Last week marked the 10th anniversary of the first regular-season episode of Battlestar Galactica, a show I desperately adore and a high-water mark for sci-fi/fantasy television that hasn’t been remotely matched in the last decade. Readers responded with some happy memories about the show and some thoughtful remarks about the current state of network television. And then one responder sent in an email that had nothing to do with Battlestar Galactica, but which is currently my favorite Mailbag email ever. Put it this way: I’ve probably written at least a hundred thousand words about The Walking Dead, and this email made me look at the show in a completely new light.
But let’s start off with some Battlestar Galacti-love! (Remember: You can always email me at email@example.com to tell me how completely wrong I am.)
Darren, loved your BSG 10 years later piece.
The most influential sci-fi show (besides Star Trek) ever written.
And indeed the three episode Pegasus arc is the pinnacle of its writing, directing, and acting.
So say we all.
Richard’s kind email got me thinking about my own personal Peak Galactica moment. I love the Pegasus arc for so many reasons. It’s a great showcase for Michelle Forbes, one of the truly essential character actors of modern TV history. She was a fine villain on True Blood, a grieving mom on The Killing, and one of the great short-term recurring characters on The Next Generation; she has a great little moment on Lost, and she has one of the great exits of any minor character on 24. (Forbes is so good, she even kind of makes the BSG interquel-prequel-whatever spinoff movie Razor worth watching.)
But if we’re talking sequences of episodes, the peak of Galactica for me will always be the New Caprica saga—the first four episodes of season 3, with personal-pick-for-best-episode-ever “Unfinished Business” as a devastating epilogue. New Caprica pushed the show into a whole new gear. Battlestar from season 3 onwards is a weird, dark, off-rhythm show, simultaneously grittier than it used to be but also more fantastical.
My other shortlist for High Point Story Sequence would be the two-part mutiny arc, “The Oath” and “Blood on the Scales.” Besides The Sopranos, I can’t think of another show in its final season so willing to push the characters beyond the breaking point, and so willing to constantly undercut its own foundation.
For further clarification, here are my five favorite single episodes of Battlestar ever, though I feel the need to stress that pretty much everything else is tied for a close sixth.
4. “Sometimes a Great Notion”
1. “Unfinished Business,” because besides being an emotional rock opera and one of the best boxing movies this side of Raging Bull, it features my personal pick for Best Bear McCreary Track:
I just read your article in the Popwatch section of Entertainment Weekly and was very impressed. In my opinion, you have written a fantastic summation of what’s been happening in pop culture (via Tv shows) for the past decade. My friends and I dabble in genre writing and we often discussed our thrill and frustration with the stories that are coming out on Tv and film.
While on one hand, one can tell that good myths are present in modern television shows and the characters are definitely relatable. On the other hand, it seems to have become difficult to find a show that is willing to dig deep into complex political and social paradigms which could potentially motivate the viewing public to take a closer look at some of our own ethical dilemmas.
Hopefully, we’ll soon see another Battlestar Galactica emerge. I’m curious to get your thoughts on True Detective. Also, thank you for recommending Black Mirror. I’ll definitely check it out.
“Complex political and social paradigms” is kind of a great description of the modern age, right? Like, pardon me as I generalize wildly: We have a black President but we also have Ferguson; we may soon have a liberal female President but we also have once-beloved liberal tele-poet laureate Aaron Sorkin scrawling insane Joe Eszterhas men’s rights alarmist subplots onto his frothy HBO showbiz romcom; it’s become quite common for strong intelligent independent women and also Kaley Cuoco to specifically declare that they aren’t feminist.
This is just top-level Big Idea stuff; let’s ignore all the constant bickering over every level of American political, economic, ethnic, and military society, and let’s ignore the fact that everything about basic human interaction has shifted radically in the last twenty years of internet culture. And yet: The most beloved genre shows right now all represent escapes from the present day, whether it’s post-apocalyptic (The Walking Dead) or pre-modern (Game of Thrones) or just batcrap crazypants (Once Upon a Time.)
Again, this is why everyone should check out Black Mirror, and especially the first episode, which isn’t even technically science fiction—unless you accept the fact that we’re living in a science-fiction universe.
