Monday, February 26, 2007

President Roslin, Battlestar Galactica, 2005


I've been hearing about the new Battlestar Galactica as one of the best things on television for a few years, but I foolishly resisted the hype. I say foolishly because I responded to the show just as friends do when I try to tell them that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was brilliant: Whatever, dork.

Know thyself: Dork, geek, and now, Battlestar fan. The show won me over with its patience. The first half hour or so of the pilot episode is dedicated to slow, ordinary life, and yet it's filled with dread. Not suspense, exactly, but something thicker and deeper beneath the surface. The plot is this: Forty years ago, the humans defeated their creation, the Cylons; the Cylons left and haven't been seen since. Life is peaceful and good. The Galactica is about to be decommissioned. The moment, as more than one critic has pointed out, is Clintonian -- the Cold War is over, and things are ok but not grand, and something is missing, and we're worried that something bad may be coming. It's a period of exhuberance for most and White Noise anxiety for the few. The ranks of the latter include Edward James Olmos as the brooding old admiral of the Galactica, who, warns in his farewell speech that you can't escape your sins. The past isn't dead, it isn't even past. And so it is with the Cylons, who return to destroy the world.

But before that happens, the show features a series of moments as good as one of the best Buffy episodes ever, "The Body." We see a handsome middle aged woman waiting in an elegant but sterile room. Sun filters in through skylights; the atmosphere is wan. Who is she? What is she waiting for? When a doctor finally enters, it's so obvious that we barely need dialogue; and get almost none, as a space ship lumbers overhead, obscuring their words. Cut to a scene of the woman aboard a space ship, which looks -- deliberately -- just like an ordinary airplane; mundane. She is, we gather, a politican, but not a very important one. Just a functionary. Her aide, immediately recognizable as the kind of young earnest hack that trots around Capitol Hill, asks her a question. She cannot respond, flees to the bathroom. Unbuttons her jacket, grabs her chest, heaves with repressed grief and shock.

And that's about all we know of the death sentence, perphaps breast cancer, of the woman who is about to become president of the survivors of the Cylon attack (by virtue of her position as 43rd in succession, following the Cylon's nuclear attack). It's slow and painful and very real, perhaps all the more so for its contrast with the fantastical story. Indeed, it makes the fantastical story much sharpe -- the cancer dread, so understated, is real. So then might be our fear of the Cylons, who, after all, are a metaphor.

I'm not ready to say for what. I've only seen the pilot and one episode. The latter is a bit weaker. One of the strengths of the pilot was that the same quiet observation with which we attended the president's diagnosis marked the approach of the director to the inevitable space battles. Geeks know there's no noise in space, of course, so that wins the show some realism points. More importantly, it forces the viewer to provide the soundtrack; and the usual "action theme" won't suffice. In the silence we confront the fact that the good guys will rally like David fighting Goliath, but to no avail. They'll be destroyed like anyone who terribly underestimates their enemies.

Alas, the director evidently overestimated the average viewer. The first regular episode features laser guns a-blasting and Cylons droning in space battle, standard sci-fi theatrics. What's left -- what makes the program still so interesting -- are the actors, particularly the president (Mary McDonnell). She quietly suppresses the horror of their post-apocalyptic condition as she carries on with leading them to survival. It's the silent dread of the pilot episode's space battles, or of an ordinary, horrifying prognosis -- an emotion I haven't seen portrayed on television since Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Whatever, dork.

21 comments:

jdaviddark said...

So pleased to hear you praise BG so well. It is indeed a revelation.

Thanks for all the good work.

Daldude said...

Well, I've read 'KTB', and am a regular visitor to The Revealer, but this is the first time I've come to your blog, and here you are, talking about 2 of my all time favorite TV shows (BG and Buffy). Ya got yourself a new reader, for sure.

I definitely encourage you to watch the rest of the BG series - especially the beginning of season 3 (though it won't make much sense without having seen the preceding seasons).

Given your tastes, I'd also recommend the (sadly) short-lived "Firefly" series (and subsequent movie, "Serenity"), if you haven't already seen them. The series didn't have the chance to get as deep as Buffy, and is not as 'intellectual' as BG, but it's chock full Whedon's great writing (and influence on other writers), and that in itself makes it worthwhile...

Jeff Sharlet said...

David Dark: I'm a fan of your "Gospel According to America" (and I'm not even a Christian). Thanks for stopping by.

Daldude -- we're on the same page -- I love Firefly, and would even argue that it might be the more subtle show than Buffy. The broad strokes hide the really fundamental conflicts Whedon worked into the premise. What a sad thing that it didn't continue so we could see them explored.

Paul said...

Greetings from NZ, Jeff.
After stumbling across your wonderful Harper's columns -congratulations on the award, by the way- I have found myself reading more and more of your work lately.

As regards Battlestar, you're in for a treat; while the first episode "33" was a little weak, it returns to form for most of the first and second seasons.
I have found season 3 to be disappointing so far - I attribute this to the lesser involvement of creator Ronald D. Moore, who is spending his time working on a spin-off series "Caprica".

Another series he was heavily involved with that you may enjoy was named "Carnivàle".
The series is stunning, and, as with Buffy and Battlestar, is keenly aware of its set-pieces; somehow it knows how to tilt the board in just such a way as to make the game play out with actual artistic merit in a genre that was nearly empty of it.

I actually stopped watching television years ago... with Firefly and Battlestar, you have named two of the four series that I made exceptions for. (The others were The Sopranos and Carnivàle).

JTB said...

I'm so glad you have discovered BG. I rarely proselytize (for anything at all) but BG is an exception.

I am also really intrigued about the possible article mentioned in your Feb 15 post--on the Ray Kurzweil/Hans Moravec transhumanist stuff (if I am interpreting right). I am trying to get started on a dissertation on theology & the posthuman, and would love to swap ideas some time if you're willing.

Anonymous said...

i really love yr writing -- imho, yr about the best journalist writing now. but how the fuck can you like bg? i gave up after 5 episodes of jingoism, cliche, and simplistic exposition. starbuck & baltar are cool, but not enough. i like to think of myself as someone who can appreciate a story regardless of political angle, but bg may be the rare exception. too earnest, too trite, not challenging enough. or maybe it's just me.

Sunfell said...

I just found your blog via the "On the Media" connection. I was napping and woke up to hear the end of the "Religious Wrong" segment, but thank goodness for the instant gratification of podcasting.

I became a fan of yours from reading your "Harpers" articles, and "Jesus Plus Nothing" really got my attention, as did "Soldiers For Christ". I am looking forward to your upcoming book.

I love BG. It's edgy, contemporary, and could only have been done right as a post 9/11 kind of story. I just read that the fourth season (premiering in January '08) will be the last.

And I love "Firefly", too.

Jeff Sharlet said...

Thanks, Sunfell. I hope you're right about the fourth season -- I'm halfway through the third and feeling a little disappointed. I was impressed that the show was willing to make the humans the metaphor for the Iraqi insurgents, but one for one analogies fall a little flat, I think, and so far the season has lost steam since leaving New Caprica behind. Maybe there are interesting things ahead.

Thanks to the other commentators, too. JTB, I've shelved the Moravic/Kurzweil story for the time being -- Moravic wouldn't even talk to me, and I just don't see the developments around which a general interest story could be framed. But maybe down the road.

Anonymous: I thought the same when I watched just a couple of episodes from the second season, but when I started from the beginning, the show improved tremendously. I don't see the jingoism -- it's as morally ambiguous as anything on television.

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