Tuesday, October 10, 2006

In Which Your Host Gets Angry and Other "Occupation"/"Precipice" Thoughts

I'm the sort of person who takes time to get angry. I need to think and work myself up to a good mad. As I write this, it's been a little over 24 hours since I sat down to watch Battlestar Galactica's third season premiere, "Occupation"/"Precipice," and in that time I've gone back to watch the episode a second time. I'd actually planned to lay off the Galactica reviews for a while, but about half an hour into the first half I knew I'd have things to say about this episode, and I've been trying to put them into a coherent form for nearly a day. It's only now that I've come close to succeeding.

It's only now that I've started to get mad.

This is not to say that "Occupation"/"Precipice" is a bad hour and a half of television. In terms of the quality Galactica is capable of, I rate the episode as comfortably adequate. There's very little about it that's bad, and quite a few things that are good. Starbuck's sub-plot in particular is horrifying and deliciously nasty, and there are some beautiful grace notes and fantastic exchanges between characters--Tigh's deliberate and almost joyful descent into madness; Ellen's refreshingly human self-loathing after prostituting herself to Cavil; Boomer and Cally talking at cross-purposes, constantly shifting between the personal and the political, constantly trading power and never finding a common language; Adama and Sharon's newfound closeness, and a similar camaraderie between Roslin and Zarek.

There are obviously some complaints I could offer about the episode's pacing and construction. Far too many plotlines are allowed to proceed simultaneously, and the decision to combine two standalone episodes into a single two-hour premiere is nothing short of disastrous. After a stunning first act which succinctly, and with a minimum of fuss, establishes the status of most of the main characters, "Occupation" becomes bogged in exposition--Roslin's voice-over, for instance, tells us almost nothing we hadn't already been told by the preceding act or had simply taken as read, given how heavily the show trades in the clichés of the occupation narrative. The plotline on Galactica/Pegasus ought to have been excised entirely, thus bringing us closer to the characters' headspace--knowing that the fleet is out there but not knowing when they might arrive or whether they're watching the planet--and Duck's suicide attack should have ended the second act instead of being dragged out for a further half hour.

Alternatively, I could point out, yet again, that the show has taken to making its points with a sledgehammer. It's not enough for Lee to have let himself go a little--he has to have doubled in size. The effect is laughable instead of disturbing. It's not enough for Casey to hurt herself when Kara leaves her unattended--she has to crack her head open on a concrete step. The focus immediately shifts from Kara's conflicting feelings towards the child to the almost unanimous assumption that Leoben orchestrated her injury (and that she may not even be Kara's daughter). It's not enough for the New Caprica Police to work for the Cylons--they have to operate primarily as a gestapo. Instead of presenting a viable moral dilemma, the collaborators are painted as monsters.

But honestly, I just don't have the heart to get into these issues. I'm tired. One of the reasons I'd planned to leave Galactica alone for a while is that it had recently occurred to me that I've been writing about the show for more than a year now, and in all that time I've pretty much said only one thing, again and again, growing louder and more upset with each repetition: that the show's writers consistently sacrifice the integrity of their characters, their plots, and their invented universe to the Moloch of political allegory. That they are so enchanted by the notion of being seen to ask 'tough questions' that they willingly resort to the most embarrassing sort of contrivance in order to arrive at those questions, which only serves to bleed them of their immediacy.

I don't like repeating myself. It bores my readers. Worse, it bores me, and it's taken me 24 hours to grow terribly angry with Ronald D. Moore for bringing me to the point where I am too bored to criticize his show. He has such terrific material to work with: a dedicated cast, talented writers, a network in awe of his accomplishments and critics ready to crown him the new king of television. But it's not the fact that he squanders these assets and produces lackluster television that angers me. It's the fact that the allegedly dark and edgy story elements for which the quality of his show has been sacrificed are so goddamn half-hearted and lily-livered that makes me quiver with rage.

