Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Dear Ronald D. Moore: Scattered Thoughts at the End of Battlestar Galactica's Summer Season

I know that Battlestar Galactica's second season hasn't officially ended but rather gone into hiatus (with one frakking hell of a cliffhanger. Could someone get the Stargate people a copy of that episode while I go depress myself by counting the days until January?), but given the recent television theme of this blog I thought it would be a good idea to talk about where the show has been and where it might be going. Plus, Galactica is a fantastically cool show and worth writing about. This is less a wish list and more a series of observations, and since it's always easier to criticize faults than to praise accomplishments I'll just get the praise part out of the way: in the first half of its second season, Galactica has maintained and occasionally surpassed the level of quality I'd come to expect from it. It's an intelligent, challenging show, full of complicated, human characters, that offers an irresistible mix of edge-of-your-seat action and byzantine political games. If you're not watching it, it's time to start.

One of the 'compliments' that mainstream reviewers have been heaping on Galactica is that it's a non-SF kind of science fiction. Usually, this kind of phrase means that the reviewer is embarrassed to be seen praising science fiction (see Laura Miller in Salon, who spent two paragraphs trashing all other SF television, including Farscape, before she lauded Galactica for doing something as innovative as creating a female character who is a capable military officer and acts like a man), or that they know so little about SF that anything out of the Star Trek mold startles them, but in Galactica's case I think this observation might point to a possible crack in the show's foundation.

It occurs to me that there are two Galacticas: Galactica-as-a-9/11-allegory and Galactica-as-a-story. The former is the one getting praised in Newsweek and Salon and other mainstream publications, with the SF setting merely a backdrop for a story that powerfully mirrors America's situation in the last five years--a devastating attack that has launched not only a war but a slew of internal crises: conflicts between government and the military; religious fanaticism; jingoistic war-mongering; the breakdown of democratic institutions and the erosion of human rights. The latter has captured the hearts of many a genre fan, who expect a story that is perhaps not predictable but that conforms to universal notions of good storytelling. Where these two shows conflict, we find the potential roots of the show's undoing.

One example is the two kinds of Galactica episodes. The best stories we've seen on the show have been the ones that grew organically out of the characters' personalities and the situations they were placed in--several Galactica crewmen are stranded in hostile territory, under the command of Crashdown, who is only an officer because of the military tradition that pilots hold officers' ranks and has no leadership experience, and in the presence of Tyrol, who is almost overqualified for the job of leading them but is only an NCO. Now what? On the other hand, we have episodes that seem to have been written out of the desire to address an issue--witch hunts are bad, is torture acceptable--and by and large they've been preachy and obvious.

In the podcast for the episode "Home, pt. 2", Moore points out that, having finally resolved or brought to a point of stability most of the issues raised in the first season finale (and by the way, kudos to the Galactica writers for taking a leisurely seven episodes to wrap up these plot strands. At no point did this decision seem like an indulgence. One of Galactica's greatest strengths is that the writers recognize and even revel in the inherent messiness of their premise. However closely they look at their characters and situations, they find compelling stories to tell), his writers are now free to write episodes that are more self-contained as the fleet inches its way towards Earth. I have no problem with this approach in theory, but the episodes that completed the summer season are definitely in the 'issue' camp--cynical reporter is embedded on Galactica and learns to appreciate the crew's sacrifices; low morale on the ship is combatted by a symbolic gesture of hope; the dehumanization that occurs when a military commander allows herself to succumb to vengeance and violence--and have been weaker for it.

To their credit, the Galactica writers seem to be aiming for a mix of issue stories and situational stories--"Final Cut" is nearly rescued by its twist ending, the sappy "Flight of the Phoenix" is actually quite affecting because we do love these characters; "Pegasus"'s slow first half is redeemed by its second, in which interpersonal crises begin to flare up--but they don't yet seem to have found the happy medium between telling an organic story and making a point. It would be nice if they did, as many of the issues they try to address in the show's standalone episodes are important--so important that until the writers figure out how to deal with them without becoming shrill, it would be better if they were left alone.

