about character, Lost was all about plot advancement. What is most interesting about this is that this "flips the script" regarding what most people consider to be the strengths of the two shows. Whereas Lost is usually known for its slow methodical character revelations, Battlestar is more prominently known for its whizz bang action and often breakneck pace. It's a testament to both shows that each is able to so successfully branch out into these other areas.

All things being equal, I would have to say that the Battlestar premiere was a bit stronger than Lost's, if only for the raw emotion of it all, but this comparison is not entirely fair. Battlestar is reaching the end of its run, while Lost is essentially setting up for its version of the same. Talk to me during Lost Season 6 and I might be better able to compare the two shows. As for now, enjoy the ride Lost is giving us. There is no question in my mind that it is one of the best on TV.

Other Interesting Notes:

Stopping the Island-Though the question is raised, we never get a good answer as to just how the island survivors are supposed to stop the random time skipping of the island. It seems likely, however, that the editing of the show gave us our answer, as when Faraday is prompted on the subject, the action immediately shifts to an injured John Locke. If Locke is the only person capable of stopping the island, the question is how? Is it possible that only he can leave the island in it's present condition, and that the sorrowful fate he tells Jack of is, in fact, that those remaining on the island simply can't stop skipping in time? My bet is "no", that the time skip will be solved during the season and that Locke will be able to harness the Island's time travel ability sometime towards some end. Non-aging Richard, after all, appears to be in some control of the time stream, without any negative side effects (that we know of).

Ben and Sayid-Though not specifically elaborated on in the episode, it is clear that Sayid and Ben had a falling out sometime after the hitman version of Sayid was employed to so effectively take out Ben's enemies. Since the last time we saw future Sayid he seemed pretty content to be extracting vengeance on Ben's behalf, it will be interesting to find out just what happens in their relationship to cause him to tell Hurley to "do the opposite" of what Ben says. My guess is that Sayid found out that Ben was responsible for Nadia's death. While we have no proof as of yet, it certainly seems within Ben's "by any means" character, and there is little doubt that Sayid would resent Ben to the utmost if he ever found out.

The Client-Kate's flight from suburban bliss is precipitated in this episode by the arrival of lawyers seeking blood samples for an undisclosed client. Who is this client? Well, the universe of people who know Aaron's truth heredity is really quite small. The universe of people with access to the non-island real world, is even smaller. Though Sun guesses that the person in question must want to seize Aaron for some nefarious end (implying Widmore, at least to the audience), I think its far more likely that Ben or Jack is responsible. After all, Kate was happily ensconced in her McMansion prior to the arrival of the lawyers. What better way to get her to come back to the Island? Since the episode seems to pick up with Jack still very close to his pill-popping days (and thus unlikely to have the capacity to hatch so nefarious a plot), my money's on Ben.

Is Sayid Invulnerable?- One of last year's more intriguing plot lines revolved around the inability of an escaped Michael to kill himself, because (as "Mr. Friendly" tells him) the Island wouldn't let him. Michael certainly seems capable of dying by the time the freighter explodes in the Season 4 finale, however, enforcing the notion that he had some task (or "destiny", if you will) to accomplish before the island would let him die. While Michael's story revolves solely around the idea of suicide, I think its fair to question whether the island can prevent others from dying if they too have a certain "destiny." If Ben is correct and the island wants the Oceanic Six to return, then can Sayid (or any of the other six) be killed prior to fulfilling that destiny? My sense is "no" and that this has something to do with the immutable characteristics of time travel expounded upon by Faraday. If, for instance, the timeline requires a certain person to do a certain action in the past that, in that person's linear existence, they haven't done yet, then the timeline, (aka the Island) can't allow them to die. If this is the case, the question then becomes whether or not Sayid realizes that he is invulnerable. Certainly in his scenes in this episode he fights like an absolute banshee. Whether or not that is because he knows that he is unkillable (or because that's just how TV fights look now a days) is open to interpretation.

