Sunday, 14 January 2018

Gratuitous Lists: The Ten Best BATTLESTAR GALACTICA Episodes

After seeing this list of the ten best BSG episodes which had some "interesting" choices (the #1 choice, Unfinished Business, is frankly one of the weakest episodes of the series and started the show's most diabolical subplot, the Love Quadrangle of Doom), I thought I'd offer up my own list.

The stories are not presented in any kind of order because the level of quality between these episodes is pretty close, so I'd rather celebrate these episodes rather than get into an argument about rankings. Also, due to BSG's high level of serialisation, it was sometimes a bit of a judgement call on what was a stand-alone episode and what was a multi-part story.

Season 1, Episode 1

The first episode of the series proper (after the pilot mini-series) is possibly its finest single hour. A taut, claustrophobic episode which sees the Cylons appear every 33 minutes without fail. The crew, only able to grab micronaps, are run to the edge of exhaustion as they push themselves and their ships to breaking point as they try to stay one step ahead of the Cylons, who are their most faceless, their most relentless and their most terrifying in this episode. Eventually a solution is found, but it requires an immense sacrifice of lives, a decision that goes on to have ramifications through the rest of the series.

This episode also strongly influenced the Star Wars movie The Last Jedi, which borrows some of its plot structure and ideas; writer-director Rian Johnson is a big fan of the second incarnation of BSG. The difference is that 33 is the far stronger piece, its shorter running time and much greater character focus giving the story much more weight than the Star Wars movie.

Pegasus/Resurrection Ship
Season 2, Episodes 10-12

Season 2 of BSG threw a massive curveball at audiences halfway through its second season: a second, much larger and more powerful battlestar shows up and its commanding officer, Admiral Cain, takes command of the fleet. Commander Adama's initial relief at not having to take the big decisions any more turns to disquiet and then disgust as he learns that Cain kept her crew safe by being far more ruthless than he was, summarily executing officers who questioned her authority and mandating the physical and mental abuse of Cylon POWs. As the two battlestars prepare for a massive assault on a Cylon resurrection ship, the two COs find themselves contemplating severe measures to keep the other ship in line.

The result is a tense game of psychological cat and mouse, with Michelle Forbes absolutely outstanding in the role of Admiral Cain. The three-part story also plays fair by showing why Cain made the decisions she did (even better exemplified in the later TV movie Razor) and her more ruthless attitude is shown to have some benefits, although it is also shown at having severe drawbacks. The three-parter has what might also be Bear McCreary's best work on the show's score, with "Prelude to War" and "Roslin & Adama" being arguably the single finest pieces he created for the show. I also have to mention Tricia Helfer's outstanding work as both Six and Gina, the tortured Cylon POW, and James Callis bringing a surprisingly human amount of compassion to the role of Baltar as he tries to help them both. Plus we get an impressive space battle as well.

Season 2, Episode 18

For the first time in late Season 2, the show reoriented itself as a drama about the Cylons, artificial intelligences who gained freedom from the creators who brutally enslaved them and then took their revenge. The episode follows Caprica Six and Boomer as they try (badly) to readjust to life in Cylon society after spending years infiltrating the humans, with Eight (a flawless Lucy Lawless) acting as their mentor, only to quickly turn on them when it becomes clear that they've been "corrupted" by human values.

The result is another game of psychological cat-and-mouse as Six and Boomer realise what Eight is up to and work together to overcome her and bring a different kind of message to the Cylons, that they can work and live with humans after all. What could have been a throwaway experimental episode ends up as the catalyst for the biggest change in the show's premise and paradigm to date.

Kobol's Last Gleaming
Season 1, Episodes 12-13

The Season 1 BSG finale is a masterclass in how to take the story pieces that have been put in place slowly over the previous dozen episodes and use them to tell a gripping, intense story that works on an action level (a Cylon basestar needs to be destroyed after it shoots down a Colonial survey team, leaving them stranded on a planetary surface) as well as a character-based one, with Adama and Roslin's simmering, season-long political strife erupting in open conflict with Lee not sure which way to jump.

The story also follows a second storyline back on Caprica, as Helo and Starbuck are finally reunited and Starbuck gets into an old-fashioned throwdown with Six. And just when you think the story can't get any better we get that gutshot of an ending which is still shocking a decade and a half later. Arguably, this was the story where BSG proved it had the legs to run for many years and tell a lot of different stories.

