Tuesday, October 24

When sci-fi is more reality TV

Source: The Oregonian

The most intriguing aspect of the sleeper hit "Battlestar Galactica," back for its third season on the Sci Fi Channel, is that aside from a handful of mock-news comedy shows, it's the only thing on TV that tackles the issues surrounding the Iraq war. These are curious times: only in a geeky science-fiction series on basic cable are the most difficult questions of the day openly entertained.

At the risk of sounding like a contestant in Monty Python's Summarize Proust competition, I will attempt a recap of the first two seasons: a far-flung race of humans has been living peacefully on Caprica, one of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol, until the Cylons, the race of robots created by humans to do life's boring work, "evolved" -- how a machine evolves is best glossed over -- from a cross between C3PO and a praying mantis, to "models" indistinguishable from humans.

Meanwhile, Gaius Baltar (James Callis), a mad scientist with greasy hair and a posh British accent, is engaged in a torrid affair with a beautiful blonde who extracts from him top-secret information she then uses to destroy Caprica and the colonies. The beautiful blonde turns out not to be the love of his life (well, actually she is, but that's another story, or actually, it's a key, if lesser, plot point, but, well, never mind . . .), but a Cylon, model Number Six (Tricia Helfer).

The near-genocide reduces the human race to 55,000 souls, who become space refugees living on a fleet of funky spaceships under the protection of the Galactica, commandeered by the Homeric and soulful William Adama (Edward James Olmos).

But the evil, relentless Cylons are not content with conquering Caprica. The human race must be destroyed. Over the course of the first two seasons the Cylons chase the fleet all over the universe. They're formidable enemies. They easily infiltrate the fleet and endless cuticle-chewing fun is had trying to figure out which of the main characters are "toasters" and which are human.

Also, they don't die; when a Cylon is killed his consciousness is uploaded into a computer and then downloaded into a new version of the same model. This makes fighting them a tad tricky.

To further complicate complicated matters, some of the Cylon models don't know they're Cylons until their programming kicks in. Sharon "Boomer" Valerii (Grace Park) was one of the fleet's top- notch pilots, until her internal Cylon switch flipped on and she tried to assassinate Admiral Adama at the end of season one.

Tormented second season

There's a lot of tortured love and romance during season two, during which a hybrid Cylon/human baby is born, which seems to fulfill some Cylon prophecy or other. Then, during an embattled presidential election between Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), she of the tough political policies and excellent hair-colorist, and the nefarious Baltar, a habitable planet is discovered "hidden" in a pocket of space where the Cylons could never find it. (So excited is the human race by the idea of solid ground, they temporarily forget that one of the Cylons in their midst could easily phone Cylon headquarters with the new address.) Baltar dubs the planet New Caprica, and wins the election by promising immediate evacuation to the surface. The entire race hops in the handbasket.

Life on New Caprica is bleak. People live in tents. The feeling of the new human settlement is Renaissance Faire on the Russian steppes, without the jugglers or funnel cakes. For some reason, humans have become the sartorial descendents of Nirvana. It's all work boots, flannel shirts and, if I'm not imagining things, fingerless gloves for the good guys, who lived in primitive peace for one year, before the Cylons invade and President Baltar surrenders.

As the third season opens, the Cylons ineptly occupy the planet. It's of note that even creatures that are intelligent enough to solve the mortality problem still can't effectively occupy a nation.

Humans are routinely arrested and tortured, but a strong resistance movement has sprung up, under the zealous guidance of Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), Adama's former executive officer, who's had an eyeball plucked out during one nasty interrogation session, and believes that no action taken against the Cylons or their human collaborators is beyond consideration.

Which brings us to the infamous suicide bombing scene; a member of the insurgency, a hot-button word used with great regularity in the show, explodes himself during the police academy graduation ceremony that President Baltar is scheduled to attend. The president cancels at the last minute, but the bombing goes off without a hitch. What to make of the good guys resorting unapologetically to bad tactics?

Named best show of 2005

Time magazine named "Battlestar Galactica" the best show of 2005, and the hallowed New Yorker praised its complexity. Both magazines seemed sheepish in their praise, knowing that most of their readers would associate the show with the chintzy late-'70s "Star Wars" knockoff of the same name, in which the Cylons were lumbering machines descended from Rockem Sockem robots and Adama was played by Lorne Greene.

The new "BSG" is billed by executive producers David Eick and Ronald D. Moore as a "reimagining," a word too fey to describe the massive reconstruction that has taken place. Eick and Moore are devilish experts at keeping viewers off balance. The villains are imbued with recognizable qualities guaranteed to garner our empathy, and the good guys mess up in ways that make us wince.

Consider, for example, the matter of religion; the Cylons practice a brand of monotheism akin to both Christianity and Islam. They believe in the love of one true god who has a plan (that includes intergalactic domination, but you get the point). Humans, on the other hand, are polytheists who worship Zeus and pray to figurines you can buy in bulk at Cost Plus.

When the humans were scampering across the galaxy in their fleet of mismatched spaceships, BSG's political allegories were more sub-textual. Our attention was distracted by sci-fi flotsam -- the card games played with strange decks of cards, the elaborate battles between ships that looked like models stolen from a 9-year-old boy's bedroom.

There was a lot of wondering who was a Cylon, and did he or she know it, and was that Number Six the same Number Six, or a different Number Six?

Real-life comparisons

Now that the show is New Caprica-bound, and humans are being cuffed and loaded into heavy transport trucks and taken out to be shot, it's harder to escape comparisons with our current dilemma. Fundamentalism lurks around every corner in both Cylon and human camps, and the correlation with real life is impossible to ignore.

In an essay titled "Iraqtica" Slate.com recently fretted that season three of BSG brazenly supports the insurgency, since the humans with whom we identify have become terrorists. But this is reductionist thinking -- the same as saying that disagreeing with current policy means you're not a patriot. To understand another point of view doesn't mean condoning it. To create sympathy for desperate people doesn't necessarily change our thinking on cause and effect.

What is clear, however, is that a relatively low budget remake of a silly '70s sci-fi series appears to be a safe venue to speculate on the toughest questions of the day.

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