You want to talk about suicide bombings? Then talk about them. I'll listen. I'll watch you try to convince me that there might be a time in which good men and women would manipulate desperate young people into throwing away their lives for the promise of a happier eternity, or just money for their families. I'll let you try to tell me that there might be a situation in which the only viable military strategy is to target civilians going about their lives, that this is a sensible tactic with practical military goals.

Ron Moore doesn't do this in "Occupation"/"Resistance." He loads the dice. Duck is an adult, and a soldier, and he goes to his death clear-eyed and certain. His target is a military target, and the second suicide bomber's a logistical one. Some lip service is paid to the notion of targeting the market, but it is soon swept away--it is clearly mentioned merely to shock us. When Baltar talks to Roslin at the beginning of "Precipice," he describes suicide bombings as I understand them, and as I believe we are meant to think of them--young men and women strapping bombs to their bodies and blowing themselves up in public places. What Tigh orchestrates, however, is a different animal. He sends soldiers to blow themselves up near strategic targets, and while there is an interesting argument to be had over whether this is a legitimate military tactic, that's not the effect Moore is going for--he just doesn't expect us to notice the difference.

I've watched the premiere twice now, and as near as I can tell this is the thought process Ron Moore envisioned for his viewers when he planned the suicide bomber plotline:
  1. Suicide bombings are something that bad guys do

  2. Our heroes are good guys

  3. Our heroes employ suicide bombings

  4. *Head explodes*
Note the missing stage 0, in which it is established why suicide bombings are evil. Moore never bothers to engage with that question. He relies on the effectiveness of the phrase 'suicide bombing' to get the work done. He's counting on his audience's visceral reaction to the words. He promised us ethics, and he's delivered semantics.

Imagine yourself at a bus stop. Your bus is coming down the street. You get up, swing your backpack over your shoulder, rummage in your pocket for money, and all the time in the back of your mind, not even entirely conscious, is the thought: in a few seconds, I might be making the last choice of my life. The specter of ugly, sudden death is a constant companion. When you go to school, or shopping, or out for a night of fun. It doesn't matter who you are or what you believe in. Simply being on the wrong side of a dispute makes you fair game to someone who is perfectly willing to send young people to die in order to cause your death. But far more important to that person are the people who won't die, who will watch your death on TV and wonder when their turn will come, who will hesitate for just a moment before going to see a movie, or walking into a shopping mall. Or getting on a bus.

That is why suicide bombings are evil. That and bodies ripped to shreds by shrapnel and organs liquified by blast waves (the next person who tells me "Occupation" is 'dark' is going to have to give me 500 words on why the episode's last shot wasn't a screen-full of hamburger). I was ready for Ron Moore to try to tell me that sometimes such evil is necessary, but he never even tried. I was ready for Ron Moore to challenge me, but he never challenged himself. He pulled a bait-and-switch, cloaking a lesser (and, in the context of his story, not very logical) evil in the guise of a greater one. It's dishonest, and manipulative, and cowardly.

After the shrill disingenuousness of "Occupation"/"Precipice"'s major storylines, the conversation between Roslin and Zarek near the end of the premiere, in which they both ruefully wish that Roslin had been successful in her attempt to steal the elections which put Baltar in office and have been the source of so much death and destruction, is a soothing balm. For once, the power of words is used wisely. Our visceral reaction to the notion of tampering with a democratic election crashes against the horror now facing people too honest (if only by a smidgeon) to engage in that act, and there is no discernible answer in sight--only a sad grin. What a pity that such genuinely challenging fare can only be found on the show's margins.

12 comments:

Iain Clark said...

I agree that Battlestar Galactica is a show which is deeply flawed, but I have to say that I liked the majority of these two episodes. The back half of last season suffered from being alternately rushed and turgid: bitty, disjointed, poorly planned, patchily implemented. Here I felt that the writers had once again benefitted from the brief hiatus to step off the treadmill for a moment and actually plan a destination.

