Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Galacticawatch 5: Season 4, Eps 1-5

We left Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica on a whole slew of cliffhangers. Gaius Baltar has unexpectedly been found not guilty of being a traitor and a collaborator, but his life is in danger from many of the people oppressed during the occupation of New Caprica. Some sympathisers have whisked him off to safety, but who are they? What is their agenda?

Meanwhile, the Galactica and its attendant refugee ships have finally reached the Ionian Nebula after a grueling trek of some thirteen thousand light-years from the Temple of the Five, but instead of finding a clearly-marked signpost on the way to Earth the entire fleet momentarily loses power. When it is restored, a Cylon taskforce is bearing down on them. Unable to jump due to the power outage, the fleet is forced to prepare for a grim battle against the odds.

Colonel Saul Tigh, pilot-in-training Sam Anders, Chief Tyrol and President Roslin's aide Tory Foster have suddenly discovered that they are Cylons, four of the 'Final Five' who are held in near-mythical awe by the other Cylon models (who don't know anything about them and are programmed not to think about them, which is why Three's obsession with them last season was seen as such a crime). They themselves don't know what this means, nor have they suddenly gained any new memories or knowledge. They just know now what they are, but not what they must do.

Finally, as the battle kicks off, Lee Adama is rather shocked to find himself flying alongside Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace, who was last seen being incinerated in a fireball far above a gas giant planet hundreds of light-years away. And a Kara Thrace who was claiming to have been to Earth.

Say what you like about the troubled third season, it sure as hell went out with a bang. And we come back in on one. The season opener, He That Believath In Me, immediately picks up the story where we left off. Starbuck's return has floored everyone, but Roslin is convinced it's a Cylon trap. There is no time to dwell on that as the Cylons launch their assault, and for the first time we see killer dogfights in and around the civilian vessels of the fleet (something that actually was more commonplace in the original series). Things look bad for our heroes, who are grossly outnumbered and unable to protect the six or seven dozen civilian ships in the fleet (the viewer winces as a tighly-packed refugee liner is blown to pieces by indirect friendly fire), until one of the Cylon Raiders scans one of the Vipers...and suddenly the Cylons call off the entire attack and jump out. Our heroes are left stunned, especially the pilot who was scanned: Anders.

It's an amazingly strong opening sequence featuring - and this is no hyperbole - the finest CGI ever assembled for the small screen. Some of the CGI last season was ropey to say the least, but the stuff in this episode blows it away. But, as always with BSG, the stunning visuals take a back seat to the drama. The rest of the episode focuses on Starbuck's predicament. Is she who she says she is? Is she a Cylon, resurrected and now back to lure the crew into an ambush? There are no easy answers here and viewers may feel frustrated as Starbuck responds to some very logical questions with just vague assurances that she knows the way to Earth. However, things perk up a lot more as Baltar discovers that his rescuers are part of a cult of monotheists who have been outcast from the rest of the fleet. His belief in the One Cylon God attracts their attention and he soon finds himself in the position of being their de facto leader. Given that apparently 80% of the cult consists of attractive, young, generous, sharing women aged between 19 and 25, Baltar obviously sees the advantages in his new situation. Although the viewer's suspension of disbelief may feel somewhat tested. Anyway, a great opening episode that really raises the stakes for the season ahead.

The second episode, Six of One, opens with Starbuck holding Roslin at gunpoint and, reasonably, asking why it is that Roslin's visions get treated with respect when Starbuck's are dismissed out of hand. Roslin agrees that life is unfair and tries to shoot Starbuck in the face. Adama thinks they may have misjudged Starbuck and gives her a ship (albeit a rubbish one) and some crew to go search for Earth. Whilst watching the episode, this feels like a credible plot progression, but when summarised it does appear to be lacking in the logic department. Once again, some rather obvious BSG plot holes are paved over by incandescently good acting from the cast, particularly Edward James Olmos on top form as Adama. Elsewhere, James Callis does some absolutely hilarious work when 'Head Baltar' (previously only seen with Caprica-Six) appears to him and encourages him to seduce Tory (who herself has been asked by Tigh and Tyrol to 'feel out' Baltar to see what he knows about the Final Five), which he does with aplomb. Then it's time to catch up with the Cylons, who are divided over the revelation that the Final Five are among the human fleet. Cavill, Doral, Simon and, shockingly, Boomer are all for lobotomizing the Raiders and forcing them to resume the attack against Galactica, whilst the Sixes (led by a new individual named Natalie), Leoben and the rest of the Eights are dead against it. The debate ends in a shockingly violent conclusion that has severe repurcussions for the rest of the series.

