Getting my geek on

So I've been watching the new Battlestar Galactica. (Yes, I am a bit late to the party; nice of you to notice, Captain Obvious. Such is the life of a new parent who, even as a childless guy with a brand-new multi-timezone watch, was late to pretty much everything anyway. So let's just celebrate the fact that I'm here at all and drive on, shall we?)

Oh, and yes, it's the same Battlestar Galactica that Michael gave Dwight grief about on that one episode of The Office where Michael was all desperate to hang with somebody on a Friday night, but stopped just short of being hang-with-Dwight-and-watch-BSG desperate. Don't think I haven't considered the mind-bending meta-implications of fretting over what a fictional character on a TV show would think of my interest in another TV show. I have, and it made my head hurt. But whatever.

Anyway, I read some write-ups about it in The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly, the yin and yang of my middlebrow sensibility, and they signed off on it, both basically saying that it's worthwhile TV, and not just for a sci-fi show. So it's all good. And with the recent and impending demises, respectively, of Arrested Development and The West Wing, turns out there's a little room opening up in the viewing schedule. So I figured, What the hey. And, as luck would have it, the Sci-Fi channel aired a mini-marathon (sponsored by Heinz ketchup--no, not really) of 8 season-two shows a few weeks ago.

About the geekiest thing I ever did, vis-a-vis sci-fi fandom, was skip school and line up early for the premiere of Return of the Jedi, in 1983, with my pal Fredd. What I learned observing the assembled horde, especially the hardcores ahead of me in line--the guys showing off their schematics of the Millennium Falcon and comparing favorite Dr. Who episodes--was that I was a stranger in a strange land. I had a great time at the movie, and remain a fan of the original trilogy, as well as sundry dabblings in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the like. But there's just no way I could keep up with guys like that. I mean, my favorite Trek movie was IV (the one with the whales and the self-deprecating humor; every proper sci-fi geek knows if your fave isn't Wrath of Khan, you're blackballed. "Please turn in your pointy-ear extensions on your way out. And don't let the shh-shh-ing doors pinch you on the ass." I don't know any Klingon words. I've never shown up for anything in costume. I've never been to a "con"; hell, I only learned with a a "con" is about three years ago. Truth is, for better or worse, I have never been much more than a dilettante science-fiction fan.

Which is why this show is right in my wheelhouse.

See, it's only nominally a sci-fi show. It's actually a pretty straight-up political/military drama in very slightly otherworldly garb.

The first thing you notice is how far out of their way the producers go to not fetishize the "futuristic" artifacts and gee-wiz gadgetry. In fact, they go so much in the opposite direction that everything is almost self-consciously anachronistic. Which, if nothing else, means they sidestep the "why are the women in the future wearing mini-skirts and go-go boots?" problem pretty adroitly.

The explanation for this 15-minutes-into-the-future-look, apparently, is covered in the miniseries. Something to do with older technology not being vulnerable to Cylon Machinations v2.1. As someone who's struggled to keep a 35-year-old car on the road since it was a 20-year-old car, for reasons having as much to do with aesthetics as economics, I can totally relate.

This approach turns out to be the key to its success. Because, like the best sci-fi (at least the sci-fi I think is the best--Ray Bradbury's short stories and The Martian Chronicles, and Ridley Scott's Alien), it's a study first and foremost in the vagaries of human nature and how people respond to things. Or, in the case of Alien, how people respond to things bursting through their sternums.

There are no blue-skinned aliens sporting latex forehead appliances or other protruberances. No six-breasted women. No tentacles for a tongue. As far as I know, there are no "aliens" of any kind. I guess all the planets they colonized were just edens, free for the homsteading or terra-forming or whatever. Even the Cylons (the race of arch-enemy robot nemeses) have "evolved" into people who look more human than Pamela Anderson. Which I guess isn't saying much, but still.

There's also a refreshing verisimilitude to the operational aspects--the way the chain of command is set up, how the ship actually works. It feels very current and, consequently, relevant.

On the other hand, it's not without a few minor irks that pull me out of the moment from time to time. One is that the humans/colonials are polytheists. They're all, Godsdammit! and Oh my gods, Becky! And the Cylons are--wait for it--monotheists. I appreciate the intent to pay homage to that great 20th-century philosopher and sage, George Costanza, and do the opposite here, but they didn't really think it through. It just doesn't seem likely that humans would, as they're developing the technology to travel faster than light, revert back to a pagan belief system.

Then there's the frakking. Some of the actors do a decent job selling it; others not so much. Most of the time, it sounds too much like something Yosemite Sam would have said to Bugs Bunny. Any moment now, I expect to hear Starbuck call Apollo a long-eared galoot.