For me the major flaw of the show is that it's all about the questions, not about the answers. This is a series that enjoys provoking the *head explodes* reaction you refer to for its own sake - to cause the audience to view moral certainties with less certainty because of the juxtaposition between the way our heroes act and the way their adversary behaves. What's increasingly clear, however, is that the show has no firm philosophical or political viewpoint; it exists to pose the question, but falls short of telling us what to think, or even having a clear idea in its own mind of where it stands. This is clearly a big flaw, but taken on its own terms the show remains one of the more provocative and entertaining on the air.

This same flaw is also exhibited in the series' consistent ability to produce brilliant set up and disappointing resolution. That applies on an episodic level, on a season-long level and on a character level. Things - human conflicts, events happen because they're interesting, but they often don't really go anywhere. Their authorial purpose has been served merely by existing.

I think where I disagree with you, as ever, is in the strength of opinion. This opener didn't make me feel angry, and it didn't bore me; on the contrary, it entertained me, it interested me, and it engaged my brain. It may not have known what it was trying to say, but it knew that the questions it was raising were interesting. While I agree that the show loads the deck, it's for different reasons than you: I think the episode is unequivocally opposed to Tigh's suicide bombings. I don't think it excuses them, or softens them. I think it portrays tham as an atrocity. Yes, it shows us the line of thinking, the rational argument, the emotional push, behind the act, but ultimately it comes down against them. If it perhaps lets Tigh slightly off the hook because those killed are collaborators not civilians, it doesn't do so to any great extent. We're still led to regard it as an atrocity against well meaning people caught up in events beyond their control. So I don't think there *is* a huge difference between what most people would regard as a suicide bombing and what Tigh orchestrates. But in any case, even if there is a distinction, these are characters responding to the particulars of their situation and they're not required to provide an exact parallel, merely one close enough to the real world to raise troubling questions of morality.

So overall I enjoyed this. I thought it did raise interesting questions, however superficially, and I think that Ron Moore is the best writer the series has in terms of pulling this kind of material off. Whether it once again turns out to be brilliant set up for a weak resolution is another matter.

matt ruff said...

At the risk of stating the obvious: allegorically speaking, New Caprica isn't Palestine, it's Iraq. The humans have only been living under occupation for a short time, and their hopes of liberation are still at least somewhat realistic.

To get into the head of a teenage Palestinian suicide bomber, you'd need the continuity title to read, not "ONE YEAR LATER," but "SIXTY YEARS LATER." All of the original cast members would be gone (except maybe Starbuck, doing a femme Yassir Arafat turn), and the new cast, the grandchildren of the originals, would have grown up under occupation, waiting in vain for the Galactica's return. Rather than give up waiting and try something else, though, they'd have made Galactica and Commander Adama the focus of new fundamentalist religion that taught that their oppressors would one day be magically annihilated. Meanwhile, the Cylons would have evolved into modern-day Israelis -- more-or-less rational people who genuinely wanted to put the past behind them and coexist in peace...

But y'know, that's a different show. The third-season Cylons aren't Israelis, they're Americans, armed evangelists come to bring a new and better way of life to people who seem strangely ungrateful for it. And yes, "THEY HAVE A PLAN," but unfortunately, it's Rumsfeld's plan -- incoherent and ineffective.

I dunno, the allegory is working great for me so far.

Dan Hartland said...

This trading essays on TV thing is working great so far. Thanks, Abigail. :P

I agree with much of what you say. But, y'know, I think Iain is right when he says the episodes ultimately side against Tigh on the issue of suicide bombings (if only because it is the default option). And I think Matt is right when he says New Caprica is Iraq, not Palestine (if only because I had to listen to the Cylons drone on a lot to that effect). So it's not your method I agree with but your conclusion: Galactica is still sacrificing its integrity in order to achieve a perceived but ultimately hollow 'relevance'.

