I think realism is overrated in science fiction & fantasy. Yes it's good to ground fantastic stories in some kind of reality, it makes the fantasy more accessible to the audience. It also helps to invest people in the characters and situations depicted. That being said, too often "realism" is used a substitute for creative ideas and good storytelling. For too many creative people the words 'real', 'dark', and 'gritty' carry entirely too much weight. I'm past the point where a piece of entertainment can impress me by just staying true to those adjectives.
Then a show like the new Battlestar Galactica comes along.
Those of you who haven't seen Sci-Fi's new version, and only associate the name Battlestar Galactica with the classic late 70's TV show are in for a rude awakening upon watching this show. I liked the original BSG well enough, while at the same time acknowleding it's purpose as pure escapist fun. By comparison, the new BSG is just brutal (in a good way) on every level. BSG tells the story of a rag-tag fugitive fleet of humans on a lonely, sometimes dehumanizing quest for survival.
I won't get much more into it than that. Suffice it to say that BSG tells a dark, gritty story that does not flinch from the ugliness that exists in humanity. Unlike other shows featuring stylized violence, the brutality here seems a natural extension of the circumstances the main characters live under, and is used to serve a fascinating story about ideas (not that mindless violence is neccessarily bad, its just that this show is soooo much better than that).
BSG is easily my favorite TV show at the moment. If you have somehow missed out on it, I got 5 words for you: The internet is for downloads. Be forewarned the show gets pretty intense and is not for the faint of heart. I'll focus the rest of this review on the last episode that his been shown. An absolutely brilliant 2-parter called "Lay Down your Burdens" that has left me in taut anticipation for next season's premiere.
The rest of the review will contain SPOILERS as well. DO NOT read past this point if you are yet to see "Lay Down your Burdens" in context, you will be missing out.
May as well start here. The basis of BSG's story is that humans are now an endangered species. They are hunted mercilessly across space by Cylons, a race of sentient machines that have a strange fascination with humanity, and look to emulate us in many ways. The central questions this show asks are: How far will people go to survive on both an individual and a societal basis? How much are we willing to scarifice our ideals and our morality? What I absolutely respect about the show is that it rarely includes a solution that ends things cleanly with all parties satisfied. Major characters plot against each other on a weekly basis. In a situation this dire, such conflicts are the norm. Unlike many other shows and movies that depict humanity instantaneously and unquestioningly banding together when facing such a common threat, BSG posits that achieving such unity is not inevitable - it's likely impossible and ideals must always be fought for, even in the face of extinction.
In "Lay Down your Burdens" such a conflict arises. In what is as cynical and probably realistic a take on politics as your likely to see on television, the surviving humans are divided along a vital political issue: the decision whether or not to settle the fleet on a recently discovered world that can sustain human life. Two presidential candidates are divided along this issue, however the investment in the issue on the part of one Gaius Baltar (James Callis) is clearly secondary to the political leverage gained by claiming to be on the side of settlement. There is no foresight for the common good, only the opportunistic, timely grab for power.
Of course it works, why wouldn't it? People are sheep, and though its obvious to anyone watching the show that Baltar is a shifty, self-serving hedonist, he gets elected anyway.
These are the kind of conflicts that show up routinely on BSG. The perspective is cynical, but not preachy. The humanity that is shown struggling with these issues is the humanity we can all recognize rather than some idealized fabrication. The outcome of such conflicts creates real resonance.
The planet that is settled on represents an end to despair and anxiety to the voters, even though the sense of safety it provides is an illusion and not what is advised by the experts most informed of Cylon activity. The allure of laying down one's burdens is strong enough to make a disastrous decision though, which is something I can totally relate to.
As with any show I'll be this into by season 2, BSG has fleshed out so many interesting characters, and drawn me into so many storylines that my investment is pretty absolute at this point. The conflicts I mentioned above make me want happiness all the more for the characters I like. Because they live in a world of moral ambiguity, with no precedence to their dire stituation, much of their moral compass is created along the way. It makes it all the sweeter when these people are able to triumph against the overwhelming odds laid against them.
I'll use the example of Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos). Adama wastes no action nor words. He commands with a soft-spoken tone, but the way his crew responds to him speaks volumes about the respect he gets, even from the otherwise rebellious Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace (Katee Sackhoff). He is not infallible though. In "Lay Down your Burdens" he becomes involved in a coverup over tampering with the election ballots. When Baltar cofronts him, Adama suggests he take his victory and leave it at that, and that's all it takes to make Baltar back down. It's a great bit of characterization, even though he's about to become his boss, Baltar realizes that NO ONE should cross Adama.
Wow, as Inigo Montaya put it: "There's too much to 'splain, let me sum up." There are more completely unexpected but naturally evolving twists packed into the last 30 min of "Lay Down you Burdens" than I've ever seen anywhere else. That's a big claim I realize, but I honestly can't think of anything that tops it. The last 15 minutes in particular present a conitnuity jump into the future that was not a gimmick nor felt like a cheat in any way, just the most interesting place to take up the story from. Just one "holy crap!" moment after another.
Mostly coming courtesy of Callis' turn as Baltar, there are some hearty laughs to be had here. Particulary when we see Baltar's version of running a presidential administration.
If you haven't seen Battlestar Galactica - There's still time! before the new season starts that is. If you've seen all the way through "Lay Down your Burdens" and have cable can I please come to your house for the season premiere?