Saturday, January 31, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: The Oath

The Galactica is throwing a mutiny, and everyone’s invited! Let’s get to it: Gaeta springs Zarek from the brig, then sets in motion an incredibly elaborate and brutal plan to overthrow Adama. Wow, when Gaeta goes crazy and evil, he commits. Skulls and Racetrack, at a signal from Gaeta, evacuate the flight deck and prepare to transport Zarek to Colonial One. Laird (remember Laird? That one guy from the Pegasus? No? Eh, doesn’t matter) tries to stop them, so Zarek beans him over the head with a wrench. Exit Laird.

Gaeta returns to the CIC and carefully orchestrates chaos throughout the ship by manufacturing a fake out-of-control fire and taking all the comms offline. While I sort of despise Newly Crazy and Evil Gaeta, I must say he makes a pretty effective criminal mastermind. Decks are evacuated due to Gaeta’s nonexistent fire, which Starbuck finds fishy. When she calls the CIC to report her suspicions, Gaeta hangs up on her.

On Colonial One, Apollo tries to convince the Quorum to accept the alliance with the Cylons. Zarek arrives and takes over the meeting. Apollo calls Adama to see why Zarek has been restored to power, but Gaeta answers and stalls him. When Apollo returns to the Galactica, the mutineers, Skulls and Racetrack among them, detain him. Starbuck shoots Skulls in the neck and rescues Apollo.

So have enough peripheral characters inexplicably turned bloodthirsty and evil yet? No? Well, here’s Seelix: she arranges to have Anders ambushed, beaten, and thrown in the brig. Mutineers invade the Agathons’ quarters and imprison Helo, Athena, and Hera with Anders and Caprica Six. Because it wouldn’t be Battlestar Galactica without the ever-present threat of sexualized violence against women, one of the mutineers threatens to rape Athena.

In the CIC, Gaeta calls in the Marines and places Tigh and Adama into custody, then takes command of the whole damn ship. Yes, I’ve been insisting for the last three seasons that Gaeta should be given a juicier role, but this wasn’t what I had in mind. Adama and Tigh revolt en route to the brig and meet up with Starbuck and Apollo.

Roslin visits Baltar, who is holed up in his compound along with his followers and Tyrol, and uses his wireless to address the fleet. She rallies the fleet to resist the mutineers, but Gaeta severs the connection midway through her speech.

Baltar calls the CIC to talk some sense into Gaeta. This is an excellent idea, except, being Baltar, he botches it. He riles up Gaeta by mentioning “our little secret, sealed with a very special pen,” so Gaeta hangs up on him and continues on with his scheduled mutiny. You know, fifteen or so episodes back, if Adama had realized that maybe his mild-mannered tactical officer was starting to go crazy and evil when he STABBED BALTAR IN THE NECK WITH A PEN, maybe all this could have been prevented. Just saying.

(Side note: Watch the webisodes, if you haven’t done so already. Not only do they reveal all kinds of fun things about Gaeta’s surprisingly active and varied personal life, but his New Caprica secret is explained in some detail. The webisodes also sort of explain why he's cheerfully gone from "mildly unhinged" to "full-tilt insane" in the past couple of episodes. Doesn't make his mutiny any less unsympathetic, but it certainly makes it less inexplicable.)

Tyrol smuggles Roslin and Baltar off of Galactica and onto a Raptor while Tigh and Adama remain behind to hold off the mutineers. Gaeta notices the Raptor launch and orders it destroyed.

Ah, Battlestar Galactica: still bringing the laughs on Friday nights.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: A Disquiet Follows My Soul

“A Disquiet Follows My Soul” may be the single most apropos episode title in Battlestar Galactica history. After watching this nasty, spiteful little episode filled with nasty, spiteful little people doing nasty, spiteful little things, a disquiet is certainly following my soul. Also, this episode has too many loving close-ups of Edward James Olmos brushing his teeth. If that’s not disquieting, I don’t know what is.

