Now that Comic-Con is over, the folks at io9 can get back to their regularly scheduled mix of quirky science stories, film and TV news, off the wall lists (best TV robots! is actually a rather unremarkable example), and opinion pieces. I'm fond enough of io9. I wouldn't like it to be the only source for genre news and commentary around, and it's certainly not my first stop when looking for same, but I do tend to read it most days. Which is how I ended up, at an ungodly hour this morning, being confronted by a television piece by the blog's editor Annalee Newitz, in which she muses that "There are a lot of cool ways this underrated show could return to TV as something darker, less campy, and more socially relevant, just like Battlestar Galactica did."
The show in question? Farscape. Which, Newitz goes on to opine, could be made into "a potential hit" by deepening the moral abmiguity of its characters (Rygel as a former genocidal despot, Zhaan as a ninja assassin, Chiana as a political activist with violent tendencies), remaking Scorpius into a smooth-talking politician, and sinking Crichton and Aeryn even further into tragedy ("Perhaps their son was killed by the Peacekeepers").
Let's do Newitz the courtesy of assuming she's not simply trying to rile up Farscape fans (though if she is: mission accomplished), and that she truly believes in what she's saying. Similarly, let's assume that when she talks about giving Farscape "a Battlestar-style reboot," Newitz is aware that from a technical standpoint--dialogue, character development, plotting and plot arcs, worldbuilding, just about everything, in fact, but the quality of the shows' respective space battles--Farscape pisses on Battlestar Galactica from a great height (the overall acting caliber on Battlstar Galactica is probably higher than Farscape's, but its actors are given so little that's worthwhile to do that the difference is hardly noticeable), and that the emulation she's hoping for is strictly in the realm of tone and theme. She's still dead wrong.
Newitz calls Farscape campy, and this is simply not true. Camp, the dictionary tells us, is "banality, artifice, mediocrity, or ostentation so extreme as to have perversely sophisticated appeal." Something is campy, in other words, when it is so knowingly and deliberately bad that that badness becomes enjoyable. Farscape could be silly and over the top, and occasionally it was plain bad, but it was never campy--winking at its viewers, urging them to mock it as it mocked itself. In fact, if Farscape had a crowning virtue, it was that it took its premise, setting, and characters utterly seriously. Which is not to say that the show was afraid to laugh at itself or just be funny, but its writers never stopped believing in the reality of their universe. When they told a story, no matter how outlandish its premise or how absurd the events within it, they told it with complete earnestness, and took the time to imagine how real people would react to these unreal circumstances, even if those people happened to be muppets. This gravitas is the reason that Farscape, and Farscape alone, could take a shlocky and embarrassing premise like the characters being exposed to a chemical that makes them horny, and make of it not only a great episode--one of my all-time favorites--but a genuinely thoughtful and resonant hour of television.
What Newitz wants, what she's calling a reduction in Farscape's campiness, is to change the show's tone to match the bleak naturalism of Battlestar Galactica. That's not what Farscape is. Farscape's tone, from day one, was operatic. It was an epic. An adventure. A grand love story. There's nothing inherently wrong with Battlestar Galactica's more sombre tone (though I liked the show a great deal better when both it and its characters still had a sense of humor), but Newitz's approach seems to be that it is, in fact, inherently superior. That television shows, and science fiction shows in particular, would be better if they steered clear of space opera and stuck to telling as grimly realistic a story as they can.
That's the kind of unimaginative attitude I've come to associate with mainstream reactions to Battlestar Galactica. Viewers who couldn't look past the makeup, prostheses, and funny names to see the wit and intelligence that made other science fiction shows worth watching flocked to it, convinced that it was the absence of these elements that made the show witty and intelligent, and its characters believable as human beings. Just this morning, Andrew Rilstone posted an essay about the Buffy episodes "The Body" and "Forever" (Andrew Rilstone! Writing about Buffy!), in which he points out how that series, as operatic as Farscape ever was, told a story about grief that cut him to the quick without surrendering that tone or its fantastic elements, because it believed in both its characters and its universe. It is profoundly disappointing to discover that a science fiction blogger like Newitz is incapable of seeing how Farscape, week after week, achieved that same marvel, but what other conclusion is there to be drawn when she calls Scorpius a "campy leatherboy zombie guy" and states that his ultimate goal is to take over the universe?
Newitz goes on to spin potential plotlines for the revamped Farscape, some of which I've mentioned above. What she's doing, essentially, is writing fanfic. There's plenty of fanfic out there that makes fundamental changes to the original work's tone, setting, and premise, to the personalities of its characters and their relationships with one another, and it's not uncommon for fanfic writers to feel that in doing so they are improving on the original (and in some cases they are quite right). It's entirely possible that this show--this bleak re-envisioning of Farscape in which a bereaved Crichton and Aeryn roam the universe in Moya, trying to stop Scorpius the politician's plan to implant the population of the whole galaxy with neural chips, while Zhaan performs political assassinations, Rygel waxes fondly about the death camps he built as Dominar, and Chiana spouts Marxist rhetoric--could be good. It just wouldn't be Farscape, nor do I see any reason why this show would automatically improve on the original. (As for being socially relevant, anyone who's been reading this blog for any amount of time will know just what I think about Galactica's so-called social relevance, but regardless, it takes a lot of nerve to suggest that Farscape, the series that gave us Aeryn Sun, a character still unparalleled in the annals of strong heroines--for all that Newitz calls her merely a "perfect pre-Sarah Connor Chronicles beautiful, hard-bitten hero"--needs lessons in social relevance.) Worst of all, what distinguishes Newitz from many fine fanfic writers is that I have no idea what kind of story she wants to tell. She's mixing a little bit of Farscape with a bit of Battlestar Galactica, but what, beyond her insistence on making the show 'dark' (as though the original Farscape were lighthearted, and as though darkness were a virtue in its own right), does she want this new show to be? What qualities does it have that are all its own, that justify its existence?
Newitz seems to have arrived at her thesis by noting certain superficial similarities between Farscape and the original Battlestar Galactica, and concluding from them that a Galactica-style reboot could only do Farscape good, but in so doing she's lost sight of both the qualities that made Farscape special and the flaws that afflict Galactica. We should be grateful, therefore, that her shiny new vision of Farscape will never get farther than a post on io9. As I've said in the past, I fully expect, as the years transform me from a young fan into a not-so-young and eventually an old one, to see the holy relics of my youthful fannishness manhandled by fandom's next generation. There may very well be a reboot of Farscape some day. Let's hope whoever is in charge of it has a better ear for the original show's strengths than Annalee Newitz, and more importantly, their own ideas about where they want to take it.