Saturday, May 10, 2008

Diana's Adventures In TV Land: Battlestar Galactica S1

One of the more frustrating aspects of life on the other side of the Atlantic is that I often find myself at a distance from the mainstream discourse. This is a problem when it comes to TV, because I never "discover" a good show until it's been out for ages, at which point there's little need to talk about it. On the other hand, I benefit from the delay as a viewer, because by the time I've caught on, the show usually progresses enough that I can watch entire seasons consecutively, giving me a much clearer overall perspective.

Case in point: "Battlestar Galactica". A few days ago, I finally decided to check out the three-hour miniseries that served as the series pilot, and I've been hooked ever since. Now, it's certainly true that I'd heard people talking about this show in the past... but there's really no way to join a conversation that assumes you already know what's going on, and all the talk about Cylons and such went totally over my head. I'd also been under the mistaken impression that the show was a continuation of the 1978 series, which I had no desire to dig up.

So, bearing in mind that science-fiction isn't a favorite genre of mine, I suppose the first question is "why did I finally decide to check it out?" followed by "Why do I like it?"

Initially, what piqued my curiosity about BSG was an article I'd read about its female characters - specifically, the fact that several prominent men from the original series had been rebooted as women. That struck me as a bold move, especially considering how male-dominated this particular genre can be. Moreover, the women had been positioned as counterparts to the men rather than subordinates, in a way that pushed gender equality to levels I'd rarely seen before: President Roslin stands toe to toe with Commander Adama, Starbuck is a match for Apollo (in more ways than one), and Number Six is an excellent foil for Dr. Baltar. This isn't a minor issue for me: one reason why I lost interest in "Star Trek" and never cared for "Star Wars" was precisely because Kira was too over-the-top, and Troi and Crusher never did anything, and Leia is remembered for the slave bikini and the bagel hairstyle, and the less said about Amidala, the better.

There's also the fact that Jamie Bamber is ridiculously cute. Well, he is. What, I can't have my shallow moments?

So that's more or less why I finally sat down and watched the miniseries (the fact that it was airing at the time helped). By the time it was over, "Battlestar Galactica" had shot right past casual viewing and made me a fan.

Here's the thing: BSG may just be the most realistic science-fiction show I've ever seen. Going back to "Star Wars" and "Star Trek", the other reason I've got no affinity for either franchise is because their respective universes are built in a way that allows massive amounts of contrivance in the service of plot. For "Star Trek", there was always some technobabble crisis that was solved by throwing more technobabble at it. The main conceit for "Star Trek", and this is very apparent with "The Next Generation", is that technology has advanced to such an extent that anything's possible. And if anything's possible, nothing really matters, because there's always going to be some nonsensical equalizer that'll turn up at the last minute to fix everything. (The fact that there are at least fifty ways to time-travel in the "Star Trek" without leaving your room? Not conducive to dramatic situations.) And "Star Wars"? Hell, "Star Wars" acknowledges magic as an actual Force in the universe. The Force lets you see the future, control people's minds, use telekinesis, make impossible shots, and it's pretty much arbitrary in terms of who's born with the power to use it and who isn't.

"Battlestar Galactica" is so much more sophisticated, precisely because there are no easy outs. No time travel, no alternate universes, no gadget or MacGuffin that saves the day. When characters die, they die for real, and it's so much more powerful because humanity has been reduced to a very limited number, and every death has meaning. Thematically, it's got this delightful mix of action and political intrigue and human drama, with a much darker slant than I'd expected and a truly formidable foe in the Cylons. What truly impressed me, insofar as the miniseries was concerned, was how deftly cliches were avoided - when Roslin is forced to abandon the annoying moppet she'd befriended, there's no last-minute save. Killer robots: 1, irritating brats: 0. Actions have real consequences. The refugees face real problems - lack of fuel, water shortages, fear of infiltration, chaos and confusion - and these things can't be overcome through technology or magic but are dealt with the way we would have to deal with them.

The only problem I've had is the increasingly metaphysical aspect the show's been getting into, specifically the whole Kobol/Apollo's Arrow thing at the end of the season. Laura Roslin becoming this messianic figure of mythological proportions is something of a problem for me, because it draws attention away from how down-to-earth she is: one of my favorite Roslin moments is her inauguration, that shot of her surrounded by people yet totally alone, raising a trembling hand in the air. She's not ready for it, she can't handle it, and then she does. It's such a human moment, and that - the human element, the emotional and situational realism - gets undercut whenever myths and prophecies and such are brought up. It's one thing for Number Six to proselytize to Baltar about her God, it's quite another to break up the Roslin/Adama alliance over a "magic arrow".

Still, it's a minor nitpick at this stage, because as prominent as the metaphysical dimension has become, it hasn't overwhelmed the larger storyline yet and I'm dying to know what happens next. And fortunately for me (as a viewer), BSG is currently running its final season - by the time I'm caught up, I'll probably be able to keep watching straight through to the end. So there's a bright side to being left out of the real-time experience after all.