Time Travel is Hard- One of the coolest concepts featured in the first season of NBC's Heroes was that show's notion of time travel. Throughout that first season, the main characters of the show would discover some horror either in comic book form or, in the case of character Hiro, by actually visiting the future. The characters would then try to prevent that horror. They would fail and paradox would be avoided. That all changed in the series finale, however, when, instead of blowing up the City of New York, the main characters banded together and changed their fate. This, of course, was silly, as the rest of the season had been predicated on the notion that a future character traveled back into the past to warn the main characters about the explosion. If the explosion never happened, then this character never had cause to travel back in time, and if this character never traveled back then the explosion was never avoided. It was a quintessential paradox, and Heroes' falling for it essentially changed that series' rules. By creating such a cataclysmic motivator for their action, the creators of that show could see no way of resolving their plot line without jettisoning all logic and reason. And it has hurt that show ever since.

Lost, by comparison, seems to have embraced (at least at this early juncture) the difficulties connected to trying to create a non-paradoxical time travel story. As Faraday explains, "Whatever happened, happened." We the audience just may not be privy to what that might have been. And the Island certainly has enough unanswered mysteries in its past to allow the producers some flexibility on this score. Whose to say, for instance, that Jack and Kate didn't end their long lives on the island in 20,000 BC? The fact that the 815 survivors found ancient embracing skeletons in their camp certainly leaves open that possibility. Whether or not the series show runners can stay true to their implicit promise to avoid paradox will be an interesting question. It's no doubt a difficult task, but if anyone can do it, Lost can.

Changing the Rules- Midway last season, Ben's "daughter" Alex was killed by armed forces sent by Charles Widmore. While that in and of itself was not unusual, Ben's response was. During the flash-forward in that same episode, Ben approached Widmore in his London apartment, incredulous that Widmore had "changed the rules." At the time, it seemed that Widmore had simply violated some kind of prearranged Geneva Convention governing the duel for the Island. With the introduction of time travel, though, it now seems more likely that "changing the rules" could have an even more profound meaning. Was Alex not "supposed" to die? Did Widmore somehow change the timeline? Was Desmond the cause? As the producers of the show promised, the pieces are beginning to fall into place, and the results are starting to look mighty special indeed.

"We're the Good Guys"-When Ben detailed Jack's mission at the end of Season 4, we the audience took that mission as our own. But in this episode, Sayid's apparent souring on Ben's leadership once again raises the question of just who the good guys are in this morality play. To be sure, Ben claimed the mantle of "good" when responding to Michael's inquiry at the end of Season 2, but since then we've seen Ben cajole, manipulate, theaten, and (in flashback) commit mass murder. Would it really be so much of a stretch to belive that the producers of Lost have one more major trick up their sleeve. After all, Hurley is generally right about these things. If he is willing to submit to life imprisonment rather than follow Ben, shouldn't we be giving greater thought to just what we know about this man? Maybe at the end of all this, Sun and Widmore will be in the right. I don't think it especially likely, but it is fun to speculate, especially with a show that seems to so revel in these layers of ambiguity.

Memory Issues-While I didn't address it above, one of the other plotlines of the premiere dealt with Charlotte experiencing both a nosebleed and memory loss. While the nosebleed is clearly a call back to the problems Desmond (and the short-lived Minkowski) experienced in "The Constant", there is little evidence here to support the notion that Charlotte's consiousness was bouncing through time like Desmond's in that episode. Instead, she is simply physically bouncing through time like the rest of the survivors (that's normal right?). When combined with the throwaway revalation that she momentarily forgot her mother's maiden name, however, her issues become much more closely tied to Faraday's, who we've seen unable to remember the order of a mere three playing cards (as well as crying inexplicably over the wreckage of a fake Flight 815). While I could only guess at this point as to what the producers have in mind with Charlotte, it seems likely to me that whatever it is, it will have to do with the time travel already introduced on the show and will be primarily for the benefit of the audience.

Think of it this way, Faraday has already explained that time is immutable. In other words, there is but one timeline. If you meet someone in the past, you should remember them when you meet them again (this is the exact explanation Faraday gives for why Desmond can't open the hatch and meet Sawyer; he didn't "remember" him in Season 2). But if a character (like Faraday, and possibly Charlotte) is known to experience significant memory loss, then the "blank spots" in their memory can be new (to the audience) and mysterious meetings which "change" the past (or at least the way we perceive it) can occur. A similar conceit was used in the movie The Butterfly Effect, though admitedly that movie didn't even attempt to maintain a non-paradoxical consistency of timelines.