Even if we accept Matt's position that the Iraq allegory works much better than a Palestine allegory, you're still right when you say the show is displaying all the subtelty of a sledgehammer. The Cylons are reduced to Expositionbots, setting the scene as explicitly as possible so that We Get It, and the humans are whipped and herded into certain positions so as to fit that pattern. This is the problem with having specific targets in fiction - you risk an unconvincing artificiality.

Iain's right that the show asks questions rather than answers them, and I can accept that (though it does suggest a sort of moral timidity, and even political naivety). But it doesn't even ask all the questions - more and more, it only asks the questions most directly related to its latest allegory-of-the-moment. Galactica sometimes has the breadth of a pinhead. At the end of last season, we were all talking about Vichy France. Now we're all talking about contemporary Iraq. Why oh why can't Galactica separate itself from particular instances and address the general issues? Perhaps because to do so would require the coherent philosophy that Iain rightly suggests the show lacks.

These episodes didn't make me angry - I'm not sure I have that investment in the show. If I'm honest, they didn't bore me, either - there was enough going on to distract me. But what I was being distracted from is what made me ask you to write this so that I didn't have to: an increasing sense of apathy about what the show is saying, and a weariness with the simplistic, pseudo-edgy ways in which it is saying those things.

matt ruff said...

I think the episode is unequivocally opposed to Tigh's suicide bombings. I don't think it excuses them, or softens them. I think it portrays tham as an atrocity.

Jeez, I didn't get that at all. I thought the bombings were portrayed as a desperate but legitimate insurgents' tactic. Despite the dark talk, Tigh isn't a crazy jihadist -- he's a resistance fighter, and both his tactics and his choice of targets seemed rational to me. (The fact that he still trusts his wife is another matter...)

Iain Clark said...

Matt - with regard to the atrocity, for me it's in the way that everyone except Tigh expresses strong moral reservations about the bombings - including Roslin who we assume has implictly alowed his plans to go ahead - and that we are shown some of those who die as young, ordinary, vulnerable people.

Tigh gets his way, but Tigh has, throughout the series to date, been shown to be a stolid, unimaginative pragmatist and a bit of a bastard to boot. Revenge is clearly in the mix as far as he's concerned... oh god - it just occurred to me: an eye for an eye.

Dan - yeah I can't be bothered to write about the show either. :-)

Anonymous said...

The fat suit thing is laughable.

But re the suicide bombers--it's precisely what Matt says that makes it realistic. In other words, I wouldn't believe that after a few months, necessarily, that these people who be blowing themselves up as a tactic. But they're not--it's soldiers operating missions. Not civilians.

And let's also not forget that they've already been in desperate straits for quite a while--if not on New C., then out in space.

I also don't think Battlestar provides answers--why should it? That would be the didactic thing to do. By messing with the morality of when and how or why suicide bombing might or might not be right, I think they do a good job of raising the issue without resorting to preaching.

My main problem with the opening of season 3 and the suicide bombers is: the cylons have *no* central command-and-control? No leader or leaders? How the hell did they manage to coordinate all of those attacks at the beginning of the series? It makes no sense at all.

Also, they don't have anything even close to an explosives detector to protect their infrastructure?

Those are the two things that bothered me. I don't have a problem with the suicide bombers.

I do think that it's a major issue for viewers who think they knew these characters--who made certain (incorrect) assumptions about them and are now upset because their expectations are not born out by the evidence. Look at the evidence.

JeffV

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Iain:

I think saying that BSG is 'about the questions' is being quite a bit more charitable towards the show than it deserves. In the original post, I very deliberately wrote that the show's writers want to be perceived as asking tough questions. As you say, it's the *head explodes* reaction that they're interested in, not necessarily any meaningful challenge to the audience's preconceptions (which is why the Roslin/Zarek scene at the end of the episode, which does offer such a challenge, is so refreshing).

Which is my complaint against the suicide bombing sub-plot - not that it doesn't chart a direct parallel with my experiences of what suicide bombings are about, but that it's more interested in shocking the audience than in asking a tough question.

