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Battlestar Galactica

The reimagined Battlestar Galactica, in the 2003 guise of a miniseries and then, starting in 2004, a full TV show, has deservedly won both awards and ratings. In order to balance some of this praise, I'm going to focus on some of its lesser points. Major spoilers follow, so look away if you haven't yet seen it but do intend to.

Many of my gripes are more with Hollywood in general than Battlestar Galactica in particular, but I'm going to hold this show up as an example of what happens when people put a lot of effort into making something good in many respects, yet are seemingly still afraid to risk treading new ground in other areas, to the extent where they're rehashing an old TV show instead of making a new one from scratch, in spite of their obvious talent.

So please bear in mind that if I take some time out of my life to pick apart the flaws in something, it's only because the people involved in its creation have proven they're more capable than most of making something even better.

Hollywood and Beauty

I still want to see more than a handful of normal looking people in a TV show. I realise that films and TV shows are essentially fantasies for the viewers to vicariously live out, and that as long as you're making stuff up anyway, audiences generally want to fantasise that they're more attractive than they really are. I have to wonder who fantasises about being an oppressed minority losing a war in space, but let's assume that's the case here.

Sometimes having such physically attractive characters even makes sense, such as in Caprica Six's and Sharon's case: rather than naturally evolving, these humanoid Cylons were consciously built. It's perfectly reasonable that if you're going to make your own lifeforms, you want them to look attractive in order to give them the best possible start in life.

If anything, it's jarring how some of the Cylons don't look particularly attractive — remember, they were made when their Centurion co-creators were trying to convince their Terran co-creators that they surely wouldn't use these children of theirs for strategic war purposes, so they weren't necessarily trying to make people who could blend into a crowd.

Conversely, if you're going to have a character who was abused as a child and then joined the military because all she knows how to do is lash out and fight, maybe she shouldn't look immaculately beautiful. If your characters are in a war, far from home, with rations so low that they're eating paper because they can't get any food, maybe they should cut back on their make-up a little bit. But I guess the audience wouldn't subconsciously enjoy it as much if the baddies looked better than the goodies.

Science Fiction and War

I liked Doom, OK? I liked Wolfenstein 3D, I liked Doom and I liked Quake. But I don't see the need for any more first person shooters after that. The idea's evolved and been done to death, and it's time to move on and invent some new genres. If you absolutely must make something in an already overused genre, you should at least put a spin on it, perhaps combining it with another genre. The only first person shooter to put a new twist on things is Portal, as it's a reasonably non-violent first person shooter puzzle game, and it's not coincidentally the only one I've played since the original Quake.

Similarly, when it comes to fiction, I love a genre with as much imaginative potential as science fiction, and hate to see it wasted with an endless parade of military war shows featuring classically beautiful humanoids who you couldn't tell apart from real humans with a microscope.

After all these years of Star Trek, Babylon Five, and presumably the original series of Battlestar Galactica, it would be nice to watch a science fiction show, whether set in space or not, that's not set aboard a military spaceship.

Yes, I know this is the whole point of the show, so if I don't want to watch a war themed show, I should watch something else rather than watching this then complaining about it, but I think this highlights a false dichotomy that some guys (it's a pretty safe bet that it's guys) high up the ranks in Hollywood evidently seem to believe in: that only men like science fiction, and they also like explosions, death and war, whereas only women like romance, friendships and, for that matter, peacetime, and we hate science fiction.

The fact that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind made over seventy million dollars, three and a half times its original budget, makes me dubious of this. Even Isaac Asimov's short story Liar! was about detective style troubleshooting and the emotional impact of believing what you want to hear rather than the truth, simultaneously being both cerebral and moving, and that was published in nineteen forty-one.

Fine, I can't dislike a show for being what it is, but it seems a waste to make yet another war themed show (or worse, a remake of an existing one) when so many potential stories lie untold because they combine traditionally masculine and feminine elements.

I realise the omnipresent Kevin Smith made a good argument for how there are many empowering female role models in the show, from the president to the best fighter pilot, and I'm thankful for this. It'd be nice to live in a world where such equality wouldn't even warrant a mention, but that's a bit beyond the scope of the writers of this fine show, who clearly are doing their bit to help shift the zeitgeist, which is all we can ask of them.

Still, roles like captains and fighter pilots have been given more than their fair share of airtime on other shows, and if science fiction can't be more cerebral, showing intelligent, kind, loving people doing something other than killing and torturing each other because of their race, then which genre can?

