Friday, March 31, 2006

The Excitement Wears Off: Scattered Thoughts at the End of Battlestar Galactica's Second Season

First, a word about the title: it was originally my intention to write this piece as a counterpart to the one I wrote last September, and to continue to treat, as I have done in everything I've written about Battlestar Galactica this winter, the summer season and the winter season as distinct and separate entities. Along came Niall and pointed out that a more natural and obvious splitting point for the season is "Home II". According to Niall, the first seven episodes of the second season should more accurately be called the end of the first season, and while I'm not certain that I'd go as far as to say that (I still think that they indicate the writers' worthy willingness to take their time wrapping up a tricky plotline instead of resolving all the issues raised in "Kobol's Last Gleaming II" in a single episode), there's no question that "Home II" represents a turning point in terms of the show's plots, themes, character arcs and overall quality.

By the time we reach "Home II", the major plotlines of the first season have been resolved and the stage has been set for the issues and complications that will make up the second season. The first season revolved primarily around the conflict between the fleet's civilian and military authorities, as represented by Roslin and Adama. By "Home II", the questions of supremacy between the two, and of whether the fleet would adhere to democratic principles and the shape of the now defunct colonial system of government have been irrevocably answered (respectively: Roslin, and yes), and the remaining episodes of the second season deal with threats to that relationship and that system of government, both from within (Baltar, various interest groups within the fleet) and from without (Admiral Cain, the Cylons).

I'm going to start this discussion of the second season--here defined as "Epiphanies" through "Lay Down Your Burdens II"--with an uncharacteristic and, especially given the tone I've taken towards the show in almost everything I've written about it recently, surprising act: I'm going to say something good about it. If there's one thing that Galactica has done very well over the course of its second season, it's to intelligently and gradually establish the shape of Cylon society, to give us insight into their psychology and ethics, and to generate a coherent and believable philosophy for them, one that explains their actions and failings. This is the only continuous and well-constructed character arc in the season, and it takes place primarily in the background and beneath the surface--in B plots, standalone scenes, throwaway conversations and lines of dialogue. It's delightful and refreshing to discover that Galactica's writers are still capable of this kind of subtlety.

One of the biggest problems I had with Galactica at the end of the summer season was the writers' seeming lack of interest in exploring the shape of Cylon society and, more importantly, their unwillingness to look away for a moment from human depravity in order to condemn Cylon immorality. Where were the individualized Cylons, I demanded. Where was the fifth column, or the human who would go to the trouble of confronting the Cylons with the monstrousness of their actions? In that respect at least, the second season seems to have been written with me in mind, although the writers delightfully chose to veer away from neat and simple variations on the plot points that I wished for. At no point did a shining beacon of truth and decency stand up to chastise the characters for their deficiencies. The same Cylons who establish the fifth column are the ones who demand humanity's surrender. The Cavils are frighteningly cavalier about the slaughter of billions. The 'human' who finally points out that the Cylons lack a conscience is the Baltar--Baltar!--in Caprica Six's head.

As Dan Hartland very accurately and somewhat presciently pointed out when he wrote about the summer season in Strange Horizons, the crux of the conflict between the humans and the Cylons is the issue of individuality. The glimpses we've had of Cylons in their natural habitat over the course of the second season confirm that uniformity is the foundation of Cylon society. Cylons presumably achieved sentience without passing through individuality, and are therefore incapable of comprehending its meaning and the value of individual lifeforms. When the Cavils describe the decision to take human form as a retrograde and mistaken move on the Cylons' part, one that forces them into a form of thought and behavior that doesn't suit their inherent machine-ness, they are saying everything I've ever thought about the human-form Cylons and hoped that the writers would confirm. And indeed, when we see Cylon society in "Downloaded", it comes across as a sad mimicry of human society, emulating the form without understanding its function--from sitting in coffee houses to making babies.

The decision to take on human form, however, has had irrevocable effects on the Cylon psyche. Even as they express their distaste for the attempt to emulate humanity, the Cavils are demonstrating their individuality--from telling us that they disagreed with the decision to become human in the first place to describing themselves as atheists. Cylons like Sharon, Boomer, Gina, Caprica Six and Scar have moved away from the Cylon commonality and from its accepted values and opinions. Primarily, these changes seem to have taken place as the result of pain and suffering--Sharon's grief for Hera is far more humanizing than her love for Helo. The results of these transitions towards individuality are, for the most part, chimeras--creatures neither Cylon nor human, whose emotional reactions are unpredictable, dangerous, and vindictive. Even as they begin to comprehend the complexity of the world they live in and of their own psyche, the Cylons cling to simplistic notions of right and wrong, and are all the more terrifying and dangerous for their inability to reconcile the two. The Cylons are slowly and painfully becoming people--but without guidance, without a moral code, without experiencing affection and kindness, they are unlikely to become very good ones.

There are imperfections in the second season's Cylon arc, although they don't manage to take away from its overall brilliance. Gina's decision to kill herself remains inexplicable. We can guess at possible motivations--grief over her suffering on the Pegasus, a residual loyalty to the Cylon agenda that prompted her to let her people know where the humans had settled--but we have no conclusive, or even suggestive, evidence either way, especially considering that before "Lay Down Your Burdens II", we hadn't seen Gina since "Epiphanies". It's also not at all clear to me why the Cylons have chosen to go back on their decision and (led by Boomer and Caprica Six, of all people) returned to enslave humanity. I assume that the second question, at the very least, will be answered in the third season, but its being left dangling seems sloppy, and unworthy of an otherwise excellent character arc.

I'm assuming that the Cylon occupation is the result of a more genteel, but no less misguided, attempt on the Cylons' part to get a grip on the question of human individuality. Instead of killing humans for the sin of warring amongst themselves, the Cylons are going to rule humanity and protect it from its own worst impulses. Which, strangely enough, brings Galactica into a sort of parallel with Joss Whedon's late, lamented Firefly. In both shows, the human protagonists are confronted with a rigid and inherently inhuman concept of goodness and correct behavior, which is enforced by people who fail to understand that the very essence of humanity lies in the ability to choose, and sometimes to make the wrong choice.

