Sunday, December 9, 2012

Thoughts On Battlestar Galactica

A brief confession. I never watched Battlestar when it was on. Never cared about it when it was on. I was one of the many who wrote BSG off as another over hyped, cliched ridden sci-fi show with a low budget and cheesy acting. A judgement I came to without ever having scene an episode. I ignored it along with all the other over hyped cult classics and went about my merry way.

With all the recent talk about how wonderful Blood and Chrome is and hearing the names of BSG's actors whispered in reference on too many times I decided to finally sit down and give this serious a fair shot.

I was wrong. I'll be the first to admit it. I was damn wrong. I'm not sure what exactly I had been expecting. A cheesy, Star Trek style space opera with weak writing, weak acting and overall coating of cheese perhaps. Maybe another Stargate Universe, a decent show that limped along. A show that had it's highs and lows and survived off its interesting concepts. Maybe a Doctor Who. A show that inspires a deep love as whole but fails utterly when broken down into it's various parts.

Whatever I was expecting, I got a show that starts off with interesting concepts and world building and escalates into a wonderful and fascinating study in human relationships and just how far a person can be pushed before they break. This is hands down on of the better shows I've seen in a long time, and one I've enjoyed immensely. Is it perfect? Not in the slightest. Is it great? Defiantly. Does it deserve it's spot in the revered pantheon of Nerdom? Yes, I think it does. While not a Zeus or a Hera, it certainly earns the spot of an Apollo, or Athena. (See what I did there?)

To better illustrate what makes this show work so well in spite of it's faults, I'm going to break it down and hopefully in the process you will gain some greater insights into your own writing. I'm going to go easy on specific examples as I wish for this to remain as spoiler free as possible.

The Bad

Melodrama - This show has drama. More drama than you can shake a stick at. The plot puts the entire human species at risk while adding in love triangles, espionage, betrayal, politics and religion. Most of the time it creates a tense atmosphere the reflects the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Most of the time it takes characters we care about and pushes them to the limit. It breaks their souls and allow us to watch as they struggle to pick up the pieces.

Drama is a tricky thing. Too little and we're bored. Too much and it rips us out of the moment. They go from heartbroken to whiny. We go from sympathetic to annoyed. The line is thin and subjective to the viewer. What may be heart wrenching to one, causes another eyes to roll.

The show is usually good about braving that type rope but falls enough to be noticed.

Plot - This show excels in plot for reasons I'll get into later. Here I wanted to address some of it's weaker points. This ties in to some of the point's about drama. A show this complex, with many different strands that intersect and intertwine can create a web that grabs a hold of the viewers attention and refuses to let go.

Go too far however, and the viewer's suspension of disbelieve vanishes amongst betrayals, reveals and plot twist. The viewer loses his trust in the writer's plans and wonders how many choices are being made for a cheap boost in the viewer's attention (or ratings.) This show has some excellent twist and turns, but towards the end I found myself wondering how much had been planned out from the beginning and how much the writer's were making up as they went along. You can normally get away with this, BSG however built it's entire premise around the plan of it's players. When you do that you have to be sure of where you're going, or the viewers will lose faith that you can find your way.

The show also has a strong reliance on flashbacks. Sometimes going so far to have an episode that is entirely a flashback, with further flashbacks within it. Most of the episodes use the to show background of a character and fill in their past. Others seem to use it fill in plot holes or other problems that might arise. I think I'm one of the few people who doesn't really mind flashbacks. They allow us to skip the boring parts while retaining the interesting. Others may not be so kind to the shows liberal use of them.

The Good

World Building - I'm a huge sucker for world-building when it's done right. Done wrong, world-buildings is a mess of granular details we have no reason to care about and exposition dumping that slows down the narrative. When done right it lures us into the world crumb by crumb until we're hopelessly lost in it's magical forest.

Battlestar Galactica uses it's world-building to a wonderful degree. It starts out with the twelve colonies, setting up that this is not our world or history. It tells us of servants that rose up in defiance and the war that resulted. It expands into not one, but two distinct and fleshed out religions with their own flaws, failures and successes.

More importantly while the religion gives us the central plot device in the search for Earth, they make sure to use it beyond that. The religious beliefs and lack thereof gives us an added layer of depth into the characters. It pops up in politics, episode plots and random stories. It permeates through every aspect of the world which gives it the weight needed with the viewer while helping to round out the world it exist within.