Another point of friction between allegory and story is the nature of the human-form Cylons. As stand-ins for America's enemies in the 21st century, the human-form Cylons make perfect sense--they're relentless, cruel, insidious, devoted to a fanatical religious dogma we can barely comprehend, and yet fundamentally, just like us. If we choose to view Galactica as a story in its own right, however, the human-form Cylons make no sense. Are they robots? If so, why have we been told that they have biological innards, and apparently no discernible mechanical components? And how are they capable of breeding with humans? Are they clones? If so, what is the source of their strength, their ability to transmit their consciousness when they die, and their ability to interface directly with fiber-optic cables? What distinguishes a human-form Cylon from a human? And why have none of the human characters asked any of these questions?

Galactica's packed storylines and slower-than-real-time progression (from the miniseries to the middle of the second season, less than six months have elapsed) are a great aid to writers who suggest the existence of an intricate backstory without knowing what that story might be. To my own great surprise, I haven't found myself obsessing about the Cylons' master plan, or becoming upset by the egregious contradictions in the show's premise (if the Cylons wanted to destroy humanity, why wait until the day before Galactica--the one ship they couldn't easily disable--was decommissioned? If they wanted Galactica to survive--possibly because they believe the fleet will lead them to Earth--why do they keep attacking it? And if the Cylons are so desperate to reproduce that they're willing to farm the job out-of-species, why did they kill and/or irradiate all but a tiny fraction of their potential breeding stock?), but the human-form Cylons have been so prominent and so crucial to the show's various plotlines that it is becoming impossible to ignore the glaring contradictions that they represent. I have my own theories about the nature of the human-form Cylons, but the show keeps providing us with more and more contradictory information, the allegory overwhelming the story, and in the end I suspect that no answer will be sufficient to explain away this plot hole.

Along those same lines, I can't be the only viewer frustrated by the Cylons' injured superiority in the face of the humans' reaction to, well, being exterminated, or more accurately by the writers' indulgent attitude towards this superiority. Moore is using the Cylons as a way of demonstrating our tendency to dehumanize our enemies, to deny their personhood, their ability to make moral judgments, and their capacity for emotion. The problem is that Galactica's villains may very well lack at least some of these qualities. I'm perfectly willing to accept that the Cylons are people, but if they are, it follows that they knowingly committed a monstrous crime, and should be made to pay for it.

We have yet to see a single Cylon, human-form or otherwise, who has displayed an ounce of remorse for being part of genocide on an unprecedented scale. Sharon doesn't count: the show has made it abundantly clear that she had no problem with the 'kill all humans' platform before it started interfering with her love life, and even now she doesn't seem to have comprehended the inhumanity of her people's actions--watch her trying to justify the Cylon breeding camps by explaining that, if Starbuck had acquiesced to being used as a brood mare, she would have been partnered with a nice-looking specimen. Sharon is only on the humans' side because she loves Helo, and although being capable of love is a good thing--certainly better than the alternative--it isn't a moral accomplishment, and it doesn't entitle her to sadly tell Helo that "[He's] only human" because his superiors' reaction to the extermination of their race by her people is to put her in a cage.

Again and again, the human-form Cylons demonstrate a frightening lack of empathy. There's no excuse for what Admiral Cain did to the Pegasus Six (or, for that matter, for what Starbuck did to Leoben), but wouldn't it have been nice if there had been someone around during Six's hissy fit over her counterpart's mistreatment who could have pointed out that she herself has been known to butcher babies in their sleep? If I believed that the writers are aware of the Cylons' inherent hypocrisy, and that they were intentionally highlighting it in order to make them more terrifying as villains, I might enjoy them. But it really does seem that Moore intends for us to feel sorry for the Cylons, which makes no sense given all that we know about them. It's wrong--not to mention stupid and dangerous--for the humans to insist on treating sentient beings as if they were merely machines, but nothing Moore does is going to convince me that doing so is somehow analogous to, or even worse than, genocide, and that treating the Cylons with suspicion and a certain amount of violence is not the correct course of action.

If you've been reading this blog for any amount of time you already know how allergic I am to dogma in my fiction, so it's possible that my violent reaction to the allegory in Battlestar Galactica is out of proportion to most people's, but I truly do believe that if Moore and his writers don't find a way to tell a story that mirrors present-day events without being overwhelmed by symbolism, Galactica will flounder. In all forms of writing, story must come first: the characters need to be real, the plot needs to make sense, you can't demand too much suspension of disbelief from your viewers. Place story second to ideology, and you'll soon find yourself with neither.