All the good stuff happens in sickbay this episode. While Cottle and Ishay perform an ultrasound on Caprica Six, Caprica rhapsodizes to Tigh about how their spawn, the result of the first-ever successful Cylon/Cylon union, will ensure the survival of the entire Cylon race. An eavesdropping Gaeta, who is nothing but sunshine and joy this episode, bitches ominously to Ishay about how the Cylons are getting all the attention. As if to prove his point, Tyrol rushes in at that moment, in a panic because his son Nicky is peeing blood. Nicky is suffering from acute renal failure and may lose a kidney. While discussing treatment options, Ishay and Cottle let it slip to Tyrol that he’s not Nicky’s father. See? Told you all the good stuff was happening here.

Adama gives an ill-received press conference about a possible permanent alliance with the Cylons. Apollo does a fair amount of grandstanding during this, which leads surly Zarek to quip, “Are you the president again? Sorry, I get confused what your job is from day to day.” I think it’s fair to say we all have that problem, Zarek. Before his morning coffee, Apollo himself probably has trouble remembering whether he’s presently a Viper pilot, or a battleship commander, or a lawyer, or a Quorum member, or the President of the Colonies.

Adama meets with his officers to consider upgrading the fleet with Cylon technology--he estimates this will triple their jump capacity, for starters. In return, the Cylons want to be recognized as a full and equal part of the fleet. Gaeta, still a ray of sunshine, lurks and glowers and makes passive-aggressive snipes about the Cylons; Gaeta, my love, I liked you so much better when you were a cheery optimist instead of a surly racist.

Oh, goodness gracious. Here’s a nasty, spiteful scene in the commissary, in which Starbuck is her usual nasty, spiteful self, while Gaeta is his newly-discovered nasty, spiteful self. They’re so bitchy and vicious and cruel towards each other that I’m a little surprised their conversation didn’t end with one shooting the other in the face. Frankly, I’m not sure we’d be worse off. Gaeta, who holds a grudge for the time Starbuck nearly chucked him out an airlock, and for the time her husband blasted his leg into pieces, and for the time her husband probably played a role in the deaths of billions in the attack on the colonies, drops a few not-terribly-veiled threats about an approaching day of reckoning. An unrepentant Starbuck mocks the loss of his leg and tells him, “In case you’re wondering, I will definitely hit a cripple.” To which Gaeta replies, “So I guess a pity frak’s out of the question, then?” Zing! They may both be utterly miserable excuses for human beings, but Gaeta’s funnier.

Zarek sows unrest in the Quorum, which votes not to allow any Cylon to board any ship without permission. Meanwhile, Roslin, who has pretty much given up both on living and on being President, tosses away all her pills and stalls Adama when he wants her to publicly support a Cylon alliance.

Baltar preaches to his flock. Because Baltar can always be counted on to add a fun random element to any tense and unpleasant situation, he goads his followers into blaming God for leading them into despair. He claims God should come down and beg their forgiveness for being such a loser of a deity. I’m not sure Baltar quite has the hang of being a religious icon, actually. In the middle of Baltar’s half-baked sermon, it dawns on Tyrol that Hot Dog is Nicky’s father (oh, Cally, Cally, Cally… Hot Dog? Really?). A fistfight ensues, after which Tyrol gives Hot Dog a crash course in fatherhood during a vigil at sick Nicky’s bedside.

The crew of a tylium ship mutinies at the idea of a Cylon partnership. Adama launches Vipers to bring them in line, but, at Zarek’s behest, the tylium ship jumps away, leaving the fleet stranded without fuel. Adama has Zarek thrown in the brig, where he extracts the location of the tylium ship from him by threatening to expose Zarek’s past misdeeds and ruin his shot at martyrdom. He’s bluffing, but Zarek falls for it and coughs up the location. After Adama leaves, Gaeta visits Zarek in the brig and forms a partnership with him. An evil, shifty, underhanded partnership. A partnership that will end in chaos and ruin. Damn, Gaeta. What happened to that sweet kid who used to swap gossip with Dualla and bat his lashes at Baltar?

The episode closes with Adama snuggling in bed with Roslin in his candlelit quarters while the Galactica goes to hell around them. And if I felt something other than exasperated contempt for these two--indeed, for the vast majority of the characters at this point--this might be a romantic and hopeful note on which to end. As it stands, it’s… disquieting.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: Sometimes a Great Notion

Previously on Battlestar Galactica: Tigh, Tyrol, Tory, and Anders were outed as Cylons, Dualla put up with a lot of nonsense from her insufferable husband, and the fleet joined up with some of the Cylons and found Earth. Good thing everyone was already accustomed to disappointment.

