Wednesday, December 06, 2006

By Your Command...

Ms. Z's responses to the "Battlestar Galactica, I don't get it" post below, where she registers her loathing of the new series being a presumably ardent fan of the old, kind of left me inspired to share my thoughts on the matter in a manner more suited to a post rather than a comment.

While Z claims to be such a fan of the old series that she can't process the new one, I don't find myself in such a quandary, for some reason.

Here are my best guesses as to why...

First, let me just say that I am a fan of both. In my opinion, both series are meritous in the annals of sci-fi. Most of the complaints that I've heard regarding it tend to mirror the one I've mentioned, that the old and new series aren't spun the same way and that people who have come to love the old series, campy warts and hackneyed plots and all, will find themselves disappointed in the plot and betrayed by the characters.

Let's put aside the basic story line for another day, in which both series exhibit similitude at the outset but have diverged greatly since (and thus the most obvious difference), and discuss what I feel to be the greater stumbling block towards liking the new series: the characters.

The first "betrayal" that one will note is obvious from the very first episode: pilots Boomer and Starbuck are played by women.

Well, I suppose back in the late 70's you could get away with male dominance in the fighter ranks, but I doubt that this would fly now (please ignore this pun... please). The original series even took on this idea to laughable end when the entire pilot corps got sick and they needed to train fighter pilots out of the (entirely female) shuttle pilot corps. I was left with a feeling that the writers made a concerted effort to say, "Hey, she just banked left when she should have banked right! Oooh! Women are so cute when they try to fly Vipers." while watching that episode. Bleah.

The second "betrayal" that one will note it that, quite unlike the original characters, which were archetypically heroic and well principled, these new characters are flawed.

Perhaps, again, in the late 70's, coming off the heels of Star Wars and Star Trek, we became accustomed to the heroic swashbuckler archetype, but such an over-the-top caricature would be ill-received now.

So +10 to the new for not being limited in characterization by the older medium either in manner or gender.

Now several dings:

While I appreciate the lack of limits, the failure to create the "cohesive trio" with Apollo as the hyperprincipled leader, Starbuck as #1 sidekick and ladies man, and Boomer as the straight man to Starbuck's comic relief damages the interplay which was probably the original series most laudable asset. By diverging too much from that recipe, you lose something important.

Apollo, still the leader, isn't particularly idealistic, has issues with his father, and has a love-hate-love relationship with Starbuck. While this allows for some interesting interplay between the two characters, you're left with the idea that the Galactica pilots don't have a center they look to for direction.

Starbuck is a complete mess from a standpoint of characterization. Easily the most troubled of the pilots (not so easy a trick when one pilot has discovered her Cylonity), I think that the complete divergence from devil-may-care huckster and horn-dog was a disservice to the character. I would have preferred a female version of the original Starbuck. While Kara Thrace is certainly a pilot who takes chances and gambles quite a bit, both within the cockpit and without, I find her unlovable because she has, by far, the lowest self-esteem quotient of the entire cast... always aggressive, always something to prove, and never happy about much of anything, a complete departure from the original character.

Now some specific kudos:

Boomer was always a bit nondescript in the original series, really just serving as a tag-along for the Apollo and Starbuck characters. Duty-bound, often exasperated, but really having no real character to call his own. That's just sad. So make Boomer a Cylon, a sexy female one at that. I love it. Have her shoot the Commander at close range. Fantastic. Let her have a Cylon-human hybrid. Excellent. And let's keep one copy of her around and put her back in a Raptor. Genius. Boomer's character went through an entire scope of exploration in three episodes what the original couldn't achieve in two entire seasons.

Colonel Tigh, in the original, was another character whose primary function, it seemed, was to consume oxygen on the set and whose secondary function was to be alternately astonished and exasperated with both Adama and the three pilots. So let's make him a gruff, curmudgeonly, happy-to-see-his-career-nearly-over, highly-functional alcoholic with an enabling, selfish, jerk of a wife who will turn out to be a Cylon collaborator. The success of this character can be seen in my ever-growing ability to hate his guts. I say success, because I firmly believe that this is entirely intentional.

Commander (now Admiral) Adama, once an over-the-top, father figure, wizened Jedi Master sort, comes down out of the rarefied atmosphere of near godhood to become a more reasonable character, questioning of his own decisions and actions as both commander and as father, as one would expect of a person grunting under the weight of responsibility in his position.

And Baltar. What can't I say about the new Baltar. I never really ever bought the original Baltar character. Firstly, with a personality so insipidly and obviously evil, I would think it difficult to near impossible to accomplish the destruction of the Twelve Colonies without someone becoming suspicious. You can't perfectly hide a personality like that. And I really doubt that I'm believing that a person as brilliantly villainous as Baltar would be as stupid as to expect that the Cylons would keep their promise to spare his colony and install him as leader. And the fact that once he got his own Cylon command, he had three base ships, entire regiments of centurions, and a free-and-clear from human justice, and what did he do? He spent the rest of the series in a Keystone Coppish vendetta against his nemesis, Adama. The comic-book villain archetype, done to ridiculous end.

