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Battlestar Galactica: The Plan Review

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by Casimir Harlow May 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Battlestar Galactica: The Plan Review
    It's a common misguided preconception that all writers write their stories with everything mapped out from the outset. Sure, many writers will attest to having an 'end goal', but they still often basically scramble around in-between to get there. Others, like the writers on Lost, openly admitted to having little idea where the whole thing is going, arguing that this was an intended course of action designed to perpetuate the 'lost' feeling whilst watching the series. After all, if the writer does not know where things are heading, how on earth are the viewers going to be able to make any predictions?

    Unfortunately this often results in a few loose ends. Ideas raised in season 1 may simply be dropped by the fifth season because they had nowhere to go with them. And, more often than many fans would like, even the most intricately conceived planned end to a TV series does not tie up all of the loose ends.

    The name Battlestar Galactica, up until about a decade ago, would have surely been associated with somewhat derogatory (at best nostalgic) words used to describe any of those 70s shows that did not have that classic sci-fi appeal epitomised by the early 'Trek effort. It was cheesy in a Buck Rogers kind of way, and certainly did not age gracefully. But come the new millennium and rumours emerged about a modern remake.

    Initially it was released as a pilot 'movie', with an accompanying short-run first season, followed by (writers' strike delays notwithstanding) three further 'complete' seasons. It was massively popular and, at every stage, managed to offer something new to audience members - cleverly-woven story arcs pervading the gripping episodes, giving us a much weightier, meatier and, frankly, darker, look at the future than we have perhaps ever seen before.

    If the original Battlestar Galactica was an example of pure cheese, the BSG remake was the polar opposite, a modern classic entry in the sci-fi genre that attained such high regard from all who have encountered it because of its consistent genre-busting skills. It may be great sci-fi, but with its engaging socio-political commentaries and allusions to current affairs, it was much more than that. Like Deadwood did for the Western TV show, and The Wire did for Police dramas, BSG pushed the envelope in the sci-fi genre.

    Baring all this in mind, if you have somehow clicked on this review without having seen the entire BSG series then I would recommend going out and picking it up right now. You will not regret it. This TV-movie-style addition to the show's complete run is something of an afterthought and is therefore strewn with plot spoilers from across the seasons. Really, even if you ignored the fact that it had so many spoilers in it, The Plan would not make the slightest bit of sense to newbies. So, despite the fact that the events take place during the timeline of the first two seasons only, they still have to be watched after you finish the final series (which is something of a blessing and a curse). For those who are reading on, I will assume that you have done just that.

    BSG: The Plan was brought into existence because, although the show had reached a natural and planned conclusion at the end of season 4, it did not quite tie everything up neatly. Most of the main arcs were dealt with and many of the questions were answered, but, given that the writers themselves did not know exactly where they were going for the first couple of seasons, there were always going to be a few mysteries that fans would have had to swallow come the end of the show. Personally, I was not too bothered with this at all. In my opinion, BSG had run its course, and had reached a decent conclusion. It didn't feel ridiculously rushed, nor did it feel like the show had overstayed its welcome and totally jumped the shark. It was a natural, somewhat contrived but nonetheless very fitting, end.

    That said, if you re-examine BSG from start to finish, you definitely do notice a trend in the latter seasons, where the writers show a different perspective to what you had previously been explored. The show had started as a 'human survivors fight and flee from overwhelming and superior Cylon adversaries, whom they had created in the first place'. Sure, there were a few Cylon models working as sleepers amidst the humans, but 'the plan' of the Cylons did not become clear in the show until much later (in reality, because they had not written it yet). In the later seasons we see the Cylons conflicted by their actions, torn by somewhat human emotions, with in-fighting and rebellion rife amidst them, and Battlestar Galactica: The Plan attempts to go back to the beginning and basically show you what would have been included in those early episodes (across the first two seasons only) to give a Cylon backstory, had the writers had enough foresight.

    The result has had a very mixed reception from fans. Some think it is insightful and amazing, and brings a whole new perspective to the early days of BSG, cleverly and seamlessly integrating itself with what we have already seen with use of old as well as new footage. Others see it as nothing more than a padded-out collection of deleted footage, strewn together by a vague story arc about one of the first Cylon models (Cavil - played by Dean Stockwell) and a few unnecessary sub-stories about characters you never really noticed before and certainly do not care about. Despite being a huge BSG fan I have to say that I fall closer to the second category.

