Posts Tagged ‘ Battlestar Galactica ’

The Expanse is the Best Space Opera. Full Stop.

This week brought the dreaded news that the SyFy channel would not be picking up the series adaptation of The Expanse novels for a fourth season. The move was not quite shocking, but still somewhat of a surprise. The show’s productions values are top notch and not cheap, so the fact that it has not garnered a broad fan base like Game of Thrones made its future uncertain. But the universal critical acclaim seemed to suggest that SyFy would want to keep it around for bragging rights, if nothing else.

In the glory days of the SciFi network (before the questionable and to many, odious name change) the network took a similar gamble on an expensive critical darling that never really had the viewership to justify its budget but was a flagship for what the network wanted to be–before it decided to be the home of craptacular fare like Sharknado. Battlestar Galactica was part of the early wave of revitalizations and everything-old-is-new-again fervor that has gripped Hollywood throughout the twenty-first century. The show took name recognition and the outline of the original series’s concept and created a “gritty” and “philosophical” version of a pulp sci-fi dud from the 70s.

It worked and the network spun the long-running show into a prestige piece with a dedicated fan base that still argues for the series as one of the best sci-fi shows of all time.

Here’s the thing, though: The Expanse is better and will continue to be better than Battlestar Galactica.

Early in its life, the remade Battlestar Galactica (BSG to aficionados) promised its viewers that its nefarious android antagonists had “a plan.” But the producers and writers have since admitted that they included that bit in the show’s crawl simply because it sounded cool. Not only did the Cylons not have a plan, neither did the show runners.

The series sometimes raced and other times lurched through a thinky, but often incoherent exploration of man’s relationship to technology and the age-old question science fiction never gets tired of reheating: what does it mean to be human? Along the way there were some great characters rendered in fantastic performances (often having to overcome inconsistent writing) and some truly intolerable ones (looking at you, Apollo).

Many a science fiction series has waded through such unevenness. Star Trek: the Next Generation‘s first season is unwatchable today and rarely suggests the heights the show would someday reach. It’s natural enough for a series to take its time to find its footing.

It would be easy to look at the first few episodes of The Expanse and think that’s what was happening, but the pacing is not a sign of uncertainty, but confidence. The Expanse rewards patience as it builds its world and its characters. Now, in the third season, the complexity of that world and the investment in those characters is paying off in a tense conflict of epic scale.

But that conflict is only prelude to what’s coming.

Many other science fiction and fantasy shows struggle with endings just as much as many flail about for sure footing at the beginning. One only has to look back at the last few seasons of the X-files (to say nothing of the disastrous rebooted seasons) to see how a lack of “a plan” can be disastrous to a show built on mystery and intrigue. The same could be argued of Lost and, if last season was any indication, may taint the denouement of Game of Thrones.

But fans of The Expanse novels have no fear for that outcome. We know the shape of many things to come and they are earth-shatteringly awesome.  Fans like me aren’t worried by this (hopefully momentary) cancellation because it means we won’t ever know what happens in the story. What we’re afraid of is being deprived of the cinematic rendering of that story that we know it so richly deserves.

Hopefully, that won’t come to pass. Hopefully, the press swirling around the cancellation–every article I read reiterates that SyFy’s move is either a crying shame or down right tragic–will find it a new home at Netflix or Hulu and the Cinderella story will inspire more people to watch it.

It is a show that deserves viewers, but more than that, it is the space opera the Golden Age of Television deserves.

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Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Battlestar Galactica

So far during the Summer of Sci-Fi, I’ve only taken the time to comment on films, not television series. Why? you may ask. Well, I’ll tell you why:

TV Sci-Fi generally sucks.

That’s not to say that I don’t like it–I do, I’m a sucker for all things sci-fi, but that doesn’t make it worth writing about. Looking back, there are a number of science fiction series that I’ve watched pilot to finale and which have been duly stamped into my unconscious on many levels, but about which I must ask: what’s to say about them now?