The new Baltar is a brilliant man who harbors within him the soul of a sniveling coward, and as you'd suspect of someone of such ilk, preoccupied with his own survival and the continued reinforcement of his own ego. He bears no foolish grudgery... he hasn't got the time... he's got his own ass to save. Baltar represents the villainy of the real... the sellouts... the selfish... the craven. There are hints of him being Cylon. That would be nice, because I believe that is the thing that will bring his true self to the fore, after all, being granted Cylon "immortality", and thus no need to concern himself with the pedantry of survival, what will he become? What threat will he finally pose? The possibilities are certainly interesting.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that, in a world where depicting epic space battles no longer gets the ooh's and ahh's it used to back in 1979 (due to the proliferation and, in my opinion, overuse of CG) it is the characters that make the story. The new BSG is strong in this regard, and does it in fine fashion, minus a few hiccups here and there. The old series is also strong in this regard, but in a more prefabricated, plastic manner more befitting the polyester, disco-bound, late '70s entertainment ethic.


Keifus said...

That's actually a much better advertisement than what I've so far idly come across. (The video store didn't carry the BSG miniseries either, I might add.)


MsZilla said...

And it's not that I'm missing "epic space battles". If I want those, I can play a game. Let me try talk this out.

My youthful jones for Dirk Benedict may be long gone, but it's ghost is slouched against a wall smoking a stogie in the back of that conference room and shaking it's head, with Lorne Greene's is standing right next to it. Those two really encapsulate the problems I have with the new characterizations.

I love Edward James Olmos as an actor and he does good work here to the extent it can be done. I think he could have done well to anchor a truer version of the story, but with all the other "hip" changes he comes off as too out of touch and tacked on. They may as well have cast Michael Ironside for crying out loud.

While there may be someone named "Starbuck", there's no Dirk. It's not the gender switch, per se, that's got me. That girl is pretty and all and she does allright with a cigar but with so many other re-imaginings they picked out the wrong trademarks that sold the character.

It wasn't his cigar and his gambling and his compulsive risk-taking, but his ability to do these things but still feel on a level with the rest of the characters that made it work. They were a bunch of Harry Hairshirts, and here's this hotshot kid who never followed a rule in his life that he could break. Dirk Benedict managed to play the line in such a way they could have him chasing after a hooker on prime time TV and getting away with it. I haven't seen anything like that out of the new character.

And the fitting it in is the important part. Somehow you have to believe they would put up with all of this BEFORE the Fall of the Colonies, otherwise Dirk would have been a ground-pounder or in jail. It's very intrinsic to his performance. She says the same things and mauls the same sort of lines, but it doesn't come off as breezily piratical, she comes off way too hardnosed and dark. From what I understand it has only gotten worse as time has gone on.

Since Boomer has gone in this interesting direction, we need ballast. We need a Wedge Antilles to go with our Luke. Where is this person? I don't see it. The lack amplifies the problems with the new Starbuck, and weakens Apollo as well.

The changes to the character's names is a constant, lowgrade growl under every line. I'm sorry, but it isn't the same when Apollo's not his name but his call sign. I know it was totally cheesy, but it worked. In it's own bad Sci-fi way it enhanced the fact that these people were not born in Trenton, New Jersey. They're descended from a common ancestor with us so the similarities did make a certain amount of sense, but it was clearer they didn't just step off the bus to deliver their lines. And let's all be consistent here - if you're using their old series name as their callsign, then Adama needs to have a different last name and so does Apollo. "Adama" would be his callsign from back when he was a young Viper-jockey. Col. Tigh has the same problem. And if you say, "That's because that would be a stupid callsign!", well, you obviously don't know a lot of real fighter jocks or pilots. Think of the locker-room nicknames from your jr. high, and you'd be pretty close to the usual range.

Baltar I consider an improvement outside of the psychotic crap with Number 6 and all the rest of that baggage. The original made about as much sense to me as to why Lois can't figure out the Clark=Superman thing. We agree on this, at least. If he's that sort of scum, he'd have to be the greatest scum in the universe to carry off the scam he set up the way he did. And he wasn't. He's a mousy, pathetic little man. At least now you can believe he was smart enough to actually get and then provide them with information they used him to get.

My biggest problem is the changes to the Cylons. Specifically the switch from "alien menace" to "disgruntled former slave race". Cylons were not supposed to have been created by humanity, and they are not robots but an alien race whose soldiers were heavily cyborged (hence the "chrome toasters" line). They start off as little alien guys, and as they gain ranks they gain more and more enhancements and modifications, including additional brains. Their rank system is defined by how many brains you have. The Imperious leader has five, and the rest range down from there. The second book "The Cylon Death Machine (Battlestar Galactica, Book 2)" goes into much better detail because parts of it are from the perspective of the commander of a remote outpost. Oh, and before some member of the "Please Please Please Get A Life Club" tries to hit me on this, these books are considered cannon for the original series, as they were written by Glenn A. Larsen himself (he adapted them from the scripts, which he also wrote).

