Monday, August 30, 2004
Battlestar Galactica 2003, And Why It Represents The End Of Western Civilisation
OK. That’s a big call, but I’ll try to back it up.
Those of us of a certain age remember our childhood TV fare with fondness. When I was at School, it was a saturated diet of afternoon Dr Who, The Tripods, Buck Rogers, Star Blazers, Space 1999, and Battlestar Galactica. The lens of time has lent some of these old favourites a lustre they scarcely deserved. Who remembers the papier-mâché monsters and cardboard sets of the Jon Pertwee Doctor era, or the 70’s sideburns and bell-bottom spacesuits of Space 1999? Now in my 30’s, I occasionally revisit them and marvel at how simple they were. Yes, they were cheap and their morals were uncomplicated, but their appeal was, and still is, genuine. As my mother says “In my day it was easy. The bad guys wore black hats, rode dark horses and looked like Jack Palance. The heroes wore white hats and looked like Lee Majors.” Is the world poorer for the loss of this simplicity?
Rather than merely generating nostalgia, comparing the television of our youth to todays fare gives us an interesting insight into how our entire culture has changed, since TV is emblematic of our culture as a whole.
In this context, the pressing question then becomes “Is the remake of Battlestar Galactica merely the worst kind of crap, or does is actually represent the end of Western Civilisation?” Let's talk about that.
Re-working beloved franchises has become a huge industry. The power of nostalgia has been correctly identified as a huge lever for studios to push their wares. Why develop an original idea when you can get a huge draw by branding a series as a remake or “re-imagining” of an old favourite? Unfortunately, in this case one is tempted to rework an aphorism of Cervantes and state that “Good producers venerate old favourites, bad ones vomit them”. This Battlestar Galactica brings new meaning to the word “vomit”.
The most irritating change the producers have made is to the overall feel of the production. The original 1979 production of Battlestar was a story of humans, but the design took pains to show them as unlike any modern nation-state. They did this by using design cues from Egypt and ancient Greece, which was a clever way to create a sense of familiarity without letting us forget that they are an alien culture, removed save but by ancient ancestry from their mythical “Earth”. Sad to say, but Battlestar 2003 is…well, America. Not just America, but early 21st century America. The distinctive Colonial Vipers (our hero’s one man fighters) are no longer ships, but “planes”. They no longer shoot lasers, but bullets, complete with tracers. Their pilots, when off duty, wear green khaki singlets and dog-tags (note, sept 2006: This blog post gets an inordinate amount of hits from people Googling "dog tags" in relation to Battlestar Galactica. Can anyone tell me why?) The cues are obvious to the point of idiocy. The Galactica herself is now basically an aircraft carrier, no longer one of 12 proud Battlestars in the old series, but merely a creaky museum piece overdue for retirement, among a fleet of over 130. A Colonial transport ship, conveying a group of VIP’s and journalists to the Galactica for a decommissioning ceremony is a carbon copy of a modern passenger airliner, with the windows, the seats, the bathroom, heck, even the cheesy in-flight announcements made by the pilot right at home on a Qantas or United Airlines flight. If the parallels weren’t obvious enough, when disaster strikes and a lowly government functionary finds out that she is now the President because everyone ahead of her in the chain of command is dead, she is administered the oath of office in a scene with echoes of Lyndon Johnson’s hasty inauguration after the assassination of Kennedy. By way of punctuation, the pilot announces to surrounding traffic that the ship is now “Colonial One”. Puh-leez!
Why writers and producers think that there is something about any story that isn’t set in the United States (or a transparent substitute) that audiences won’t “get” is one of the great mysteries of our time. It is, of course, a long-standing trend, and one that can be easily traced even if we confine ourselves to a study of the Science Fiction genre. In the 60s and 70s, where was the heart of science fiction? Well, we had Star Trek, in which the Federation was not dominated by any particular 20th century Nation State. Sure, the Captain was from Iowa, but on the bridge we had a Russian, a Japanese, an African and a Scot. In the original series, Warp Drive was invented by a man from Alpha Centauri. Fast-forward 30 years to the movie Star Trek: First Contact and Warp drive is now invented by a drunk man from Colorado. Fast forward to Star Trek: Enterprise. If you aren’t an American (or at least a Vulcan with pert breasts), get the hell off my bridge!
In 1891, Herbert George Wells wrote The Time Machine. Naturally, it was set in England. I suppose it could have been set elsewhere, but the story neither benefited nor suffered for that choice. In 1960 George Pal, an American director filmed it in a magnificent adaptation I still love to watch today, starring Robert Taylor. Wisely, he stuck with Wells’ choice of setting. Fast forward to 2002 and the execrable remake of The Time Machine starring Guy Pearce. For reasons known only to themselves, the screenwriters decided the story had to be transplanted to… New York. They also took various other unnecessary liberties, but don’t get me started. Another article, perhaps. In 1898, Wells wrote War of the Worlds, again set in England. Again, and for no good reason, this wouldn’t do. The movie version in 1953 was set in rural America.
The Crisis of Confidence in our Values
In the original Battlestar, the Cylons were evil, period. In fact it’s not just that they were bad, it wasn’t the fault of our heroes that they were bad. There wasn’t any angst, no moral conflict about the fact that they were trying to wipe out humanity, and no guilt was required of our colonists in fighting against the evil.
