Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Epic Wrongness of the Day

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.

9 comments:

iainjclark said...

Yes.

despotliz said...

This is exactly what I would like to have written were I not too busy boggling at the post.

I am watching BSG season 2 right now, and considering whether they introduced the Pegasus as a way of saying 'You think we're bleak already? We'll show you bleak!'

Molly Moloney said...

I'm much more sanguine than you are about the later seasons of BSG. That said, the thought of Farscape needing to be darkened a la BSG irks me immensely. Few shows have had as lovely a combination of outrageous humor, epic drama, pathos, and a great little love story to boot. And the description of Aeryn Sun as a pre-Sarah Connors Chronicles, thus making her somehow retroactively derivative, just makes me sad.

Cher Mere said...

I just wanted you to know that I have been reading your blog for awhile now and I am really enjoying it. I was amazed to find another person who seemed it like the same mix of pop culture (and Jane Austen) that I do.

I just wanted to give you some props. You deserve it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Liz:

I am watching BSG season 2 right now, and considering whether they introduced the Pegasus as a way of saying 'You think we're bleak already? We'll show you bleak!'

I think that's a question that could be asked of a lot of the show's plotlines, and certainly most of what happens in season 3.

Molly:

the description of Aeryn Sun as a pre-Sarah Connors Chronicles, thus making her somehow retroactively derivative, just makes me sad.

I'm not sure if the point was that Aeryn is retroactively derivative, but I do think Newitz is saying that Sarah Connor, and specifically the most recent, Lena Headey version, is the new standard for kickass heroines. Which doesn't strike me as being an egregiously wrongheaded thing to believe (certainly not in comparison with the rest of the article). Headey's Connor has many of the qualities that made Aeryn a great character. But I don't see that she's topped Aeryn in any respect, and at any rate after only nine episodes it's a little early to be handing her the crown.

Cher:

Thank you :-)

raz greenberg said...

From what I've seen of Farscape, the show certainly had a darker, edgier side to it too. It did go in a completely different direction from BSG, as far as genre shows go, in the sense that it aimed for a truly "alien" feeling in its stories, rather than go for the familiar historical/religious/literary parallels to our world of BSG (and coming to think of it, other shows like Star Trek and Babylon 5).

That said, it was the same "alien" feeling that made it hard for me to connect with Farscape - I believe I didn't make it beyond the second season. At times, I felt like I was not watching a show but indeed reading a fanfic, based on some other creation that I had no access to. It was just too frustrating.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yes, Farscape had its dark elements as well. That's easy to forget in light of its humor, its zaniness, and of course in comparison to the nonstop dourness of Battlestar Galactica, but this was a show that took its characters to horrible places and subjected them to terrible indignities.

I'm not sure I've ever thought of Farscape as being particularly alien - remember that the absence of aliens and alienness was one of the innovations that set BSG apart when it first aired - though I suppose it's true that shows in which the human is alone in an alien landscape, into which he becomes subsumed, were uncommon even before BSG redefined the landscape. I never found the show hard to get into because of its alienness, but Farscape was infamous for having a steep learning curve - the first time I watched it, I happened across a couple of third season episodes. I was completely bewildered, with no idea what was going on. I really think it's a show you need to watch from beginning to end, though if you made it into the second season and still weren't enchanted, there's probably not much hope for you :-)

raz greenberg said...

Actually, I keep telling myself I should go back to the show and finish watching it. I just never get around to it - it's one of the things in my "to do" list for a long time now :-)

Jakob Schmidt said...

As much as I disagree with BSG-ifying Farscape, I think there's one interesting parallel between the two shows: both seem to follow a principle of escalation, where the decisions of the protagonists tend to make matters worse. However, Farscape did so in a more chaotic and, to my mind, more believable, compelling and relevant way. The show really has a quite grim subtext about the question if one can and should act to change things on a larger scale - about power. One of the best, most harrowing lines of the show is Crichton saying: "Today I have thrown a bomb in a field of flowers. Tomorrow might be better. I might have a bigger bomb." (or something alont the lines ...) It really drives home the notion that not only we might do bad things for good reasons, but that it may also be impossible for us to control the consequences of our deeds, that we might start with the best intentions and end up with a bigger bomb. Even though, inaction was never an option to the characters of the show, because they were so entangled into interplanetary politics, and because many of them still strove in a most admirable way to act responsible despite the seeming impossibility to do so ...
The Peacekeeper Wars did a good job of wrapping that motif up by giving us the "bigger bomb" we were fearing and longing for and stressing the terror of it. It's a really wonderful thematic arc, that reflects on the nature of action-adventure-storytelling without sacrificing its characters, the integrity of its universe or its sense of fun to some metaphor.

I really loved that show. I wish they had made a fifth season instead of the awfully condensed, hectic Peacekeeper Wars ...

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