Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Battlestar Galactica passes the starship Enterpirse, headed in the opposite direction

Five episodes in on the DVDs now and I'm hooked.

I'd been staying away. Uncle Merlin, a BSG fan, had warned me off. "It's dark," he said.

He forgot to tell me it's also grim.

But because I wasn't watching when the first two seasons were actually running I didn't pay any attention to the various political debates that Battlestar Galactica stirred up. All I know is that some change in the way the Cylons are portrayed riled the Right Wingers who I guess had jumped on the show's bandwagon initially because they thought it was an allegory for post 9/11 America and hating the Cylons was patriotic in some way.

There are definite 9/11 references. The white board in President Roslin's office with the number of survivors in the fleet scibbled on it, a number that goes down as did the numbers of the 9/11 dead but with dread not hope being the result of each erasure and correction. The hallway walls covered with pictures of missing relatives.

But since every episode so far begins with a reminder that humans created the Cylons, a way of insisting that humankind brought their destruction down upon themselves, I can't see how the Right Wingers, even adept as they are at ignoring the broadest hints that ideological interpretations may not apply, could have seen the Cylons as stand-ins for the Islamofascist scurge. Isn't suggesting that 9/11 or the Islamic fundamentalists' hatred for the US are in any way the result of our own doing, let alone our own fault, the talk of treasonous liberals?

Shouldn't that have been a clue?

But every episode also begins with the scene of Laura Roslin being sworn in as President in a shot that recreates exactly the famous picture of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in aboard Air Force One after JFK was assassinated. This would seem to set Battlestar Galactica in a post-Kennedy America instead of simply a post 9/11 one. Whenever something terrible happens in America pundits are quick to tell us that "Today America has lost its innocence," as if a nation founded on slavery and expanded through an attempted genocide ever had any innocence to lose. Every time we lose our innocence, however, it's somehow restored in time to be lost all over again when the next tragedy strikes.

But after Kennedy was killed there was a sea-change in the country. We did lose some quality, if not our innocence, and I think a lot of the history of the culture wars of the last generation and a half is rooted in the desire of a large segment of the people desperatedly trying to deny that loss.

Our sense of ourselves as the good guys.

Our sense of America as God's chosen country.

It wasn't the case that we discovered that we were the bad guys or that there was no moral or practical difference between us and the bad guys---which some people on the Left were proclaiming and many on the Right accused everybody to their left of believing, and they're still making that accusation.

But it was the case that we now knew, if we chose to face the fact, that just being the good guys was no longer enough.

It never has been.

Just being good is no protection from doing wrong. Harder to take is that believing you're the good guys often blinds you to your own evil. In fact believing you're the good guys makes it easier to go wrong because you've already permitted yourself everything from the beginning. We're good, therefore whatever we do must be good or for the good.

But even if you aren't blinded this way, as Commander Adama is not blind to the fact that the Cylons are humankind's own arrogance boomeranging back upon us, just punishment for our having put ourselves in the position of gods, that is of permitting ourselves anything, you're still not going to avoid evil.

Too often the right thing and the self-interested thing are at odds.

Life seems arranged to force us to make choices that are according to our own precepts immoral.

On Battlestar Galactica it seems so far that no character can make a decision that is not morally compromised.

I don't see how Right Wingers could have found any vindication of their post 9/11 world view in that.

Or am I wrong about how the political debate has spun itself out.

At any rate, I think it's a mistake to make too much of BSG as a political allegory.

If it's any good, any work of art---and The Sopranos has proven that TV shows can be works of art, not by being the first TV show that was, but by being the first that made us notice that it was, so all we have to accept for the sake of argument here is that Battlestar Galactica has, if not claims to be a work of art, artistic ambitions, at least---is a closed circle of references. I mean that it is about itself, not about anything in real life that it happens to parallel or allude to. Not that connections between the work and life can't be made or aren't meant to be made. Just that those connections aren't foremost on the artist's mind, or in the case of a collaborative work like a movie, TV show, play, dance, or symphony, the artists' minds. A work of art is more likely best seen in relation to other works of art than to real life.

Artists are more likely to be having arguments in their work with other artists instead of with politicians, philosophers, and professional moralists.

If Battlestar Galactica is about anything other than Battlestar Galactica, then, it's about...Star Trek.

If Star Trek presented us with a Kennedy-era optimism and can-do spirit projected into the future and outer space, and it did, then Battlestar Galactica is set in a dystopic, post-Kirk universe.

