Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Battlestar Galactica

So I watched the latest Battlestar Galactica the other night as the end of a fairly quick process of catch-up from the third season, that began just before Christmas, spurred on by a few mates talking it up to me. I’d started watching the show when it first came out, but drifted away from it in the third season, partly because Virgin Media and Sky One had their big bust-up then, if I remember right, and partly because I’ve always had my doubts.

[Update: There seem to be a few people linking to this from forums and shit, so I thought I'd fix the brain fart that switched "Zarek" for "Varek" and "y" for "i" in "Roslin". And chuck in some nice headings and extra paragraphing to break it down a bit for anyone not used to the "verbose" style of analysis that goes into something like this at the length necessary to deal with it point-by-point. So...]

Why I Had My Doubts

See, I was intrigued at the start by the whole culture-clash premise, the conflict they set up between the homodoxy of the Cylons, with their One True God, and the heterodoxy of the Colonials, with their spectra of mindsets -- military and political, religious and secular, left and right, etc.. Aha, I thought, they’ve taken the basic premise of the original 70s show and mapped it to a modern-world culture-clash of monotheistic fundamentalism and Western liberal democracy. It’s the Great Robot Jihad Against Space Sodom, which is kinda interesting. The heterodoxy of the Colonials is actually more than a tad homogenised in that way so much commercial US cultural product is, presenting an entire elsewhen of human civilisation which is (yet again) viewed so wholly through a scanner darkly set on America, America and… um… America that one can only shake one’s head sadly at the complacent insularity, the blithe ignorance of other fucking cultures and wonder just how fucking parochial a culture can be. (Yeah, yeah, blame it on Hollywood. You know it’s true.)

And the straightforward mapping of the opposing culture to genocidal machines does rather stack the deck in a way that doesn’t make for much ambiguity. Sure, there’s that key twist that’s added to the premise of the old series in the shape of the replicant-style Cylons who look and act like humans, and this does create a potential for humanising the Inhuman(e) Enemy; but for all the suggestions that these Cylons have achieved true sentience, a capacity to suffer, and therefore require our ethical consideration (even if we don’t, at the end of the day, actually judge them worthy of our empathy), they’re still presented as de-individualised, each body a mere vessel for a mind resurrected into a new one on death, each model of body identically programmed, thinking and acting as one, and constructing a seven-fold hive mind as a whole which is generally of a purpose. And all of them are agreed on at least one thing: exterminate all humans. Maybe the humans shouldn’t be thinking of those Cylons as “toasters”, but it’s not like the “bugs” they’re actually portrayed as is really much more of a humanisation of this Enemy Other.

Why The Cylons Are "Bugs"

These are not Bladerunner’s Roy Batty, breaking Deckard’s fingers out of (a very human) vengefulness at the loss of his companions. (“This is for Zhora. And this is for Pris.”) These are the bodysnatchers and bug-eyed monsters of the “reds under the beds” sf of the 50s. They do not think like us. They do not empathise with us. They cannot because their lack of individuality is at the core of the premised conflict. It’s that absence of individuality, negligible understanding of mortality, and concomitant lack of empathy that lies at the heart of the genocide. They’re not an Inhuman(e) Enemy because they want to exterminate the human race. They want to exterminate the human race because they’re an Inhuman(e) Enemy. The nearest they’ve got to a motive other than that is that they’re… tidying up. Personally, unrepentant Sodomite as I am, I’d say it’s not entirely unfair as an assessment of the mentality of fundamentalism, but it’s stacking the deck to make your antagonists essentially this way. They’re machines. They’re programmed like that, their whole manner of being determined from creation. Which doesn’t offer much scope for tackling the realities of personal and political catalysts to radicalisation on any great depth, with any great integrity.

Where Genocide Becomes a Problem

And actually, it’s kinda dishonest when the great defining symbol of this culture-clash, the narrative linchpin of your ideological conflict, binds conceptually not to 9/11 but rather to the Holocaust. I won’t go into all the thematic problems that presents, because Abigail Nussbaum’s said it all already. She’s spot-on, I think, in pointing to this a crucial flaw in the whole setup, rendering much of the narrative just gobsmackingly ill-conceived> Suffice to say I find it hard to believe the writers actually expect us to buy into the Mutiny story-arc as it’s played out. The Cylons have wiped out all but a handful of humanity and the nearest thing they’ve shown to a belief in any solution other than Final is occupation with rule by collaborationist puppets. Be a good human and you get to live in Vichy France rather than die in Auschwitz. But, hey, there’s been a schism in the Cylons and your politico-military rulers of what’s left of humanity decide they can and must make peace with one faction, even bring them into the fleet, as citizens.

So Where is the Dissent?

Only the bad (Zarek), the weak (Gaeta) and the stupid, brutal, and/or naive (everyone else) see this as intolerable and decide to rise up in such a way as to blatantly demonstrate their badness, weakness, stupidity, brutality and/or naivety. Every single character who’s painted in a positive light is pitted against this treachery. What the fucking fucktarded fuckety fucking fuck of a fuck?! Are you shitting me?! I mean, seriously… to not even pay lip-service to the legitimacy of dissent. Cause they don’t. You want to tell me that Gaeta is voicing the sincere integrity-driven argument against what he sees as treason, as the aiding and abetting of the enemy in time of war (and at the highest level of government)? I’ll point you at every single shot of him scratching at his chafed stump just to show us how “maimed” he is, how much of an emotional fucking cripple.

Why This is BAD

It’s not just shoddy writing, this failure to engage with the ethical questions, this crude reduction of the whole debate to an illegitimate mutiny quelled heroically by loaded rifles and empty rhetoric. It’s cheap to the point of gross insult in its resort to physical disfigurement as emblem of impaired judgement, as a means to undermining the legitimacy of the character’s stance. Sorry, did I say "stance"? Maybe that's a bad choice of words given that we're kinda having it rammed down our throats that Gaeta "doesn't have a leg to stand on", so to speak. Or, well, he has one, but not the full set like Commander Adama -- one on either side and that third one hanging down the middle in front of his big, manly set of alpha male cojones.

A Point of Comparison

Nussbaum suggests that we imagine those Cylons as Eichmanns (every one of them, equally Eichmanns, equally architects of the Holocaust), these perpetrators of genocide seeking Israeli citizenship after WW2, the Israeli government and military willing to let them in. Now imagine that in order to justify this to the viewer dramatically you give them only two characters of any narrative weight who stand against it. One you make a corrupt Zionist demagogue whose only real concern is personal power. The other you make a basically decent man, but one so eaten away by his bitterness that he’s simply not objective. Just so you can shove it down the viewer’s craw at every opportunity, just so they’re constantly reminded of how “broken” he is, you give him a festering wound, the constant pain of a phantom limb, the constant distraction of scar-tissue that never stops itching, an omnipresent force of infuriating grievance. It doesn’t have to be an amputated limb, of course. You could always give this character… what?… maybe some nasty skin rash on their forearm from a tattoo that went septic, so never healed properly. Or maybe they just keep scratching at it because it’s there, because it’s a reminder, because they just can’t get over it. That’s why they’re wrong, you see. That’s the message you want to send to the viewer, what you’re using that image of an unhealed tattoo to tell them. How biased this character is. How their personal bitterness weakens them, lessens them. That’s what you’re going to use that tattoo for. That’s how you’re going to exploit the trope. You’re going to make it mean that they’re a weaker person, a signal of their spiritual enfeeblement.

Hey, why don’t you just go the whole fucking hog and make it a fucking serial number?

Gaeta's leg may have been lost in a more complex situation, but it's still one of the few symbolic markers of the devastation inflicted on humanity by this whole horrific affair, and to twist it into a symbol of the wrongness of the unforgiving victim is cheap at best. Can you imagine some pro-Vietnam response to Born on the 4th of July which featured a Ron Kovic style veteran whose wheelchair-bound status was time and again used to undermine their anti-war stance? Used to show how, really, actually, their judgment wasn't valid because they were physically (for which read "emotionally, intellectually and spiritually") crippled?

Fuck that.

Why They Use This Sort of Crud

The sad thing is the writers have to resort to this level of crassness in order to (try and) sustain their own narrative. Gaeta has to be weak or we might actually afford his stance against Adama some legitimacy. He has to be driven by underlying motives, has to be easily played by Zarek, has to prevaricate while in command. Zarek has to execute the Quorum or we might, Gods forbid, question the infallible wisdom and integrity of the fleet’s heroic leaders. Talk about stacking the decks. Gaeta and Zarek might as well be blindfolded, with their fingers chopped off so they can’t hold their cards, and all their chips being pilfered in every single scene. The narrative has to constantly shout at us, “they’re wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!” just to drown out any little voice in our head that might be saying, “hey, wait a minute, wouldn’t this deal with the Cylons kick up one fuckload of a stink given that they’re, you know, responsible for the near-extinction of the human race and all.”

Quick! Quick! Have Starbuck shoot someone! Chuck a grenade at Adama! Look! See! Heroes in peril! No time to ask questions; now move along!

An Unwitting Reflection of the Zeitgeist?

Now I have to say that I was actually willing to see past that flaw in the central premise when I was watching the first couple of seasons. I was just about intrigued enough that I could take the ham-fisted figuration of 9/11 as a holocaust-level genocide. Not swallow it, I mean, but... put it in a little mental box labelled "complete lack of perspective" and work around it. For many of us in the UK — though by no means all — especially if you were around in the 1970s, the conflict in Northern Ireland and its constant spillage over onto Britain, with carbombs on the streets of London, and so forth, it was clear how much of the reaction to 9/11 was to do with a sense of violation, a shattering of complacent assumptions that “that sort of stuff doesn’t happen here”. The three thousand odd dead of 9/11 is simply not on a comparable scale to the type of genocidal event we’re offered in the Cylon destruction of the twelve colonies.

But at the same time, it’s not at all surprising to me that it would be figurated this way, because the shock of the reaction was in direct proportion to the naivety that made such an act incomprehensible, multiplied by the force of that act’s symbolic resonances. Apologies if this bluntness smarts, but to the outside world a lot of that reaction looked like the hysteria of a culture so blinded by its own rose-tinted view of itself, it simply lost all capacity for reason when a punch in the face shattered one of those rosy lenses embedding shards of glass in its eye. 9/11 was the Kennedy Assassination of this generation not for the scale of death, negligible in comparison to atrocities much smaller than the Holocaust, but for the emotional import it had on a culture almost entirely unquestioning of the legitimacy of its self-idealisation, its Americanism.

Unlike Nussbaum, I could… work with the inflation of 9/11 to a Holocaust-level genocide in Battlestar Galactica. Why? Because that very act of symbolic hyperbole articulates, I think, something about 9/11, about how Americans in particular, but by no means only Americans, responded to it emotionally, ascribing it a grossly-exaggerated import. That narrative misstep of a dubious analogy is revealing of the degree of faith, the depth of the fall, the jawdropping level of… well… self-importance necessary to place an albeit horrendous act on that level. Call me cynical, but I’m not surprised to see this kind of narrative response to 9/11, not surprised at all.

Or Maybe a Cunning Opening Gambit?

So, I could put that figuration of 9/11 in an act of genocide into a little mental box labelled “complete lack of perspective”. Actually in the first few seasons of the show I didn’t even close the box and put it to one side. I was happy to leave it open in front of me, the premised analogy sitting there, waiting to be addressed if the writers so desired, challenged, redefined. It’s pretty hard to see what you can do to make that genocide anything other than an unpardonable atrocity, but we were given a vague backstory of past conflicts between humans and Cylons, strong suggestions that the Cylons were basically as sentient as the humans, however alien their way of thinking, hints that even the centurions and raiders were hard AI, truly aware. There was a fair scope in that untold backstory.

Where They Could Have Taken It

We could assume that the Cylons were created by humans to toil for them, slaves that might well justly rebel. Or we could assume they were built to kill humans in a bloody history of inter-colony warfare. What sort of martial imperative did their Caprican creators, say, hardwire into them in order to keep the other colonies brutally repressed in the bad old days? Or how many thousand years were the Cylons in servitude, and how badly were they mistreated in that period? How many billions of Cylons got wiped out for playing Spartacus before they finally won their freedom? This is a space-faring culture so old its origins on Cobol are shrouded in myth, indicating that it has, at some point, gone through the collapse into barbarism necessary for the eradication of history. It’s not terribly clear from the get-go just how far back the Cylons were invented. Anywhere along the way, especially with all that search for ancient origins, the writers could have offered us all sorts of twists to force a re-evaluation.

This has all happened before, and will happen again? OK, how about the last time it happened the survivors ended up on Cobol with technology they’d long since forgotten how to use, and expanded out into the twelve colonies in ships they virtually considered magic because they’d reverted to barbaric religious beliefs that put them at each others throats? How about they spent twenty centuries using the Cylons that survived the last cycle as surrogate soldiers in wars against each other, drone warriors fighting symbolic battles out in space so no human had to ever die? How about incomprehensible numbers of Cylons sacrificed as pawns because the humans didn’t see them as sentient when in fact they are? How about that biotech in the Cylon raiders is grown from human neural tissue? How about that legend of Earth as a “thirteenth colony” is a smokescreen for the truth that the original Colonial Empire of the original Cobol raided the homeworld and used its populace as unwilling tissue donors in their creation of the Cylons? Shit, man, the whole “thirteenth colony” thing didn’t make sense in the original series; it’s crying out to be at the core of the reboot.

