Sunday, January 10, 2010

Battlestar Babylon

With all the borrowing from ancient history and mythology going on in Battlestar Galactica (both versions), Battlestar Babylon could actually be the name of a ship! But -- it's not, that I know of. Recently at my house, we've been revisiting those big iconic sci-fi epics of two different decades: Babylon 5 (1993-1998) and Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009). I still haven't seen either series in its entirety, but that's more or less what we're working on.

Babylon 5 was named after a space station that was built in the aftermath of a great galactic war. Different alien spaces send ambassadors, trade their goods, and generally use it as more or less neutral ground. The large ensemble cast is made up of the officers who run the station and the permanent ambassadors, with various alien and human guests who come and go.

This is an interesting case in viewing something out of its time period. When B5 first aired, it was unusual for a non-soap opera drama to have extended story arcs, or so much continuity, whereas it's fairly common now. The series was consciously designed like a novel, with a beginning, middle, and end, with sustained character development, and without the "re-set button" most TV shows use to allow their episodes to be viewed out of order and still attract an audience. At the time, that made it a more culty experience than, say, the Star Treks that were still running, because it was a show you really had to follow regularly to keep up with.

That's actually why I never really watched it when it was on, although I knew hardcore fans. I missed it in the beginning, and when I happened to see an episode, I didn't know what was going on, or what it meant. That "what it meant" is the main thing. With hindsight, I can see that many of the episodes do, narratively, function as stand-alones, but it's hard for a casual viewer to understand the significance. If you know the characters really well, things are much more meaningful.

Today, many shows, like Lost, use the same narrative philosophy and are hugely popular. Of course, when B5 aired, all we had was VCRs. You could tape the episode when it first aired, if you knew you were going to miss it, but if you started watching in season 2, it was too late for that. No DVD set was coming along imminently, so you just had to muddle along. Some episodes of some TV series were being released on VHS, but it certainly wasn't something you could count on.

Compared to contemporary TV, especially to the new BG that I've been watching it with, B5 looks and feels a lot more like a traditional science fiction show, with occasionally goofy-looking aliens, than it did when it first aired. But its complicated storylines have real philosophical undertones, and while newer shows can be a lot edgier than it could, it's not sugar-coated, allowing a satisfying bleakness and cynicism, when it's called for.

The character development that develops over time is, in retrospect, the true strength of the show. One thing about that ensemble cast: some of them are, of course, better than others (as actors and as characters), but you rarely (not having seen all the episodes, I can't say "never" yet) get the chance to get tired of the ones you're not as interested in. Nor, crucially, do the ones you like wear out their welcome. (Pointed comment in the direction of Joss Whedon). Watching a handful of key episodes, I was surprised how little some of my favorite characters actually appeared in them.

For the record, I was probably the least interested in the doctor, and in the telepath stuff. I love Kosh, the cryptic and extra-powerful alien whose form is hidden behind an imposing "encounter suit" (which is not goofy-looking at all, but alien and evocative). But my favorites are the Centauri, whose homeworld was once like the Roman Empire in space, but who are having trouble adapting to changing times and faded glory. Their ambassador, Londo Mollari, starts out as a selfish buffoon, always drinking, gambling, and conniving for his own interest, albeit with delightfully witty dialogue. His naive assistant, Vir (Animal House's Stephen Furst) is set up as a comic sidekick for his jaded boss.

Watching the early episodes, it's hard to imagine how circumstances would force both characters into hard moral decisions and acts of heroism, proving Londo to be a truly tragic figure, and Vir the conscience of the show. With many an awesome quip between them, which goes a long way in my book. Londo's scenes with his opposite number, G'Kar (the ambassador of a race once conquered and enslaved by the Centauri), are often very funny, as the two enemies are forced to work together diplomatically. So when their encounters later become nail-bitingly intense, and even moving, they're all the more intense and moving for the slow build-up.

The new Battlestar Galactica, of course, was pretty much intense right from the start. It's immediately more "contemporary" looking than B5, using hand-held, documentary-style filming, and generally having the edgier, darker tone that's possible today. Which is fitting for a show about the near destruction of the human race at the hands of genocidal robots.

The '70s BG was an odd bird: clearly conceived as a pretext to lure in audiences with Star Wars style special effects, the creators actually outdid the requirement and came up with a brilliant premise, one they unfortunately had no idea what to do with. With the sudden need to come up with a bunch of episodes, they began repeating themselves almost immediately, and never even began to scratch the dark surface of their actual idea: people who've lost everything they ever knew, desperate for the survival of their entire species, on the run in deep space. Many (if not most) of the stories in the original series are oddly frivolous, like they kept forgetting, oh yeah, these are the few survivors of an ultimate holocaust! Maybe that might concern people.

So I was never opposed to re-imagining it, nor was I troubled by details like the female Starbuck -- hard to believe that was once so controversial! I was, on the other hand, deeply skeptical about the whole "Cylons look like us now" thing -- the robots are perfect imitations of human beings. After a generation of Blade Runner and Terminator movies, and every other paranoid "are they humans or machines?" story, I thought it was a totally hackneyed plot change.

Yup, I was wrong. As far as I've watched (through the end of season two), the writers have come up with all kinds of ways to make this interesting. The Cylons are much more complex than mere programmable machines -- but if there was real artificial intelligence, real consciousness developed in machines, who's to say how that would work out? Maybe they would be more complicated and more individual than we've ever seen evidence of in, say, the Terminator AI universe.

This allows to see both sides of the war, which is more compelling than the original series' concept that the Cylons are hunting down the humans just because. On the one side, there's the traumatized human race, who've lost everything: all that survives of their whole culture and history is whatever they happened to have with them at the time. On the other, there's the group who committed the genocide, who seem at first like they're all one hive mind, but is gradually proven to contain differences of opinion. Like many groups from many religions throughout history, the Cylons have used theology to justify their atrocities, but some of them begin to question the interpretation of God's will.

If you're interested in thinking person's SF, well, you've almost certainly seen both series in their entirety, unlike slowpoke me. For both series, I have a general knowledge about where they're going -- spoiled for the broad strokes of the plot, which is fair enough, since they've both concluded (albeit with spin-offs, tie-in novels, etc). There's still a lot I don't know about how they get there, though, so I'm excited to indulge in the space opera. Hopefully with a maximum of further theological craziness to sink my teeth into!


ajnabi said...

We've been working our way through BSG too! So far we're about halfway through season three; just saw Apollo and Kara pound each other to bloody pulps in the boxing ring, which was a nice metaphor for their entire relationship.

Anarchivist said...

That's crazy! That's the last episode we watched, too. What are the odds? There's obviously a weird Bollywood Battlestar connection going on...