Saturday, January 28, 2012

Duh. Oh THAT Ron Moore.

So, about half way through watching Battlestar Galactica for the very first time, I started to wonder about the people who created and wrote the series. I always do that. I'm a writer-follower, maybe even a writer-groupie.

I wanted to watch it in the first place because I try to watch everything that Jane Espenson writes. Sometimes it takes me a while to get to it, but I always want to get there. I knew she had joined the staff at BSG about half way through the series and I had heard her speak about working with Ron Moore. Naturally there came a point where I wondered, who is this Ron Moore guy?

So I googled him. And discovered that he was one of the principal writers for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which I just finished re-watching. He was that Ron Moore. Oh, wasn't I the smart one to re-watch DS9 right before watching BSG? I patted myself on the back for that. No wonder some of the themes seemed so familiar!

I'm not sure I necessarily liked BSG better than DS9, although I liked both of them. The Star Trek Universe of DS9 created limitations on character development and story line. Star Fleet could not be evil. The Federation had to win. Life on Earth was utopian and the Federation wanted to bring that to other parts of the galaxy. But within that imposed structure, the writers pushed the envelope and created a very compelling story line with very compelling characters who I cared about. And by caring I don't mean "liking", although I liked many of them. I mean I cared what happened to them - whether they were good or bad I wanted to see what happened to them and I had certain hopes for what would happen to them. And it was exciting to see the writers manipulate that as they did. For instance, with the character of Damar who went from "dislikable" to "sympathetic but still not likable" to "heroic but not necessarily likable (although not dislikable)".   I found myself mapping out all the possible outcomes for Damar and trying to decide which would be best for him and for Cardassia and the galaxy. And keep in mind that Damar was a minor recurring character through much of the series!

BSG didn't have those same limitations. The writers created a side we were obviously supposed to be rooting for - humans. And a side that was clearly the Big Bad - the Cylons. But then they seemed to throw any rules out the window. The humans were not limited by Federation style rules, they were human in the way that 21st century humans are human. We have ideals but we throw them out the window when necessity or fear dictates. Yes, these humans had all of our flaws. The humans turned out to be an incredibly complex set of people (as society actually is) with some deeply dislikable ones in their midst. Even the likeable humans were dislikable at certain moments. There was a point where I thought to myself "I hope none of these people actually reach Earth." I was fascinated by them as creations but I didn't really care about them, in the sense that I didn't really have hopes for any of them. The only one that I found myself hoping would survive was Helo - who was probably the most Star Trekian of all the characters, a deeply moral fellow. (By the way I finally see what people see in Tahmoh Penikett - who I thought was miscast in Dollhouse. He was pitch perfect as Helo.) Conversely, I didn't really hope that any of the dislikable ones would be killed off. I was regularly tired of the character of Doctor Baltar but I didn't care enough about him to hope whether he lived or died.

This is perhaps because the Cylons were, at first, so good as a Big Bad that they destroyed any real hope. Oh boy were they bad. In the opening of the show they destroy the population of nine planets with nuclear weapons, wiping out billions of people. Then they seem determined to chase the remaining humans (less than 50,000 souls) across the galaxy until they too are obliterated. And it seems likely they will succeed. The Cylons have weaponry more advanced than the humans. The Cylons can't die - their consciousness gets uploaded into a clone body. And, more frightening, they have evolved so that some of them seem completely human - twelve versions with multiple copies. Some programmed to think they are human until they are triggered. And some living among the remaining human population. What a very big and very bad, Big Bad.

By the end of the second season that was a problem. Because it offered no hope. There was no hope that the humans at any point would be able to turn and fight the Cylons and win their freedom. Winning by fighting wasn't an option. They could only hope for two very unlikely things - either the Cylons would grow tired of chasing them and finally leave them alone OR the Cylons would change. The first seemed unlikely and the second seemed impossible - the Cylons were machines after all.

Compare this to the Big Bad in DS9 who is also a very big and very bad Big Bad. But their foot soldiers weren't immortal and they had a weakness - a dependency upon a synthetic drug. The administrators were clones whose consciousness was downloaded into the next version when they died - but they were only administrators and did what they were told by the leaders. And the story line always left open the possibility that the leaders would change. And of course we knew that in the Star Trek Universe the Federation doesn't lose - something that we didn't know about the humans in the BSG Universe. (But of course Star Trek maintained tension because the Federation could win but all their allies could still lose). So even in the darkest moments, hope abounded.

