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.

1 comment:

  1. First of all, yes, I was terribly disappointed in the 5th cylon being completely pointless. But, thanks for your insightful comments because the otherwise depressing episode does, in subtle ways, ask many questions that now must be answered or at least explored. You have left me wondering...and actually eager to watch some more.