X-files? Well, I am tempted to write an extensive essay about how that show’s precipitous decline in quality because greedy executives tried to keep it alive long after they should have has made me skittish about any TV show and bizarrely grateful when a show ends without having had time to grow stale (I’m looking at you, Firefly), but that’s for another day.

Star Trek? The original series is iconic and historically significant, but it also had various trips to planets based solely on which left-over sets could be reused on the Paramount lot. Hence we had the Nazi planet, the Western planet, and whatever planet had that same Yeti-looking thing over and over again. And the others? Well, Next Generation had some moments, but nothing resembling the kind of consistency you could generalize about. The rest are, well, pretty forgettable (not that I’ve forgotten, per se, but I should have).

So there just aren’t many sci-fi TV shows worth talking about, but Battlestar Galactica is an exception.

Ratings:

On one level, it physically pains me to praise this series because it is yet another product of the modern entertainment industry’s obsession with resurrecting long-dead (or sometimes recently sleepy) franchises through reboots. Battlestar is a perfect example of the inanity of this thinking. This show resembles the original 70s series in little more than name and general fighter-jet design aesthetic. Whereas the old series was overwrought space opera, BSG (as fans know it) was gritty and hard-nosed realism. Yes, realism. It’s a military and political drama that just happens to take place in space. This direction was bold and a real departure for TV sci-fi. Every space show that had come before it tried in one way or another to be fun–to be light-hearted entertainment. Whatever themes it might have been tackling in any given episode (and there weren’t always any to speak of) Star Trek was an adventure, first and foremost. BSG was different. In the wake of James Gandolfini’s death, a lot of people are crediting The Sopranos for paving the way for the current generation of gutsy cable dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. That’s true enough, but it’s also true that without BSG, there probably wouldn’t have been space on that landscape for the likes of Game of Thrones and Walking Dead.

A Strange New World…8

Most other sci-fi TV also falls into mostly adventure-of-the-week story-telling. BSG, though, dealt with running plot lines much like the crop of TV dramas referenced above. What’s really noteworthy, though, are the allegorical dimensions and political themes running underneath the surface throughout the show’s four seasons. In this rendering, the twelve colonies of man are a pluralistic, democratic society that is ambushed by a monotheistic, ideological race bent on their destruction as recompense for past wrongs. On one level, this might seem like yet another piece of pop culture regurgitating 9/11 motifs the way that Japanese movies used to fixate on the destruction of cities post-Hiroshima. But BSG takes four years to craft its big message about the cycle of violence and the ultimate shared humanity of entrenched enemies (even when, in one sense, one side isn’t exactly human) and challenges every point of view along the way. There is no pat morality tale here, but there is one idea that resonates out of all the confusion of shifting alliances, twisted motivations, suspect moralities, and genocidal agendas: it is not enough to survive, one must be worthy of survival.

Theme…8
Continuity (with two points off for a meandering season 4)…8

BSG also pulled together an exceptional cast to create its dizzyingly broad cast of characters. The troop was led by Oscar nominees Mary McDonnel and Edward James Olmos as the leaders of the decimated human race. While some characters, like Apollo, languish in wishy-washy uncertain realization, other characters spring forward into sci-fi icons. When she first appeared on Big Bang Theory in her BSG uniform, my kids didn’t get who Katee Sackoff was, but now that they’ve been properly initiated (with hands over eyes for the racy bits) they recognize a geek goddess when they see one–or when Howard Wallowitze imagines one, that is. We also grin to ourselves when we see other alum of BSG, like Tahmoh Penikett (most recently in Man of Steel) whose marriage to Grace Park’s Cylon turncoat became an emotional core in the show. Many of these characters swing wildly through extreme situations throughout their years on the run from the dreaded Cylons. The changes they’re put through put me in mind of character critiques of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s characters are wildly inconsistent, after all, so the question is: was the Bard lousy at keeping them consistent, or did he know human nature well enough to know that we all jig and amble and lisp? I’ve come down, late in life, on the latter side, and I give BSG the same benefit of the doubt.

