Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Battlestar Galactica Redux

The season finale of Battlestar Galactica this past Sunday was without a doubt a blogworthy event. Despite ratings that have been below expectations, this series which is up there with The Sopranos (subject of one of my first posts) and 24 (subject of a recent post) has been renewed for another season. Thank you, SciFi Channel!!!

I watched the original series back in 1978 and like most viewers, I recognized the program as a knock-off of Star Wars, obviously imitative and, aside from having pretty good special effects, especially for TV, an otherwise mediocre program in regard to plot lines and characters--no Star Trek, that's for sure. Star Trek gave us an image of a future that seemed attainable, a matter of making progress over a couple of centuries (not that there wouldn't be hitches, like the Eugenics Wars, along the way). Star Wars gave us a futuristic scenario set "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," a fairytale in science fiction clothing. Battlestar Galactica split the difference, in a way, as it was set far, far away, but on a trek bringing the characters closer and closer to us, and it was set in the present, presumably, or the very near future. Battlestar picked up on the spiritual elements of Star Wars and gave us a biblical kind of narrative with an exodus, a wandering of the desert of outer space in search of the promised land of Earth, and a Moses-like leader in Commander Adama, played by the fatherly Lorne Greene (hence, the series was sometime called Bonanza in space). There even were angels appearing towards the end of the series. Not all references were Judeo-Christian, however, as the 12 colonies that were destroyed were each named for the 12 signs of the zodiac, and there were references to the Greek gods as well. In the original scenario, the robotic race known as Cylons attacked and destroyed the 12 colonies, and the survivors populating a rag-tag fleet led by the last Battlestar (space version of a battleship, much like the ones operated by the evil Empire in Star Wars) set out in search of the 13th colony, known as Earth, chased by the Cylons led by the human traitor Baltar. The original series petered out over the course of one season or so, and they never really had a full encounter with Earth. Aside from the hardcore fans, most people didn't really care very much, although it would have been nice to wrap the story up.

So, when my friend Ray Cannella, who works for SciFi Channel (and is my "brother" in that he also is the father of an autistic daughter--in fact, our daughters were classmates some years ago), told me that there was going to be a remake of Galactica, I didn't find the news particularly exciting. But the miniseries was impressive, and when the first season began, the very first episode, "33," just blew me away--I consider it one of the best single episodes of a TV series ever produced. This is another example of what I consider a basic rule of thumb, that remakes and adaptations of weak programs, films, and books generally exceed expectations and are quite good, and along the same lines, remakes and adaptations of strong programs, films, books, etc., tend to disappoint and are just not very good in their own right. In this instance, the original series provided raw material of limited quality that has been shaped into entirely new and highly creative ways.

For one, there's the look of the series. The original was a Star Wars knock off, whereas this new series is influenced heavily by Blade Runner, with a dark, film noir look, retro style (explained as they have to resort to pre-networked computer technology otherwise the Cylons take control of the tech), not to mention the inclusion of Edward James Olmos; there also is a Matrix influence in the use of different color filters for scenes on board Galactica and on the surface of planets. The clothing styles are relatively contemporary, however, with military uniforms and even suits and ties being worn--no explanation for the coincidence, it's just a conceit that drives home the point that these are human beings very much like ourselves, a familiar element in an otherwise alien setting--in Screening Space: The American Science Fiction FilmVivian Sobchack argues that the opposition between the alien and the familiar is the defining element of the science fiction genre. There's also a vaguely-middle eastern sounding theme music that's very interesting, given the religious overtones of the program, but fits the somber scenario of the series.

In the original series, the Cylons seemed to have no relation to the humans, apart from their desire to destroy them; their acceptance of Baltar as their leader, even temporarily, defied all logic. In the new series, the Cylons were created by the humans to serve them, and then rebelled, providing a rationale for the conflict. And again taking a page from Blade Runner, the newest version of the Cylons are all but indistinguishable from humans, rather than metallic robots, a major difference being that there are only 12 of them, corresponding to the 12 human colonies (although up until this season finale, 5 of the 12 were unknown, even for the most part to the other 7); there are only 12 models, but there are many copies of the same model, and each individual can download his or her consciousness into another copy, provided one is in relatively close proximity (in outer space terms, which means that there must be a resurrection ship in the sector). These Cylons are all but immortal, in contrast to the problematic mortality and "accelerated decrepitude" of Blade Runner's replicants.

