Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Watch: Battlestar Galactica

Few TV shows stand out, and make a lasting impression upon one's mind. Few shows make you think, days afterward, about life, meaning, religion, its followers, leadership, the things that leaders must do to convince their followers that the path that they are on is indeed the right path. Few shows have dared to be arty, weird, funny, sad, subtle, symbolic, romantic, passionate, and tragic.

Battlestar Galactica (BSG for short), the new one, is one of those shows. It is one of the best TV shows I have ever seen. It is certainly the best American (though it was partnered with British network Sky for its first season) show I have ever seen. The best TV show I've ever seen, though it was actually an OVA, is Legend of the Galactic Heroes (LoGH). The best broadcast network TV show I've seen is Lost. Special mention goes to Doctor Who, for pure inventiveness, but its stories are inherently non-linear as the years go by, so I cannot say that there is a coherent episode-to-episode story like BSG, LoGH, or Lost. There you have the categories.

BSG started out as a miniseries on the Sci-Fi channel, and is now in its fourth season of regular programming. Summarizing this show is difficult, and can take a while. I will focus on just the parts that stick out in my own mind.

Gaius Baltar's vision of the Opera House, and other visions of music and architecture. The music stands out, and what cemented in my own mind that this show was becoming a work of art. The scene is not pretentious, as it is consistent with Baltar's previous visions of Number 6, and the Opera House will figure prominently in later episodes. But, listen to the music! Count the layers of sound! The architecture stands out, because how often do interior layouts, design, and lighting get such high billing and focus? I'm not sure what the Opera House is supposed to mean, other than as a setting for drama, or a cultural bond that humans and cylons share.

The human culture. The humans mostly worship a pantheon of gods. In fact, their culture reminds me of what the Roman Empire might have been like if it had not fallen. Imagine Rome being the center of the world, politically and financially, with computers, space travel, and a (somewhat) democratic process. BSG is not entirely into world-building, which has its pluses and minuses.

On the plus side, Caprica and the other colonies were destroyed, so in the context of the story, they are the past. The show is about the trying to live after the attack, not about life before the attack. Supposedly, a new show, called Caprica, will depict life as it was. That new show would be almost entirely world-building, though if it depicts life decades before the cylons blew everything up, the show could be filmed in present-day Vancouver and no one would justifiably holler "where's the sci-fi city!" Also, world-building often strikes me as poorly-done, since sci-fi tends to have a poor track record in getting future predictions right.

On the down side, enough colonial culture exists in BSG, differing from US culture, that it leaves questions, such as:

Why do most, if not all, documents and photographs have their corners filleted, to form octagon-like shapes?

Why do men and women live in such an explicitly gender-neutral culture (men and women share public bathrooms, and refer to each other as "sir")? How was this achieved?

Given that advanced AI exists, and has existed, and space travel is far advanced, why do human lifespans seem so normal? It's OK that they don't, just...why? I know that advanced space travel and artificial intelligence does not guarantee a greatly reduced incidence of heart disease, but someone should bring it up. At least complain about it.

And, so on. I understand that there has to be some differences, otherwise the show would be Americans in Space on the Run from Monotheistic Robots. But, what differences that do exist, an explanation or reason would be nice.

Another thing (aside from the music/architecture/visions, and their culture), is the high quality of the acting. I don't know if acting is like fashion: it has its cycles and moments, or is something that can be said to evolve, similar to advertising. Advertisers try to convince you to buy something, don't actors try to convince you to believe what they're saying? Maybe the whole subject is, well, subjective. I can't remember a time when the characters acted contrary to previously established behaviors (looking at you, Lost) , but otherwise don't devolve into stereotypes or have over-simplified personalities.

Special attention should go to Katee Sackhoff, who plays Starbuck, and is the first actor I've seen to effectively communicate doubt and dread while barely flinching a facial muscle. She is the most complex person on the show, even more so than Baltar. She loves two men, marries one, is sent out on the most dangerous, strategically ambiguous missions, and maybe even "dies" and returns from the "dead" with photos of Earth and a brand new spaceship. She drinks, smokes, plays cards, had a stash of drugs back on Caprica, is fiercely loyal to Odama, and is currently convinced she must find Earth. All that, and the Cylon Hybrid takes a break from its non-stop babble to grab Starbuck's arm and tell her that she, Starbuck, is the "harbinger of death".


I won't go into an episode-by-episode re-hash of the show. You can visit Ack-Attack's website for that. I just think that any creative endeavor, even video games and TV, can become a work of art, though of two different kinds.

Just as a painting or sculpture tries to evoke an emotion, however abstract, video entertainment can achieve a similar effect. The problem is that these are new forms of media, and don't have centuries of background like other conventional art forms. How long before photography became an art form? Movies? Few paintings have the status of the The Last Supper or Starry Knight, or sculpture like that of Venus de Milo or David. They reflect the idealization, honoring one's cultural background, or that which exists naturally. They stand as wonderful representations of the era in which it was produced.

Can video games transcend technology? Can the romance of 8-bit go beyond nostalgia of the 1980s? Is Myst the first attempt at such transcendence? How about A Mind Forever Voyaging, an attempt at literary video gaming? Can TV be art? 2001: A Space Odyssey manages to be both art and sci-fi. Same for Metropolis. Why not TV? Not an adaptation of previous literary work, but a project conceived explicitly for 22- or 45- minute long viewing segments. Something that will stand as being symbolic of its era.

I saw an episode of The X-Files a few months ago, more than a decade after that particular episode aired, and several years since the show ended. At that moment, I realized how much TV (well, the kind of TV I watch) has progressed, or at least changed. The technology, exhibited on-show as well as used in the production of the show, had changed. Camera positioning and movement styles had changed. The fashion, cars, and particular political outlook (post-Cold War, pre-War on Terror) was so...'90s. All that was missing was music from the Stone Temple Pilots, and a kid playing the first generation Sony Playstation. But those are mostly details, like synthesizer music in the 1980s and afros in the 1970s.

Is Battlestar Galactica the first show to be TV as art?


Matt Whyndham said...

If you think of BSG as carrying the traditions of Greek tragedy, stage plays or opera then you'll have less of a hard time about the details.

The cut off corners etc are signs of a culture that we, as viewers, are not expected to decode.

The story is the important thing, and what a story. Again, like the Greek plays, it refers to us in a much more powerful way than a strictly realist form could do.

Christopher Loyd said...

Thanks for your comments.

The show is definitely more intuitive than down-to-earth. Evoking Greek tragedy or stage plays only ads to the notion that this TV show is one of the very few that becomes art.

I cannot agree more: what a story! The creators, writers, and actors have transcended science fiction!