    The Plan charts the Cylon behaviour (in greater detail) across the first thirty-odd episodes, offering a significant amount of Cylon 'philosophy' and attempting to show how many of the actions that take place within the first two seasons were plotted out and masterminded by Cavil, the ostensible Cylon leader, masquerading as a priest aboard Galactica (and, to a lesser extent, his twin Cylon model who has a different take on things as he rides shotgun with the rebels that survived on Caprica). It strings together a lot of key events (assassination attempts, suicide bombings and so forth) during this timeframe and tries to give them a solid, cohesive back-story. It is very cleverly done, and perhaps the most interesting way you could possibly go about watching deleted scenes from a TV show (which are often even harder to endure than deleted footage from a film), but - at the end of the day - because everything has to tie up neatly and fit in with the events in the later seasons, nothing of any significance actually happens here. There are no big twists and no shocking revelations, and the whole thing is rather anticlimactic really. It does, however, (particularly in this, its extended edition form) come with some rather random and - at times - totally gratuitous 'background' nudity, rather incongruously setting it apart from the rest of the show.

    As aforementioned, in order to watch (and understand) The Plan, you have to have watched all of the show's four seasons - right through to the conclusion. But unfortunately, once you've done so, the depth offered by The Plan consequently becomes somewhat redundant. Because you know who's going to live and who's going to die, and you know who is a Cylon and who is not. It's a strange dichotomy, but there is no way around it.

    Personally, I think they should have called this 'Cavill's story' and included it as an extra in the BSG package, but even then that does not really get around the fact that it cannot be watched in the correct 'timeline' of the show when you are watching it for the first time. You have to watch it at the end. And since its events conclude at the end of season 2, this leaves an unsatisfying feeling which can only really be satiated by watching the third and fourth seasons again (or at least the final episodes).

    Still, given what they were attempting to do, BSG: The Plan has been handled very well. It might chop around a lot to cover the length of time that passes, but the old footage is integrated extremely well with the new stuff. In order to avoid the problems with the ageing of many of the cast members, most of the main characters have been sidelined, and are presented in actual deleted footage snippets (or just scenes we have already seen in the seasons proper) just to remind you of what they were up to whilst 'The Plan' was taking place. We see glimpses of Starbuck and Apollo, Adama only tends to appear on screen when there is an imminent attempt on his life, and Balthar only really gets his words in at the very outset. Instead of having to deal with the fact that they almost all look different (Anders returns to do some early-days footage of what happened during the initial attack), we just don't see these characters do anything 'new' in this past-set story. President Roslin is perhaps the most striking omission, although with the massive nip-tuck job done on her face as the seasons progressed, it is no wonder that they avoided attempting to make her look younger.

    Dean Stockwell does extremely well at carrying his pivotal (if, ultimately, unnecessary) storyline, and is arguably the star of this mish-mash montage affair. He is a long way removed from the Al that you may remember from Quantum Leap, his
    Machiavellian Cavill twins proving to be the ultimate in amoral warmongers, plotting and scheming and sacrificing any and all to completely eradicate the human race - even with the threat of mutually-assured destruction on the cards. The writers go some way to give him (and the other Cylon models) some depth as well, offering an alternative view to his evil self in his twin. Still, the evil preacher is the one to watch. He's so damn mean he even starts to provoke mutinous undercurrents within his own Cylon group.
    All in all Edward James Olmos (Adama) has directed a reasonable addendum to the BSG world, even if it is far from compulsory viewing. He handles the bigger-budget effects stuff (which is almost on par with a medium-budget sci-fi movie) much more adeptly than the chopping-and-changing segments across the two-season-timeline. He offers a shocking look at the original Cylon attack's destruction of the main cities, bringing it to life better than you could have imagined. For that alone, I suspect many fans will want to check out this release. Unfortunately there is no easy way of telling this convoluted and largely unnecessary story. Whilst he has tried his best to string it all together, ultimately, he cannot avoid the inherent feeling that this is still little more than a collection of - admittedly good - deleted scenes. It sometimes feels as if you've just popped in the extras disc from a season of the show and hit the play all function, which shows you all the deleted scenes from across the season, in chronological order, but with no real fluidity to them. And, at the end of the day, we could have probably lived without it. Still, BSG fans will unlikely be able to resist, and will no doubt find out the hard way that this is not quite the amazing, revealing, answer-all feature-film that they were looking forward to.