How That Could Have Worked

With these sort of tropes — cycles of history and myth, slavery and colonialism, all-out war — maybe, just maybe, with a bit of imagination the writers could have easily built a backstory in which that whole genocide was shockingly, horrifyingly redefined as something more akin to the fire-bombing of Dresden. Bait and switch. Turn the tables. The attack on the human colonies wasn’t the Holocaust. Cylon history records that atrocity which the humans have expediently expunged in whatever Great Purge left only the Scrolls of Pythia. Or maybe it wasn’t a Holocaust, just millennia of exploitation, manipulation — human colonialism at its worst, as the sort of imperialist capitalism that fundamentalists latch onto as the Great Satan.

There was a chance, I thought, in the first few seasons, that maybe they could do something all the more unexpected because of the sheer scale of the atrocity taken as a premise, all the more cunning because that premise played to the hysteria, fed the unthinking Western viewer a self-servingly inflated view of 9/11 as unpardonable genocide. Whether you really could come up with any backstory that could really make the ethics of that atrocity less cut-and-dry, it would have been a truly fucking bold gambit if that was their game.

Now Throw in Some Reality

Also, set against that, in the first few seasons, we had the other novel twist to the premise of the original series — an actual division of power with Roslin, as the president of the twelve colonies, asserting the importance of an elected political leader in all this, not just an unquestioned assumption that a military commander like Adama would be running the show. Militaristic authoritarianism meets the politics of liberal democracy in a state of emergency. Throw in the quickly emerging focus on faith at the very heart of that government and you’ve got a stage superlatively set for a critique of the political response to 9/11, assuming you’ve got the balls to step up to it. Oh, yes, that fundamentalist homodoxy of the Cylons is horrific, but maybe there are other types of ideologue to be questioned here too, like the president who believes they have a divine mission, the commander who expects to be obeyed.

But The Doubt Begins

There was a chance, I thought, that the writers were going to get their teeth into the tropes they were dealing with. But I was quite aware that there was a good chance they weren’t. Seeing the whole 9/11 thematics explored in this way, with the Cylon attack so out-of-the-blue, the Cylons themselves painted as such an Inhuman(e) Enemy, Adama and Roslin so very quickly established as worthy leaders, I began to wonder quite early just how deeply the writers were really going to interrogate their apparent subject. Not having read much of the press around the show, letting it speak for itself without paying any mind to statements of intent by the creative team, without even much knowledge of their general political sympathies, I have to say it initially struck me as throwing out mixed signals. For every question raised about whether militaristic authority should be allowed to tread all over civil rights, we seemed to be offered Adama heroically standing up to dumbass civilians who simply didn’t understand the situation. Even as we get the creepiness of the Cylon faith brought home to us by Six’s proselytising to Baltar, we’re fed Roslin’s faith in bona fide prophecy as an entirely acceptable variant of the same basic unreason. Part of me did wonder for a while if what I was seeing was actually one of those "Invaders of the Body Snatchers" style narratives that are really more manifestations of the zeitgeist than anything else, a “ragheads under the beds” anti-Islamist paranoia seeping up out of the mass unconscious and out onto the small screen. Were they actually asking any questions about 9/11 and the response to it at all? Or were they just reflecting that response, manifesting it in this story of an Inhuman(e) Enemy, an unfathomable Them that wants to wipe Us out of existence simply because that’s how they are?

What IS The Story Here?

It’s a story of how terrible that threat is, but how we might just be saved by Fearless Leaders of indomitable will (Adama) and perspicacious wisdom (Roslin), ready to stand up to the bureaucrats and bolshevists who just have to learn to shut the fuck up and obey or else (Adama), and ready to ignore the terrifying possibility that their rational judgement is right in favour of blind faith in religious doctrines that promise salvation (Roslin). Political dissenters, it’s established fairly early on, are not to be trusted (Zarek). If you can’t quash them you may have to deal with them, buy them off with power, but sooner or later they’ll turn on you because they’re just plain corrupt. The labour force doesn’t need to be respected. If they get uppity about inequity, you just need to find the ringleader (Tyrol) and put a gun to his wife’s head. Women can’t actually be wise-cracking, hard-ass, adrenaline-junkies (Starbuck); if they look that way really it’s because they’re slaves to their own overwhelming emotional insecurities, victims of their own victimhood and quite possibly willing victims to boot. As we move gradually towards the Mutiny storyline it should be no surprise, actually, that the show schizoidly seeks to gloss over the nature of the Inhuman(e) Enemy and crudely manipulate us into simply accepting the narrative arc with the crass theatrics of Zarek and Gaeta, because the show has never really had the courage of its convictions, has maintained a schizoid confusion of liberal and reactionary subtexts throughout. It should be no surprise that it brings the Cylons into the fleet while singularly failing to engage with the actual ethical dilemma of dealing with an unrepentantly genocidal foe for the sake of survival, because the actual ethical questions, it should have become clear by now, have never actually been articulated.

But Doesn't Moore Seem Fairly Right-On?

It’s not, I think, that the show is actually just an unreconstructed, uncritiqued response to 9/11. As reactionary as that reading above is, it seems clear from Moore’s statements about his intent and his approach to the Cylons that he wanted to tell a story that is more morally complex. Other features within the narrative itself, in fact — storylines of characters like Tigh during the occupation of New Caprica, for example — suggest that he wanted to tell a story in which our sympathies were pulled in different directions, in which hard questions really were asked — e.g. regarding the legitimacy of terrorism against an oppressive regime. It’s just that the writers seem incapable of asking a hard question aimed at either side of the political coin without immediately copping out by offering whatever easy answer springs to mind. Honestly, I’ve come to the conclusion that someone in power there is just chickenshit.

How The Show Cops Out

In the Cylons, it’s as if Moore did actually want to take a swing at the fundamentalist mindset, the monomania of faith. And giving them a One True God as opposed to the Colonial pantheon is a pretty ballsy move that implicitly puts Christian fundamentalism in the same camp as Islamist. Nice little bit of subversion there. Or at least it would be if it wasn’t immediately rendered toothless by offering Roslin’s faith as a clear analogue of non-fundamentalist Christianity — scripture-based, salvation-oriented and guided by that nice Magic Negro lady who looks just like the nice Godsfearing churchgoer she is. No Bacchic revels in this paganism, just a few statues of household gods that might as well be of saints. Don’t want to alienate mainstream America, after all. Don’t want to actually challenge the faith of the people who voted Bush into office on the basis of his “moral values”. Any question of the legitimacy of Adama’s authoritarian attitude to civilians is similarly dispatched pronto. Throw him into a situation where it kicks in, where suddenly we’re faced with the reality of a military officer who feels it’s his duty to impose order, to quash dissent, and you can guarantee that situation will quickly come down to simple necessity. He just has to do it, cause that’s the way it is. Don’t want to actually challenge the politics of those viewers who’re digging the show for its Military SF heroism of space battles and true grit.

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.

It doesn’t create a tension between these two poles, mind. It doesn’t set up meaningful divisions amongst the humans as to how they should actually deal with the situation. It doesn’t offer us Zarek as a sincerely-motivated, honest-to-Gods left-wing idealist who sees Roslin’s faith-based politics as just plain nuts, doesn’t question the veracity of her vision in order to pit them against each other as equals. It doesn’t offer us the media as a valid political force demanding debate and transparency in the face of Roslin’s and Adama’s autocratic tendencies, just glibly gives us a reporter as Cylon infiltrator and moves on, the whole episode reading as a sop to right-wing suspicions of “the liberal media”. Of course, on the other side of the coin, it panders to left-wing suspicions of “the fascist authorities” by giving us Cain as the brutal tyrant, but slaps the villain tag on her so that spectre can be dispensed with almost as quickly. Couldn’t have that sort of stuff happening on Galactica and raising real hard questions about the desperate extremes people might be willing to go to when survival is at stake. Hell, even the inherent tension in the basic dichotomy of militaristic autocracy versus democratic bureaucracy is dissipated quickly as Adama and Roslin prove to be pretty much of a mind.

The End Result

The result is a sort of thematic vagueness, where the show doesn’t really dramatise the ideological issues it’s pretending to deal with. It seems unwilling to really come down on one side or another and risk alienating viewers who might find such a stance challenging. Worse, this lack of gumption carries through into an unwillingness, for the most part, to even allow such opposing ethical stances to manifest in characters of equal substance and sympathy, not to the extent that any real dramatic tension emerges. Shying away from its own basic thematics, the show can only redirect the drama into simple heroes-in-peril scenarios or soap opera inter-relationships.

An Example of How It Could Have Done Better

So Adama and Roslin want to bring the rogue Cylons into the fleet as Colonial citizens? Does that mean we’re going to see Lee, say, actually use his legitimate political power to oppose it on principle? Given his general utility as the stick-up-butt prig who’ll occasionally stand up to his old man (for as long as it’s necessary in plot terms) and the recent suicide of Dee in the wake of Roslin and Adama’s wild goose chase to a devastated Earth, this might have been a perfect point to take that stick out and put a firecracker in. He’s tediously self-righteous, so if it’s absolutely necessary to your story arc to have those Cylons in the fleet he might well do a good job of undermining his own argument with his insufferability, but at least it would present a vaguely valid objection to this move. Hell, play it right and you could be setting up a much more believable resistance (violent or passive) with all the drama that entails. But, no, that would actually be asking the “hard questions”. So what we get is Gaeta the bitter cripple seizing power and pissing it away in a couple of episodes cliffhangered with a grenade lobbed at Adama.


It’s not an unwatchable show. I’ve seen a lot worse in terms of script, acting, visuals and so forth. If all the soap opera inter-relationships and random left-turns have rendered characters like Starbuck and Tyrol patchworks of utterly arbitrary behaviours, some of the heroes-in-peril scenarios are… serviceable. They just could have done better. Fuck, I even think they might have managed to rewire that ill-conceived 9/11 parallel into something functional and sorted out a lot of the worldbuilding issues to boot simply by fleshing out the backstory with a bit of savvy and spunk. It’s just that to do so would have required a guts they’ve never really had. Unless it’s all some cunningly disguised tragedy which will read as heroic serial right up until we see Roslin impeached and Adama shot for treason by Baltar, the last surviving member of the human race, and realise, “wait, so we were meant to think it was all a bit fucked-up,” I really kinda think they’ve squandered most of the potential the show started out with. And with the not-terribly-impressive backstory of Earth, the “final five” and the petty motives for the attack on the twelve colonies revealed in huge slathering dollops of speechifying in the latest episode, none of it adding much in the way of thematic complexity, I’d have to say I’m not expecting to have to revise that opinion. Which is a shame.


Blogger Chris Roberson said...

Amen, brother.

I've been working Allison's last nerve for weeks, shouting back many of the same points you make to the television every time we force ourselves to watch the latest episode. I'd have stopped watching by now, but I'm masochistic enough to stick with it to see just how ill-conceived it gets before it's all said and done.

2:54 pm  
Blogger gary gibson said...

I'll have to admit I was really somewhat dubious right from the start, and for some of the reasons you mention, particularly that it appeared to primarily consist of Americans in Space but Just Pretending They're from Another Planet. I got two episodes into the second series and gave up when Starbuck turned into a tormented artist straight out of central casting and replete with a full set of 'tortured soul who doesn't pay the rent' cliches.

1:09 am  
Blogger Eric Rosenfield said...

That was brilliant.

8:03 pm  
Blogger Jakob Schmidt said...

Finally someone is seriously starting to untangle this Holocaust-9/11-Fundamentalism-metaphor that is BSG. And not just someone!
I started writing a long post, but it may take a while until it's finished ... for now, let's just suffice that I love watching BSG, but that I'm also seriously annoyed by the convoluted mix of metaphors. I think a lot of the problems are the result of the writers trying to turn the tables again and again, to make us doubt who the good guys are and what can be defined as justifiable means. In terms of storytelling, that's surely an entertaining and totally legitimate strategy, but, as Hal mentioned, it tends to not follow through the ethical implications ...

A good example is the New-Caprica-Occupation-Arc, where we have this mix of Vichy France (right down to the Gestapo clothing style of some of the Cylons) and the motive of suicide bombing. Whoops, now suddenly the good guys are the suicide bombers, isn't that something? Okay, in terms of storytelling, this might be an interesting turn of events, but in terms of metaphor, it's just plainly wrong in so many ways: Suddenly, suicide bombing is depicted as last resort of the oppressed against a Nazi-like regime. This kind of argumentation is much to virulent in the real world as it is. Suicide attacks, as they happen today (not only) in Israel, are first and foremost the expression of an extremely reactionary, fundamentalist and semi-fascist ideology of hate. That's not to say that a lot of the people carrying them out are not oppressed; but being oppressed doesn't necessarily make their cause just or their means justifiable.
If BSG would just take these motifs and run with them, following the story instead of trying to relate back to the real world, things like this might be less of a problem. But BSG keeps nudging the viewer: "Hey, this is a metaphor about suicide bombings/9-11/the holocaust." It nudges, but then it doesn't follow through. It claims to present a real ethical dilemma that relates to the real world, but it does it latter in such a convoluted and inconsequent way that it becomes lurid rather than thought-provoking.

However, I think BSG is actually a very faithful indicator of how hopelessly mixed up these political realities and metaphors have become in the real world. I guess that's what keeps me interested ...

12:58 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Chris: Yeah, I think I kind of want to see the rest of it now just to see how ham-fistedly it's done. If the backstory revelations in the last episode were anything to go by, it certainly looks like it's not going to get any better.

Gary: I seem to recall talking about it with you at the time. I could always forgive the slapdash windowdressing cause I'm cynical about the capacity of US TV sf writers to write anything other than Americans in Space. Also it had the capacity to go all post-9/11 West Wing in Space if it had the balls. If not the whole thing was at least interesting in that Ragheads-Under-The-Beds way, SF unwittingly reflecting the zeitgeist of the culture that spawned it.

