Judge Jim Thomas once woke up in a tub of goo. Turns out it was just jello. No, wait, that was someone else. Yeah...
Our reviews of Battlestar Galactica: Season One (published November 7th, 2005), Battlestar Galactica: Season 2.0 (published January 9th, 2006), Battlestar Galactica: Season 2.5 (published October 2nd, 2006), Battlestar Galactica: Season One (HD DVD) (published January 28th, 2008), Battlestar Galactica: Season Two (Blu-Ray) (published April 12th, 2010), Battlestar Galactica: Season Three (published March 24th, 2008), Battlestar Galactica: Season Three (Blu-Ray) (published July 22nd, 2010), Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.0 (published January 16th, 2009), Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.5 (Blu-Ray) (published July 28th, 2009), Battlestar Galactica: Season Four (Blu-Ray) (published January 21st, 2011), Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series (published July 28th, 2009), and Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries (published February 2nd, 2005) are also available.
This is the way the world ends…
In June 2008, we were left with the image of the radioactive husk of a plant called Earth. After an interminable six month wait, Battlestar Galactica returned with its final nine episodes. To say that fans were somewhat eager for the show's return is like saying that a man crawling out of the desert is somewhat thirsty. BSG did not disappoint, with a premiere that dramatized all too well the price of dashed hopes. The next three episodes, including an insurrection led by Lt. Gaeta, of all people, left us riveted to the screen, growing more and more eager for (and fearful of) the impending finale.
And then the next four episodes aired.
We learned the truth about the Cylons, a truth so vast we struggled to assimilate it. We learned more about other characters as well, as forces moved inexorably towards a final showdown between the Colonial Fleet and Cavil's Cylon forces. We saw Galactica, torn and battered from its own journey, about to be abandoned. We saw a piano player show up out of nowhere and give Starbuck a final piece of the puzzle. About the only constant was that no one ever really knew which way Boomer would jump. And we were riveted, anticipation for the finale reaching a fever pitch.
Then the finale aired…
…and then the frak hit the fan. Viewers howled. Wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued. Cats and dogs living together—mass hysteria! Some guy even went so far as to declare "Daybreak" the worst series finale in history, posting to the internet a near dissertation-length diatribe of every single way the finale failed.
And people think I need a life?
Universal brings us Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.5, the final chapter of one of the best dramas to ever grace the airwaves. Let's work through this together, shall we?
p.s. Yes, I know that "the frak hit the fan" makes no sense. You got the point, though, didn't you?
Facts of the Case
Oh yes, there will be spoilers. In lieu of a section going on and on about the magnificent camerawork and effects, I'm including screenshots from the finale. They're not really matched to the text, so just go with it.
The set includes all nine episodes, three of which (marked with an asterisk) have been extended.
• "Sometimes a Great Notion"—The fleet struggles to deal with the shattering discovery of Earth, made worse by the revelation that Earth had been populated by Cylons. Starbuck tracks the homing signal and discovers her own body in a crashed Viper. Awkward. The identity of the fifth Cylon is revealed.
• "A Disquiet Follows My Soul" *—The fleet begins to reorient itself, in the face of recent discoveries. Laura Roslin begins to lose faith in the Pythian prophecy and her role as the dying leader. Tom Zarek moves to weaken the Human-Cylon alliance.
• "The Oath"—Gaeta and Zarek, taking advantage of general unrest, lead an insurrection.
• "Blood on the Scales"—President Roslin faces Zarek and Gaeta, as they try to solidify their control of the Colonial fleet. The alliance with the rebel Cylons, not to mention Adama's life, are at stake.
• "No Exit"—As Anders recovers from brain surgery, his memories of the Final Five re-emerge. Ellen Tigh resurrects aboard a Basestar, revealing the part she played on Earth. With Galactica losing structural integrity, Adama reinstates Tyrol as Chief, with a mandate to fix the ship.
• "Deadlock" *—Galactica undergoes repairs using a Cylon substance that may help maintain the ship's structural integrity. With Boomer's help, Ellen Tigh escapes Cavil's ship and reunites with the fleet, completing the gathering of the Final Five.
