As I’ve mentioned several times before, I like the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series—but I don’t love it. Yes, yes, I know. I’m wrong. BSG is the best TV show ever. I fracked up.
This week on Overthinking BSG (a.k.a. Mlawski’s fortnightly attempt to discover why she doesn’t like the show as much as she theoretically should), I’m going to talk politics. My theory for this week: I’d like the show better if I were a neo-con living in 2004. Which I’m not.
Warning: politics within.
A quick note: I was unaware of how short season one of Battlestar Galactica actually is, so I ended up watching some of season two so I had a full eight episodes to write about.
Episode 1.9 (“Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down”): In this episode Battlestar Galactica: The Sitcom, Colonel Tigh’s wacky drunk wife, Ellen, who may or may not be a Cylon, comes to the BSG to awkward things up, while Baltar, who isn’t telling anyone that Boomer is a Cylon for some unknown reason, and who isn’t telling anyone whether or not Tigh’s wife is a Cylon for some unknown reason, has imaginary sex with his imaginary robot friend. There was something off about this episode to me.
Episode 1.10 (“The Hand of God”): I once read that there’s a guideline for writing a likable TV show, and it goes like this: if you write about a group of characters who mostly like each other working together to solve a difficult and important problem, your show will be immediately likable. This episode was the first BSG episode to follow that guideline and, as such, I finally had some fun watching a BSG episode.
In this episode, President Roslin starts hallucinating and comes to the conclusion that she’s an instrument of god. Baltar continues hallucinating and comes to the conclusion that he’s an instrument of god. The members of the cast without messiah complexes work together to take down a Cylon base so they can get the fuel they need to continue their journey. Despite all odds, they succeed! Hooray! Is this episode deep and philosophical? Maybe not. But goshdarnit, I liked it.
Episode 1.11 (“Colonial Day”): Hey, remember how there was an episode earlier in the season about some convicts on a prison ship? Well, they’re back! At least, Tom Zarek, their revolutionary leader, is back. Good job, show. I approve of continuity.
Tom Zarek has been elected the representative from Sagittaron, and he demands that the seat of VP be filled. Naturally, he’s running for the spot. Pres. Roslin and Commander Adama do not want a former terrorist a heartbeat away from the presidency, regardless of the fact that Zarek actually seems to have some practical ideas on how to run a post-apocalyptic society. (Tom Zarek for President of the Colonies! Admit it. A twist like that would make the show a lot more interesting.) Luckily for Roslin, the sometimes-charismatic AND TOTALLY NOT INSANE Gaius Baltar is there to run against Zarek. Baltar wins the election. I mean, of course, he does. Baltar’s a hottie.
An aside: I also liked this episode. Even though the Colonial political system appears to be…well, the word “stupid” comes to mind, I appreciated the fact that the show actually took some time off from the “blow up the Cylons” plot to talk about the nitty-gritty of post-apocalyptic politics and economics. If the show moves in this direction a little more, I may be more interested.
Episode 1.12-13 (“Kobol’s Last Gleaming”): It’s season finale time, so lots of things happen all at once. Boomer 1 considers killing herself; Baltar convinces her to go through with it. (She’s ok.) The humans discover Kobol, their mythical ancestral homeland. Pres. Roslin, who is now completely certain she’s a religious figure, convinces Starbuck to return to Caprica to find the prophecied “Arrow of Apollo” so she (Roslin) can lead humanity to Earth. When Adama finds out that Roslin took over military property for some wacky religious reasons, he stages a coup. But Lee believes in the rule of law and pulls a gun on Col. Tigh, which gets him and Pres. Roslin sent to the brig.
