Posts tagged battlestar galactica
Look, more arguing about SF television! This time, however, I’m talking about an essay by noted Science Fiction author Charles Stross. I was first exposed to his work through several of the short fiction pieces later collected in the volume Accelerando. Much of Stross’s work emerges deeply from the socio-political context of the setting, with notable worldbuilding put into the setting. I agree with much of what Stross has to say, but my ideas contrast enough to mention.
I’m hoping that you’ve already read the essay before coming back here.
Stross primarily takes objection to the story-making process. For Stross, space operas such as the Star Trek franchise after the original series or Babylon 5 follow this process (paraphrased here through my interpretation):
Start with the interpersonal drama that forms the narrative’s center, then build a world around those characters that fills out the setting and enables the primary conflict.
The process positioned as Stross’s favorite is as such:
“I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects [...] And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.”
So here’s the thing — I think both of these processes are valid. One creates a setting designed to highlight the way that cultural/technological difference creates different social systems and different people who then have conflicts that emerge from those social contexts. The other creates stories where technological/social context is designed to support the overall character conflict.
Part of why I’m fine with both of these processes is that it’s hard to say ‘interpersonal conflict isn’t important. All of the worldbuilding ever doesn’t matter if you don’t care about the characters.
Now since I’ve read Stross’ work I know that he’s competent and can follow the process he supports and succeed at telling compelling stories. But I’m also a notable fan of Babylon 5, the new Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Coming back to the point: I agree with Stross that if you tell stories where the setting is interchangeable, the dramatic weight of the story can’t hang on that flimsy interchangeable setting. For me, the important part of Star Wars isn’t lightsabers and death stars, it’s a story about family, temptation, and power. And it’s hard to ignore universal themes.
However, the kind of SF that Stross is talking about as growing out of social situation, the sociological SF, is invaluable in its own right. There are many ways of telling stories — some are formulaic and exist only to support the status quo for all its complexity, mixing in ambition and misogyny, institutionalized racism but also love and family. Others challenge specific aspects of society, or imagine an entirely fabricated society to point out the implications of scientific/social change. I’d rather tell and support stories that encourage social justice and a curiosity about possibility, for sure, but it’s often hard to get those stories supported/published and to find a balance between getting people to listen to your point of view and preaching/provoking/condescending.
I agree with Stross on the generalities of the argument, but take objection to some of his examples. I agree with the the mention that the time-frame of television is so limited as to leave precious little room for world building and still be able to present the dramatic arcs. It’s one of the challenges of the form, but doesn’t discount that medium from being valid for sociological SF.
Now for the details. Let’s start with Battlestar Galactica — much of Battlestar Galactica emerges from its setting, which features a race of sentient beings who can love, hate, show remorse and every other emotion but happen to be synthetically created, grown, and moreover, grown in one of 12/11 models of identical bodies. Battlestar didn’t focus as much on those types of dramatic questions as some might have liked (myself included), didn’t spend all its time talking about Cylon/human relations or the dramatic play that comes from the survivors of an apocalypse shuffled into a couple dozen starships with all traditional kinship ripped to shreds. But those situations were present and did indicate the type of characters who emerged from that setting, and influenced the ways that the interpersonal drama unfolded. It certainly won’t stop me from wanting to do my ‘Anthropologists! In! Space!’ novel which is inspired greatly by BSG but wants to put that sociological focus in the forefront. Things that piss us off or we think are done sloppily/imperfectly can be just as much an inspiration as things done well (often more).
More examples. Babylon 5 is deeply interpersonal, but I disagree that it follows the ‘tech the tech so that the tech over-techs’ solutions that Ron Moore discussed at the NY television festival. For me, the dramatic thrust of Babylon 5 focused on bridging boundaries between cultures with contrasting ideologies, the challenges of being both a member of a species/culture and trying to act as a neutral host enabling diplomacy. I feel like very few of its stories were resolved with handwavium, and even if the interpersonal drama was foregrounded, those characters emerged out of their science fictional worlds — psychics taken away from their families, leaders driven to bend/break the rules of engagement to defend the people under their command (during a war with aliens that started as a result of a cultural misunderstanding), and more.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is certainly guilty of ‘Tech the tech-tech and reverse the other tech,’ as deus ex machina for many conflicts. But it also served as my introduction to sociological sf, cultural relativism, and many of the tropes of science fiction which have kept me a fan of the genre and made me appreciate all that it can do. When the crew crashes up against the Prime Directive, trying to find the balance between spreading their favored paradigm and dictating how other people should live their lives, that for me is part of what makes science fiction worthwhile.