The Cylons begin as a faceless, emotionless enemy. By the end we see they have their own culture, believes, personalities. They evolve from a boogie man harassing the survivors, from a one dimensional wolf harassing sheep to a proper faction in their own right. More than villains, they are shown to be agents of their own fate, with their own hopes, dreams and fears.

Contrast this with Stargate Universe. A show I have no problem with going on the record of having liked, and was very sad with it's cancellation. The shows have a very similar core concept. That of survivors on their own, a long way from home. Or in BSG's case, without a home. While SGU has some world-building in terms of the Ancients and other artifacts, it never comes close to the comprehensive nature that BSG takes with the Cylons.

Stargate Universe was set in what is basically our own world, with some minor differences. The characters all came from Earth. Had our history, our religions. This limited in their options to use these for conflict. Far easier to poke fun at the false gods of fiction than religions who will boycott your show. In the end I think it gave SGU a shallowness of the world that BSG was able to lack. Battlestar was able to achieve not only depth but a truly impressive scale due to the effort and execution of its building.

And of course, who could forget frak. Frak is used as the de facto expletive in the show in place of another four lettered word that starts with F. Though it could also be interpreted as other expletives in certain context. It's a brilliant work around for television censorship. Anyone who's been in the military can tell you there is a lot of cussing involved, no matter what branch you're in. To have a show with people under stress driving them to betrayal and suicide holding in every cuss word would seem unrealistic, and bleeps distracting.

While the use of the word isn't perfect, things like mother fracker can seems forced, it's a wonderful dash of world-building that adds even more to the story. I also find it rather catchy.

Balance - The re-launch of Battlestar Galactica ran from 2004 to 2009. This was a time in America dominated by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A time of deep, bi-partisan political entrenchment and bias across seemingly every form of media. No matter what side your political beliefs fall on, it's undeniable that Bush Era saw a bias in both fiction and news media that boarder lined on Propaganda from both political ideologies.

In the middle of this we have a show about war. A show about government and religion in a time when the country in which is was made was deeply divided over the issues. At the heart of the shows first and second season were the questions of power in government. A careful balance between the military and the people, between civil liberties and national security.

It would have been easy, far to easy, for the show to take a stand for one or the other. For the show to stand up on it's soapbox week after week and denounce a tyrannical military establishment shoving aside the concerns of the people, or lament the weakness of soft-hearted liberals unable to stomach the realities of war.

While the show certainly has it's moment of over reaching military power, and a civilian government unable to make the tough calls, I think it walked a remarkable thin line when so many others in this country were unable to. Whenever one side or the other over stepped it's bounds in the show, they always had reason to do so, and their actions felt within their character.

Character Development - While on the subject of politics, this show has phenomenal character development. Two of the show's central characters, Commander Adama and President Roslin (played by Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell) show wonderful character growth throughout the series, along with others. Adama starts out as the old vet. Military man through and through who has no time for politicians. Roslin is a school teacher who finds herself in the role of President to a dying people. Not only to they evolve as individuals, learning and adapting to the situations they encounter, they evolve together as well. The Commander is softened through the lose of those under his command, as The President is hardened by an unforgiving world. They start out as rivals, gain each others respect and eventual friendship. Adama and Roslin are lesson in how you write a love story. There's no courting, no flirting. Their relationship evolves naturally over time, rising and falling with the circumstances that surround them. And no matter their feelings, they stay true to themselves and act accordingly. Their intertwining path is truly masterful.

As is the development of other characters. This show has a massive cast that grows and shrinks over the course of the show. Instead of relying on a few, small number of characters with which to grow and cultivate, the show continuously challenges itself to fully develop as many characters as possible. Branching out from Adama, Roslin, Lee and Starbuck we meet Chief Tyrol, Lt. Sharon Valerii, Dee, Karl 'Helo' Agathon, and on and on. The sheer amount of characters that not only are fully fleshed out in their own right but continue to evolve and change over the course of the show is staggering on the level of mind blowing. For those who have watched the show think of who Lt. Gaeta was at the start of the show and who he was at the end. Or Starbuck, who begins the show as butch, cigar chomping cliche evolves into well rounded character with real depth and conflict.

One great example of this, without spoilers, is the three pilots. Early on in the show there's an episode where some new pilots need to be trained. Three lucky recruits are sent to Starbuck to be trained as pilots. We see three young adults ready and eager. The minute I saw them I thought, hears a couple of red shirts. Expendable characters that will be dead within a few episodes. Of those three characters one has a long, multi-stage arc and another is always around, developing their own character. What in any other show could have been cannon fodder to be introduced and tossed away becomes an opportunity for growth and development and a chance to get the viewer invested.