Meanwhile, Baltar, the Chief, and some others are on their way to survey Kobol when their ship gets attacked by Cylons. Now they’re stranded on Kobol. While Baltar is unconscious, Number Six gives Baltar a vision of their robo-baby, and they make out in his mind. At Adama’s order, Boomer 1 goes to nuke the giant Cylon ship above Kobol. On the ship, she meets a load of other, naked-er Boomers. Then when she returns home, she shoots Adama twice in the chest. On Caprica, Starbuck finds the Arrow of Apollo, kills a copy of Number Six, and finds Helo and Boomer 2. Helo is now aware that Boomer 2 is a Cylon but is keeping her alive because she claims she’s pregnant with his child. What’s with all the robot-human hybrid babies, show? Is this the Cylons’ “plan”? Miscegenation? They do realize they could have done that without killing 99% of the human race, don’t they?
Episode 2.1 (“Scattered”): In our season 2 opener, Tigh becomes the acting-commander of the BSG while Adama’s critical. Tigh orders that the BSG and the fleet FTL away from the Cylons, but the BSG and the fleet manage to jump to separate coordinates. Whoops. The BSG has to jump back to Kobol, where a bazillion Cylons are waiting, and network their computers to figure out where the rest of the fleet is. Trouble is, Cylons can totally virus up networked computers. Through the power of luck and the fact that the nature of this show requires that humanity survive the beginning of the second season, the BSG gets the coordinates in time and jumps over to the rest of the fleet. But some Cylons have infiltrated the ship! Dun dun dunnn!
Meanwhile, on Kobol, the Chief, Cally, and some random redshirt get caught under Cylon fire while trying to find an extra medkit. (Guess who bites it.) On Caprica, Boomer 2 steals Starbuck’s ride.
Episode 2.2 (“Valley of Darkness”): My notes say: “If Billy, Dee, and Commander Adama had a threesome, would it be called the Billy-Dee-William?” Nice. The BSG’s power is mostly out due to the Cylon virus, plus there are Cylon centurions rampaging around the ship. They look like this:
Lee, Billy, and some other people boom-headshot them to death. Adama’s still critical from Boomer 1’s assassination attempt, Starbuck and Helo are having some chill-out time on Caprica, and Chief Tyrol euthanizes another poor redshirt.
Episode 2.3 (“Fragged”): On Kobol, Lt. Crashdown decides to take down some Cylons who are almost done building an anti-aircraft gun. Chief Tyrol and Baltar think this is a Bad Idea. The show obviously wants me to side with them, too, but, frankly, if they had a better plan than Crashdown’s, why didn’t they say it? What, were they just planning on hiding in the woods forever? Personally, I think it’s better to take a risk on a potentially-suicidal mission that could lead to rescue than to stand around some uninhabited planet waiting for the Cylons to find you. But that’s just me. Fortunately, Crashdown jumps off the slippery slope and threatens Cally with a gun, forcing Baltar to shoot him in the head. Lee comes to save the day and pick up the few living maroonees.
Back on the BSG, the incarcerated Roslin’s started acting crazy from withdrawal from her cancer meds, so Lady Macbeth (a.k.a. Mrs. Ellen Tigh) tells her hubby to let the Quorum of Twelve see what’s become of their president. Unfortunately for our favorite stressed-out alcoholic, Roslin gets her meds just in time, gets lucid, and reveals the the Quorum that she is an Instrument of God. In response, Tigh declares martial law.
Episode 2.4 (“Resistance”): Some passenger ships have been striking and protesting Col. Tigh’s martial law, so he sics the army on em. I expect to hear strains of CSNY’s “Ohio” in the background, but, sadly, Caprica seems to have not had a classic rock period in its past. The Chief, back home on the BSG after his happy fun times on Kobol, is put in the brig with his super ex-girlfriend, Boomer 1. Baltar administers a lethal dose of something to Tyrol to get Boomer 1 to reveal how many more Cylons are in the fleet. The answer—which I thought Baltar already knew from the miniseries?—is eight. Cally shoots Boomer 1 to death, and Tyrol, who was administered the antidote to the poison, is sad. Meanwhile, Lee and Dee (hey, that rhymes!) break Pres. Roslin out of jail and hide her with her favoritest person in the world, Tom Zarek. (Behind the scenes note: I almost accidentally typed “Tom Servo.”) On Caprica, Helo and Starbuck run into a group of sci-fi basketball players and survivalists.