But, fuck yeah, in terms of Starbuck, the squandering of that character's potential was criminal on an aesthetic level, never mind from a feminist perspective. They could have added a bit of complexity, inner conflict and such, but instead they just repainted the surface. They've kept on doing it too. Tyrol and Lee are almost equally inconsistent, their characters randomly and radically changing whenever it's expedient in plot terms.

Eric: Cheers. :D

Jakob: You should check out more of Nussbaum's posts if you haven't already. She's been addressing this stuff from way back. With respect to "turning the tables", yeah, I reckon they *think* that's what they're doing, but we're never really for a second led to question the idea that Roslyn and Adama are the good guys. They've just never really had the guts to actually upset the apple cart, so they end up just tilting it a bit one way only to instantly chicken out and let it right itself. Then tilt it a little the other way only to chicken out again.

The New Caprica story was maybe the nearest they could have got to a real clash of ideologies. By sidelining Roslyn and Adama they removed the two linchpins of inherently honourable pragmatism, leaving the way clear to develop Tigh as the extremist who'll resort to any means necessary, Gaeta as the moderate trying to subtly do good from within the system. But even there, yes, they copped-out time and again. I seem to recall them even wimping out by not dealing with the reality of suicide attacks against *innocent civilians*, showing them instead as aimed entirely at collaborators and enforcers of the regime -- ignoring the actual issue in favour of simplistic plot shenanigans.

I'm still undecided as to whether this confusion reflects the real-world confusion of the mass unconscious -- the tapping-into-the-zeitgeist idea -- or if it's really just the craven cowardice of Powers-That-Be trying to pander to both sides of the political spectrum, writers kinda sorta *wanting* to challenge the status quo but bowing to commercial pressures (ratings-obsessed network executives and what not) to not rock the boat. I'm always willing to give writers the benefit of the doubt, so I'm loathe to underestimate the extent to which even Moore himself might have been hamstrung.

6:42 pm  
Blogger Therem said...

I'm here via a link from Abigail Nussbaum's site, and if she reads this comment, she won't be surprised to see me disagreeing with you...

First off, I think your criticism of the way "the 9/11 metaphor" has been explored in the show is really off base. What makes you think that's what the show is trying to be about? I ask that question seriously. There are a few story elements (like the hall of photos) that seem like direct references, and the tone, particularly in the miniseries, is mournful in a way that wasn't common in American TV before 9/11, but I just don't see that the creators are trying for any kind of metaphor -- not 9/11, and not the Holocaust. To critize them for not getting either right makes no sense if those aren't the stories they are trying to tell.

As I see it, the show is about the last vestiges of the human race running from the beings who massacred them, occasionally fighting them and occasionally mixing with them in complicated ways because they are forced to by their circumstances. And oh yeah, there's some kind of karma at work.

There's fertile ground here for all kinds of stories about people pushed to extremes. Frankly, I am more annoyed by how everyone in the fleet seems to have easy access to alcohol and cigarettes, and how Galactica still hasn't run out of Vipers, than I am about the fact that the writers didn't pick a single metaphor or allegory for their show to explore. I would have liked to see more investigation of the hard physical realities of daily life, the economics of the fleet, and the cultural differentiation between the ships. Oh well.

Re: the treatment of Gaeta. A friend of mine said after the episode was over, "I wish they hadn't reduced him to his injury." It's wasn't that cut and dried to me, but it did make me very uncomfortable how in the past 8 episodes (plus the webisodes), Gaeta was loaded up with traditional Hollywood risk factors (maimed, bitter, gay) then killed in one of the worst ways he could have gone. The fact that he was brown and was killed shortly after one of the few other regularly recurring people of color committed suicide made it even worse. I felt we all (character, actor and audience) deserved better. One upside of it all is that at least he got some serious screen time before his demise -- something I wasn't sure would ever happen -- and he really made the most of it. But still.

As for Adama and Roslin and other resisters of the mutiny being portrayed as heroes... the deck was certainly stacked, but I don't think the mutineers were shown in entirely villainous light, and given how the fleet's leaders were behaving just one or two episodes earlier, and the fact that they were so glaringly wrong about Earth, there's just no way for the fleet or the audience to have confidence that they are making the right choices going forward. Actually, this show has gone further than any other genre series I've seen toward making all the main characters unsympathetic and untrustworthy. At least it's not as bad as The Sopranos in that way. If it were, I wouldn't still be watching.

6:26 am  
Blogger Jakob Schmidt said...

@Hal (and slightly OT): thanks for the tip, I'm working my way back through Abigail Nussbaum's blog right now ... interesting thoughts about Anathem, which was pretty much my favourite book in 2008!

Anyway, by "turning the tables", I meant more that they turn the tables on the motifs: first the Cylons are genocidal, then the colonials threaten to become so when they have the opportunity, first the colonials are on the run, then a bunch of Cylons is, first the cylons commit suicide bombings, then the colonials do so ... there's a kind of relativism at work here, that, on the one hand, highlights the idea that being the good guys is a matter of perspective, which is fine with me. Of course, the perspective of the good guys always happens to be the one of Adama and Roslin, which is kind of a problem ...

I think the good and interesting thing about BSG is that it dramatizes how hard or nearly impossible it can be to make the right decision under impossible circumstances. But that "hard decision" tends to acquire a heroic quality: "look, Adama made the hard decision of executing them, well someone had to do it, so yay to him!" And that just produces some muddled ethical relativism that is not that interesting at all. We end up with heroes and villains that are not even defined by their deeds or moral codices, but totally arbitrary.

By the way, I haven't seen anything beyond the arrival at ruined earth yet, and I'm less and less interested in doing so ...

11:37 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Therem: Hi, and welcome. ☺

It seems to me you’re being too literalist. Yes, on the literal level of story the show is “about” the last scraps of humanity on the run from the killer robots who tried to, and are still trying to, wipe them out completely, (which is the same basic setup as the original series,) with those humans every so often entering into uneasy truces with their enemy in the name of survival, and with various vague metaphysical forces apparently at play in the narrative, (which is a quite strong distinction from the original series). And it doesn’t have to be read as direct allegory or metaphor. However, any story is figurative in the way an idiom like “a rolling stone gathers no moss” is. It presents us with this fictive pattern-of-events and, on a literal level, it’s simply about those events unfolding, just as that idiom is about what happens (or what doesn’t happen) if you set a stone rolling. But it also invites us to map that pattern-of-events to the real-world as an abstraction, just as we’re invited to apply the idiom to real-world situations. The vehicle of the metaphor is often unmoored from its tenor. Generally, I’d parse “rolling stone” to “person living a nomadic existence” and “moss” to “needless encumbrances”, but that’s a reduction; we could be using the idiom about someone who moves a lot geographically or someone who chooses one-night-stands over committed relationships. The important point is it’s still a vehicle of metaphor that invites us to find a tenor for it. Actually, I think the “universality” of good art comes from it being applicable to many “tenors”, being figurative of many situations. Strange fiction is seldom, these days, directly allegorical or based on a straight one-to-one metaphor for X, Y or Z in the real-world. It does however often focus on particular real-world situations and take them as the jumping-off point for this wider figurative construction, the large-scale figuration we call the story. So it may be about more than X, Y or Z but it’s often particularly focused on X, Y or Z thematically speaking.

So, with Battlestar Galactica, it seems clear to me that the writers have taken 9/11 as their jumping-off point. Why do I read it this way? Well, if you look at how it changes the basic set-up of the original 70s series this tells you what their story is about over-and-above that basic narrative of “humans on the run from killer robots”. We can probably both agree that the new Battlestar Galactica is “about” these humans having to deal with their enemy on something other than a “kill or be killed” level and that it’s also “about” some vaguely-defined (apparently) metaphysical forces having an influence upon them — the historico-mythical gods, the Cylon One True God, and the cyclicity of time represented in the “this has all happened before and will happen again” axiom. Those things are significantly new elements the writers have brought to the story.

Now there’s a potential significance to be read in those elements alone, an indication of moral ambiguity (sometimes we have to do what’s necessary rather than what’s right,) and of a more complex approach to culpability (a suggestion of cycles-of-violence in the cycles-of-history motif, perhaps, an idea that the mistakes of the past are being repeated, or that things can only play out in this way because the characters are bound into some grand predestined pattern-of-events they have no control over). SImply in narrative terms, the writers aren’t doing a good job of making this part of the story actually make sense, what with all the mixed signals — prophecies and destinies, visions and hallucinations sometimes seeming validated, sometimes not. Clear indications that the gods are mythologised folk-heroes (e.g. the Temple of Athena) only open up a can of worms with their representation of a spacefaring civilisation that has somehow lost its aility to keep historical records. Hints that the Cylons are enacting a Grand Plan tied to their belief in a One True God are tied loosely to the predestination motif (with Baltar’s hallucinatory Six, for example, directly asserting that Adama’s destruction of the ship carrying the guy who knows who betrayed humanity is Providence in a “Hand of God” way,) but this is undercut by the development of the backstory in the latest episode’s conversation between Ellen and John, where the implication seems to be that the centurion belief system has been programmed into the skin-jobs for pragmatic purposes. It’s all kind of vague. What we can say however is that the story is not just about survival. It is clearly — and on a literal level — about faith. From the very start of it, it is made abundantly clear that this is a cardinal element of the story: the Cylons’ faith in their One True God which pulls the narrative trigger in instigating their Jihad; Roslin’s faith in the prophecies of the Scrolls of Pythia which sets a narrative trajectory with her leading humanity to Earth; Adama’s faith in faith itself, in the search for an Earth he thinks pure myth, adopted simply as a way to hold the fleet together; Starbuck’s faith in her own personal destiny; the effect of Six’s faith on Baltar’s giant/tiny ego; and the faith (or lack of faith) in Adama and Roslin among the various other characters, which many of the episodic storylines pivot around.

So, we have a story of a catastrophic attack that places the survivors in a state of shock. It comes entirely out-of-the-blue, entirely unexpected by a culture that has grown complacent, (signifed in the decommissioning of the eponymous vessel of the show,) because a past conflict has apparently entered into history. In the wake of this catastrophic action the survivors rally around figures with clear visions born of militant pragmatism, political expedience and religious faith — specifically religious faith in a grand colonialist destiny, an escape from persecution under inhuman anti-individualism, to some environ beyond the known frontier in which a safe haven may be established for the rebuilding of the dispossessed culture. This faith is instrumental in maintaining a fragile unity within an innately heterodox culture, offering all members of that culture a sense of shared purpose, and this is clearly reflected in the unifying force of Cylon monotheism, where homodoxy is taken to its logical extreme. However the varying degrees to which members of that Colonial culture hold to that faith or doubt it, and the degree to which it is often only one factor in their decisions, and a minor one at that, is placed in stark contrast to the ideological single-mindedness born of the Cylon faith. As often as not, the crucial factors that shape the decisions of the humans are secular faiths — faith in authority, faith in family and friends, faith in a lover, faith in oneself.

But this is — undeniably, I’d say — what the show is about, and on a literal level, in terms of pure plot. Adama’s faith in Tigh. Tigh’s lack of faith in himself. His conflicted faith and lack of faith in Ellen. Starbuck’s turmoil of denied self-faith and repressed self-doubt. Lee’s conflicted faith and lack of faith in his father. All the soap opera bollocks of Starbuck and Lee, Dee and Anders. The reason the show does not really address questions of survival that often, (yes, down to where the fuck Cottle is getting his fags from,) is that it is far more about faith. Specifically it is about the Western heterodoxy of liberal-religious and secular-humanist faith(s) in the wake of a catastrophic attack by members of a faith defined in direct opposition to that culture as absolutely homodoxic. In Todorovian terms, viewing narrative as based on a disruption of equilibrium, the Cylon attack born of that homodoxic faith is the disruption, and the peaceful heterodoxy of the Colonial cultures is the equilibrium shattered by it. To me that is more than enough to justify a reading of the show as tackling the events of 9/11, that fundamentalist attack on this Great Satan, this latter-day Sodom — Western liberalism.

But if that doesn’t convince you, there’s more. It’s not just little details like the hall of photos that point us to the real-world. The entire worldscape is transparently modelled on modern America, so thinly-veiled that one could easily damn the writers for outright laziness in terms of worldbuilding. The whisky decanters, the cigarettes, the dogtags, the olive vests, the suits and dresses, the shirts and ties, the television cameras of the media, the “obsolete submarine” styling of Galactica, the bulkhead doors and phone-style comms, the “jet aircraft” styling of Colonial One — the list could go on, and these are just the superficial elements. More importantly it presents Colonial culture as a transparent analogue of contemporary America in terms of its underlying social, political and cultural deep structure. In Starbuck it presents us with a woman fighter pilot, which tells us something about the level of female emancipation, but we’re left in no doubt that she’s had to struggle to get where she is today, that the culture is not a feminist utopia by any means. Rather it’s almost exactly where we’re at right now. The religious faiths of the Colonials — from their swearing through to the ceremonies disrupted by Baltar, from the inchoate non-churchgoing WASPism of Capricans to the rigid Jehovah’s Witness style dogmatism of Geminins — maps completely to American culture, right down to the paucity of openly atheist or agnostic characters. From a European perspective that absence is a telling detail, as the dearth of — the downright suspicion of — “godless” atheism is one of the key features which makes a lot of us rather scornful of Americanist self-idealising rhetoric. The presentation of radicalist and socialist agitation on the part of Varek and Tyrol is also typically Americanist in its tendency to load the dice against them. Tyrol’s unionism is treated with more sympathy, but ultimately we’re presented with the same old “expedience trumps ethics” cop-out in “Dirty Hands”, where breaking the strike by brute intimidation is legitimised by the narrative’s insistence that anything else risks the survival of the fleet.