• "Someone to Watch Over Me"—Starbuck encounters a mysterious piano player in Joe's Bar and helps him work on his latest song. Realizing the musical notes match a series of dots drawn by Hera, Starbuck finishes the song, which Col. Tigh and Tory Foster recognize as the music they heard when they learned they were Cylons. Tyrol unwittingly helps Boomer kidnap Hera and take her to Cavil.
• "Islanded in a Stream of Stars" *—With Galactica badly damaged from Boomer's escape, Adama decides to abandon ship. As Starbuck searches for the meaning behind the "Cylon song," Baltar exposes her return from the dead as proof of life after death. (The extended version has a commentary track by Edward James Olmos)
• "Daybreak, Part I" *—A series of flashbacks reveals Caprica Six's involvement in caring for Baltar's elderly father, the loss of Roslin's family in an accident, and Lee Adama's passionate feelings for Starbuck, even though she is dating his brother Zak. In the present, Anders reveals the location of Cavil's base and Adama decides to take Galactica on one final mission to rescue Hera.
• "Daybreak, Parts II and III" *—Admiral Adama leads Galactica's final battle and rescues Hera from the Cylon Colony. (An extended version of the entire three-part "Daybreak" is included, with a commentary track by Ronald D. Moore, David Eick, and director Michael Rymer, accessed through the Audio Commentary menu.)
This is gonna take a while. At some point, I'm likely to start rambling. Bear with me, please.
Part I…"Everything you know is wrong."
The first four episodes may well be the best four consecutive episodes BSG ever strung together—which is quite an accomplishment. The truth of Earth was literally a soul-crushing discovery, with the one-two punch of learning the 13th Tribe were the original Cylons. Events unfold in a manner that never once betrays characterization simply to advance the plot. At the core of these episodes is the speech Lee makes to the Quorum, a speech that occurs offscreen. We hear about it second hand, as Lee and Dualla return from their final date. In the speech, Lee tells the Quorum they are now free to chart their own courses, no longer slaves to the false prophecies of Pythia. But that's easier said than done. (Just as an aside: Kudos for the decision to have the Lee's speech given off screen, giving viewers the information in a self-deprecating manner. Not only is it more efficient, but better sets up that which follows. These writers are damned good.) Those who can move beyond the prophecies can look to themselves for purpose. Roslin becomes so free she burns the prophecies, blows off chemo, and starts jogging around the ship, more or less spitting in the face of her disease. I can't even begin to express how much I love Laura Roslin. Adama, who created the lie of Earth, only to watch it turn into reality, finally moves past the disappointment and past the revelation that Tigh is a Cylon. It's what allows him to regain his pragmatism and eventually ask Tyrol to return as chief. When Tyrol comments that he is still a Cylon, Adama simply extends his hand and replies, "So's my XO."
Not everyone is so lucky. Poor, sweet Dualla, only able to find solace in a bullet. Poor, sweet Gaeta, the eternal idealist, cradling Dualla's head in his lap, drinking in one final measure of despair before backing yet another wrong horse, this time in the guise of Tom Zarek.
Based on the traffic at various websites, by the end of the first four episodes, the fan base had been whipped into a frenzy.
Part II…"My Brain Hurts!!"
We haven't even recovered from the insurrection when we finally (at long last) learn the truth about the Cylons and the Final Five. The next three episodes, beginning with the Sartre homage, "No Exit," gives us the true, horrifying meaning of that oft-quoted line of Colonial scripture, "All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again."
Here's (more or less) what went down:
1. The 13th Tribe were Cylons…and human.
BSG has, from day one, been one of the most densely plotted series ever. They can pack more drama into a precredit sequence than any other show out there, and these middle episodes are perfect examples. The underlying motif here is that violence begets more violence (there's very little in history or literature to dispute that—see the Middle East for a case study). The struggle for survival now operates on two levels: the fleet's immediate struggle to stay alive, and the larger struggle to break the cycle. The Five think they have figured it out, but are thwarted by Cavil. This need to break the cycle ties in with one of the odder points of the finale, the abandonment of technology. We'll get to that later.
