Monday, February 26, 2007

President Roslin, Battlestar Galactica, 2005

I've been hearing about the new Battlestar Galactica as one of the best things on television for a few years, but I foolishly resisted the hype. I say foolishly because I responded to the show just as friends do when I try to tell them that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was brilliant: Whatever, dork.

Know thyself: Dork, geek, and now, Battlestar fan. The show won me over with its patience. The first half hour or so of the pilot episode is dedicated to slow, ordinary life, and yet it's filled with dread. Not suspense, exactly, but something thicker and deeper beneath the surface. The plot is this: Forty years ago, the humans defeated their creation, the Cylons; the Cylons left and haven't been seen since. Life is peaceful and good. The Galactica is about to be decommissioned. The moment, as more than one critic has pointed out, is Clintonian -- the Cold War is over, and things are ok but not grand, and something is missing, and we're worried that something bad may be coming. It's a period of exhuberance for most and White Noise anxiety for the few. The ranks of the latter include Edward James Olmos as the brooding old admiral of the Galactica, who, warns in his farewell speech that you can't escape your sins. The past isn't dead, it isn't even past. And so it is with the Cylons, who return to destroy the world.

But before that happens, the show features a series of moments as good as one of the best Buffy episodes ever, "The Body." We see a handsome middle aged woman waiting in an elegant but sterile room. Sun filters in through skylights; the atmosphere is wan. Who is she? What is she waiting for? When a doctor finally enters, it's so obvious that we barely need dialogue; and get almost none, as a space ship lumbers overhead, obscuring their words. Cut to a scene of the woman aboard a space ship, which looks -- deliberately -- just like an ordinary airplane; mundane. She is, we gather, a politican, but not a very important one. Just a functionary. Her aide, immediately recognizable as the kind of young earnest hack that trots around Capitol Hill, asks her a question. She cannot respond, flees to the bathroom. Unbuttons her jacket, grabs her chest, heaves with repressed grief and shock.

And that's about all we know of the death sentence, perphaps breast cancer, of the woman who is about to become president of the survivors of the Cylon attack (by virtue of her position as 43rd in succession, following the Cylon's nuclear attack). It's slow and painful and very real, perhaps all the more so for its contrast with the fantastical story. Indeed, it makes the fantastical story much sharpe -- the cancer dread, so understated, is real. So then might be our fear of the Cylons, who, after all, are a metaphor.

I'm not ready to say for what. I've only seen the pilot and one episode. The latter is a bit weaker. One of the strengths of the pilot was that the same quiet observation with which we attended the president's diagnosis marked the approach of the director to the inevitable space battles. Geeks know there's no noise in space, of course, so that wins the show some realism points. More importantly, it forces the viewer to provide the soundtrack; and the usual "action theme" won't suffice. In the silence we confront the fact that the good guys will rally like David fighting Goliath, but to no avail. They'll be destroyed like anyone who terribly underestimates their enemies.

Alas, the director evidently overestimated the average viewer. The first regular episode features laser guns a-blasting and Cylons droning in space battle, standard sci-fi theatrics. What's left -- what makes the program still so interesting -- are the actors, particularly the president (Mary McDonnell). She quietly suppresses the horror of their post-apocalyptic condition as she carries on with leading them to survival. It's the silent dread of the pilot episode's space battles, or of an ordinary, horrifying prognosis -- an emotion I haven't seen portrayed on television since Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Whatever, dork.