Unlike Whedon, however, Moore and his writers refuse to shy away from the darker and less savory ramifications of the freedom to be human. Firefly was a celebration of the right to be wrong, but its characters invariably stopped short of actions that were demonstrably evil or unforgivable. The human characters on Galactica, in contrast, commit murder and rape, and quarrel over the insignificant and the meaningless. They hurt themselves and the people they care about, and constantly misgovern their lives. Even the Cylons who gain a measure of humanity through their suffering frequently express that humanity by behaving inhumanely--they choose cruelty over kindness, vengeance over forgiveness, anger over empathy.

From the show's beginnings, Moore has reveled in showcasing humanity's depravity, to the point that we almost wondered whose side he and his writers were on. The second season's Cylon arc, however, finally offers a justification for the glee with which he announced that 'our bad guys are polite and religious; our good guys are drunks and thugs'. This is no longer a gimmicky attempt to showcase the show's darkness and maturity, but a genuine expression of its central theme. It is precisely his willingness to look the evil of humanity in the eye that makes Moore's conclusion all the more powerful. Again and again, Moore brings us back to moments of simple, tiny, insignificant human decency, and reminds us that for all that the evil that humans are capable of is truly terrible, without it we wouldn't have a chance of humanity's goodness, of happiness and of love. It's at moments like these that we remember that Galactica has a theme, a central idea, and a direction.

Which, sadly, is something that we are all too apt to forget. As beautiful and satisfying as Galactica's treatment of Cylon society and characters over the second season has been, its treatment of the human characters and of human society has been shoddy and embarrassing. Unlike invented Cylon society, a monolithic construct only at the beginning of its fragmentation and therefore relatively easy to describe, human society (which on the show is clearly intended to mirror our own) is complex and multi-faceted. Galactica's writers have consistently failed to convey that complexity, and in fact seem eager to veer away from a believable and intelligent treatment of events in the fleet.

The primary emphasis of the post-"Home II" episodes was on the increasingly strained relations between Roslin's government and the fleet, but in spite of the writers' alleged preference for describing inter-human conflicts over human-Cylon ones, when the time came to depict the humans who made up Roslin's opposition, they were invariably written as stupid, evil, or (most often) both. The Peace Now activists in "Epiphanies" are deluded and violent (they also disappear after their appearance in this episode, suggesting that their sole function was to act as a not-too-convincing excuse for Baltar to give Gina the nuke). The black marketeers are deliberately made black hat evil in order to force Lee into a silly noir-ish plotline. The religious Geminons become anti-abortion zealots who threaten to scuttle the elections over the issue. The conspiracy nuts in "Sacrifice" express legitimate grievances through illegitimate violence and cause the deaths of innocent people. And, of course, more than half the fleet is swayed by Baltar's absurd colonization plan and elects him over Roslin.

Throughout the second season, our contact with the civilian fleet comes through power brokers, political players, and extremists. There has been no representation of the average survivor--the people who are just trying to stay alive and make a new life for themselves. Realistically, we should be seeing ad-hoc civilian institutions arising within the fleet. Grassroots movements, led not by politicians but by ordinary citizens eager to do something about their situation, to feel useful and full of purpose, should be emerging in order to solve the problems of the average civilian--distributing food and supplies, arranging for medical care, providing education and day-care services, counseling the bereaved and the traumatized, placing skilled individuals in jobs where they can be of use, providing job training for those without usable skills, and organizing cultural activities. We've seen no indication that such groups and organizations exist, for the simple reason that, for all that they've moved away from many of the old Galactica's core assumptions, in this instance the writers are still following their predecessors' lead--the civilian fleet, as far as they are concerned, is cargo.

This attitude towards the civilian population is especially noticeable in Roslin's behavior throughout the second season. For all her insistence on the importance of the civilian population, Roslin can't seem to escape her perception of them as sheep to be herded. Roslin repeatedly avoids (in fact, there's no indication that she ever considers) engaging in a debate with the fleet. She tells the civilian population what they ought to think, instead of challenging them to a discussion, and is both disappointed and curiously unsurprised when they rebel against her.

The political situation within the fleet is unrealistic and suffers from a forced attempt on the writers' part to draw unjustified parallels to our own political reality. Roslin may be President, but her constituency doesn't number in the billions--realistically speaking, she's the mayor of a mid-sized town. I understand perfectly how the fear of devaluing the legitimacy of her government and of raising questions about the necessity of democracy within the fleet would prevent Roslin from, say, trying to dissolve or at least reshape the quorum of twelve, but there is absolutely no reason for her to campaign--or, for that matter, to deal with any political issue--in the same way that President Adar did. Roslin shouldn't be addressing the population through a press corps (which Moore went to a great deal of trouble to preserve in the miniseries in order to, once again, create an awkward parallel to our own political reality). She should be visiting individual ships, attending rallies, talking to the voters face to face, making connections with civilian leaders. Both morally and politically, the Roslin that we've seen in the second season doesn't deserve to be President. She has a pragmatic disrespect for democratic ideals and institutions that came to a head this season when she repeatedly sought to act outside the restrictions of her office--from ordering assassinations to fixing elections--and she seems to lack even the most basic grasp of how politics works, and of the fact that she is her people's leader, not their mother.

The possibility exists that this is a deliberately created flaw in Roslin's character. She's an excellent leader of men, but doesn't seem to know how to talk to a crowd. Her response in such cases is to revert to her inherent imperiousness and assume that she knows better than anyone else ("how can they be so stupid?" she asks of the fleet when she realizes that they're about to elect Baltar, instead of wondering how she could have failed to lead them). The end result of this approach is the attempt to steal the election, to circumvent the fleet's choice for its own good--an essentially Cylon action (and Roslin has already been compared to a Cylon when she banned abortion in the fleet). It's possible that, just as the first season revolved around Adama coming to the realization that not everything that happened to him was personally motivated, the second season is Roslin's opportunity to learn to see beyond the impersonal. I'm not convinced, however, that the writers do intend for Roslin's behavior throughout the second season to be taken as a downward spiral--if for no other reason than that after the great leap forward in "Lay Down Your Burdens II", they show us Roslin engaging in the same pro-active civilian behavior that, according to what we'd seen up until that point, hadn't existed in the fleet. Roslin, in other words, is still perfect and always right.