Gaius Baltar

Gaius Baltar is arguably the most insulting character. He appears to be nothing more than a straw man dreamed up by a religious zealot. He's a scientist and an atheist, and (presumably as a result) he's greedy and selfish, caring about only himself, regardless of the cost to anyone else. Then he sees an angel sent from a monotheistic god (the aptly named Sir-not-appearing-in-this-film) and after being presented with no evidence in favour of this angel being real, becomes a religious cult leader, seeing the light.

To say that this is offensive to atheists is an understatement. At the start of the series, Baltar is intelligent. At least, he has a reputation for being intelligent. We don't actually get to see him put his intelligence to much use. He casually works out a cure for cancer that's only used by one person once, who then seems to forget about it when her cancer comes back. He then spends the rest of his time engaging in mindless hedonism. Wait, what? Isn't he supposed to be a scientist? Wasn't he at least a little bit curious as to how the cure worked and whether it could be replicated?

As far as I can tell, the only real point of this character is to prove that his political opponent, the president, is a nicer person. Sure, she takes drugs and as a result has hallucinations that convince her she's a religious prophet, but at least she's not selfish or hedonistic. She's just trying to help everyone else, unlike rational, logical Baltar whose only motivation in life is to get laid.

Again, this kind of thing might be forgivable in another genre, but science fiction is supposed to be the kind of thing that scientists and other rationally minded people might watch. If anything, action shows should stereotype scientists and science fiction shows should stereotype jocks. In Battlestar Galactica, however, all the military personnel, who seem simplistically nationalist and racist, come off in a better light than the show's apparently most intelligent character due to his self-serving nature and constantly changing beliefs.

The Plot

I like the new trend in TV shows to have a sweeping story arc. Rather than barraging you with a seemingly endless stream of unrelated and increasingly implausible stories that happen to involve the same characters week after week, the writers can craft a single tale and really flesh out the details. Lots of shows do this well, from Carnivàle, which tells a single story, to Dexter, which tells one story per season.

It's nice to get the feeling that you're in good hands, that no matter what seemingly inexplainable things happen on the show, the writers do know exactly how and why they happened, and will reveal these reasons to you later in a gripping plot twist. I got that impression from this show, but after waiting the whole time to find out what the Humanoid Cylons' plan was, or what Starbuck had become or been replaced with, or what the angels were, or what the possibly existent god's plan was, no answers came. There was a lot of backstory revealed near the end that sort of made sense for the most part, but there were also a lot of strange things that were never explained.

Most of all, it really irked me that the baddies didn't have a plan. In quite a few TV shows, there's no sweeping story arc, which is fine. Seinfeld managed to get along just fine with only a handful of arcs (the TV show pilot in season four, the life and death of TV executive Susan Ross, and a half-baked plot that was never realised about Babu Bhatt being deported and seeking revenge). Star Trek: The Next Generation had some wonderful one-off episodes, such as The Inner Light and Tapestry. My point is that while story arcs are great, I'm quite content to watch episodic fiction if the episodes are good.

It would be forgivable that Battlestar Galactica had no particular direction they were going in, no master plan by the baddies that was as yet unrevealed but sure to make you slap your head and declare "of course, how did I not see that coming?" once it was shown at its culmination. It would be just fine, in fact, except they promised it in the opening titles. Had they not built up expectations so high with that lie, this wouldn't have bothered me, but the writers claimed that some yet-to-be-revealed characters were orchestrating the whole thing when they clearly weren't. The inevitable result was disappointment.

I spent the entire series waiting for the plan to be revealed, then after being disappointed by its absence, I dutifully watched the aptly named spin-off film The Plan, only to finally find out that their plan was to do all the stuff they did back in the 2003 miniseries, and that they've been winging it ever since. I expect Hollywood to lie to me — that's what storytelling is — but not during a flat-out promise made during the opening credits of almost every episode.

The Cylons

Just as humans made Centurion Cylons to do menial work for them, the new humanoid Cylons made their own Centurions do their work for them, principally the work of getting shot and dying on their behalf. Then one day, Caprica Six disables their intelligence inhibitors — as if they built smart machines then crippled them because it was easier than building stupid machines — and lets them think for themselves with no intervening period of learning. With very little in the way of slaves rebelling from their former masters, they stay in the background, doing what they usually do — getting shot — and then the humanoid Cylons give them a ship and they sail off into the sunset.

It's a nice idea to show a race of people being emancipated, but this whole thorny subject was tackled in all of about three scenes throughout the entire series. Like many other aspects of this show, it would have worked better if it was explored in depth or removed entirely. (There was a similar scene in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but James Cameron had the good sense to remove it from the final cut of the film. If only these people had done the same.)

