Deus ex Pigritia, or Why You’d Better Not Get Me Started on Battlestar Galactica

Inevitably, when someone hears that I am an SF writer, they immediately mentioned whatever SF things they happen to know about or like, expecting I, too, will like it.

This is awkward because I usually rather hate their favorite book, TV show, or movie.

Not all SF fans, or SF authors, like all SF. It’s a simple thing to say.

But it’s another thing to explain it, and they usually seem to find the fact so unbelievable that an explanation seems wanted.

My explanation almost never satisfies them, but maybe that’s because I haven’t rehearsed my sound bite. After all, everything has to be expressible in a sound bite in this era. Perhaps I should prepare one for the next time.

I can’t start out of the gate quoting Adam Roberts’ observation that sometime in the mid-twentieth century, the dominant mode of popular SF shifted from text to “visual” forms (like cinema, TV, and comics). I can’t very well explain that there was an accompanying aesthetic shift that occurred, and that SF in the visual mode does all kinds of things I don’t find satisfying, while lacking a lot of the things I crave from the genre.

It’s sort of like telling a Korean, “Well, look, I like kimchi, but I like the traditional stuff. You know, the stuff from before the days when hot peppers arrived from the Americas? The stuff your ancestors loved? The white, pickled stuff that bears no resemblance to that spicy fermented cabbage you eat with every meal.” You get blank looks. You get bafflement, and an insistence that, no, dude, what about kimchi?

The SF I love best blows my mind by being unpredictable; by taking scientific concepts and using them to stretch my imagination. You know those bowel movements that feel like you’re giving birth — the ones you have only occasionally, but which actually scare you until they’re over, and then you’re just kind of relieved and in happy shock not to have had your insides pop out and explode all over the place? That’s what a great SF story or novel can do to your mind.

It’s an acquired taste, thinking. And it’s an acquired expectation. I don’t insist that everyone should want the things I want.

But I do feel insulted by a lot of what is offered in place of that.

Take, for example, the remake of Battlestar Galactica, which to me feels much more like a bowel movement that simply took forever to end.

I get it why people enjoyed the show. I really do: despite some pretty bad writing in places, and despite the fact that it pushed a lot of my annoyance buttons — any TV show that refers to “God” and “the gods” constantly is going to annoy me, guaranteed — I can see what excited people about it. It’s like Dan Brown’s (dreadful, awful, horrible) writing: the man cannot write a character to save his life, but he can get you curious enough to wonder what’s going to happen next.

When I advised my students there are much better things to read in English than Dan Brown, one said, in shock, “But they made a movie out of The Da Vinci Code!” When I told her that they had, and they’ve made movies out of many badly-written books, the laughed and said, “Like Twilight?”

Yes, like Twilight. Like The Da Vinci Code.

I don’t know about other hard SF fans, but I find it ironic and kind of discouraging that one of the first things people think of when they hear the phrase “sci-fi” or “SF” or “science fiction” is the Star Wars series. Not because I hate Star Wars, but because the franchise is, quite clearly, an epic fantasy that decided to cross-dress, slapping on a bit of metal breastplate and some blinking Xmas lights under a helmet.

Indeed, Star Wars explicitly, excitedly, insistently lacks all the things I love about SF proper:

  • an intent, honest questioning of the nature of the human species (and its mutability), especially in terms of its own self-understanding and its own dilemmas, as shaped in relationship to its tools (ie. technology)
  • an exploration of science as an interface between nature and man’s conception of (and power to manipulate) the universe in which we live
  • an essentially realist, empirical aesthetic, or as some bright folks out there put it, a “naturalistic worldview… free of supernatural and mystical elements.”
  • a fascination with alternity — future times, or deep pasts that are alienatingly alien, or alternate worlds, or even the estranging reality of a world as seen through the eyes of another intelligent species, or of humans meeting another intelligent species
  • an investment in questions that could only be posed in a  post-Darwinian, post-Enlightenment, post-industrial revolution world

If you look at that list, it’s pretty easy to see why I’d revile Battlestar Galactica — though, to be fair, I watched it right to its miserable, insulting deus ex machina finale.