No surprise there when you consider that Ron Moore, the series' executive producer, wrote the screenplay for the Star Trek movie, Generations, and takes pride in being the writer who got to kill Captain Kirk.

Kirk, in all but a couple of episodes, always came up with the purely right decision in the end. Commander Adama's decisions are always tainted. Somebody has to die for others to live. Innocents have to suffer so that the rest can keep going. The wrong thing has to be done just so the ship can surivive, never mind so that the right thing can be accomplished down the line.

The ends never wholly justify the means.

Kirk could rely on the advice of his wise and upright first officer and his wise and noble ship's doctor. Adama's executive officer, although a good man, is a drunk. Tigh is physically and emotionally exhausted, worn down not just by old age and booze, but by his own bad conscience and feelings of guilt and self-loathing.

And there is so far nobody even close to being Adama's Dr McCoy.

Kirk operated on his own. He was out of range of restraining hand. He was free to make decisions based entirely on his own moral compass. He didn't have to worry about the corrupting influences of politicians and military careerists and timid civilians.

He was an independent man.

Adama is surrounded by civilians. He has to answer constantly to a politician practically at his elbow. So far he's been spared having to deal with military careerists, but I've heard that this changes when the Battlestar Pegasus shows up.

Kirk was young.

Adama is old.

And Kirk was taking the Enterprise boldy where no one had gone before. Battlestar Galactica is in flat-out retreat. Kirk was leading the way into space. Adama is running away.

Those of you who've watched more than five episodes can tell me if I'm way off.

Couple of things I like or am intrigued by before I sign off here.

I like it that the show makes no attempt to hide the fact that it's set in late 20th Century America. Most of the technological and cultural artifacts look as though they could have been bought out of a Sears catalog. People in the Twelve Colonies lived pretty much as if they were living in the United States in 1982, except that they somehow have invented faster than light space travel, highly advanced robotics, and a form of artificial intelligence that's smart enough to improve upon itself.

Of course a lot of bad sci-fi movies, TV shows, and novels are full of lame 20th Centuryisms, but in their case it's usually the case of a failure of imagination or of a low budget or a lazy contempt for the audience. Battlestar Galactica has made it a guiding aesthetic principle.

I like it that three of the coolest characters, Adama, Tigh, and the President, are over 50.

I like what they've done with Gaius Baltar. I like how charismatically self-interested and unprincipled they've made him and I like the way they've put Number Six in his head and then make him react to her as if she's really there, making him appear to be a borderline lunatic to everyone else.

I'm not sure I like the two Sharons plots.

I'm not sure I like either Starbuck or Apollo, which could be a problem if they are meant to be the two main younger heroes.

And it looks to me as if in the Battlestar universe there are three genders. Male, female, and tom-boy.

Males and females are pretty much what they are in our universe and get to hold all sorts of positions and jobs and although it appears that many of females are mothers in the most traditional sense, females can also be soldiers and engineers and Presidents of the Twelve Colonies, and males can be secretaries. But tom-boys can only be pilots.

The main difference between a tom-boy and a female is that a male is free to punch a tom-boy in the nose and can also expect the tom-boy to punch him back, harder and with more effect.

Sexuality doesn't seem to be an issue. Of the two main tom-boys, Boomer is obviously heterosexual. Starbuck's preferences aren't clear to me yet. Was she in love with Apollo's brother or were the three of them just good pals. I kind of hope they were just pals. In fact, I hope Starbuck's a lesbian. This has nothing to do with her being more macho than any of the guys around her except Helo and the Chief. I just think she looks like she'd be a lot of fun to go cruising for chicks with. A lot more fun than Apollo.

And by the way does Apollo ever get rid of that stupid pompador? It makes him look like Bob of Bob's Big Boy.

That's all I have for now. If any of you who've watched regularly can tell me what themes and character developments and plot points I need to be on the look out for, feel free to load up the comments. Don't worry about spoilers on my account, but put warnings in for others.

Thoughtful conservative Jon Swift says I have the Right Wing argument all wrong because I failed to see that it's the Cylons who are the good guys.

Seems like I'm always too late to the party. According to the Armchair Generalist, BSG's finishing up after this upcoming season.

Seaon 1, Season 2.0 (Episodes 1-10), and Season 2.5 (Episodes 10-20) are available through my aStore.

Programming note: Tonight's the final episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and although I've tried to talk myself out of it, I can't do it---I'm going to handle the live-blogging one last time.


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