Cameos of the Dead-With time travel now taking its rightful place at the center of Lost Island, I'd say it's time to prepare ourselves for cameos from many of our dead friends. First among those tonight was the return of long-dead original other Ethan Rom. This was immediately followed by an unexpected cameo from long-dead super cop Ana Lucia, though the circumstances of her appearance are in considerably more doubt. Was she just a figment of Hurley's overworked mind or was she something else?. Either way, it's nice to see familiar faces. Who knows? Maybe someday soon will see Charlie, Eko, Libby, Goodwin, Boone, Shannon, Klue, Patchy, Mr. Friendly, Christian, or anyone else that's passed on during the show's run. Assuming that the producers can keep such cameos quiet, it's going to be quite the season.

Return of the Oracle Lady-Seeing as, in my opinion,"Flashes Before Your Eyes" is one of the highpoint episodes of the entire series, it was nice to see the Oracle Lady pop up again. While many suspected she was significant (she also appeared in photo form in the Abbey in which Desmond tried on monk life for a short while), we never knew how significant until this episode. Judging from her scene and apparent expertise, I think it's highly likely that she is the mother Faraday sent Desmond to meet (and that her scene in this episode takes place at Oxford). The pendulum drawing lines on the floor and the corresponding world map look very much like bearings to me. The fact that this mirrors Faraday's self-appointed task on the island is too much coincidence for me to believe.

The Naming of Dr. Wickman- Dr. Candle/Wickman/Haliwax is Dr. Chang! Now I can finally sleep at night. Seriously though, though it's not independently significant, it's this kind of "fan" service that gives me hope that the the producers of this incredible show truly know what's going on and will answer all (or almost all) of the questions which they have spent the last five years raising.

Not as Flashy-Interestingly enough, though the premiere certainly proceeded at a breakneck pace, something did seem to be missing: the trademark Lost flashes. In a first for the show, the parallel storylines basically moved in linear fashion, without any interuptions for flashes into the past or future of specific characters. While I suspect that this is a long awaited change for some (we clearly didn't need any more episodes discussing the origin of anyone's tatoos), it does seem to change the nature of the show. Where before, Lost stood primarily as a character piece, with often more than half of an episode's running time devoted to exploring the motivations of a given character, the premiere could best be characterized as an action adventure. Admittedly, as I mentioned previously, all of the adventures of the Oceanic Six could be viewed as a kind of flash-forward, but as the characters on and off the island are completely separate, such "flashes" don't give us any kind of greater character insight into the lives of these people. Whether or not this change for the better remains to be seen, but in the meantime it certainly creates a different kind of show.

What are your thoughts? Anything really interesting that I missed? Let me know.

More after the jump...

January 17, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: "Sometimes a Great Notion"

Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in the town
Sometimes I get a great notion
To jump into the river an’ drown

"Goodnight, Irene"-American Folk Song

Despair. Anguish. Sorrow. Rage. Rarely does television attempt to tackle the full depth of human emotion. But tackled it is in the first of Battlestar Galactica's final ten episodes. Often quite difficult to watch, "Sometimes a Great Notion" is that rare hour of television focused almost solely on characterization rather than on plot. We, the audience, have journeyed with these characters for four years (longer if the mini-series is included). We've seen them grapple with impossible decisions and long odds, robot rulers and alien prophecies. But always with one goal in mind: to find Earth.

So what does one do when all of that is cruelly taken away? Do you forego your faith? Your friends? Your life? For the crew of the Galactica, the discovery of an irradiated Earth forces them to grapple with these existential questions, and seeing such strong people reach that depth of despair is an absolutely devastating experience.

