Sunday, March 22, 2009

Now it's official: The Guardian endorses BSG

How many years late is that?


Christian Lindke said...

Still impressed with a show that ends with the equivalent of "and their names were Adam and Eve?"

I have always been a strong proponent of the maxim "dark doesn't mean deep" and WATCHMEN and BSG fans are two groups most likely to believe that "dark does in fact equal deep."

I am sick of entertainment that "deconstructs" narratives, society, and heroics. But more than that, I have problems with entertainment that fails the initial "suspension of disbelief" test.

When it came to my suspension of disbelief BSG initially had several gimmes going for it. First, it was a reimagining of a show I watch as a child. Thus I was initially willing to suspend disbelief regarding all issues of technology and faster than light travel etc.

But the storyline immediately shattered my suspension. Why?

Chiefly because the defeat of the
humans by the Cylons is predicated on the condition that the humans fully integrate their defense technology. Certainly, this is much like the modern American military and hints that the show is commenting about today's political issues. But the integrated technology is foolish beyond compare given the "in text" history established by this (not the original) show.

The humans used to have fully integrated systems before they fought the cylons. They learned that you had to compartmentalize systems if you wished to survive. Yet they still choose to reintegrate in the future. This might make sense if the humans had faced any other enemies in the interregnum between their last conflict with the cylons, but no such conflict occurred. Their return to integrated technology makes as much sense as the Emperor of the Known Universe manufacturing new thinking machines in the years after the Butlerian Jihad.

Which is to say, it makes no sense.

Add to this the fumbling way that BSG handled the "revelation" of who the various cylons were, having written themselves into a corner that required the creation of "the final five." The whole premise of which is absurd and stinks of retconning.

Tulkinghorn said...

I for one am not worried about the unlikelihood of a society reintegrating its weapons systems.

(Although when African terrorists were able to seize control of all our defense systems in 24 this season by cracking some password, I was horrified and stopped watching.)

What is more interesting is your seeming dislike of the religiosity of the series, relegating it to some scifi cliche....

Even if you substitute 'mythic' for 'religious', I would think that provides a certain resonance.

Christian Lindke said...

Below is solely the content from an email exchange based on this post between David, Tulkinghorn, and me. David asked that we repost our discussion here, and Tulkinghorn has done so (with additions that will have to be addressed later):

I apologize for the earlier spoilers. I had erroneously assumed a shared status on the series, and as is the case with all assumptions I merely made an ass of myself -- I never liked the "u and me" as it is usually just the me who is an ass in any case.

My main point is that the series lacked verisimilitude early on, for me, and that the writers always seemed to be playing catch up to the holes they wrote in earlier episodes and seasons. The fact that they could keep up with the holes at all must be recognized as some level of competence on the part of the writers, but the fact that Ron Moore is the man who had Jean Luc Picard use the Nexus to recruit Kirk to win a fist fight for him hints at an overall lack of imagination.

Your point regarding the Adama issue is all well and good, if you were referring to the original series. The original series was rooted in Mormon theology and was a truer "Wagon Train to the Stars" than Star Trek ever was. The new series shares the names, but seeks deconstruction. When using a trope, or almost blatant advertisement regarding ending like Adama, a good writer does one of two things. The writer either celebrates the obvious connection from day one, making it clear from the beginning what is going on, or the writer uses it as a red herring giving a twist in the end (this is the more common occurance in SF -- the obligatory twist). Moore and crew do neither. They present a deconstructive narrative, that really makes little sense in retrospect. They obfuscate the lack of genuinely interesting narrative by presenting thinly veiled representations of modern political situations. They make the human society, the heroes of the original series, atheistic (or nominally polytheistic) slave owners and oppressors who eventually use suicide bombing tactics against their monotheistic opponents. All in the attempt to make us "think" about who represents what in the show and supposedly to spur our thoughts. If William F. Buckley could find Ayn Rand's fiction juvenile, certainly something less insightful than Heinlein's Starship Troopers should fail that test. Here we have a deconstructive narrative that ends with the SF equivalent of "it was a dark and stormy night."

This deconstruction partially relies on memories of a short-lived television show from 1979 -- it lasted 2 1/2 seasons fewer than the new series. But it also relies on our own self loathing as a society, it screams "thumos is worthless!" I heartily disagree.

You mentioned the number of seasons that the show lasted. This might tend to hint at merit, but the fact that Stargate: Atlantis had as many viewers -- as did the cancelled Dresden Files -- without the praise of the literati makes that less certain. The show has a million or two rabid fans. Though, as much as I often find Poe's analysis overly pretentious, Poe was right when he said something to the effect that merely being praised by the many is no sign of merit. I write this knowing full well my own opinions regarding price and markets and quality. I still believe that the masses are a good measure of what is entertaining, if not good critics of what is art. BSG has too few fans to be regarded as widely popular entertainment, and it is really too trivial to be viewed as anywhere near as good as the Wire in its writing.