Galactica's second season has been a master class in fitful character development, predictable plotting and inexplicably poor pacing. Fandom has already spilled buckets of virtual ink fuming about the constant use of the 'previously on Battlestar Galactica' segment as a dumping ground for deleted scenes which, even the writers seem to understand, were necessary for our understanding of the characters' development. Watching these scenes, one can't avoid the impression that there exists a shadow season--a much better season--that has been inexplicably denied to us in favor of one that was padded, repetitive, and featured a lot of flashbacks and dream sequences. We get Lee floating in a pond instead of Kara pitching a Caprican rescue mission and being turned down by Roslin. Fever induced flashbacks to Roslin's last day on Caprica instead of Kara making a final appeal to a dying Roslin. Overexposed shots of Lee's heretofore unheard-of dead, pregnant girlfriend instead of a proper introduction to Commander Garner. Dream sequences and tedious conversation between the Chief and Cavil instead of Baltar talking to Gina about the election, perhaps giving us some insight into her mental state and the reasons for her suicide. God only knows how many other vital scenes we'll discover when SciFi's official site uploads the winter season's deleted scenes.

Of the three major plot arcs that made up the human storylines in the second season, the best by far was the Admiral Cain arc, which combined stellar acting, challenging and difficult writing, and excellent character work. Even this story, however, has a weak and contrived resolution. Viewed in retrospect, its resonance is sadly diminished by the writers' unwillingness to acknowledge its consequences and ramifications. When I wrote about "Resurrection Ship II", I qualified my disappointment with it by saying that, even though Adama didn't go through with Cain's assassination, the fact that he considered it and even set it up had clearly had a profound effect on both Lee and Kara, which would no doubt play out over the rest of the season. Instead, the writers chose to replace Kara's crisis over being ordered to assassinate someone she respected with angst over Anders (and nothing was made of her apparent identification with Cain's ideology and her rejection of Adama's), and to transfer Lee's disillusionment with Adama and Roslin into a hastily thrown together (and just as hastily resolved) crisis over an old girlfriend. Even the fascinating Gina was all but abandoned after "Epiphanies".

The outcome of the election plot is foregone almost from the moment Baltar announces his candidacy (possibly even from the moment he reads Roslin's letter). But to get to the point where Baltar triumphs over Roslin, Galactica's writers have to drop her intelligence and political acumen by about ten notches, and even then, Baltar needs the help of Tom Zarek, Chip Six, Gina, Gaeta, and possibly the Cylon god in order to win the elections. The chain of coincidences and missteps on Roslin's part that put Baltar in office has the ring of contrivance--the writers can't believably convey Baltar as politically ascendant. The season's final plot arc, the colonization issue, had the potential to spark an interesting debate--is it better to rest in imperfect peace or to continue running towards a goal that may never be reached? The writers, however, are uninterested in this debate. Settling on New Caprica is unequivocally presented as the wrong thing to do. The writers don't even have the decency to make Earth the crux of the argument against settling--which would mean that we, who know that the journey to Earth is finite, would know what the right choice is, but the characters would be in doubt. They state outright that life on New Caprica will be difficult and possibly insupportable. The plotline, therefore, serves no purpose except to bring the characters to where the writers wanted them for the next story. It has no meaning or significance of its own.

Which brings us, of course, to the decision to shift the show's premise forward a year and to ground and demilitarize the majority of the cast, which seems to have elicited nothing but extreme reactions from fandom. One of Galactica's greatest strengths is its writers' refusal to commit to a status quo. There exists no baseline condition for the fleet and the main characters--it isn't a foregone conclusion that Roslin is President, that Adama is in charge of the fleet, or that the fleet is in motion towards Earth. This gives the viewers a taste of the inherent instability of the characters' lives, of the uncertainty with which they live every day. For this reason, I think the decision to leap forward works within the show's greater thematic framework. It was also a moment of incomparable neatness, the kind of gosh-wow-I-can't-fucking-believe-they-did-that twist that used to be a hallmark of the show's writing but seems, in the second season, to have faded away.

That said, I don't believe that the shift forward in itself is enough to either save or doom the show. True, the resistance storyline that is no doubt in store for the immediate future has a good chance of playing to the show's strengths--no pesky, over-complicated political stories; lots of arc-intensive, high-octane storytelling; finally a chance to make use of the military main characters in a way that makes sense--but the final outcome depends on whether the writers have learned their lesson. If the writers proceed from their new starting point with focus and precision, if they build continuous character and plot arcs and treat their characters and viewers with respect, the show will thrive. If, on the other hand, they continue to do as they have done this season, mistaking the wheat for the chaff, failing to challenge their viewers with interesting storytelling, sacrificing characters to facile and uninteresting plot points, it will flounder. Which, frankly, is exactly what I've been saying the whole season, and what I would have said even if the writers hadn't moved the story one year forward. In the end, it all comes down to the basics. I'm hopeful that the same writers who delicately and assuredly wrote this season's Cylon arc are capable of extending that skill to the human characters--it now remains to be seen whether they will choose to do so.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

England, In Bullet Points

  • In a nutshell: great fun. I spent time with my friend Avigail (yes, we have the same name), met new and cool friends, saw new and cool places, and just in general relaxed and didn't think about the things that I'm going to have to start thinking about now. A definite success.

  • The flight out was divine, and even the flight back, as one-hour-delayed, packed night flights in which I get placed in the middle seat of the middle block of seats go, was fairly harmless. I finished my book and even watched those segments of The Family Stone which didn't seem completely boring without any sound, which frankly seems to me to be the best way to appreciate the film. Too bad the same approach couldn't do anything for Rent on the way out.

  • The weather seemed to be on my side as well. It was cold, obviously, but I actually find that novel and refreshing, and it only rained for the last two days of my stay (although my innate Israeliness shone through when I peevishly wondered why the rain wasn't tapering off after 20 minutes).