It's the same approach that got us the abortion sub-plot last season, which played so shamelessly with known facts of human behavior and basic math in order to get to the point where the audience had to side with a pro-life approach. The problem back then, as it is now, wasn't that Moore's facts were wrong, but that he had prioritized shocking his viewers over intelligent debate.

I agree with Matt, by the way, that saying that the episode sides against the bombings is going too far. I view it as ambivalent, at best, shading into approval.

Matt:

It may or may not have been the writers' intention to write a straight-up allegory of the situation in Iraq - they shy away from that interpretation in interviews, and while they do acknowledge the influence of that conflict there are also enough deliberate WWII references to convince me that their scope is broader.

That said, I don't think 'but this is all an allegory of X' is a defense for anything. If there's nothing more to Galactica than this thin and obvious allegory, then I don't see any point in watching. I don't watch television to score facile political points against an opposition that isn't even participating in the debate.

Jeff:

I think there's a huge spectrum between didacticism and what Iain and Dan take BSG to task for, which is lacking a coherent philosophical and moral framework and simply bouncing off whatever hot topic is in the news this week (although I agree with their assessment, this isn't really my argument - I'm still waiting for Galactica to ask the questions. Once it does, I'll start worrying over whether I'd like an answer).

And to be perfectly honest, I'm troubled by the notion that committing to an ideological approach can be so flippantly dismissed as didactic. What's wrong with having the courage of one's convictions, so long as you don't present them dishonestly or manipulatively and leave your audience room to disagree?

telepresence said...

I'm holding off on commenting on BSg until we get a little deeper into the season, but as an aside, the syndication feed to livejournal seems to be wonky. For whatever reason, long strings of entries, starting with the latest and then going back, in order, have spammed my lj a couple times in the past week. It's not a huge deal, this is just an FYI. I have no idea if it's a problem on your end, or livejournals, but if anyone else mentions it, it's not isolated.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Telepresence:

Yeah, I noticed the feed spam and I'm sorry. It's possible that this has something to do with the move over to Blogger beta, in which case I can raise a flag over at Blogger. Alternatively, the problem is on LJ's end (there have been instances of spamming before, although never to this extent), in which case I'm not sure what I can do.

Anyway, sorry, again.

matt ruff said...

It may or may not have been the writers' intention to write a straight-up allegory of the situation in Iraq

I don't think they are writing straight-up allegory, I think they're writing satire. Not goofy satire, but dark satire, the kind that aims to have you laughing and screaming at the same time.

The scene that captured this best for me was the night raid by the human cops. As soon as they switched over to the night-vision goggles -- giving us the same green-and-white color scheme that you see in real news coverage of night raids in Iraq -- I started cracking up. Not too subtle, guys! But even as I was laughing, I was still worried about Cally and the kid. The black humor of the situation didn't undermine the seriousness of it at all, at least for me.

Of course the danger with satire is that if it doesn't work for someone, it tends to *really* not work. I thought Paul Verhoeven's take on Starship Troopers was hilarious, but I also understand why the hardcore Heinlein fans want to string him up. Could be we'll see a similar split in BSG fan reaction.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't think they are writing straight-up allegory, I think they're writing satire.

OK, that is one interesting reading.

I don't think Galactica's writers are writing a satire, but I can certainly see how reading the show as one would make for a more enjoyable viewing experience than the kind that the straight-up reading has been yielding lately.

That said, sacrificing character and plot for the sake of writing a satire is no less silly than doing it for an allegory.

Dave said...

I agree with most of what you say. It's been frustrating to watch a show with so much potential squander it on unsubtle, hamfisted material like this.

And I also have to agree that Galactica is a great show for set-ups, but horrible for follow-throughs. All of the intriguing mysteries of the first couple of seasons seem to have...fizzled. For instance, Gaius is now interacting with the real Six on a regular basis. Has he bothered asking her why she was showing up in his head? Or she vice versa?

There are innumerable other dropped threads and inconsistencies as well.

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