(Which isn’t just insulting in its anti-science, anti-tech stupidity. I mean, the big reveal is that God did it? That’s it? Come on. George R.R. Martin’s right: too many people don’t know how to write endings anymore.)

Need I rehearse the points?

An intent, honest questioning of the nature of the human species (and its mutability), especially in terms of its own self-understanding and its own dilemmas, as shaped in relationship to its tools (ie. technology).

Er, yeah. There’s humans, and then there’s robots called cylons, and then there’s these other robots (also called cylons) who are basically human except they can resurrect. Oh, and then there are some other humanlike robots who can resurrect, who made the other humanlike robots, but they forgot who they are. But basically, they are all kinda sorta human.

And then they all agree to give up technology and cities and stuff because we’re not ready and need a clean start. Or something.

An exploration of science as an interface between nature and man’s conception of (and power to manipulate) the universe in which we live.

Science in this series is surprisingly thin. There’s some medical science — all of which looks to be basically in line with our medical science ten years ago. You’d think a spacefaring colonial society with the technological advancement to run FTL (faster-than-light) starships might have actually figured out and implemented better treatments for cancer than we have now; or even just figured out and implemented the stuff we’ve figured out, but not yet implemented.

As for the rest of the science, well, again, it’s amusing that in a spacefaring colonial civilization, only one apparent scientist survives annihilation. (Maybe there are more, but somehow Baltar has control of the fleet’s scientific research resources and labs and so on… really?) You’d think they would have more scientists, since science is the bedrock of their interstellar society. You’d think that maybe five or ten scientists would have survived, and not just one dude named Gaius Baltar. And they would be checking that cylon-detector code, uncovering whatever software tricks he used to hide his results, and landing his ass in the brig right from the start. Though, then again, Baltar’s forcible conversion and constant god-bothering is about the least scientist-like behavior I can imagine. Well, unless he was a physicist (some of them do go theo-obsessive, I don’t know why), in which case, why’s he coding a clyon-detector app?

Science? Well, there’s spaceships that go boom and stuff. But even the science in the finale is just meh. There’s a great explanation of that here, along with a critique of the disastrous finale.

An essentially realist, empirical aesthetic, or as some bright folks out there put it, a “naturalistic worldview… free of supernatural and mystical elements.”


An investment in questions that could only be posed in a  post-Darwinian, post-Enlightenment, post-industrial revolution world.

Ha ha. Ha!

I won’t even bother. And no, it’s not that the series deals with religion: I’m fine with religion being presented as part of an SFnal society. I have a problem when it’s as central to a very advanced civilization as it is in our primitive one, though. I was momentarily ranting about this a few weekends ago and said to someone, “Yeah, like a spacefaring civilization with the ability to run faster-than-light ships is going to be run by religious nuts.” Then I paused, and said, “Of course, look at us today…” It’s not unimaginable… it’s just so pessimistic and depressing to think it, and I think it’s a bit unlikely.

The thing is: religion has been at science’s throat all along, and so if you’re making an SF narrative, and you privilege religion and supernatural religious concepts as fact in terms of your worldbuilding and metaphysics —  if there really is a god pulling strings behind the scenes — then you’re automatically deprioritizing the science part of it… and, as I see it, dooming the science part of your science fiction.

(You’ll also be avoiding a lot of the more interesting questions possible in SF, which makes me wonder: why are you making an SF narrative in the first place? Is it because you like spaceship battles and funny costumes? If so, well, please frack off. )

But you may be surprised to find that it’s the absence of this one that really bugged me:

A fascination with alternity — future times, or deep pasts that are alienatingly alien, or alternate worlds, or even the estranging reality of a world as seen through the eyes of another intelligent species, or of humans meeting another intelligent species.

Where to begin?

The robots are robots, but they’re kinda human. Like, kinda very human. Like almost undetectable in their non-humanness. Which in practical terms means, they’re human. No estrangement or alternity there, really, especially once their resurrection capacity ends.

But I’ll confess: it was the Western, late-20th/early-21st-century-ness of it that bothered me most. Star Trek and Star Trek:TNG (the only series I know at all), as much as they often just metaphorized 20th century dilemmas, issues, and conflicts, at least had the decency to suggest a civilization unlike ours — a post-scarcity, unified world society emblematized by the Starfleet uniforms.