The wildcard here is Kara, who was so busy dealing with the uprising she doesn't really get a chance to question her own existence until the latter part of the season. There is a beautiful scene with her and Lee in "Islanded in a Sea of Stars." Having been outed as an angel by Baltar, Kara is standing in front of the Wall of Remembrance, when Lee comes up and affirms his unwavering faith in her. No matter what the weirdness, she's Kara Thrace. It's a touching declaration of love and friendship and Kara is clearly gratified, though it's just as clear she doesn't buy it. After Lee leaves, she places a picture of herself on the wall, accepting on some level that Kara Thrace is dead. Is it fully explained? No, but that doesn't detract from the honesty and beauty of the emotion, and that emotional realism has always been at the heart of the show.
Part III…Daybreak. Or, "What the FRAK just happened?!?"
Rewatching all of this has been like going through an emotional wringer a second time—you know it's coming, but you're still flattened. There were a number of problems people had with the finale, many of which do not seem to be completely warranted. Let's take a look at some of those:
• What's the deal with that bird in Lee's apartment in the flashback? Answer: Even Ron Moore doesn't know, he just liked the image. So it's basically a free-floating signifier and means whatever you want.
• "All Along the Watchtower" as an Triple-A triptych: I have mixed feelings on this. The Hera-Starbuck business is OK, I guess. I'm even down with the mystical piano player, though given Starbuck is ultimately revealed as an angel (agent of God), one wonders why such a byzantine mechanism was needed. We never saw Head Six or Head Baltar go through any of that crap. Perhaps the real message is that Jimi Hendrix will set you free. I've heard worse ideas.
• The Lord of the Rings type ending: I can't believe people complained about that. We've been following these guys for five years. An ending that didn't touch on all the major players would have felt like a cheat.
• Kara's exit: I can certainly see what others might not like about it, but it worked for me, in large part because of the execution it was done so well. Camera angles, acting, editing, it just works, in spite of (or maybe even because of) the ambiguity. Lee on some level knows, whatever happens, he and Starbuck won't be together and he doesn't include her in his plans.
• The various flashbacks: "Daybreak" was written, directed, and edited as a three hour finale, not a one hour setup with a two hour finale the following week. After the rough cut was submitted, the network forced the split broadcast. When you watch it in one sitting, particularly the extended version, the flashbacks play much better. In the commentary track, Ron Moore says the idea was to give a brief glimpse of the characters before the Fall, in order to better emphasize the extent of their journeys. OK, that's an interesting conceit, and I can see why it would be appealing. But not all the flashbacks have a real payoff. Only the Six/Baltar flashback directly relates to the finale, giving the pair's closure tremendous emotional resonance. In fact, without that flashback, the conclusion doesn't work.
The other flashbacks though, don't bring nearly as much to the table. The Lee/Kara flashback highlighted the fact that they were essentially a pair of star-crossed lovers, but we figured that out a long time ago. Laura's flashback added depth to a character that really didn't need any more depth. The scenes were engaging, McDonnell was her usual magnificent self, but it didn't really add anything to the proceedings. The Adama/Tigh flashback was the weakest, as the same basic concept has been done time and again. Frankly, it seemed the main goal of the flashback was to establish the decadence of Caprica. The tenuous connection between some of the flashbacks and the finale proper creates a pacing problem, a problem exacerbated by the break between Parts I and II.
Do I really need to go into acting? Everyone was at the top of the game here, but special props go out to Mary McDonnell and Eddie Olmos for their consistency throughout the series. Additional props to Dean Stockwell, who gradually turned Cavil from an interesting character to a malevolent force; Kate Vernon, for turning Ellen's Final Five-ness into just another facet of the character; and Katee Sackhoff, who completely sells a character that has essentially turned into a cipher.
The transfer is, as usual, flawless. For whatever reason, Sci-Fi Channel's signal is a bit noisy on our cable system, so the first time I see the DVDs, the images just pop off the screen. The 5.1 mix is immersive and rich. In the commentary for "Islanded in a Sea of Stars," Olmos comments on that ambient noise—the sound of Galactica's frame creaking—amazing stuff. As Olmos says, it's the sound of the ship crying.
