Counting Down Galactica (4 of 4)

[This is the last of four posts counting down the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica. To see the others, click here.]

I’d meant to write my final entry in the “Counting Down Galactica” series before the airing of the finale on Friday night; a power outage in my neighborhood prevented me from doing so. Hence everything I’m about to say is colored by having seen the two-hour-and-eleven-minute conclusion, and spoilers lie in wait.

On the topic of spoilers, I know of a few ambitious souls (hi, Suzanne!) who are holding the finale in reserve, planning to watch it next week. Let me note how sympathetic I am toward, and dubious about the chances of, their or anyone’s ability to navigate the days ahead without having the ending spoiled. I haven’t even dared to visit Facebook yet, for fear of destabilizing my own still-coalescing thoughts on the experience; similarly, I won’t go near the various blogs I read. When I got up this morning, I turned on NPR’s Weekend Edition, only to find myself smack-dab in the middle of a postmortem with Mary McDonnell. It was like coming out of hyperspace into an asteroid field, or — a more somber echo — waking on the morning of 9/11 to a puzzled voice on the radio saying, in perhaps our last moment of innocence, that pilot error seemed to be behind a plane’s freak collision with the World Trade Center.

Comparing BSG’s wrapup to the events of 9/11 might seem the nadir of taste, except that Galactica probably did more in its four seasons than any other media artifact besides 24 — I’m discounting Oliver Stone movies and the Sarah Silverman show — to process through pop culture the terrorist attacks and their corrosive aftereffects on American psychology and policy. It became, in fact, an easy truism about the show, to the point where I’d roll my eyes when yet another commentator assured me that BSG was about serious things like torture and human rights. But then I shouldn’t let cynicism blind me to the good that stories and metaphors can do; I myself publicly opined that the season-two Pegasus arc marked a “prolapse of the national myth,” a moment at which BSG “strode right over the line of allegory to hold up a mirror in which the United States could no longer misrecognize its practices of dehumanization and torture.” And who am I to argue with the United Nations, anyway?

But maybe the more fitting connection is local rather than global, for losing power yesterday reminded me how absolutely dependent the current state of my life is on technology: the uninterrupted flow of internet, television, radio. My wife and I were able to brew coffee by plugging the pot into one remaining active outlet, and our cell phones enabled us to maintain contact with the outside world (until their batteries died). After that, it was leave the house and brave the bright outdoors and actual, face-to-face conversation with other human beings.

I bring this up because, in its final hours, BSG plainly announced itself as concerned, more than anything else, with the relationship between nature and technology — between humans and their creations. In retrospect, this dialectic is so obvious that I’m embarrassed to admit it never quite came into focus for me when the series was running. Sure, the initiating incident was a sneak attack by Cylons, a race of human-built machines who got all uppity and sentient on us. (Or maybe it’s the case that the rebellious Cylons descended from some other, ancient caste of Cylons — I’m not entirely clear on this aspect of the mythology, and consider it the show’s failing for not explaining it more clearly. But more about that in a moment.) Even in that first, fateful moment of aggression, though, the lines between us and them were blurred; in “reimagining” the 1970s series that was its precursor, Ronald D. Moore’s smartest decision — apart from scuffing up the mise-en-scene — was to posit Cylons who look like us; who think, feel, and believe like us. As the series wore on, this relationship became ever more intimate, incestuous, and uncomfortable, so that finally it seemed neither species could imagine itself outside of the other. It was differance, supplement, and probably several other French words, operationalized in the tropes of science fiction.

A more detailed textual analysis than I have the patience to attempt here would likely find in “Daybreak” an eloquent mapping of these tense territories of interdependent meanings. One obvious starting point would be the opposition between Cavil’s Cylon colony, a spidery, Gigeresque encrustation perched in a maelstrom of toxic-looking space debris, and the plains of Africa, evoked so emphatically in the finale’s closing third hour that I began to wonder if the story’s logic could admit the existence of any sites on Earth (or pseudo-Earth, as the story cutely frames it) that aren’t sunny, hospitable, and friendly. In this blunt binary I finally saw BSG’s reactionary (one might say luddite) ethos emerge in full flower: a decision on the undecidable, a brake on the sliding of signifiers. For all the show’s interest in hybrids of every imaginable flavor, it did finally come down to a rejection of technology, signaled most starkly in Lee Adama’s call to “break the cycle” by not building more cities — and the sailing of Galactica and her fleet into the sun. Even as humans and Cylons decide to live together (and, it’s suggested in the coda, provide the seed from which contemporary civilization sprouted), it seems to me the metaphor has been settled in humanity’s favor.