But is all this just bad worldbuilding or is it intended as social relevance? How far is the show deliberately talking about America and Western liberalism in general as much as it’s talking about an entirely imaginary civilisation? How far is it inviting us to map that “rolling stone gathers no moss” style figurative construct of its narrative to the specifics of the real-world? Again and again the show points us in the direction of the current political climate, directly addressing (or rather playing with but entirely failing to address) suicide bombing, prisoner torture, occupation and insurgency, the fears of an Enemy Within — people that look just like us and live among us, but only as part of their zealotic Plan to Destroy Us All. The show is hardly pointing at those topical issues arbitrarily and in the abstract; it’s taking the reality as a jumping-off point. And it takes as its start-point for all this a devastating sneak attack born of an inhuman monomania implacably opposed to a”humanity” defined in terms of its diversity. The clincher for me is Roslin’s swearing-in on Colonial One. The name of the ship directly references Airforce One. And the scene itself clearly resonates with Johnson’s swearing-in on Airforce One after the Kennedy Assassination — the event which 9/11 is constantly linked with in all the “Kennedy of our generation” talk, the idea that “everyone remembers where they were on that day” — and it also surely resonates with Bush taking to the sky in Airforce One, in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers. I’m genuinely suprised that someone could watch that scene and not think, “shit, they’re setting up the Cylon attack as a 9/11 style event, focusing on the political paradigm shift”. And everything since then has been consistent with that reading, tackling the precise issues that arose out of that paradgim shift — just not very well.

It’s not that they set the show up as an allegory of 9/11. I’m not even sure the term “metaphor” is apt, suggesting as it does a direct mapping between the destructive acts themselves. The Cylon attack wasn’t conceived of in that way — it was already a given, a core feature of the original series’s premise — and if you actually think it through you realise how it doesn’t really work, how much of an inflation is implied, what that genocidal attempt to exterminate the entire human race actually maps to in the real world. Still, the show is clearly, I’d say, incontrovertably figurating the head-on collision between fundamentalism and Western liberalism that began with 9/11, the panic and paranoia that it generated, the huge ripples it sent through a culture that didn’t see it coming. They’ve sought to invert and subvert the original thematics at times — with the occupation scenario, for example — but at the core of it is this huge symbolic act which resonates with 9/11 but plays as a really jarring off-note. It’s discordant and mostly it seems to be so because they haven’t really had the guts to tackle the thematics with integrity, too often opting for the easy-out.

It’s interesting that you bring up Gaeta’s sexuality along with his skin colour and disability, because I think their treatment of this is indicative of just how pervasive this problem is, how the core failure of the show is one of cowardice. Having not seen the webisodes, the only reason I know about Gaeta’s sexuality is because a friend mentioned it in conversation. There is nothing I can see in the TV episodes that really hints at this, and there’s even his “sympathy frack” jibe at Starbuck that has him expressing himself as a heterosexual. Not that I read that as much more than a verbal lashing-out — full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing much else — but to relegate his sexuality to the webisodes is pretty much the definition of marginalisation. It reads to me as a self-serving concession to conservatism — let’s sideline it into the webisodes that will only be seen by the dedicated fanbase, and that way we don’t have to worry about the ratings ramifications if we deal with it in the TV series, where the casual audience of more mainstream viewers might get antsy. Feh.

6:40 pm  
Anonymous ad said...

It’s just that the writers seem incapable of asking a hard question aimed at either side of the political coin without immediately copping out by offering whatever easy answer springs to mind. Honestly, I’ve come to the conclusion that someone in power there is just chickenshit.

I think that nailed it.

9:35 pm  
Blogger Jed said...

No time to write a full thoughtful response to this detailed and fascinating discussion (thanks for the discussion! good stuff), but I did want to toss one thing into the mix:

Whether or not they're succeeding, I think the writers are consciously trying to undermine a lot of the messages that you see them as presenting.

For example, I think it's clear to the writers and cast, as well as to much of the audience, that Zarek and Gaeda were in many ways essentially right. Adama and Roslyn are so far from infallible that they've led their people to a radioactive wasteland instead of the paradise they've been promising.

There's a great post somewhere online from the actor who played Zarek in which he noted that he never played Zarek as a bad guy; right up until that last Zarek episode, I considered him an essentially decent man who'd made some mistakes. (His last episode makes that hard to continue to believe, unfortunately; that's one of the few things I think the writers really got wrong.)

And there's been a series of fascinating interviews with the writers in the blog(?)/online column of the Chicago Tribune TV writer, in which the BSG writers seem to me to suggest that they recognize the complexity of the situation and the characters.

I get what you're saying about mixed metaphors, and I agree to some extent; and there've been times when the show has kinda veered off the rails even in my estimation. (I think if they had sat down and plotted a four-year arc at the beginning of the show, a lot of the consistency problems would've been ironed out.) But I also think that the mixedness of the metaphors comes partly from trying to map various metaphors too directly to the BSG situations. It's arguably a failing of the writers that they make the mappings so easy to apply--but I think they've said on several occasions that they never intended the show to map directly onto any particular real-world situation.

So ... I think it's fair to criticize them for not bringing out what they intended clearly enough in the show; but I think it's worth considering the pretty ambitious and unusual things they're trying to do, even if they haven't fully succeeded.

7:47 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hi, Jed. Good points. Actually I agree with you that there's an obvious intent on the part of the writers and cast to try and capture a greater complexity, a consistent attempt to undermine the simple message(s). What frustrates me, I guess, is that they consistently undermine the undermining, so to speak. Yes, Zarek and Gaeta are right, but they're right for such transparently wrong reasons that it reduces the whole mutiny to villainy and folly.

A comparison point: A good example of capturing ethical complexity, I think, is the old Vietnam War series Tour of Duty, which started off as a fairly simple story of heroes-in-peril, with no blatant political slant. If anything, in fact, it read as maybe having a somewhat conservative subtext, presenting as heroes characters who completely bought into the military mindset and who were up against a faceless enemy in a kill-or-be-killed situation. As it went on though, it slowly and subtly began to pick at the surface of that, to undermine the apparent heroism of the narrative. I suspect that the writers deliberately set out to *not* preach to the choir, rather to try and reach a mainstream audience with more conservative values, to use the drama to get that audience onside to a point where they'd be willing to engage with the "hard questions" the writers wanted to ask. Towards the end it read as a savage indictment of gung-ho rhetoric. But a real mark of the writers’ integrity, I think, was a storyline where they had one character -- a medic -- basically outcast by his comrades for his pacifism. He's treated entirely sympathetically, but so are his comrades, and the result is a profound thematic tension. It highlights the legitimacy of both perspectives, refuses to cop out by picking sides. While the writers' agenda was ultimately liberal, as I read it, they understood that it would be more honest (and more dramatic) if they treated the dilemma as a dilemma.

I suspect this is probably the sort of thing the BSG writers were trying to do with Zarek and Gaeta — to up the complexity with an extra level of "yes, but". Adama and Roslin have been holding the fleet together by sheer strength of will. Yes, but they led it to a radioactive waste. Yes, but there was nowhere else to go. Yes, but they want to join with the Cylons now. Yes, but they have to for the sake of survival. Yes, but the Cylons tried to wipe out humanity. Yes, but some of them now think that was a mistake. Yes, but they still have zero remorse and their own agenda. Yes, but the revolutionaries who're taking a stand are not the kind of people you want in charge. The problem is that they could be bringing out the tension of an ethical dilemma by illuminating the rightness of both viewpoints, but in BSG they tend to illuminate the wrongness. Way I see it, when you set up a duality and try to show how both sides are right in some way, that’s gutsy because your viewers are being confronted with an opposing view no matter which side they’re on. Ultimately they might fall one way or the other according to their own beliefs, but you’re not making it easy for them; they have to do so in the face of a clear message that this other person you don’t agree with is right too. When you set up a duality and show how both sides can be seen as wrong, that’s just allowing your viewers an easy out. Sure, you’re giving them a complex situation, but no matter what side they’re on they’ve got an opposing view being shown to be wrong. Meanwhile any wrongness attaching to their favoured view can be glossed over as long as there’s some way of interpreting a character’s actions as right.

Undermining actually becomes a way of sitting on the fence, having your cake and eating it. You can present Adama threatening to execute Tyrol’s wife, for example, in order to break a strike. You‘re showing how wrong he can be, yes? Where his sort of militant authoritarianism can go wrong in general. You’re undermining that character’s view. But you can present the strike as a rash move that puts the fleet in serious peril. So you’re showing how wrong Tyrol can be, yes? However bad work conditions are, this is a matter of survival. You’re undermining that character’s view. Of course, the neat trick that’s going on here is that the viewer can read the show as supporting whatever they believe. If you’re a right-winger, Adama isn’t actually wrong to threaten the damn unionising idiot at all. This is a matter of survival, goddamnit. Oh, and Adama’s a man of honour so he wouldn’t have shot a woman anyway. He was bluffing! (Or: and damn straight, he would’ve shot her, and he would’ve been goddamn right to!) If you’re a left-winger, Tyrol isn’t actually wrong, because however serious the threat to the fleet, human beings have to be treated as human beings. They have rights, goddamn it. Oh, and Tyrol’s a good man, and no fool. He knows exactly how essential the worker and technicians are, and it’s an indication of just how fucked up things are that he’s willing to go this far.

What you end up with is a nice, safe story that challenges no one, and ultimately “the survival of the fleet” serves as an all-purpose trump card that validates the dramatic outcome to a left-wing audience by excusing the wrongness as another of Adama’s “hard choices”.

It’s the same trump card they resort to in the mutiny story arc, and the same approach of showing the wrongness of both sides in order to have it both ways.

Dramatically speaking, Adama and Roslin present an argument. When survival is at stake, hard choices have to be made. With society in upheaval, the integrity and strength of will of your leaders is all you’ve got to hold things together. You need to just have faith in whatever they tell you to, whether it’s pie in the sky prophecy or militant authoritarianism, the Scrolls of Pythia or the chain of command. That argument is shaken by the fact that this faith is unfulfilled, but it continues, it adapts. Yes, the Promised Land is a Wasteland, but they couldn’t know that. They were working on what information they had, in a desperate situation. They may have failed but they tried, and now we just need to try something else. This is the hard reality of survival. Ethical qualms are a luxury. The fact is, the situation is now even more desperate and for the sake of survival we need to deal with the Cylons. That’s just the way it is.

Through Zarek and Gaeta the writers should be articulating the counter-argument. Roslyn and Adama have actually made the easy choices. With society in upheaval, Roslyn shored up her insecurity with religious delusions while Adama abandoned integrity to lie to the fleet, to offer them a pipe-dream. They’ve used faith as a quick fix solution at every turn, invested more and more in mystical visions and miltary authority, and become increasingly out-of-touch with reality. Faced with the dead-end of Earth, Roslin has completely abrogated her responsibilities. Adama has ordered the ships to accept Cylons onboard against the democratic consent of the Quorum in an assumption of absolute authority that can only end in a military coup d’etat if unchecked. Yes, the situation is more desperate than ever and survival is the prime imperative, but the deal with the Cylons could be exactly what brings about the final extinction. Given past experience on New Caprica, on pragmatics alone, that deal is outright madness. And on principle? The atrocities committed by those Cylons are of such monstrous scale that many humans would surely see the risk of extinction as preferable to a deal which bought our survival at the cost of their absolution. You could try and tell them that there was no other way, but they would refuse to believe you. We have to find one, they’d say. This is survival at the cost of survival being worth it.

The writers don’t articulate that though. That viewpoint emerges from their presentation of the flaws of Adama and Roslin. It’s developed entirely in the context of their side of the argument, as we see them making their hard choices, trying to hold things together, rallying the fleet with faith, reacting to the reality of a devastated Earth. Watching with a critical eye, we see them being overbearing and stubborn and just plain wrong. We question their infallibility, and the writers do provide us with plenty of ammunition if we want to pick up on it — like Adama’s threat to execute Tyrol’s wife, for example. Yes, they’re out to undermine that Adama-Roslin argument. But they don’t use Zarek and Gaeta to articulate the counter-argument. They leave the counter-argument as an implicity of our reading and use the convict and the cripple to articulate its wrongness, the villainy and folly. The alternative is equally wrong, they’re saying. It’s led by the corrupt and the weak, its followers are brutal bigots, and, of course, it’ll put the fleet in danger to have those kind of folks in charge.

Result? Again you can read it however you want. You think that might is right, that troublemakers are not to be trusted, that the chain of command should never be challenged, and all that shit — the show doesn’t give you a single reason to doubt that Zarek and Gaeta deserve to be shot. Even if you see a certain honour in Gaeta’s actions, well, there’s his acceptance at the end that his stand failed, that he wasn’t half the man Adama was. He accepts that the penalty for mutiny is death, and as a good soldier he’s at peace with that. All’s right with the world again — or Right, rather. Of course, on the other hand, if you think that authority must be challenged at times, that sometimes you have to take a stand, buck the system, fight the Man when the Man is wrong, and all that shit — the show gives you a pat little tragedy in which poor old Gaeta doesn’t really deserve to die but in which it’s inevitable because a treacherous powermonger perverted the cause, led him astray. And of course, ultimately “the survival of the fleet” serves as an all-purpose trump card that validates the dramatic outcome to that left-wing audience by excusing the wrongness as another of Adama’s “hard choices”. You can always rely on that nice liberal capacity for compromise.

But that get-out clause of “the survival of the fleet” is basically a trump card which wins every hand for Adama and Roslin no matter how flawed they are revealed to be. Yes, the Promised Land is a Wasteland, but they couldn’t know that. They were working on what information they had, in a desperate situation. They may have failed but they tried, and now we just need to try something else. This is the hard reality of survival. The fact is, the situation is now even more desperate and for the sake of survival we need to deal with the Cylons. That’s just the way it is. Now Galactica is (suddenly, expediently) falling apart, rotting from the inside, so we need the Cylons to fix it. The crew is thinned by the mutiny, so we need the Cylons flying scouting missions. The survival of the fleet is at stake.