Battlestar Galactica is a true post 9/11 program, unlike, say, 24 and Enterprise. 24 was well positioned, as a show about fighting terrorism, for post 9/11 culture, but its initial plot line with a Serbian villain and rather modest goals (revenge on presidential candidate David Palmer and counter-terrorism agent Jack) had to be ratcheted up in the following seasons. Enterprise's optimistic outlook was a breath of fresh air after the depressing events of 9/11 and its aftermath, but its image of a restrained and peaceful humanity driven by curiosity and the desire for exploration did not fit the times, and a few seasons into the series a 9/11 type event was introduced, launching the starship on a more than season-long mission to save the earth (and this still was not enough to stave off premature cancellation). When Battlestar Galactica premiered, it was impossible to ignore the difference between the failing Star Trek franchise (both in the Enterprise series and the last couple of feature films) and the exciting new SciFi Channel series.

As a post 9/11 program, Battlestar begins with an apocalyptic event: the destruction of the 12 colonies by a Cylon sneak attack after a century of peace. And while this follows the same basic plot as the original series, the first time round the destruction did not seem all that bad, there was no sense of how many humans had died and how few were left, and the survivors seemed plucky and optimistic. But this time, we see nuclear devastation on a truly massive scale, drawing on all those nuclear war films such asFail Safe (a movie that, when I saw it on TV as a kid, gave me nuclear nightmares for years afterwards) and the TV miniseries The Day After. The scale of destruction really hits home as we find out that there are only some 40,000 human beings left alive in a handful of ships, so that we are teetering on the brink of complete annihilation. And that first episode, "33," shows the crew of Battlestar Galactica utterly exhausted as they are subject to attach every 33 minutes like clockwork. And there is no let up, no normality restored, humanity remains on the brink throughout the series. The brief respite at the end of the last season, when a planet that is minimally acceptable is found and most of the population settles there, comes to a decisive end when the Cylons find them and impose authoritarian rule, until Battlestar Galactica is able to mount a rescue operation at the start of this season.

A wonderful touch is that the Cylons are religious--they talk about God, truly believe in God, and their aggressive and violent actions are rooted in their religious convictions. This of course reflects the fact that we were attacked by Islamic extremists, and the fact that the Cylons were capable of passing as human (until the 7 models were eventually identified) reflects the fact that the terrorists were able to move about within the United States essentially unrecognized, blending in. That they truly are resurrected reflects the terrorists' belief among in an afterlife where their martyrdom will be rewarded. The Cylons are disgusted by the false beliefs of the humans, who worship the Greek gods, but mostly appear to be irreligious. This of course reflects the secular humanism that dominates contemporary western culture, with its roots in Greco-Roman culture. There are religious elements (albeit pagan, which brings to mind Camille Paglia's discussion of the survival of pagan residual culture in the west in her magnum opus, Sexual Personae: Art & Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson ) among the humans, but scepticism seems to dominate, especially among the Capricans who represent the elite of the colonies (but note that the sign of Capricorn is privileged as the sign under which Christianity's savior, Jesus Christ, is supposed to be born). The series left it open and ambiguous as to whether the assorted religious beliefs of Cylons and colonists were accurate or delusional, although of late the program seems to be giving the beliefs more and more legitimacy. As noted above, the original series had a significant religious theme, so it's not surprising to see it present here, and treated seriously. The art is in maintaining the ambiguity and resisting the urge to confirm the reality of the religious dimension in the series for as long as possible. Along the same lines, there is clear evidence for some form of psychic phenomenon, and this was very much in evidence in the season finale, but for a very long time it was unclear as to whether such phenomena were real or hallucinatory. Some of the funniest scenes occurred when the traitor Baltar would be interacting with the Cylon character Six (aka Caprica), but he was the only one who could see, hear, or touch her, and it was impossible to determine whether she was a figment of his imagination, or some sort of psychic friend.