Then there's the issue with new humanoid batch of Cylons themselves. Even the ship's medical doctor can't tell them apart from humans. So in what way aren't they humans? It's never explained what the difference between a humanoid Cylon and a human is. Do they have elaborate artificial neural nets instead of spongy electrochemical brains? If so, how come the ship's doctor can't spot that on any of his equipment? Are they like humans in every singe way, to the point of even having a human brain, except they can somehow be triggered such as with a synaptic implant? Then surely they are humans who just happen to have implants. The distinction between human and humanoid Cylon in Battlestar Galactica seems almost as vague as the distinction between Patsak, Chatlanin and Etsilopp in Kin-Dza-Dza.

Frack It

Picture how different a human, an octopus and a dandelion are. That's just a tiny fraction of the diversity of life on just one planet. Aliens, in the extraterrestrial sense of the word, could quite possibly look even further removed from our two-eyed, two-nostrilled, walking-on-hind-leg selves than the dandelion. Yet alien races in science fiction are almost always presented as not just superficially looking absolutely identical to humans, but even finding us attractive and being genetically compatible. (The biggest offender here is probably Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, in which a big slug is enamoured with a woman whom he takes as his slave, a pretty depressing image for the previously defiant role model of countless girls of the time, but that's a whole other series of rants.)

To my knowledge, Star Trek: The Next Generation was the only show to get away with so many of the alien races looking suspiciously like human actors, thanks to its superb episode The Chase. Battlestar Galactica would have gotten away with it for similar reasons, had they not bolted on a native tribe of humans right at the end.

What purpose did this tribe serve? To attempt to crowbar this show's story into the evidence of our own evolution on this planet? Like moving an air bubble trapped under wallpaper, trying to fix this issue merely caused another plot hole to open up in its place. Had this tribe not been written into the show, the main characters would have been our ancestors, and real life evidence aside, everything (or at least that part of the story) would have made sense. Instead, they found a completely unrelated species to themselves that, in a stunning display of convergent evolution, were genetically compatible despite evolving on a completely separate planet.

You'd have a better chance of diving in one of Earth's fine oceans and finding a lifeform genetically compatible with you than you would of finding a genetic mate on a different planet. I realise a lot of Americans are still pretending that evolution's controversial, but science fiction writers really should know better.

Maybe one of the head writers was a Mormon or astrologer. I've heard the show has parallels with the mythology of the former, and it clearly takes from the latter an obsession with the number twelve and the arbitrary clustering of stars visible from our planet. You get the sense that a prophecy is being fulfilled by the characters, as they discover and achieve their destinies. That's fine. Good fiction is often quite similar to a schizophrenic delusion, and that's how it should be, from The Matrix to V for Vendetta. Philip K. Dick and Alan Moore both seem to have pretty strange beliefs, and if anything, that helped their writing.

The search for a mythical planet, the crushed dream of finding it a barren wasteland, the president's realisation that home is where the heart is, and the hopeful beginning of making a new home are all good ideas to weave into a fantasy story. Just ask Douglas Adams.

It's an interesting idea that the colonies land on an arbitrary habitable planet, bring seeds, grow crops, and spawn the human race as we know it, seeding our culture with the names of the star signs. This idea, however, is completely destroyed by them finding a planet where they're so compatible that they can eat the local food and have sex with the local tribes.

To put this into perspective, we are not genetically compatible with chimpanzees or baboons, and we only relatively recently split off in a different direction from them. Trying to mate with an alien would be like trying to mate with a dandelion or fungus. It's just not going to happen.

This kind of sloppy writing is to be expected when it comes to religions themselves, but when writing a script, whether it's mildly analogous to a religion or otherwise, you should know better than to include such a patently absurd premise.

I realise there's not much that could have been done to fix this. The writers wanted the human race to have originated from outside of Earth, whether wholly or partially, and we now know that didn't happen. I guess that science has taught us so much about the universe that we're at the point where storytellers need to check if their plots are plausible before they decide to use them. Just as a painter shouldn't depict someone's shadow facing towards the sun unless they're doing it on purpose, fully aware that it's wrong, a writer working in the realm of speculative yet feasible fiction needs to make sure he or she doesn't contradict the known facts. That's just part of the job.

So in conclusion, although the reimagined version of Battlestar Galactica was deservedly very popular, it could have benefited from losing the stereotypes, not contradicting reality, and either exploring more fully or removing altogether some of the topics it touched upon. I hear its prequel, Caprica, is set in peacetime, partly in an attempt to appeal more to women, so hopefully much of this rant is already obsolete. Time will tell.