Everyone glumly wanders around the scorched and radioactive surface of Earth, which, they estimate, was nuked about two thousand years ago. They find a number of skeletons and the broken parts of an unknown Centurion model. Everyone initially assumes this means the members of the Thirteenth Tribe who settled on Earth developed their own Cylons, who then rebelled and destroyed them, but Baltar determines the skeletons are Cylon in nature -- the Thirteenth Tribe consisted entirely of Cylons.

Starbuck and Leoben wander off together and find the charred remains of a Viper, the same one in which Starbuck made her miraculous return to the Galactica following her presumed death and her initial discovery of Earth. Weird! They also find the charred remains of Starbuck sitting in the pilot’s seat. Weirder! Even creepy Leoben thinks this is freaky and disturbing.

A weirded-out Starbuck builds a funeral pyre and burns her own corpse. The ghosts of Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Yoda smile beatifically in the background.

On Earth, Tyrol has a vision of himself wandering through a bustling marketplace and getting vaporized by the nuclear blast. Anders finds a burned guitar and starts singing “All Along the Watchtower.” Tory, Tyrol and Anders put their Cylon heads together and realize they all used to live on Earth, two thousand years ago.

Apollo wrings his hands and frets about what he’s going to tell the Quorum re: the craptastic nature of Earth. Dualla gives him a pep talk about how he’s totally awesome and buff and way cooler than anyone on the Quorum, which inspires him to ask her out on a date. Dualla (who, after half a season of hiding in the background, receives a whole lot of suspicious and ominous attention, including a totally pointless interlude in which she babysits Hera for Helo and Athena) gets gussied up in a fancy dress and has a great time.

Post-date, Dualla returns to the officers’ quarters humming happily to herself. She chats with Gaeta about what a great time she had with her ex-husband. As soon as Gaeta leaves, Dualla shoots herself in the head.

Gaeta rushes back and, with Seelix’s help, tries to revive her, but to no avail. Aw, Dualla. Poor girl. I didn’t think you’d make it to the end of the series, but I’d hoped you’d be given a better send-off, or at least a less inexplicable one. Gaeta, meanwhile, has the stricken look of a man who has just realized that, with Dualla’s death, the Galactica is now crewed entirely by people who keep trying to kill and/or maim him. Except for Hoshi, I guess. Hey, speaking of Gaeta’s ongoing spiral into insanity and despair (we weren’t, I know, but these days any mention of Gaeta contains an implicit reference to his ongoing spiral into insanity and despair), has everyone seen the new Gaetacentric webisodes? They’re pretty good, but damn, they’re bound and determined to strip every last vestige of dignity and sanity from Gaeta before his inevitable messy end, aren’t they?

Roslin deals with the discovery that she has led the entire fleet into despair as best she can, i.e. by burning all her guiding scriptures and skipping her cancer treatments. Adama arrives and tries to give her a pep talk (this episode is heavy on pep talks), but Roslin is inconsolable. The magic fairy of humility and self-awareness pays her a long-overdue visit, and she tearfully confesses she’s been wrong about everything. Yup. You sure have, lady. There is a valuable lesson here about not risking the lives of thousands based upon your own personal drug-induced religious visions. Should’ve been obvious.

Adama boozes it up, gnaws on the scenery, sobs over Dualla’s corpse, gnaws on the scenery some more, grabs a gun, and stalks manfully down the newly graffiti-bedazzled corridors of the Galactica, which, in the absence of competent leadership, are now teeming with distraught crew members and erupting fisticuffs. Adama confronts Tigh, whereupon he nastily insults Tigh’s skeezy dead wife Ellen and goads him into pulling a gun on him. Not cool, Adama. Nobody gets to insult (and/or murder) skeezy dead Ellen, except for Tigh. Some things are sacred. Tigh, who, weirdly, has become the more mature and stable party in their unhealthy codependent dynamic, is appropriately disgusted with this nonsense. He refuses to kill Adama just because Adama’s feeling crappy about Dualla. Adama sobs and emotes and tells a tiresome story about his childhood. This episode clocked in a couple minutes over standard running length, and while for the most part it zips along at a zesty pace, right here would have been a most excellent place to start cropping it down to size.