That’s fine; at least the show had the courage to finally call heads or tails on its endless coin-flipping. Interesting, though, that the basic division over which the narrative obsessed was reflected formally in the series’ technical construction and audience reception. I refer here to a dialectic that emerged late in the show’s run, between visual effects and everything else — between space porn and character moments. Reading fan forums, I lost count of the number of times BSG was castigated by some for abandoning action sequences and space battles, only to be countered by another group tut-tutting along the lines of This show has never been about action; it’s about the people. For what it’s worth, I’m firmly in the first camp (as my post last week demonstrates): the best episodes of Galactica were those that featured lots of space-set action (the Hugo-winning pilot, “33”; “The Hand of God”; most of the first season, for that matter, and bright moments sprinkled throughout the rest of the series). Among the worst were those that confined themselves exclusively to character interaction, such as “Black Market,” “Unfinished Business,” and most of the latter half of season four.

It’s not that the show was ever poorly written, or the characters uninteresting. But it did seem for long stretches to develop an allergy to action, with the result a bifurcated structure that drove some fans crazy. Much like the pointless squabbles around Lost, whose flashback structure still provokes some to shout “filler episode!” where others cry “Character development!”, debate on the merits of BSG too often devolved into untenable assertions about the antithetical relationship between spectacle and narrative, with space-porn fans lampooned as short-attention-span stimulus junkies and character-development fans mocked as pretentious blowhards. Speaking as a stimulus junkie and pretentious blowhard, I feel safe in pointing out the obvious: it’s hard to pull off compelling science fiction characters without some expertly integrated shiny-things-go-boom, while spaceships and ‘splosions by themselves get you nowhere. You need, in short, both — which is why BSG’s industrial dimension neatly homologized its thematic concerns.

I’m relieved that last night’s conclusion managed to reconcile the show’s many competing elements, and that it did so stirringly, dramatically, and movingly. I expected nothing less than a solid sendoff from RDM, one-half of the writing team behind perhaps the greatest series finale ever, Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “All Good Things …” — but that’s not to say he couldn’t have screwed it up in the final instance. Indeed, if there is a worm in the apple, it’s my sneaking suspicion that the game was fixed: the four episodes leading up to “Daybreak” were a maddening mix of turgid soap opera and force-fed exposition, indulgent overacting and unearned emotion. It’s almost as though they wanted to lower our expectations, then stun us with a masterpiece.

I don’t know yet if “Daybreak” deserves that particular label, but we’ll see. In any case, there is something magical about so optimistic an ending to such a downbeat series. If the tortured soul of this generation’s Battlestar Galactica was indeed forged in the flames of 9/11 and the collective neurotic reaction spearheaded by the Bush administration, perhaps its happy ending reflects a national movement toward something better: the unexpected last-minute emergence, through parting clouds, of hope.

Counting Down Galactica (3 of 4)

[This is the third of four posts counting down the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica. To see the other entries, click here.]

Popular guides to the practice of special and visual effects — from the battered library books I pored over as a kid to contemporary coffee-table tomes devoted to landmark films like Jurassic Park and FX houses like Industrial Light and Magic — tend to follow certain patterns in their introductory pages. After an obligatory paragraph or two on prehistoric cave paintings or optical toys of the eighteenth century, they launch into a tour of cinematic FX history, touching almost always on the following: the trick films of Georges Melies; Schoedsack and Cooper’s King Kong (1933); and the spaceships that appeared in Flash Gordon serials in 1936.

From there, the history usually shifts to one of the interchangeable silver-finned rockets from Destination Moon (1950), Rocketship X-M (1950), or It: The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), followed by either of the famous designs from Forbidden Planet, MGM’s 1956 experiment in big-budget, color SF film: the C57D cruiser or Robby the Robot.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with these choices; despite or because of their iconicity, they comprise a reliable index of the state of the art in their respective decades. (The Forbidden Planet saucer, of course, appears at the top of this very blog.) And I have no major objections to how these images are deployed in FX histories — apart, perhaps, from the predictable way they are used to set up a kind of rhetorical bank shot: tokens of outdated techniques, antique curiosities which by their laughable artifice set off the supposedly advanced methods, films, and artists belonging to whatever era the book happens to be published in. My point in recapitulating these recapitulations of visual-effects evolution is to note that spaceships like Flash Gordon‘s — with their jets of sparks that fall downward while smoke trails upward — really do mark what Vivian Sobchack has called one of the signature tropes of the genre: skyrockets in flight.

