Saturday, May 19, 2012

Battlestar Galactica: My 10 Favorite Episodes

I’ve never reviewed a TV series on this site, as I usually reserve it for movies. That said, due to an all-around increase in production values, the lines between television and cinema have blurred considerably. Many modern shows play more like extended feature films than traditional televised fare, and no show in recent memory has meant more to me than the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009).

To me, BSG represents science fiction at its finest. Questions about the nature of humanity lie at the core of all great sci-fi, and Battlestar raises those questions and runs with them from the very first. It’s a perfect blend of drama, action and ideas, and the whole story is anchored by a phenomenal cast of characters (“So say we all!”). It earned a well-deserved reputation for being the most approachable sci-fi show on the air, maybe ever. There are no aliens, no lasers, no one getting beamed up. You could watch an episode for several minutes before realizing you had tuned in to a sci-fi show.

I could count the noticeably weak episodes on one hand, but even those have strong moments. It’s much more difficult to narrow down the greatest, but here’s my best shot. For what it’s worth, these are my 10 favorite episodes of my favorite TV series.

Note: What follows could accurately be described as downright spoilery, so if you haven’t finished the entire series, proceed with extreme caution. Actually, scratch that; if you haven’t finished the series, don’t proceed until you have.

10. Downloaded

Season 2 hits a minor slump with "Black Market" and "Scar" back to back, but it all comes roaring back with “Downloaded.” Up until this point, viewers have more questions than answers about Cylon resurrection, but this episode gives great insight into the Cylons, and Caprica Six and Boomer’s unexpected friendship works. Also, the revelation that Caprica Six sees visions of Gaius just as the real Gaius sees visions of her is a masterstroke.

9. Lay Down Your Burdens

There’s a lot going on in this episode. Starbuck finally rescues Anders, Gaius defeats Laura Roslin in the presidential election, and Chief Tyrol seeks counseling from everyone’s favorite atheist priest Cylon. Most important is what happens in the final 15 minutes. For a story as tightly-knit as this to be able to jump forward one year and make it work shows great writing. When Gaius surrenders with tears on his face, it solidifies one of the series’ boldest twists.

8. Sometimes a Great Notion

BSG’s darkest and saddest hour, this episode shows just how crushing the discovery of a devastated Earth would be. Adama breaks down, Laura burns her scriptures, and Kara burns her body, but it's ultimately Dualla’s suicide that hurts the most. Earth was all these people had to hope for, and watching the collected dreams of humanity shatter makes for gut-wrenching, powerful television. Throw in the revelation of the final Cylon, and you’ve got one of the series’ best episodes.

7. Daybreak

I know, I know; not everyone enjoyed the finale as much as I did and for understandable reasons, but there’s no denying that this episode has tremendous moments. The assault on the Cylon Colony is one hell of an action sequence. We finally see the opera house prophecy fulfilled. The scenes on Earth II are gorgeous and come as a relief after years of darkness and cramped corridors. Ultimately, it’s the character moments that make this send-off so great. When Gaius chokes up telling Caprica Six, “I know about farming,” it gives unexpected but perfect closure to one of my all-time favorite characters. Also, fans had long wondered what could possibly matter so much about Hera, and making her essential to our species’ evolution was a pretty clever answer.

6. Pegasus

Yet again, Battlestar astounds with great writing. The discovery of another surviving ship plays out with painful realism as joy turns to concern and then to hostility. Admiral Caine represents what Adama could have become without the people he had around him. In the wake of the Cylon attack, Adama had his son, his best friend, and the President affecting his decisions, but Caine didn’t have anyone to stop her from putting military concerns above all else. It’s a chilling episode (the beginning of a chilling trilogy of episodes), and it ends on one of the series’ best cliffhangers, with Adama telling Caine over the phone, “I’m getting my men.”

Note: Extended versions of BSG episodes are hit and miss, but this extended version plays even better than the original.

5. Exodus

I almost put "Occupation" on this list, which is the first of the New Caprica episodes. Kara using her napkin to daintily wipe her mouth with Leoben’s blood still on her hands is a pretty fantastic opening, but "Exodus" is ultimately the better episode. Galactica’s jump into the atmosphere makes for one of the show's best action scenes, and the character moments are heartbreaking. In the final minutes, Adama tells Tigh, “We brought ‘em home, Saul,” and Tigh’s voice cracks as he responds, “Not all of them.” Gaeta walks around the deck looking totally shell-shocked. The ultimate punch in the gut comes when Kacey’s mother takes her daughter from Kara’s arms; it’s remarkable storytelling, and it tells the viewers that New Caprica was much more than just a four-episode distraction. In ways both big and small, the characters are never the same again. 

4. The Oath/Blood on the Scales

These are technically two episodes, but I think I can get away with cheating here as they play very much like two parts of a whole. Zarek and Gaeta’s mutiny makes for some of the most suspenseful, riveting television I’ve ever seen. I love that their characters join for this task, but each ultimately realizes that he made a mistake in partnering with the other. My heart breaks when Gaeta looks around the Quorum room at the bloodshed and says, “What have you done? We had the truth on our side.” It breaks again when Gaeta gives his final interview with Baltar who tells him, “I know who you are, Felix.” When Gaeta looks up from his itching leg right before his death and says, “It stopped,” it’s just perfect. In the midst of the drama, Adama and Roslin’s love story also deepens as their faith in each other allows Adama to retake the ship. Battlestar always nailed its suspenseful episodes, but never more so than here.