Apparently "frak" is one of the (blessedly) few carryovers from the original series. Another is the casting of Richard Hatch (no, not the naked queer dude from the first Survivor, which was my first thought, too), who played Apollo back in the day. Which is fine. Give the old show a shout-out. But here's the truly mystifying thing: there's actually been grumbling from fans of the original about changes and updates.

The hell? Wasn't the first BSG a baldy opportunistic, quick and dirty attempt to cash in on the Star Wars thing on TV? Did anyone actually take that show seriously as anything more than a informercial for action figures and blow dryers? Maybe I'm conflating all earnest attempts at episodic drama from the time into this one show. Was anything in the late '70s so serious that it couldn't be updated and improved upon? I don't remember much uproar over the Starsky and Hutch movie. I just can't even begin to imagine the kind of person would be such an ardent devotee to bad '70s TV (is that redundant?) that they'd quibble over it being "reimagined." We're not exactly talking Dickens here, folks. These are same people who perpetrated such crimes against humanity as BJ and the Bear and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that they also did The Six Million Dollar Man, one of my all-time favorite TV shows. But I'd also mention that, if someone decided to give it a 21st-century upgrade, I'd be all for it. I sure as hell wouldn't grouse about how they're betraying the spirit of the original by dressing Col. Austin in something a bit less embarrassing than a corduroy leisure suit.)

Not that I should throw stones, anyway. I spent many an hour of company time fanwanking on the TWoP forums. If I learned anything from my days as an occasional denizen of The West Wing boards, it's that some people are just a little too into their "stories"; sci-fi fans aren't the only ones who can get freaky-geeky. People, it's a TV show. A bit of diversionary entertainment, the primary function of which is to lull you into a stupor sufficient to leave you vulnerable to 15 minutes of advertising messages.

That said, BSG seems to be a pretty solid and compelling show with only the occasional spike in the dork meter or lapse into space-operatic melodrama. I'm not sure it rises to the level of The West Wing at its best (seasons 1-4), although it's easily comparable to the current, post-Sorkin iteration of the show. It's actually got a lot of the structural hallmarks that Sorkin used on Sports Night and TWW: flashbacks, flashforwards, crazy-long walking-and-talking Steadi-cam shots; frankly, I wouldn't be surprised to see an epistolary narration thrown in at some point. In any case, it's far superior to all other sci-fi TV programs, past and present (only ST:TNG could rival it; each subsequent Trek got more goofy and less relevant). Battlestar Galactica is every bit as worthwhile and generally more engaging than the legions of process dramas on network and basic cable. And it doesn't demand any more suspension of disbelief than, say, Lost, which I also never miss.

It helps, too, that they've cast the show with actual actors. In much the same way Patrick Stewart was enlisted to bring some of thespian cred to the bridge of the Enterprise, Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnel and James Callis get BSG on the radar (or dradis?) of people who would otherwise write the show off. The rest of the acting is a bit uneven, but not distracting. The writing is, from what I've seen, inventive, and not content to be merely good enough for sci-fi.

If nothing else, the producers of the new show have given the concept behind the original a level of legitimacy it never had or--frankly--deserved. If you don't agree with me, you can go frak yourself, you raza-frakkin' flea-bitten varmit.


fish said...

Being constitutionally incapable of paying for cable (something just burns me about actually paying to give advertisers more access to me) I have only seen the new BSG once and was reasonably impressed. I typically find that the TV shows that I really dig, uniformly get cancelled within 3-4 years, often in the first season. Firefly being cancelled was one of the greatest tragedies for me, as what could be better than noble pirate/cowboys in the 23rd century? BSG seems to have enough support to carry it for a little while, perhaps long enough (particularly with a plug from a bona fide film lover like Mr. Middlebrow) that it will probably make my Netflix list (right after I watch all the Firefly episodes again).

Mr. Middlebrow said...

Hey fish:
On behalf of newly minted BSG fans everywhere, let me thank you for not watching and, y'know, jinxing it. ;^)

And re: Firefly, I feel your pain. Arrested Development, anyone?

I agree that this show seems to have the momentum it needs to go the distance. By reinventing the premise the way they did, the producers have managed to attract people who would never characterize themselves as more than closeted sci-fi fans. (Something that would never have happened if they'd stuck too closely to the schlock of the original.) In the process, they've also recognized that even the genre's hardcore base is getting more appreciative of material that's well-crafted entertainment first and good sci-fi second. Then, of course, they pepper the cast with robot hotties, just to hedge their bets.

Danny said...

I think that BSG has been able to attract a more mainstream audience than Firefly ever did. Firefly, of course, had the ultimate geek-chic cred in Joss Whedon, but that wasn't enough to save the show in the end. The show might have had a chance, but Fox smothered it.