In BSG they reached a point where, as an audience member, I started to wonder if we were just going to watch these people until the last one died. The writers dealt with the problem by using both options for change. They had the humans believe that they had outrun and hidden from the Cylons. Boy did that turn out to be wrong. You can't hide from the Cylons. And of course at the moment that the Cylons find them they had the complete wherewithal to wipe them out. End of story. So the only thing left if there was going to be any continuing story to tell was to have the Cylons change. In the end, the story of BSG turned out to really be the story of how the Cylons changed. On the one hand, that was an interesting twist. But on the other hand, for me it was a problem from the caring point of view because I deep down didn't really care what happened to the Cylons. Sure, if they changed maybe they should survive and live on. But they had destroyed billions of lives. And the fact was that, because the Cylons weren't a race of individuals and each Cylon had the memories of their last version downloaded into their consciousness, the Cylons we were dealing with by the third season were still essentially the same exact persons who had nuked nine planets - even though they had learned a lot since then. In our universe, people don't change THAT much, even if they do in a Sci Fi Universe. Since they never seemed at all remorseful about killing billions of people I found it hard to really care what happened to them.

Before watching I had heard that many fans deeply disliked the ending and complained about the religious aspects to the ending. I disliked that all the threads weren't tied up at the end. I really think we needed a bit more about Kara Thrace and the part about her dad and the music. But I'm not sure why the fans were surprised by the "religious" ending. The first two seasons were CRAMMED with religion. Maybe because I watched Caprica before I watched BSG the idea that religion was an important part of any story of the Cylons seemed natural to me. When the version of Caprica Six who existed in Doctor Baltar's head turned out not to be a chip implanted in his head and told him she was an angel from god - I always believed that she was intended to be an angel from god. That doesn't mean I believe in angels from god - it means that the only logical explanation in the storyline was that she was an angel from god and that a higher power was at work in that story line. So I went with it. And, in the end, having the two "angels" walking  through Times Square worked for me.

DS9 made religion a large part of their story too, but because it was Star Trek and had to be based on "science" the writers created a scientific explanation for the Bajoran gods, or Prophets, that viewers could cling to. You could choose to think of them as the wormhole aliens we met in the pilot episode or you could choose to understand why the Bajorans worshipped them as gods OR you could understand why the science officer Jadzia Dax would always refer them as wormhole aliens and yet still choose visit the temple to thank them "just in case" after learning of some very good news.

On the whole I liked BSG. I liked the large and complex cast of characters. I liked that each version of a Cylon, while looking the same could be slightly different and I could begin to tell them apart. I liked that the writers set up situations where there really was no "right" answer - to insure safety meant sacrificing values. I liked that it was a show that seemed to be driven by exploring concepts rather than dead set on telling a coherent story and skimming over the big issues.

There were some things that I disliked. In the first season especially I was irritated by the fact that every female character who had sex turned out to be "bad" in some way - even if, in the case of Starbuck, it was simply letting her heart get in the way of her duty in passing Zach out of flight school. The "good" women were Dualla and the President and neither were sexual beings that first season. I also disliked the fact that Caprica Six was always taking her clothes off. Sure I can justify it by the plot and the characteristics of the Baltar character but in reality I was always pretty sure it was there to keep the men in the audience coming back. I was really glad when they finally had the scene where the nude Six in Baltar's head finally laughed at him and in the next instant was wearing a sweatsuit. I also disliked the Baltar character (which is different than disliking Baltar). In general I found it hard to believe that anyone actually took Baltar seriously -- ever, but especially in the first season. I thought that was a flaw in the writing and/or acting of the character. Although in the end it did make it more believable for me that a higher power had to be behind things, otherwise he would have been killed by someone in the first season out of sheer annoyance.

How would I choose between it and DS9? Well, first, I don't think I have to. They are what they are and I can enjoy both. I know I don't think DS9 is the lesser show because of the Star Trek constraints put on it. After all, Michelangelo was given a whole lot of constraints when told to paint the Sistine Chapel but that doesn't make it not a masterpiece. It simply makes it different than it would have been without constraints. In DS9 the writers were clearly finding their way in the first two seasons and then finally changed direction in the third season and the story took off. Parts of the ending weren't what I would have chosen but the ending made sense and there was a satisfied sense of closure (while still leaving things open for future movies). In BSG the writers seemed to have a very clear direction right out of the box and the first two seasons made a lot of sense. But perhaps sensing that they had written themselves into a box by making the Cylons so invincible, the story changed direction in the third season. For a time it became more exciting but it didn't seem, in the end, that they knew where they were going with it and I didn't feel a deep sense of closure.