Battlestar Galactica

By Shamus
on Oct 19, 2006
Filed under:
Nerd Culture

Over at Augury I found a bit about the new season of Battlestar: Galactica. There is a lot of controversy over the plot at the launch of the new season. It seems the humans have had to resort to suicide bomber attacks, and some parallels between the story and current events are causing an uproar. It portrays the Cylons as the “occupation” and the humans as “freedom fighters” who are obliged to use “suicide attacks”.

People seem to be divided into two camps:

  1. Casting the bad guys as the Americans in the Iraq war and having the other side (humans) argue about the morality of suicide attacks is a grotesque and heavy-handed allegory.
  2. The show is just trying to make you think. That’s what science fiction is for.

I have only seen the pilot episode / miniseries / whatever it was, and have not checked out the show itself yet, so I don’t know the specifics of this. I will say that I think the most obvious mistake is having the characters use the language of the current war in Iraq. I think this is what makes it seem so clumsy and heavy-handed. The writers should have come up with different words to use so that it wouldn’t be so jarring. Hearing “suicide bomber” – a term that entered use in just the last couple of years and is now on the news regularly – is a terrible idea. This is like having characters talk about their blogs.

They could have instead used “kamakaze”, or (even better) they could have come up with a new word for this. Then it would have seemed more like an exploration of the idea of suicide attacks as a tool of warfare and less like a fumbling allegory of the Iraq war.

I think its an interesting idea: What if we were in a spot where we were outmatched by a superior foe, but we found we could gain an advantage if we were willing to use suicide attacks as a weapon? There are a lot of hooks here that could yield interesting stories. Despite being from the other side of the galaxy (or whatever) the humans in this story obviously hold very western attitudes and values, so finding a volunteers would not be easy. How would commanders react to giving such an order? What if nobody volunteered? How many lives are worth how much gain? At what point does the idea become so costly that they will no longer consider it? For example: what if we could win the war in a single stroke, but we need 10 people willing to die, and we need to know that none of them will chicken out at the last minute? So, if one person chickens out the plan fails, but the other people still die? What if this potential suicide attack was a window of opportunity that was only available for a limited time, but (if they could do it) would deal a real blow to the Cylons?

This stuff is gold, from a writer’s standpoint. You could write a dozen short stories (and thus: a dozen episodes) on this by just looking at it from various angles and exploring all of the ways people react to this idea. The only danger is that you will yank the audience out of the story by reminding them that it was written today. Your characters should never use the lingo of the nightly news. This is the very reason they have space-jargon in sci-fi.

Sadly, it sounds like the show was going downhill even before this happened. Lurking around various comment threads I can see a lot of people echoing the same complaints. It looks like this is a very American television show: Launch with great fanfare but no clue as to where the long-term plot arc should be headed. Then just wing it until the show gets canceled. If you write yourself into a corner, pull out a Dues Ex Machina or two, toss in some controversy, and then just sort of gloss over it and move on.

On the upside, it looks like Vandread is pretty good. I guess I’ll just stick with the Japanese to fill my hunger for Sci-fi.

(One final note: Let’s see if we can keep from getting into a debate over the war. Really. The ‘net is wall-to-wall with people talking about it. We’re talking about TV shows here. Don’t be that guy.)

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1624 comments. (That's 10 in Hexadecimal.)

From the Archives:

  1. Bogan the Mighty says:

    I would just like to say that the show is getting dumber with each episode. I didn’t even like the original show all that much, but I did enjoy sitting down to watch a couple episodes every so oftern. All I got to say is that the original series is like Shakespeare compared to the new stuff.

  2. BeckoningChasm says:

    I didn’t hold out much hope for the show when it was announced, since it was to be guided by Ronald Moore. When I think “heavy-handed analogies to today’s issues, with a predictable Hollywood slant” I think Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Moore was one of their star writers.

  3. Shamus says:

    Moore was one of their star writers.

    That explains a LOT.

  4. Pete Zaitcev says:

    Oh, Vandread is good indeed. But not good enough. It’s not even as good as Stellvia.

    BTW, speaking of Stellvia, Vandread, and the link above. Steven is in serious denial about mecha series. He purports to rebel against series where mecha takes the center stage and rally for series where it serves as a backdrop for the characters. But in that case, he should be watching Dai-Guard, not Vandread. That’s where characters really star. In Vandread, if I am interested in characters, I have to ignore half of what is happening, in Stellvia maybe 25%, and in Dai-Guard it’s just the normal monster-of-the-day kind of schtick, I don’t even notice it.

    To take a more direct track, let’s look at the realization of “we have to work together”. In Vandread, main character fights it, a first line character fights it too, then a goddamn magical stuff glues them together, and the dynamic duo does not really fight together. Their mecha combines, but not them. It’s crude, characters are morons. In Dai-Guard, the same realization occurs because a human set it up, and they have to work on it, and because of the experience the main character sees the benefits of working together.

    Your link reminded me about my e-mail exchange with Steven about it. It was before I saw Vandread, so I could not directly compare, and decided to let it drop. But it was clear that his declarations of motives and actual viewing preferences (and ratings) do not add always up.

  5. *** Dave says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. Part of what makes the allegory ring so false is the clumsy use of contemporary language.

    That and, well, gratuitous wrenching of the entire plot of the show into a different direction. And the dumbing down of the bad guys. And … a bunch of things.

    Haven’t stopped watching it yet (and I thought the mini-series and first season were brilliant), but it’s definitely listing in an alarming fashion. Pity.

    On the other hand, just showed up here having been pointed at “DM of the Rings,” so bravo and thanks.