It should be noted that all the above criticism is in comparison to the Wire and not to something like Chuck -- which I enjoy but readily concede is less well written than BSG. The problem with BSG is that it is so well acted that the lack of writing becomes less apparent. BSG falls somewhere between Chuck and the Wire for writing -- somewhere above the mean even, but it nowhere deserves the praise as high art that it receives. I would much rather read a Culture novel, Old Man's War, or Alfred Bester if I wanted writing. With televised SF, I want entertainment...something I never really received from BSG, but which I regularly receive from Chuck.

Christian Lindke said...

Now I feel free to reply to Tulkinghorn's "repost."

I for one am not worried about the unlikelihood of a society reintegrating its weapons systems.

Obviously, you and I have different biases when it comes to what removes us from the vicarious (or even visceral) viewing eye into the more critical voyeuristic one. I claim no superiority with regard to my own biases, but I do think it important to point out why this "small" flaw in the underlying cosmology of BSG was a no go for me.

1) Fact: The only reason the humans survived the war against the Cylons 50 years ago was that they learned that any computer coordinated defense systems would be instantly compromised and used against them.

2) Fact: This was the specific reason that they invented the Battlestars and the segmented any defense systems, thus allowing them to "win" the war.

3) Fact: The series established no other conflict during the interregnum that would make an integrated system become a tactical necessity.

4) Fact: Yet they integrated the systems anyway. Even when the only enemy they have ever faced has superior technology with regard to computers -- being living machines.

As I wrote, this is the equivalent of manufacturing new thinking machines after the Butlerian Jihad. Such foolishness removes any sympathy I have for those who performed the action. Granted, one of the goals of BSG was to remove sympathy from the humans and substitute it with sympathy for individual Cylons. That is another conversation though.

With regard to the African terrorists in 24 using the "key card" to override America's infrastructure, this wasn't a problem for me as this was the plot of Die Hard: Live Free or Die Hard and several films of the 90s -- just insert another random terrorist for the African General and crew. As an established cliche, this didn't set off my "end suspension of disbelief" button. I agree that it was silly, but the story rapidly abandoned that threat for a better one.

As this is my first season as a 24 viewer, and I am really enjoying it, I cannot compare it to the other seasons.

What is more interesting is your seeming dislike of the religiosity of the series, relegating it to some scifi cliche..

Given your following clarifying statement, I'll take it you mean the "religious themes" rather than religiosity -- which can mean several things.

I do have to grant that I believe that the way in which BSG uses religion is two-fold. First, it lacks depth. Most of its presentations of religious ideas have more in common with the deprecated representations of religion in the writings of S.T. Joshi or Richard Dawkins. They seem to be the "non-believers" infantilized representation of faith. Most of the complexity people seem to think this show has regarding representations of religious questions seem to stem more from their own contributions than the show's own writing. In this respect, Moore and crew are like the cold reading psychic. The more intelligent the audience, the more they fill in and thus the more they credit you with depth. BSG mentions, and uses, religion, but it is rarely as sophisticated as the conversations I have had with my friends regarding the "questions" it raises, questions my friends answer and credit the show with answering.

To your larger point, I do believe -- firmly -- that some religious concepts have become cliche in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The "and their name was Adam and Eve" ending from the Twilight Zone episode is one of the most common and egregious cliches in all of SF/F fiction. The use of cliche, or reference, can be a wonderful (and rewarding) shorthand when writing fiction. Dan Simmons Ilium is cliche in some of its narrative, but it also celebrates its inspirations (To Your Scattered Bodies Go and the Iliad) rather than profess to exist "beyond them." The novel version of Children of Men itself wonderfully uses religious imagery, and narrative, to convey its message that we need to return to more pious religious practices. PD James' narrative was sincere in its piety and that made the narrative less cliche by default.

On the flip-side, Michael Moorcock's powerful Behold the Man has a certain disdain for religion. And as it takes us through an atheistic version of the life of Jesus he creates a powerful argument for how religion comes to exist. In doing so, he by necessity treats his subject seriously. By serious, I don't mean that one cannot have humor when using religion in narrative.

Banks' Culture novels deal with religion, as do Scalzi's Old Man series. For a "scientific" genre, SF is obsessed with religious iconography and grapples with the concept constantly. When it is well done, it is very rewarding. When it is trite, or derivative (which the end of BSG certainly is), it becomes less enjoyable.