In the introduction to this remake, we are informed that the Cylons were in fact created as mechanical slaves by Humans. “We are the flawed creation” our new Commander Adama agonises. Our representative Cylon, who is less chrome plated cyclopean and more Penthouse pet named “six” appears and, in the first 60 seconds, seduces a hapless Colonial officer to distract him as his space station is attacked around him. Later, in what can only be seen as a blunt and unnecessary plot point to establish just how “evil” these fembot humaniform Cylons are, Six goes up to a baby in a perambulator in a scene set in an outdoor market and kills it while it’s mother is distracted for a few seconds. It was at this point that I felt physically angry- not at the character, but at the writers and producers of this “re-imagined” Galactica.
Taken as a whole, it’s fair to say that Galactica 2003 has been thoroughly hijacked. It’s not enough any more to be just escapist fun, with the moralism appropriately confined to affirming that evil will never entirely triumph over good. No, the producers have decided that Galactica is now their vehicle for social and political commentary about issues confronting our society in the 21st century. In many senses it’s a predictable symptom of the crisis of Western confidence brought on by decades of post-modernism. In 1979 we wouldn’t have seen Lorne Greene’s Adama wringing his hands and bemoaning that, in some way, “we deserved what happened”. Nor would he have permitted half the human “rag-tag fleet” (including the stereotypical little girl, oblivious to her fate, waiting in vain for her bedtime story from her Daddy) to be sacrificed to the Cylons because they were not equipped with faster-than-light drives. It had all the subtlety of a scripted drive-by shooting on Sesame Street, and all for the sake of making the plot point “war demands sacrifices”. Our protagonists are disunited. Apollo is estranged from his father, Adama. Boomer is no longer a black man but an Asian chick (and possibly a Cylon in disguise). Tigh is a white drunkard rather than a capable adjutant.
The producers have made a number of excuses for these changes. Chiefly, they say that a “mature” audience will only accept a story where the boundaries between good and evil are a little grey- where relationships are not perfect and human failings are more acknowledged. Maybe, but such claims are advanced without proof. Beyond this, so many of the changes are so arbitrary that they represent a deliberate and insulting slap in the face to fans. The original Cylon warrior design appears for 3 seconds, in a glass case in a museum! The original music score, so inseparable from Galactica (DA da-da DA da-da DAH DAH DA-DA-DAH…) appears for 5 seconds, off key and tinny during the Galactica decommissioning ceremony. The subtext is clear- lip service. The other differences have been well discussed in many forums, such as changing the character of Starbuck to a girl, or the design of the Galactica herself. A series designed without these cues might only cause a little notice in its similarities to the original premise. With them, we soon realise we've been suckered. It's just enough Galactica to make fans of the original series take notice, but not enough to keep them on-side.
It just seems to me that a very acceptable Galactica could have been constructed around the original concept, without arbitrary changes to the race, gender or character of the protagonists, let alone a wholesale gutting of the premise. Whoever said “sexy Cylons!” at the initial brainstorming sessions should have been turfed out the nearest airlock without a suit, and whoever suggested that the good guys not being able to stand one another was a good idea to create dramatic tension should have been sent back to writing for The Young and the Restless. Whoever suggested ditching Stu Phillips’ definitive score should have been met with angry townsfolk with torches and pitchforks on the way home. What has been left may well be Science Fiction, but just don’t call it Battlestar Galactica. I could clone cells from the cadaver of Lorne Green and have them act in a petri dish and get more out of that that this bastard incarnation of an old favourite.
Post September 11, two great ideas are fighting for dominance in the western mind. One is that no society deserves the terrors such as have been visited upon us. Terrorists are “evil” in the sense that the original Cylons were evil. They just are, and even if there was a backstory, or some supposed self-justification for what happened, the acts committed negate such arguments and their validity. Thus, we may destroy evildoers/evilbeings with a clear conscience- with as little pity as we would extend a tumour we excise from a body. The alternate idea goes like this: We made the terrorists. Western society and its pride has caused the destruction we see around us. Although we decry the loss of individual innocent life, corporately we share in the fate of Victor Frankenstein for what has happened- destined to realise in our moment of despair that we are at least partially the authors of our own destruction. Thus no one is truly evil. Cylons and terrorists have a worldview that is as valid as our own. We must examine them, and ourselves to see if we are worthy of survival. And maybe we aren’t.
Such extremes of viewpoints manifest themselves as gung-ho U.S imperialism or as hand-wringing puerility like Battlestar Galactica. There has to be a balance somewhere in the middle. I for one think that the ideals of Western Society and the Enlightenment are eminently defensible. Then again, I’m an unreconstructed believer in the “White Man’s Burden” as well. Again, don’t get me started.
So there we are. Battlestar Galactica. Great concept, loathsome “re-imagining”, bad execution (with the exception of the new whiz-bang special effects, but that’s merely a matter of money), and even bad politics and bad apologia for Western Civilisation. Will the creators of this ordure curl up and die? No, they’ve been given the green light to launch off from the mini-series and produce a fully-fledged season, screening in early 2005. Expect more fembot Cylons with pert breasts and internecine conflict among the good guys.
- Nathan Zamprogno