From President Roslin's anguished scripture burning to Admiral Adama's long walk past a crushed crew, "Sometimes a Great Notion" is filled with moments where we see the fleet coming apart at the seams. Only one person that we are privy to, the long underused Dualla, takes the ultimate step, but many more walk right up to the edge. And it is heartbreaking. If ever there was a better "genre" performance than that delivered by Olmos's Adama here, then I haven't seen it. His performance is the lynchpin of the episode, if only because his is the strength that we (and the crew) have borne witness to for years. Even though it is Dualla that dies, it is only when we realize that the superhuman Admiral has gone to his old friend not for vengeance but for suicide by Cylon, that we truly begin to understand the toll that these events must be having on the less superhuman among the crew.

In short, this is one of the best episodes of any show I have ever seen. It is so full of real human emotion that I am loathe to delve too much further into its nuanced portrayals in this summary form. If you haven't seen the episode yet, then watch it (especially before reading below). If you haven't seen the show yet, then buy it. Ron Moore and his team have been crafting this opus for four years, and if this is the level of emotion at which it concludes, than there is no question that it will have been well worth the wait.

Other things I liked:

We are all Cylons now-By far my favorite revelation of the episode, the reveal that the 13th tribe of "humanity" was in fact a Cylon tribe explains so much for the rest of the series. All of a sudden, the use of "All Along the Watchtower" as a Cylon triggering device makes sense. The differences between the "final five" and the remainder of the Cylon race make sense. At least, in a way. As best I can guess, the Final Five were Earth Cylons who somehow worked with the Cylon race to create the "skinjobs" before programming those same "skinjobs" to forget their identities. Why the Earth Cylons then moved into the colonies remains a mystery, but one I'm confident will be answered in the remaining nine episodes (see more on that below). And of course, the reveal that the 13th tribe was a tribe of Cylons has the bonus effect of incorporating the audience in a truly interesting way. In Galactica's mythology after all, that Cylon planet is not some random piece of rock. It is Earth. We are the 13th tribe. We are Cylons.

Death and Displacement-While the Earth Cylons were busy flashing back to their lives 2,000 years ago, Starbuck was off with Leoben tracking down the source of the mysterious signal which had led the fleet to Earth. What she found there, however, was as disturbing as it was mysterious: her dead body. Now, we know that Starbuck blew up in a "maelstrom" some months ago while talking with a Leoben-shaped entity which was not Leoben. We also know that the Earth Cylons apparently died in the final attack on Earth, but were somehow reborn and displaced some thousands of light years to become members of the colonies. There is most certainly a greater force at work here. Whether its aliens, the Cylon god, the human gods, the 13th tribe, or something else remains to be seen, but the journey of discovery should be an intriguing one.

This has all happened before, and it will happen again-The destruction of Earth calls back to one of the oldest running continuing statements made by Cylons throughout the series: This has all happened before and it will happen again. Despite being Cylons, the 13th tribe apparently made the same or similar mistakes as their human counterparts in the colonies, just 2,000 years earlier. My best guess is that a later episode will reveal to us that the Earth Cylons, in an effort to create life, were working with genetics and created "humanity" which then rebelled and destroyed their race (the symmetry would be excellent). Faced with this extinction event, certain members of the Earth race of Cylons (the five) joined the colony-created Cylons and programmed an advancement, the "skinjob", which carried with it an understanding of the mistakes of the past. The unification of the species was thought by the Earth Cylons to be the only way to end the cycle, and thus they made such unification the number one priority (though a subconscious one) of the new Cylon race. "They have a plan", after all...

The Fifth of the Five-"It's okay. It's okay. Everything's in place. We'll be reborn. Again. Together." Now, I suspect that many will be disappointed with the fact that the 5th and final (?) Cylon was revealed in this episode to be a bit player and a long deceased one at that. And to the extent the producers of Galactica chose to highlight the identity of the final Cylon, I completely understand their disappointment (see more on this below). That being said, if the fifth was always going to be someone who didn't matter to the present narrative, I can't think of a better choice than Ellen Tigh. Not only does it add an air of mystery to the proceedings (what does "Everything's in place" or "We'll be reborn. Again." mean, anyway), it also nicely mirrors the displacement questions being asked by the rest of the Earth Cylons. It appears now that the five knew each other on Earth (Tory and Anders' discussion regarding love songs), but whether or not they were part of some elaborate resurrection project or something else remains to be seen.

