Wednesday, October 25

This Week's Galactica Complaint by an idiot

Source: ESPN

Viewers love the new "reimagined" "Battlestar Galactica," the highest-rated sci-fi series on TV. Critics love "Galactica" too, the Chicago Tribune recently calling it "the best show on television." Viewers seem to like that "Galactica" isn't formulaic sci-fi where justice always prevails and incredibly complex devices can be invented in minutes. Critics seem to like that "Galactica" is dark and depressing, depicting optimism as futile and life as barely worth living. That life is barely worth living is certainly the regnant worldview of modern academia -- strange that a sci-fi series about space battles should be this trendy view's main expression in popular culture.

TMQ's core problem with "Battlestar Galactica" is that the people of the show's imaginary space society are incredibly stupid. True, there are lots of stupid people on Earth, so presumably there would be stupid people on the opposite side of the galaxy. And folly is, inarguably, a grand theme of history. But practically everyone in "Galactica" is so astonishingly falling-down dumb, it's hard to care about their fates: And this is setting aside how, if they're so stupid, they were able to construct enormous faster-than-light starcruisers.

In the pilot for "Galactica," a society spanning 12 planets is threatened by a race of living machines called Cylons. The machines are known to sabotage computer systems. Yet all defense systems on all 12 worlds, along with all military spacecraft, have a common password. A human scientist named Baltar unwittingly gives the password to a Cylon; the Cylons transmit a computer virus containing the code; all humanity's military systems stop working; the planets are helpless against the attack that follows. Now, do you suppose there is one single password that controls every device in the American military? We'd be idiots to engineer such a code, exactly because it might fall into the wrong hands. Yet on "Galactica" not only can every defensive system built by humanity be remotely deactivated, the information necessary to do this has been placed in the hands of a mentally unstable scientist. This is one stupid society we've got here. (Two gigantic space battleships did not receive the deactivation transmission and are protecting humanity's survivors, creating the premise of the series.)

The author James Blish has said that much of sci-fi relies on Idiot Plots, defined as stories "kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot." (See the entry on Idiot Plots in the 2005 edition of the "Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy," said entry by Official Brother Neil Easterbrook of Texas Christian University.) Consider a brief rundown of "Galactica" stupidity as exemplified by the character Baltar, named after the traitor of the original 1970s series. Baltar escapes the Cylon invasion and becomes a trusted science advisor to the remaining human leadership. No one in military intelligence seems struck by the fact that all the defensive systems turned themselves off precisely at the moment of the attack, nor wonders whether this might have had something to do with Baltar, who possessed the code. Baltar rises to become vice president in the survivors' government. He obtains high position though he often speaks, aloud, to a Cylon avatar that manifests in his consciousness. That is -- the other characters hear Baltar talking to a Cylon, yet are too stupid to think anything of it.

In the final few episodes of the recently concluded season, Idiot Plots drove the action. Baltar is assigned to interrogate a Cylon spy and instead helps her escape, killing a guard in the process. No one suspects Baltar, though he and the guard were the sole people with the Cylon and though, presumably, faster-than-light starcruisers would have video monitors in their detention cells. Baltar claims he can build a Cylon detector, but needs plutonium for the device. Rather than supply Baltar with a vial of plutonium the fleet's leader, Admiral Adama, gives him a complete working nuclear warhead, which Baltar is allowed to keep in his cabin. The dialogue reduced to its Idiot Plot essence:

SCIENTIST: I need some plutonium.

IDIOT: Here, take this complete working nuclear warhead.

Baltar hands over the nuclear warhead to the Cylon spy; she detonates the device, destroying several spaceships and killing hundreds of people. Nuclear explosions have distinctive spectral characteristics that would have allowed Galactica's technicians to determine that the bomb that just exploded was one of theirs. Yet with the fleet in turmoil owing to a nuclear explosion in its midst and one warhead missing from the armory, no one asks Baltar to prove he still has his bomb. By the end of the recently concluded season, Baltar has been elected president of the survivors' government. He orders that humanity's remnant stop fleeing the Cylons, settle on an undefended planet and essentially decommission their space warships. Everyone is too stupid to question this order, which OBVIOUSLY leaves the survivors helpless against another Cylon attack, which happens in the season finale. "Kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot," indeed.

Newshound: SciFi


Logan Gawain said...

That's really interesting, considering that they have never once stated in the series that there was one password for the colonial defense network. So, the ignorant author of the essay is either utterly stupid, or a liar.

And funny, in Lay Down Your Burdens Part 2, Adama specifically tells Baltar that the nuke was stolen from Baltar's lab by a Cylon agent.

Everyone should let ESPN know that they are the idiots.

Rob Robinson said...

I think Gregg Easterbrook makes some fair points, and I say that as a huge fan of this series. I prefer to think that there are logical explanations for these "idiot plots" behind the scenes and between episodes.

I think he's largely right about most popular fiction in his critique of Galactica, though: Plots often pursue high drama so intensely that they discard reason and logic to get there. That's true with Galactica, even though it is riveting television.

I'd be curious to see if Easterbrook has a take on Lost, too.