Wednesday, April 15, 2009

You Sunk My Battlestar

A long time ago, a guy once wrote a play where a girl asks nobody in particular, "What's in a name?"

Most intelligent people figure out the correct answer is "Letters" and move on with their lives, but for some reason writers and philosophical types interpret the question as "How does language shape our definition of reality?" and spend the rest of their lives wrestling with it. Next thing they know, they're chasing shots of tequila with soy sauce instead of beer, practicing Iaido in the local park around midnight and... I'm talking about myself again.

A similar, but much more manageable approach to such inquiries may be framed by the question: "What is a name trying to sell me?" It's a query I find myself pondering frequently in our modern world of advertising, most recently at word of SciFi Channel's decision to rename themselves Syfy. Evidently the goal is to shed their geeky image, but their explanation of how the name change will facilitate such a reinvention suggests a business strategy cribbed from the underwear gnomes of South Park. I can't see this turning out well for them, and it appears that I am not alone.

Then again, it wouldn't be the first time Science Fiction, or even Scifi Network managed to work with a bad name.

I honestly can't think of a television title which misrepresents the mood of its show more gravely than Battlestar Galactica: A compound noun that is nonsensical to those who don't know the context paired with a not-quite-made-up adjective is a concoction of such profound nerdiness that people who normally like Science Fiction find themselves derisively snickering and smirking at it. Of course, those who have seen the show realize it is The West Wing of Science Fiction.

For those who have no clue what I'm talking about, Battlestar Galactica is the title of several different TV shows where humanity searches the stars for a new home as they struggle to survive assaults from the Cylons: Robotic slaves turned Terminators. The specific series I'm referring to is the latest iteration of the franchise which recently concluded. The show was a 'reimagining' of its predecessors, which I have not seen, but based on what I've learned of chimpanzee cyborg dogs, I assume the title's..."whimsical" tone suited the original series better than the show in question.

"So what the frak is a reimagining?" you ask, only more politely because you are a better person than me? Aside from being a pretentious neologism, it's a narrative device that inhabits the curious space between a canonical Reboot, a la Batman Begins, and a good old fashion Remake, with a smattering of Pseudo-sequel thrown in for good measure. As one might guess, the intention is an overall image change. For BSG, the change was to be darker, more sophisticated and relevant in a post-9/11 world. It was a sizable hurdle, but armed with an impressive CGI budget (by SciFi's standards anyway) the series creators managed to clear it handsomely (below). Not everybody was pleased however.

The big change between this BSG and those of the past is that the Cylons have learned how to create synthetic people as opposed to just being robots. In some cases, these synthetic people think they are actual people, with feelings and memories and everything, until their Cylon overlords flip the kill-switch. Other times, these "skinjobs" are aware of their status from the start and serve as spies. Therefore, the war being fought in the show is as much about counter terror and counter intelligence as it is about big explosions and jumpin' through hyperspace (which ain't like dusting crops for all my farmboy readers out there). This emphasis on terror is established from the get-go, as the initial attack which destroys the human colonies is predicated on human incompetence and Cylon tactical espionage action.

The show also breaks new ground where politics are concerned. In fact, sociopolitical tensions within the fleet frequently present the Galactica with problems just as grave as Cylon attacks. Things like bigotry, working conditions, and freedom of press frequently come into play. The episode dealing with birth control and abortion within the fleet was particularly compelling, as it ends up pitting a woman's right to choose against humanity's need to procreate, in addition to the normal spiritual and ethical conundrums inherent to the debate. This practical stuff is a side of science fiction most series gloss over, following the rationale that practical considerations = boring. BSG manages to examine our everyday against another back drop and the results are compelling.

