[BSG] Jammer's Review: "The Plan"
- Note: This review contains significant spoilers.
Battlestar Galactica: "The Plan"
After the attack on the Colonies, Cavil attempts to finish the job the Cylons started by setting a series of small coordinated attacks in motion from within his secret isolated position on Galactica.
Release date: 10/27/2009 (USA)
Air date: 1/10/2010 (USA)
Written by Jane Espenson
Directed by Edward James Olmos
Rating out of 4: **1/2
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
Just for the record here, the final word on "Battlestar Galactica" is, in fact, "Daybreak," despite the fact that "The Plan" was filmed after the series finale and was released to audiences a full seven months later. "The Plan" does not pretend to offer substantive insights into the series or its characters that were not previously possible. What it does is offer is a revisit to the first two seasons of the series given what we know now that the series is over and most of the questions have been answered. It's like intriguing bonus material that supplies additional layers of irony. Peel it like an onion.
What is sort of hard to imagine is that "The Plan" was greenlit in the first place. I'm not saying it's bad (because it's not). But it is sort of a head-scratcher when you think of how the show must've been pitched to the studio. Rumor has it three post-finale BSG movies were originally under discussion. Given what "The Plan" offers us, perhaps it's a good thing only one was ultimately commissioned. "Daybreak" sent the series out on a high note with the necessary closure. Why water down that goodwill with multiple experiments in retroactive continuity?
"The Plan" plays like a math exercise in the writers room: How can we go back into the existing BSG material -- specifically the first two seasons -- and document, from the point of view of the Cylons, the attack on the Colonies and its aftermath, supplying various plot twists and turns upon established facts and mysteries, while not breaking any rules and also trying to tell a worthwhile character story in its own right?
It's a tall order, to be sure, which results in an often fragmented movie that's the exact opposite of such words as "standalone" and "accessible." Make no mistake: This is a BSG outing for hardcore fans only, who know the series very well. I'd hate to see the reaction of a semi-casual BSG viewer (does such a thing exist?) who wandered into "The Plan" unprepared. Much of it would be completely lost on them.
Ultimately, the problem with "The Plan" -- which is neither a success nor a failure in my book but simply an unnecessary and sometimes clever curiosity -- is that it can never truly resolve the question of whether it's a pointless gimmick or a legitimate story worth telling. There's evidence on hand to make a case for both positions. Sometimes it works well as a smart and perceptive character study that ponders big questions about the nature of what makes us individuals capable of reaching our unique conclusions. And other times it feels like a klutzily assembled clip show, as if the question being asked was: "How should we explain to the audience that one mystery we left open-ended four years ago?" So, yes, this is something of a compromise by its very definition.
"The Plan" documents events -- previously seen and unseen -- from just before the initial Cylon attack on the Colonies up through second season's finale, "Lay Down Your Burdens." The story's central conceit is that we revisit key events of the early days of BSG now that we know Cavil was the mastermind behind the Cylons. Example: Who was Six talking to on Caprica just before the bombs fell? Why, Cavil, of course. Did we need to know the answer to that question? Not really. Does it work here as a piece of plot? Sure.
Of course, part of Cavil's plan was also ensuring that the Final Five, when they died in the attack, would be resurrected on his ship where they could wake up to realize their gross error in having any sort of sympathy for humankind to begin with, at which point Cavil could say I Told You So. Example: Cavil puts a copy of himself right next to Ellen on Picon to watch her die. He puts another copy near Anders, where the Caprica Farm experiments are getting under way. The fact that neither of them die (or any of the Final Five) is a testament to the seriousness of his miscalculation.
The attack on the colonies is reenacted here with the benefit of several years' advancement in the craft of Gary Hutzel & Co. and their CG animation. It's also played out with stomach-churning anticipation of the tragically inevitable. By far the most visceral moments in "The Plan" are in its revamped depiction of the Cylon holocaust, as whole cities and civilizations are reduced to ashes. There are shots from the point of view of falling nuclear bombs that are simultaneously slick and scary; they create a fantasy of destruction that is visually impressive to behold as a stylized FX sequence while at the same time uncomfortably realistic. If you wanted impressive FX showing the destruction of the Colonies in more complete and up-close-and-personal detail than the miniseries was remotely able to provide, then "The Plan's" opening passages will do the job, no doubt.