Adama eventually pulls himself together and gives a pep talk to the fleet about how they’re going to find some place even awesomer than Earth. The fleet is not impressed.

Back on Earth, Tigh tells D’anna the fleet is ready to jump away. D’anna refuses to leave, claiming she’d rather die on crappy old Earth than keep running from Cavil and the other hostile Cylons. Tigh spaces out and wanders hip-deep into the ocean, whereupon he has a vision of himself on Earth during the nuclear attack. He sees himself cradling an injured and dying Ellen, who tells him not to worry: “We’ll be reborn again, together.”

Tigh snaps back to his senses and realizes Ellen is the Final Cylon. Well, okay then. Sort of random, but I’ve liked Kate Vernon ever since her performance as James Spader’s vile rich girlfriend in Pretty in Pink, so I’ll accept it.

So Ellen’s a Cylon, the Cylons are Earthlings, Dualla is dead, Starbuck is not Starbuck, Adama is boozy, Roslin is weepy, and Apollo is… pretty much unaffected by it all. Good times. Nice to have you back, gang.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ten Things That Make Miami Vice Awesome

My favorite television show of all time: Miami Vice.

No, really. I own the box set on DVD, which, naturally enough, comes in a white faux-alligator box lined with seafoam-green velvet.

Miami Vice, which aired for five seasons on NBC from 1984 to 1989, now exists as a pop culture punch line. It’s mostly remembered as a relic of the hyper-stylized Eighties. That’s a shame, because there’s more to it than that.

For example:

1. Edward James Olmos. Miami Vice kicked off its first season looking like a fairly traditional cop show, albeit one with terrific production values and a whopping budget for music rights. Then Edward James Olmos joined the cast as Lieutenant Martin Castillo, and everything changed. In his cheap black suit and skinny tie over a white short-sleeved shirt, his face obscured by a gigantic bushy mustache, Castillo is physically unprepossessing, especially compared to the glamorous Vice cops under his charge. The perpetually-somber Castillo speaks so softly it’s often difficult to hear him. He seldom makes eye contact. He sleeps in his office. At times, he seems self-contained and introverted almost to the point of being autistic. Don’t be fooled: he’s crazy, in the best possible way. Throughout five seasons, bits and pieces emerge about his background: he’s a former DEA agent with ties to the CIA who worked extensively in the Golden Triangle. He dabbles in Santeria. He runs afoul of the KGB. Also? He’s a ninja.

Olmos scooped up a Best Supporting Actor Emmy for the role, and deservedly so: it’s a hell of a character and a hell of a performance. He’s still a skilled performer, though I respectfully disagree with fans who feel he’s been robbed by the Emmys for his current work on Battlestar Galactica: it may be only because he set the bar so high in his earlier performance, but compared to Castillo’s mix of profound stillness and coiled energy, Olmos sometimes seems to be phoning it in BSG.

2. Crockett and Tubbs are downright adorable. I feel like I’m damning the show’s leads with faint praise by listing them after their costar Olmos. This was not the intention; yes, they take second place, but it’s a pretty tight race. The pilot episode played up the differences between white southern Vice cop Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and his brand-new partner Rico Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), a black cop transplanted from New York. The whole odd-couple conceit soon became irrelevant: Crockett might be more intuitive and impulsive, whereas Tubbs might be smarter and more skeptical, but the two are much closer to a matched set than a study in contrasts.

At heart, Crockett and Tubbs are a couple of nice guys in the process of being destroyed by their line of work. Stuck in deep cover as loathsome drug runners Burnett and Cooper, it bothers them to no end that much of Miami thinks of them as scumbags. They’re not coming out of this with their souls intact; the show makes it clear it’s only a matter of time before they become crazy or corrupt or both (it’s no accident that a handful of episodes – “Evan,” “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” and “Payback,” among others – feature corrupt, burned-out, or certifiably insane undercover cops who serve as Bizarro-world versions of Crockett and Tubbs).

The oft-imitated and oft-derided fashions of Miami Vice -- the unstructured pastel suits over t-shirts and the loafers without socks -- are undeniably silly, but Tubbs and Crockett are sleek and polished and handsome enough to turn them into a coveted and iconic look. The casting is dead on: Johnson and Thomas have sparkling chemistry together, they’re both immensely likeable and sympathetic, and they anchor the series.