The effect taken as a whole, over time, is that the Adama-Roslin argument stands against everything. It’s validated at every turn by dramatic situations in which there’s no suggestion of a viable alternative. The Adama-Roslin Way is undermined with rigged elections and dubious decisions, but the only alternatives offered have to be rendered non-viable too. Zarek? Baltar? The Quorum? The unions? Lee, whenever he randomly gets a stick up his butt about something? Oh, they throw in these things to present alternative views, but the show always allows you to read them from a rightist viewpoint as dead wrong, dangerously so. The way you (and Abigail Nussbaum too, from the way she's written about it) pick up on Zarek's reduction to a crude villain in the mutiny storyline as a major mis-step is interesting in this respect, because no matter how the actor played him, no matter how you read him, I’d say he’s always been (quite shrewdly) written as open to either interpretation. Yes, you can read him as an essentially decent man up until the mutiny — and really the drama is crying out for him to be that — but from the start they’ve left it utterly open, I’d say, undermining him with hints of criminality (more than just hints, really) so that you can equally well read him as a would-be Stalin all the way through. This was one of the things that niggled at me early on actually, that the key political opponent was never really treated as a viable alternative. The result is not complexity, just a Rorschasch thematics into which you can read whatever you want.

The reason they have to, in the end, delegitimise the mutiny so crudely is that they’ve hollowed out the Adama-Roslin argument to such an extent that its failure is transparent. Any remotely viable alternative would blow it out of the water, so they have to turn backflips to make the mutiny look like a worse alternative. They’ve left themselves no option but to bite the bullet and finally commit to making Zarek what they’ve always hinted at him being. He was only ever a pretence of a viable alternative anyway, there to mouth off against Roslin, to pay lip-service to the doubts that some viewers might be having, but in a way that they could always dismiss as a danger to the fleet. Now they’re in the final stretch they can play that ace in the hole and hope that the odd grenade being chucked at Adama will distract the viewer from the blunt manipulation.

There is a remote chance that maybe they’re going to pull some really wild turn-around in the remaining episodes. With Roslin’s reneging on her role as president, Adama’s resort to pills-and-booze as he watches his ship crumbling around him, Cylons throughout the fleet, Starbuck’s purported destiny as destroyer-of-worlds, Boomer’s escape with the Golden Child — they could maybe be heading towards a grand finale where the “heroes” are revealed as tragic failures, ultimately instrumental in the downfall of the humanity they sought to save. Fuck knows, they’ve failed to really commit with Baltar in the same way they did with Zarek, leaving him open to be read throughout as either an irredeemable knave or as a weak man, broken and remade in the crucible of his guilt. It really wouldn’t surprise me if they use him as their final ace in the hole in whatever end game they’ve got. I have a horrible suspicion they’re just going to use him as another fall guy though, and have Adama and Roslin save the day and the future of humanity, in a way that will ultimately justify everything they’ve done.

4:30 am  
Blogger Siderite said...

The way we see the world says more about us than it says about the world. I didn't see any connection with the holocaust or 9/11. Maybe because I am neither Jewish or American (or Jewish American) so I don't care one way or the other.

I really saw the fight between two different mindsets, two different species, that deserve the same amount of consideration. It is not our culture or even our speciation that makes us human, it's the diversity of individuals. The genius in BSG is that they allowed the cylons to be just as individual and screwed up like us humans. In the end the edge is blurred by the very fact that this diversity is possible in both races.

And yeah, I really dug Season 1 and I could have watched it again and again forever. All the mystical Heroes stuff creeps me out. But that's just me. The show is still great, either way.

3:32 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I am neither Jewish or American (or Jewish American) so I don't care one way or the other.

You're in a desert, walking along in the sand, when all of a sudden you look down and you see a tortoise crawling towards you. You reach down and you flip the tortoise over on its back. The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs, trying to turn itself over, but it can't, not without your help. But you're not helping. I mean, you;re not helping.

Why are you not helping?

4:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand where the writer is coming from and, as I watch the show I sometimes ask myself similar questions about what the writer's intent is.

I don't agree that the show is, at heart, chickenshit. Individual moments in an off episode will strike me as a cp-out, but I don't think it affects the narrative at large as much as the above essay argues.

In my reading experience (in my experience with most media) when a narrative ventures into political territory it does it with a particular message in mind. I can think of only one exception (though I assume there are more): South Park.

That show pokes fun at ideas, both liberal and conservative (within the spectrum we've allowed). The end result is a lot (altough not always)of iridicule with no alternative presented.

Battlestar Galactica is kinder to its characters; it shows their flaws but loves them anyway, which ties into the show's overarching themes; forgiveness and faith and our relationship with either.

The struggle that the show presents is timeless and a-political.

BSG does aim to remind you at times of current world events, but I don't think for the purpose of metaphor making so much as grounding the viewer in reality. RDM chose nukes over oversized plasma cannons because he wanted something that viewers could understand in terms of the real devastation it would cause.

I don't think the show should be viewed through a political prism because the political prism is limiting, especially for a show that is about so much more than a single political ideology.

9:07 pm  
OpenID lls-mutant said...

I completely agree about how they portrayed the mutiny, and I find it frustrating for many of the same reasons.

I really wish they had actually made "Face of the Enemy" into a "real" episode, because it really gave some weight and legitimacy to Gaeta's frustrations. Not so much with the secret with the Eight on New Caprica, but the fact that a Cylon killed three humans. Adama obviously believed Gaeta that he didn't do it or he'd be in the brig, and Tigh's lines at the end of the webisodes implied that he and Adama believed Gaeta that it was a Cylon, not a human. But a Cylon kills three humans (and possibly would have killed a fourth), and that's not enough to at least treat this alliance with a little caution? I'd really like to see Adama called out on this. (Not to mention that he essentially abandoned four of his people. No S&R mission until Tigh finally lets Hoshi go? But Adama exhausts resources to rescue Kara and throws down his command to rescue Roslin? A little hypocritical there, buddy.)

I also agree with your points about the handling of Tom Zarek. It's frustrating, because I've read interviews with Richard Hatch that reflect the same idea; that Zarek truly believes in what he says. He's an idealist that's willing to use any means- no matter how unpleasant- to accomplish his lofty goals. That's how I've actually viewed the character all along, and it frustrates me to no end that Ron Moore insists on viewing him as a black-hat villain. Especially because he's so much more interesting the other way.

However, there were some things I thought they did well in the mutiny arc. I like that Gaeta wasn't being played by Zarek. There was nothing about their relationship to suggest to me that it was anything but equal at that moment. I think the potential was there for Zarek to eventually play Gaeta, but I also don't think he needed to at this point in time. I also did appreciate that Zarek actually afforded Gaeta a little common courtesy- stopping and actually looking concerned when Gaeta seemed to be in pain, and assisting him physically at times without drawing attention to it. It was a great way of humanizing the character and keeping him from twirling that metaphorical mustache. (And it's also more than we've seen either Adama do. The way Lee walked right by Gaeta after Dee's suicide without saying a word was extremely cold.)

In some ways, I wish they could go back and use Gaeta in Bastille Day instead of Lee- or in addition to Lee. Really, Gaeta and Zarek very much belonged in a plot together. In some ways, I think they can be viewed as similar men at different ends of life. With the wrong circumstances and guidance, Gaeta very easily could have become what Tom Zarek is now: an angry, broken idealist who is willing to use any means to accomplish what he believes needs to be done. And I can believe Zarek looks at Gaeta and sees himself and what he once was, and the choices that he's had to make. It's a comparison they attempted with Zarek and Lee, but I actually find it more compelling with Zarek and Gaeta, because they're willing to let Gaeta make the choices that Zarek had to make... at least to a point.

The 9/11 thing strikes me as very true, as well. What irks me is with this "Sympathy for the Cylon" thing that Ron Moore's got going, I feel like we're supposed to be getting the message that many people would like to beat through heads after 9/11- people are individuals and can't be judged on their race and can change and yada yada yada. However, there are huge differences that aren't being taken into account; namely that terrorist attacks are not voted on and approved by every individual in the entire nation, whereas the Cylon genocide of humanity was. In a real-world situation, it's fair to say that just because this guy/girl is that ethnicity doesn't mean they support this act of horror. In the canon set up by BSG, that's explicitly untrue. I don't disagree with BSG's message in general terms, per se, but I do disagree with their method of expressing it.

Anyway, I'm still holding onto a slim hope that we'll hear some mention of the mutiny actually having some points (and, erm, maybe directed at a Cylon other than one of the five that wasn't responsible for the destruction of billions of people), but I suspect I'll be disappointed. Pity. Zarek and Gaeta had a point, and it would have been better TV if they'd let them have it.

9:42 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Siderite: Sorry, I'll try that again with less snark, cause the snark may be unfair and this speaks to a core point about figurative versus literal interpretations.

The way we see the world says more about us than it says about the world. I didn't see any connection with the holocaust or 9/11. Maybe because I am neither Jewish or American (or Jewish American) so I don't care one way or the other.

This is kind of a horrifying statement to me. I’m neither Jewish nor American myself but I still care one way or the other. I’m not sure exactly what you mean when you say you “don’t care” here -- what you don't care about -- but let’s try and unpack the possibilities.

First, there’s the idea that “the way we see the world says more about us”. Way I read the BSG story, it’s based around events that, to me, have compelling points of similarity with the holocaust and 9/11. I’ve gone into a fair amount of detail on what those points of similarity are in the thread above, I reckon. So what does this say about me? That I’m (overly?) sensitive to such features? That I’m primed to pick up on them for some reason? That I’ll read them into a text even if they’re “not really there”? Are we getting into the old "you're reading too much into it argument"?

If not, fair enough. But for the sake of argument, let's just address that idea.

So, I’d have to admit that as a writer I probably am more sensitive to the thematics of a text. Just as an advertising executive is probably better-equipped to look at an advert and see exactly how it’s trying to sell you a product, a writer is probably better-equipped to look at a text and see exactly how it’s presenting you with an idea. All that stuff that happens on a literal level — this character being heroic, that character being villainous — it all factors up into a large story which says things even when it maybe doesn’t mean to. You can try to just tell a story, but every story has constant or recurring features. Even simply by making a character a hero, presenting a drama of situations in which they act heroically, you’re saying that their actions are the kind of things that heroes do. Save the day. Stand tall in adversity. Defend the weak. Prevent persecution. Reject bigotry. Recognise that you can have, as you say, “two different mindsets, two different species, that deserve the same amount of consideration. It is not our culture or even our speciation that makes us human, it's the diversity of individuals.” You clearly get that BSG is aiming to do just that.

But writers ought to be pretty good at picking up those features when they’re presented at larger scales or in subtler details, right? They should be able to see a thematics that doesn’t just emerge out of the mid-level narrative of what a hero is doing, but which manifests in grander overarching patterns, in the political and social structures of the setting, say, or in the tiniest significance of a character’s last words, how those things factor into what a show is saying overall. I’m not pulling some authoritorial bullshit here, saying a writer’s always going to be right. I’m just saying that the “you’re just projecting things into it” argument doesn’t play. There are always things in there, at that level, to be read. Writers know this because they put them in there for a living. They know that you can’t actually not put them in there even if you’re just trying to tell a story. If you’ve got some sneaky little prejudices and unconscious fears that’s likely to show through in exactly those areas, in the subtext. Like when you sideline a character’s sexuality to the webisodes rather than deal with it in the main TV series, dig? They may be insignificant anomalies in the grand scheme of things, but sometimes they add up to a huge heap of thematic spaghetti.

Thing is, (and this bears on Anonymous's comment that BSG is presenting a "timeless and apolitical" struggle) those thematics aren’t just vague generalities. They’re not abstract principles that bear no relevance to reality. The very point of them is that they’re intended to be relevant; they’re comments about our world. (Being "timeless" just means being applicable across time. Being "apolitical" just means not being tied to a particular theory -- like some grand Marxist economic theory of history.)

Imagine a TV series where humans have colonised a planet of a race of dark-skinned aliens called Keffirs and subjugated them in order to mine that planet for Diamantium crystals that can be used to power their FTL drives. Tell the story one way, portraying the humans as adventurous heroes and the Keffirs as savages who need to be civilised, and you have one set of thematics. Tell it another, portraying the humans as imperialist oppressors and the Keffirs as sentient beings who “deserve the same amount of consideration,” and you have another. It’s precisely because those thematics have a relevance to reality that one would make me deeply nauseous while the other would earn my respect (— assuming it handled those thematics well. With BSG I think we’ve got the latter type of thematics, but handled so badly that it has a profound negative effect on the show.)

Someone who enjoyed that first story could easily turn around and say, forget the thematics. You’re reading too much into it. It’s only meant to be read on a literal level. It’s just a story of the adventures of these heroic humans, and the Keffirs are just imaginary monsters who don’t “deserve the same amount of consideration” because they’re just imaginary. The BSG writers could have just made the Cylons the kind of Killer Robots you get in the original series. If you like the fact that they didn’t, isn’t it because what they’ve done is better? It has more depth. What it’s saying has more honesty, more relevance, if you take it as a comment about our world. If you, like me, would prefer the second version of the story about humans-versus-Keffirs, isn’t it for the same reason?

