Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Meanwhile, on Cylon-occupied Caprica

I finished watching Season 1 of Battlestar Galactica this week. Wow. Just Wow. I'm now comfortable declaring this one of the best televised sci-fi series ever. (If I had to choose, I would declare a trinity of BG, Firefly and ST:TNG, each included for completely different reasons.) Surprisingly, the series gets increasingly different from the miniseries the further it continues, both in tone and message. Anyways, I wanted to chatter a bit and set down my thoughts before I start in on Season 2.

The performances are top-notch. Everyone is at least as good here as in the pilot; some, like the President, are much improved. You don't see a lot of evolution in the characters - everyone is too busy just surviving - but there is a lot of change in their relationships. The humans are adapting to their new circumstances with varying degrees of success, caught between trying to hold on to their old ways and building a superior future.

There's no noticeable dropoff in effects quality from the miniseries. Not every single episode has a spectacular outer-space battle, but throughout the series you'll see plenty, and the ones that don't still have plenty to enjoy. Caprica is always gorgeous, and the other ships in the fleet you get to see have their own charm as well.

For me, the coolest parts about the series are the characters. Returning again to my crutch, they're a fascinating blend of ST:TNG's archetypes (The Experienced Elderly Guy, The Angry Warrior, The Logical Robot) and Firefly's subverted archetypes (The Cute Engineer, The Sensitive Pilot, The Honorless Hero). As the characters here are fleshed out further from the pilot, they become increasingly interesting. Most of them feel archetypal, but they interact in unusual ways, and it's often difficult to predict how people will act.

I want to go into some more details. Let's call these

I had a ton of things I wanted to discuss, but now it's been a few days and I've forgotten a lot of it. I'll hit what I recall and may update this post or make a new one if I remember more.

I loved the ambiguity of Tom Zerek's (Zarek? Xarek?) character. Man, I need to stop saying "ambiguity" so much, I think I've massively overused it in recent posts. I'll probably use it again when I finally write up "The Enigma of Arrival," too. Still, there's a reason why I keep bringing it up: it's just so much more interesting to puzzle things out for yourself than have it all handed for you on a platter. In real life, there's hardly anything that can be accepted in a straightforward manner. Are Republicans better than Democrats? Perfectly reasonable people can come to opposite conclusions. So I think it's both more realistic and more engaging to push those equivocations into fiction; if nothing else, you get much more interesting discussions out of "Tom Zarek is a terrorist!" "No, he is a freedom fighter and the only true democrat in the fleet?" than everyone saying "Man, I sure hate that Zarek guy."

All that being said, I think that Zarek is ultimately a villain, but a very charismatic one. He had flaws and limits that keep him far from being as bad as the Cylons, but from what we see, he does often seem disingenuous. His calls for freedom and change reek of self-aggrandizement. Regardless, though, I think we can see the kernel of the man inside, and you can make the argument that however bad he is now that he left prison, he may have been a good man when he entered.

The show also pushes you in uncomfortable places. I haven't seen "24", but everyone talks about the scene where Jack needs to torture a terrorist in order to prevent a bomb from going off in an hour, and that scenario has even influenced the debate over torture here in the US. Similarly, a liberal like me gets a little uncomfortable at some of the conflicts between the civilian government and the military. I found myself rooting for Adama's position in the majority of his clashes with the President, even though in "real life" I would always recoil at the thought of military intervention in setting policy. Of course, the reason for this is that the situation depicted in the series (human race on the brink of extinction) is so far removed from our own.

Oooh... mega-tangent here. I haven't been getting into Iraq on this blog much; that's a huge topic that will need to wait. But I want to chime in on this whole question of whether the invasion was "worth it." This usually boils down to, "Well, it's better in that people have freedom, but it's bad in that they're more likely to get raped, robbed or murdered than under Saddam." Any time I hear this debate I think of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Basically, the idea here is that there is a series of wants that humans have, and we can't advance to the next one without satisfying the lower ones. For example, we have a need for companionship, but we won't worry about filling that need until after we have satisfied our needs for food, water and shelter.