  • I've actually been to the UK about half a dozen times in my lifetime--four or five of them in the last decade, as Avigail and I exchange biannual visits. This trip was the first, however, in which I left the greater London area. Avigail is in the middle of a PhD program in Oxford, and we spent a great deal of time walking around that city, exploring the various colleges. We also took a few day trips--to Stratford-Upon-Avon and Brighton--one two-day excursion to London, and a weekend trip to the Lake District.

  • And, speaking of the Lake District, here are some pictures:


    Which, in all honesty, don't quite convey how beautiful it was up there.

  • Niall Harrison invited me to the BSFA meeting in London on the 22nd, which turned out to be great fun and not a little bit strange--all those people I had only known as disembodied spirits on the ether turning out to have actual faces and voices (Niall, when we first spoke on the phone: "But you're American!"). A tremendously cool time was had by me, at the very least, and I suspect by at least a few others (Niall has a few comments here).

  • Shopping-wise, I had two objectives for this trip: homemade fudge and books. I'm happy to report that I succeeded on both counts. The fudge is, naturally, gone already. The books, despite some not-inconsiderable headway, are still a respectable stack on my desk:

    Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
    Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
    The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter
    Old Filth by Jane Gardam
    1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle
    Climbers by M. John Harrison
    20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
    Smoking Poppy by Graham Joyce
    Black Juice by Margo Lanagan
    A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
    Love in a Cold Climate and Other Novels by Nancy Mitford
    Silverlock by John Myers Myers
    Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
    Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart (moronically retitled Firecracker in the UK)
    Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper
    Affinity by Sarah Waters
    Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

    And, from Niall, review copies of Geoff Ryman's The King's Last Song and Simon Ings' The Weight of Numbers.

  • Things I learned about England: unlike every other country I've visited, including ones in which citrus fruit is not indigenous and not in any way a part of the local diet, in England 'lemonade' doesn't mean juice derived from a lemon. It means some concoction made of fizzy water and lemon syrup.

  • On the day of our visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon, Avigail and I had a competition to see which one of us could find the most embarrassing Shakespeare-related gift item. I won (or, possibly, lost) with the Macbeth finger puppets, and also spotted a shop called "Much Ado About Toys". In Brighton, the most embarrassing gift item was a booklet of Pride and Prejudice paper dolls.

  • I don't know what the hell clotted cream is, except that I suspect its name very aptly describes its effects on my arteries, but I want more of it.

  • Scary discovery at Heathrow airport: all the food stalls close at 9 PM. Scarier discovery at Heathrow airport: no passport control at the departure end.

  • So, how have you been?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Returned

The original plan for this post was to report on my travels, possibly with pictures. But, quite apart from the fact that it's election day and I've been volunteered for six hours on a polling station committee, there seem to be about a hundred e-mails, twice as many updates on my various RSS feeds, God only knows how many updates on my friends page, and about a dozen hours of television to catch up to.

This may take a while.

I've got some posts of substance planned, though--my review, finally, of Battlestar Galactica's second season, something about the Hugo short fiction nominees, and maybe even some stuff about Sean Stewart's Perfect Circle. And, possibly, some pictures.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Self-Promotion 6

Just popping my head in to say that my review of Jeff VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword appears in today's Strange Horizons. If you're coming here from there, you might also be interested in my review of VanderMeer's earlier novel, Veniss Underground.

England lovely. Weather beastly. Having a wonderful time.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Away

AtWQ is going on hiatus for the next two weeks as I enjoy my graduation gift to myself--a trip to the UK, visiting friends and hopefully not freezing to death (apparently, it's still winter over there, whereas I am already seriously considering my summer wardrobe). Expect me back some time around the 27th, with tales of my travels and possibly some thoughts about Battlestar Galactica (in a nutshell: "Lay Down Your Burdens II" rocked and even did a little to retroactively improve my opinion of part 1; the winter season is four for ten, and I'm not at all certain that the shocking reboot is enough to get the show back on track).

Feel free to poke around the site if you haven't already done so--the 'Posts of Note' section to the right has some good starting points--or explore the blogroll. I should be reachable by e-mail, but I can't promise a prompt response. By the same token, weblog comments will probably be ignored until I get back.

Have a lovely two weeks--I certainly intend to. See you on the flip side.

The Best Thing About the Clarke Award

It's the c-word, presumably, that has earned [Never Let Me Go] its place on the Clarke list, although it's a justification of 'WMDs-in-Iraq-therefore-we-invade' slenderness. Cloning in this novel means only two things. It means a certain difference between the protagonists and 'normal people': difference that is slight, in many ways, but felt profoundly by the individuals concerned. And it means death: the fact that these bright young people will, inevitably, have their bodies invasively compromised and their lives ended whilst they are still young. It may be that Ishiguro frames his fable as obliquely as he does in order to try and prevent it becoming too obviously an existential allegory -- 'for are we not all,' intones the pompous critical voice, 'in the same situation? Are we not all in a sense executed for a crime we did not commit?' Actually I'm not quoting criticus pompous here, I'm quoting Woody Allen's Love and Death, the bit where Boris is in the condemned cell awaiting execution for a murder he didn't commit ('the difference,' Boris observes, 'is that we all go "some time". Whereas I go at six o'clock tomorrow morning. It was going to be five o'clock, but I hired a smart lawyer. He got leniency.') I'm getting distracted; but there's a reason for that. That's what's missing in Ishiguro's treatment: comedy. Wit. Irony. Or, indeed, human warmth of any kind.
Also, a rant about cats (which has got me seriously considering giving Accelerando a miss). Go read.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

I Am, Unsurprisingly, Less Than Broken Up About This

The SCI FI Channel's top-rated original series will break the mold and jump to a fall season premiere, the network announced today. The 20-episode third season of Battlestar Galactica will premiere in October 2006 on the cable network.
The move potentially demonstrates Sci Fi's faith in the show, in spite of the recent drop in its ratings, but it also represents a chance for Moore and his writers to get their act back together. There isn't necessarily any more time for them to plan the season (filming begins in April, as it would have in the case of a summer season), but there is a difference between planning the season in two separate blocks and laying it all out in advance. Hopefully the writers will take this opportunity to develop storylines and character arcs more seamlessly than they have done thus far.

