TV EYE: Battlestar Galactica, S4 E011: ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’

Okay- time to look at the return of Galactica, and the fact that this once-wonderful show really isn’t convincing me anymore. Fear the spoilers…

The online reaction to the return of Galactica for its final run of episodes does seem to be pretty positive, ranging from “Wow!” to “OMG!” to “Shocking!”, with not much variance inbetween. Certainly, there’s no real dip in the “Finest show on television” proclamations, and yet for me, E11 was yet another illustration of Galactica’s ability to be both awesomely evocative and absolutely bloody clod-headed, often within about five minutes of each other. Most of S4 so far has been a kind of wild rollercoaster between amazing and frustrating, and it looks like the trend is continuing here, as well as a determination to let the characters tell the story that’s- dare I say it – turning the show into something that’s dramatically inert.

Now, this is the episode picking up directly after the cliffhanger, dealing specifically with the aftermath of the fleet’s discovery that the planet they’ve been seeking all this time is now a radioactive ruin, so it’s natural that this wasn’t going to be a particularly happy instalment, and – to be honest – everything they explored was pretty damn realistic and believable. But the way they explored it was rather flat, and seemed to be dealing in cliches (I mean, how many times have we seen the “I shall goad my friend into killing me!” scene? And it’s not like this was an especially sharp example…), with several scenes making me feel like I was watching a the kind of very, very self-important one-act play that’s so determined to make me understand what the characters are going through that it’s beating me over the head with it. I mean, when you’re writing material that even an actor as strong as Edward James Olmos can’t make work without seeming strained and over-the-top (and Adama’s breakdown in this episode was a long, long way from the actor’s best), then you’re doing something very wrong.

The most dramatic moment in the whole episode is, of course, Dualla’s suicide, and even here I’m torn between finding this a genuinely shocking and dramatic moment, a powerful illustration of the despair that the fleet would very obviously be going through, and a shameless bit of emotional manipulation that’s up with introducing a cute puppy and then having someone shoot it two scenes later. I’d almost feel a little better about it if the rest of the episode hadn’t revolved almost completely around it (especially the aforementioned Adama going nutzoid scene), and I’m once again left wondering exactly what kind of entertainment value I’m getting out of Galactica when the dial marked bleak has been cranked up way past my tolerance levels, and is showing every sign of going further. (And is it just me, or do they have a habit of pressing the ‘Kill Female Character’ button? Minor and not-so-minor female characters seem to be dropping like flies – I can understand making Dualla the candidate, and yet there’s something about it all that make me rather uncomfortable.) As with the first couple of episodes of Season 4 (and, funnily enough, the opening of Season 3), the resulting drama is so damn relentlessly dark and full of its own importance that I end up heavily missing Galactica’s pulpier moments which always seemed to balance that stuff out before. I just feel like the show is getting me to a point where everything is so hopeless and so many people are dying or depairing or staring off into the distance in a hopelessly grim way that I’m wondering exactly why i should care anymore, especially when most of the big decisions on the show seem to be made in a completely arbitrary way.

And yes, I’m talking about Ellen Tigh here. Whether they intended it or not, the mystery of ‘who’s the fifth of the Final Five?’ ended up pretty pivotal to the first ten episodes of the fourth season – but while I take my hat off to them for getting it out of the way fairly promptly, and for not going in what I’d count as a particularly obvious direction, I’ve really got to ask exactly what the hell they were thinking. Ellen Tigh? After all this, we find out – the ‘Fifth’ actually died back at the beginning of season 3. So, unless they’re aiming to go back to New Caprica and resurrect Ellen (which I would be surprised), we’ve got a revelation that falls almost completely flat, doesn’t feel like it impacts on the current plot situation whatsoever, and seems to be a retro-active attempt to turn Tigh and Ellen’s completely messed-up relationship into some “we will always be together” reincarnation bollocks. I don’t think it does the show any favours – Ellen’s death was one of my favourite elements of S3 (not because I actively hated her, but because they took a pretty shallow and unlikable character and actually made you care when she died), and the after-effects were convincing and real. Now, I hardly know what to think, but I can’t really see a way that this is ever going to convince me as anything other than an abirtary attempt to justify what’s a pretty random decision. It’s one of the pitfalls of ‘novellistic’ storytelling – trying to make it look like there was a plan all along, and I’ve given them a certain amount of rope, but it’s all getting difficult to swallow. One of the things I still like about Lost (despite its many ups and downs) is that when it works, it really does make it feel like the show is one big story, like there has been a big plan all along, but Galactica doesn’t seem to be able to do that kind of thing without screwing up one way or the other.

(For about thirty seconds, I thought Dualla was going to turn out to be the ‘Fifth’, and that was why she killed herself. Maybe not logical, but I think she’d have been a much more interesting candidate (well, if she’d actually stayed alive, of course…)

The other frustrating thing is, of course, that when the episode actually works, it’s really, really good. Almost all the sequences on post-apocalyptic Earth were brilliant, touching an evocative vibe that I’ve very rarely seen in small-screen SF, while the plotline with Starbuck finding the remains of her Viper and what seems pretty much to be her own was splendidly done, and certainly pitches the character in an interesting direction (And I loved Leoben’s passive boyfriend reaction of, after all the shouting ‘Hey Kara, you’re special’, getting rather freaked out and running off when he finds out exactly how special she is…). Nice, if odd, to see Baltar back in scientist rather than messiah mode, and the revelations about Earth are certainly pretty major. It’s just a pity that most of the episode simply sits there – yes, it’s strong and effective if there’s no clue at Earth, no sign whatsoever as to where they go next, but it also means a show that’s in desperate need of a kick of adrenaline and a sense of powerful momentum is, at least for now, clicking back into dawdle mode, heading towards a series of pretty predictable plotlines (The Human/Cylon Alliance is going to fracture, things will politically fall apart, Tom Zerek will probably be very significant, there’s going to be rebellion and general chaos, Dean Stockwell and his cyber-hordes of doom will be turning at some point) and showing no signs of losing this sense that we are watching a Very Important TV Show That Says Very Important Things About The World.

Despite all the impressive elements that are in ‘Sometime a Great Notion’, I really feel like the Ellen Tigh revelation is the last straw, and that the show has officially jumped the shark for me. Combined with the fun but somewhat murkily written webisode series ‘Face of the Enemy’ (which sets up a storyline later in the season in a slightly clumsy way), Galactica really feels like it’s worn out its welcome, and that however much I want it to be that vibrant, bloody exciting show which thrilled me and kept me on the edge of my seat back in Season 2, it’s more likely to slightly vex and frustrate me. I’m going to be vaguely interested to see what they do with it – I’m just not certain that I really care anymore.

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