Hixie's Natural Log

2006-03-21 04:06 UTC Problems with Battlestar Galactica

Chris recently renewed my interest in Battlestar Galactica. I'd given up watching it because I don't have a TV at home, I no longer share a home network connection with people who 'torrent their TV, and I don't want to own the DVDs. I don't want to own the DVDs because, relative to the Stargate franchise, I don't actually like Battlestar Galactica. Or so I thought. But I'd forgotten why.

Independent of this, I started using iTunes to handle my music a few months ago. I'd avoided (indeed, I'd disabled) the iTunes Music Store interface, though.

In the Scientific Interest, I decided to buy Battlestar Galactica episodes and see whether the show was actually better than I remembered, and see how iTunes worked.

iTunes rocks. The actual choice is minimal (they have nothing that I would pay $2 for in the TV Shows section other than Battlestar Galactica), but the user interface is beautiful.

But I still don't like Battlestar Galactica. Stop reading now if you don't want to have the first two seasons spoilt for you.

There are two main areas that I dislike. First, the writing:

  1. Not enough wham episodes (episodes where the overall arc changes direction unexpectedly). (Spoiler warning for episodes up to the end of season two!) In the second season there were just seven wham points: the major ones were Pegasus joining the fleet (little change to the fleet's tactics), a Cylon getting impregnated (major recurring plot point), and the discovery of New Caprica (major knock-on effects); the minor ones were Billy dying (no effect other than his death), President Roslin getting miraculously cured (it just removed a pending threat, simplifying the storyline), the Vice President's girlfriend reappearing in human form (had potential but wasn't really used), and the Cylon tactics changing slightly due to the destruction of their Resurrection Ship (no real change). However, even these five made very little real impact on the storyline — the basic threat was still the same (attacks from the unexplained Cylons), the basic goal was still the same (survive until Earth is found, at least until the last episode), and the changes mostly had only small impacts on later stories (see point 4). In addition, all of those wham points happened in just four episodes, the other episodes were largely effect-free.
  2. Too many episodes start with a teaser and then jump back to "48 hours ago" or similar. This is a tool to make an otherwise boring episode interesting by putting the only part of the episode that is interesting at the start of the hour. A good episode wouldn't need this because its plot would be interesting all the way through.
  3. Not enough humour. The show is very dark, with very little light-heartedness other than the frequent drunken stupours of certain characters, which is only funny for the characters, not the viewers.
  4. Not enough references to previous episodes. Plot lines from episodes should have knock-on effects on future episodes on a regular basis. When there are strong references, they tend to be in the form of repeated post-processed flashbacks, not new material.

Second, the filmography:

  1. Far too much of an introduction sequence (in fact there are two per episode, one before the teaser and one after the teaser, the end of which spoils the episode by including shots from upcoming scenes).
  2. Way the "frack" too much handheld — usually used to give a sense of tension, handheld is used in BSG so much that it has lost all effect except for inducing nausea. Its overuse means that when it is actually needed to convey real motion or tension it has to be used so much that it becomes impossible to actually see anything on the video. To make matters worse, frequent handheld abuse is often combined with unprofessional-looking fast handheld streaking pans, sudden push-ins, bad framing, over-exposure and other disorientating effects. (Even CG shots have the handheld feel — five points for consistency, I guess.)
  3. Character development episodes have long mood-setting scenes where nothing happens and where the storyline doesn't move forward, instead of combing strong emotional content with forwarding the plot. Typically these scenes include a lot of slow-motion close-ups with no dialogue, a lot of over-exposed video, a lot of extreme close-up on heads or bottles of alcohol with half the frame so far out of focus all you see is flashes of washed-out colour.
  4. Too many brightly back-lit scenes resulting in high-contrast washed-out video reminiscent of underground nightclub scenes from Star Wars. In the worst of these cases the camera movement seems to intentionally move strong fluorescent back-lights in and out of view by moving a character or other foreground element back and forth in front of it, accentuating the contrast even further and causing a light bleed effect on the foreground element.
  5. Not designed to be DVD-friendly — the iTunes no-advert versions still fade-to-black at act changes, instead of being seamless, and it would require significant changes to hide this (the adverts are probably assumed to be always present).

There are a few things I would say are really good about Battlestar Galactica. The acting, for instance, is very well done and very believable. The three minute steady-cam uncut sequence at the very start of the miniseries is impressive. The CG of space scenes is believable (despite the camera animation). Continuity seems to be consistently correct. The style is consistent across episodes. With a few exceptions, and notwithstanding the numerous as yet unexplained coincidences, the stories are largely believable. I'm still watching.