Given the magnitude of the revelation of the Final Five, it's a bit odd that the reactions of the Four to their predicament has taken a back seat to the Starbuck plotline. The Ties That Bind refocuses attention on this story, as Cally becomes suspicious over Tyrol's absences to meet with Tory and Tigh, who are all struggling with their revelation (Anders is on the Demetrius with Starbuck and co). This is a busy episode that also takes in Lee's burgeoning political career as the new spokesman for Caprica in the Quorum, the Demetrius mission and also the Cylon situation, which is now devolving into full-scale civil war between the opposed sides. It's also a seriously negative episode, delving into Cally Tyrol's slide into depression, with the brutal ending proving that at least one of the Four has embraced their Cylon nature a little too readily. Incredible stuff with haunting music.

Escape Velocity starts off with a funeral and ends with the birth of a new religious movement. Baltar's group is attacked by a fanatical group known as the Sons of Ares, leading to a massive debate in the fleet about religious freedom. Unfortunately, both the Sons' use of violence and Roslin's unsubtle attempts to use the attack to force through draconian new anti-assembly laws end up bolstering Baltar's position and popularity, especially when he is rifle-beaten by an overzealous marine in front of dozens of witnesses. Elsewhere, Caprica Six and Tigh find an unusual bond building between them. This is rather odd, offbeat episode. Baltar's increasing religious popularity seems to be developing quite quickly, but with only sixteen episodes to wrap up the whole season that may be unavoidable. The Six/Tigh stuff is downright bizarre, and hopefully a result of some unconscious Final Five stuff because otherwise it is seriously messed up and disturbing. To some degree, a quieter episode than others of late but without something more forceful driving it, the cracks in BSG's storytelling are more apparent than ever.

The Road Less Travelled refocuses attention on the Demetrius mission as it stumbles across a crippled Cylon Raider containing a Leoben, who wastes no time in getting into Starbuck's (and Anders') head. As the Demetrius crew contemplate mutiny, Starbuck finally realises how divisive her actions have been, but still can't seem to find a way of turning them around. Back on Galactica, Baltar attempts to reach out to Tyrol. This is a more dramatically satisfying episode, anchored by Tehomah Penikett's excellent performance as Helo. Helo has been badly served by the writers since early Season 2, with no real consistency as to where he is used or how, being bounced around from Raptor pilot to Galactica temp XO with no rhyme or reason. And the less said about his signature episode from last season, The Woman King, the better. Here he finally gets some good dialogue and development as his position as Starbuck's best friend and 'rock' finally comes under the strain. Very good stuff, and it bodes well for his forthcoming major new role in Joss Whedon's new project, Dollhouse. Back on Galactica things are less dynamic, but Callis and Douglas turn in solid performances during some very angry, intense exchanges that lead to an intriguing ending.

So, BSG Season 4 has opened very promisingly. The search for Earth is back on and now a higher priority than ever. Very subtle clues throughout the episodes (most notably the appearance of the constellation of Orion in several background shots) show that the search is indeed approaching its end, whilst the civil war amongst the Cylons was an inevitable new development which sets things up for huge confrontations down the line. In terms of dialogue, the show has found its feet again, with logical, obvious questions being asked and the actors all working at the top of their game. However, some plot developments still feel forced or illogical, and the choice of at least one of the Final Five, Tigh, still feels like a retcon too far.

401: He That Believath in Me ****
402: Six of One ***
403: The Tighs That Bind ***½
404: Escape Velocity ***½
405: The Road Less Travelled ***½

Forthcoming: Faith (09/05/08), Guess What's Coming to Dinner (16/05/08), Sine Qua Non (23/05/08), The Hub (30/05/08), Revelations (06/06/08)

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