Also, absence may make the heart grow fonder.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

You, Sir, Are No Stanley Keyworth and Other "Lay Down Your Burdens I" Thoughts

I actually had no plans to write about Friday's Battlestar Galactica episode, "Lay Down Your Burdens I", which I found decent but forgettable--certainly not an worthy counterpoint to last season's "Kobol's Last Gleaming I", which it was obviously meant to recall. Then last night I caught a rerun of the second season West Wing episode "Noël", one of the most harrowing hours of television I've ever seen, in which Josh is finally forced to confront the aftereffects of the trauma he experienced when he was shot at the beginning of the season. Like Chief Tyrol in "Lay Down Your Burdens I", Josh is aided in this struggle by a spiritual advisor--psychiatrist Stanley Keyworth, played by Adam Arkin. A comparison between these two retellings of the same story reveals, I think, quite a bit about what's wrong with Galactica these days, and what needs to be done to set things right.

The first thing that needs to be said when discussing these two episodes is that Aaron Sorkin doesn't own the copyright on the 'troubled main character is forced to confront their weakness with the help of a tough-talking, uncompromising spiritual advisor' plotline. It's a story that's probably been done dozens of times. In the comments to my previous post about the Life on Mars season finale, Niall Harrison made a very interesting point about the difference between predictability and inevitability: "the difference between stories that are diminished because you know what's coming and stories that are enhanced because you know." I suggested that the difference lay in the amount of story that one could predict--knowing how the story is going to end is not necessarily a hindrance to enjoying it; knowing precisely how you're going to get to that ending will usually ruin your enjoyment (the A plot of "The Captain's Hand" is a good example of the latter case). As Niall points out, however, there are stories in which knowledge of the plot's precise breakdown doesn't prevent the audience from enjoying it, and both "Noël" and the Chief Tyrol plotline in "Lay Down Your Burdens I" are that kind of story. We know exactly how the confrontation between the main character and the advisor character will proceed, if for no other reason than because we've watched television before--how our hero will rebel against the notion that he needs help; how the advisor will refuse to coddle and indulge him; how, at the crucial moment, the hero and the advisor will begin working together, struggling against their now common foe, the hero's illness.

That "Noël" is such a memorable and brutal piece in spite of its predictability can be ascribed to the both the actors and the script. The consistently superb Bradley Whitford brings an extra layer of prickly vulnerability to Josh's usual combination of intelligence and arrogance, but Adam Arkin more than matches the quality of his performance. In spite of the fact that he appears only twice over the series' run, Stanley is one of its most vivid, not to mention beloved, characters. In comparison, Dean Stockwell's character is, with only one exception ("Maybe I'm a Cylon and I haven't seen you at any of the secret meetings"), so by-the-numbers that I'm not even going to bother to look up his name--I'll just call him Al, in honor of a far more memorable performance.

Both the intensity and the subtlety of Sorkin's retelling far exceed those of Moore's. Last night was probably the fifth or sixth time that I've seen "Noël", and I still felt the urge to leave the room or change the channel when I realized that Josh was about to lose all perspective and start yelling at the President. If I ever bother to re-watch "Lay Down Your Burdens I", I know that I won't have that kind of visceral reaction to the Chief's attack on Cally. It was certainly a startling thing to watch the first time it happened, but without the element of surprise the scene is almost laughable in its crassness. Why is the Chief taking a nap--in his underwear, no less--on the floor of the inexplicably empty hangar deck? Why code Cally's search for him with the visual and verbal cues of a slasher flick? Why does the Chief look like if he's having a bad drug experience, not a nightmare?

Our heart breaks when we watch Josh first avoid and then confront the fact that he has been irreperably damaged by his traumatic experience. The episode's use of visuals and music manages to bring across the hellishness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder--how it prevents its sufferers from taking any joy in their normal, everyday life by constantly forcing them to relive its worst moments. The Chief's dilemma, on the other hand, can strike us in one of two ways--either we start to seriously wonder whether the character is a Cylon sleeper agent (and, can I just say, please no--the device is now officially overused), or we know that he's a nutter. I don't think the Chief actually believes himself to be a Cylon, but like many members of the fleet, the stress of his situation has taken its toll on him, and it is neither surprising nor unusual that he should revert to paranoid self-doubt and suicidal thoughts. The script and Douglas' performance, however, fail to make us feel the Chief's pain or pity him for it--which is remarkable when we recall that this is one of the few truly decent and lovable characters in the cast.

The purpose of this comparison is not to complain that Aaron Douglas and Dean Stockwell are no Bradley Whitford and Adam Arkin, or that Ronald D. Moore is no Aaron Sorkin (although I'm not sure that that last comparison is so unfair. Many reviewers have drawn parallels between Galactica and The West Wing, and at the top of their game I think that Sorkin and Moore, while obviously possessing different skill sets, are roughly equivalent in terms of their writing talent), or even that "Lay Down Your Burdens I" falls short of "Noël"'s brilliance. The crucial difference between the two episodes is in the amount of care and attention that Sorkin and Moore put into these plotlines. "Noël" was famously written because Bradley Whitford stopped by Aaron Sorkin's office one day and said "You know, I got shot." Once spurred to address this trauma, however, Sorkin essentially held up his entire season in order to give it the delicate, thoughtful treatment it deserved. The Chief's plotline in "Lay Down Your Burdens I" was obviously written in order to fill up space (which, at the very least, gives me hope that "Lay Down Your Burdens II" will be a packed and exciting episode, in much the same way that "Resurrection Ship I" was), and while we could have a long discussion here about the Galactica writers' problems with pacing, plotting, and just in general making effective and intelligent time-management choices (which would once again bring us to the issue of using the previouslys as a dumping ground for not one but two unseen scenes, including a tearful confrontation between Starbuck and a dying Roslin in "Epiphanies"--how the hell did that end up on the cutting room floor?), as far as I'm concerned the issue here isn't how the writers divide their air-time but what they do with it. There's nothing wrong with writing a plotline because you need to fill up space, but once you choose to do so, there is no excuse for giving it the perfunctory and unthinking treatment that the writers gave the Chief plotline in "Lay Down Your Burdens I".

