Monday, February 27, 2006


Space Opera viewing

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm a lunatic for research. Having come off the end of a very research-intensive project, one of the attractions of the Big Time Space Opera was that the research, at least, would be of a very different nature. Some of what I'm reading is nonfiction, to aid in the worldbuilding process (topics like metric engineering and reputation economies), but most of my time has been spent reading space opera novels (and viewing space opera television series).

A common complaint about mainstream writers who go "slumming" in genre fiction is that, unfamiliar with the conventions and traditions of the genre in question, they turn out novels that at best, end up reinventing the wheel and, at worst, are cliche-ridden nonsense that would have been dated if published decades before. Much the same danger, though, is present when genre writers dip into subgenres in which they're not well-versed.

Now, while I've been familiar with space opera since I was just a knee-high geek, my reading in the subgenre has been pretty sporadic. I've read examples as far afield as EE "Doc" Smith's Lensman series and Iain M. Banks's Culture novels, but I've never been what I would consider a student of the field. When I first had the notion to do a space opera project, just a bit over two years ago, I realized I had a fair bit of education to get through, if I wanted to avoid coming off like a complete rube.

Of course, at the time, I was already occupied in researching Fire Star, and knew I wouldn't be able to start a concentrated program of reading for a good long while. In addition to reading prose space opera, though, I wanted to familiarize myself with how the tropes of the subgenre had been played out in other media. Surprisingly, there's been very little in the way of space opera in comics, and relatively little in film, but in television? That's a different story. At the beginning of 2004, then, whenever I had a bit of free time that I couldn't spend writing or reading, I watched television space opera. My poor, long-suffering wife watched quite a bit of this stuff with me, but there will some things even she won't abide, and those I had to suffer through on my own.

I'm now about halfway through my space opera reading list, and I'll probably post the list here when I finish it, in April or thereabouts. I think I've come to the end of my space opera viewing, though. Since I'm convinced that the world is desperate to know everything that passes through my fevered brain, here is my viewing list, warts and all.

Previously Viewed
Of course, I was hardly unfamiliar with television space opera, geek that I am. I watched loads of the stuff as a kid, but here are the examples I've watched as an adult.

Star Trek: The Original Series -- Seasons 1-3
Star Trek: The Next Generation -- Seasons 1-7
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine -- Seasons 1-7
Star Trek: Voyager -- Seasons 1-2
Farscape -- Seasons 1-4
Battlestar Galactica -- 2003 miniseries
Firefly -- Season 1
Cowboy Beebop -- Season 1

Viewed since January 2004
Some of this I was rewatching (like DS9), but most I was seeing for the first time. Some of it was much better than I'd expected it to be. The last two seasons of Enterprise, for example, are equal in quality to some of the best seasons of TNG and DS9, and I was amazed to see how not-horrible Robert Hewitt Wolfe had managed to make the first season and a half of Andromeda, though unsurprisingly it plummeted in quality immediately after his sudden departure). And, of course, a great deal of it was truly horrible (I only managed the first fifteen minutes of Star Hunter, and that's with gratuitous female nudity).

Battlestar Galactica: The Original Series
Battlestar Galactica (2004) -- Seasons 1-2
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine -- Seasons 1-7 (rewatched)
Star Trek: Enterprise -- Seasons 1-4
Babylon 5 -- Seasons 1-5
Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers
Crusade -- Season 1
Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars
Andromeda -- Seasons 1-2
Blake's 7 -- Season 1
Red Dwarf - -- Seasons 1-7
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century -- pilot episode
Space: 1999 -- pilot episode
Star Hunter -- pilot episode
Space Rangers -- pilot episode
Space: Above and Beyond -- pilot episode
Lexx -- pilot episode
Star Blazers -- pilot episode

I don't think there's any major examples of television space opera I'm missing (my anime viewing is pretty sparse, intentionally so, but I plan to sample a few episodes of Gundam in the next few weeks), but if anyone knows of anything I'm missing, that's also available on DVD, rerun, or torrent, please do let me know.

What do you think of the new BSG?

