Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ron Silliman's BSG Rant, because he's got more geek/academic/general cred than I do

I have yet to touch upon the BSG debacle, but I may yet do so despite my statements to the contrary. In any case, Ron Silliman addressed in on his blog, and if ever I needed geek vindication this is it: in-depth discussion on a famous blog dedicated to "contemporary poetry and poetic."

That being said, the discussion itself is almost patronizing in tone, making allowances and apologies based on the medium. This post is, if nothing else, inspiring me to make my own little rant about the BSG that was, could have been, and was forced to be. I should be fair, though, that it's hard to write anything like what I'm leaning towards without acknowledging my own ignorance of the powers that be behind the scenes, as hinted at in the fourth paragraph of Silliman's essay. But I'll save all that for my own rant at some point, whenever I actually feel like writing it.

I wonder if Heise (the prof who turned me onto Silliman's blog) watched BSG?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

As my links list noted a week ago Monday, there were some sharply divided opinions as to the conclusion of Battlestar Galactica. I anticipate that what will follow may have spoilers galore, so if you haven’t seen the show yet, I’d advise you to stop reading here.

The reactions were divided even on Orchard Road. I really enjoyed the final episode, but my one son who’s watched the entire series with me (and sucked me into it in the first place) hollered “What the frak!” in exasperation.

Battlestar was a show that, as a rule, took no prisoners. Whereas virtually every other television series with an overarching narrative structure has been forced into episodic structures of self-contained plots that enabled the show to build its audience from scratch regardless of where in the overall story line one came in – something that had a disastrous effect on West Wing post Aaron SorkinBSG took the opposite route, choosing to come to a conclusion after four seasons, more or less. This permitted the show’s creators, led by Ronald Moore, to follow their original vision to its conclusion. Or at least a conclusion. And therein lies the tale.

Because shows with overarching narratives become increasingly difficult to newbies to follow, television discourages them. A series whose audience can only grow smaller is antithetical to the entire idea of television, even in its cable & web-augmented days. Yet this adherence to an encompassing vision was a large part of what made BSG unique. It enabled genuinely complex characters to develop & generated some of the best writing in television history. In one episode, the Chief, in charge of the maintenance of the Battlestar’s fleet of viper attack fighters, organizes a work action using the same words Mario Savio once used during the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. In another, on the planet New Caprica, imprisoned by the invading army of Cylons – cyborgs to you civilians – and their human compradors, the resistance, led by Battlestar’s executive officer, Saul Tigh, set up a series of suicide bombings – right at the same moment when the U.S. military was responding to a wave of such in Iraq. One season ended with a handful of “humans” discovering that they had been Cylons all along – the switch that toggled them on to their android other selves being a version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” which Dylan himself adapted from the Book of Isaiah. That song becomes a recurring theme – one might even say major plotline – in the show’s final episodes. The final words in the series’ last episode belong to Dylan, albeit sung by Jimi Hendrix.

If the project of bringing a major narrative that was, like all television series, open-ended to a close were not enough of a challenge as it is, BSG was bedeviled by its own inclination to throw a major plot turn roughly every ten to fifteen minutes in each show – miss one episode and you are at least four major developments behind. Plus, BSG was not virgin territory, even as a re-imagined telling of an already-existing TV series that ran for one season in 1978-79 & which was then picked again for another under the name Galactica. There were multiple movies pastiched together from footage of these shows and it became a cult phenomenon, a campy space opera opposed to the earnestness of Star Trek. At one point, there were multiple attempts ongoing, more or less at the same time, to resurrect the series. Richard Hatch, the original Lee Adama, who plays the ill-fated Tom Zarek in the present version, was behind one of these; the 1978 show’s original producer, Gary Larson, behind another. As recently as last month, Larson was said to be shopping around a motion picture based on the earlier version of the show. Hatch has also written several novels & comic books based on the original series, and has hosted Galacticon conventions.