Not that this careless attitude towards B plots, or even A plots, is new to the show. Moore has said that the abortion storyline in "The Captain's Hand" was something that he wanted to raise and not deal with too seriously, and the result was that he treated both his viewers and his most intelligent character like idiots. I've written before about the Galactica writers' tunnel-vision--they have one specific story that they want to tell, a 9/11 allegory about the political and religious struggles that emerge after a species-extinction event, and they concentrate on that story to the exclusion of all other aspects of their invented universe. In the winter season, however, the writers have offered us precious little in compensation for the stories that they've ignored. We don't have time for a sophisticated treatment of the Chief's psychological trauma, or for an intelligent debate about reproductive rights and obligations in the fleet, or for a believable exploration of Lee's existential crisis, or for any exploration at all of his burgeoning romance with Dualla, because we're too busy doing what, exactly?

The fact is that Al and the Chief's session is a tiny part of "Lay Down Your Burdens I", but with the exception of Kara and Anders' reunion (because it's just so good to see Kara--the only character, I might point out, who has had a consistent, believable, and prolonged character arc this winter season--be so happy after so much pain) it is the only part of the episode that has lingered in my mind a mere three days after watching it, and even that is only because while I was watching those scenes I kept thinking of Josh and Stanley Keyworth. A great deal happens in the episode, some of it quite important, but almost none of it with the emotional resonance that I've come to expect from this show. Roslin and Baltar's political struggles are unremarkable (it's not really the topic of this post, but at some point I'm going to talk about the wrong-headedness of the show's treatment of politics in the fleet. I understand why she wouldn't like to come out and acknowledge it, but Roslin isn't actually running for President--she's running for mayor of a mid-sized town. The distance that the show enforces between her and the electorate is completely unbelievable) and their outcome is a foregone conclusion. It was interesting, for about five seconds, to see how the discovery of a potentially habitable planet might affect the fleet, but the way in which Baltar used the planet as a political tool was predictable, and since the writers aren't interested in a debate over whether to settle or keep moving (a worthy question, in my opinion) they handicap the issue by making the planet only barely habitable--a fact which Baltar conveniently ignores and which Roslin fails to convey to her constituents (someone remind me why this woman deserves to be President?).

Simplistic. Predictable. Conventional. These are not words that I ever anticipated using to describe Battlestar Galactica, and yet over the recent weeks they have become the only applicable terms. It's been suggested that the writers are having problems dealing with the extended season--writing 20 episodes is a greater challenge than writing 13--but the problems that have been plaguing the show are systemic, not structural. There is no longer any indication that the writers are infusing Galactica with their heart and soul. Their plots and character arcs are desultory and unexciting, and with only a few exceptions the best that they seem to be capable of is a vague decency. Episodes like last week's "Downloaded" suggest that the old Galactica's fire is still burning somewhere, but wouldn't it be nice if the writers could grant their human characters even a fraction of the attention that they lavished on these Cylons?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

So That's How You Pronounce 'Quay' and Other Life on Mars Thoughts

In all honesty, I didn't think they'd be able to pull it off. When I sat down on Thursday to watch the first season finale of Life on Mars, I expected disappointment. I expected the writers to avoid resolutions, to ignore the various eerie and bizarre elements they had sprinkled into their storylines, and give us nothing even resembling an answer. I can't even describe my joy at realizing how wrong I was. Without committing to an answer on the time-travel-or-coma question, the finale made perfect sense of many of the images that had been plaguing Sam, and gave us a definitive answer to the question of why he ended up where and when he did. I've complained about the obviousness of some of the show's mysteries, but I gasped with surprise when Annie showed up in that red dress, not least because this solution retroactively justifies some of the plot points that I found so problematic over the season's run--I worried that using Sam's dreams to lead him to his family in episode 4 was transforming the show's supernatural premise into a shortcut to character exploration, but of course there was a reason for Sam to seek out his family, to tear down Manchester's prominent mobster, to obsess about his father.

If there was one element of the show that I found completely frustrating, it was Gene's continued insistence that Sam had chosen to be in 1973 Manchester. I took it to mean that the writers expected us to believe that Sam, a modern policeman who spends most of his time staring at enlarged images of fibers and needs six people in the room before he can talk to a suspect, was eager to be a 'real' copper--the kind who rolls over the hoods of cars and gets into fist-fights and shootouts. 1973, in other words, was Sam's fantasy world, and he was simply being ornery in refusing to enjoy it.

I'm certain that I was meant to take Gene's claim in that vein (which was probably how Gene intended it, as he also insists that Sam enjoys working with him), and it was an absolute delight to discover how thoroughly the writers had tricked me. Sam arrives in 1973 not because he wants to play cops and robbers but because it is fundamental to his nature that he is an instrument of justice. A crime witnessed as a child has haunted his unconscious mind, and given the opportunity, he returns to set things right. Sam doesn't want to be a real cop--he is a real cop, a man to whom being a policeman is intrinsic, an undeniable part of his nature.

Much as I enjoyed the finale, however (and seeing as I'm the sort person who won't put out the effort of writing a blog post to say nothing but complimentary things--largely the reason that I haven't written anything about "Downloaded"), I find myself wishing that Gene hadn't been relegated to secondary character status throughout the episode. The story understandably prioritizes Sam's interactions with Vic, and the always excellent John Simm brilliantly conveys Sam's joy at being near a man that he has dreamed of for decades--his awkwardly hopeful expression when he suggests that he and Vic play football is a thing of beauty (unfortunately, Lee Ingleby's performance doesn't quite match the nuance of Simm's--he's perfect as the well-meaning, befuddled young husband and father and does a good enough job at being menacing when Vic's true nature is revealed, but there ought to be a darkness that lurks just beneath the surface of Vic's friendly exterior, and Ingleby doesn't bring it across). Of a secondary importance is Annie's growing bewilderment at what she perceives as Sam's dementia. Gene is left largely with exposition and comic relief (part of the problem is that Gene remains an opaque character--even during his frequent confrontations with Sam, I had no idea what was going through his head).