Things I didn't:

Marketing-The opening sequence of Galactica has gone through many transformations, but the most recent highlighted the fact that the identity of but one Cylon out of the twelve promised in the earliest episodes of the series was still unknown. While I stated above that I think the reveal of Ellen Tigh as the fifth Cylon was a good one, the fact that she is dead and gone limits her importance (at least in the short term) quite substantially. Unfortunately, this limited role for the final Cylon stands in direct opposition to the apparent importance given to her in the opening. As such, while I am thankful that the producers of Galactica did not drag out the reveal past this episode, I question their original decision to make her identity seem so significant to begin with. Without the opening used last year, I don't think there would be much issue. With it, I think the producers have turned an interesting reveal into a disappointing one.

More after the jump...

January 13, 2009

Damages: "I Lied, Too"

Back with a bang (or not)!

When we last left the turbulent world of Damages, first year lawyer Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) had just discovered that hot-shot plaintiff's attorney and manipulation machine Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) had tried to have her killed in the wake of their law firm's $2 billion triumph over Enron-proxy Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson). Upon realizing that fact, Ellen had turned the Damages world upside-down by agreeing to work with the feds in a multi-year sting operation designed to take out the ruthless attorney, thus setting up the premise of the follow-up season(s). Did the premiere live up to the hype? In short, yes and no.

While the show is as competently written and directed as I remember it (seemingly years ago), there is no question that the second season premiere had a great deal of difficulty re-capturing the magic that was an incredibly strong freshman season. To begin, the producers of the show apparently thought that critical to Damages' success was the use of its patented "time-jumps" to keep the audience in suspense. Like the first season, this season begins with a vision of the future. Unlike the first season, this year's version simply features an extreme close-up of Ellen speaking to camera. Not quite as memorable as a bloody Ellen running hysterically through the streets of New York, now is it? After the uneventful flash-forward (apologies to Lost), the familiar "Six months earlier" timestamp arrives and the plot begins in earnest. Or at least it would, if there was an actual plot to begin at this point.

Like the Scrubs premiere last week, this first episode seems mostly focused on putting the pieces in place to explain to newcomers just exactly what is going on. As such, in this episode we get a lot of flashbacks to Patty's apparent hit on Ellen, and Ellen's actions in the immediate aftermath thereof. The plot, what little there is, is mostly designed to set up the character traits with which regular watchers will already be familiar. Patty is ruthless and calculating (here exemplified by her calling in a drug bust on a friend's daughter as an end around to get him to finance her pet charity). Ellen is smart and angry, but
just a little bit naive (and here one can't tell whether this is the fault of Ellen or her portrayor).

Unlike the first season, the law firm of Hewes and Associates does not have a major high-profile case as the season commences. (The season appears to begin almost immediately after the first season finale. This, despite the marked changes in the appearance of many of the cast). Instead, both Ellen and ultra-passive Hewes and Associates partner Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan) spend the bulk of the episode convincing Patty to pursue one. Trying to take advantage of this scenario, the feds feed Ellen a case about "infant mortality" (this phase is highlighted multiple times throughout) which they want Patty to take for undisclosed reasons. It's unclear even by episode's end whether or not Ms. Hewes will take the bait.

As the last major (but as of yet unconnected) plot point, an apparent pharmaceutical scientist named Daniel Purcell (William Hurt) has his home invaded by an unknown intruder, which he thinks is related to a secret he knows about his employer. He contacts Patty, who he says "owes him" and tells her that he wants to go public with something that could bring down an industry. Patty being Patty, she rejects his pleas, and leaves him to his misery. In the second-to-last scene of the episode Patty arrives at Purcell's home to find his wife strangled and his home ravaged. An emotional Purcell asks Patty if she is willing to help him now.

Oh, and Future-Ellen(TM) shoots someone in the face.