When the Sci-Fi channel bypassed all of the earlier revival attempts in favor of Moore’s projected three-hour miniseries, it had a hot property around which there were a lot of competing allegiances, but no definitive master narrative. When people realized that it was a re-imaging altogether of the series and its premise, there were a lot of unhappy cultists shouting “Frak!” – the series’ all-purpose expletive. But when people saw it, something else happened altogether. Somehow the creators had stumbled across a diamond-field: Battlestar Galactica was not only the best sci-fi program ever on television, one could argue that it was the most well-conceived, written & acted series in U.S. tv history. Using the hokey old premise of robots-turn-on-man & the idea of a displaced civilization in search of a home, they’d produced the TV equivalent of King Lear. Or Moby Dick. The new version quickly picked up its own adherents. Some of whom are very unhappy at the light, ironic twists at the end, of which there are least 3 if not 13 in the final show.

But while there was a lot of howling about the show’s ending and its relationship to our own present, it may be worth noting that it dovetails with the opening narration of each episode of the 1978 version as intoned by British actor Patrick Macnee. Indeed, the ending scene of Gaius Baltar and Six strolling into the city throng strongly echoes the end of each episode of Macnee’s own signature series, The Avengers, in which John Steed and his female partner (in the US, principally Diana Rigg as Emma Peel) trade some witty repartee that wraps the plot. It would not shock me to discover that Baltar’s final line, “Silly, silly me,” was verbatim from an episode of The Avengers.

I wasn’t bothered by the curlicue ending(s), in part because – hey – this is television. And because I’d felt that the entire fourth season had been weighed down by the need to Reach A Conclusion. There was the arrival on earth, then once that smoldering orb was abandoned a multiple-episode mutiny that seemed mostly to buy time before the final jump (a verb with special connotations in the vocabulary of the show) to a new planet, also called Earth, where the space travelers abandon their technology and look forward to mating with the pre-verbal homo sapiens they see wandering their new home’s verdant fields. The Centurions - your basic space toaster robot warrior – are given their freedom to wander off toward new galaxies while the dying hulk of the Battlestar is sent literally falling into the sun. 150,000 years later Gaius Baltar & Six are reading a magazine article on the busy streets of a major city and we realize that this was a series not about our future, but our past.

I’d often wished that Edward Said had looked instead not at Beginnings, but rather at how works of narrative conclude. More films & novels stumble at this very moment, regardless of how well conceived they may have been right up to the final page. It’s no wonder that Joyce tried to evade the question altogether, throwing one of his two major novels into the hands of a different character altogether (Yes!) for the end of Ulysses & coming back round all Ourobourous-like in Finnegans Wake, the last sentence flowing right into the first.

One serious alternative in recent television history to BSG’s decidedly ironic bow, of course, was the cut-to-black of The Sopranos. This had multiple advantages – it could be read as “more lifelike,” with any number of possible implicit endings – Tony gets whacked, Tony has a stroke, and of course the most important, Tony has a sequel. Two years later, though, so far no Tony & a quick check of James Gandolfini’s page at IMDB reveals nothing Soprano-like in pre-production.

One of the problems that viewers overinvested in the believability factor of the ending – or not – have to confront are the curious origins of this entire tale, parts of which may have been modeled after the Book of Mormon. Thus complaining suddenly about the presence of angels when Baltar has been seeing versions of Six visible only to himself for the entire series seems just a little, well, odd.

More than anything, this kerfuffle feels more like the tempest over the third Godfather film, another theatrical classic with decidedly pulpy origins. Frances Ford Coppola took a lot of grief in 1990 because the conclusion of that trilogy really was a different kind of film than the first pair of features – it was far more interested in surfaces, from the use of Cavalleria Rusticana to Sofia Coppola’s valley girl presentation as the ill-fated Mary Corleone. Rather than seeing the film on its own terms, many of the critics simply tore into it for the ways in which it was not Godfather I or II. I’ve always thought that the shift in G III was as brave – and very nearly as successful – as the decision to tell Michael Corleone’s backstory entirely in Italian in G II.

But closure is the hardest move to make in any major aesthetic project. One might fault Coppola for having been drawn back into the vortex of the Godfather just as one might fault Ronald Moore and his collaborators for never fully escaping that of the original Battlestar Galactica. For myself, I’m just thankful that I was able as a viewer to come along for the ride.

No comments:

Post a Comment