Cylons and Neo-cons
What I understand from the Internet is that the reimagined BSG was very popular with neo-conservative viewers when it began in 2004. A conservative could read an allegory about noble, heroic humans (read: Westerners, particularly Americans) fighting shifty religious terrorists who want to destroy Everything We Stand For (read: Cylons). These viewers could cheer when Starbuck tortured a Cylon for information or when the Colony president started obsessively reading the Bible and proclaimed herself an instrument of the Lords. They could understand why Tigh declared martial law, and they could understand why Commander Adama blithely walked out of a trial even after he was legally obligated to be there.
The trouble is, I am not a neo-con, and I’m not living in 2004. So far, there are no heroes in this show for me, a liberal living in 2009, to cling to. Let’s take a look at the major political players in the BSG universe. On the right we have:
- Doesn’t believe in the rule of law. He walked out of that tribunal and was able to get away with it because the men with guns were on his side.
- Doesn’t believe in democracy. He staged a military coup just because President Roslin made one stupid decision.
- Makes monumental military decisions based on emotion rather than reason. For instance, he sent the whole fleet of Raptors on a search and rescue mission to find Starbuck when they were needed to, you know, protect the human race from the Cylons.
- Too quick to declare martial law.
- Refuses to listen to the will of the people—ever. For details, see the episode where he was putting down peaceful protests by sending in idiots with guns.
- Doesn’t seem to like democracy all that much. Did you see that look on her face when she heard she’d have to run for reelection in a year? Yeah, something tells me that’s not going to happen.
- Makes pivotal decisions based on her interpretation of the Bible.
- Seems not to care much about any political issues except those related to national security. As Tom Zarek said, she doesn’t seem to have any plans about how to fix the ruined human economy, how to provide health care for the civilians, etc.
In the center (?) we have:
- Doesn’t believe in anything except his own self-interest.
- Makes political decisions based on the voices in his head, which also tell him he’s an instrument of God.
And on the left we have:
- Lawful Stupid. Believes in the “rule of law” and “democracy” so much that he helps Roslin escape from jail so she can continue running her insane, religious dictatorship.
The Quorum of 12
- Sheep. First they blindly follow Tom Zarek; then, once Roslin reveals that she’s an Instrument of God, they flip-flop and start blindly following her.
- Ineffectual. Other than elect a (bad) VP, what have they done? Nothing. Nada. Plus, there are only 12 of them, there is no proportional representation, and apparently you can be elected to the Quorum without even knowing that you’re running (see: Baltar, Gaius). The body seems to have been designed to be completely useless as a working democratic body.
- Blew up a government building to make a point.
- I could be wrong, but he seems like he could turn into a dictator very easily. He’s clearly buildling a cult of personality around himself, and his talking points about rule of law and democracy and “all that good stuff” seem to me to be pretty words to get himself into the metaphorical White House. Once there, I wouldn’t be surprised if he just made himself king.
So, in short, our heroes are either authoritarian/fascistic (in the case of Adama, Tigh, Roslin, and possibly Tom Zarek), sociopathic (in the case of Baltar), stupid and/or ineffectual (in the case of Lee and the Quorum of 12), or crazy fringe radicals (in the case of Tom Zarek). The other characters, the grunts like Starbuck, Chief Tyrol, Callie, Dee, Gaeta, and the rest, are just pawns in this political game, far too minor in the scheme of things to make much of a difference one way or another.
So if none of these characters can be my hero, who will be? Who am I supposed to root for?
I know some of you readers are asking, “Why do you have to root for anyone? Even though the characters in the show are mostly conservative politically, perhaps the show itself is liberal. You know, like Mad Men. Anyway, this doesn’t have to be a partisan thing. Can’t you just enjoy watching flawed individuals from either side of the political spectrum make difficult decisions in the face of robotic adversity?”