While there are certainly a lot of plot threads to begin the season (I didn't even go into detail about Patty's charity, Timothy Olyphant's pseudo-stalker, the unexpected return of Arthur Frobisher, or the interminable Regis and Kelly segment), one can't help but think that there's simply a lot of smoke with very little fire. Just playing armchair show-runner, it appears that the feds have some plan to smoke Patty out with a case that mirrors her own difficulties with a miscarried child, that Purcell is essentially "The Insider" with some kind of pharmaceutical compound (probably with fake corporate mortality tests or the like), that Ellen doesn't have any idea what she's doing (including in the final, oh so unexpected scene), and that Purcell probably killed his wife to get Patty to help him. What, you say? That last plot point wasn't hinted at? Well maybe.

You see, the difficulty with a show like Damages is that it runs the risk of out thinking itself. After all, when everything's a twist, then nothing really is. Take the case I mentioned above regarding the wealthy financier's daughter. As soon as her bright future was introduced, any veteran Damages watcher worth their salt knew that it was going down the drain. Now that's okay. It's a noir-type show. I get it. But any veteran Damages watcher worth their salt also knew that conniving manipulator Patty Hewes was almost certainly behind whatever horror the girl now faced (a moment for poor Saffron, please). And they were right. As a result, when Patty refuses Purcell and looks to walk away, one can't help but imagine the ways in which a conniving manipulator could convince her to help him. And when one of them happens, well...Let's just say that it's possible that a show so twisty winds up being the most predictable of all.

Which isn't to say that I thought the episode was bad. Throughout its entirety (which was blessedly uninterrupted by commercials, thank you FX) I watched intently and look forward to doing so again in the very near future. It's just that, for a show that prides itself on shocking revelations and unforeseeable twists, I worry that maybe, just maybe, the magic was only good for one season.
More after the jump...

January 9, 2009

A Little Bit of College Football

I don't expect to make this a regular occurrence, but I thought I would take a few moments to talk with you about sports: specifically the college football "national champion" Florida Gators. For those of you who aren't fans, the methodology used to determine the big-time college football national champion is a strange mix of about 70% figure skating judging, 25% American Idol voting, and 5% actual football results. By which I mean, because the sport doesn't feature a true playoff system, voters (mostly sports reporters and coaches) are asked to determine on a weekly basis who they think are the best teams in the country, with the end result being that the two teams receiving the most votes in the last week of the year are sent to the national championship and all the rest are sent home (no doubt to a snappy Daughtry tune). These votes are, at the end of the day, about awarding two things: style (ala figure skating) and popularity (ala American Idol). Very rarely do they appear to be reflective of which team a given voter actually thinks would win in a football contest on a neutral field.

Now, the system this year (as is the norm) has created no small number of controversies, which, quite frankly, would take me too much time to fully detail here (sorry Texas). Instead, I want to focus on just one, the national champion. You see, this year a number of "big name" schools from "big name" conferences finished their season with a 1 loss record (either 11-1 or 12-1). Florida and Oklahoma, which played for the championship last night, were among these (sorry USC, sorry Penn State, and again, sorry Texas). Now this abundance of teams with identical records would be problematic enough for a system that purports to crown a definitive champion, but the story gets much worse from here.

Why? Because the Utah Utes went undefeated. Coming from the less prestigious Mountain West conference, the Utes were allowed into the big money bowls (read: post-season games that don't really mean anything) solely by virtue of a previous year's settlement with the NCAA. And truth be told, to the outside world Utah looked mostly happy just to be invited. If everything went according to script the Mountain West champion Utes would have faced off against the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Alabama Crimson Tide and they would have gotten rolled. But everything didn't go according to the script. No, the Utes were the ones that did the rolling. They beat Alabama so definitively that the whole of the national championship was brought into question.

Why? Because Alabama had been ranked as the best team in the country going into the SEC championship against Florida. Florida's presence in the subsequent "national championship" game was essentially won by virtue of their 11 point victory over Alabama in that SEC game, which justified the voters' placing Florida in the title bout despite their one loss. If Utah goes into their bowl game against Alabama and loses like they are supposed to, no harm no foul. But Utah's beatdown of Alabama was so severe that a one loss Florida team simply can't be ranked higher that an undefeated Utah team.