I'm really surprised that BSG is so successful, it being a Sci-Fi network show and all. They're having success with it similar to what FX experienced with The Shield and Nip/Tuck. Basic cable success is a rare feat. Comedy Central does it regularly, but others have struggled. I note that you can now download BSG on iTunes, placing it in a select group of shows getting that type of exposure.

In general, I'm all for turning pulp into something better. The Godfather is the model example in that regard. I also think that Steven Soderbergh did good in remaking Ocean's 11 (and spawning O's 12, even though Roger doesn't agree with me). The original was, by all accounts, a bad, campy movie. Sometimes the source material is right and just needs a different tone to really take off.

All that being said, the show is a bit dry for my tastes. Never been a big Star Trek fan, so I don't think adding more warping or phasering would necessarily help. Maybe serialized space television just isn't for me. I do like all the muting/semi-muting they do in the combat scenes. That's clever.

Mr. Middlebrow said...

Yeah, if memory serves, BSG is the first--and so far the only--thing I've ever tuned into the Sci-Fi channel for. Which is emblematic of the show's appeal to non Sci-Fi viewers. I think being on Sci-Fi, as opposed to Fox or FX or TBS, actually lets the show be less overtly genre-driven. I know most shows are conceived and developed first, then shopped around to networks after, but I have to wonder if it might be a different show, and a lesser success, if weren't on SF.

FWIW, one of the things I like about the show is the lack of warping and lasering. Other than 12 flavors of more-human-than-human* cyborgs and light-speed propulsion--which is depicted in a rather (deliberately) un-exciting way--everything's pretty much a slight refinement of today's technology; in a fight, they're still bustin' caps at the bad guys.

To me, it's more like an update on a WW II epic like Midway than a reiteration of the usual sci-fi situation.

*My little riff on the latest ep's recurrent use of "skin-jobs," from Blade Runner. Nice touch, that.

Danny said...

Roger, what's your take on the Star Trek films? I would guess that you probably like II: Wrath of Khan the best. There are, of course, many reasons to like Wrath of Khan the best, but one of the things I always really liked about it was that it seems very relatable from a technology standpoint. It's all very nautical, as if the Enterprise is engaged in submarine combat.

Mr. Middlebrow said...

Yeah, Khan definitely has some genuinely gripping battle scenes. As I mentioned in the post (don't worry, it was easy to miss in the prolix haystack) I acknowledge that it is widely considered the best of the original-recipe canon, particularly among Trek cognoscenti.

Me, though, I like IV: The Voyage Home best. It's just so tongue-in-cheeck and pleasantly meta; the actors seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves--not to an O's 12 degree, mind you;^) --it's clear they're old-jeans comfortable in their roles. And it's all done with just enough earnestness to sell the cautionary (whale) tale.

Funny thing is, while it's the better TV show, the Next Generation movies tend not to play as well on the big screen.

If you like that sea and sub warfare approach, you might give BSG another chance. A few eps I've seen recently, "The Captain's Hand" and "The Resurrection Ship" do a nice job and feel very current and rooted in modern-day tactics and terminology.

Mister Underhill said...

First off I would say that the miniseries intro and the first season are actually much, much better than the second season.

The problem in season 2 is a lot of characters who really aren't that good of actors get an inordinant amount of time on the air. That 'bebe' chick and the engineer cum commander who lasts one episode on the pegasus come to mind as the worst offenders.

It is sort of sad, because I actually have several times come home from bars and such to catch the 10pm showing of BSG and everyone thinks I am a retahd.

I think it is not the best idea to try and compare shows across completely different genres. West wing puts me to sleep in a heartbeat, for example. The only show I can think of that has brought me this much excitement is futurama, but that was a totally different kind of show.

Also, the original star trek obviously doesn't have the production values of BSG (I can't think of any show made that does) but as far as scifi goes it is superior and raises real questions with nearly every episode - unlike ST:TNG which is written by corporate shills and fan material, and which is a terrible show. It had several unbelievably bad seasons which never make it to reruns,a nd some of the most insipid, idiotic characters of all time such as counselor troy, tasha yar, alexander, and wesley crusher. It still had some good episodes and patrick stewart is great, but the terrible ones usually don't make it into reruns so people have forgotten them.

The original BSG was a good show, really. In some ways it was a better show and raised many more scifi and social issues, but it also descended into pure drama in quite a few episodes. This one is better, though. It is not as 'hardcore scifi' in the sense it does not bring up some scifi issue every episode, but it is better done tan pretty much any show I can remember seeing....

Mr. Seed said...

Man, You're a wordy F*#%

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