From here, "The Plan" is basically the alternating, parallel tale of two Cavils. One thread follows Cavil on Galactica, where he attempts to secretly sow the demise of the ragtag fleet from within (thus leading to the various Cylon plots and attacks that occurred during BSG's first two seasons). The other thread follows Cavil on Caprica as he embeds himself as a civilian within the resistance led by Anders.
The gimmick of much of "The Plan" is in how it goes back to replay the existing early BSG material while writing new facts into the margins. For example: Cavil, never seen until the second season finale, was actually on Galactica the whole time, operating in secret. We see him here as he puts a flyer in the memorial corridor that says, "Have you heard of the plan?" which under his cover as a priest reads like a religious rumination but in actuality is a message to the other Cylons on Galactica telling them where and when to meet.
"The Plan" has fun in finding ways to insert its new facts into established scenes. Some of this is admittedly gimmicky. Were you dying to know how Shelly Godfrey Six "vanished" in "Six Degrees of Separation"? "The Plan" has the answer. (I, for one, wasn't dying to know and found the answer here to be hilariously low-tech.) For that matter, did you know that when Cally shot Sharon, Cavil was right there in his quarters and heard the gunshot in the corridor just outside his door? Irony, that.
The problem with some of this is its fragmentary nature. After the initial Cylon holocaust, we get scenes that jump from episode to episode to show vignettes and footnotes that take place during the clip-show aspects of "The Plan." Some of this is clumsily handled, and assumes because we're all fans here, we know what's happening in the ellipses -- but it still feels like a script that's taking choppy shortcuts.
What works best, I'd say, are the scenes that show Sharon transitioning back and forth between being an unwitting sleeper agent and a waking puppet of Cavil, who brings her in and out by way of a visual object that triggers and represses her memories. In particular, they did a good job of matching footage for the events surrounding "Water."
But still, I can't shake the feeling that Sharon's role as a sleeper agent was more emotionally intriguing when we simply assumed it was all preprogrammed, and was as much a mystery to us as to her. (I am forced to repeat my question here, which is whether "The Plan" is fundamentally necessary.)
Ultimately, "The Plan" lives or dies with its dual analysis of the cruel and determined Cavil. With many members of the BSG regular cast not part of the proceedings here (except in old footage), this story relies on a limited character scope. Fortunately, this makes it the Dean Stockwell Show, which is not a bad position to be in. Cavil is enjoyable to watch because he's such a relentlessly unhappy and dryly sarcastic bastard. Many of the best lines are Cavil's quips, among them:
* Cavil to Shelly Godfrey Six: "Very smart. Or maybe it's the glasses."
* Cavil, unhappy about Doral's copy's similar wardrobe: "I'm taking about the fact that you're walking around the fleet wearing that jacket." Doral: "His jacket was burgundy. This is teal."
* Cavil to Doral: "They call this a suicide vest. But I think that undersells all the homicide that goes along with it."
* Cavil to his twin, upon both seeing the Final Five reunited in the last possible way they would've expected and in the way that most ironically underlines their failures: "Not how I imagined it." "No brother."
* And my personal favorite. Leoben: "Kara Thrace plucked that knowledge from the Stream." Cavil: "I don't care if she plucked puppies from God's ass!"
So there's solid entertainment value to find here. There's also the question of Cavil's multiple encounters on Galactica with a young boy of about nine years old. Can the innocence of a child perhaps make Cavil rethink his ruthlessness?
A new story thread involves a character named Giana O'Neill (Lymari Nadal), who works with Tyrol's deck crew. She's married to a copy of Simon, unaware that he's a Cylon. Simon knows he's a Cylon, which is a source of enormous guilt for him; like many Cylons, he has lived among humans long enough that he has begun to sympathize with them and regret the genocide perpetrated upon them by his people. When Cavil tries to recruit Simon into a new mission to destroy the fleet from within, Simon balks.
