Battlestar Galactica revisited: Gaius Baltar’s trial

Great stories must include these 3 elements: a strong premise, great characters, and a compelling plot. Two now-classic TV shows from the last decade—Lost and Battlestar Galactica—had the first two in spades.

Take Lost. The premise: a plane crashes on a mysterious island and the survivors must battle not only each other, but the island’s inhabitants and the island itself. The characters: Jack Shepard, John Locke, Kate Austen, Sawyer, and Ben Linus, to name a few, were all strong and dynamic.

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And then there’s Battlestar Galactica. The premise: Cylons (sentient robots) destroy their creators, but a ragtag group of human survivors flee through the universe in a search for a mythical planet called Earth. The characters: Admiral Adama, President Laura Roslin, Starbuck, Gaius Baltar, Apollo, the cylon Caprica Six, and many more. Again, all compelling.

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Both shows faltered when it came to plot. It’s safe to say that the endings of Battlestar Galactica and Lost were troublesome.

Nevertheless, what these shows gave us was a new and dynamic way to tell stories.

Battlestar Galactica was a reimagining of the 1970s series. The new version, written by Ronald D. Moore, was a gritty sci-fi drama that mirrored the American experience in the 2000s as the country suffered through the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks and the resulting global war on terror and Iraq War. Battlestar Galactica was unflinching. It ran headfirst into controversial issues.

baltarOne of the best examples was the trial of Gaius Baltar. A haunted genius, Baltar was an amoral man whose sole concern was his own survival. In the old series he was a stock villain. In the new show, there were times, many times, when I found myself rooting for Baltar, even when I knew he was a jerk.

One of those times was his trial.

Baltar was elected President of the surviving humans, beating Laura Roslin (who nearly rigged the election to stop Baltar). Under his leadership, the humans chose to settle on a habitable planet, dubbed New Caprica, instead of seeking Earth. But the humanoid cylons soon found them. Instead of wiping them out, they instituted a terror-like regime to control the humans.

Baltar went along with them. What choice did he have?

Once the humans broke free from the cylons and escaped, Baltar was ousted as president and then put on trial for crimes against humanity. The resulting trial was a brilliant piece of drama. Obviously Baltar colluded. How could he be found not guilty?

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This article from io9.com revisits the trial. It’s a fascinating look at the law and its use in fiction. Was the trial a farce? To an extent, yes. But the whole point of the show (and a theme of our own global war on terror) was that these were not normal times. When the whole of humanity has been reduced from 20 billion to fewer than 50,000, who are actively being chased by murderous robots, you do the best you can.

Some of the plot twists of Battlestar Galactica, including Gaius Baltar’s trial, pushed the bounds of logic and reason, but it’s great to see that so many elements of this iconic series still resonate.

Helix: the last spasm?

The SyFy original was more than I thought it would be, but will the lack of character (and viewers) be its downfall?

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One episode left for SyFy’s 13-episode sci-fi series Helix. No word yet on whether it will be renewed. Knowing SyFy, we may never see Helix again, which would be a shame.

When Helix was first launched, I was intrigued. Was it a zombie story? A medical procedural? Knowing it was produced by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore was a plus, but so what?

Over the past 12 episodes I’ve been surprised. It was not at all what I expected. The writers of Helix have seeded intrigue steadily and consistently, with more than enough plot twists to keep me coming back.

–About those “zombies” – I would liken them more to vampires in the sense that the infected don’t die and come back to life, but turn. And what do they turn into? A sort of hive collective. Think bees, or ants – parts of a whole. A snippet of dialogue explained that the virus appears to be acting in concert, across the bodies of the infected. Kind of like Star Trek‘s Borg collective. It’s a cool twist on an old trope. I loved when one of the infected spit a mouthful of blood into the Keep Calm mug.

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–The writers have built layers of mythology, the most notable being the identity of the company that is funding Dr. Hatake’s research: the Ilaria Corporation. Their rep was Constance Sutton, overacted by Jeri Ryan, who didn’t fare too well against a desperate Hatake. Now we know that Ilaria is populated by 500 “immortals.” Like Hatake. And… his daughter.

–And that would be Julia Walker. Sure, it was a soap opera move reminiscent of Star Wars, but I bought it. The reveal of Julia Walker as Hatake’s daughter was telegraphed, and it made sense in terms of Hatake’s motivations and actions. It explained his preoccupation with her, as well as the fact that he rescued her from the infected-zombielike fate by making her “immortal” too.

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–But what about this immortality? Is it a fact? Why? Where did it come from? And what does it have to do with the Narvik A virus, the one that’s creating the hive-minded people? Could it be that Ilaria and the 500 want to rid the world of those annoying mortals forever? But is that the best way?

–Speaking of pesky mortals, we’ve got a mixed bag of semi-developed characters, which is Helix‘s glaring weakness. Crusading CDC researcher Sarah Jordan has been on death’s door for a few episodes now, and honestly I don’t care. Peter Farragut was healed, but he was more interesting as a viral. Alan Farragut is noble but cardboard. The only characters who have moderately interested me are Julia Walker, Hatake, his stolen/adopted son Daniel, and the evil-but-trying-to be good Sergio Balleseros. Compare Helix to Lost: Lost made you care about the characters, whatever nonsensical craziness happened on that island. Helix struggles to make us care.

