I’m fond of saying that the television of today is the modern version of the Hollywood movies of the golden era between ‘67 and ‘75. There is, of course, some exaggeration in my stance … I may like Weeds, I might give it an A– in my end-of-season grades, but I’m not really arguing that Weeds is as fulfilling as The Godfather Part II. Still, there are more shows at the level of a Weeds than there used to be, and more importantly, there are shows that are even better than that. And one sign of those great shows is that it’s not enough for me to write about them once at the beginning of a season and once at the end … I want to write about them every week.
At the moment, there are two such shows (there are more than two, but only these are currently airing): The Wire and Battlestar Galactica. When I say people should take television seriously, those are the shows I am talking about. The Wire is so consistent in its excellence, though, that to some extent I’ve run out of things to say … how many different ways are there to say “best show on television?” You could even argue that The Wire is only rarely surprising anymore, because it never falters, it’s always great. Battlestar Galactica, though, is much messier than The Wire. That messiness is why The Wire and not BSG is the best show on television, but it is also why BSG surprises on a regular basis, and why I’m compelled to write about it almost every week.
OK … I’ve made it to this point without any spoilers, so if you didn’t pay attention to the title of this post, here is your last chance to quit reading.
Man, this show covers a lot of ground, doesn’t it? Last night’s episode had some actual standard heroics … they don’t happen often on BSG, nor do they often crank up the CGI for action scenes, but last night was an exception, and they did a bang-up job, from the special effects like the Galactica appearing in the sky above New Caprica to the pieces of the Pegasus cramming into the Cylon base ships. And heroics? The success of the operation to rescue the humans from New Caprica, the way that success was jointly pulled off by forces big (battleships) and small (the resistance movement on the ground), the chance for some characters to redeem themselves and others to fall short. And yet there was also time for some truly wrenching scenes, most obviously when Tigh killed his wife, but also when the whole Starbuck-as-mom thread, which I’ve found so disturbing, came to a head. Starbuck is the most fucked-up of the heroes on the show, and she’s gonna be worse off now. When she was kissing the Cylon, I couldn’t wait for her to stick that knife into his guts … I was mad at the show for prolonging the scene, DO IT! I was saying … Battlestar Galactica is still capable of surprise, so even though I “knew” that Starbuck was playing the Cylon, a part of me wasn’t sure.
And this whole maternal angle … I think I’ve figured out why it bothered me, and why it is important. Starbuck was famously a man in the original series, and the fanboys of that series were pretty pissed when they heard that their beloved Starbuck was going to be a girl in the new version. People like me, who never saw the original and who are suckers for ass-kicking female characters, gravitated immediately to this new Starbuck … some found (and find) her annoying, but she’s my favorite character on the show. But in the end, I have more in common with those fanboys than I realized. Because when we saw Kara’s maternal side coming out, I wanted to know where my Starbuck had gone … I had a lot invested in her being “one of the boys, only better and a woman” … I thought I knew the character, and didn’t like this new direction. I was wrong to be so pigheaded, but then, so were the fanboys.
And in the end, the maternal side of Starbuck, which obviously wasn’t going to happen when Dirk Benedict was playing the role, emphasized that this new Starbuck wasn’t just a guy with a vagina. She’s a woman, excellent at her job, headstrong in all the traditional anti-hero ways, but always also a woman. For me to want her to be nothing more than a tough girl emulating a tough guy reflects more on the limitations of my own vision than it does on those of the creators of BSG.
One last note: in this day of DVDs, iTunes downloads, and torrents, there’s no reason not to start at the beginning of a series and work your way forward, so I understand completely that some folks are wary of jumping in on series that have been going for awhile. But I should note that three of my favorite series of recent years (the two mentioned above, and Buffy) were series I came to late. My first season of Buffy was the third, my first season of The Wire was the second, and I was doing mini-series and first-season catchup on BSG while I started watching Season Two. So it can be done … it’s not necessary, but it can be done.