You see, the most basic rule of rankings in college football is win-loss record. Undefeated "big name" conference teams are highest rated, then one loss teams, and so on. Undefeated teams from less prestigious conferences are usually ranked somewhere in the middle. But the only justification for this, really, is that the conferences serve as useful proxies for determining which teams could survive in a head to head matchup. Utah's 13-0, the argument goes, couldn't hang with Florida's 13-1 because Utah didn't play anyone. I mean, who'd they beat? San Diego State? A 3-9 University of Michigan team? Florida, on the other hand, was SEC champion, overcoming teams like LSU, Tennessee, and Alabama.

Ah, but therein lies the rub. Alabama. A common matchup. When Florida beat Alabama they were deemed worthy of the national championship. When Utah beat Alabama (worse then Florida did) they likewise should be deemed worthy of the national championship. Their respective conferences shouldn't matter because they don't matter. A team can only play the opponent in front of them. The conferences serve a useful purpose, if at all, because they allow teams without comparable opponents to be compared on a macro level. Utah can be held out of the national title picture based on their conference only in so far as their conference (by virtue of the lack of skill of Utah's opponents) would prevent them from attaining some minimum threshold of credibility for their national championship claim. With Utah's victory over Alabama that all falls away, the threshold reached. Utah is a legitimate contender and should be worthy of consideration. Since Florida and Utah never played each other we are left with only one objective criterion on which to make a decision: win-loss record. A criterion which Utah neatly wins. I mean no disrespect to the Florida Gators or their loyal fans when I say this, but Utah is the rightful national champion.

Okay, so that post went a lot longer than I had intended. Suffice it to say I will be celebrating the Utah Utes in my home as the 2008-2009 national champions and I believe that all right thinking people (tongue planted firmly in cheek) should as well.

(Full Disclosure: As a lifelong fan of the aforementioned 3-9 Michigan Wolverines, I have no dog in this hunt.)
More after the jump...

January 8, 2009

Scrubs: "My Jerks" and "My Last Words"

Well, I have to say, that's more like it. After a seventh season contorted by the effects of a problematicly timed writer's strike and the continuing ambivalence of its original home broadcast network, NBC, Scrubs made its Eighth Season ABC debut Tuesday night with a double header highlighting the combination of comedy and tragedy that has made the show so memorable over the years.

In the first episode, "My Jerks", a majority of the plot, like many of the series's previous premieres, revolves around establishing the characters that inhabit the zany medical world of Sacred Heart teaching hospital. Being added this year to the mainline crew of doctors John "J.D." Dorian (Zach Braff), Elliot Reed (Sarah Chalke), Christopher Turk (Donald Faison), and Perry Cox (John C. McGinley) are new interns Katie, Denise, and Ed. Katie, the bubbly suck-up, Denise, the callous intern with no bedside manner ("Sucks you'll never walk again" is one of the nights more memorable contributions from Denise), and Ed, the pop-culture maven quick with a catchphrase, are the "Jerks" referred to in the episode's title, though J.D. quickly learns his weekly life lesson about treating them that way. Also added to the mix (though likely for a limited time) is Friends veteran Courtney Cox as Sacred Heart's new Chief of Medicine, Dr. Maddox, acting as foil to Dr. Cox, but largely shadowing the greed-with-a-smile character paradigm first established by her predecessor Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins).

In truth, "My Jerks" isn't as much of an episode as it is an exposition piece. The writers spend the bulk of the show's running time establishing the dominant character traits of the primary cast: J.D. has waking day-dreams and is (still) trying to learn his place in the world, Turk is cool, Elliot neurotic, and so on. Even the titular interns seem seem shoehorned in, with the greater knowledge that if Scrubs is to continue after this season it will be on their backs and not Braff's. Even the ostensible plot development that "The Janitor" (Neil Flynn) has been fired by Dr. Maddox seems lightweight and without teeth. Still, the episode is not without its laughs, including a continuing running gag featuring JD's brain requiring him to view especially attractive women (with one funny exception) in slow motion and with their hair blowing in the wind. JD's impatience with this fantasy is just one of the funny "meta" moments which this episode excels in. (The second notable one being a lengthy discussion in the tag of the episode in which J.D. exhorts his fellow doctors that even though it would be easy to "mail it in" they owe it to everyone to be as inspired as they were in their first few years. The presence of an angry "Nielsen" family in one of the hospital rooms only hightens the "meta" of this meta commentary.)