I don’t think all science fiction needs to be intensely sociological. I appreciate my Star Wars and my LOST and the like. I can enjoy those shows and still appreciate The Demolished Man, Parable of the Sower, and other sociological SF stories. Maybe TV isn’t the ideal medium for sociological SF requiring intense worldbuilding, but it may be the medium for introducing people to science fictional elements like multiple dimensions or time travel or genetic modification, which then hopefully prepares viewers/readers for reading the more high-context novels/stories/films/etc.
To come back to agreement, I’m with Stross in noting that SF television has a big challenge in that it has to satisfy the executives who have a final call on whether shows air/continue. I’m not saying that I know more about what makes good tv than any given network executive — I haven’t been a network exec and I’m not likely to ever be one. But I would say this to those executives:
You want to make money — one of the ways you may be able to do that is to find auteurs/production companies who have a great deal of cultural/economic cache, and then let them make the shows that they want to make. Fans are likely to follow them, and the kind of fans that follow those prominent auteurs/teams are evangelical, and will spread their enthusiasm over into other groups. Groundbreaking, provocative television gets a lot of attention. Shows like Mad Men, the Sopranos, and more. Without taking big risks, you cut yourselves off from big rewards.
One of the major problems with the perspective of writers/audiences vs the perspective of executives is that the priorities are completely different. I want to eat, sure, but as a writer, I want the chance to make statements and incite conversations about possibility, society, and individuals. And it may be that the executives of NBC, FOX, CBS, ABC and everyone else just don’t care about changing the world, or changing people’s minds’ (other than changing their mind about which tv show to watch and which products from advertisers to buy). And that’s a systemic problem of the consumer storytelling industry, and deserving of its own blog posts. Lots of them.
After a long hiatus, the Star Trek franchise returns with the J.J. Abrams-directed re-launch film, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.
Following a Ultimates-kind of model (Marvel’s re-imagining re-launch of classic Marvel properties such as Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men), the new film takes the chance to re-introduce the classic characters of the original series in a way that allows for new growth and storytelling less bound by decades of continuity.
Star Trek is commonly known for its sociological SF slant, but this film is a pure character study. We follow James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) through their pre-histories and their paths through youth into adulthood and the foundation of their friendship. Pine succeeds in capturing the swagger and cunning of Kirk without hamming it up too much, and Quinto’s Spock excels at displaying the conflict between his Vulcan and Human sides. Each member of the cast had the chance to shine in their area, but were also depicted as vulnerable and imperfect.
The design aesthetic for the new Star Trek is the love child of Apple and the new Battlestar Galactica. It’s shiny on top and gritty on the bottom, combining the dirty functionality with the pristine shine. The future is not white-washed or sterile, but it does have the shine of optimism. The graphics were breathtaking, re-capturing the ‘Sense of Wonder’ mode of SF visuals which has been so central to the genre’s cultural impact.
Eric Bana’s Nero is a singularly driven villain who, along with Spock, ties together the plot twists that give us the new continuity. Nero may not go down as one of the franchise’s best villains, but he was compelling in his own right.
The pacing was tight, with slow moments spaced out here and there to give moments for character notes, but the majority of the film was an unrelenting roller coaster ride.
Star Trek is an exciting, accessible, fast-paced character-heavy film that requires no substantial knowledge of the franchise to enjoy, but is clearly a part and doing homage to the long-established Star Trek universe. Critical acclaim and likely box-office success mean that a sequel following the same continuity is very likely, and may also provide support for a new Star Trek television series. Heroes producer and Pushing Daisies creator Brian Fuller has already expressed strong interest in helming such a property, and with the ending of Battlestar Galactica, the role of ‘Best SF show on TV’ is open for competition once more.
Final verdict: Go see it. See it if you’re a Trekker, a casual fan, a SF aficionado, or if you just want a fun two hour ride of a film.
More than five years after the 2004 miniseries, the re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica reached its conclusion with “Daybreak,” a two-part, three hour series finale.
Ron Moore, show-creator and acknowledged Guy In Charge has been on the record as having prioritized character arcs over plot resolution in the finale. This choice is made apparent especially towards the end of the finale, as grace notes for characters are chosen over clear resolution.
The first hour and change is pure adrenaline, final preparation for Galactica’s final mission, the so-crazy-it-has-to-work plan, and then the entirety of the show’s remaining CG budget put into a glorious swansong fight sequence for the Galactica and the series.
There’s already been a lot of talk about the show’s epilogue. By jumping ahead from the end of the character’s story to contemporary Earth and having the ‘angels’ muse about the state of technology, the themes of the show became almost painfully clear. To me, the angels’ dialogue at the end wasn’t clearly a condemnation of robotics or a cautionary tale, but could be read as either.
To put on my writer hat for a moment, I would have sufficed with ending on Hera walking up to a (male) child of the indigenous tribal peoples and making a connection You get the idea of how Hera acts as the future of the survivors, and you can see how the name repeats in a cycle. But then again, it’s much easier to say how you would have done something better than to do it the first time on your own.