Religion is a much more common presence in Science Fiction, but BSG handles it in a timely and compelling manner. The viewer is led to examine the polytheistic humans and the monotheistic Cylons and determine who has the real god/belief system, as miracles grace both sides at various points in the show. [Broad Spoiler Warning] Eventually these two forces come to an uneasy truce and triumph over the remaining faction of atheistic Cylons, (but the arc of that last plot isn't nearly as long and trite as one would expect). Some of the spiritual issues are resolved in a muddled manner, or seem to drop off the radar altogether when the creators get bored with them, as I felt was the case with the 'Jesus Baltar' arc.

Then again, when you have characters who bounce between as many roles as the cast of Galactica it's almost inevitable that they'll end up feeling a bit cracked. Hell, a lot of the time the fissures are built in. Sometimes however, I got the sense that writers tried to achieve character depth by complexity. Gaius Baltar jumps back and fourth between scientific genius, traitor, scheming politician, charismatic spiritual leader, prisoner (and apparently soldier at the very end) according to the needs of the script. All the while, he remains the same lascivious, narcissistic prick who damned humanity at the beginning of the series, but you get the impression that the writer's have forgiven him, and that they would like you to consider him redeemed too. Apollo on the other hand, is a relentless golden boy, who juggles the hats of ace pilot, admiral, lawyer, and president without misplacing a hair from his part. It'd probably be better if I don't get started on the characters who have clones, but as you might expect, the plot can be difficult to follow at times.

It also suffers from some pacing issues periodically. Every season has at least a couple of episodes which feel like little more than scaffolding for future plot twists. Normally, this would be totally forgivable given the series' overall quality, but SciFi stretched the last season out over what felt like two years, but continued to pimp it as hard as they could. The marketing reached a new low with it's Last Supper promotion:

I'm no stranger to sacrilege, but I like to keep it funny and the series already takes itself too seriously. I realize the picture was the creators' ideas, and that there's a whole viral aspect of it that supposedly foreshadowed the identity of the final four Cylons, but it strikes me as the perfect example of why Science Fiction fandoms are condemned and ostracized: They literally make a religion out of their shows, and take the greatest pleasure from the most obscure details of their other world. It seems antithetical to BSG's socially relevant approach to Science Fiction, and it's a tendency which needs no encouragement.

In fact, this sort of seriousness is my chief complaint towards BSG. Don't get me wrong, it's incredibly refreshing to see an adult take on the space epic, but the show seems to regard any element of levity with terror, as if the narrative will somehow be consumed by the same sacharine cancer which ruined Star Wars, or the sort of self-deprecation cycle that rendered Stargate the Meg Griffin of Scifi TV. This is most apparent in the way that BSG addresses children. At best, they are portrayed as creepy giggling prophets utterly devoid of personality. More commonly, they are reduced to wailing burdens, or abstract score keeping objects. Hera's exchange between the two factions is similar to both a custody battle and a game of capture the flag: I had never felt less for a child in danger. I can't help but assume that this fear of dismissal stems from the series' title and pedigree.

All this buildup is largely responsible for my disappointment with the series' conclusion. Unlike many fans, who lament the show's relatively short run, I feel that the series may have marched on a season too far. There is at least half a season of red herring and filler-episodes that could be trimmed from the show, and during that time, many of my favorite characters (like Geda and Dualla) withered as the spotlight turned to other less interesting cast members (most of the final cylon models). Some of the promised revelations also felt woefully insubstantial given their build up (cough, the deal with Kara). That being said, the show managed to tie up it's myriad of loose ends which is commendable in itself.

The new Battlestar Galactica does live up to its impossible hype when taken as a whole, and it's the sort of infinitely quotable epic you should check out for the cultural references alone. The miniseries that spawned the show is a good place to start, but I believe the absolute best examples of the show come immediately after. Both "33" and "Water" are compelling stories that set the mood for the struggle that follows.

Once again, I've written too much to be considered polite by blogging standards, though honestly, I feel like I've left an awful lot unsaid about Galactica. It hurts to leave the rich vein of "gender studies" completely untouched, though that itch will get scratched plenty good in my upcoming commentary on Y: The Last Man. But first, check back around Friday for this week's edition of Japan's Finest!

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