A few more scattered thoughts and observations:

  • Only a few weeks ago I wrote about the three stock types for a female villain--the temptress, Lady Macbeth, and the ball-buster. With the addition of Admiral Cain to Six and Ellen Tigh, Galactica now has the full set, and this is a show that hasn't been eager to embrace traditional notions of villain-hood. Apart from Six, the Cylons have been a rather faceless, amorphous sort of antagonist, and the show's male bad guys--Tom Zarek, Simon the Cylon, Baltar--have been wishy-washy and morally ambiguous. I suspect I'm meant to be impressed by the female bad girls, but despite the best efforts of Tricia Helfer, Kate Vernon, and Michelle Forbes--truly a talented group of actresses--they are one-dimensional, uninteresting, and slightly troubling when you consider how few women there are in Galactica's command structure.

  • While we're one the subject of Ellen Tigh, the woman must go. Toss her out an airlock, reveal that she's a Cylon, have her drink herself to death, I don't care. Just get rid of her. Without Ellen, Tigh has the potential to be an interesting character. Unlike almost everyone else on the ship--and for that matter, most characters in disaster stories--Tigh isn't rising to the occasion, but is rather overwhelmed by it. He's the stereotypical underqualified middle manager, who reacts to a trying situation by snapping at his underlings (in "Flight of the Phoenix" he manages a pitch-perfect impression of the pointy-haired boss when he orders Gaeta to find a computer virus by reviewing Galactica's computer operating system code line by line) and making bad decisions. In this, he's probably more like us than we'd like to admit, but the writers keep providing him with an escape hatch in the form of his manipulative wife. Tigh, we're constantly told, is a good man with good instincts, if it weren't for that pesky wife of his messing things up. Which, quite frankly, makes me lose whatever respect I still had left for him. "My wife made me do it" is rarely a good excuse, but when 'it' means "placing the fleet under martial law" or "sending marines to deal with protesting civilians", it only serves to make Tigh look even more pathetic than he already is.

  • The last science fiction show to deal intelligently with religion, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, walked away from the opportunity to face the subject head on when it gave its viewers a rational explanation for the Bajoran gods. Galactica seems to be heading the same way, with a true prophecy already in evidence. Before we get too involved in Colonial mythology, I'd like to make a case for a little mystery. True faith isn't just independent of rational proof, it is incompatible with it. Let's see something like a real religion - an irrational lie that can never be proved, that is felt in the heart and not in the head. The show has already shown great promise with the introduction of Starbuck's quiet yet powerful religious convictions. Let's investigate that side of faith a little more.

  • It's refreshing to see a show as allergic to exposition as Galactica seems to be. Viewers are often dumped into the middle of the action, only to discover that they really didn't need the five minutes of talking that would have preceded it in any other show and recapped events the viewers had already witnessed (I'm looking at you, Lost). This aversion to info-dumps might explain why the human characters are so uninquisitive--sometimes absurdly so. When Sharon tells Starbuck that "[She has] a destiny", how is it possible that Starbuck doesn't ask her to elaborate? Why doesn't anyone question Sharon when she announces that the Cylons know more about the Colonials' religion than the Colonials do? Why hasn't anyone sat down for a heart-to-heart with her about what she is and what the Cylons' plan is? Either the writers don't know, or they have other things they want to write about, but either way they're making the characters look stupid.

  • Just to be clear: Laura Roslin can't die. Mary McDonnell owns the character--she practically owns the show. I refuse to believe that the writers are going to kill Roslin off. I'm tempted to say that if Roslin goes, I go, but we all know that's not true. So, writers, please?

16 comments:

Dotan said...

Sigh. Too bad I chose to watch Lost instead of BG last night.

However (skipping from spoilers to the last paragraph), I have to agree that Mary Mcdonnell rulez this show. Whenever I watch the opening titles, which are brilliantly crafted to tug at my heartstrings, and I get to the bit where president Laura is sworn in, just the look on her face makes me shiver.

gwenda said...

I heartily agree on Roslin (and this Admiral character CAN NOT be seen as an acceptable substitute, standing in for a woman-in-charge) -- Mary McDonnell is without a doubt the most convincing reason to watch the show.

jwb said...