So, I don't know about you, but I would much rather be safe than free. That sounds like a horrible thing to say, but it's absolutely true. Given the choice between never being able to vote but being able to walk in the street at night, versus the freedom to vote and demonstrate but needing to worry about getting stabbed, I wouldn't really hesitate to pick the former.

Of course, the real world doesn't work like this. The ideal situation is to have both safety and freedom, and so I would most likely pick the first and then work on increasing political freedom. But in the second situation, people will be so worried about the essentials that they won't be able to fully participate as citizens.

Segueing back to BG: that's how I justify my lionization of Adama. The commander is directly concerned about the survival and safety of everyone; the President also has those concerns, but is willing to take some risks in exchange for greater freedom, participation and a robust civil society. Those things are all well and good, but when they infringe on the core question of survival, I can't help but get upset.

Gaius is still one of my favorite characters. I know he's supposed to be annoying and despicable, but he's just so interesting. His "hallucination" has remained amusing. I didn't totally get behind his jump into politics, that seemed very unlikely, but once he was in there it was fun to see yet another side of him. I tend to think (archetypes again) of The Scientist and The Politician as being totally opposite to one another, but in his megalomania Gaius brings the two together believably.

The religion angle is kind of cool. They sort of mumbled the words in the miniseries but here they actually go into what the beliefs are. From what I can tell, the overall metaphysics of the BG universe are the same as the Wheel of Time or Finnegan's Wake: everything that happens, has happened before, and will happen again. It's fun to think that that's how prophecy "really" works - it's a history, not a prediction.

So given that, what roles do the human gods or the Cylon God play? I get the feeling we'll find out that the Cylons are right and the human gods are just aspects of God (though I may be letting my monotheistic prejudice get in the way here). But still, WHAT is God? I don't think it's a crazy person at the center of the galaxy like in Star Trek V. Suppose for a moment that my assumption is correct, and time is cyclical. Does God then exist outside of time? Does he guide the direction of people in the universe? That doesn't seem necessary, if everything EXACTLY repeats itself (though I suppose we don't know for sure if the repeat is a true repeat. Seems like it should, though). More likely God is a classic Watchmaker type who just sets up the universe and hits the auto-repeat button. So then, why is it so important to the Cylons to "know God?" Why is Love so crucial? I personally think of this as meaning that one must give up struggling against fate and accept that everything that must happen, will happen. But again, I'm letting personal thoughts cloud my science fiction judgment.

Moving on, the Cylon ship was pretty nifty. I've been curious for a while now how the process of making a Cylon works. First there were the classic machines, which presumably got some human DNA or whipped some up in the lab, and have been growing and cloning humans since then. (To me that's the most interesting idea: wetware hacking, how one "programs" biologically.) So humans can create machines, and machines can create humans. How exactly does one create a human-machine hybrid? I wonder if they do it like Cyborgs, first creating a biological entity and then grafting on the exoskeleton and turrets and all. Or maybe they Frankenstein it, with metal and lots of stem cells. Either way, it'll be interesting to see if they feed fanboy obsession and ever show us the creation process.

Oh, and how about that climax, huh? That's almost certainly the most intense cliffhanger I've ever seen. At least, I can't think of another one that shocked me more. I can't imagine how bad it must have been for people who were following the show at the time and had to wait almost a year for the resolution. (I still haven't started the second season, but just knowing that I can helps soften the sting.)


There. Shorter than I'd planned, but it's written. Bottom line: BG is cool. If you're interested, definitely start with the miniseries; you can probably quickly figure out what's going on if you jump into season one, but you'll have a few surprises spoiled that way, and the series doesn't give quite the same room for character development that we got in the miniseries.

