Saturday, January 24, 2009

Best Science Fiction Show Ever?

Some very unhappy campers ask "Are we there yet?" Image credit: screenshot by Cujo359

There have been a number of terrific science fiction television shows over the years. Pick one as the best and you'll inevitably get an argument from fans. Certainly Star Trek and its spawn, Babylon 5, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Stargate SG-1 deserve consideration, as I'm sure do others. Yet, in some way all seem to fall down a little compared to a show that's now ending its run this year.

Battlestar Galactica has been described as many things. Series star Edward James Olmos once described it as "The West Wing in space", which is apt. Some call it the remake of the old Battlestar Galactica, which is somehow true without being apt. I think of it as Babylon 5 with a big budget.

The story of this version of BSG begins at what is supposed to be the decommissioning of the Galactica, a warship that has been superseded by more capable vessels. It's been decades since the humans have even been in contact with the Cylons, whom they created many centuries earlier. Galactica is one of the last surviving veterans of that earlier contact, a long war that ended in an uneasy truce.

At the decommissioning ceremony, the ship's commander, Will Adama, intends to give a generic speech marking the end of the ship's service in the military. Instead, perhaps haunted by his own memories of the war, he extemporizes, uttering a thought that will become a theme of the show:

The cost of wearing this uniform can be high ... [there's a pause, before Adama decides to speak his mind]

Sometimes it's too high. You know, when we fought the Cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question, why? Why, are we as a people worth saving? We still commit murder because of greed, spite, jealousy. And we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we've done. Like we did with the Cylons.

We decided to play God, create life. When that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn't our fault, not really. You cannot play God and then wash your hands of the things that you've created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can't hide from the things that you've done anymore.

Soon after, Adama and the crew learn that the Cylons have returned from their self-imposed exile with an attack that's devastated nearly all of human civilization. The effort to hide from the things the human race created has begun.

To give the survivors a reason to carry on, Adama tells them that he knows of the existence of a surviving human world - Earth. When Laura Roslin, the fleet's civilian leader, confronts him about this, he admits it isn't true. "People need a reason to live", he says, "Let it be Earth." In essence, Adama is playing God. Eventually, Adama and Roslin will have to come to a reckoning with that decision. Along the way, many other people have to make decisions for themselves or for others that they will have to live with.

Adama's belief that you can't run from the consequences of what you've done is a continual theme of the series, as characters must take actions to survive, or allow others among them to survive.

The thing that perhaps most clearly separates this show from the other space-based shows is that it's not escapism in any sense that I can think of. Like the early Stargate SG-1, the show presents its human characters in a universe very much like our own. The military don't carry ray guns, they carry firearms. There are no magical shields, force fields, or transporters that make plot problems magically disappear. The only concessions to script convenience are the faster than light (FTL) drives, and the mysterious process by which the Cylons are resurrected. The FTL drive is necessary, of course, if the fleet is ever going to get anywhere in the lifetime of the characters (not to mention the audience), and resurrection, in which Cylon personalities are downloaded into new bodies when the old ones die, is an interesting enough plot device that it's forgiveable, assuming you even feel the need to forgive.

In the BSG universe, military technology is much like it is here. Space battles are frenetic mixes of manned craft, smart missiles, and familiar sounding ordinance. Nuclear weapons are used to destroy large ships, and smaller ones are done in by explosives on high-speed missiles. Sensors don't pick up everything about a situation instantly, and aren't always correct. The ship itself is a huge, complicated, and sometimes dangerous machine. Any modern military commander would probably see analogs of the weapons he or his adversaries have at their disposal.

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is the situation of the characters of this show. Perhaps it's best epitomized by this graphic from a recent show, which is the bow of the Galactica surrounded by other ships of the fleet.

Image credit: screenshot by Cujo359 (Click on the picture to enlarge)

That's a ship that's seen some tough times. Those who watched the often preposterous Star Trek: Voyager may remember what that ship looked like under similar circumstances - it was spotless. The ship in this graphic has scorch marks, damaged panels, and parts missing. It's what you'd expect a ship to look like after it's been fighting and running for years.

The characters aboard Galactica resemble her. Saul Tigh, the ship's executive officer, has lost an eye and a wife. Laura Roslin has cancer, and has lost, regained, and lost again her will to lead, while finding out things about herself she would almost certainly rather not have known. Lee Adama has been transformed by several losses and at least one near-death experience from an idealistic officer to a visionary politician. All the characters must, on occasion, try to make do in a circumstance where few, if any, luxuries exist, and hope that this will change is tenuous at best.

Which brings us to the thing that separates this show from just about every other show, whether it's in the science fiction genre or not - it's brave. Sure, the writing is good, and the acting and directing work wonderfully with it. The design, by Stargate's Richard Hudolin, is realistic and, at the same time, just a bit futuristic. Here's a scene from the hangar deck:

Image credit: screenshot by Cujo359 (Click on the picture to enlarge)

What's brave about this show is all the chances it has taken. It has risked losing audiences by veering off in unexpected, albeit plausible, directions and routinely killing off important characters. In the midst of our mania about terrorism, it has risked showing human beings engaging in terrorism, and making them sympathetic. It risks putting us in familiar surroundings, and showing horrible things done to, and by, the people in those surroundings. It has risked showing the sorts of things that people would probably do in such a circumstance. In short, it's risked being a difficult show to watch.

In some ways, it's sad that BSG is reaching its end. It's good that it's able to finish its story, as so many shows have not. That's actually more satisfying than for it to end as the Stargate series have. But there don't seem to be any good shows coming to replace it, at least not in the genre. Much of what the Sci Fi Channel touts these days are "reality" shows featuring fools chasing after ghosts or some other arrant nonsense. They aren't even entertaining as cruel humor. Episodic fiction, particularly drama, is hard to do well, and it's expensive. So it may be that BSG will remain the best science fiction series.

As good as it is, that's still a very sad thought.

NOTE: Battlestar Galactica is the copyrighted product of Universal Pictures and others. Neither Universal Pictures, nor anyone else responsible for the series, approved of or is in any way responsible for this article, beyond providing the show that inspired it.


Dana Hunter said...

I used to love that show. But they lost me when the story started being pulled very nearly verbatim from the day's headlines. It became a soapbox, a pulpit, rather than a story whole and complete unto itself.

Too fried right now to really go into the details, but as a writer, the way they subjugated the story to an agenda offended me mightily. It's either immense disrespect or it's laziness. And, unfair as it is, I kept holding them up to Tolkien, who'd also had an agenda, but never let it overwhelm the story.

I have no problem with people using fiction to expose our dark side, to comment on current events, and all of that sort of thing. I applaud it. Where BSC lost me was in being so bloody obvious about it that I could remember the newspaper they pulled the dialogue from.

People have told me that was just a hiccup, and that it improved later, but by then I was too busy to go back and catch up. Alas. And now all that's coming in its wake is more "reality" bs. I'd take BSC's worst moments over that schlock.

Cujo359 said...

I guess I don't mind being preached to quite so much, as long as the story's good. There was one show I had some problems with in that regard, but I got over it. Science fiction has a long and proud tradition as social commentary. It's been used to express opinions when any other form of expression was considered taboo, counter-revolutionary, or just so wrong that it had to be censored or punished.

The last few years also provided a considerable amount of inspiration for the show, given that both story lines had many of the same elements to begin with. Shows are written months in advance. I suspect that in at least a few cases, life was imitating art, instead of the other way round.

The good news is that if you want to get caught up, or watch the series from the beginning, all the episodes are on DVD now, and are often available at video rental places.

Cujo359 said...

I should correct that to say "all but the most recent two episodes are on DVD".