Interesting. I always saw Six's murder of the baby as an act of mercy, as if to spare it from the nuclear holocaust that would follow. Doesn't she say something like, "It'll be over soon?"

I'm also interested that you seem to think that the mere lack of women in the command structure is troubling. In the group of people I watch this show with, we (including women, including a very feministy woman) have all come to the conclusion that women dominate the show. While we do have mostly female villians, we also have female heroines driving the plotline. Adama, perhaps the show's strongest male role, has aligned himself to Laura; not the reverse. Apollo, also, has always been subservent to Laura. And Starbuck has been in command situations, in terms of engineering attacks and training pilots. When Adama is looking for guidance, it is "D" who does the guiding. I could go on here, but I think you'd be very hard pressed to find _any_ show - scifi or otherwise - that has strong a female role as BSG (even perhaps Buffy).

Ellen and Cain are, I agree, one dimensional. Six I'd have a harder time accepting, if only because of the scene where she turns away from the PR-Cylon on Caprica and cries.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I agree that Six killed the baby as an act of mercy, or at least that she saw it in that light (although there was an expression on her face that suggested there were other factors at work - the thrill of the kill?), but that's hardly an argument in her favor, especially when you consider that she's part of the reason the nuclear holocaust is happening in the first place. Thus far, the Cylons have demonstrated classic signs of psychopathic behavior - chiefly the inability to imagine the pain of others or to see others as individuals in their own rights. What this means is that unless they can break through that lack of empathy (I sort of see the Cylons as apocalyptically powerful teenagers), there's really no point in treating them like human beings.

On the subject of women in the fleet, I think it's telling that you had to go all the way down to Dualla - who isn't even an officer - before you found a woman on Galactica's CIC whose name you knew. The same is true on the Pegasus - apart from Cain, every crewmember we met was male. I won't deny that there are powerful and interesting women on the show, but that's neither here nor there. Moore and his writers pay lip service to the notion that the Colonial fleet is fully integrated, but that's simply not what's showing up on screen.

jwb said...

Good points Abigal, but aren't you letting rank dictate importance?

While not entirely subserviant to females, Adama is very reliant on them, far more than they are on him. Tigh, our next man down, is clearly controlled by Ellen. Lee, also is really a Laura man. If there is anyone not controlled (or at least influenced) by a woman, it is Zarek - a villian. Obviously, rank does not equal influence or power in Moore's 'verse.

I'm not a woman, but I have a strong working knowledge of the history feminism, at least in the US. Isn't the kind of feminism you're talking about - where women _have_ to have the same title - a little old as far as the movement goes? New feminism generally concedes that women often have lesser titles and ranks in our society, but that they are often as or more empowered than men in that same society. Moore seems consistent with this.

Also, maybe I missed it, but I don't recall reading or hearing Moore ever say that the fleet was integrated.

Ultimately, it is women driving the plot of Galactica, regardless of their title. The men who have the rank are generally driven by women. That seems like better and more relevant scifi to me than the overally calculated intergration of Star Trek Next Generation and its kin.

jwb said...

Addendum: in Moore's defense, he could have crafted a very different Galactica that catered to the old show's fans at every turn, a sort of lite-scifi Battlestar-cum-Stargate type show, that would have unarguably done well.

Moore's decision to change Starbuck's gender was a very bold one. For my childhood, and I'm sure many others', Starbuck was a weekly model of rebel-hero Han Solo masculinity. By inverting that icon, Moore set the tone for his show. He didn't have to do that. Especially at the untested beginning, it would have made better business sense to have left Starbuck untouched.

I'm sure you've read Dirk Benedict's response (the actor who originally played Starbuck). Judging by Benedict's response, Moore is doing something very right here.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Again, I'm not denying that there are powerful and influential women in Galactica, but the presence of one or two women in positions of power and prominence doesn't translate to an egalitarian society. I've never codified my version of it, but your suggestion, that it's enough for women to have influence without rank (by some magical alchemy, or maybe just because girls are better? It's generally been my experience that rank and power are synonymous, especially in government and military, which are old-boys' organizations), doesn't strike me as any sort of feminism.

