Politics & Policy

Tales from New Iraqica

They didn't leap the shark.

Okay, so the all-important question is: “What to Make of the Battlestar Galactica premiere?” If you go by my e-mail, opinions are split fairly evenly between total outrage and head-shaking disappointment with only the thinnest veneer of guarded optimism. At this point if you don’t know what happened, that’s your problem. But you should feel free to look away if you’re spoiler-phobic.

#ad#So what happened? The creative team of BSG moved the entire show to Baghdad. Okay not quite. But that’s the “daring” implication. Most of the surviving human race lives on New Caprica, a grim Salusa Secundus rock of a planet, which is now occupied by the Cylons who claim to be coming in peace to help humanity. Quickly, the occupation devolves into brutality and torture. There are even human New Caprica Police working with the Cylons, who conduct nighttime raids which look remarkably like footage you’ve seen from Iraq through night-vision lenses. That’s all the recap you get.

So what did I think? I think it’s stupid. I really liked it when they jumped ahead at the end of the last season. But now I think it was a hail-Mary pass that ended in a fumble. I’ve never really loved BSG’s “ripped from the headlines” topicality, even though they’ve played the game with nuance in the past. Indeed, some readers complaining about BSG suddenly injecting itself into real-world politics remind me of conservatives who are shocked that Bush is a big-government guy. He’s been one from the beginning and BSG has been weighing in on political themes from the get-go.

I think it’s stupid for two reasons. First, it’s just way too forced. For example, when Brother Cavil (Dean Stockwell) goes off on the stupidity of the invasion he breaks the imaginary wall between the audience and the BSGverse. He says something to the effect of “What did you expect? Did you think we’d be greeted as liberators.… Oh forget it.” Everybody in the audience understands this was a shot at the notion America would be greeted with flowers. It was too much. Indeed, the whole first hour seemed to wallow in self-congratulation that they were going to carry this moral-equivalence nonsense far beyond the point when the viewer says “I get it already.”

Second: It’s a really, really stupid comparison. American troops aren’t Cylons. The human population of New Caprica wasn’t living under the tyranny of a Saddam Hussein. Iraqis aren’t the last surviving remnant of humanity. There’s no evidence — so far — the Cylons ever intended to do right by the citizens of New Caprica. And so on.

By succumbing to the temptation to seem “relevant” the producers sacrificed much of the literary quality of BSG to score fairly sophomoric polemic points along the lines of “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” By my lights this sort of thing the greatest sin imaginable in the world of sci-fi and fantasy. Here’s how I put it a while back:

Of all the ingredients for a truly successful escapist movie of any kind be it sci-fi or fantasy the most important is that it take itself seriously. That doesn’t mean it can’t be humorous Indiana Jones had some hilarious touches, for example. But the moment the actors or director let on that the movie is “just a movie” or, worse, ironic camp, the spell is broken. I remember the exact moment I no longer respected the James Bond series. It was in a scene in the dreadful Octopussy. While swinging from a vine, they had 007 issue a Tarzan yell, at which point I realized that even the producers couldn’t take themselves seriously anymore, so why should I?

The best example is, of course, Phantom Menace. Were I czar, the sainted George Lucas would be summoned to my court and asked to explain himself (he would be made all the more nervous, no doubt, by the sight of Alan Dershowitz chained to a post, forced to feed very small bacon bits to a wolverine one at a time, using only his lips). What Lucas did to Phantom Menace would be considered a crime against the throne, the people, and posterity. By riddling the movie with silly jokes the inane color commentary at the pod race, the ragamuffin’s shouts of “yippee!” and of course the excremental Jar-Jar Binks Lucas punctured the illusion of the entire Star Wars universe. By ladling common expressions and all-too-familiar Saturday-morning cartoon humor into what was supposed to be a galaxy far, far away and a long time ago, Lucas said, “You took this stuff seriously? Ha!”

Some fans have acquitted BSG’s producers of this charge by simply asserting what is obviously true: “Cylons are cylons, BSG is BSG.”

I am very sympathetic to this sort of thing and I offered pretty much the same argument in my defense of The Lord of the Rings and Starship Troopers (in one of my favorite columns and elsewhere). But this is a defense against the plain reality that while Peter Jackson viewed Orcs as, well, Orcs (and not caricatures of black people), the producers quite obviously and methodically declared you should think “Iraq” when watching the season premiere. To say otherwise is the equivalent of knocking your ruby slippers against each other and saying over and over again, “There’s no place like Caprica, there’s no place like Caprica.”

Now, that said, unlike quite a few readers, I don’t think people who are annoyed with the heavy-handedness of the premier should turn their backs on the whole show. I have it on good authority from some folks who’ve seen the next few episodes that the producers rein in the “New Iraqica” aspects of the premier. Here’s an e-mail from one of them:

I’ve already seen the first four [episodes] this season, thanks to my mighty power as a member of The Mainstream Media!

I’m happy to report that your reader’s fears about Battlestar Galactica Season 3 are misplaced. As in previous seasons, there are certainly some interesting riffs on current events. But the folks who created this show are way too smart to turn it into a Bush-bashing antiwar extravaganza. Take it from me–BSG is as smart, tough and complex as ever.

So everybody relax–and enjoy!

The way I see it, the first hour is merely an extended version of the momentary overreach of some of the individual episodes — like when Lucy Lawless plays a journalist or the Florida-recount stuff. Indeed, fans should keep in mind that the writers redeemed themselves by drawing counterintuitive or unconventional lessons from those events. After all, we now know that it would have been best if President Roslyn had stolen the election (Richard Hatch even said so in the premiere). And Lucy Lawless, recall, turned out not to care one whit about freedom of the press. And even in the second hour of the show, one could feel the real BSG bubbling back to the surface.

The New Iraqica plotline may have started heavy-handed (no doubt in part to get a lot of press attention), and it certainly broke the wall between the audience and the BSGverse, but as the reader above notes, the show’s creative team would have to be complete idiots to sustain this strained and absurd moral equivalence throughout the season. And, they certainly demonstrated in the first two seasons that they aren’t complete idiots.

BSG remains the best sci-fi show on television (particularly since the criminal cancellation of Firefly). It is a sign of that quality that BSG took an enormous and daring leap when it advanced its storyline so far into the future. It is one thing to say they didn’t stick the landing as well as I would have hoped. It is quite another to say that they jumped the shark entirely when they took that leap. They’ve earned enough credit with me to see how well they recover from that landing.

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