  6. Please note that Pete has only watched the first DVD of Vandread, not the whole series.

    Please also note that Pete is miffed at me because I won’t watch Stellvia.

  7. Cineris says:

    Good points here. Kamikaze, I think, is definitely more appropriate as the kamikaze attacks were strategic… As were the attacks being pulled off by the characters in BSG.

    I’ve had the same problem with Moore as BeckoningChasm has. I just watched an episode of ST:TNG where Picard “listens to his conscience” and betrays the Federation because of some treaty with the Romulans (which the Romulans regularly break, no doubt, and which they broke when they attacked the Enterprise in that very episode). The implication that safeguarding some flimsy treaty or agreement of pan-galactic government entities is more important than protecting the lives of real people is pretty much the heart of my problem with that show.

    BSG was extremely good, though, and my reservations about Moore were put aside when I began watching it. I don’t think there’s ever been a television show as good as BSG’s first season. It’s not even that the second season ran short of ideas, there was still plenty of material introduced in the first season to take the series through a good 3 season run. Whatever muse was with Moore and the other writers when they were writing the first season has pretty clearly left them, now, though, and all I’m hoping for is that they have the sense to bring the show to a respectable close and answer all the questions before it slips down into the morass of interminable American TV shows.

  8. Wonderduck says:

    “Hearing “suicide bomber” – a term that entered use in just the last couple of years and is now on the news regularly…”

    I take no issue with what you’re saying in your post at all; you’re right. I DO scratch my head at the sentence above, however. The term ‘suicide bomber’ has been around for a long time… remember the whole Palestinian/Israeli thing?

    I’m not a fan of BSG, though I’ve wound up watching it quite a few times (usually as I channelflip), but there’s one good reason to watch it: Grace Park.

  9. Shamus says:

    Okay, “couple of years” should have read more like “the last decade”, which is about as far back as my memory of the term goes.

  10. Will says:

    Well after tonight’s episode, I’m beginning to forgive them their foray into current events in such a heavy handed manner.

  11. Acksiom says:

    Well, I’ve watched *both* VanDread and Stellvia, and I have not the slightest clue as to what Pete is talking about when he says of Stellvia — in effect — ‘25% mecha filler’. Seriously. . .whaaaaa? For goodness sake; in the *very first episode*, one of the main supporting characters asks [spoiler], expressing an attitude that effectively exemplifies mecha *postmodernism*.

    The ‘mecha’-tech in Stellvia exists almost exclusively to serve meaningfully integrated character and plot development, and frankly, IMO, to such a degree that it arguably *lowers* the quality of the series as a whole. Stellvia might very well have been even *better* with a little more Gundam content and a little less [spoiler].

  12. Luke says:

    Personally, I really liked the role reversal. It was thought provoking. The political commentary was obvious, but I don’t think that this subtracts from the overall value or the message.

    I was reading the post you linked to and find it funny how the author thought that BSG was awesome when faith obsessed Cylons could be interpreted as symbolizing islamic extremists. But as soon as the show flipped things around and put Cylons in place of American occupation forces they get all upset.

    Btw, please watch the episodes in question before passing your final judgment.

    Despite being from the other side of the galaxy (or whatever) the humans in this story obviously hold very western attitudes and values, so finding a volunteers would not be easy.

    The volunteers were ex-military men with personal grudges against Cylons. For example, the first suicide bomber’s wife was shot to death by Cylons. She happened to be praying in the temple where resistance hid weapons and she was killed along with all the other civilians when Cylons found out. So the bomber had a very personal reason to do this. The bombings were strictly volunteer missions, and no one was explicitly ordered to do these things.

    Most of the resistance members were either opposed to the bombings or resented them. No one was happy about them.

    I thought it was done well, and not very heavy handed. But I agree with you on the modern language argument. They could have changed it up a little bit. But I don’t think it would make much difference.

  13. ubu roi says:

    “Personal reasons” ripped straight out of wishful thinking and enemy propaganda. That’s a very cleverly constructed example, Luke, because it cannot be countered without delving into the Iraq war, the tactics, the propaganda, and West’s fifth column, a.k.a. the “fair and unbiased media.” And that would violate Shamus’ request not to get into all that. So I’ll just have to stop at “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

    And maybe the author thought the show was great when it appeared to have the opposite political sensibilities, but not everyone did.

  14. Deoxy says:

    “It looks like this is a very American television show: Launch with great fanfare but no clue as to where the long-term plot arc should be headed. Then just wing it until the show gets canceled. If you write yourself into a corner, pull out a Dues Ex Machina or two, toss in some controversy, and then just sort of gloss over it and move on.”

    Which is why Babylon 5 was so good – it wasn’t like that. I wish they would make more of that.

  15. Somebody Else says:

    A very important point about the new BSG: It’s morally ambiguous. There’s pretty much always pretty solid justification for what happens, even when what happens is monstrous. This is a show where humanity is nuked down to the last fraction of a percentage of their total population by robots, who then proceed to mercilessly hunt down and attempt to eliminate that last fraction, and the robots are still portrayed sympathetically. A big part of my enjoyment of the series clicked into place when I realized that neither Cylons nor humans are heroes or villains, merely protagonists and antagonists.

  16. Ardis Meade says:

    Late to the party.
    I think the term Suicide bomber is a lot older than you’re giving it credit for. I remember hearing the term as a kid in the early 90’s and it didn’t seem to be new then.
    This episode was when I stopped watching. It wasn’t the message that got to me. It was how much they sucked at conveying it

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