Which is a shame when we consider that Gene, usually cast in the role of Sam's dark mirror, is in this episode acting as a parallel to Vic. Gene would have a heart attack at the mere suggestion, but there is an element of the paternal in the way he treats his officers, and even his adversarial relationship with Sam has echoes of the parent-child relationship. The first interview scene pits Gene, unrelated to Sam but acting in loco parentis, against Vic, the biological father who will unknowingly risk his son's life. Caught in the middle, Sam mistakes the good father for the bad one, and attempts to protect Vic from Gene when it's actually Gene he should be siding with (for nothing more than aesthetic reasons, I kind of wish the episode could have ended with Vic's actions putting Gene in mortal danger--something a little more profound than Sam pulling a gun on him, that is).

I also would have liked to see a bit more exploration of Sam and Gene's opposing attitudes to the case. The crux of their disagreements is frequently an intuition-versus-logic or personal-stakes-versus-cold-law dichotomy, but far more important to the show's theme of what makes a good policeman is the fundamental difference between their concepts of what policemen are for. As far as Gene is concerned, the task of the policeman is to pursue, capture, and punish the guilty (the villains, as he calls them). Sam, on the other hand, sees himself as the protector of the innocent, and even the semi- and not-so-innocent (even after they hold him at gunpoint, he still sympathizes with and seeks to protect Derek Bannister and Reg Cole). His personal connection to the case (and his obsession with emerging from his coma) causes Sam to act in a Gene-like manner, personalizing the situation and ignoring the letter, and eventually the spirit, of the law. His actions once he descends into this state are the equal and opposite of Gene's--just as Gene feels that it is acceptable to place innocent people in prison in order to ensure that the guilty go there too, Sam will let a guilty man go free in order to keep protecting him, and to protect the true innocents--Ruth and young Sam, whose lives will be ruined by Vic's arrest. This is Sam's version of justice, of doing the policeman's job--having saved Annie from him, Sam turns around and tries to save, rather than punish, Vic.

Or maybe justice has nothing to do with it. I never got the impression that Sam truly comprehended what a horrible man Vic was. Even after realizing that Vic orchestrated violent crimes, that he killed two men in cold blood, and that if he hadn't been interrupted, he would have beaten Annie to death and shot Sam, Sam asks Vic to stay with his family. I think the episode strongly implies that Sam would have woken up if he'd been willing to arrest Vic--although I'm unclear on what this means: that Sam did indeed need to keep Vic with his family, even in a diminished capacity, or that Sam's subconscious seeks justice for Vic's victims? Whether because of the love that he still feels for his father or because his experiences in 1973 have eroded his sense of morality, Sam fails that test. I can't help but wonder if the original plan for the series, before its popularity exploded and it was renewed for a second season, didn't call for Sam to arrest Vic and wake up.

Which brings us to whatever happens next. Sam has either carried out or irrevocably failed to carry out the task for which he was sent back in time (unless Vic returns at some point in the future, but I find that unlikely). The episode's pat coda suggests a return to the show's overarching formula--Sam as a stranger in a strange land, slowly and reluctantly learning the language and the customs and imparting his own ideas to the locals. I can't quite imagine where the mystery story can go from here, but with this masterful wrapping-up of the first season's plot strands, the writers have certainly earned at least my grudging trust.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The 2005 Nebula Award: The Novella Shortlist

[Ed Champion has the first complete list of links to the nominated stories.]

Here's an interesting fact about the novella ballot: unlike the short story and novelette shortlists, it is dominated by futuristic, space-set SF. Here's another interesting fact about the novella ballot: unlike the short story and novelette shortlists, it is dominated by crap. That Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners" is going to take the Nebula would probably have been a given no matter what pieces the story competed against, but I am frankly baffled by the fact that the rest of the nominated stories were even published by professional venues, much less nominated for a major award. The ballot is nearly an insult to Link's artistry--she deserves to win over deserving fictions, not these inexplicable failures.

But to get the good news out of the way: "Magic for Beginners" is superb, and really drives home how atypical Link's nominated novelette, "The Faery Handbag", is. This is a complicated, confusing story, about the difference between fact and fiction, the connections between the two, and the way that we choose to believe in one and not the other. Or maybe it's about something else entirely--I don't feel qualified to say. I will, however, say that Link's fierce intelligence shines through every word, and that while I may not be able to explain "Magic for Beginners", I certainly do feel that the search for an explanation would be a worthy and fascinating endeavor (have there been any critical discussions of Link's fiction? Would somebody smarter than I am please start writing about these stories?). Inasmuch as its plot can be described, "Magic for Beginners" is about 15-year-old Jeremey (yet another pitch-perfect teenage narrator), his parents' troubled marriage, and his close-knit circle of friends. Or, it could be about The Library, a pirate television series that the characters follow religiously. Or maybe Jeremy's in the television show. It's all very unclear, and very well written, not to mention whimsical and at times laugh-out-loud funny.

Paul Witcover's "Left of the Dial" is a perfect demonstration of how not to use the novella format. Ideally, this long-short form should be the perfect synthesis of novel and short story--the story should be brief, its plot and characters concentrated into a few concepts, but their execution should be broad. The extended canvas gives the author the chance to deepen their character arcs, to complicate and proliferate plotlines and themes. When done well--as in Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" or John Crowley's "Great Work of Time"--novellas can be as precise as vignettes and as profound as thick novels. Witcover's story, on the other hand, is a novella for the simple reason that he didn't know where and when to hack away at his prose. It is a bloated, underperforming piece, the bare hints of a plot almost indistinguishable beneath swathes of dull description and ponderous narrative. Witcover's story is also an excellent example of how not to use the first person voice. Instead of describing his actions or his emotions, Witcover's narrator describes his precise psychological state at every moment, leaving nothing beneath the surface--he actually feels the need to explain to us, for instance, why after burying his mother he behaves atypically and regresses to his teenage habits of solitary wandering. The result, paradoxically, is that the narrator is thoroughly unbelievable as a person. Even those of us with a profound understanding of our own inner workings, after all, wouldn't narrate our lives with this obsessive degree of self-analysis, if for no other reason than that we'd trust that human beings reading our story would be able to make the obvious connections between emotion and action. "Left of the Dial"'s plot, once it actually gets started, revolves around a youthful tragedy that the narrator was involved in, and an amorphous connection between the past and the present that may allow him to make things right. Frankly, I found it very difficult to give a damn, so unappealing were the characters. It's not quite right to say that the story's ending is disappointing, as I was hardly expecting great things by that point, but even so I was left flabbergasted by the fact that Witcover had wasted tens of thousands of words to reach this pointless and uninspiring conclusion.

