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A Reconsideration of Battlestar Galactica Season 4.5

November 2nd, 2009

Please note:  there are SPOILERS AHEAD, so anyone who has not yet watched the final season of Battlestar Galactica should enjoy today’s cartoon, perhaps take in an archived blog or two (might I suggest my look back at the films of David Mamet?) and then head on their way.  Got that?

Ok, onward!

After watching the series finale of BSG back in March, I wrote at length about my over-all love for the series, as well as some of the dissatisfaction I felt about the finale and the final run of episodes.  Here’s an excerpt:

I think any lingering dissatisfaction that I feel rests not with the finale, which (nit-picks aside) was really a magnificent episode, and more with some of the storytelling decisions made during the course of this last season.  Ever since Kara’s “death” (and I guess now I should remove those quotation marks, huh?) towards the end of season 3, the show became much more about the various mysteries that were being presented than it ever had been before.  Questions such as what happened to Kara, what was her destiny, who was her guide, how did she survive… who was the final Cylon… what was the nature of the final five, how could they be Cylons, what was their history… what, in fact, does it mean to be a “Cylon”… who was Daniel, and what, if any, connection did he have to Starbuck… what really happened back on Earth, and on Kobol, 2-3,000 years ago…???  Etc etc etc.  For most of its first three seasons, BSG wasn’t really a show about mysteries (the way Lost is), but I felt that these questions came to dominate the show during its final year.  I would have appreciated it had more of them been answered, in more substantial ways, before we even got to the finale.

With the release of this final batch of episodes (labeled Battlestar Galactica season 4.5) on DVD, I was excited to take another look at the end of the show.  As I wrote a few weeks ago, I love having an opportunity to take in a movie or TV show a second time, so that I can watch it free of any expectations I might have had about what I thought it would be or HOPED it would be, and just enjoy it for what it IS.

So it was that, first of all, in re-watching these final 10 episodes of Battlestar Galactica I was reminded (all niggling over certain plot points aside) what a spectacular creation this show was, and how phenomenally well-made every single episode was.  There is extraordinary drama to be found in these final episodes.  I couldn’t possibly list all of the terrific moments contained in this last batch, but I can tell you that some of my favorite scenes include Adama’s angry, drunken show-down with the revealed-as-a-Cylon Tigh (in “Sometimes a Great Notion”), old men Adama and Tigh taking out the Marine guards assigned to escort them to the brig (in “The Oath”), Felix Gaeta’s final scene with Baltar (in the closing moments of “Blood on the Scales”), Ellen’s discovery that Tigh has been intimate with a Six (in “Deadlock”), Tyrol’s devastation at discovering Boomer’s betrayal (in the final moments of “Someone to Watch Over Me”)… I could go on!  Beyond the plots and the acting (which are superb), each episode looks and sounds phenomenally great.  The visual effects, the costumes, the sets, the props, the music — everything comes together in these episodes to produce what was essentially an extraordinarily well-made little movie each week.

The greatest thing about this DVD set, though, is the inclusion of significantly longer cuts of several episodes that are FAR superior to what aired on TV.  If I had a major complaint about these final episodes (other than the unresolved mysteries, as mentioned above), it’s that in many respects I felt the writers moved things too quickly from episode to episode, without giving the viewers a chance to see the characters react logically to the situations unfolding around them.  This concern is significantly addressed by the extra material in these episodes, almost ALL of which represents character moments that fill in a lot of these missing blanks.

The first extended episode is “A Disquiet Follows My Soul,” the second episode of the set.  The BSG gang have just discovered that Earth is a charred cinder, and are left to deal with the fall-out of their complete loss of hope.  There’s some great extra stuff to be found in this extended cut.  The early scene in Adama’s quarters in which the idea of installing Cylon jump-drives in the fleet is significantly longer.  Rather than the “huh?” moment that I felt that plot twist was in the original version, now we see a lot more of the characters debating this issue (as I’d expect they would).  We see a lot more of Lee, Zarek, and the Quorum as the political fall-out of this move is explored (which provides a much better context for Zarek’s actions in the mutiny in the next episode).  There’s a great Baltar/Six scene in the episode’s opening (which is a terrific scene on its own, and also gives Baltar something to do in this episode since he was pretty much absent from the original version).  There’s a whole new sequence, later in the episode, with Adama ripping Zigurski a new one because 10 of their Vipers are grounded because his deck-crew aren’t showing up to work.  (Interestingly enough, in this version the phone-call that Adama gets in his quarters is to inform him about this situation on the hangar deck.  Then the scene with Zigurski leads into his finding Roslin jogging in the corridors, avoiding her cancer treatments.  In the original version they totally cut around this, skipping from Adama receiving a call to his stopping Laura in the hallway, so that we assume the call was about Laura.  A fascinating case in clever editing!)  There are also lots of other nice little bits of business throughout the episode, such as Helo asking the Chief about his son, and more with Tyrol and Hot Dog, little moments that flesh out the relationships between the characters.  In the original version I felt this episode was all over the place, with some interesting moments that didn’t cohere into a unified whole, particularly after the dramatic events of “Sometimes a Great Notion.”  But I think MUCH more highly of the extended version.