UPDATE: Oh, yeah, I forgot to talk about the title sequence. Way cool, again, and really innovative. Every episode opens with the same sequence: first a stock sequence that basically recaps the pilot, then the opening scene from the episode, then the standard titles and theme music. And during that same time, they shift into a rapid-fire series of clips from the show; not of previous episodes, but of the one you're about to see. It reminds me of those "Next week..." things at the end of anime episodes, but obviously here they may as well be saying "This week..." The clips are just a second or two long so you can't really gain any context about what's happening, but it has the pleasant effect of giving you deja vu throughout the episode. For the first few episodes I thought, "Wow, that's very stylistic and cool, but it seems like they're doing it for the sake of being cool... it really doesn't add anything to the show or make a thematic point." I should have had more faith. A few episodes in I finally started making the connection between the opening and their religion. Yes, these were events that hadn't happened yet; however, they were also events that had happened before. It's a combination clip show and preview. The show exists as an entity, you glimpse it from ahead or behind, but the show itself does not change.

And, it's fun to think of this philosophy in terms of Battlestar Galactica the show. "This has all happened before" - yes, in the 1970's movie and television show. "This will all happen again" - yes, in syndicated reruns for years to come. I can't help but wonder if the series creator was thinking of his sort-of-remake when he came up with this framing device.

Still topic-hopping... the Game Developer's Conference is taking place right now here in San Jose. I'd love to crash it. All the cool studios are representing, and there's a good mix of technical tracks and business stuff in the mix. They have some cool keynotes, including more info on the PS3, Nintendo's president, and tomorrow is a presentation from Will Wright on "What's Next on Game Design." There was one odd point, though: thrown in among all those industry mavens is Ronald D. Moore, none other than the architect and creator of the new Battlestar Galactica franchise - he's the one who came up with the idea for the "remake," sold it and made it.

So, what's a TV producer doing in this conference? The capsule summary is surprisingly apt: "In this keynote, Moore describes his process of taking the Battlestar Galactica IP and successfully re-imagining it into a compelling and engaging experience." In case you aren't plugged in to the gaming press, the single greatest issue now is the question of sequels and franchises. When I started gaming it was feasible for a few college kids to make a living both writing and publishing their own games; now, the cost of production (art, graphics, multiplayer, licenses, and more) regularly pushes prices up to $25 million or more for a new game. Because of the high price tag, companies increasingly rely on proven franchises. Civilization IV is guaranteed to sell a certain number of units, as are Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, GTA: Liberty City Stories and more. You take a risk when you put out an original game, like Sid Meier's Dinosaurs or Fallout. If they succeed, great, you've got a new franchise; but most new games fail, and publishers no longer want to risk tens of millions of dollars on gambles when they can place much safer bets.

The problems this situation cases are manifold. First, aesthetically, most programmers would rather create something wholly original and put their own stamp on it than carry the flag forward. Soren Johnson, the lead on Civ IV, is brilliant, and would do a great job on any game; in a way it's a shame that he's still following (albeit in an engaging, innovative manner) subject material first plumbed by Sid Meier 15 years ago. Secondly, there's a real financial risk. It only takes one really bad game to kill off a franchise, and if companies aren't starting new series, they may end up killing their geese and not have any golden eggs left. In the short term it makes good sense to pursue franchises, but in the long run that strategy will lead to shrinking returns and stagnant market growth.

All that being said, Moore's situation is much more applicable than it would seem at first. The majority of people working in the gaming industry now are working on a sequel, a spin-off, a remake or a re-imagining of an earlier work. In almost all cases, the people working on it aren't the ones who did the original. So the question is, how do you make it fresh? How do you really make it your own? I think the ideal situation is to end with a product with a name that will attract previous customers, and feel attractive to those who enjoyed the original, but will have its own sensibility and FEEL like a different work than the first. I haven't seen the previous iterations of Battlestar Galactica so I can't comment on this series's faithfulness or innovation, but I can see that Moore worked with an existing framework, inherited characters and technology and plots, and came up with a product that feels amazingly exciting and new. It's a tough trick to pull off, attracting new fans while retaining your old, and I'm sure many people will listen closely to what Moore has to say tomorrow.

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