And again, I don't need to see women with equal rank. What I want is some indication that when it comes to achieving rank in the Colonial fleet, gender isn't an issue. It's true that Moore has never come out and said that his military is fully integrated, but the uncommented-on presence of female fighter pilots, the co-ed changing rooms, and the general atmosphere on the flight deck seem to strongly suggest it. My problem is that that suggestion doesn't get carried to its logical conclusion. Certainly Moore shouldn't make characterization decisions based on political correctness, but take for example a throwaway character like Captain Kelly, who showed up in the second season premiere as the third person in Galactica's chain of command. Why not make this character female?

The issue isn't what some remarkable women manage to achieve - with or without feminism, this sort of woman usually manages to make something of herself. The point of feminism is give a chance to all women. The fact is that in most television shows that center around a kick-ass female protagonist, most of the characters, including the female protagonist's colleagues, are male. The unspoken assumption is that women as a group aren't so hot, but this one is special. It's a genteel form of misogyny.

When you compare the Colonial fleet with Farscape's Peacekeepers, in which women could and did show up at all ranks and no one ever said or thought anything about it, it becomes clear that Moore and his writers, for all that they've accomplished, still have a ways to go.

jwb said...

I can see that if rank is equivalent for you to power and influence, than yes Battlestar has a ways to go.

I know this is a discussion about BSG, and not about women in general, but maybe women just simply don't _need_ rank like men do in order to achieve the same level of power?

Also, how would you rate Buffy using these criteria?

Secondly, do you know of any tv scifi created and mostly written by a woman?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

We seem to be talking at cross-purposes here. When it comes to Galactica itself, I'm not equating rank with power, but separating them. As I've tried to say already, I'm not denying that there are women on the show with a tremendous amount of power (although I do find it interesting that when you listed those women you only did so in terms of their power to influence men into action, not to take action themselves. Even Roslin - the President of the Colonies - was spoken of in terms of her influence on Adama), but that isn't the issue I'm concerned with. If Colonial society is egalitarian - in other words, if a person's gender doesn't narrow their choices in life - then we should be seeing something close to gender parity in that society's institutions. So far, the only institution that has survived the attack in any shape or form is Galactica's crew, which is largely male (and Pegasus's crew, which seems to be almost entirely male except for the top spot). The presence of one or two powerful women near the top doesn't counteract this lack of parity.

All that said, I'm really not sure what you mean when you say that

maybe women just simply don't _need_ rank like men do in order to achieve the same level of power?

Can I have some clarification here? In our own society, how do you envision women amassing power (power of their own, mind you, not the power to influence powerful men) without achieving positions of power?

It's interesting that you mention Buffy, because that show was on my mind when I wrote about television shows that surround one kick-ass female with many male colleagues. Buffy never did that. Not only was the female protagonist a powerful woman, but most of the women who surrounded her were powerful in their own right and in their own ways. The question of rank doesn't enter into the discussion because Buffy's existence was largely outside of any codified social institutions, although I will point out that when normal social order pulled Buffy short, it usually did so in the form of an authoritarian man.

Off the top of my head, I don't know of any television show, SF or otherwise, written entirely or even largely by women, but I haven't made an exhaustive study of the issue.

Dotan said...

I haven't seen anything so far that would indicate that colonial society (and its military) is any more egalitarian than "TV America". That is you'll find a female president, and a female admiral, and a female ace fighter pilot, and there is a lot of co-ed comraderie and mixed showers, but the general gender bias is such that it won't actually cause the viewer to feel this society is actually "different": we keep our conservative society while feeling good about its egalitarianism.

And to address jwb's arguments, this is a military show, and the military is an ordered heirarchy where rank does equal power and importance. Tyrell gets outranked by less competent officers, Cain outranks Adama, and military (Adama) trumps civilian (Laura).

Oh, and thanks for the Dirk Benedict link. Stardoe - LOL.

Zomg said...

I agree strongly with the premise that the Cylons are making progressively less and less sense. In the first half of the first season (and the miniseries) the Cylons were absolutely terrifying, and there were mechanical rules to the episodes that really put you into the universe - for example, it seemed like the Cylon Navy had to scout to find the Galactica, not just appear when narratively expedient, and when they did find it they darn sure meant to kill it. The Cylon deep cover agent threat was palpable.