Roslin’s ending is the only thing it could have been, and Bill Adama hitched his carriage to hers for an ending. Between this and Kara’s ‘So I guess I was an angel, and now that I’ve done my job I can vanish’ leaves Lee to go off and finally live for himself rather than be defined by his relationships to other characters (his father, his president, Kara, etc.)
Battlestar achieved enough mainstream success as a drama to be ‘escape’ the Science Fiction ghetto (such as it still exists, which is to say only somewhat, and to some people). The finale concerns itself more with answering the character/drama questions than the science-fictional ones. We don’t get a final explanation of what Kara is, but she does make the connections and delivers on the prophecy associated with her by the Hybrid(s). We don’t have the secret history of Earth like we could have with buried starships and many Atlantises, but we do have the Fighting Agathons surviving to the end as a family unit despite all exterior threats.
The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica will likely be remembered as the best SF show of the Aughties decade. It was deeply reflective of post-9/11 USA and a turn towards gritty moral gray areas in mainstream SF television. Just as post-9/11 entertainment included a push towards clear black & white heroism (superhero films, early 24), it also explored the gray areas as we tried to find meaning and humanity in the horrible things our country has been associated with (torture, jingoism, invasion, etc).
There is a TV movie coming this fall (The Plan), but it is unlikely that it will substantially change interpretations of the ending.
Battlestar is back, and the WTF? factor is high. Here’s my breakdown of the episode, Spoilers Galore.
- Starbuck finds her own wreckage, with her fin #, and a corpse with her dog tags.
- The Final Four all have memories of living on Earth.
- Dee breaks down and commits suicide after one last happy memory with Lee.
- Tigh flashes back to Earth and sees Ellen, leading him to identify her as the Fifth Cylon.
- Earth is uninhabitable, and the remains discovered there are all genetically Cylon, accompanied by Centurion-style Cylons unlike those made by the humans of the 12 colonies or the Cylons they made.
1. This fits in with the fact that the Raptor that Starbuck arrived with after her dissapearance was fresh-off-the-line clean. This leads us to believe that Starbuck is a Cylon, or that she was somehow cloned by the Cylons, based off of the tissue samples they could have taken during the time she was held at the farm during “The Farm.” This is of course all interpolation. Leoban is shocked by the revelation, as it disproves/disagrees with his visions. His religious certainty is shaken, and the connection between him and Starbuck is now in question again.
2. From Tyroll walking the marketplace to Anders remembering playing “All Along the Watchtower,” this fits in line with my reading that that the humans of Earth are descended from the intermarriage of Cylons and humans who settle on Kobol and then leave for the thirteen colonies, as a part of the cycle (hence “all of this has happened before, all of this will happen again”) — This would allow for our civilization as is now to be a part of this cycle, between when the 13th tribe reaches Earth and when nuclear war destroys civilization on the planet.
The Final Five would then be the people who remember their previous incarnations elsewhen in the cycle, who are ‘Cylons’ in that they are the descendents of the re-connected species.
3. Dee’s suicide is used as the personalization of the collective despair expressed by the fleet after being let down by Earth. The people had held up hope for years and years, thinking ‘if we make it to Earth, it will all be ok.’ — and now that Earth has been removed as the great hope, people’s defenses are down and they’re crashing. Everyone of the survivors have PTSD, first from the destruction of the colonies, likely again from the events on New Caprica, and many things in between and after.
Dee had already lost her connection to Lee, before that she lost Billy, on top of the destruction of the colonies. She showed signs of breaking down throughout the episode, from the return trip from Earth to speaking to Hera to the musing about the picture from when she was five. And then, after one more happy moment with Lee, she takes her own life. This is the personalized version of the despair rampant throughout the fleet that we can see on Galactica with people breaking down in the hallways and from the graffiti.
4. Ellen was originally suspected as being a Cylon because of her mysterious appearance in the fleet, then discounted because she was too human-ly screwed up. And by the time she let Saul kill her as they departerd New Caprica, she had achieved a measure of redeption. And now by revealing her as the fifth Cylon (confirmed in the ‘next episode’ preview), they open up the question of another instance of her being alive or able to be activated. It also makes for more of a reason to stay on Earth for archaeological excavation to uncover more information and/or unlock more memories of the Four that remain.
5. This supports my ideas from 2, positing that once humans and Cylons intermingle, they will just distinct enough from humans now so as to register as ‘Cylon’ (ie. ‘Other’) — But I imagine that Hera and Nicholas, our two known human-Cylon crossbreeds would register as ‘Cylon’ under the same analyses.
Next episode — Vice President Zarek makes another power play, looking to divide the fleet. Meanwhile, people try to figure out what the hell to do now that Earth is no longer the safe End Point. Cavill’s fleet is still out there, meaning that there will be more chances for explosions and dogfights and such.