Also, Lexx was weird, but I kind liked the bug-tech feel of it.
I think Ron Moore's BSG is fucking brilliant. Last night, Allison and I caught up on the three episodes we'd Tivoed during the Olympics, and at one point I thought the show had broken faith with the audience, and that I'd have to stop watching. It was during the first half of the conversation about abortion between Roslin and Adama, when Roslin steadfastly said "I'm not about to outlaw abortion." I paused the playback, and ranted at Allison that apparently Roslin and the writers both had forgotten her speech in the miniseries about mankind's only hope for survival being "lots of babies," or something to that effect. Then, when I hit Play, Adama said virtually word-for-word what I'd just said. Allison found my comeupance pretty amusing.

As for Lexx, it was most definitely not the show I was expecting (I'd seen just a few minutes of one episode, and thought it was something on the level of Cleopatra 2525). I thought a lot of the worldbuilding was really interesting, and the ship and general technology in particular, but at the end of the first "movie," I found it difficult to summarize what had just happened. Beyond the strange collision of accents (German, Canadian, mock-RSC-English), and the perhaps-less-than-stellar acting, the plot itself really didn't engage me all that much. I've held onto the rest of the episodes of the first season, thinking I may go back to it sooner or later, but at the moment I think I got from it what I needed to know.
The Star Blazers pilot? With the Gamalons dropping radiation bombs on Earth and the oceans dried up? I'm trying to wrap my head around that--I love Star Blazers, but that's a series that took its time in getting into the great, iconic space-opera-y elements that made it so memorable. And then, the Comet Empire saga just amps everything up to 11.

I've never seen the Bolar Wars story arc, tho. One of these days, when I re-up with NetFlix, I'll have to rectify that.

And I'll argue that the first four seasons of Babylon 5 are single-handedly responsible for the excellent SF of DS9, Farscape and the current BSG. B5 broke the Trek mold and allowed SF to really come into its own on the small screen.
Dude, I watched the first episode of Star Blazers, looking forward to rediscovering a much-loved classic of my childhood, but after twenty minutes of some really not-at-all-good script and plotting (which even the worst of translations would be insufficient to excuse), I realized I'd had enough. Which is too bad, because I was really looking forward to watching the three series all together. Netflix the first disc or so, and see if you can stomach it. If you can, you're a better man than I!

I've got to say, though, that while I respect a lot of what B5 did well, what they did badly really got in the way of my enjoying the series. It was the kind of thing that seemed, on paper, like something I'd have loved, but the execution always kept it at arm's length for me, so that I never engaged. I still watched it all, though, including all the movies and spin-offs. I think it's an indication of how early on I part ways with the mass of B5 fans that I think the much-reviled Legend of the Rangers movie/pilot was the best of the bunch!

In terms of historical context and influence, though, I think you're absolutely right. With B5, JMS pushed the other franchises to extend their reach quite a bit further than they'd gone before. I just prefer the heights his competitors reached to those he himself achieved, is all.
Interesting. I've Netflixed several StarBlazers discs, and while the first disc is significantly more goofy than I remember, the overall package holds up far better than, say, Speed Racer. I've even got one of the DVDs around here somewhere, but not the entire set. Granted, there are the occasional logic/scientific blunders that makes me want to scream, but I supposed I've watched enough anime in the past couple of years to set the bar really low when it comes to Japanese plot structure. I still think it could make a killer live action movie, if they got the right person to put it together.

Speaking of which, Star Blazers was a heavy rumored influence on JMS when he put Crusade together. I didn't buy it at first, but someone pointed out all the similarities, and I buy it.

As for B5, I think seasons 2-4 are brilliant storytelling, probably the best SF ever produced for television and maybe the movies. Most of season 1 is little more than Andromeda-style Trek lite, though, and season 5 just flails around without direction, 'cuz they'd already wrapped up that whole "Scouring of the Shire" arc back in season 4 when they thought they were cancelled.

Of course, Farscape is still my all-time fave, I'll argue DS9 is the best Trek (for the most part) and the new Battlestar is good, but problematic. I'm still not entirely sure about it.
Well, I may have been a bit hasty with Star Blazers, I'll admit. It was the bad science (well, horrible science) and loopy plotting of that first episode which set my teeth on edge. I've got the first two discs of the set handy, though, so maybe I'll give them another shot.