There are, as expected, a lot of extras. The traditional Ron Moore podcasts and David Eick video blogs are there, as well as some behind the scenes stuff and deleted scenes. The deleted scenes for BSG are always worth looking at, because they're usually full scenes that didn't make the final cut. On the lighter side, "What the Frak is Happening with BSG?" is a whirlwind, tongue-in-cheek recap of the first 3.5 seasons in just over eight minutes. My favorite line: "Then Boomer tells Helo there's a bun in the Toaster." "Creating a Cue" is a fascinating look at how composer Bear McCreary develops a musical cue for the show. It takes the process from viewing the rough cut all the way through final mixing. You'll never again take a soundtrack for granted. The commentary for the extended version of "Daybreak" is just wonderful, with a wealth of information. Olmos' track for the extended version of "Islanded in a Stream of Stars" is a little drier; he tends to just say "great work here" without clarifying what makes the work great. That said, the extended episode itself is masterful. It's 25 minutes longer and the additional material gives the episode a mournful, elegiac quality.
A great disappointment is the omission of "The Face of the Enemy," an important story that informs Gaeta's insurrection. The webisode series which ran during the midseason break and the omission is unconscionable, particularly since the webisode that set up Season 3 ("The Resistance") was included on that DVD set. The lack of cast commentary tracks is also a bit of a letdown. The cast is well-represented in the featurettes, but given this is the last hurrah, it would have been nice to hear them discussing specific scenes and issues. Mary McDonnell and Katie Sackoff are notably missing from any of the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are two key issues with the finale that are troublesome.
• The Jump to the Present: The temporal jump itself isn't nearly as problematic as Head Baltar and Head Six's appearance there. For the entire run of the series, Head Six only appeared to Baltar. In his few appearances, Head Baltar only appeared to Caprica Six. Such a drastic change at the very end smells of a dramatic cheat; we might as well have had a Greek Chorus appear and give us the "Lesson to Be Learned." More to the point, were they really needed? The shots of all the robots made the point. If they really wanted to be mean, they could have followed up the various robot shots with a shot of Six, dressed as she was when she arrived at Armistice Station all the way back in the miniseries, striding directly towards the camera, echoing the beginning of The Fall. In any event, their presence ended the series on a somewhat corny note, which is why people tend to harp on it. But it wasn't the biggest problem.
• "I've got a great idea: Let's give up technology!" Lee, you frakking idiot. When Laura effectively abdicated in favor of Lee, she told Lee he tended to do the right thing instead of the smart thing. Here, he did neither. Abandoning technology was quite possibly the worst possible thing he could have done, because it virtually guaranteed their story—and its accompanying lessons—would be lost forever. Santayana was right: "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it." If they had kept the technology, they could have kept accurate, durable records, thus avoiding endlessly edited, reworked histories which will eventually turn into a confusing mess of babble like the Scrolls of Pythia. This may have been a situation in which the ending they wanted (the fleet populating our Earth) demanded that technology be abandoned, else we'd all be using paper with the corners cut off. It's probably a good thing Lee's off mountain climbing; the first time someone dies of an illness or injury that Doc Cottle could have easily treated with his medical equipment, people will be lining up to lynch his ass. In addition, the whole point of Head Six's comment about cycles was that eventually, something might happen to break the cycle; an accurate history would be just such a thing. This was the one aspect of the finale that just flat out didn't work.
But I can't leave the finale on a sour note, because taken as a whole, the finale, the season, and the series have been magnificent. I prefer to remember Baltar saying "you know, I know something about farming," as he and Caprica Six walk off together, finally at peace with his own identity and his past failings behind him. The same goes for Laura, laying down her burdens at long last, gently succumbing to her cancer as Bills flies her over the new world. Bill standing beside her cairn, describing for her the cabin she dreamed of building with him. Those sequences just felt so right, it's really a shame they didn't stop the series right there.
There is no question that the first half of Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.5 not only lived up to the series' high standards, but exceeded them. Also without dispute is that the finale was a bit of a letdown. However, this court is mindful of the fact that fan anticipation set the bar a wee bit high. While the finale has its faults (some major), many were created by the network's decision to split the finale across two weeks. These are greatly diminished on DVD.
In his series manifesto, Ron Moore stated his goal was to take the "opera" out of "space opera." In doing so, Battlestar Galactica redefined television science fiction, setting a new standard for all shows that follow. And while Emmy voters have remained willfully oblivious to BSG's many accomplishments, this court is not similarly afflicted.
"Let us resolve to be masters, not the victims, of our history, controlling our own destiny without giving way to blind suspicions and emotions."—JFK
So say we all.
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