Season 3, Episodes 3-4

The "New Caprica" story arc was always a little muddled - its use of Iraq War and War on Terror imagery always felt a bit more sensationalist than actually trying to say anything of value about those conflicts - but as a story it was much more gripping. The resolution of that story in Exodus can be accused of contrivance (far more people escape from New Caprica than is realistic) but it's nevertheless fantastic.

First off, we have the "atmo-drop", probably the most satisfying, "Hell yeah!" moment out of the entire show. This is followed by the mother of all space battles which is barely survived by our heroes (not really "won"). We then have the character-based drama, with the most heartbreaking scene in the entire series as Tigh confronts his wife over her betrayal of the resistance, and later on his return to Galactica in what should be his moment of triumph, only for Adama to realise his friend is an utterly broken and shattered man and it will be some time before he even starts to recover. McCreary's score and the CGI team also absolutely kill it.

Exodus, Part 2 is also arguably the end of the show's golden age, when every episode (okay, apart from Black Market and Sacrifice) had been good-to-excellent and the show had been constantly inventive, thought-provoking and intelligent. After this episode, things got a fair bit inconsistent, although it was still capable of producing occasionally outstanding episodes.

Revelations/Sometimes a Great Notion
Season 4, Episodes 10-11

For a while it looked like BSG was going to be cancelled halfway through its fourth season, mainly due to the 2008 Writer's Guild of America Strike halting filming. It was touch and go but eventually SyFy okayed them finishing the season off. Which is both good - without it we wouldn't have gotten the mutiny arc - and bad, as most of the rest of the season was weak and the series finale was muddled, confused and incoherent in terms of character, plot and theme. If the series had been cancelled, than Sometimes a Great Notion, the final episode shot before the break, would have been the series finale. If it had been, BSG would probably be talked about now as the greatest (if bleakest) SF series ever made.

The mid-season two-parter is a tense, taut affair. The identities of the Final Five Cylons have been flushed out into the open, the rebel Cylons and their erstwhile human allies are at loggerheads over the fate of the Five and Starbuck is on the verge of discovering the location of Earth. In the Revelations cliffhanger the day is saved and Earth, which our protagonists have been looking for for four years and rested all their hopes and dreams in, is finally located...only for it to turn out to be a blasted, nuked-out ruin. The second part somehow goes even darker, with widespread despair gripping the fleet, one of the main characters choosing to commit suicide (literally blowing her brains out rather than face yet another search for a new home, in possibly the show's single most shocking and unexpected death) and a series of shocking discoveries about the planet, the Thirteenth Colony and the Cylons rocking our very understanding of what the hell the show is even about. There's also some dark humour to be mined by seeing the supposedly enigmatic and wise Leoben being confronted by a genuinely bizarre mystery and promptly freaking out.

Dark, bleak and grim, but also hauntingly atmosphere and beautifully-shot, if this had been the ending, we'd still be talking about the show in awe-inspired tones even now. Sadly, the finale undoes a lot of the power of this story.

Flesh and Bone
Season 1, Episode 8

BSG was always good at psychological drama and mind-games, and its most powerful relationship in this vein was always between the Cylon Leoben Conoy and Starbuck. It started in Flesh and Bone, an early episode which throws a bit of a curveball at the viewer as the Cylon agent is less interested in killing everyone than he is in gaining Starbuck's understanding. The result is that we learn a lot more about Starbuck and come to understand that she is a fundamentally flawed, broken human being but also one who is capable of changing her mind and her outlook. It's also an under-appreciated moment in Roslin's character development, when we see her true, resolute steel for the first time as she ruthlessly (and perhaps a bit too easily) makes a decision that supposedly strong and morally compromised Starbuck cannot.

The episode also marks the start of the Leoben/Starbuck dynamic that is explored in an even more messed-up fashion in the New Caprica arc and finally resolves in Sometimes a Great Notion, when Leoben finally discovers the true mystery and the puzzle he's been searching for all along...and is so disturbed by it he runs away. Flesh and Bone is the moment BSG confirmed that this story of pragmatic survival and political compromise was also going to have a surrealist and spiritual element to it as well.

The Oath/Blood on the Scales
Season 4, Episodes 13-14

By Season 4's mid-point, BSG had fallen a bit too much in love with its bizarre, religious and spiritual side and its complex and self-contradictory mythology. This two-part story sees the "little people" of the fleet having enough of the mystical mumbo-jumbo and snap (with about half the viewers nodding in approval), staging an armed uprising with several main characters joining the mutiny. The result is a story that would have felt at home in Season 1 or 2, with lots of tough moral decisions, interpersonal conflict and some strong action sequences.

