Monday, January 09, 2006


Ron Moore's Five Best

Over on Opinion Journal, which appears to be drawn from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, Battlestar Galactica creator Ron Moore lists what are, in his opinion, the Five Best science fiction novels (well, four novels and a short story collection). All admirable choices which, if they aren't perhaps in my personal top five, would certainly rank somewhere in my top fifty.

Ron Moore is something of an oddity in media science fiction. Unlike many other examples (Brannon Braga, Rick Berman, Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich, et cetera, et al) Moore is extremely conversant in and respectful of the traditions of print science fiction. His contributions to the Star Trek franchise (most notably all the Klingon stuff in Next Generation, and virtually everything that was good about Deep Space Nine) make this abundently clear, and if there were any lingering doubts, Battlestar Galactica should put them to rest.

Moore's position paper for BSG, presumably written during the show's development, introduces his concept of "Naturalistic Science Fiction" which, while nothing new in print SF, is pretty revolutionary for media SF. Joss Whedon's Firefly was made in this mode previously, certainly, but I'm hard pressed to remember another example on television, American, British, or otherwise. In film there have been more examples that adhere to the majority of these precepts, but invariably they'll break one or two along the way (hell, Dark Star hits almost all of the marks, but the introduction of the beach-ball alien means it falls at the final hurdle).

Allison and I tuned into the season premier of BSG last week (or the first episode after the hiatus, or whatever this technically was), and I was reminded again of one of the things I love most about the show: I have no idea what's going to happen next. When I watch an episode of Star Trek (any incarnation) and aliens are threatening to destroy the Earth through one diabolical mechanism or another, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that in the end the heroes of Star Fleet will save the day. Earth won't be destroyed. The absolute worst that could possibly happen would be that the heroes' ship is destroyed, but there'll be another one waiting for them, with the same name and another letter appended to the registry number. On Battlestar Galactica, I have no idea whether some or even all of the characters in any given circumstance might end up dead before the next episode rolls around. It means that the show is able to generate actual suspense, and get some real mileage out of threatening their characters with dire fates.

I also like that the president still keeps an updated tally of the number of survivors on a dry erase board behind her desk. Has anyone noticed in recent episodes if that number bounced up when they encountered the Pegasus? (It may be a moot point, after the events of the last episode; looks like that number's about to drop down pretty quickly again.)

(Also, am I the only one a little disappointed that Kane turned out to be evil psycho, after all? I harbored hopes that what was really going on was her second-in-command angling for a power play, dropping hints with Tigh while his confederates--such as the new chief petty officer on the fight deck--spread rumors among the crew to corroborate his story. Then he could maneuver Adama and his crew into taking Kane out, leaving him in a perfect position to take over Pegasus with his own supporters. So Kane would have been a bitch, but not an evil one, and Adama and his crew would have become unwilling dupes in setting up the really evil dude in power. Oh, well...)

Dude! I was hoping for the same thing with Cain's second in command. I thought that's what they were angling with since he was the sole source of 'insider' stuff about Cain. I think the only thing I'm disappointed in with this series is how broadly they're painting the Pegasus crew, especially since Adama wasn't so far removed from her in the series beginning. I keep hoping for a comment along those lines from Roslin. Ah well, it's still a great series.
Yeah, it is a bit of a shame. We haven't really gotten to know any of the Pegasus crew very well, and aside from the rather nervous chief petty officer and the remorseful executive officer, the few to whom we have been introduced have been pretty damned unlikeable. They did, at least, offer a bit of nuance in showing that Starbuck clearly agreed with Cain's strategy to retake the colonies, which muddies the water a bit.

But yeah, it's still a tremendous series, and they'd need to screw up a lot to change that.
I enjoy BSG, but do you really think that any of the main cast members could die in any episode? What makes you think this is a possibility? It's not as if any of the initial cast has disappeared; Boomer's death was permissible because the actress was already playing a double role.

I think Cain and the Pegasus crew have been portrayed almost as cartoon villains; there's no nuance at all. Starbuck believing in Cain's plan to retake the colonies is based on ignorance; Cain considers civilian lives to be expendable, and if Adama doesn't tell Starbuck of the evidence supporting that, it's just for the convenience of the plot.

As for "Naturalistic Science Fiction," I think there were a couple of examples from British TV. A friend of mine once loaned me episodes of a series called "Survivors" (from 1975, according to IMDb), about the survivors of a plague that destroyed civilization. He also loaned me episodes of a series called "Star Cops" (1987) that, despite the unfortunate name, was a fairly straightforward police procedural set on the Moon and various space stations. Both were pretty low budget, as you might expect from BBC productions, but they both strived for naturalism.

You're most certainly right that the principle cast members aren't likely to die from week to week, but it feels like they could, and I'm not absolutely sure that they can't. I think that the president's days are numbered, to be sure. And while Apollo, Starbuck, and Adama are probably safe, a character like Helo might not be so lucky. Then again, I might be giving the show's creators too much credit. It's happened before!

But in making my comments on Moore's "Naturalistic Science Fiction" I was thinking specifically of space opera, of the "Captain on a Ship" genre. I've seen the first season of Survivors, which I think is a spectacular series, and you're right that it fits all of the criteria Moore outlines. More than that, Survivors really is a series in which any character could die in any given episode. The series was created by Terry Nation, who was also responsible for Blake's 7, which came to mind when I was writing this post originally as potentially another Naturalistic space opera; but I've seen only the first half-dozen episodes of the first season so far, and can't say whether it descends into cliche as the show goes on.

I think that the makers of BSG would probably have been better served to let the whole Pegasus and Cain storyline play out over the course of a season, allowing the characters to develop and become somewhat sympathetic before being revealed as villains. It occurs to me that there are parallels here with the "Tailies" on Lost, where they've definitely opted to go the gradual route.
Wandering off topic a bit, but speaking of Lost and the possibility of giving a show's creators too much credit, have you seen this piece? In it, co-creator Damon Lindeof says "How can you ever possibly think that 'Lost' will end in a satisfying way? Carlton and I can almost guarantee you that it will not."

(found via Abigail Nussbaum)
Ouch! No, I hadn't seen that, Ted. But I think that what Lindeof and Cuse are talking about is more to do with the grim realities of the television marketplace than their capacities as creators. They might have a "final plan" in mind, but I think what they're saying is that realistically they're not ultimately in the driver's seat. Of course, we could get lucky and they could have the chance to wrap up their storylines before the show is cancelled, without the show being handed off to someone else. Of course, I could just be giving the creators too much credit again!
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