I don't mind when SF/F are dependent on prior mythic structure in order to have meaning. One loves new spins on old tales, Zelazny's Lord of Light comes to mind here. What one finds disarmingly distasteful is when someone is claiming to be "groundbreaking" but is still dependent on those same ideas. One cannot easily be simultaneously deconstructing narrative while constructing narrative.

I imagine it can be done, but a writer whose limited understanding of the infinite made him think that Star Trek: Generations was a good idea isn't the person who can pull that off. In that narrative, Picard has the power to return to any point in time and any place to defeat his enemy. He chooses to come back to the exact moment he fails, with Kirk. That way Kirk can win the fist fight Picard initially lost.

BTW, if you think I am being hard on Moore and BSG, you should read the folks over at Tor.

Their dependence on F-bombs is remarkable.

Tulkinghorn said...

I actually meant 'religiosity' with the slightly disdainful tone you caught. Certainly from what I've seen so far -- a robot in a red dress murmuring "God is love" -- we've got a way to go.

This gave me a delighted laugh, and I will use it myself when necessary:

Most of the complexity people seem to think this show has regarding representations of religious questions seem to stem more from their own contributions than the show's own writing. In this respect, Moore and crew are like the cold reading psychic. The more intelligent the audience, the more they fill in and thus the more they credit you with depth.

Generic said...

That's a dig you've aimed at me several times -- that, for example, George Romero is only as smart as I am when I'm writing about him. (I said something similar to another critic once, about his review of Walter Hill's "Streets of Fire," and endangered our friendship.)

This is a very slippery and interesting area. Doesn't a lot of the best storytelling generate excitement precisely by leaving strategic gaps for the audience to fill in? And don't we all complete every story we watch or read using material from our own experience? Perhaps what we're really talking about here is an instance of this being done ineptly?

Similarly, the charge of "retroconning." If I'm understanding the term it's one of the things that's most entertaining about the writing on any good long-running TV show. "Lost" is one of the few shows I can think of in which the plot was fairly carefully worked out ahead of time. Most are made up as they go along; essentially improvised from week to week, like pulp magazine stories. "Doctor Who" acquired one of its most characteristic devices, the Doctor's regenerations, when the writers were forced to tap dance around the death of the first actor cast in the role. It's like any good lie: works fine as long as you don't flinch and use a loud, clear tone of voice.

Since I watch on the computer I've yet to see the second installment of the BSG finale, but so far I like the endgame a lot: multi-character melodrama on a truly grand (dare we say cosmic?) scale, one of the key characters being, of course, the ship itself.

Christian Lindke said...

"Doesn't a lot of the best storytelling generate excitement precisely by leaving strategic gaps for the audience to fill in? "

No. The best storytelling leaves strategic gaps that the audience fills in, and then rewards the audience by showing them later that they were correct in their guesses. One of the reasons Collins is a superior novelist to Christie is that the clues in his mysteries lead inexorably to the finale. Christie gives you so many red herrings giving you no real path to solution, only to find that her protagonist had hidden knowledge...ruining the fun of the mystery.

Socrates was someone who left open questions for others to think about...but he didn't write anything. Plato fills those holes, and writes entire conversations, with deep and thorough examinations. He doesn't give an answer, leaving the question of "what's next?" to the audience.

A great writer leaves you imagining what's next. He or she doesn't make you do the work that they are incapable of doing, like in FINDING FORRESTER.

BTW, George Romero (and Walter Hill) are skilled directors. Whether they are skilled writers is up for debate, though I would argue that Romero may be as smart as you make him and I am a big Walter Hill fan. SOUTHERN COMFORT, THE LONG RIDERS, and THE WARRIORS are genius. THE GETAWAY? Not so much.

The point is that any questions/filled in information that a writer inspires are intentional.

When John Carpenter cuts away from the basketball crushing the old lady across the street's head with a basketball, everyone knows what happened...believing in this case IS seeing.

When BS...G leaves open questions, it is often because they don't have an answer.

We'll have to have a whole retconning good or bad discussion some time. It is the boon and the bane of the comic fan's existence.

Generic said...

Here's a definition, for those who, like me, are new to the term if not the cocept:

Generic said...

Too late to comment fulsomely on the final-final. However: the "religiosity" argument doesn't seem totally far-fetched. There does seem to be a "deus ex new age" quality to the way some very vague religious talk is used to explain away coincidences and loose ends. Good endings for most of the characters individually, however, which is what the show always hinged on.

Generic said...

Quite a bit of the normal revising and reconsidering that goes into the writing process of novels and screenplays has a lot in common with ret-conning: reconfiguring a character backstory to enable a plot development that sprang to mind when 300 pages had already been written. The difference in serial mediums such as comics and TV is that a lot of this rethinking has to be done in public view.