I've only watched a few anime series and movies in recent years--most of Miyazaki's recent output, Cowboy Bebop, Wolf's Rain, and Samurai Champloo--so my tolerance for anime-wacky-science-and-such might be at a lifetime low. But a series synopsis of Mobile Suit Gundam that I stumbled across on Wikipedia over the weekend (while researching megastructures) really caught my interest. I remember my pals in high school trying to talk me into loving it, but it all just seemed to complicated to me at the time. It seems like the creator tried more than was usual for scientific verisimilitude, at least based on what I've read, so could be worth another look.

DS9 is inarguably the best Trek ever got, and Farscape is probably the best end-to-end space opera ever aired (though admittedly it took me a little while to get into the somewhat gonzo worldview of the series at first). So far, the new BSG is still all aces with me, but I've been burned before, and I'm ready for it to take a nose-dive, any time now.

And your B5 scorecard lines up with mine nicely. If it would be possible to edit the series down so that the arc still worked, but one didn't have to watch season 1, season 5, and much of the "b plot" of the middle seasons, I think the series would be the stronger for it.
Robotech. You really have to include Robotech - the first (Macross) series, anyway.

And season 2 of Blake's 7 would probably provide you with more grist than season 1 - beginnings of season-length arc, and more complex character interactions.
If there is such a thing as a Robotech generation, I am in it. I was lucky enough to catch all three series in first US broadcast in high school, and Macross was probably my favorite, though I really dug Mospeda, too. I had just started going to sf and comic conventions as a fan, and was fortuante enough to hook up with a group of guys who traded imported Japanese laser discs and tapes, which was how I got to see the Macross movie, "Do You Remember Love?" (hell, I was one of the few to suffer through "Revenge of the Bionoids" in its VHS release). I kept up with the subsequent series, as best I was able, though I think I've missed a few, over the years. I've been tempted to go back and watch the original series again, from time to time, but I worry it wouldn't measure up to my glowing teenaged memories.

I'll see if I can't track down series 2 of Blake's 7. So far, the only way I've found to get them is to purchase the region 2 boxed sets from the UK, and with the dollar continuing to be not exactly muscular overseas, the price tag can take a bite.
I think, with Star Blazers, that it really isn't the journey that matters, it's the ending. For me, the best way to view SB is the beginning and then the ending, with the defeat of Dessler/Deslok (I can still imitate his voice, all these years later). Skip the voyage, and hit the beginning and end. Same with the Comet Empire.
Star Blazers is also probably best viewed in historical context. It was the first science fiction cartoon (I'm sure Jess will correct me on this) with wide distribution that didn't play as a kiddie-centric Hanna-Barbera knockoff. They played it straight (albeit with that loopy Japanese disregard for logic). I remember a teacher in school (back in elementary) with a baffled look on her face one day. She explained that she'd just seen a cartoon that, essentially, shattered her concept of the form. She told me about it, and I realized she was talking about the SB ep with the alien bee society that'd been enslaved by the Gamilons. It simply didn't fit in her view of cartoons amongst Speed Buggy and Goober & the Ghost Chasers. On its own, SB isn't that great, but what it did when it came out--that's where its legacy lies. And really--flying space battleships!

But then the Gamilons suddenly turning blue halfway through the first season is annoying as all get out. And the Comet Empire movie, "Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato" just plain sucks.
Jayme's right, of course, both about SB's importance and its legacy.

But I still get a distant and fading but still present echo of the mind-blowing Sensawunda I first felt, back in the mid-1970s, when SB was playing every afternoon at 3:30 on Channel 56.

The day of the finale of the first season, I faked sickness just so I could sure to be home when the episode started. And the mindgasm I had was worth it.
I've decided to give Star Blazers another go, but I'm working to keep my expectations low. I've also added the first disc of Macross to my Netflix queue, so I'll be doing a Whitman Sampler of anime, a bite of Star Blazers/Yamato, a bite of Mobile Suit Gundam, a nibble of Macross, and back again.

As for memories of Star Blazers, when I first popped in the disc from Netflix and the episode started up, I was able to sing along with the theme song, word for word, not having seen it in close to 30 years.
Regarding BSG and President Roslin's eventual decision to outlaw abortion, see the discussion here.
Thanks, Ted. That's an interesting discussion, and isn't too many degrees off my own thinking on the subject. On a related note, Ron Moore had some things to say on his blog that were both illuminating and troubling. A viewer asks whether the increase in the number of episodes in Season Two had an adverse effect on the writing staff, or the quality of the writing. Moore says this:

"I won't say that's the only reason why we had a couple of shows that I wasn't happy with this season, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a contributing factor."