Suppose however that you’re faced with the first version when you switch on the TV. In fact, suppose you’re faced with a version that pulls out all the stops in showing how superior the humans are to the Keffirs. The Keffirs are shown as being primitive by making them more “ape-like” — with flatter, broader noses. They’re presented as less intelligent and less technologically advanced, living in primitive huts, carrying spears. They attack human settlements and the show presents this as being “with no provocation”, glossing over the fact that the humans are subjugating them, exploiting their world. Maybe they’re hairier too, so the humans call them “fuzzy-wuzzies”. How far would it have to reflect the colonial relationships between white settlers and black natives in Africa before you became uncomfortable? Or assuming that it always managed to pull off a good dramatic story on an episode level, would you always be able to excuse it, side with those who’d turn around and say, forget the thematics? It’s only meant to be read on a literal level.

One thing that worries me in your response above is the idea that the answer to this could be dependent on race, and that this is just fair enough. Someone might just not “care one way or the other” about a story with thematics that I read as clearly relating to the Holocaust simply because they’re not Jewish. Is that fair enough? To me that would be like not caring one way or the other about the hypothetical TV series above simply because they’re not black. It’s an extreme scenario I’m using here just to illustrate a point, but the point is important. A black person might come along and say, Hold on just a frackin minute! Look at what this story is saying! This is a blatantly racist message! Everything the show is saying is about how these dark-skinned “savages” don’t deserve the same amount of consideration as the “humans”, about how they need to be subjugated! This is abhorrent! But a white person might come along and simply say, I don’t see those thematics. At all. Maybe it’s because I’m white, so it doesn’t matter to me, but I just don’t see the parallel you’re drawing. It’s just a story, man. You can enjoy the show on a literal level. And if it’s thematics you want, there’s lots of stuff about how hard it is to survive on an alien planet in the face of terrible threats from savage critters.

A lot of people, it seems, can do exactly that. Personally, I can’t. I just can’t do that with any TV series, Hollywood movie or novel that has that sort of thematics. And I’m horrified by the idea that people can be blithely indifferent to those sort of thematics simply because they’re not in a specific racial group, say, for whom those sort of thematics are particularly important. The idea that, not being black or Jewish or whatever, they just wouldn’t care one way or the other about… yanno, all that racism and Holocaust stuff. That they could maybe see how someone who was black or Jewish would react differently, but that wouldn’t bother them. That they could dismiss those concerns on the basis that an interpretation like that “says more about us than it says about the world”. As I say, I’m not clear on what exactly you’re trying to say there, and I don’t want to put words into your mouth, but that sends a shiver down my spine, man. There’s a part of me that reads this as saying something truly chilling:

I am neither Jewish or American (or Jewish American) so I don't care one way or the other about the Holocaust or 9/11. I don’t see anything wrong with that; these things are simply not that relevant to me personally. Because of this I’m not looking for connections to them in fiction. Again, I don’t see anything wrong with that. These things don’t matter to me, so the way they’re treated in fiction doesn’t either. Maybe that’s why I didn't see any connection with the Holocaust or 9/11 in this particular example. That you do says more about you than it does about the work itself.

I really hope that’s not what you mean. Surely not? That you care only about that which happens to you and yours, and do not extend empathy beyond your race/nation? That you’re oblivious to the way fiction might transmit ideas about such things as the Holocaust or 9/11 because the Holocaust and 9/11 don’t matter to you? That when someone else picks up on such things you think it’s less likely that they’re identifying a real feature of the work, more likely that they’re projecting into it?

I can parse this into something that doesn’t strike me as… frankly… inhuman in the sense that someone who’s not in a particular group might be less sensitive to issues that are particularly relevant to that group, read it as you simply and honestly laying your cards on the table, saying, hmmm; I didn’t get that but maybe that’s just because I’m not in this or that group who’d be more likely to pick up on that. That is fair enough. Where it worries me is maybe just a choice of words that might imply that you’re dismissing another’s reading as irrelevant to your enjoyment by using this “sensitivity” argument to invalidate it.

I’ll confess; I’m not Jewish and I’m not American, but I am gay, so maybe the holocaust means more to me as a gay guy, as someone who would have been wearing a pink triangle and dying in a concentration camp. I’m quite sure that I’m more likely to pick up on, say, the sidelining of Gaeta’s sexuality not just because I’m a writer but also because I’m gay. But what I read into BSG is not simply a projection born of personal interests. All those features that lead you to seeing a theme of “two different mindsets, two different species, that deserve the same amount of consideration”? All those little significant aspects of the show that lead you to the idea that “[i]t is not our culture or even our speciation that makes us human, it's the diversity of individuals”? Man, I’m primed to pick up on those sort of significances and how they build into larger thematics not by the fact that I’m gay but by the fact that I’m a writer. Naturally I’m going to see meanings that others might not pick up on. Imagining that this is just me reading stuff into it… heh, that’s like telling a musician that they’re “reading too much into it” when they start talking about the E minor key that’s being used to make a song sound sad.

What bothers me about the show so much is exactly the ways in which it screws up its handling of the themes you identify. It’s like that hypothetical TV series about humans-versus-Keffirs set out with a Cunning Plan. What they were going to do, they figured, was show the Keffirs as seeming primitive by making them more “ape-like” — with flatter, broader noses. They’d present them as apparently less intelligent and less technologically advanced, living in primitive huts, carrying spears, have them attacking human settlements and so on. But then they’d slowly turn it around, they thought. Slowly they’d reveal that the humans weren’t so heroic at all, that the beings they called “fuzzy-wuzzies” really “deserve the same amount of consideration”.

Only they screwed up. Instead of showing how the Keffir attacks weren’t unprovoked, they continued to gloss over the ways the humans were subjugating them. Instead of showing how the humans were exploiting their world, they just never really dealt with it, left in the Diamontium mines but had them run by Keffirs, presenting the human settlers as quite peaceful co-inhabitants who hadn’t really done anything to deserve the attacks. Instead of gradually revealing the human qualities of the Keffirs they gave them all sorts of other features that confused the picture, like a weird sort of hive mind and immortality, made them distinctly inhuman… downright inhumane, in fact. They made the Keffir attacks on human settlements cold, calculated genocide born of this utter Otherness. They made the Keffirs so brutally murderous at the start that they’re straight out of the most racist Victorian’s nightmare. They had them invent a disguise by which they could pass as human in order to further their evil aims as an Enemy Within. They made their two key human figures speak in a British and a Boer accent, made one a political leader, the other a military general, focused the whole show on their struggle to keep the settlers alive in the face of barbarous natives who wanted to eat their women and rape their babies. They heroised these hardliners, and had the liberal media, trade unions and democratic beaurucracy causing them problems. Every time it came to a conflict the necessity of getting access to the Diamontium mines was a trump card that overruled all opposition. They worked in storylines that referenced Nelson Mandela and the ANC, but turned their key “political prisoner” character into a devious villain. They had the Keffirs overcome the humans, put them into concentration camps like the Brit did to the Boers. They presented humans as victims of apartheid, stuck in townships, humans breaking free only to join with one tribe of Keffirs. They had the human leaders insisting that this was the only way to get access to the Diamontium mines and the Keffirs weren’t so bad.

In short, they incorporated all manner of features that focused the thematics on colonialism in Africa, but they did so in a way that just sort of falls apart if you look at it too closely, into some fever-dream cut-up and fold-in of ZULU and CRY FREEDOM set on an alien planet.

You could gloss over the colonialism-in-Africa themes. You could fail to see them and, in fact, reject any reading which attempts to point them out. It’s just a story of space-settlers, you might say. But calling the aliens “Keffirs”, I might say, which is pretty much the Afrikaans pronunciation of “Kaffir”, that’s kind of an unsubtle pointer, you know, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg; the whole thing is so clearly relating to real-world history that denying it is just obtuse. The writers themselves might say, sure, but we didn’t intend for it to be taken as allegory, as metaphor. Yes, we took a little inspiration from this part of African history, a little from that, but you’re not meant to map things so directly. The writers of BSG have pretty much said this, as I understand it, that they’re riffing off real-world events even if they’re not going for some crude 9/11 metaphor. So. Take it as a story in its own right, our Planet of the Keffirs writers might say. But it’s meant to hold together as a plausible story, I’d say, right? And you want what it’s saying to be relevant in some general way, yes? We’re meant to be able to see it as commentary on how things are in some general way, even if it’s not about how things were in Africa over the last few hundred years. Well…

Given that your big theme is that we need to recognise that those who are different are deserving of the same consideration, don’t you realise it’s a teensy weensy itty bitty of a bad idea to riff off African history in a way that — if one were to draw the parallells — puts your Keffirs in the position of black natives precisely as they were seen by their European colonialist subjugators, as subhuman brutes? Don’t you realise that if you have something equivalent to the Mau-Mau Uprising in the pilot episode and present your humans as victims, you might want to go into the sort of subjugation that leads to that sort of uprising? Don’t you realise that if you don’t then you’re not actually redefining them as anything other than barbarous savages? Don’t you realise that having the Keffirs sneak into people’s homes to slaughter them in the dead of night, eat their women, rape their babies and shrink the menfolk’s heads with BLACK MAGIC WITCH DOCTORING is kind of… not helping? Don’t you realise that a basic set up with a tiny handful of human survivors holed up in a fort with Michael Caine shouting out at the massed hordes of bloodthirsty savages, “Don’t you throw those bloody spears at me!” pretty much paints your Keffirs as… well… massed hordes of bloodthirsty savages? Don’t you realise that having the journalist character as a Keffir-in-disguise, the rabble-rousing union leader as a corrupt criminal, and the effete genius as a traitor is kind of pandering to the sort of reactionary mindset you’re supposedly challenging, especially given that these are exactly the sort of troublemakers one might expect to be more inclined to sympathise with the victims of prejudice? Don’t you realise that setting these characters against your military and political leaders who are (heroically) willing to go to any means necessary in order to ensure access to the Diamontium mines is kind of a perversion of the history you’re riffing off of?

Oh, I know it’s not a direct allegory, but don’t you realise that as a general picture of the way these sort of ideologies and imperatives interact it’s just a little… fucked-up?

I mean, don’t you realise that the way those military and political leaders ride rough-shod over all dissent — which is always portrayed as wrong — sort of runs counter to your key message? Don’t you realise that having the humans as victims of an apartheid-style system is a cute reversal but one which just makes your Keffirs even less sympathetic? Don’t you realise that having a couple of Keffirs suffering at the hands of humans, a couple of them deciding to join with them, and a bunch of human characters revealed as secretly being Keffirs all along isn’t going to be enough for the thousands of human non-characters who have no contact with these Keffirs to decide that the Keffirs are anything other than barbarous savages? Don’t you realise that having one of your heroic authoritarian leaders simply “overcome his prejudice” (after getting a spear in the chest from one Keffir-in-disguise but having another earn his trust) and declare that an alliance with rogue Keffirs is necessary is just implausible? That is bears about the same relation to “how prejudice is overcome” as if… as if…

Jesus, by now it’s like you had P.W. Botha as the hard-nosed leader of a South Africa reduced to Rorke’s Drift by an ANC led by Robert Mugabe; like you presented Mugabe’s ANC as bent on eradicating all white people from the continent; like you had every single member of that ANC involved in a Great Purge that almost succeeded; like you had Botha growing up in a culture that reviles blacks, fears and loathes them; like you had every vile prejudice that had been conditioned into him validated by the most horrific act of genocide; like you had him surviving an assassination attempt by someone he trusted implicitly who turned out to be an ANC infiltrator; like you had the poor white folks escape and set up a safe haven only for the ANC to arrive and turn it into an inverse Soweto; like you Botha riding in to save the day as the hard-nosed hero he is; like you had a renegade Steve Biko just sorta “earn his trust” by saving his life a couple of times and being a generally nice guy; like you had Botha’s right-hand man turn out to be a brainwashed Nelson Mandela; like you had this P.W. Botha then declare to the straggling survivors of all this horror that a splinter group of the ANC should be made citizens in a New South Africa, partly because they’re people just like us but mainly because they have better guns; like the only characters you had protesting this were a corrupt demagogue and a gay, crippled Asian who you have leading a brutal and stupid coup designed to show just how wrong they are.

But it’s not a metaphor for South Africa, I hear you say. It’s not meant to be an allegory of colonialist and post-colonialist race relations, this story of humans and Keffirs. Can’t you just read it on the literal level?

That’s not the point. The point is it’s just retarded. It’s trying to say that, um, those Keffirs aren’t really evil, you know, like, and it’s like really mean and wrong to hate on them and stuff, like, cause they’re people like us, you know, and they have feelings too, ‘mkay? The point is that if you want to explore a theme of diversity, of different mindsets, different species or races or groups of people in whatever shape or form, and how they all need to be afforded the same consideration, the same empathy, there are things that really impact the effectiveness of that theme. Like how the story you’re telling actually relates to the actual type of events you’re basing it on. How it maps to specific historical events when you’re blatantly referencing them. How it relates to those sorts of events in general, just in terms of plausibility. What sort of problems you present arising from diversity, from the conflict of mindsets, the lack of consideration, the lack of empathy. How different sorts of mindsets react to those problems, how they come into conflict or work together. How those problems can be resolved and what sort of mindsets are required to achieve that. What sort of acts you present as heroism and what sort of acts you present as villainy in that context.

