What I Like About the New Battlestar Galactica
In honor of the BSG interviews that Dan, Dave, and Deven have posted below (which I hope to listen to soon), I thought I’d chime in with what I like about the show. I’m a big fan; BSG is one of only 3 “must-see” shows for me currently on television (the other 2 are Lost and the PBS NewsHour). My enthusiasm has waned a bit since “New Caprica,” but here’s what struck me as particularly interesting about at least the first couple of seasons:
1. The villains continually have the upper hand. That may not initially seem like a plus. But think of the number of shows where the heroes sail through life, barely needing to worry, while the villains face setback after setback that repeatedly results in defeat. E.g., Perry Mason, CSI, Star Trek (any generation), or the first Battlestar Galactica, where being trained by the Cylon defense force seemed to be a guarantee of utter incompetence in combat. Heroes that appear to face more realistic challenges that do not carry with them a guarantee of success are, at least, a refreshing change, and are more dramatically interesting for avoiding repetition and cliche.
Warning: Mild spoilers follow
The series has made abundantly clear that the remaining human fleet is absolutely no match for the average Cylon attack, and despite the temptation for “ability creep” (the heroes become more capable as the series progresses), that disparity has persisted into the fourth season. When the Cylons attack in earnest, the humans essentially have one strategy: run away! One thing that helps maintain the tension is that the stakes are extremely high; failure to escape, even once, means the total annihilation of the human race (well, at least the part they know of). It’s like “The Fugitive” on steroids. But even that would get boring if the same situation was repeated over and over again. The writers have been pretty adept at finding new ways to make escape continually tense. E.g., there’s some task that must be accomplished first that takes X minutes; a civilian ship may be left behind; the BSG gets separated from the fleet. Of course we know in the back of our minds that the entire fleet won’t be destroyed in any given episode, but lesser amounts of defeat are certainly possible and have happened.
The last series I can recall that had this sort of structure — the heroes are weak, the villains strong — is from a completely different genre, but is also one of my favorite shows of all time: Homicide. In Homicide, unlike just about any other detective show I’ve ever seen, the meddling bureaucrats in charge of the homicide squad are a constant source of irritation, and they almost always get their way. (Also: occasionally criminals get away, or crimes remain unsolved.) There’s only one thing that is more inspiring to action than seeing someone worthy prevail over an injustice, and that’s seeing someone worthy LOSE to injustice. Homicide skillfully exploited that emotion. BSG’s repeated escapes-by-the-skin-of-their-teeth are thrilling in a way they would not be if the Cylons were more easily defeated.
2. The civilian President and the rule of law. I’m sure this is a topic of discussion in the interviews, but I was particularly hooked by the story of the President being 27th in line for succession (she was Education Minister) and nevertheless stepping up to the plate. It’s like the corporal in the war movie who gets a battlefield commission to captain and nevertheless turns out to be a good leader. I also liked the conflicts that erupt between the President and the military, represented by Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos). It was a deft casting job to give the Adama role to an actor that can make even a military coup seem eminently reasonable. And Mary McDonnell does an excellent job with the role of President Laura Roslin; she’s possibly the best thing about the series. But there’s a significant caveat here: unlike the repeated escapes from the Cylons, the repeated ultimatums passed between the President and Commander Adama start to get old after about the 2nd or 3rd one. I disagree with Ilya Somin and others about the plausibility of these conflicts in general; I would hope that even in such a disaster, whoever remains would attempt to govern under the rule of law. But dramatically, some of the conflict scenes seemed overwrought. There’s only so many times you can have a major constitutional showdown that tops the last one.
3. Phillip K. Dick. I’m a tremendous fan of Dick’s short stories, having voraciously consumed a volume of them recently despite the fact I rarely read fiction any more. And Dickian themes occur repeatedly in BSG. The most obvious is the “Imposter”-type plot involving Sharon — how would you know if you were an android saboteur programmed to think you were an ordinary human? Frankly, that plot didn’t go on long enough for my tastes; it seemed Sharon (and the viewers) were just beginning to grapple seriously with the possibility when the show revealed its cards. The second-most obvious borrowing is from the short story, “Second Variety” (remade as “Screamers” with Peter Weller). Second Variety portrays the survivors of World War III on Earth; the Russian and American forces have manufactured killer robots to attack each other. At some point, however, the automated robot repair facilities start making exploding androids that appear to be human and attack both sides indiscriminately. Androids stamped “Type I” and “Type III” are discovered early on, but that leaves Type II, and the protagonist spends much of the rest of the story trying to figure out who Type II is. BSG, of course, features 12 Cylon humanoid models, only a few of which were known at first. While on the one hand I was pleased to catch the reference, I’m unclear why the Cylons only have a limited number of human models. In Dick’s story, it was because the robots, while adaptive, weren’t sentient. (Sort of — go read it.) That can’t explain BSG. The Cylon human models are, essentially, human; why can’t they design new models? (Indeed, the show has left it completely vague how, if at all, they’re NOT human.)
4. Space combat. It’s a minor point, but I like the way the fighter and capital ship combat scenes are done. There’s at least a nod to the realities of zero-G dogfighting; the fighters do not make wide, jet-fighter-like turns or rolls, but rather can do things like spin 180 degrees using attitude jets and apply thrusters to reverse course (think “Apollo 13,” only faster and with guns). Capital ship attacks involve, as a classic sci fi short story once imagined, ships jumping into view and launching massive numbers of missiles at each other. Scenes where the point of view is apparently outside of any ship are often silent or muffled. (Sure, “muffled” is still incorrect, but it works for me.) The illusion of vast distances in space is enhanced by a simple camera trick; a stable wide shot showing a very small fighter in the distance is quickly “zoomed in” so that the fighter is larger on the screen, but the “zoomed in” image is very shaky, as it would be if you were holding a telephoto lens. Again, this reminds me of the camera tricks in “Homicide,” such as the prevalent use of jump cuts, which left the viewer unclear on how much of a given conversation had been clipped out and made the conversations therefore seem a little bit more realistic (maybe the cut was over all the “umms” and “ahs”); or the quick spin of a camera at a dramatic shift in a conversation or interrogation, as if the viewer was standing in the room and just did a double-take to see a character’s reaction.
Obviously the show isn’t perfect; as I indicated, my own enthusiasm waned some over the last season, and there have always been aspects that strain credibility (superhuman but undetectable Cylons; Adama’s knowledge of the 12 models; overuse of extreme self-certainty among the characters to produce conflict; romances that pop up out of nowhere). But that’s a subject for a different post.