One can imagine an alternate history of science-fiction film focusing exclusively on spacecraft and the ways in which they have been set in motion. Such a history would range from the wire-mounted toys of Flash Gordon to the slow-moving majesties of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose relatively huge miniatures were photographed a frame at a time and coyly choreographed to Strauss. Such a history would note the development of traveling mattes, enabling the compositing of ships against starry backgrounds and looming planets; it would rightly hail Star Wars (1977) as the first film to bring together bluescreen-generated mattes and motion-control cinematography — computer-driven cameras whose every move can be repeated at any scale and duration — to crowd the screen with hectic swarms of swooping spaceships. And it would surely remark, with Star Wars, the emergence of the space battle as a larger semantic structure within the SF genre: in this case, battles staged and intercut according to templates borrowed from World War II movies. (Years before sampling invaded the landscape of popular music, George Lucas and ILM did it in film with a reference reel cut together from Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Dam Busters, and 633 Squadron.)

The Star Wars series would go on to feature other, bigger sequences set in space; in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), a fleet of Star Destroyers chases the Millennium Falcon into an asteroid belt, a setpiece daringly placed early in the film (directly beside another wondrous clockwork of FX-driven action, the Rebels’ battle with stop-motion-animated Imperial Walkers on the icy plains of Hoth). But at a certain point, diminishing returns kicked in: Return of the Jedi (1983) gave us the most complex, crowded battle to date, throwing hundreds of ships into the orbital space of Endor, but the result — like the rest of the film — was a confusing mess. By the time of the prequel trilogy (1999-2005), the space battles of Star Wars had become as routinely busy and bland as a screensaver.

Some might blame CGI for this, suggesting that the impediments posed by working with physical FX processes functioned as productive obstructions for filmmakers’ imaginations in the 70s and 80s. It’s difficult to maintain this stance, though, in light of the space battles on Battlestar Galactica, which from the start have announced themselves as a leap forward in the visualization and staging of deep-space combat. I’ve been captivated by BSG’s battles since the 2004 miniseries, which begins with a shot apparently taken from a camera mounted to the side of a spaceship; attitude jets fire, turning the vessel to and fro, yet it remains stationary in the frame while stars whirl around it. Reminiscent of the pirouetting 3D spaces of first-person shooters, the image dramatically and even wittily alludes to the fact that, in motion control, the models hold still while the camera itself relativistically imparts movement.

Befitting its setting on a kind of interstellar aircraft carrier, BSG specializes in confrontations between giant “capital ships,” blasting away at each other with cannons while smaller fighter craft dart crazily into and out of dogfights. Situationally, such battles are not that different from the bloated space circus that opens Revenge of the Sith (2005). What makes them different is the camerawork: the battles are filmed as though by live hand, roaming uncertainly around the frame, zooming in to capture engagements and explosions a second after they happen. Here’s just one of the many clips living on YouTube — evidence that, amid the considerable fan devotion to the current show’s characters, mythology, and politics, a substantial contingent of hardware fans exists:

I’m intrigued by the emergence of this new aesthetic in space battles, and wonder about its genealogical influences. Clearly, what some critics decry as BSG’s “shakycam” — a cinematographic conceit that also marks the filming of its live action on interior sets — borrows from a documentary tradition associated with small, lightweight cameras and field coverage of the Vietnam War. The unsettled camerawork reflects the miasma of anxiety that characterizes BSG’s world and its inhabitants (and which lately has threatened to displace the more action-based elements of the story in favor of dreary melodrama). Grant McCracken points out that the shakycam came into its own as a distinctive house style in 1993 with NYPD Blue, whose “restless camera” has since colonized other shows, including Homicide, Friday Night Lights, and The Shield. Strikingly, though, shakycam has also percolated to sites beyond TV narrative, including scientific simulation, where it dovetails with the visual regime of CG FX. This 2004 animation from NASA, showing the planetfall of the Phoenix Mars Lander, contains a fascinating camera move at about 2:30. The probe, descending through the atmosphere, deploys a parachute and is immediately yanked out of frame; a second later, the camera pans back to reframe it — as though the “camera operator” has been caught by surprise.