Characters (with another 2 point deduction for Apollo)…8

Finally, there are the baddies…who aren’t the baddies at all. Some of the Cylons are cheap CGI foot soldiers (still an improvement over guys in kilts with metal helmets like in the 70s show), but even those effects are too special to roll out every other scene. So in the new mythology of BSG, the Cylons have “evolved” into cyborgs who mimic human form. The enemy has become us, as much to best us as to infiltrate us. Though there are plenty of episodes that utilize sci-fi tropes differentiating the Cylons as “machines” and artificial beings capable of superhuman feats, at the core, they are human. They are fragile, almost psychologically broken beings, and their imperfections are as important to the themes of the show as the conflicts between the squabbling human characters. Initially, they nuke humanity out of resentment and rage, but by the end of the show, they have embraced their own humanity and (the surviving) Cylons merge with the human race, offering a tentative hope for an end to endless bloodshed and misunderstanding. From the beginning we were promised that “they have a plan,” and, though my faith wavered in the creator’s commitment to a long-term arc from episode one from time to time, there was still more than enough menace in the Cylon threat hounding the human characters to see the show through to the climactic battle in the final episodes.

Antagonists…6

Total: 38

Okay, there are exactly two more of these kinds of retrospective geek meditations that I simply must do. Stay tuned.

Who Are We Blowing Up and Why?

Meditations on drone warfare:

Ain't she a beaut?

Ain’t she a beaut?

The press has been all atwitter with Rand Paul’s spectacular filibuster in protest of America’s drone war (and so has Twitter). Sadly, it looks like the little engine who could is losing his steam. I don’t recall: did Strom Thurmond take snack breaks during his 24 hour filibuster of the Civil Rights Bill? Oh well, what Rand loses in stamina he makes up for in, you know, actually being right. So right, in fact, that he’s got help. Democratic Senator Wyden said he joined the filibuster led by Paul because it was time, “for the United States Senate to consider the government’s rules and policies on the targeted killings of Americans.”

Rules and policies? Is this a sick joke? The government should have no rules and policies on the targeted killings of Americans.

For that matter, we should have no policies and rules on targeted killings at all. We should not be assassinating people with winged terminators. Should not. Ever.

The situations that have led to Americans being deliberately blown up by our own very expensive military hardware have been compared to the battlefield by Obama and Holder in their rationale for this latest chapter in our post-9/11 estrangement from our core values. These were Americans who had declared themselves combatants in a war against our nation and its assorted, yet diminishing liberties, and were hence, fair game.

That rationale, though, is one that can only function within the bizarro-world mindset of the War on Terror ®–an endless struggle…against an emotion.

Battlefields have historically had rules. Codes of conduct that have restrained humankind’s darkest impulses, that have allowed Von Clausewitz’s “politics by other means” to be pursued by peoples who considered themselves otherwise civilized. But in asymmetrical warfare, opponents like Al Qaida with no chance of victory in battle, don’t play by those rules.

So, beginning with the Bush administration, we decided not to either. (Can’t beat ’em, might as well join ’em?)

Justice by robot is not a situation the founders could have foreseen. Nor is the world of transnational identities and global terrorist recruiting that American citizens Anwar al-Aulaqi and his son, Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi were a part of before being unceremoniously dispatched in 2011 via a move I think we’re now calling the “predator freedom kiss.”

But we know that the founders would say. Obama must know it in his bones as surely as everyone (except Dick Cheney) knows that water boarding was “cruel and unusual” torture.

Obama has banned those forms of interrogation and tried to create some semblance of jurisprudence at Gitmo. He has tightened the leash on the drone program–issuing stricter guidelines and demanding more precise ordinance to protect civilians–even as he has ordered the dogs taken out for walks more often…much, much more often. President Obama wants to fight the War on Terror, without succumbing to the inhumanity of the struggle that sullied our national image in Abu Gharaib and in the Pakistani hinterland.

He is failing miserably.

We really have a choice here. We can give up the facade and just be the monsters we’re fighting (Curse you, Nietzsche) or we can be better.

It was out of fear for our lives and the lives of our citizens that we have looked into this particular abyss, but I believe, as the Old Man said, “It’s not enough to survive. One has to be worthy of surviving.”