So what’s the current feeling about Battlestar Galactica? I’ve been lagging behind real-time in my viewing, so I haven’t really read any commentary on the show since they left New Caprica. I thought “Torn”/”A Measure of Salvation” did good work on the Cylons, but cheated on the humans horribly, and that “Hero” and “The Passage” were about on a level with the second half of season two, with some nice moments and some less nice. (From “The Passage”, aka the Jane Espenson episode, I’m keeping the moment where Adama and Tigh collapse in hysterics as one of the absurdities of their ration situation hits home, and I’m trying to forget the frantic handwaving necessary to make the A-plot work.) And then there was “Unfinished Business”, aka The Boxing Episode, which was just a bit of a mess, really. From the teaser — a montage of stark, semi-related images, set to a soundtrack of slow, cold strings is fast becoming one of the show’s cliches — to the resolution, there was very little in the way of surprise, which is more of a shame than it would normally be, given that this was probably our one chance to see some of what happened in the missing year on New Caprica. Compared to, say, Diane Ruggiero’s use of flashbacks in Veronica Mars‘ “A Trip to the Dentist”, or Tim Minear’s use of them in Firefly‘s “Out of Gas” — both episodes designed to provide backstory that’s been informing the present story — Michael Taylor’s structuring of this episode looks distinctly amateur-hour. Too much material is repeated to no good effect. Starbuck and Apollo remember the same events, and the meaningful glances become very old, very fast, which is probably why the single biggest structural problem I’d point to is that the episode has the wrong emotional climax. Even if you’re particularly invested in the concept of Starbuck/Apollo (and I’m not), I think you have to concede that it’s not the Epic Romance that the last few minutes of “Unfinished Business” try to sell us. On the other hand, while the Adama flashbacks are arguably just as unsatisfying as the Starbuck/Apollo ones (cute though it is to see the fleet’s leaders giggling like schoolkids), some of them do set up Adama’s fight against the Chief, which is utterly riveting. It’s not clear whether Adama was looking for an excuse to get himself beaten up, or whether he felt it was necessary to give the crew the closure they needed, or both, or something else: either way, the long beat after his defeat, before his speech, is the single most powerful moment Galactica has generated this season.
One of the things that’s marked out Galactica all along is its tendency to include episodes, like “Unfinished Business”, that have absolutely no need to be sf, and could be transplanted wholesale to a more contemporary setting. That’s not an accusation you could ever level at Heroes, to which I now freely admit I’m addicted. Of course, the foregrounding of speculative elements in Heroes isn’t why the show works, per se, although it sure doesn’t hurt; the secret of its success is largely in its plotting. The decompressed, immaculately-woven tapestry of story threads feels, at least to me, like one of the things the show has most successfully ported from its source medium (although it’s worth noting that Galactica at its best, and in particular at the start of season two, has also used such techniques, so it’s not exactly a pure comics tradition). In that and many other ways, it’s fair to say that Heroes has become exactly what I hoped it would be when I first wrote about it, and fittingly the “fall finale”, Joe Pokaski’s “Fallout”, is the strongest episode of the season to date. Somewhere on livejournal I saw someone say that “Fallout” was made up of nothing but moments that would have been the centrepiece of an entire episode on another show, and that’s not much of an overstatement There’s an utterly gobsmacking amount going on, almost all of clever and effective, and if you asked me to pick a favourite moment from, say, Eden, the closing vision, Isaac’s painting, Peter and Claire, and the Haitian, I don’t think I could do it (and could probably name another three or four contenders if I took longer to think about it). The flipside, the show’s critics will say — and I have a running debate with Abigail about this — is that the show doesn’t do dialogue, doesn’t do character, doesn’t really do depth of any kind. The first two criticisms had some merit to start with, but it seems to me the writers have come on in leaps and bounds; with the possible exception of Niki, I don’t think there’s a single character on the show I’m not interested in, which is not a small accomplishment. The lack of depth is perhaps a more serious criticism, but even there I think a lot of people underrate Heroes — and anyway, it’s an attack that shifts the goalposts. First and foremost Heroes is more consistently fun than anything else on TV, and that’s not a small accomplishment, either.
And, not before time, Heroes even appears to have lost the voiceovers. I wish I could say the same of Torchwood, since whatever his other virtues John Barrowman just cannot sell that “the 21st century is when everything changes, and you gotta be ready” line to save his life, and it’s painful to hear him try at the start of each episode. The only reason I’m still watching the show, if I’m honest, is that I lack willpower: every Sunday evening I have something better to do (most of the time, I forget about Torchwood entirely), and every Monday, or at the latest Tuesday, I’ll see a comment somewhere about how this episode wasn’t bad, or started to show promise, and I’ll think, well, I’ve come this far … Paul Tomalin and Dan McCulloch’s arc-initiating “They Keep Killing Suzie” is the most recent episode I’ve watched, and while it was far from being the most horrible episode of the season so far (that honour still goes to CYBERWOMAN VS PTERODACTYL), anyone who seriously compares it to Heroes, or even to sub-par Galactica, has got to be on something pretty strong. Where Heroes gives its viewers cool stuff rooted in character, Torchwood tries to give its viewers shocking stuff not rooted in anything. Where Galactica is always, always beautiful, the cinematography and soundtrack on Torchwood make me want to cry. “They Keep Killing Suzie” had an interesting premise — the dead hand of the rogue Torchwood member who killed herself in the show’s pilot enacts a complicated vengeance — and one scene with actual emotional impact — the one with Gwen and Suzie in the car, after the hospital, talking about death, where Suzie says that humans are “just animals howling in the night, because it’s better than silence” — but it was all rather spoilt by the engagement of the, as Tony put it, TOTAL BOLLOCKS OVERDRIVE towards the end of the episode. (There’s something about this show that just inspires the use of ALL CAPS. I can’t help myself.) So … what was this week’s episode like?
That one emotionally involving scene did have a second good line, now I come to think of it, which was the one about all these aliens only washing up on Earth because there’s life here, because they’re drawn to it like moths to a flame. It strikes me that if Torchwood ever built on moments like that, and if it was ever any good, it could potentially (don’t laugh) start telling the stories about sex and death that a 21st-century James Tiptree, Jr might have told. Admittedly, they couldn’t go as far as “The Screwfly Solution” and actually end the world, but I think there’s room for a series working in that territory — Angel gave us “Billy”, for instance, which in retrospect looks not unlike a reconfigured version of “The Screwfly Solution”. I was somewhat amused, in a despairing kind of way, to come across comments like these about the Masters of Horror adaptation of Tiptree’s story, which insist that it’s not really horror but science fiction (as though it could only be one or the other), because to me it seemed to be full of the visual grammar of horror (from lashings of blood to dark woods), and because “The Screwfly Solution” is one of the two or three scariest stories I’ve ever read. It doesn’t really matter whether the premise (aliens who want our land corrupt the linkage between human male sexuality and violence; men start killing women) is an actual biological possibility. The thought that it might be — or to go back to “Billy”, the idea that it might be something in men, rather than solely something done to them — is utterly terrifying on its own. Here I suspect I’m disagreeing with Abigail, again (I already know I’m against her and with Matt Cheney on the story’s last line), but arguably the scariest thing about Hamm’s adaptation is how little updating it needed to retain that air of possibility. The rhetoric about bioterrorism and fundamentalist religion fits in more than comfortably, as does the suggestion of chemical castration, and between them Sam Hamm and Joe Dante almost entirely preserve the conviction and unarguable raw force of the original story. If I had Hugo nomination rights this year, for that feat alone “The Screwfly Solution” would be on my ballot.