The camera move suggests to me a new kind of screen phenomenology, as distinct a microgenre in its way as bullet time and floating 3D titles. Call it a logic of action — a filmic package blending technique and style, mise-en-scene and cinematography, objects and space. The implication of the jittery camerawork is, of course, that we’re watching the event “live”; more importantly, though, we watch as though we are present on the scene. The style and its implications of spontaneity and “discovery” have been around for decades, yet now have infiltrated FX design, working at the the level of the virtual lens. It is, perhaps, the first true subjectification of the space battle, and the arrival of a new paradigm in the unique languages and codes of science-fiction media. Our FX, which simultaneously construct not just the objects of space combat but our roaming window upon them, have always been about impossible viewpoints (but then, so has narrative cinema itself, implanting us as perfect, invisible diegetic witnesses). The battles of BSG may mark the point — as we leave the stiff, immobile frames of Flash Gordon behind and move fully into digital depiction — where framing itself emerges as a subtle expressive tool in visual-effects methodology, shaping our perceptions and understandings in ways for which we do not yet possess a vocabulary.

[Next week, I’ll conclude with a discussion of the BSG finale, the first hour of which airs tonight.]

Counting Down Galactica (2 of 4)

[This is the second of four posts counting down the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica. To see the other entries, click here.]

I suggested in last week’s Galactica post that viewing the conclusion of a series “live” — that is, at the juncture of its initial broadcast — is more like witnessing than watching: there is a ritualistic, communal aura to the process, a kind of terrible necessary togetherness. The point is simply to be present, sharing breath with other viewers (even if they exist only as an extrapolated throng beyond the darkened chamber of my living room). And present, of course, with the show itself as it spins its final variations on a theme, its last acts of parole from a lovingly-established langue. In this sense, being with a series as it draws to a close is something like hospice.

In the case of BSG, though, watching live has its drawbacks. Namely, the commercial breaks, inescapable symptom of advertiser-supported TV and part of its formal DNA (funny how impossible it is to imagine BSG or other good shows minus the structuring aporia and epiphany of teasers, acts, cliffhangers, and recaps imposed by a combo of serialization and the need to hawk Hummers and Taco Bell’s Fourthmeal). The DVR lets me skip easily enough past these brightly-lit, tone-deaf ruptures in Galactica‘s noir sensibility, but I have a harder time ignoring the SciFi Channel’s own promotional appeals to fandom: they’re selling off parts of the show, whether through online auctions of production materials or through items of dubious diegetic appropriateness such as the Battlestar Galactica Black Cylon Toaster.

I know, I know: as a professional nerd who divides his loyalties between Star Trek and Star Wars, the marketing of my own passions back to me should have long ago lost its power to scandalize. But there’s something uniquely crass about the avid dispatch with which the fantasy world of BSG is being carved up and sold for scrap. If we are indeed sitting with a friend who’s slipping away, these ads are like someone knocking on the window, asking how much we want for the furniture.

There’s a neat symmetry, though, to the idea of BSG (the show) coming apart at the seams and the way this mirrors the fragmentation of Galactica “herself” — that battered warship under the command of William Adama, cracks opening in her hull as a result of too many FTL jumps and near-fatal encounters with nuclear warheads and Basestar missile volleys. (In my next post, I’ll have more to say about my favorite part of the reimagined BSG, its awesome space battles.) More to the point, being indignant about someone making money off BSG ignores the truth at the heart of its franchising: it’s always been about the bucks, baby. Glen Larson conceived BSG back in the late 1970s as a televisual answer to that redefining juggernaut of science-fiction media, Star Wars, and in this sense the show has been cashing in from the very start.

The years between (what we would eventually come to know as) A New Hope in 1977 and The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 seemed like an eternity to me; during that period I went from being 11 to 14 years old, and in retrospect I didn’t know how good I had it. Teenage turbulence and Ronald Reagan hadn’t yet pounced on either my own body or the body politic; each year brought new releases of films (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien) that have since become load-bearing members of my imaginary; yet I was ever hungry for more. Battlestar Galactica premiered on September 17, 1978 on ABC, a network that had already demonstrated to this young viewer that it could do no wrong with Charlie’s Angels and The Six Million Dollar Man.