While reading Bud Sparhawk's "Clay's Pride", I frequently paused to wonder whether the story was intended ironically, as a parody of mid-century boy's-own-adventure SF stories starring clean-cut military spaceship commanders who face off off against evil aliens on the one hand and slightly less evil bureaucrats on the other. Sadly, I must conclude that Sparhawk is entirely in earnest, and that Analog magazine's editors genuinely thought that there is still an audience for turgid, badly written space adventures which pit a military fleet, made redundant by the end of a civil war, against the mincing civilian government of the planet which now partly funds them. The story's protagonist, Simon Clay, is the first officer on such a spaceship, saddled with a cartoonishly incompetent commanding officer whom he is forced to circumvent when their ship is attacked by what may be an alien vessel (the alien plot is soon dropped except for some dull technobabble that ultimately comes to nothing). The aftermath of this incident is a show-trial in which the fleet (whose officers all have Western names) struggles against the civilian government (whose members all have Asian-sounding names, not to mention a cod-Asian obsession with honor and face-saving)--specifically, against its corrupt and power-hungry members who wish to humiliate the hard-working, decent military by placing Clay on trial for insubordination. Sparhawk lacks the subtlety to convey this political struggle with any intelligence, and the result is a dull and predictable dance, with good guys and bad guys carefully labeled. Clay himself is painfully dim, a middle schooler trapped in a man's body (the most amusing aspect of "Clay's Pride" is his transition from "Girls have cooties!" to "Gosh, this sex thing is sort of fun!" as he inexplicably acquires a girlfriend). There is allegedly a mystery that drives the story's second half--the identity of a spy in the military camp--but its solution is obvious almost from the moment it is introduced. Sparhawk may have recreated the trappings of the simplistic adventure stories that he is emulating--complete with xenophobic, misogynistic, militaristic attitudes--but he failed to capture the qualities that got kids reading them in the first place--a sense of wonder, swashbuckling adventures, and just plain fun.

Robert J. Sawyer gives us another futuristic PI in "Identity Theft" (available here as a pdf or doc file). This time the detective lives on a tiny martian settlement, whose inhabitants scour the martian surface for fossilized evidence of what little life might once have existed on the planet. The fossils fetch enormous prices on the open market, inspiring a latter-day gold rush--dozens of prospectors looking to make their fortune off a piece of rock. Some of them, seeking to maximize their time in the harsh conditions on the planet's surface, have transferred their consciousness into super-strong robotic bodies, and it is one of these 'transfers' who hires our detective to find her missing husband. Unlike James Patrick Kelly on the novelette shortlist, Sawyer makes only a few half-hearted attempts near the story's beginning at recreating the hardboiled detective story style, and quickly abandons the attempt for a plodding narrative voice. Even worse, Sawyer's detective is quite stupid. It's a requirement of mystery fiction that the detective make connections that the audience can't, and draw the readers along the chain of clues to the mystery's solution. Sawyer's detective, however, fails to make obvious connections until they stare him in the face, and sometimes not even then. There's a desultory attempt to discuss the morality of transferring consciousness into a robotic body--the old 'but what happens to the soul' canard gets trotted out, as do dual copies of the same individual--but it mostly serves to draw an unflattering comparison between Sawyer's story and superior attempts at the same subject such as David Brin's delightful Kiln People.

After these three winners, even Albert Cowdrey's decent but unremarkable "The Tribes of Bela" shines like a masterpiece. It starts out as yet another mystery--this time, the detective is the stranger, a security officer summoned to a mining colony on an alien world to investigate a rash of murders. At its halfway point, however, "Bela" becomes a cookie-cutter horror flick--the miners are quickly decimated by an implacable and powerful foe, forcing a handful of survivors into hiding while they wait to be rescued. There is allegedly an important sub-plot about the nature of the alien menace, but as the story's stereotypical plotline takes over, it is rendered insignificant--it's difficult for us to pay attention to yet more revelations about how the aliens' biology works when the characters are constantly being consumed by said biology. Cowdrey does a good enough job of working within the shlocky horror film's formula--you've got your young lovers, your grizzled old veteran, your surprisingly tough scientist--and the narrative moves confidently from one standard plot point to the next. If it weren't for the fact that Cowdrey shies away from killing any of the main characters, I'd say that "The Tribes of Bela" would make some movie studio a great low-budget film some day. The notion of this story as potentially prize-winning fiction, however, is the only truly frightening thing about it--Cowdrey is a decent craftsman, and unlike Witcover, Sparhawk and Sawyer, he actually manages to make us feel and fear for his characters, but no piece as predictable as "The Tribes of Bela" belongs on a major award ballot.

I really did think that I was going to get through the Nebula nominees without descending into rants. Sure, the short story ballot is a bit dull and the novelette ballot is uneven, but overall there's a clear indication in both of them of the ability, sporadically applied though it may be, to recognize good genre fiction and, far more importantly, to distinguish if from the bad. The novella ballot, in contrast, is inexplicable, perhaps even more so because of the presence of Link's story. It shouldn't be possible for any intelligent reader to mistake Witcover, Sparhawk, Sawyer and Cowdrey's pieces for award-worthy fiction, but that the novella jury did so after comparing them with Link's is nearly a schizophrenic act. Which leads me a genuinely scary thought--that a jury so blind as to create this shortlist in the first place might just be blind enough to bestow the Nebula on someone other than Link.