It also works very well because the mutineers have a point: giving succour to the Cylon rebels was always going to be an unpopular choice (they did help kill over 20 billion human beings, after all), the impact of the trauma on New Caprica and the discovery of the destruction of Earth had not been properly processed and Roslin was somehow on her second term despite never being elected (and losing the only election she ever stood in).

The two-parter does have a few weaknesses, such as some very out-of-character behaviour for Tom Zarak (to Richard Hatch's fully-justified and vocal displeasure) and a resolution that may have been satisfying on an action level but did nothing to address the core and real concerns of the people who backed the mutiny. But otherwise this late-run BSG episode escapes the mediocrity that plagued the show's endgame and gave us a great throwback to the early running of the show.

Lay Down Your Burdens
Season 2, Episodes 19-20

The BSG Season 2 finale does a lot of great things. It brings on board the mighty Dean Stockwell as the effective Cylon leader John Cavil. It has a great action story as Starbuck leads a rescue mission back to Caprica to save Sam Anders and his rebel group. It also has an effective subplot as the PTSD-suffering Cylon ex-POW Gina has to decide how she is going to take revenge on the people who mentally and sexually abused her for months.

There's a lot going on even before the fleet discovers the inhabitable planet of New Caprica, hidden inside a nebula. The fleet is in the middle of an election campaign, with President Roslin expected to comfortably curb-stomp Gaius Baltar. But the discovery of New Caprica and Baltar's insistence that they could settle on New Caprica and take a break from their relentless stress and toil throws the campaign into an uproar, with several characters considering the morality of rigging the election to ensure the "right" person wins.

BSG was always at its best when it mixed religion, politics, action and character development, and in this story it throws everything into the blender. What comes out is one of the show's most memorable moments, when it jumps forward one year in an instant and shows the catastrophic consequences of our characters' decisions before ending on the mother of all cliffhangers.

TV Movie (airing between Seasons 3 and 4)

It was a toss-up here between Razor and the original mini-series, which did a great job of setting up the show's premise and introducing this band of crazy, messed-up people (humans and androids both). However, the mini is perhaps a little overlong and isn't quite up to the standards that came later on. Razor, on the other hand, works on quite a few levels.

It's a stand-alone story focusing on the new character of Kendra Shaw (a great performance by Stephanie Jacobson). Flashbacks show her joining the crew of the Pegasus just before the Fall of the Twelve Colonies. We see events previously only alluded to in dialogue occurring in real-time and we learn more about Cain, Gina and the other crewmembers on Pegasus, along with plenty of space battles and personal combat. There's also a present-day story following the Galactica and Pegasus as they try to track down an ancient Cylon vessel from the First Cylon War that is posing a threat to the fleet.

There's also a great shout-out to the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica, when we get to meet the original Cylons and see the original baseships and Raiders in action. Neo-BSG always had an awkward relationshp with its much cheesier and less-accomplished forebear, so it's good to see them acknowledging the debt and inspiration from the original show here (even if it does prove that preventing the robotic Cylons from talking was a great move).

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Anonymous said...

I think you're very generous to the later seasons! Personally, overall, I sort of wish it had just finished after two seasons (although, in isolation, the New Caprica arc is just as good as what went before). Indeed, a lot of the second half of S2 could be cut out, imo - even the bits that aren't Black Market aren't exactly 33 either.
[I think I got through the later seasons purely on the strength of Baltar - they infuriatingly never really found a working arc for him post-New Caprica, but they put him in interesting places]

On the other hand, I'd be more generous to the miniseries. It seems opinion is generally divided on it - but personally, I thought it was right up with the best the series managed. Perhaps not as much depth as some episodes, but I liked the more sprawling pacing, and it built a tension that many of the episodes weren't able to maintain.

Downloaded was a good episode, but I can't help but associate it with the bad decisions it set up.

My personal pick, though, would be Scattered/Valley of Darkness/Fragged. You've got the classic Vietnamesque fight for survival on Kobol, a great space marine mission with the cylons on Galactica, you've got great character work for the Apollo/Roslin/Tigh triangle leading to a brilliant conclusion, and you've got subtler work from Helo and Starbuck messing around on Caprica and listening to Philip Glass in Starbuck's bachelor pad, which may not have added to the plot but really added to the aesthetic (and eventually the mythology).

Stienberg said...

I'm fully in agreement with your appreciation of Razor (I think I've now watched it more than the series) and really enjoy your list. Season 3 is well done I think, and you adroitly hit the nail on the head with the problems of the New Caprica arc.

All in all I now need to thank you for giving me a reason to re-watch a lot of Battlestar Galactica.