The character of Baltar, played by James Callis, is absolutely brilliant in both writing and performance. Whereas the original was an evil dictator type, the new Baltar is a famous scientist who is vain, selfish, timid, lustful, egotistical, and utterly weak and devoid of character--very much a reflection and critique of our celebrity culture. He becomes vice-president, then president, makes the horribly wrong decision to settle on New Caprica, and becomes the Vichy-like figurehead forced to cooperate with the Cylon occupiers to save his own skin, signing execution orders at his masters' behest. Left behind in the rescue, he is not accepted by the Cylons, eventually returns to Battlestar Galactica, is arrested and placed on trial for treason, a trial that is decided in the season finale. In an unexpected turn of events, Baltar is acquit ed after Lee Adama (aka Apollo) argues that Baltar was not truly evil, just weak, selfish, flawed, and prone to mistakes in judgment, while pointing to all that mistakes and bad decisions that he and others had made since the destruction of the 12 colonies. And it is true, one of the fascinating facets of the series is the fact that all of the characters are highly flawed and many are in some ways unpleasant, all of them act selfishly at one point or another, and put aside fair play in the interests of expediency, or otherwise make bad decisions (they are heroes despite their flaws, or just on balance a bit more good that evil). While there can never be that much depth of characterization in a series such as this one which is driven by its setting and plot, on Battlestar Galactica the characters are much less flat, much rounder and more complex than just about any you might find in a science fiction film or series. And Callis's Baltar is one of the great characters of all time, in any genre.

This is not meant to be a complete summary or discussion of the series and all of the characters involved. There is so much more to be said. But it was the season finale that I wanted to comment on. And most of it is devoted to the denouement of Baltar's trial, which was very good, and over about 45-50 minutes into the one hour episode. But those events were eclipsed by the last ten minutes or so, as four characters on Galactica who had been hearing music that no one else could hear all came together in the same room, and came to the conclusion that they were Cylons, but that their loyalties remained with humanity (it was established early in the first season that Cylons do not necessarily realize they are Cylons, allowing them to integrate successfully into human society until some signal or program triggers them to do something against their will, and that even when they do know who they are, they still can side with the humans against their own kind). The four characters were all significant but not major characters. What really stood out is that the music they were hearing was Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," a new version that matched the musical style of the program to be sure, but I've never heard a version of that song I didn't like, whether it's Dylan, Hendrix, the Dead, or whatever (of course, I never heard William Shatner sing it). Yes, it got a little hokey when they cut from one character to another as each one uttered one of four lines from the song: "There must be some way out of here/Said the joker to the priest/There's too much confusion/I can't get no relief." But what comes through is the song's apocalyptic quality, born out of the social revolutions and political conflicts of the sixties. And, of course, the song is the first overt connection to planet earth, to us, in a series set in a galaxy far far away. And as the Cylons launch a major attack, and Lee Adama flies his fighter-plane-like Viper into battle, he sees another Viper with Starbuck in it. In the original series, Starbuck was Adama/Apollo's best friend, a rogue-hero counterpart to the clean cut son of the Captain/Admiral. In the new series, Starbuck is an attractive woman who can hold her own as one of the boys, the object of some sexual tension and romantic feelings rather than friendship, who died a couple of episodes ago. Her return indicates that she is the 5th previously unknown Cylon, and she tells Lee that she's been to Earth and can take them all there. That's when the episode and the season ends, with planet Earth hanging in the balance and the story unresolved until January 2008!

But the series is in fact renewed for another season, and finally, finally we are going to earth. It is the coming collision between the now well established science fiction milieu of Battlestar Galactica and our own familiar world that will have Battlestar Galactica go where no Battlestar Galactica series has gone before. And it may be that they will be unable to maintain the extraordinary quality of the series, and that this will prove to be a mistake as great as any committed by Baltar. But given what they have accomplished so far with the series, I suspect that the best is yet to come.

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