I have similarly high praise for the even-more extended version of “Islanded in a Stream of Stars,” the series’ penultimate episode.  (“Disquiet” was extended from 43 minutes to 53 minutes, while “Islanded” is extended from 43 minutes to a whopping hour and three minutes.)  The opening conference in Adama’s quarters is longer, and there’s much more discussion of the futility of trying to rescue Hera (which helps us understand Adama’s decision, in that scene, not to go after her), as well as more explanation of why exactly Cavil wants her.  In a nice continuity note, Boomer is now included in the Opera House visions that we see Laura and Six share.  There’s much more to Baltar’s speech over the wireless about angels (which of course ties in to the events of the finale).  We also now see a cut-away to Kara listening to Baltar as he says a line about God sending angels to steer one back onto one’s path (which more clearly establishes for me the writers’ intentions for all of Kara’s scenes with the piano-player-who-might-have-been-her-father in the previous episode, “Someone to Watch Over Me”).  There’s an I-can’t-believe-this-got-cut scene of Tyrol in the brig (which of course would be the logical consequence of his helping Boomer in the previous episode) being confronted by a furious Athena.  There’s a lot more great Saul/Ellen stuff dealing with his dead son and his relationship with Six that includes a powerful moment in which he angrily declares to Ellen that “these are MY people.”  There are several additional short scenes of Adama visiting Laura in sick-bay which adds some nice tenderness to the episode.  There’s a great scene between Helo and Starbuck (established as good friends in the early seasons of the show but who we seldom saw together in the later seasons) when she talks to him about the hybrid’s description of her as the harbinger of death.  (It’s a great moment, and also one that shows that Baltar isn’t the ONLY person she’s told about this — an implication that I always thought felt wrong in the original version).  There’s a much longer version of the Adama/Tigh scene in which Adama comes around to the necessity of abandoning the Galactica that includes a great joke by Tigh in which he comments that, despite his age of 2,000 years, he still has all of his original teeth (which he then shows off to Bill).  The whole ending of the episode is entirely re-organized.  While the original version ended on their toast to Galactica, here we actually see several sequences of the crew beginning to evacuate (including a beat of Hot Dog escorting a civilian who I believe is actually his mom, Edward James Olmos’ wife), and a great moment of Tigh walking up to stand beside Adama.  The episode ends on a scene that the original version included much earlier in the last act, Kara’s visiting a comatose Sam and saying that “I’m not leaving until we figure this out.”  There are so many great connective-tissue moments added back into this episode, that as with “Disquiet” allow me to see this episode not as a time-waster just getting things in place for the finale, but rather as a key character-focused piece that allows us to spend a lot more time with the beloved characters to whom we’re about to bid farewell.

Which brings me to the finale.  The DVD includes an extended version that knits both originally-aired parts of the finale together while also adding in a number of additional scenes.  These new scenes don’t alter my feelings about the finale as dramatically as they did the other two extended episodes.  Most of the additions come fairly early on, and mostly contain additional flashbacks for some of the supportive characters — specifically Chief Tyrol, Helo, and Boomer.  It’s great fun to see more material of those three in their early days on-board Galactica, and more focus on their relationships with one another.  In particular, one of the Chief’s flashbacks features the return of a long-dead character (that I won’t spoil here) who I was really pleased to see included in the finale.  I was hoping for some more material in the final 45 minutes of the show to address some of the concerns I expressed in my original review of the finale.  In particular, I really wanted at least one scene in which someone dealt with the possibility that maybe SOMEONE among the rag-tag fleet wasn’t too keen on abandoning the ships and destroying all of their technology.  But that was not to be, as those final 45-or-so minutes were presented exactly as they originally were.  Since that was the part of the finale that I had problems with, that was a bit disappointing.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed re-watching these final episodes.  Rather than obsessing over the mysteries that would ultimately disappoint me, I was able to enjoy all the meaty character drama with which these final episodes were stuffed.  The extended episodes (not to mention all of the additional deleted scenes included with the rest of the episodes) really helped with that, as those extended episodes allowed the story-lines (and the characters) to breathe a little more, and for things to unfold much more naturally and organically than they did in the more breathlessly-paced original versions.

This final season has flaws, no doubt about it.  In many respects, the show did not unfold in the direction in which I had wished it to go.  But with a little distance now I am better able to enjoy the directions in which it DID go, and Battlestar Galactica still stands as one of the very finest television series ever created.

But wait!  The story is not quite over!  Come back on Wednesday for my thoughts on the final piece of the Battlestar Galactica puzzle, the just-released to DVD movie, The Plan!

“All of this has happened before…”

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