3. It was a breeding ground for future film and television stars. Pick an episode, any episode: someone you recognize will pop up in a supporting part. A significant percentage of today’s working actors earned some solid early exposure by guest-starring on Miami Vice: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Chiklis, Liam Neeson, Wesley Snipes, Bruce Willis, Chris Rock, Helena Bonham Carter, Annette Bening, Kyra Sedgwick, Ving Rhames, Stanley Tucci, John Leguizamo, Dennis Farina, Julia Roberts… The list goes on.

4. The stunt casting. Miami Vice featured an insane panoply of bizarre and entertaining guest stars: James Brown, Ted Nugent, Willie Nelson, Little Richard, Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, Penn and Teller (who appear on separate episodes – the perpetually-silent Teller even speaks!), Lee Iacocca, G. Gordon Liddy, George Takei, Eartha Kitt. Madness! In the best possible way!

5. The set design. I’ve never been to Miami, and I’m not sure I ever want to visit. The reality, particularly twenty years on, can’t possibly live up to the aggressively unfriendly and uncomfortable awesomeness of the Miami Vice sets. Here, everything’s either a blinding white or an unending vista of washed-out pastels. (As demonstrated by Castillo’s sickly salmon-pink office and the institutional pale green wall of the Vice squad room, pastels aren’t always demure and pretty). Houses rise up from stilts in the water, while monstrous structures of concrete and sheet metal with round windows and jutting balconies dot the shoreline. The interiors lean toward weird pop-art, bizarre architectural flourishes, and off-putting color schemes, all of which telegraph a clear message: things ain’t right in Miami.

6. The music. I once watched Miami Vice with a music-savvy friend who expressed his concern that the collision of so many wildly diverse types of music – in this particular episode, Depeche Mode, Guns N' Roses, and Willie Nelson – would rip open a vortex in the fabric of the universe.

7. The weirdness. Oh, lordy, Miami Vice is weird. It’s as bleak as it can get without becoming outright post-apocalyptic. Episodes are jam-packed with characters with unfathomable motives, loopy romantic interests, off-kilter encounters, sudden violence, and boatloads of free-form insanity, as though the brightness and heat has boiled everyone’s brains and turned the entire population of Miami into deadly, feral lunatics.

8. It’s escapist television at its finest. Bleak, yes. Hostile, absolutely. Still, Miami Vice should never be mistaken for a gritty depiction of reality. Some elements of the show are nothing short of gratuitous wish-fulfillment. Take Crockett, for instance: He drives a Ferrari. And lives on a boat. With a pet alligator. To the best of my knowledge, series creator Anthony Yerkovich was not fourteen when he dreamed up this character, but it sort of seems like it.

9. Gina and Trudy. Long-suffering, under-appreciated, and totally hot. I have much love for Vice cops Gina and Trudy (Sandra Santiago and Olivia Brown). They never get much action -- mostly, they pose undercover as hookers and carry out thankless drudge work for Crockett and Tubbs -- but they’re pretty awesome anyway.

10. It (almost) pulls off the whole “Crockett loses his memory and becomes crazy and evil” plotline. Some background is required here: at the conclusion of the fourth season, after suffering a severe personal tragedy (I’d go into greater detail, but it would involve invoking the words “Sheena Easton,” which is a topic one should take pains to avoid whilst extolling the awesomeness of Miami Vice), a grieving Crockett gets caught in a boat explosion, develops amnesia, and becomes convinced he’s his murderous drug-running alter ego, Sonny Burnett. This kicks off the fifth and final season in grand style, as Crockett murders his way up the ranks of a crime family, shagging Julia Roberts and trying to kill Tubbs along the way. This is a ridiculous, preposterous, overwrought, impossible plotline, but it works. Johnson, who has a tendency to over-emote, reigns himself in and delivers a cold, manipulative, emotionally-bankrupt performance that helps sell this nonsense; it helps that he’s surrounded with heavy-hitting (and downright weird) guest stars, including Matt Frewer and Jon Polito. Yeah, it’s absurd, but near the conclusion of this arc, as Crockett wanders around Miami, his marbles slowly returning to him while Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” wails in the background, then drifts into Vice headquarters only to find his horrified friends and coworkers holding him at gunpoint, I defy you not to be fully emotionally invested in this mayhem.