Not only is the show not afraid to bring in side characters and give them full arcs of their own, the show isn't afraid to kill characters off. This is something that I miss dearly in a lot of shows, especially those that deal with war. The show is built on the premise that it's a dangerous life and people die and sometimes for shitty reasons. The show goes behind having this spouted by characters to show it in action. Characters die. Characters we've come to care about over dozens of episodes. Characters that had hope and dreams and plans for the future. Instead of pissing us off it makes us love the show even more. It makes us care about the characters that have survived, makes us carry some of the weight that they carry themselves.

Instead of fearing that the viewer would become lost and confused in a sea of characters, Battlestar Galactica gave us a reason to care about each and everyone. They used their cast to give a sense of realism to the world that many shows are missing.

Plot - TV is a tricky medium. In a movie, or a novel you generally have a strict linear progression. You have segments or chapters sure. And a novel is prone to being made up of several stories, tied into a larger whole. You might have the various kingdoms a party is traveling through, or several cases a detective must solve tying into a larger mystery, but the book is working toward a single tale, a single ending.

While TV shares similarities, it has a challenge all its own. Each week it must tell a self contained story strong enough to satisfy the viewer. It must also show the development of plots and characters toward a whole that not only makes the actual story, but compels the viewer to return week after week.

BSG has some wonderful episode plots that focus a specific section of the world, be it politics or religions, while juggling its many characters and plots. More impressively, the show is able to loosely defined goal of a destination and stretch it out without the viewer losing hope. They interweave so many plots, both global in terms of Cylon vs Human or Military vs Civilian bound together by dozens of relationships, rivalries and loyalties.

No matter the size of the conflict, from a worker's strike on a ship, to searching for food, to a love triangle the show boost it's plots through so many layers of worldbuilding, groups, relationships and character that you can't help but enjoy the ride.

One of things I found most impressive with show comes at the end of Season 2 and beginning of Season 3. I won't spoil anything, or at least I'll try not to. Season's one and two have their central focus on the fleet and it's drive to Earth. Far from stale at the end of Season Two, the writer's took the show in a radical direction. They changed up the dynamic completely. There's a decision within the show that is made, followed by a time jump. I found myself thinking it would be a few weeks, maybe a couple months in time. Nope. It's a year. A year. Let that sink in a minute. Something happens in the show, then we cut to a year later. A whole damn year. How many shows do that?

The world we find ourselves in a year later is quite different. The times have changed and relationships with it. People who an episode before where going on their first dates are now married or have kids. The whole time I was watching I kept expecting a retcon. Someone to hit the reset button and go back to the last save. It was a dream sequence or a vision or someone who find a wormhole and warn the others. Nope. They stick with it. They follow through and keep the changes and all of it's consequences. Whether you agree with the choices or not you have to admire the balls of the writers. I don't know of single other show that's done something like that and stuck with it.

Which brings me to another point. Flashbacks. The show has so many, and yet for the most part, they work. Flashbacks are one of those things you see on all these writer's list floating around the internet as an evil thing you should never do. BSG seems to have one every four episodes or some. Some episodes are nothing but flashbacks. Razor, a Battlestar Galactica TV movie is itself one long flashback that has other flashbacks within it. But it works.

Why? Because it allows us to see the good bits without getting bogged down in the boring. During the Season 2/Season 3 jump it skips over a lot of stuff. Most of it probably would have been boring or slow. So they skip it. A few episodes later we get an episode showing us only the most interesting bits that had happened. It allows us the best of both worlds. Along with everything else in the show, it's a fine line that BSG navigates well.

I've enjoyed Battlestar Galactica more than I have other shows in a very long time. It took a while for me to like it as much as I do. Like Stargate Universe it was a good seven episodes before I found myself really caring about what was going on. Maybe that's a problem with me, maybe it's one with the show. I am certaintly glad I stuck with it.

Battlestar manages to wade through countless minefields to come out with fists full of storytelling gold. It not only earns its spot in the Pantheon of Nerdom but is strong enough to defend that spot for decades to come. If you are at all interested in writing, TV, or sci-fi you owe it to yourself to seek this out (it's on Netflix) and give it a watch.

This article is by far the longest I've written for the site. I hope you enjoyed it. If you'd like to see me ramble on other shows, let me know in the comments below.