My excitement about the first BSG had little to do with its characters, who seemed like cookie-cutter TV types (I blame Lorne Greene’s Adama, who carried an overpowering intertextual odor of Bonanza everywhere he went; years later I would realize, with Firefly and Serenity, that I don’t like westerns in my science-fiction peanut butter, no matter how structurally compatible the two genres may be). BSG’s storyline was similarly uninspiring: I’ve never cared for Gilligan’s Island-style narratives in which a group of characters search desperately for home. Perhaps because the Colonials’ psychological and existential state approximated too closely my own preadolescent anxieties about school that led me to fetishize the comfort and familiarity of home, I preferred the manifest-destinied explorations of Star Trek. Better to boldly go than to run scared; better to launch a wagon train to the stars than to circle the wagons and pray for survival. (Ironic, then, that several series later, Voyager would fall into the same delayed-gratification trap of a constantly thwarted quest for earth.)

Instead, I was infatuated with BSG’s world and the props and visual effects that constituted it. The Battlestar, its “ragtag fleet,” the fighter-jet Vipers and manta-ray Cylon Raiders, all existed in three separate yet indivisible frameworks, like water in solid, liquid, and gaseous phases: there were the ships in their diegetic reality, composited against starry backgrounds and lit with rotoscoped laser beams; the detailed miniatures I knew had been built in some FX house’s model shop, affixed to neon pylons and photographed against blue screens by a motion-controlled camera that tracked, tilted, and panned while the ships themselves remained stationary; and finally, replicated in my own bedroom, plastic model kits glued together with Testor’s hallucination-inducing goo, smeared with paint from tiny square glass jars. My models possessed less detail than the studio versions but were enormously more powerful in their totemic aura: localized, three-dimensional concretizations of the vast immaterial universe that was in part BSG’s production design and in part the mental system those designs organized, my own (possibly glue-enhanced) hallucinations.

The appeal of BSG’s universe faded somewhat as the series went on, I suppose because the heavily-repeated FX shots began to be outweighed by the narrative’s predictable and uninspired plotting. My sense of wonder has always worked better in two-hour chunks than in the twenty-odd hourly helpings of a television season: I can watch Logan’s Run over and over in motion-picture form, but was never engaged by the serial incarnation that ran on CBS from 1977 to 1978. This hypothesis was proven for me in 1979, when BSG’s two-hour pilot was released theatrically. I went to see it several times in matinees at the Campus Theater in Ann Arbor, holding my arms (sunburned and peeling from a canoe trip on the Huron River) stiffly in front of me. Projected on a huge screen with all commercials excised, the opening hours of BSG — its primal scene of civilization and military order knocked permanently akimbo by sneak attack — regained the mythic resonance Glen Larson had always intended them to have, a resonance channeled from Pearl Harbor by way of Star Wars. By that time I’d learned from the invaluable resource Starlog that Ralph McQuarrie and John Dykstra, artists responsible for so much of Star Wars‘s texture and text, had worked on BSG, and that the pleasure I took from the series was in fact a complex echo (and, undeniably, a dilution) of a purer, prior signal. At 13, my first encounter with nostalgia, fittingly motivated by texts themselves obsessed with lost golden ages.

No matter: in those hours of BSG’s reencounter I discovered a truth about stories and special effects: they can be recycled, revisited, and reinvented without harm. Whether in the replaying of videotapes and DVDs, the sequelization of movies, the serial sinewaves of TV narrative, or the radial expansions of transmedia, there is always more to be had — more to be discovered, judged, dismissed or cherished. It’s what gives me hope that our current Battlestar Galactica will not be the last; that what has happened before will (always) happen again.

[Next week’s post will turn to Zoic, the visual-effects house responsible for much of Galactica‘s signature visualization and logics of action.]

Counting Down Galactica (1 of 4)

One advantage to serialized narrative of the type I’ve been discussing with my class on TV & New Media this term is the way such stories occasionally align with the flocking of audiences to make a kind of collective reading ritual: conjoined at the internets, we witness each new installment together, previewing, receiving, discussing, digesting in happy cacophony. I remember the thrill of discovering this phenomenon back in the 90s with The X-Files, my first experience with “appointment television,” finding in the nascent USENET newsgroups next day more conversation, concentration, and conspiracy than I could handle. Till then, my pleasures had been too cultishly isolated (Red Dwarf, Mystery Science Theater 3000) or too relegated to reruns and the dislocated arrhythmia of syndication (the original Star Trek and its rebirth — in retrospect, a brilliant piece of franchise engineering — in Next Generation) to coalesce socially.

