Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bye, Bye Battlestar

I was trying to find the time to respond to two very excellent short pieces on Battlestar Galactica, but just haven't found the time. So rather than leave everything hanging as the series comes to an end, I figured I'd link to the pieces and give you a few incomplete comments of my own. So check out Abigail Nussbaum on some of thematic problems with the show and Hal Duncan with quite a bit more.

I can't say I disagree with either entirely, but I will hit on one point of contention. Both Nussbaum and Duncan reject the show's 9-11 allegory (or imagery, if you want to say it doesn't rise to the level of allegory) because the imagery doesn't accurately represent the reality of the plot. As Nussbaum says, the show tries to look at a holocaust through a 9-11 lens. Duncan goes further, criticizing the show for failing to take bold stands (or any stands at all) on the various controversial political issues it raises.

In the show's defense, I think Ron Moore and company fully intended the show to be morally ambiguous and fully intended the imagery not to be taken at face value as allegory. From what I understand, Moore's idea was to create a realistic science fiction show, realistic meaning one that would potentially be more approachable to traditionally non-science fiction viewers. Keeping in mind that Moore came from Star Trek, this meant doing away with funny looking aliens, technobabble, and scientific driven plot devices. It also meant anchoring the new world in very human terms, not just in terms of simple visuals, but thematic elements as well. So when Laura Roslin is sworn in as President in the midst of an emergency, her swearing in looks just like LBJ's after the Kennedy assassination. We get the wall of photos on Galactica, bringing to mind the most recent memorials to 9-11 victims. And in the New Caprica arc, the attempted execution of the "radicals" is directly taken from the classic World War II film "The Great Escape."

I think the show succeeds in this regard, using familiar imagery to place the story in an emotional context for the audience. Yes, politically and ethically speaking, the Nazi Holocaust of World War II was more akin to the Cylon holocaust on Battlestar, but emotionally speaking 9-11 is a much better anchor because it's what we're familiar with. It was sudden and we watched it unfold, as opposed to the Nazis, whose terrible crimes were only truly revealed in the aftermath of the war. As the show has drawn to it's conclusion, I find it still manages to move me, because of all the powerful imagery and the acting and despite the show's severely deficient storytelling.

Moving on, here's Duncan, on how the show's failure to answer the hard questions it raises results in an ends product that's dramatically unfulfilling and thematically vague.

At every turn, I think, the show tries to throw its “hard questions” into the mix to satisfy one portion of its potential audience — the liberals who reject fundamentalism but who were equally as dubious of the military, political and religious agenda that emerged out of 9/11, the whole War on Terror — only to pussy out with an immediate backflip that will satisfy another portion of its potential audience — the conservatives who hate Islamic fundamentalism but are convinced that the only sensible response to 9/11 is the War on Terror, that this is necessary for our very survival.

Personally, what I loved about the show from day one was it's refusal to turn to allegory and it's willingness to show all facets of the human condition, no matter how offensive. The show has done it's best to showcase our responses as humans, to make us understand how all people can respond the way they do to the world around them. It was a bold endeavor that has succeeded at times but failed at others. But the point is that the enemy isn't all bad, whatever horrific crimes they've committed, as we've now seen through the rebel Cylons. The point is that the military isn't all bad. And the point is that humanity is capable of both beautiful and terrible things. Battlestar is ultimately about people and to tell those stories without becoming too captive to political cliches is quite an accomplishment.

No, where Battlestar lost me was its poor storytelling; Its failure to follow up on powerful and interesting themes and its failure to consistently see its characters through their powerful experiences and its failure to plot effectively after the New Caprica arc. But as I mentioned before, the show can still move me because it is such a beautiful production, however clunky the writing may be. It convinces me that ultimately what we're going to be left with when Battlestar comes to an end is a tremendous story that was just plain poorly executed. I actually agree with many of the smaller complaints of both Nussbaum and Duncan. Far too often, intriguing plot points like the Cylons desire for citizenship were given short shrift. In a way, the show was too dense, never being quite able to handle the full weight of the truly interesting ideas it was raising. Some of the standalone episodes of season two and three raised fascinating premises that were never truly followed through on. Rather than bombarding the audience with more themes and more tragedies for our characters, the show could have followed following the New Caprica storyline with another few season of recovery time. Add in the basic plot line with the Cylons and the search for earth and you'd have a pretty full show, without all the extra weight being added to the mix.

My other thought as the series comes to an end is that it will certainly deserve another watch from start to finish having that knowledge of the ultimate ending. Hopefully I can convince my wife to take the ride with me.


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