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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Battlestar' crew confronts a terrible reality

All that the surviving humans have hoped for is dust. And things are bound to get worse before they get better.

January 16, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

Not every show could survive a midseason break of more than six months, but then "Battlestar Galactica" isn't every show. It's an ever-evolving mythology, possibly a new teched-out version of the book of Genesis. Production for its fourth and final season was interrupted by last year's writers strike, breaking the narrative rather neatly in half and providing the adrenaline rush of a midseason cliffhanger of serious proportions.

When last we saw the crew members of the Galactica, they had narrowly escaped an about-to-turn-deadly face-off with the D'Anna-led Cylons because Starbuck realized her Viper was picking up a detector signal from the long-sought Earth. Peace was made and the fleet made the jump, finding not the Thirteenth Tribe sanctuary they have sought for so long, but a nuclear wasteland.

Now, the review DVD of Episode 11, the beginning of this final run, came with a very polite note imploring "writers and editors" to not reveal several key twists of the episode -- essentially all the major stuff that happens. Also, as a precaution, the folks at Sci Fi removed the final scene of the episode which contains the big reveal -- presumably the identity of the final Cylon, which executive producer Ron Moore has said will occur in this episode.

Frankly Sci Fi, I am a little hurt. Still one has to write something. So here we go.

"Battlestar" has never been a bright and breezy show. Its characters are, after all, the few survivors of a nuclear genocide wandering the universe in search of sanctuary from the still-not-satisfied Cylons. So everyone has a lot of emotional baggage. Then there's the whole lighting issue -- while the crew of the Starship Enterprise preferred primary colors and an airy mod atmosphere, the Galactica has a much dimmer palette -- amid the interstellar murk, gray remains the new gray.

That said, Episode 11, "Sometimes a Great Nation" makes every previous episode look like "The Music Man." Dark, despairing, despondent, all the big D words would work here. Earth is, indeed, uninhabitable, and furthermore the Thirteenth Tribe turns out to be not exactly what anyone was expecting. Suffice it to say at one point President Roslin (Mary McDonnell) burns the prophecy of Pythia -- she burns the prophecy! -- and Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos) contemplates ending it all, though not before he and XO Tigh (Michael Hogan) finally go at it with matching snarls, guns and brimming glasses of what appears to be Scotch.

One of the strongest selling points of "Battlestar" has always been its ability to anchor fantasy with vivid and recognizable human psychology. That's what lifts all great works out of the confines of genre -- be it horror, sci fi, fantasy or mystery -- into the plane of literature, and that's what has made "Battlestar" not just a cult hit but a significant piece of television.

Characters make mistakes, some of them irrevocable; behave heroically for all the wrong reasons, fall in love and act weird and generally avoid the over-night miracle transformations used too often to keep things tidy. "Battlestar" refuses to be tidy.

So it's not surprising that the discovery that all they have hoped for turns out to be literally dust takes a big toll on what remains of the human race. Indeed, so psychologically poisonous is the effect that you wonder if it is really a place and not some shared anxiety dream.

As events unfold it becomes clear that just as Cylons were not precisely what we once thought, so time seems to open itself to interpretation. (At one point, things became so unearthly that it wouldn't have been entirely shocking to see the cast of "Lost" emerge from the post-nuke mist -- so that's where the island went.)

Clearly, this is that infamous hour before dawn, with the big reveal offering a new direction. But as "Battlestar" fans know from this whipsaw ride through myth and imagination, whatever you think is going to happen next is usually something else entirely.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Battlestar Galactica'

Where: Sci Fi

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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