Nowadays, of course, fannish modes of attentiveness have become the rule rather than the exception, and Battlestar Galactica (followed closely by Lost) is perhaps the most mainstream subcultural artifact going. BSG is winding down, its four-season run drawing to a finish three episodes from tonight’s, and I’ve decided to mark the occasion with my own serial contribution: a set of four blog posts, one each Friday, to count down the end of the series. (I’ve written previously about BSG, and readers hungry for background might wish to check out my Flow essay.)

Even as I invoke the idea of some solid ending, it sounds hollow: for in confronting Galactica in its true multiplicity, one has to acknowledge that BSG has achieved critical mass for franchise immortality, its storyworld spinning off into extensions via TV, film, videogames, and on and on. A new series, Caprica, will be airing soon, along with a telefilm, The Plan, which together shift us into a period of history preceding the events of the current series. Prequelization — that odd retrograde movement into primal scenery — is the first symptom that a property has hit its transmedia singularity, backing and filling the fractal nooks and crannies of its narrative terrain. Let’s be honest, though. It won’t really be about narrative anymore, but instead a kind of rhizomatic self-historicization, an ongoing enterprise of mapping diegetic spacetime in all directions at once. On the textual side, it’s about generating more stories; on the industrial and commercial axis, it’s about maximizing profit returns, strip-mining the concept down to its bedrock. We saw what happened when George Lucas did this to Star Wars; let’s hope BSG doesn’t disappear quite so frictionlessly up its own asshole.

All that said, BSG has had a great run, arguably among the finest science-fiction TV series ever, up there with the best sustained stretches of Trek and Doctor Who. It’s mature, dark, intelligent, twisty, devoted to its own premise, and brilliantly cast and filmed. It’s wrapping up this particular incarnation long before series senility sets in — that creeping cancer that overwhelmed The X-Files around season seven and seems to long ago have sapped The Simpsons of its essence — and there is a genuine sense of drama, of something at stake, as the final episodes tick away.

Beyond these generalizations, though, and my eagerness to remain glued to my ringside seat, I don’t have much desire to review the show. Another aspect of serial narrative is that, while it’s unfurling in the realtime of broadcast, it’s like a train rushing by: each episode blurs past, delivering its individual punch, but the ultimate destination (and meaning/quality of the journey) is impossible to discern. There will be time for that, all the time in the world, when the series has concluded and we begin our long scholarship using DVD box sets and the Battlestar Wiki, canonizing favorite characters, arcs, and episodes, remixing our vids and building our model kits. The show will live on, that is, in our vernacular study and reverence of it, and if the franchise does go sour, at least we’ll always have Adama as singularly embodied by Edward James Olmos from 2004-2009. In these “countdown” posts, I’ll focus instead on more global aspects of BSG, from its place in science-fiction history to the aesthetics of its visual effects.

The image at the top of this post is from Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art for the 1970s series that launched Galactica (both ship and franchise) on its starlost voyage. In next week’s post, I’ll speak more about that incarnation of BSG and my own encounter with it in the shadows of that larger inspiration — from which Galactica gleefully cannibalized — Star Wars.

Going with the Flow


FlowTV’s new issue is out (or, given its online nature, up): a special edition on Battlestar Galactica, guest-edited by Lynne Joyrich and Julie Levin Russo with the help of FlowTV’s editorial liaison Jean Anne Lauer. My own contribution, Downloads, Copies, and Reboots: Battlestar Galactica and the Changing Terms of TV Genre, uses Galactica’s storied evolution — its many iterations and reinventions — as a springboard for thinking about how industrial replication structures TV as well as ways of talking about TV: in particular, the emergence of terms like reboot and showrunner, which seem to me laden with implications about how TV is being reconfigured in the popular (and industrial) imaginary.

Here’s an excerpt:

Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica is, of course, a remake or — his preferred term — “reimagining” of Glen A. Larson’s Battlestar Galactica, which ran from 1978-1979. Even in that first, Carter-era incarnation, the show occupied an undecidable space between copy and original; it was judged by many, including George Lucas and 20th Century Fox, to be a bald steal of Star Wars (1977). (Evidence of thievery was not merely textual; two of Lucas’s key behind-the-scenes talents, conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie and visual-effects guru John Dykstra, defected to the Galactica team.) And following its first cancellation by ABC, the series was followed by the much-loathed “relaunch,” Galactica 1980, which ran just ten episodes before dying on the Nielsen vine.