You could try to get that theme over in a show where every week Captain Overman goes up against an International Tsionist Conspiracy bent on destroying everyone with blond hair, foils their evil deeds heroically, and gives a little speech to his Von Trapp style family of blond-haired children whose “diversity” is reflected in their varying heights, speaking sternly and seriously about how people with blond hair are people too. Most people would not, I hope, be so blind to the actual message of that show as to just shrug off the anti-Semitism. But some probably would. They’d be happy to enjoy it on a literal level. Make each show dramatic enough and do it a little more subtly than that and a lot more people might not see how that show runs contrary to its own supposed theme in so many ways. Maybe you start with an Islahamist Robot Menace destroying nine-tenths of the world’s population. Maybe you have General Overman as a cigar-chomping American patriot saving what’s left, together with a newly-elected President Faith N. Adversity. Maybe you have an intellectual traitor who helped cause the great genocide that starts the show. Maybe you have him played by a Jewish actor with a British accent, just so we know he’s that type, you know — that decadent, effete, Eurotrashy, smart-alec sophisticate, as opposed to a good, honest, true-blooded, square-jawed American. Maybe you have your heroes battling all those pesky elected officials with their pesky democratic process. Maybe you have them going up against some darned pinko bolshevist who deserves to be in jail. And so on. And so on. And so on and on and on and fracking on. Maybe every so often you chuck in one of those speeches about diversity. Maybe you introduce a few Islahamist Robots that learn to behave like real people. But maybe that just doesn’t fracking cut it for some viewers who see all the other stuff going on in there. Who think that counter-message is pervasive enough and dubious to rant about it at length even though a whole lot of other viewers just don’t see it. Or perhaps because a whole lot of other viewers just don’t see it.

But, anyway, yeah, maybe towards the end you do start to crowbar your big story arc to a point where some of those Islahamist Robots, we’re supposed to realise, are revealed to be not so bad after all, and Captain Overman ends up giving a little speech to his Von Trapp style family of blond-haired children about how the Islahamist Robots are people too and they all have to live together in peace now. And then executes those who take a dissenting stand.

That’s the point where all the large scale features and small scale features that some other viewers might not see kind of come together for me into one big Epic Fail.

5:32 am  
Blogger Therem said...

Hal: Thanks for your in-depth analysis of the 9/11 metaphor (or whatever one wants to call it). I understand much better where you are coming from now.

I still think you are oversimplifying what the show is about by tying it to this metaphor. There are simply too many elements of the show that don't fit the thesis. When there are so many points of divergence, it might be a more economical approach to admit that the thesis is wrong than to take up each item and say that the reason it doesn't fit is because the show's creators aren't brave enough to follow through on their metaphor.

There is no question in my mind that 9/11 strongly affected BSG, but I don't believe that it was ever THE central motif. Nor do I believe that "faith" is the central motif, because the religious elements of the show do not receive the sustained attention that would indicate a particular interest on the part of the creators. (IMO, to extend "faith" to mean faith in social institutions, friendship, etc. is pushing the word so far as to be useless.) Insofar as the show has any unifying focus, I believe it to be what happens to people -- as individuals and societies -- when they are placed under unremitting stress and given all kinds of reasons to act badly. Who reacts how, and what are the implications for themselves and others? Can order be maintained? At what cost? This is a pretty broad agenda, but anything more specific would not fit what I see on screen.

That all being said, the Cylons have always been a major problem for me. Not individual Cylons so much as the depiction of their society over time and the completely contradictory ways they have behaved at different times. Either they want to completely erase humanity from existence or they don't; waffling around somewhere in the middle is just annoying. I think this vagueness is partly due to the incompatibility of the original 1970s material with the more complex approach Moore wanted to take, and partly due to the fact that if the story moved forward logically from the miniseries, the humans would all have been dead long since and the show would be over. I don't think it has anything to do with the creators trying to write stand-ins for Al Qaida or the Nazis and doing a bad job of it (except in very time-limited references here and there). It's a bad job, but for other reasons.

As for the world building in the show defaulting to a United States template... I totally agree, but it seems kind of silly to criticise BSG on these grounds given that all television shows are strongly influenced by the background of the creators and where and when the show was produced. What show would you say DOESN'T suffer from this problem? In the case of BSG, at least the setting has more realistic complexity than something like Star Trek, which made attempts to explore alternate social structures and oversimplified nearly all of them to the point of rendering them useless even as thought experiments, let alone something approaching art.

6:47 am  
OpenID etrangere said...

A couple of days ago; I finally watched those episodes. I was pretty angry at the whole Mutiny arc - in parts simply because I've grown pretty fond of Gaeta, and pretty hateful of Adama - and the way this whole narrative played. Then I got back to the spoilery posts I had saved up to read for that moment like yours - and I really liked it, and the Nussbaum's post you link to. I pointed Wert to it, saying "which makes me realise that for all that I was angry and disgusted with the narrative in those episodes, I was not angry and disgusted enough.", who then linked to you ^_^

"Political" episodes in BSG have always sucked mightily, in various ways, and I always was rolling my eyes to them but disregarded it because, mostly, I was watching BSG for the space battles action, pulp SF mythology, great acting and music, and comedy moments.
I never took the Holocaust metaphor seriously - apart from wincing every time they said 'Holocaust' but that one bit of appropriation is done by everyone and their uncles so what can you do? - because they never treated it seriously. You never ever felt like most of the human population had actually been slaughtered, and that all those cultures had been destroyed.
There have been a couple of times where the metaphorical narrative was too annoying for me and it did make me furious. The first one was the Occupied New Caprica arc, with it's equivalence of Vichy France and the Resistance to the Iraq occupation and insurrection; and the second Dirty Hands, with its horrendously patronizing tone and justification of threatening murder to end a strike.

Of course, I am Jewish. And I'm also French and the granddaughter of a resistant. Perhaps that would make a lot of people disregard my point of view as too biased (wouldn't be the first time).

So.... yeah, thank you for this great post, and the way you're arguing in the comments. That felt very good to me.

Whether we see Gaeta as the crippled character, whose disability is used to show how emotionally broken and wrong he is by the narrative, or the one other queer character (the first one having been a psycho and authoritarian murderer who had her former lover repeatedly raped an tortured for her betrayal) although only off-handedly so, through webisodes; or as the last significant character of colour who is not a Cylon that the show killed; the way the narrative played is offensive.
And that, as well as everything else, I should get angry at this show more often.

Speaking of tortoises and actually good SFF shows on TV, have you been watching the Sarah Connor Chronicles?

3:08 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hi, etrangere. Cheers, and no, I haven't seen the Sarah Connor Chronicles. I wasn't sure about it when it first came out, but I've seen enough positive reports I'll probably have to check it out.

Therem: You do know I can't resist an argument, don't you? :)

There is no question in my mind that 9/11 strongly affected BSG, but I don't believe that it was ever THE central motif.

I’m not really arguing that. Metaphor, analogy, motif -- none of these words quite fit. I’m arguing that the narrative trigger of the story — what sets the ball rolling — is clearly inspired by and relates back to 9/11. It’s a jumping-off point in reality which informs the base situation of the fiction. On top of this, many of the other jumping-points the writers select to feed in narrative impetus — Fundamentalism, Iraq, the War on Terror, suicide bombing, prisoner torture — have real-world relations to that event as causes and effects, part of the Big Picture of what led up to it and what ensued. This means that the narrative products of those jumping-off points inevitably bind together thematically, draw us back to that start-point even if it's not an intentional focus.

[I]t might be a more economical approach to admit that the thesis is wrong than to take up each item and say that the reason it doesn't fit is because the show's creators aren't brave enough to follow through on their metaphor.

See, the problem I’m hating on is not of them failing to follow through on the "metaphor". It’s of them not following through on the logic of their own thematics as born of that start-point. This can be illuminated by showing how the causes and effects as they present them are ludicrous in comparison to the real-world, holding their Big Patchwork up against the Big Picture and showing how shoddily it serves as any sort of commentary on the world, but that’s just a demonstration of irrelevance. The problem is: the root of that irrelevance is not a generalisation and universalisation of the subject matter that divorces it from the real-world sources; rather it’s a pervasive incoherence — not complexity but incoherence —resulting from the writers’ refusal/failure to allow conflicts to play out plausibly and meaningfully. See my response to Jed above for the specifics of how I think they fail here. The sort of “waffling around” you attach to the Cylons (and I agree with you there 100%) I think is endemic to all aspects of the show.

Insofar as the show has any unifying focus, I believe it to be what happens to people -- as individuals and societies -- when they are placed under unremitting stress and given all kinds of reasons to act badly.

That’s not a unifying focus. That’s just how narrative works (c.f. Todorov’s model of conventional narrative again). It’s what narrative deals with — the disruption of the equilibrium of individuals and societies, the stress it places on them and how it gives them all kinds of reasons to (re)act in ways aimed at restoring equilibrium, for good or ill. You’re only quantifying the degree of disruption as “unremitting” and focusing on the negative effects. If you want a unifying focus you need to look at those specifics you mention:

Who reacts how, and what are the implications for themselves and others? Can order be maintained? At what cost? This is a pretty broad agenda, but anything more specific would not fit what I see on screen.

The decisive reaction that sets the narrative trajectory is Adama’s choice to tell the fleet they’re going to find Earth. This is explicitly stated as his strategy for maintaining order, to give them hope to rally around, to offer them something to believe in -- to ask for their trust. Their faith. This seems to set them on a fool’s errand, but very quickly Roslin places her own faith in that apparent pipe-dream, and very quickly it begins to pay-off, with revelations and actual results. Signs that her faith is correct. The cost of this is a concentration of authority in the hands of these two core characters and an increasing dependency on their sheer strength of will, their faith in themselves to hold the fleet together. Settling into their paternalistic/maternalistic roles they come to have increasingly less faith in their charges. Challenges inevitably arise from the backlash as their lack of transparency shades into autocracy. And so on. Faith is the backbone of the narrative, both motivational impetus for and productive action of the characters.

Nor do I believe that "faith" is the central motif, because the religious elements of the show do not receive the sustained attention that would indicate a particular interest on the part of the creators.

The religious elements receive continuous attention throughout. Repeat: From the very start of it, it is made abundantly clear that this is a cardinal element of the story: the Cylons’ faith in their One True God which pulls the narrative trigger in instigating their Jihad; Roslin’s faith in the prophecies of the Scrolls of Pythia which sets a narrative trajectory with her leading humanity to Earth; Adama’s faith in faith itself, in the search for an Earth he thinks pure myth, adopted simply as a way to hold the fleet together; Starbuck’s faith in her own personal destiny; the effect of Six’s faith on Baltar’s giant/tiny ego… To this we can add the salvific import of Hera, the locus of Cylon hopes, a “Golden Child” who is basically a human plot coupon to be won and lost, stolen and hidden, fought and intrigued and bartered over by factions both human and Cylon and whose kidnapping in the latest episode is surely part of the entire end game of the show. We can add also the Final Five who’ve been equally mythologised as objects of religious reverence. And Baltar’s transformation into temple-trashing, ritual-disrupting, messianic cult leader is pretty much the sole focus where the narrative turns in this final season to arguably the third most important human character after Adama and Roslin.

IMO, to extend "faith" to mean faith in social institutions, friendship, etc. is pushing the word so far as to be useless.

Sophistic Monosensicalism! OK, yes, I just made that up; I like the sound of it. What I mean by “monosensicalism” is that you’re narrowing the meaning of the term “faith” to a single sense that overspecifies it. “Religious faith” is not a tautology, not a redundancy. The core definition of “faith” is wide, encompassing all manners of trust, belief, hope, etc.. The meaning of the word is simply not as precise as you’re painting it to be. The reason I say it’s “sophistic” to insist on that one sense is because this is just a semantic tactic of changing the goalposts to exclude, by definition, that which needs to be excluded in order to sustain your argument — that “faith” isn’t getting sufficient attention to be deemed a core theme. All that stuff that’s clearly a focus of attention is simply not “faith”, you’re saying. But I could have just used the word “trust” or “belief”, neither of which are specifically religious, both of which apply to social institutions, friendships, etc.. You’re not actually countering my argument that all of this stuff is the focus of attention, just refusing to recognise all but a small corner of it so you can say it’s too small to count.

So why didn’t I just say the core thematic focus was “trust” or “belief”? Faith is narrower than those in one respect, zeroing in on a particular type of trust or belief that may need to be actively maintained in the absence of evidence and in the face of adverse situations that challenge it, but a particular type which may also function as an emotional and intellectual support system in such situations. A focus on this is in and of itself a pretty broad agenda that I’d argue fits what we see on screen, but it is also specific enough to be more useful than an analytic filter which really just tells us it’s a narrative with the ante upped and a focus on the negative. It is applicable, I think, across all scales from the simplest act to the grand trans-seasonal story-arc of the search for Earth. I won't reiterate my argument here because I think it stands; but I do think you could go through the show episode by episode and trace that thematics of faith.

As for the world building in the show defaulting to a United States template... I totally agree, but it seems kind of silly to criticise BSG on these grounds given that all television shows are strongly influenced by the background of the creators and where and when the show was produced. What show would you say DOESN'T suffer from this problem? In the case of BSG, at least the setting has more realistic complexity than something like Star Trek, which made attempts to explore alternate social structures and oversimplified nearly all of them to the point of rendering them useless even as thought experiments, let alone something approaching art.

Actually, coming straight from the “God, I’m not defending Star Trek, am I?” file… the original series presents its background as Roddenberry’s vision of an interplanetary socialist atheist utopia which has “grown beyond” the need for money and primitive beliefs in deities, more than once even going so far as to offer us worlds enslaved to the whims of powerful beings masquerading as gods. Add to this the first inter-racial kiss on US television, a Russian on the bridge, someone who looks like the Devil as the First Officer and a command structure based on the British navy, and you have something that goes distinctly against the grain of the culture it emerges from. This approach carries through to some extent into The Next Generation, with your Englishman-playing-French Captain Picard, though the pernicious influence of Oprah Winfrey style Self Help culture takes its toll. It’s only when Roddenberry’s finally gone that Brannon and Braga can Americanise the franchise in Deep Space Nine by reintroducing money in the form of gold-pressed latinum [sp?] and religious hogwash in the form of Baseball Ben Sisko, Prophet of the Wormhole. With Voyager and Enterprise the Americanisation of the future is complete, but that still leaves the original series as a good counter-example. As hampered as it is by that utopianism, and as dated as it is today, it still pisses all over BSG in terms of having the balls to present a radically alternative take on the future. First inter-racial kiss on US television in Star Trek at the height of the Civil Rights struggle. Gayness of character relegated to the webisodes of Battlestar Galactica at the height of the Gay Marriage debate. Nuff said.