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–But then there’s the storytelling. While Helix fails in characterization, it excels in plot and pacing. It is consistent in giving me just enough to hook me. The plot twists keep me off-balance. The visuals are stilted and creative. The music is moody and disturbing. Helix is a quickly moving story. Each episode spans single day, and it’s told with no flashbacks. The structure is bound and wound.

There is something subtly different about Helix. It’s not perfect, but few TV shows are. There’s only one episode left, I suspect not just for this season but for good. If this is the case, then Helix was a great experiment in tight, daring storytelling.

 

Helix: so much for zombies

Helix is Lost meets 28 Days Later with a little CSI thrown in. I’m in.

I was skeptical after seeing the previews. It seemed as if SyFy was trying to craft a CSI-style drama by grafting some vague sci-fi elements. The 15-minute preview wasn’t exactly encouraging. It relied heavily on a complicated backstory exposition involving lead Alan Farragut, his infected brother Peter, and his ex-wife Julia Walker (who became his ex because of Peter). Too soapy.

But… the premiere and the following episode delivered more than I expected.

The basics: Helix, which airs in the US on SyFy Friday nights, follows CDC scientists who travel to a remote Arctic lab to contain and identify a mysterious viral outbreak. This being TV, not everything is what it seems, and you never know the true identities/loyalties of the characters.

The big question: is this about zombies? Well, not in the dead-then-brought-back-to-life-to-eat-brains sense. Instead, think 28 Days Later, the great British horror flick (that also featured Doctor Who’s Christopher Eccleston). In Helix, as in 28 Days Later, the “zombies” are people who have been infected with some sort of pathogen. It doesn’t kill them. Instead, it makes them not quite themselves, as well as violent, aggressive, quick. There’s more, of course, which we’ll understand as the show goes on.

As for the rest of it, the soapy aspect that showed up in the first 15 minutes was quickly quarantined as subtext. After 3 hours of Helix, we’re already on Day 3. There simply isn’t enough time in the story for that type of boring drama. Good move by the writers.

The characters: We’ve got some complexity here, which is a requirement in books but seems to be optional in film and TV. The villain is nearly mustache twirling (and something else too…), but there are plenty of characters in Helix who are not as good (or bad) as they seem.

The setting: An undetermined number of people are trapped in an isolated, mysterious location. Sounds like Lost. I loved Lost, mainly because the writers focused on character. The writers of Helix have incorporated many of the best elements of Lost: the claustrophobic isolated location, unknown motives, mystery upon mystery. Let’s hope they don’t bog it down with crazy mythology too.

Bottom line: I’m hooked. Helix is fast paced, intriguing, and geeky enough to appeal to my science side. I raised an eyebrow at the angry black woman trope in one scene, but I’ll give them a pass on that one. Watch and enjoy.

 

Helix: sci-fi or scientific procedural?

If the first 15 minutes are anything to go by, with their new series Helix, SyFy is trying to blend the procedural with science fiction.

Zombies? Not zombies? Hard to tell based on the previews released by SyFy. Here’s what we know for sure:

–It follows a group of CDC officials who travel to a clandestine Arctic lab following reports of an outbreak

–The pathogen is a retrovirus (maybe)

–The side effects are black blood and enhanced strength (maybe)

–The side effects may have been intentional

–It was developed by Ronald D. Moore, the genius who tortured us with Battlestar Galactica

As far as the characters, the preview that SyFy has up throws a good chunk of expository back story at us, including a broken marriage. Conveniently the lead, Alan Farragut, is not only the ex-husband of fellow scientist Julia Walker, he is also the brother of infectee Peter Farragut (who slept with Julia). Kind of soapy. Hopefully that won’t be the focus.

And, it seems to be a sort of CSI: Arctic Circle, with a crack team of scientists battling a mystery illness (or is it a crime?).

So based on what little is out there, it’s hard to tell what the hell is going on. But, if the reviewers at io9.com are right (and they’ve screened the entire pilot), Helix marks a strong return of the dark horror to SyFy. In fact, they call it SyFy’s best new show in years. Then again SyFy has produced very little worth watching in years.

Helix: more zombies coming to television?

Previews are cryptic, but it’s from Battlestar Galactica‘s Ron Moore, so who knows?

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SyFy is promoting their new show Helix, set to air in January. It’s about a team of scientists fighting a viral outbreak in an Arctic research facility. This virus, from what I can tell, turns people into faster and stronger zombie-like creatures.

But aren’t zombies overdone? What’s left to do with them?

The promo for Helix focuses on the scientific process. Um, okay. Then what?

The good (or bad) news is that it’s exec produced by Ron Moore, the genius who resurrected Battlestar Galactica and then steered it into a wonderful mess by the time it ended after four seasons. Where will he take Helix? Based on his track record with BSG, it’s anyone’s guess.

Hell, he might not even know for sure.

I’ll give it a shot.