The irony is not just that the 1978-1980 versions of Battlestar Galactica have now come to be seen as canonical by a subset of fans who reject Moore’s version as being GINO (“Galactica In Name Only”). Popular culture, especially from the 1950s onward, is marked by an alchemical process of nostalgia by which even the most derivative texts (Star Wars being the chief example) grow a callus of originality simply through continual shoulder-bumping with the ripoffs, sequels, and series that follow. Such is the nature of the successful media franchise, doomed to plow forward under the ever-increasing inertia of its own fecund replication.

No, what’s striking about the many iterations of Galactica is how cleanly the coordinates of its fantasy lure have flipped over time, illustrating the ability of genre myths to reconfigure themselves around new cultural priorities. Larson’s Battlestar Galactica, even in its heyday, was pure cheese, a disco-hued mélange of droning chrome robots, scrappy space cowboys, a cute mechanical dog, and endless space battles (whose repetitive nature can be attributed to the exigencies of weekly production; as with the first Star Trek, pricey optical effects were recycled to amortize their cost). Back then, it was fun to fantasize planetary diaspora as effervescent escape; the prospect of being chased from our homeworld by cyclopean robots with a mirror finish seemed, by the late seventies, as giddily implausible as Ronald Reagan moving into the White House.

But nowadays, the dream embodied in Battlestar Galactica has inverted frictionlessly into nightmare. The shift in tone is reflected in a new design scheme of drably militaristic grays and browns, brutal drumbeats on the soundtrack, and jittery camerawork on both actors and spaceships — thanks to the digital-effects house Zoic, whose signature visuals lend zoomy, handheld verisimilitude to the combat scenes. It all comes inescapably together to suggest a very different mindset: hunted, paranoid, and starkly conscious of the possibility of spiritual, if not physical, annihilation.

What I do see Battlestar Galactica bringing to the table with fresh force is the useful concept of the reboot as a strategy for dealing with franchise fatigue. A liberating alternative to the depressingly commercial and linear “sequel,” the reboot signals a profound shift in how we perceive and receive serial media. We are coming to see serial dramas as generative systems, more about ground rules and conditions of possibility than events or outcomes. (And I would argue that the only sane serial aesthetic is one that allows for occasional misfires; one bad episode does not a series invalidate.) Like the terms canon and retcon, the reboot borrows from brethren like comic books and print lit. Like the term game-changer, it characterizes TV production in computational terms, as ludic algorithm. And like the term show-runner, it signals our growing comfort with the notion of series as industrial product, indeed, as series: a potentially unending churn of a diegetic engine rather than a standalone text.

Other articles include Anne Kustritz on fans and producers; Melanie E. S. Kohnen on history and technology; Sarah Toton on fan-generated databases; and a conversation with Galactica star Mary McDonnell.

Razor’s Edge


Tonight I had the privilege of attending an advance screening of “Razor,” the Battlestar Galactica telefilm that will be broadcast on the SciFi Channel on November 24. Fresh from the experience, I want to tell you a bit about it. I’ll keep the spoilers light – that said, however, read on with caution, especially if, like me, you want to remain pure and unsullied prior to first exposure.

Along with several colleagues from Swarthmore College, I drove into Philadelphia a couple of hours before the 7 p.m. showing, fearing that more tickets had been issued than there were seats; this turned out not to be a problem, but it was fun nevertheless – a throwback to my teenage days in Ann Arbor when I stood in line for midnight premieres of Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – to kill time with a group of friends, all of us atingle with anticipation, eyeing the strangers around us with a mingled air of social fascination (are we as nerdy as they are?) and prefab amity (hail, fellow travelers, well met!).

The event itself was interesting on several levels, some of them purely visual: We knew we’d be watching a video screener blown up onto a movie-sized screen, and true to expectation, the image had the washed-out, slightly grainy quality that I’m coming to recognize now that I’m getting used to a high-def TV display. (Things overall are starting to look very good in the comfort of my living room.) There was also the odd juxtaposition of completely computer-generated science-fiction imagery in the plentiful ads for Xbox 360 titles such as Mass Effect and the new online Battlestar Galactica game (yes, more tingling at this one) with the actual show content – the space battles especially were in one sense hard to distinguish from their Xbox counterparts.