3. Unfinished Business

On paper, this episode shouldn’t work half as well as it does. The narrative cuts between flashbacks of New Caprica and a boxing match (I would guess this was a hard concept to pitch), but the storytelling is tight and downright raw. We knew something bad had gone down between Apollo and Starbuck, but we didn’t know what. We feel Apollo’s pain when he tells Anders, “Good luck, Sam; you’re gonna need it.” The episode’s final image shows Apollo and Starbuck’s entire relationship in miniature as they embrace, smeared with sweat and blood, whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears.

Note: This episode demonstrates the vital importance of editing, as the extended version released on video adds 25 extra minutes which completely wreck the pacing and narrative flow.

2. 33

Series creator Ronald D. Moore cites "33" as his favorite episode, and it’s very nearly my favorite as well. Most shows ease viewers in gradually, but BSG’s first episode after the miniseries drops right in the middle of a crazy situation. The Cylons have the Fleet on the run, and our characters haven’t slept in five days. Gaius’ visions of his home back on Caprica add unexpected color and visual variety, while tensions in the fleet run higher and higher. We also catch up with Helo, adding another layer of intrigue. It’s dark, thought-provoking, character driven, suspenseful, and brilliantly executed. In many ways, "33" set the tone for the entire series.

1. Crossroads

Who would have guessed that on a sci-fi show about the near-annihilation of the human race, the dramatic pinnacle would be a courtroom drama? Mark Sheppard nearly steals the show in a guest appearance as Baltar’s lawyer, Romo Lampkin, building to that splendid moment where he leaves his cane and walks away. The reveal of four of the Final Five Cylons comes as a shock, as does hearing Bear McCreary’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Upon learning that he’s a Cylon, Tigh responds just as you would expect: “My name is Saul Tigh; I’m an officer of this fleet. Whatever else I am, that’s the man I want to be.” Starbuck’s post-mortem appearance is less shocking but still powerful. The greatest moment for me comes in Lee’s decisive defense of Baltar. You just know he’s right, and you know everyone else in the courtroom is thinking the same thing. “This case is built on emotion: on anger, bitterness, vengeance, but most of all, it’s built on shame. It’s about the shame of what we did to ourselves back on that planet, and it’s about the guilt of those of us who ran away.” Any of these elements would stand out were they in other episodes, but the fact that they all happen in the same epic season finale makes "Crossroads" my favorite episode of the series.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Avengers

As far as comic book movies go, The Avengers is a strange miracle. Here is a film that by all accounts should not have worked, yet it does much more than scrape by - I’d add it to the short list of great comic book films. Marvel has released five movies over the last four years (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America) which have all been building to this one picture. Under so much pressure and so many characters, a lesser movie would have collapsed, but Joss Whedon’s screenplay and direction bring remarkable balance. With the possible sole exception of the original Iron Man, The Avengers is the best Marvel movie to date.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s exiled brother, comes to Earth from outer space to rule over humanity. He brings an alien army, so S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) executes “The Avenger Initiative,” bringing together Earth’s greatest heroes to combat the otherwise unstoppable foes. The team includes Captain America (Chris Evans), who is still adjusting to modern times having been frozen in ice since the 1940’s, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who occasionally undergoes the unfortunate physical transformation of becoming The Hulk, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and famed industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), also known as Iron Man.

Joss Whedon’s involvement was the best thing that ever happened to this movie. The creator of beloved TV series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, Whedon has demonstrated great ability to juggle multiple characters and make them work as a team, which was the exact skill-set needed here. In two hours and twenty minutes, Whedon’s script somehow fits in just the right amounts of humor, action and character work. Every character receives adequate screen time, including side characters who haven’t previously been given much depth, like Hawkeye, Black Widow, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), and even Nick Fury himself. The Avengers isn’t perfect (Loki isn’t much of a villain, for instance), but given the tremendous difficulty of the task, Whedon deserves a whole lot of credit.

Four of the Avengers team members have previously carried their own films, though you don’t have to have seen them to enjoy this one. While the idea of getting them all together for one movie sounds great in theory, a single movie with that many big characters could easily have bombed. Whedon’s script is so balanced, but this group of actors also has great chemistry. The standout performance comes from Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk. Eric Bana and Edward Norton have played this character previously, but neither of those Hulk films got it right. Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is sympathetic and likable, and his dialogue adds new insight into his character’s struggles, exploring the relationship between his normal self and his invincible alter ego.

While the character development is top notch for this sort of movie, all of the action you would hope to see in an Avengers movie is delivered ten fold. The Avengers fight each other several times, making for some fun, explosive arguments (pun intended), and when the all-out battle arrives in act three, nothing is held back. It’s actually hard to imagine how a sequel could top the quality of these action scenes. I especially loved a long tracking shot in which each character is shown employing his/her unique abilities in battle. Each character had a moment or line of dialogue that left the crowd cheering at the opening night screening I attended, though the Hulk’s interaction with Loki stole the show.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has spun into this one picture, and now it will spin back out with continued sequels; there’s never been a multi-film project quite like it. Marvel took a big gamble investing so much in these movies, and it paid off. At this point, The Avengers 2 and 3 are inevitable, though I wouldn’t want to follow Joss Whedon’s act. Heck, I’m not even sure Whedon will want to follow his own act. For decades, fans have dreamed of how cool it would be to see all of these characters together onscreen, and The Avengers cashes in on the full potential of its idea.

For the Parents: 

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference

This is pure Marvel, comic book action. The only upsetting bits involve the death of a friendly character and a scene where Loki removes a man’s eye, or maybe he just retinal scans it? It’s not clear exactly what he does, as it happens off screen in a blood-free manner. The action is high-adrenaline and fast-paced but not graphic. If you’ve seen any of the five Marvel tie-in movies, the tone of the action and violence are similar in The Avengers.