Sunday, October 01, 2006

In defense of the best show on television

Television has thrown up many unlikely series in recent years which have gone on to become ratings bonanzas. 10 million people regularly tune in to watch the trials and tribulations of a New Jersey mob family. 14.8 million tune in to watch an overworked government agent try to save to world in 24 hours. 9.7 million people watch the Byzantine tale of plane crash survivors on a mysterious island. 13 million watch impeccably dressed detectives who never heard of fluorescent lighting poke at human remains. 15 million tune in regularly to watch the antics of a lottery winning hick who found Buddha.

Truth is, you probably already watch plenty of shows that, if someone had explained the plot to you years ago, you would have rolled your eyes and said not in a million years. So the question is, if you were willing to give Tony Soprano and his therapist a chance, or Jack Bauer, or the Lostaways or Earl, why wouldn’t you take a chance on the best series on television, Battlestar Galactica?

Oops, I’ve lost you. I see your eyes glazing over. You don’t “do” science fiction. You prefer a little realism in your TV, thank you very much. You have vague memories of a cheesy 70s show rip off of Star Wars with that name. Maybe you enjoyed it back then, because you were 7. Or maybe you missed it because you weren’t into sci-fi then, and you’re certainly not now. Now you’re thinking something clever like, “Sheesh, what’ll they bring back next: My Mother, The Car? Those Hollywood idiots can’t do anything original, can they?”

I can't deny it. Science fiction has a rap. It’s followers are nerdy fanboys hypothesizing that maybe, really, we’re all just a dream in some android’s head. It’s Captain Kirk with a strategically ripped shirt battling a man in a gorilla suit with a lizard mask. It’s people getting themselves into impossible situations and then saving themselves with futuristic gadgets. They’re Westerns with laser guns.

Star Trek, Star Wars and, yes, the 1970s version of Battlestar Galactica, all fit into this goofy Buck Rogers interpretation of scifi. And, don’t get me wrong, full confession time, I’ve been known to enjoy those shows. But the reality is that true science fiction, hard science fiction, the science fiction of Heinlein, Dick and Clark, was never meant to be Westerns in space. According to someone who cared enough to write a thesis on it, “the purpose of science fiction is to introduce scientific or technological novelties in order to create narratives that enable us to perceive everyday reality at a reflective distance.” It even has a name: cognitive estrangement.

Forget about Star Wars or Men in Black for a minute, and think about the works of Phillip K. Dick. His best known works inspired three movies of note: Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly. All three give us a future planet Earth in which there have been plenty of scientific advancements, but no implication that these advancements have improved human lives. In Blade Runner, humans have created a servant race of androids (or perhaps they’re closer to clones) who have the gall to demand human rights. Both Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly give us futures where as yet discovered drugs have had catastrophic effects. The scientific novelties (clones, psychotropic drugs) create situations that allow us to see the constant effects of moral dilemmas that never leave us.

Which brings me to Battlestar Galactica. Like the best hard science fiction, like the best entertainment of any kind, Galactica presents an unfamiliar environment, adds human beings, with human frailties, obsessions and addictions, adds stress and shakes liberally.
Let us start with the facts. There are space ships and robots with their humanoid clones called Cylons and there’s no point whitewashing their existence. There’s no point pretending this all takes place in The Oval Office.

The old and the new versions of Battlestar Galactica share one thing besides a name: the premise of a small group of survivors on the run after a planetary disaster. Beyond that, the new show is startlingly original, not just from its namesake but from anything else on TV. Even a show like The West Wing, which tripped over itself to remain timely and relevant, never approached modern moral issues with such steely eyed purpose. Galactica doesn’t just approach them, it gets down in the pit and wrestles them, never with a clear victor.

Human planets have been engulfed in a nuclear holocaust perpetuated by Cylons, a servant class of androids who got tired of being treated like slaves (sound familiar?). They left, formed their own society, figured out how to create human clones and, most importantly, found God. When I say “God”, I don’t mean some wacky evil scientist hiding behind a screen a la “The Wizard of Oz”. I mean God. Everything the Cylons and their human clones do, they do it for the grace and glory of the one true savior, so they believe. God told them humanity was a plague, so they blew it up.

50,000 humans survive on the run, and as they run, they struggle with more than just robots. A pro-choice leader outlaws abortion because, well, there are only 50,000 people left in the universe. The same leader, an intelligent, moral, reasonable woman, attempts bald faced election rigging because she fears her opponent’s total unsuitability more than she believes in the democratic process. Democracy is all well and good, but the fate of the human race is at stake, and her opponent is an opportunistic, insane, compromised fop. In the end, she caves, he wins, and democracy loses anyway.

A military leader enforces civilian conscription while looting and leaving other civilians behind to their death. What’s a little human collateral when the universe is at stake? Another military leader wrestles with the temptation of a military coup to end the meddling civilian government who just doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of their situation. Two soldiers are court marshaled for trying to stop other soldiers from raping and torturing a captured clone.

People live in daily fear of terrorist acts, perpetuated by God loving robots and the people who love them. The Cylons themselves wrestle with moral dilemmas. Is their mission to introduce the remains of humanity to God’s vengeance, or to His love? Terrorism, torture, abortion, genetic engineering, science, faith, zealotry, separation of church and state, separation of military and state, political opportunism, vote fraud, media neutrality and racism; none of these topics are too prickly for the writers to tackle, and all of us get to feel the thorns. Yes, this is science fiction, and yes it’s entertaining, but there’s nothing escapist about it.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the makers of this show gave themselves an uphill battle by adapting a cheesy 70s sci fi show in the first place. Why would you give anything called Battlestar Galactica credit for being anything more than lasers in space? It’s on the SciFi channel which does, in fact, have a raft of lasers in space TV shows including Doctor Who and at least two variations of a show with Stargate in the title. Every weekend SciFi shows movies with titles like DragonWizard and Kraken: Tenticles of the Deep. Why would anyone take a show in this company seriously?

The only argument I can offer in its defense is the show itself. There are times when a television program rises above the confines of its setting. It becomes more than a show about a rundown Boston hospital, or a family run funeral parlor, or a sleepy Alaska town, or a mob family or even a ragtag group of survivors in, yes, spaceships. It is entertaining, but it is also something special. We are more interesting people, at least for the hour we watch the show.

After all, watching The Sopranos didn’t turn you into a paisan. I promise an episode of Galactica will not turn you into a Star Trek conventioneer. You might even enjoy yourself and, I promise, I wont tell a soul.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Great post. You've written what every fan of the show believes in their hearts too be true but are sometimes too embarassed to tell an audience of real, live breathing people.

I would like to add that maybe the show is as good as it is because it is not watched by tens of millions of people. Whenever a good show attracts the attention of the big advertisers the studios will always step in and muck things up. My hope for Battlestar is that it can continue as TV's best kept secret for at least a few more seasons before the shark gets jumped. Let the masses have 24, Lost and Heroes because the rest of us who really appreciate good drama won't have to worry about those people ruining a good thing.