If the creator of the show isn't happy with episodes he's produced, it's hardly surprising that many viewers would feel the same. I'm curious to know which episodes Moore feels fell short, but I suspect he wouldn't go so far as to name names.
Actually does name names in the podcasts about the episodes. In fact, his whole podcast for the episode (I can't remember the name, Sacrifice?) about Dana Delaney taking over the Cloud Nine bar, he points out all the places he doesn't think it works.

What did you think of Space Above and Beyond? I see a lot of similarities between it and the current incarnation of BSG, especially with the soldiers' eye view of things.
I, for one, desperately wanted to like Space: Above & Beyond, but I just could not get into it. I think I completely lost interest around ep 4. The early hints of conspiracy didn't ring true for me, and even by then I was getting pretty doggone sick and tired of advanced military boasting equipment that was state-of-the-art for late 20th century Marines.

It's one series I keep thinking of revisiting, with the idea that I might appreciate it more on the second go-round, but I haven't convinced myself yet.
I've only seen the premier episode of Space Above and Beyond, but I've seen it twice, once when it first aired back in 1995, and again last week. My memories of my initial viewing were of a fairly good, if not outstanding, genre show that mined a lot of the same territory the filmed version of Starship Troopers (and its tv spinoff) would later play out. When I watched it last week... Well, let's just say time hasn't exactly treated it well. I'm not sure if my personal standards have changed that much in ten years, or if television standards in general have risen that much in the last decade (I suspect it's a mix of both), but while the story in the broadstrokes was perfectly serviceable, on the level of the individual scene is was plain godawful. The dialogue in many places was just howlingly bad, with characters endlessly restating key concepts for the benefit of the slowest viewers in the audience--how many times do they repeat the terms "tank" and "in vitro" in the third scene, just in case anyone missed it? When the dude is dragged from the colonial ship by stormtroopers, shouting out to his true love "I will find you!" it plays as an undercooked MadTV parody of Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans, and I just couldn't take any subsequent scene in the show seriously.
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I've only seen the premier episode once, when it was first aired. I don't remember all that much about it, and I don't think my opinion was that different from yours. But over the years, both in its original run and in repeats on SciFi Channel, I thought the show improved in later episodes. The characters were a little deeper, the mystery behind the aliens got more interesting.

In particular, I remember an episode about a sniper alien ship, its name was some variation on Baron Von Richtofen. The recent BSG episode "Scar" really reminded me of it.

Clearly, I think BSG is an improvement on the idea, but I think it comes from a very similar place and look as Space: Above and Beyond.
Oddly, watching the aforementioned abortion episode of BG last week, I was also reminded of S:A&B. I was thinking that BG was unprecedented, but it does seem to come from a similar place, even if it goes further.

re: B5 - Straczynski really was the Spike Lee of Space tv. When he pitched the show originally, most of the studios thought he was pitching Star Trek and tried to send him to Paramount. They couldn't understand that "space" and "Star Trek" weren't synonymous. In proving that a non-Trek show could work, he opened the door for everything that followed.

But speaking of earlier attempts at this sort of SF, does anyone remember Earth-2? Started well, went south fast.
Yeah, Lou, I'd left Earth-2 out of my viewing list because, even though it involved human colonists on another planet, there seemed to be so little about it that intersected with the idea of "space" that it seemed completely tangential to what I was about. But definitely, that was another one that seemed promising in the first viewing of the pilot, but which in my recollection degenerated into silliness almost immediately. Still, it put Clancy Brown on view, which is never a bad thing (and anyone that thinks his appearance on Lost was a one-time guest spot is deluded; he'll be back). It amuses me that, all through the Olympics, that commercial that likened the Olympians to superheroes was narrated by the voice of Lex Luthor.

But speaking of Earth-2, it's always getting mixed up in my memory with a similarly titled, completely different show from the 80s, called Otherworld. It was about a family tossed into an alternate dimension, and ran for part of a season in 1985. I remember liking it at the age of 15, but I'm sure it was much, much less not-horrible than I remember.
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