My answer is, “Yes, but only for so long.” The fact is, this is a television show. I want to be entertained. I don’t want to watch a show about people I consider basically awful doing things I consider deplorable while terrible things happen to them.* Where’s the fun in that? It would be like if I were a conservative forced to sit through all of The West Wing. (At least TWW had a good helping of humor, something BSG almost completely lacks.)
Let me be fair to BSG. At least the show is deep and ambitious enough to tackle important political questions at all. I have to give the writers major props for trying. The issue here is that the tough questions BSG is asking are questions I answered myself years ago. For example, BSG asks: Is it okay to torture a Cylon? Theoretically, this is a deep, interesting, and important question. To me, however, this is not a hard question at all. Not in 2009, anyway. The answer is no. It is not okay to torture anyone. Period. By this point in 2009, I’m pretty set in my views on torture, so no sci-fi TV program is going to change my mind about it. Maybe in 2004 I would have found a BSG episode about the question of torture controversial and intriguing. Now I yawn. I’ve seen this question on TV, in the movies, and, sadly, in the real world many times before.
There are many parameters by which we can judge a TV show. Here are my own personal criteria:
Question 1: Is it consistently entertaining? Do the plots and characters hold my attention? If criterion 1 is met, I will watch a bunch of episodes of it—maybe even a whole season.
Question 2: Is the show well-made? Do the writing, acting, production values, and so on come together to achieve the goals of the authors? If criteria 1 and 2 are both met, then I will probably like the show and watch it as long as it remains entertaining. I may even recommend it to my friends.
Question 3 (the bonus question): Does the show make me think? If the show meets this criterion, along with the other two, I will sing its praises for the rest of time.
So far, these are my answers for the new BSG series:
1. On the question of, “Does the show entertain me?” the answer is, “It’s hit or miss.” I don’t run to watch the next episode, let’s put it that way. The constant darkness and brutality of the show make it difficult for me to watch more than one episode at a time. As I said above, almost all of the characters have a dramatically different worldview than I do—a worldview in which torture is A-OK, democracy never works, the needs of civilians are to be ignored, and the leaders of the military know what’s best for everyone. While these characters are interesting to watch—kind of like the pilot of a plane in a nosedive is interesting to watch—I can’t bring myself to like these people. Personally, I don’t really care whether most of them live or die, or which of them are really Cylons in disguise, waiting for their moment to attack. And that’s a big problem. It sucks all the suspense out of the show.
2. The show is mostly well-made, except for the huge, annoying plot holes. The main actors are very good, and the music is to die. The dialogue is unusually sharp, as well…as long as the writers don’t go for humor. (“No more Mr. Nice Gaius”? Really, guys? Really?) From a technical standpoint, BSG is a winner.
3. Does the show make me think? As I said above, it may have set my intellectual wheels a-turning back in 2004. In 2009, it doesn’t. I’ve dealt with these themes before. Too many times before. Moreover, at this point, I’m not in the mood to watch a program that only deals with the evils of society. I’m too early in the series to know if the show is ultimately going to espouse a liberal or conservative worldview, or whether it will ultimately condemn the less-than-ethical actions of its characters. Either way, it’s not fun for me to watch. Life is depressing enough now as it is. I don’t need BSG making humanity look even worse than it already does.
So, for my sanity’s sake, I’m going to take a break from BSG for now. In two weeks, I’m going to be writing an article for OTI’s Halloween theme week. After that, we’ll see. Maybe I’ll miss my nightly appointment with my BSG DVDs. Perhaps I will become too happy and will need some cynical science-fiction to bring me back down to Earth. Until then, consider the Overthinking BSG series on hiatus.
*Exception: HBO’s Rome. Although almost every character in that show was an awful human being, the series was just so much fun that I didn’t mind. Unlike BSG, Rome clearly wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. Besides, Rome did have a few (relatively) good guys in it; Brutus and Cicero jump immediately to mind.
What do you think? Should Mlawski give BSG another chance? Make your case below! …But no spoilers :)