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?