In the second episode, "My Last Words", the show returns to the tone it had spent so much of its first three seasons working to acheive, a kind of bittersweet humor in the face of tragedy. The episode features JD and Turk almost exclusively (I don't believe Chalke's Dr. Reed even makes an appearance), as they console a patient (played expertly by Glynn Turman) on the brink of death. Despite this somber starting point, the episode is both heartwarming and funny (especially whenever new intern Denise is involved) and the ability of the show to tackle such serious subject matter is never in doubt.

It must be said, the fact that this show can make me laugh as much as it did in one minute (the image of Zach Braff doing his best Rowdie the stuffed dog impression is one which, I fear, will stay with me for a lifetime), while asking its audience to ponder the greater meanings of existence and the afterlife in the next is something I truly treasure, especially after all seemed lost in the show's last few seasons as it sank further and further into its own brand of inspired lunacy. Which isn't, by the way, to say that everyone will necessarily be pleased with the final product present in "My Last Words". With ABC marketing the second half of its Scrubs double header as "LOL", one has to wonder whether or not a staid reflection on the meaning of death was exactly what the doctor ordered (pardon the pun). Certainly my wife didn't enjoy being blindsided with bittersweet when she had signed up for "laugh out loud".

Finally, a few technical points: While I could not be happier to finally have one of my favorite shows broadcast in High Definition (seemingly the last popular prime time program to do so), I feel it is necessary to comment on the lighting used in the new season. While it's probably a bit too early to make sweeping generalizations due to the specific night-time setting of "My Last Words", it certainly looks like the once brightly lit confines of Sacred Heart have taken on a darker, more realistic lighting tone on ABC. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing will likely be dependent on the individual viewer, but I personally can't help but miss the bright blue and white featured on the NBC version of the show. To my eye, the new version looks too much like something straight out of Private Practice.

All in all, though, this was a return to form for one of my favorite series, and one which I am very much looking forward to seeing the show follow up on in the coming weeks.
More after the jump...

January 7, 2009

The Beginning of the End

Well, here we are: the 21st century of Internet media. After talking with my friends and family about this for a while, I've decided to throw my hat into the apparently infinitely large ring of the Internet and the pop culture world. I've decided to do this not because I have any particular expertise in the areas of TV and movie watching (though I've logged enough hours in both to be considered expert by a long-suffering few), but because I feel that I have interesting things to say, and I enjoy having the ability to get a chance to say them.

For as long as I can remember I've been interested in the concept of "Story", whether found in movies, TV, video games, or (heaven forbid) the written word. I have relished everything from action-heavy tales about the struggle to survive encapsulated in shows like Battlestar Galactica to stories based around a bittersweet contemplation of time and place contained in shows like Freaks and Geeks. Though my tastes definitely trend towards what many consider to be "genre", I have been known to watch a serious "film" or even documentary in my time.

I intend this space to be a repository of my thoughts on the things I like to watch and read, as well as the games I like to play. I don't intend for it to be an archive of critiques or reviews for every piece of the popular lexicon. As such, you can expect to find my analysis of shows like Battlestar Galactica, Scrubs, Lost, 24, and Damages, as well as my thoughts on movies and video games which I actually desire to see or purchase of my own accord. What you won't see are my thoughts on CSI, Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives or any other show or movie which I am not independently watching, regardless of how popular the same might be. Life's too short to spend it watching fictional stories which don't interest you, right?

As this is my first foray into the land of self-published blogging, I hope that you can all bear with me while I figure out what works and what doesn't. I intend this first two weeks or so to be a bit of a dry-run with me putting up posts on shows on a somewhat sporadic basis, all hopefully leading up to regular updates once Battlestar and Lost make their triumphant midseason returns.

Well, I'm excited, and I hope that after I prove myself a bit, you will be to. In the meantime its back to the day job...
More after the jump...