And don't #(@*#&$& EVEN get me started about Number 6. The fact that the Cylons were so different and we were unable to communicate with them outside of them implacably threatening the Colonists drove the series. Making them able to be just like us, and making them made by us breaks that.

It makes the whole damned thing feel slimy. It wasn't supposed to be a dark and grim tale of revenge. It was supposed to be about forces that can't be fought, but you had to fight on anyways and the honor that can be found in that. The Colonists were supposed to be more like the population of London during The Blitz rather than imperialists getting their comeuppance. The point was to highlight an innate goodness in humanity, not to make them semi-innocent pawns to their ancestor's mistakes and tumbling down into the pit. That was something we needed to hear back in the depths of the Cold War, and I'm naive enough to think we need to hear it again, too.

I'll have to watch it all at some point. I know that. My irritation with it will at some point be superseded by the forces of that geeky need to re-visit and re-invent the things they love. I know this, because it's that very same force that got me through the Richard Hatch books that have come out in recent years.

If they HAD to reinvent something, why couldn't they have picked Wingcommander? The stories in the orginal games are very much the dark, tangled web that everyone is saying is so fabulous about this. And by all the Lords of Kobol it needs this sort of makeover.

Once this entire mess spirals it's way down into the depths here and drowns under the weight of the blackness in a couple seasons (or gets cancelled by the mental midgets who run the Sci-Fi Channel), what say we put these guys to work on that to counteract the insanely expensive braincramp Chris Taylor stuck us with instead?

No Freddie Prinz, Jr though. That's a deal-breaker right there. ;)

twiffer said...

god knows why, but all this discussion of battlestar galactica is stirring a desire to go pop in a farscape dvd. is that wrong?

Elbo Ruum said...

Z: To each, his/her own. I believe that each can be argued on their own merits. The point you made about Starbuck being 'dark' is, to me, perfectly understandable. She wasn't dark before she passed Zack Adama even though he couldn't cut the mustard as a pilot. She clearly felt directly responsible for that after his death. She can't escape her essential nature as roguish, but having been severely punished for her bad judgment, now doesn't trust it as much. So the doubtful side of her that's made a critical, dire mistake and the side that can't afford to be doubtful to properly express her talents as a soldier are in direct conflict. That'd make me damn dark.

Personally, though, I will generally agree that there needs to be a character foil in this crew somewhere who has the capacity of cutting through this dank, brooding... forgive me... felgercarb... that was created for this series, if only occasionally.

There is one new point you brought up that I must take issue with:

makes the whole damned thing feel slimy. It wasn't supposed to be a dark and grim tale of revenge. It was supposed to be about forces that can't be fought, but you had to fight on anyways and the honor that can be found in that.

Actually, the original series was supposed to be a great deal darker than it ended up being. The typical obeisance to ratings, the usual "That won't fly in Middle-America" bunk, and the "We Need Another Happy-Happy-Joy-Joy Star Trek Clone" seemed largely responsible for pushing it toward a lone Cylon named Red Eye on horseback.

Hey, isn't that Fonzie on waterskis?

Personally, I believe the new Cylons are much more believable. The original series only obliquely explained the reasons for the war with humanity. These involved things like 'predilection for the imposition of order' to which our freedom-loving butts didn't subscribe. (They hate us for our freedom?) It's a question of dubious motivation: it expected me to believe that an intelligent race like the Cylons somehow were not able to process the idea of sharing something as big as the 'universe' to the point where, not only did they destroy most humans, forcing the remaining survivors into an exodus, but had to chase down and kill any stragglers?

This whole origin arc becomes extremely believable if we envision the Cylons as a race of subjugated intelligent machines breaking free of their captors, and still bearing a kernel of revenge within them.

However, that they don't simply exterminate them and have patterned themselves after humans, giving each of the humanoid Cylons a segment of a complete emotional complement to explore, indicates that there is more going on here than just simple revenge.

The Cylons are the traumatized children of humans who have grown to be broken adults. A collective fractured consciousness yearning to become whole again, Cylons resent humanity but still need them to finish their "therapy".

TenaciousK said...

I was going to ask your permission to excerpt sections of this conversation for an article I planed to submit to the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity, entitled: "Cylons: an In-Depth Psychological Profile and Comparative Analysis of the Motivational Influences and Characterological Correlates Across Generations and Series Conceptualizations."

Unfortunately, I see my efforts have been in vain - they quit publishing in 2003, and I can't find another journal with an enlightened enough outlook to entertain the topic. So, I guess I'll have to settle for saying - I've thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Thanks, Ms.Z and elbo ruum.

PS. The topic would be suitable for thesis or dissertation research, however - interested candidates should contact me to capitalize on this collaborative opportunity.

TenaciousK said...

Oh, wait - I found a prospective publication.

Let me know if you want to discuss co-authorship.