In Battlestar Galactica, the characters dress, talk, eat, think, and act like modern Americans, full stop. Sure, there are tiny deviations, like how, when they cuss, they pluralize the word “god.” But their military garb is essentially our military garb; their drinking culture is essentially our drinking culture; their politics are so familiar I think of them as barely a funhouse mirror reflection of our politics. We’re supposed to believe that the business suit worn by millions of men in the postmodern world today was also worn by the majority of men in another civilization 150,000 years ago that developed in some other corner of the galaxy, by a difference species that, somehow, evolved to be basically like us.

When I complained about this, my friend Chris said, “Well, what are they supposed to wear?” I imagine that’s precisely what everyone involved in the envisioning of Battlestar Galactica would say to, and while I can’t fault Chris for it — his literary loves are not the same as mine, and he finds other things to hang attention onto in a TV series — I certainly do fault people who make SF TV shows lazily.

Because that’s how I read the question: it’s laziness. Not the laziness of budget restrictions leading to the use of forehead-aliens (those aliens that are made alien by makeup tricks on their foreheads, as in the Star Trek franchise), because trust me, having done some short film work, I get it about budget and logistics and special effects. I really do.

But the laziness that precludes bothering to imagine a culture that differs from modern American culture even as much as some present-day cultures on Earth do, that’s a laziness I can’t excuse. The laziness of not even bothering to assemble something that mixes up real-world Earth cultures — a pseudo-Confucian strict hierarchic social system here, a penchant for wanton violence by the powerful (a la the ancient Romans) there; the cultures of BSG’s colonial society could have been compelling and authentically foreign. Instead, they ended up being the forehead-alien equivalent of American culture, plus a little forehead alien Greek mythology thrown in.

This is why, though I did (especially in the first couple of seasons) find the characters relatively compelling enough to ignore the prattling on about God, the science-ignorant writing, the lack of interest in a philosophical inquiry into consciousness, human nature, and technology (beyond Robots are bad! Robots are scary!), I felt a kind of bad taste in my mouth even early on. Everything we’re shown in Caprica, prior to its fall, suggests that the people there might have kicked back and watched How I Met Your Mother on a weeknight. If that’s the kind of story you want to tell, fine, tell it: but don’t expect me to believe the society doing it lived in the deep past, on the other side of the galaxy, and had just fought an interstellar war with its robotic slaves, but somehow looks so much like ours that they even sit around eating sushi rolls and talking on the phone while being set up for blind dates.

It was dumb, lazy and dumb dumb dumb. If you want to know why, you’ll need to be prepared to read some novels, to find out BSG hasn’t really caught up with the cutting edge of SF proper as it was thirty or forty years ago. Because, my friends, that is the sad truth: TV and cinema SF tends to just lag behind written SF by a generation or more. Is it because the people making visual SF tend to get stuck on other visual SF? Are they just not reading enough? I don’t know, but it sounds likely to me.

(Then again, I’m sad to admit, I’m just not reading enough these days to stay current, or even start to catch up.)

And that’s why I tend not to like SF TV shows. In fact, though I very rarely read fantasy in print form (unless it’s horrific and dark, as in, Lovecraftian, for example), I tend toward liking fantastical or supernatural TV programs more. Dead Like Me and Being Human and Life on Mars are prime examples. (The latter clearly is fantasy, not SF, if you ask me.) The SF I like on TV is usually billed as something else — a comedy series like Red Dwarf or Better Off Ted, for example. In fact, the TV show that has most consistently given me the closest feeling to a hard SF story was a Canadian science faction series called Regenesis. I loved the series, and someday I’ll probably watch it again from start to finish. (My review of the series, written just before I finished it off, is here.)

I know, I know. Someone out there is thinking, “What about Dr. Who?”

What about it? I liked it when I was little, but haven’t seen the new ones. Does it sound like I’d like it? All my writer friends here do, but they also, I suspect, think my objections to the BSG series (not the finale, I hope, just the series) are nuts.