But at the same time, the entire program served as a reminder of what makes narratively-integrated visual effects sequences more compelling (in a certain sense) than their videogame equivalents. “Razor”’s battle scenes, of which there are – what’s the technical term? – puh-lenty, carry the dramatic weight of documentary footage or at least historical reenactments, by comparison to which the explosive combat of Mass Effect and the BSG game were received by audiences with the amused condescension of parents applauding politely an elementary-school play starring somebody else’s kids. Disposable entertainment, in a word, paling beside the high-stakes offering of “real” Galactica – and not just any Galactica, but the backstory of one of BSG’s most nightmarish and searing storylines, that of the “lost” Battlestar Pegasus and her ruthlessly hardline commander, Admiral Helena Cain (Michelle Forbes).

(I’ll get to the meat of the story in a moment, but one last thought on the blatantly branded evening of Microsoft-sponsored fun: does anyone really own, or use, or enjoy their Zune? The ad we watched [twice] went to great lengths to portray the Zune as better than an iPod – without ever mentioning iPods, of course – but the net effect was to remind me that a device intended to put portable personal media on a collective footing is as useless as a prehensile toe if no one around you actually owns the thing. “Welcome to the Social,” indeed.)

On to “Razor” itself. Was it any good? In my opinion, it was fantastic; it did everything I wanted it to do, including

  • Lots of space battles
  • Hard military SF action, namely a sequence highly reminiscent of the Space Marine combat staged to perfection by James Cameron in Aliens
  • A few heart-tugging moments, including several exchanges between Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos) and his son Lee (Jamie Bamber) of a type that never fail to bring tears to my eyes
  • Scary, Gigerish biomedical horror
  • Aaaaand the requisite Halloween-candy sampler of “revelations” regarding BSG’s series arc, which I won’t go into here except to note that they do advance the story, and suitably whet my appetite for season four (assuming the writer’s strike doesn’t postpone it until 2019).

A better title, then, might be “Razor: Fanservice,” for this long-awaited installment returns to the foreground many of the elements that made BSG such a potent reinvigoration of televised SF when it premiered in the U.S. at the end of 2004. Since then, Galactica has flagged in ways that I detail in an essay for an upcoming issue of Flow devoted to the series; but judging from “Razor,” showrunner Ronald D. Moore, like Heroes’s Tim Kring, has heard the fans and decided to give them what they want.

For me, the season-two Pegasus arc marked a kind of horizon of possibility for Galactica’s bold and risky game of mapping the least rendering of real-world political realities – namely government-sponsored torture questionably and conveniently justified by the “war on terror” – in SF metaphor. With the exception of the New Caprica arc that ended season two and began season three, the show has never since quite lived up to the queasy promise of the Pegasus storyline, in which a darkly militarized mirror-version of the valiant Galactica crew plunged itself with unapologetic resolve into Abu Ghraib-like sexual abuse and humiliation of prisoners.

What “Razor” does so engrossingly is revisit this primal scene of Galactica’s complex political remapping to both rationalize it – by giving us a few more glimpses of Admiral Cain’s pre- and post-apocalypse behavior and inner turmoil – and deepen its essential and inescapable repugnance. We’re given a framework, in other words, for the unforgivable misdeeds of Pegasus’s command structure and its obedient functionaries; the additional material both explains and underscores what went wrong and why it should never happen again.

Perhaps most strikingly, “Razor” provides a fantasy substitute for George W. Bush — a substitute who, despite her profoundly evil actions, is reassuring precisely because she seems aware of what she has wrought. In the film’s crucial scene, Cain instructs her chief torturer, Lieutenant Thorne (Fulvio Cecere), to make Six (Tricia Helfer)’s interrogation a humiliating, shameful experience. “Be creative,” Cain commands, and the fadeout that follows is more chilling than any clinically pornographic rendering of the subsequent violence could ever be. Precisely because I cannot imagine the cowardly powers-that-be, from Bush, Dick Cheney, and Alberto Gonzales on down to Lynndie England and Charles Graner, to ever take responsibility in the straightforward way that Cain does, this scene strikes me as one of the most powerful and eloquent portrayals of the contemporary U.S./Iraqi tragedy that TV has generated.

Admiral Cain is the real frog in SF’s imaginary garden. Moreover, her brief return in “Razor” suggests our ongoing need – a psychic wound in need of a good antisepsis and bandage – for a real leader, one with the courage not just to do the unthinkable on our behalf, but to embrace his role in it, and ride that particular horse all the way to his inevitable destruction and damnation.