The Fifth Cylon (and other TV Tidbits)

March 29, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

SPOILERS for: the third season of Battlestar Galactica, the second season of Rome, and the sixth season of 24.

Now that Battlestar Galactica has shown its hand for the season finale, it's as good a time as any to look back at the past season and consider whether the show is still going strong. Along the way, I'll throw in a few comments about the also just-concluded Rome and the will-it-ever-end season of 24.

This has been a curious season for BSG. Of the limited number of TV shows I watch, it's still the best, but it's not as good as it was a year ago. Back in October 2006, the third season started with a bang. The first four or five weeks were amazing. However, once the New Caprica storyline ended, the series had trouble maintaining momentum. It languished a little between Thanksgiving and its brief end-of-the-year hiatus, then returned with a whimper in January. The problem, I think, was twofold. There was a lack of clear direction and some of the most compelling storylines (such as Sharon's integration into human society) had either been completed or had been dropped.

The final two-parter made me believe the series is again building toward something. Whether or not that's the case won't be apparent until season four starts. In terms of pacing and writing, however, "Crossroads" more closely resembled the stuff of season two than the dregs of season three. To date, it's the weakest of BSG's season cliffhangers, but its predecessors, "Kobol's Last Gleaming" and "Lay Down Your Burdens," were tough episodes to beat. This time, the question is more interpretive than speculative. We're not so much asking "What will happen next?" as "What just happened?"

It's worth examining some of the elements that fused to form the climax.

Starbuck's return: This wasn't as shocking as it was intended to be. The problem is that Starbuck's "death" never felt real. It was too weak for the exit of a major character. So her return, in whatever form she's occupying, was almost mandated. What we don't know at this point is whether this is a flesh-and-blood Starbuck, a mystical Starbuck who only appears to Lee (and maybe a few select others), or a figment of Lee's imagination. I vote for #2, but I don't think the "real" Starbuck is dead. Her astral self will guide Galactica to Earth where she'll be waiting for them.

Baltar's trial: The kind of stuff that great TV trials are made of – twists, revelations, and speeches. It will be intriguing to see how the former base star guest takes to the role of underground messiah and all around whipping boy.

The Sharon/Roslin/Caprica Six vision: I don't know what to make of this except that it feels like BSG has stumbled into David Lynch territory. The seed hasn't been properly fertilized for it to mean much at this point. My guess is that it will become a big deal next year.

Cylon attack: It's odd, but the fact that the fleet can't jump and is under attack by a massive cylon armada is easily overlooked. There's too much other stuff going on for this prosaic space battle to get much attention.

The Final Four: If SciFi had delayed airing this by one week, it would have meshed perfectly with the basketball world. We knew the identities of three of these last week when they started hearing weird music playing. The only new addition was Tyrol, and his inclusion wasn't a blockbuster. The unveiling of Tigh reminded me of the approach used by author Katherine Kurtz who loves to disguise unsuspecting Deryni as Deryni-haters. All along, Tigh and Roslin had been my top two choices for hidden cylons. With these four, there's a lot of story territory to be mined; let's hope the writers don't squander the possibilities. As for the last unknown cylon - as I see it, there are five legitimate candidates: Baltar, Starbuck, Adama, Roslin, and Bob Dylan.

Although it hasn't been confirmed, I suspect season four will be BSG's swan song. That's okay with me - better to go out on a high note than linger and turn into crap. I suspect the ultimate resolution of the series will have something to do with uniting the cylons and humans rather than having one destroy the other. When they reach Earth, they'll all be one big happy family. The question becomes: what are we like when they find us?

On the same night that BSG concluded its third season, Rome went gently into that good night. The series finale was a bit of an anticlimax for anyone with even a vague notion of history. Even though the screenwriters toyed with the facts to generate a surprise or two, they pretty much got where history demanded that they be: with Anthony and Cleopatra dead and Octavian proclaimed First Citizen. I enjoyed the series, but didn't find it to be groundbreaking. A little too much soap opera for me, even with the high production values and the superb acting. I don't bemoan the absence of a third season. Where were they going to take this, anyway - start remaking I, Claudius? (For those who want to see what happens next, rent the DVD set of the old BBC mini-series. It stands up extraordinarily well, although you'll have to get used to Brian Blessed as Augustus/Octavian - a far cry from Rome's version.)

Finally, a few words about a series that should have ended a year ago. 24 started out this year in rocky fashion; however, as mediocre as the early episodes were, they're nothing compared to what's going on now. The recycling machine is in overdrive, spitting out plot elements that the show has overused a few too many times. It's not just that 24 is unoriginal - that has always been the case - but it has become dull and repetitive. Audrey's pointless off-screen demise (which is likely a red herring) is just the latest in a line of missteps. Of course, moments after hearing the news that the love of his life is dead, Jack is back in the saddle again. The newest CTU romance, between Milo and Nadia, makes one long for the courtship of Tony and Michelle - two characters we actually cared about. In fact, that's the real problem with 24 - the show has so effectively pruned the tree that, except for Jack, there's no one left. The other surviving long-running characters, like Chloe and Boss Bill, lack personality. (Chloe had it once but it has vanished this year.) 24 has become populated by drones and is being scripted by writers with no imagination.

The only way 24 can hope to survive another season is if there's a radical change in philosophy next year. The first thing to do is fire all the writers. For season seven, there should be no terrorists, no CTU, nothing familiar. Maybe even no Jack Bauer (at least at the start). By trying constant one-upsmanship, this show has slit its own throat. I'll keep watching in the futile hope it will deliver something akin to what it was once able to provide, but I'm not optimistic. Unlike BSG, which has clear plans to bring down the curtain and a path to get there, and Rome, which has already left the building, 24 has stayed too long at the party.