I appreciated this subplot. I always felt Simon was woefully underutilized among the Cylons through the series' run, but here he gets a crucial role. We see how the guilt of being an instrument of potential murder eats away at him. He has a meltdown in one scene that makes you fairly sure he's going to carry out a mission of murder. Instead, he carries out his own suicide, because he'd rather die than see his wife and stepchild harmed.
Simon's suicide is put into motion in an earlier scene that demonstrates Cavil as a master of logical and emotional manipulation. When Cavil orders that Simon blow up his ship, Simon agrees, on the single condition that his family be spared. Cavil's response is irrefutable in that it reveals the truth that Simon cannot escape the lie of his existence: "No, you don't want that. You see, if they die now, they'll die without ever knowing what you are."
The scene where Simon airlocks himself -- initially appearing that he is going to blow up his ship -- played as one of those moments where I wasn't entirely sure what was going to happen. It underscores one of the key themes of "The Plan" (and BSG as a whole), which is that these people are trapped within the constructs of who they fundamentally are, but they can still make individual choices.
And in a nutshell, that's the undoing of Cavil's master plan. Humanity was supposed to be wiped out in one fell swoop, but key Cylons in key positions didn't perform as expected. Cavil's plan fell apart because of individual error, and the fact that Cavil never accounted for fallibility -- that his machines could prove as human as his targets. They had feelings and doubts and consciences, and they gave into them instead of doing what Cavil needed them to do.
And we see it happening again here, on Galactica. Leoben becomes too interested in Kara and his belief that she has a larger purpose. Simon is more invested in his human life, wife, and stepchild. Sharon is so guilt-ridden as a Cylon that she prefers the person she is when she's oblivious as a human. Shelly Godfrey Six is guilt-ridden over framing Baltar. One by one, these Cylons prove too human and unpredictable to do what Cavil needs them to do. (You'd think he would've done the math and realized this problem long before carrying out his genocide.)
Of course, this might've all been a little more effective had the story shown me instead of showing me and *then* telling me to boot; the scene where the drunken prostitute Six explains via exposition all these failings is too obviously on-the-nose and for the audience's benefit.
The parallel narrative involving Cavil on Caprica with Anders is sometimes a nonstarter dramatically, but it ultimately serves its purpose by showing yet another example of the deviation from the master plan. Not only do we have misgivings between the various models of Cylons, but we have an interesting juxtaposition of the two Cavils themselves. Somehow, because of his extended experience with Anders, who fights on behalf of human values, Cavil on Caprica finds it within himself to rethink his position. Something clicks, and instead of pulling the trigger, Cavil spares a life he had earlier planned to take.
This happens at the same time Cavil on Galactica commits his most heinous and irredeemable act, which is also among the darkest moments in BSG's run: He pretends to befriend the young innocent boy, and then stabs him in the back with stunning callousness. (This moment is so jaw-dropping that I didn't think even the BSG writers had it in them.) I think its point is to reinforce Cavil's ice-cold stubbornness -- that he *is* a machine who is immune to all the petty emotions that shut down the others. The point is also to show the unique and opposing conclusions reached by these two identical people. They have, somehow, become very different individuals based on their choices. What makes them who they are? Identical, and yet different? "The Plan" does not have an answer, and I am fine with that.
I liked the odd paradox of the two Cavils holding hands just before they are airlocked together in the final scene. It's as human a gesture as you will ever see Cavil make. Then we hear the voiceover of Cavil's diatribe from "No Exit" where he professes to want to be the perfect machine. It seems to ask just who Cavil is, and whether his nature represents a hopelessness -- trapped fundamentally between what he is and what he wants to be. This final scene underlines Cavil's own self-contradiction.
"The Plan" ultimately has a worthy theme because it can inspire questions like these. But as a storytelling vehicle it too often strains in trying to get all its pieces to fit into its somewhat contrived framework. You can sometimes see the gears grinding away. Given that it covers material and themes already amply covered in the series, I'm not sure "The Plan" was necessary. An intriguing curiosity, yes. A home-run, no. As BSG goes, it falls into the realm of "optional." But considering that BSG ended months before "The Plan" was released, I suppose "optional" was the only viable choice.
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Copyright 2010, Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
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