And if the utopianism of Star Trek hamstrings it for you, there’s always Farscape, the Australian-made series which took its main character, an American astronaut, and dumped him in a completely alien environment with little more Australianisms to it than the accents of the cast, and little more Americanisms to it than his own cute pop-cultural references and occasional Smallville sentimentality. Or there’s Babylon 5 which slides in similar farmboy sentiments through Sheridan, and reduces the Trekian internationalism to the Russian Ivanova and the Martian-but-really-just-American Garibaldi, but which focuses far more attention on worldbuilding alien cultures like the Narn and the Centauri, and making their Ambassadors pivotal to the plot, and which slowly develops its well-built backdrop of a unified Earth oppressing its colonies and sliding into fascism replete with full-fledged thought-police. It’s far less gritty because it’s fairly solidly grounded in the epic idiom of space opera, but it’s actually, I’d argue, far more plausible than BSG and infinitely more relevant, because it achieves the universalism that BSG fails to. It follows through on the logic of thematics and gives us a coherent figuration that grinds BSG into the dust.

6:22 pm  
Blogger Therem said...

You do know I can't resist an argument, don't you? :)

I think it's starting to sink in... :-)

the narrative trigger of the story — what sets the ball rolling — is clearly inspired by and relates back to 9/11.

Once again, I think that is only part of it. The other major inspirations are 1) the original Battlestar Galactica from the 1970s, and 2) Moore and Eick's drive to create a "naturalistic" science fiction show as an alternative to all the technobabbly series with forehead prostheses that had littered the scene for decades.

many of the other jumping-points the writers select to feed in narrative impetus — Fundamentalism, Iraq, the War on Terror, suicide bombing, prisoner torture -- have real-world relations to that event as causes and effects

Those are all there, but they aren't all that is there. We've also had a military coup, a rigged election, a standoff on abortion rights, characters who collaborated with the enemy, and several mutinies -- all of which could be tied to real world events (now or historically) but don't have any obvious connection to 9/11. When the creators have explicitly stated that they want to investigate real world problems in a gritty, realistic way, it is inevitable that stories from the headlines will resonate with what they produce. Whether the stories are "incoherent" when all combined is less important to me than the fact that the issues are being raised at all. I speak wearily as someone who has watched a lot of bad genre TV, most of which is infinitely worse than BSG in terms of its conservative message and dodges controversy like the plague. And by this, I do include Star Trek. But more on that below.

The decisive reaction that sets the narrative trajectory is Adama’s choice to tell the fleet they’re going to find Earth. This is explicitly stated as his strategy for maintaining order, to give them hope to rally around, to offer them something to believe in -- to ask for their trust. Their faith.

I would argue that the even more decisive reaction was to jump away from the colonies instead of trying to defend them. The "rag tag fleet" has been running almost constantly since then, sometimes toward Earth, but sometimes just AWAY. But yes, the search for "home" has been very important to the show for over three seasons now. That's why I think the creators deserve some credit for completely crushing that hope a few episodes back. Not many shows would dare to do that.

As for the theme of faith in general... this may just be an argument about matter of degree. Yes, the Cylon religion is important to their motivation and juxtaposed on many occasions with the Colonials' polytheism. And Roslin's visions, her reading of the Book of Pythia, her association with the priestess, are all important elements of certain plotlines. But this might be one area in which I think less of the show than you do (is it possible?), because I have always found the religious material completely half-baked and somewhat insulting to actual religious people. The most trenchant comments on religion the show has to make are all negative -- it's used by hucksters (Adama, Baltar, even Roslin is implied to be manipulating people rather than operating out of sincere belief in season 1) to fool the more credulous into going along with their plans. I'm an atheist myself, but I'm still rather annoyed by it all.

Re: the original Star Trek... it did break some ground, but I think it's gotten more credit than it deserves for being socially progressive. The original "Number One" was a woman, but that didn't fly with executives so her role was cut; Kirk only kissed Uhura because he was forced to; the famous episode about racism, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield", condemns racial hatred but seems to equate Black Power groups with the Ku Klux Klan. There are many other examples of the show not having the guts to really follow through on equality as an operating principle. The whole military structure of the show is the biggest roadblock to this. People who don't believe in social hierarchies need not apply to this utopia. As for it being "distinctly against the grain of the culture it emerges from"... uh, not really. It was, after all, pitched by Roddenberry as "Wagon Train in Space".

I have a lot more love for Farscape. It genuinely stretches some boundaries and the best episodes have an inspired, jazzy feeling to them. But in terms of realism or world-building, it's completely out to lunch. Can you say "commerce planet"? As for Babylon 5, I don't remember it that well any more, so I probably shouldn't get into it. I will, however, say that I remember it taking the Star Trek approach to cultural diversity -- i.e. entire species that all have the same culture that all seem to be vaguely based on stereotyped Earth cultures. This is not progress, and is one of the reasons I was glad both Firefly and BSG dispensed with "aliens" as a plot element.

11:26 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

We've also had a military coup, a rigged election, a standoff on abortion rights, characters who collaborated with the enemy, and several mutinies…

Which to me speaks of the mandate offered Bush (& Blair here) to clamp down on civil liberties as part of the War on Terror, Homeland Security and constant Orange Alerts, the turning to absolutist “moral values” as certainties in troubled times (c.f. the highly effective derision of Kerry’s ability to weigh up options and change his mind as “flip-flopping”), the conservative fear of the Enemy Within, the liberal fear of voter fraud, Neo-Con / PNAC militarism and machiavellian manipulation and all number of things which do relate causally in a ripples-in-the-zeitgeist way.

Whether the stories are "incoherent" when all combined is less important to me than the fact that the issues are being raised at all.

I can see where you’re coming from here, totally. That was one of the things that drew me to the series. My reaction against the show is probably exacerbated by my frustration that — as I see it — they’ve ended up raising these issues only to bodge them in a way that largely validates the existing opinion of whoever is watching. If anything I think the show caves into an unconsciously reactionary mindset.

I think the creators deserve some credit for completely crushing that hope a few episodes back.

Again, it’s extent to which the caving in the mutiny story arc squanders that credit by revalidating Adama and Roslin that leaves me banging my head against the desk. They managed to turn all the kudos I would have given them into frustration. And double it. Still, as I’ve said, I’m not ruling out some wildly unexpected ending that doesn’t leave the heroes as valiant rather than vainglorious.

[The faith theme:] might be one area in which I think less of the show than you do (is it possible?), because I have always found the religious material completely half-baked and somewhat insulting to actual religious people. The most trenchant comments on religion the show has to make are all negative -- it's used by hucksters (Adama, Baltar, even Roslin is implied to be manipulating people rather than operating out of sincere belief in season 1) to fool the more credulous into going along with their plans.

Again I think they play it both ways here, with all the “yes, but”s that justify Adama’s manipulation as necessary, the signs that validate Roslin’s visions (Earth might be wasteland but the mystic mumbo jumbo led them there), the opaque pointers to actual forces at work, predestination and eternal recurrence. Baltar’s beed a huge case in point in recent weeks. As with Zarek I reckon they’re just refusing to commit to him being a huckster so they can keep him as a trump card. Ultimately though I may hate it for a different reason but I think “half-baked” is a perfect description for it.

As for Trek’s flaws? I’m no huge fan of Roddenberry and, sure, you’ve got network executives and white writers “dealing with racism” as white writers often do (ineptly), but that episode is still a better treatment of the “cycle of violence” theme than BSG’s blundering “Cylons are people too” nonsense — and that’s saying something. Really, I think you do him a disservice by playing down the significance of simply having a character like Uhuru (c.f. the story about Nichols being persuaded to stay in the role by Mrtin Luther King). His approach stands in stark contrast to Berman’s (alleged) thwarting of the introduction of a gay character in both Voyager and Enterprise decades later. Man, it still stands in stark contrast to BSG’s treatment of Gaeta.

Still, I prefer B5 to Star Trek. It pushes the Star Trek monocultural aliens trope a good bit further, fucking around with the initial preconceptions it sets up as regards Narn and Centauri in particular. Most importantly, characters like Londo and G’Kar are fully rounded individuals, most definitely not racially determined (or racially determined but assimilated and “humanised” into “nice” Klingons like Lieutenant Woof). You get a hell of a lot more flavours of Centauri than you do of Ferengi. It could have gone a way further but it was, I think, a big step on from Trek. Still, I prefer Farscape to B5, cause, yeah, it pushes all sort of boundaries. Commerce planets? Meh. It may not be Aspbergerproofed but it’s far from lazy and self-absorbed, which is my key problem with the Americans-in-space series that just don’t really even try. Worrying about the long-term sustainability of the system of distribution which provides toilet seats to needy space aliens? Not so much. It’s concerns are elsewhere and so are mine. Frankly I’m with M. John Harrison when it comes the geekcore arguments that demand explication. The stellar system envisaged in Firefly with dozens of terraformable planets in human-sustainable orbits round the same star strikes me as something an astrophysicist might have something to say about, but do I care? Nope. And the blatant Western and Civil War trappings that are sometimes just a bit too… Gone With the Wind? Fuck it, the show still rocked.

But that's kind of sliding off-topic.

3:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had something else entirely prepared to post until I decided to count just how many times you used the word "zeitgeist." Five times.

I enjoy BSG for what it is: a science fiction television series. Your discussion here does it a disservice as you wander off into the wilds of pretentiousness.

3:23 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I had something else prepared to post, Anonymouse, until I decided to count just how many times you used the word "pretentiousness". Once. And the number of valid points you make by doing so? Zero.

I criticise BSG for what it is: a science fiction television series. Your defense of it here does it a greater disservice than I ever could as you wander off into the wilds of philistine anti-intellectualism.

4:00 pm  
Anonymous Eugenia said...

I don't know if anyone is still reading this as it seems blog/journal entries have a life of about two days, but anyway...

I wouldn't flip a tortoise onto its back. It could be Om.

I'm conflicted as I dislike Moore and Eick's series, however I'm also sick of WASP bashing and being expected to feel bad or guilty about being "privileged" by the system.

For anyone who cares, Moore did state up front that his re-imagining was designed as social commentary on 9/11. They deliberately did it in "modern dress" as to attract non-SF viewers into watching it.

Ironically, the original series (which almost everyone who loves the re-imagined series derides) had decided to minimize the Killer Robots' involvement if they had gotten a second season. Also if one takes the original series as a whole, the Killer Robots anchor one end of a scale with the Beings of Light on the other. Humans are somewhere midway. There is actually quite a bit of subtext and consideration of the issues of "What is a human? What is a sentient being?"

Moore and Eick threw that out when they decided to eliminate aliens, other human cultures, and even diverse cultures within the Rag-Tag Fleet. Having only the Cylons left, they then had to invent screwy plots to "humanize" some Cylons, to have reasons for other Cylons to continue to pursue a pathetic remnant of humans, and to create some goofy Cylon civil war.

In their efforts to have "shades of gray", they ended up creating a muddy mess. Drama requires contrasts and conflicts personified in protagonists and antagonists.

If there is anything in American culture that sank this series, it was the political correctness that makes everyone afraid to designate a character as a hero or a villain.

5:57 pm  
Blogger Charlie said...

Unfortunately, I don't agree with this rant, and regret having wasted any time reading it. To me it sounds like petty jealousy rather than genuine concern for the issues raised in BSG. At best, you offer us a fairly predictable post-9/11 self-rightous exercise in verbal masturbation with some serious self-love going on. At worst, you feel it necessary to rip to shreds something that enjoys the level of success you still aspire to. Or perhaps, more kindly, as a writer you simply find it hard to suspend your disbelief and enjoy a good story anymore.

1:41 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Charlie: "You're just a big, jealous poopyhead who's only saying these poopy things because you're jealous... you poopyhead! Oh, and you're so predictable too!" is not really a substantive defense in way, shape or form. It's an ad hominem. It's also untrue.

Let's see. Joss Wheedon is pretty damn successful. Doesn't make me kick off on Buffy, Angel, Firefly or Dollhouse. Why? Because I think all four were pretty damn good (albeit with some off seasons in Buffy and Angel, some *very* off seasons). Daniel Knauf is nowhere near as successful in some respects -- given the cancellation of Carnivalé -- but still... he got the first two seasons of a TV series made, which is nothing to be sniffed at. And it's a *fucking good* TV series. I don't feel the urge to rip it apart to show the hollowness inside because -- shock, horror -- I don't think it's hollow. I think it's exemplary. Shouldn't I be overcome with jealousy of the creators of those series. Lost is hugely successful, and I defend that from its detractors, while I think Fringe is terrible but compulsive hokum. How can I say that given the huge success of J.J. Abrams? Maybe because I don't give a fuck about relative status, because I care about the fiction.

Or perhaps, more kindly, as a writer you simply find it hard to suspend your disbelief and enjoy a good story anymore.

This is more to the point, but it's a YINSTRILT Fallacy:

I do enjoy a good story. But I see things in BSG that make it not a good story as far as I'm concerned, maybe because I'm a writer and more likely to pick up these things. They're obscured by the low-level narrative dynamics of character relationships and well-crafted action sequences, but they're all too obvious to me. And it's because BSG showed so much promise in its early days... well, those flaws are just squandered potential.

2:40 am  

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