Monday, May 09, 2005

SciFi blogging

Enough of politics for a while. Let's look at a question that really matters to people - it Battlestar Gallactica the best science fiction series ever? No, for reasons that I will explain later. I do think that it is the best science fiction series currently in production, but that isn't saying anywhere near as much.

At it's heart, Battlestar Gallactica is a re-tread of a 1970s Star Wars rip-off. It featured the same motion-capture cameras that Star Wars used so people could get their spacebattle fix while waiting for The Empire Strikes Back to come out.

The series was originally going to be a collection of 2-hour movies but ABC was so impressed with it that they ordered it to be a weekly series as well as the movies. This created two sets of producers. The A-list did the movies, producing solid, original plots. The B-list was recruited from free-lancers who had never worked with science fiction before. Their approach was to adapt old scripts from westerns. One episode was ripped off from the movie Shane. Another was from Bonanza, including the star.

While popular, the series was also expensive and ABC cancelled it after one season. It returned briefly as a re-tooled Gallactica 1980.

The new version has the same basic premise - humanity has been wiped out except for a fleet of refugees guarded by the last surviving "battlestar" which corresponds to an aircraft carrier. The names of the lead characters also carried over but with differences in gender and race.

The enemy in both series is the "Cylon" race. In the original the Cylons were biomechanical aliens. In the new series they were created by humanity and rebelled. Also, in the new series most Cylons look human.

I think that the show has gotten such good reviews because most of the plotlines revolve around the humans. The Cylons are seldom seen, except for some sleeper agents. Plots involve things that the critics can relate to such as who will be the next vice-president, the search for a source of water, or the fear of hidden Cylon agents.

The show's cinemetography adds a lot to it. Shot with lots of shadows and a gritty realism, the look of the show adds believability to the premise.

So, what's wrong with it?

There are internal contradictions. A major sub-plot revolves around religion. The humans are poly-theistic. The Cylons are mono-theistic and appear to be either Christian or Jewish. They are also evangelical.

Given that the Cylons have religion, do they have free-will? If not then is their religious devotion real or just programmed into them. Boomer (Sharon) is a sleeper agent who did not know that she was Cylon, but she may have been acting against the humans. It is likely that she sabotaged their water supply. Shortly after learning her true identity, she shot the commander.

Characterization is minimal. Most characters are one-dimensional and some only have a single emotion. Commander Adama is always tightly controlled no matter how good or bad (usually bad) the news. Boomer spends the first season looking guilty (she suspects that she is a Cylon).

Then there is President Roslin. Originally Secretary of Education, she was the highest-ranking cabinet official to survive the Cylon attack. You would expect to see a steep learning curve. Instead, the actress, Mary McDonnell, plays the role exactly as she played the First Lady in Independence Day. Dying from cancer, she has been taking alternative treatment which gave her precognitive visions.

This is one of my pet peeves with science fiction movies and series - the need to introduce a mystic (I will make an exception to this below).

The realism can be a problem, also. When the fleet was running out of water, someone looked up how much food they needed. It was an impressive amount. Where does it come from? They never said. If you are going to acknowledge the question you have to provide some sort of answer. Even the original show answered that question - they had some agricultural ships with them.

In the original show, the humans had some relationship with ancient Earth. This showed up in the names, often using Greek mythology, and the styles which suggested Egypt. The new show kept the names but got rid of the styles. Their world looked like modern Earth as do the clothing styles and political structure. How did this happen?

And there is the lack of aliens. Realistically, we may be the only sentient life within reach but it makes for a more boring show.

All of these are valid reasons that the show is not the best SciFi show ever but I have a better one - it can be boring. The original was cheesy and dumb, but you could count on it for some great space fights at the end. With most of the action taking place inside the ships, the new Gallactica has few action scenes. Episodes usually just reach some sort of a conclusion.

So what was the best SciFi show ever? The original Star Trek was the best show for a generation but it was over-acted and too many red-shirts died. Worse, it had no continuity. Characters could not grow from one episode to the next. Each episode had to stand alone.

Star Trek: the Next Generation was a much better effort. Still, it had some real problems. The first season and a half were boring. Some of the plots were a little too far out - everyone devolving, for example. There was only limited continuity so character development had to be spread over years. By the end of the series you wondered why so few people transferred in or out. There could be too much techno-babble. Everyone was too competent. It sometimes seemed like anyone in the crew could use anything to build anything else. For example - Worf was able to use a communicator to project a force field while trapped on the holodeck.

We will not talk about the other Trek shows. Each has been worse than the last.

That brings us to my favorite, Babylon 5. Continuity was tight and the show used it to launch plot arcs for all the major characters. Along the way, all five major races had a turning point involving a major change of government. Look at G'Kar who started as a sort of angry revolutionary. Over the course of the show he became a voice in the wilderness, finally becoming a religious leader. Then there was Londo. He started as a comical figure, a washed up diplomat from a burnt-out empire. He became a dark, menacing character before finally reforming. Both Garibaldi and Franklin dealt with substance abuse, but in very different ways.

This show also managed to have non-annoying mystics. The Vorlons and the Shadows were behind visions, not deities.

And I cannot remember a Babylon 5 episode that was outright boring.

1 comment:

林依晨Amber said...
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