True Detective thoughts: The first season was insanely well-acted and beautifully shot by Cary Fukunaga. The high point was definitely episodes 4 and 5—the long take everyone was talking about, but also the assault on that hellish compound in the middle of nowhere. After that, I kind of lose track. There’s a lot to respect about True Detective, but think the story kind of got away from the storyteller. I talked about this a bit in a Hannibal essay last year, but I think True Detective was nowhere near as tough as it thought it was. When you drilled right down to it, it was a show about two good dudes. It’s intellectually false for a show to ask so many questions about good and evil, and then ultimately answer those questions with: “Good is the good guys and evil is the weird facial-scarred incest rapist who lives in a murder-house in the forest.”
(My brilliant colleague Jeff Jensen has a very different perspective.)
I thought this was an interesting article. Having never seen Battlestar Galactica but being a big a fan of LOST, I tried to think of why genre television is not asking us viewers big questions like these shows did and I thought of one answer: the audience is afraid of the what the answers might be.
This could be the reason why shows like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead are so popular is because they are based on previous material. These two shows don’t have to worry about asking big questions because they already know the answers to them. Unlike other genre shows like Fringe or LOST where they were creating original stories week in and week out. And if you look back at past original genre TV shows like The Event or Terra Nova that tried to follow the LOST route you will notice that they didn’t last long.
So what I am trying to say is that original genre television shows are hard to come by because they have to think of the big questions themselves, unlike Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, where their material is already based on something.
Seth! I definitely think you’re right that genre television has gotten less bold. Lost and Battlestar Galactica both, to a certain extent, depended on series-long questions. The wording shifted—Lost was “Will they get off the island?” and then “What is the island?”, while Battlestar was sort of “Will they get to Earth?” and then “What are the Cylons?” and then ultimately “Bwwahhhh???”
The Walking Dead doesn’t really have any series-long question, which is all good: I love how that show can completely reboot itself every couple seasons. Game of Thrones actually might have a bigger problem than most people think. The show isn’t necessarily about its big overarching mysteries, but they are there: What happens if/when the White Walkers come to the wall? And what happens if/when Dany comes to Westeros? (It’s no spoiler to say that even book readers don’t quite know the ultimate answers to those questions—George R. R. Martin still has two more books to come, by which point I fully anticipate that we as a TV culture will all be fuming over a disappointing Game of Thrones series finale.)
Oh man, Terra Nova! Whenever you’re feeling pessimistic, just remember that we live in the timeline where Terra Nova only lasted one season.
Now then: Onto The Walking Dead!
I greatly enjoyed your article. However, I have to disagree with one point and bring up something you left out. In regards to Walking Dead, I know a lot of people dislike the slow pace at times, and complain about a zombie show with no zombies.
However, one of the main reasons that so many military people, including myself, enjoy and identify with the show is not the gore and violence. The pace, relationship conflicts, and the sudden bursts of violence make it chillingly similar to deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. I can state with firsthand experience that this is true. Weeks would go by with absolutely nothing happening—then walking to start my shift or just getting to my chu after a 12 hour shift, bam, attacks would happen. And being stuck on a FOB [forward operating base] with the same people wears on you. Fights, arguments at the minimum, would occur.
The thing that Walking Dead truly portrays accurately is that the Walkers aren’t the true enemy; humans are. Just like in Iraq. Yeah, he had insurgents, but we expect them to try and kill us. What really was scary was the guy wearing the same uniform as me, with the same accent, but who would attack us (females) at night. This is my opinion, though.
My other point is, while I loved this show, a lot of the milestones that you said BSG created had already been touched upon ten years prior to that in ST:TNG and STG:DS9. Two shows with great actors, amazing stories that were topical and also overlooked because of the dirty words, science fiction.
I know we will probably agree to disagree, but I just wanted to state my point of view. Have a good night.
I am speechless beyond speechless, partially because this makes me look at The Walking Dead in a completely different light (has it been a military allegory all along?) and partially because this makes me look at the military in a completely different light. At the risk of saying anything that will only sound inane by comparison, I will just thank Tamar for sharing and beg her to consider writing her own zombie-apocalypse novel/pilot/screenplay/graphic novel.