But as more and more episodes are piled on and the strand of rational explanation for the events in the series gets thinner and thinner a lot of very boring retcons and themes are cropping up. The idea that the Cylons mean for every little thing to happen is really the only explanation for the constant rain of improbabilities. Also, Mental Six & Baltar's story is becoming a Gordian Knot of a plot.

I also strongly agree with the comments on Ellen. Her character is an absolute noose for Tigh - she incites all of his character's actions while at the same time being to blame for all of his faults. There's just nothing left of Tigh anymore.

However, Roslin and Starbuck are both great female characters and certainly high up the list for sci-fi.

Moore seriously needs to sit down and hash out a suitable exit strategy for some of the more dangerous "paint me into a corner" plot threads before the show becomes completely unglued.

jwb said...

A: Maybe we need to define power. I'm a historian (in training - grad school), and most thinkers define power as the ability to influence other people. So when we're doing a comparative discussion on who has the most power in Galactica, of course I'm going to speak within terms of influence. How do you define power?

Also speaking as a historian, I can tell you that women _have_ frequently had power without rank. Because rank itself was often a masculine invention, women just side-stepped this. One example that comes immediately to my mind is the one documented from the Low Countries in 1300-1550 by Martha C. Howell in her "The Marriage Exchange." In many cases, women did not have the equivalent rank or title that their husbands did. But using an exhausting amount of source material, Howell shows that these women found ways to acheive power not in spite of the lack of rank and title but by ignoring it altogether. While the men often quibbled over rank, women were amassing more wealth and social influence than the men ever did.

To Dotan, I can't help but ask if you have watched season two at all. Nearly every episode featured some kind of situation where rank dissolved altogether, and the plot twisted and turned based on the very denial of rank.

I have no doubts that rank truly matters in real-life military, and that rank _does_ equal power. But in Battlestar one of Moore's main points (which are described less subtely in his podcasts) is that military structure disintigrates when put under extreme pressure. It's a common theme in American culture (Apocolypse Now, Platoon, even the ultra-patriotic Band of Brothers to a lesser extent).

The fact is simply that the military is a masculine invention. There are substantial genetic differences between the sexes. Raise two kids of different genders in a white lab exactly the same way, and generally the boy will ultimately find a way to turn whatever is in the room into a weapon, while the girl will not. The military is just a big boy's stick-into-a-weapon. Am I wrong about this?

Frankly, that women have to bow to an innately masculine institution seems more degrading to me than the way Battlestar presents it. It seems more empowering that they move beyond it, or better, ignore it altogether.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

most thinkers define power as the ability to influence other people

That's an incomplete definition, I think. When a general orders an attack, or a president passes a budget, do we define those actions as 'influencing other people'? We could - the general influences his subordinates, the president influences his government - but it's a measurably different sort of influence than the wife who influences her husband.

You make a good point about the fact that our society's power structures are historically male-oriented, and this has caused trouble for women who try to penetrate the upper echelons of these organizations (Virginia Woolf makes a similar point in Three Guineas), but your conclusion, that women should therefore never try to achieve direct power (or that it is humiliating that they should try to do so) strikes me as extreme.

As for Galactica itself, for better or worse, the women we've seen on the show have accepted these supposedly male-oriented power structures and done well within them without, for the most part, losing sight of their femininity. I agree that the military structure has been losing its form over the series' run, but this has little or nothing to do with the female characters and everything to do with their situation. The males - both Adamas in particular - have also been moving away from a strictly militaristic approach, which is the only sensible reaction to their situation (it's possible to argue that the situation on the Pegasus is derived directly from the command staff's decision not to relax their military behavior or in fact behave as if they were in anything but a normal war).

jwb said...

This has been a really great discussion, and I appreciate you posting originally and humoring my occasional comments. Good thinking.

I'm certainly reconsidering whether BSG is as feminine as I had originally thought. It'd be very interesting to see what scifi tv would look like if a woman had as much creative control as Ron Moore does.

Have you sent your question directly to Ron Moore via his Q&A blog?

taragel said...

I followed a link here and I'm so glad I did. What a wonderfully thoughtful and well-written, and really quite prescient we now know, analysis of the ways BSG could, and ultimately did, fail.

Tim Ward said...

"but I truly do believe that if Moore and his writers don't find a way to tell a story that mirrors present-day events without being overwhelmed by symbolism, Galactica will flounder."

Wow. You called it.

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