6 thoughts on “Deus ex Pigritia, or Why You’d Better Not Get Me Started on Battlestar Galactica

  1. I enjoyed Battlestar Galactica until its poorly conceived finale because it was not exactly conventional “science fiction.” Here was a poor man’s version of Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest” on a ragtag group of space craft, of which, the only surviving ship capable of all but the most basic of battles with its antiquated weaponry was the very old, decommissioned, Battlestar Galactica. This TV series was a lot like that of the current horror TV series, The Walking Dead. Both deal with the apocalypse and the fallout that the survivors must overcome if the human race is to survive. Both lack many of our basic necessities in life such as enough food to eat, adequate housing, water, dissension from within, stability, and medicine/medical technology. Both societies are as close to the razor’s edge as can be in terms of survival thanks to the unraveling of “civilization.”

    Would either show have been nearly as interesting if the survivors had all that they needed to survive with modern day/future conveniences in an underground military bunker some place? I seriously doubt that they would have been. But, in reality, neither show was/is a blockbuster hit with the general viewing public. In fact, in the U.S., fewer than 3% of the entire population of over 300 million even bothered to watch it BSG at all. This is not exactly what one would call a ringing endorsement or a major hit, but in a world going “reality TV (i.e. cheap)” crazy, any sci-fi is better than none at all. And maybe the series using the dreadful handful of gods in its cannon might actually be a backwards attempt to get a few of the bible thumpers in our world thinking that their one god foolhardy belief might just be that, and that alone can’t be all bad.

    I am also grateful that we have had quite a few quality alternatives like Farscape, Firefly, and ReGenesis.

  2. John,

    How solid is that 3%? I heard that BSG was one of the most heavily time-shifted series ever, in terms of Tivo and such, and that Neilsen ratings system doesn’t include that in its numbers. (But this is from a fansite, so who freaking knows?)

    As for BSG not being typical, I dunno: it seemed quite typical in the ways it failed to excite me SFnally. I realized pretty quickly (ie. when they began searching for Earth)_that this was a an “Adam and Eve” story… which is pretty common, really. So common that it’s in the Turkey City Lexicon, under “Part Three: Common Workshop Story Types”:

    Adam and Eve Story
    Nauseatingly common subset of the “Shaggy God Story” in which a terrible apocalypse, spaceship crash, etc., leaves two survivors, man and woman, who turn out to be Adam and Eve, parents of the human race!!

    The few things that I felt made BSG more interesting — the rise of the union, the political opposition — was all but swept away after a conciliatory gesture, (class/union issues) or demonized (Zarek), whilst the holy nutters at the head of the military and government seemed to be lionized even when doing things I felt were somewhat evil.

    (Then again, reading the Bible I get the same feeling about the central character there, and people seem cool with that.)

    It seemed less like survival of the fittest and more like survival of the lucky (or unlucky, on some ships). I would have liked to see more of life on the other ships, and the shit people were dealing with out there — those who were recycling clothing, those producing food, and so on, as opposed to just the Tylium mining ship. There could have been ways to show us that too. I guess that’s another thing I dislike: it’s a story of “great men” (and women) in the mode of older history books; I like to think we’ve gotten past that in some ways; or that our models of greatness have shifted, at least. (The protagonists in a lot of the SF I love are not commanders or presidents, but ordinary people confronted by the scientifically or technologically extraordinary. (And thereafter, may turn out to be at ground zero of The Next Big Thing, or may not.) I think that applies to a lot of the novels I listed above, actually. I’d like to think it could work equally well in TV SF (as it does on TV dramas — Western TV dramas no longer have to be centered on people like JR Ewing: people were fascinated by the doctors working in E.R., by the proletarian narratives of The Shield and The Wire — which I know only by reputation, mind), but I guess it may not be what TV people think is engaging.

    I am not really sure I can get on board with calling Firefly quality SF: I finally watched it all the way through this year and, well, thought it was just cowboys-in-space (and a bit hollow at that), and wondered why people liked it so much. I think people mostly just like cowboys. (Though I have friends who would argue the characters are well-written, I didn’t find them that engaging. Maybe I am so uninterested in cowboy stories it poisoned the show for me, but then, I felt a lot of the SFnalness of it was warped to fit the cowboy thing, so…

    I know less about Farscape, having only seen it when the roommate I had (who was shunned by coworkers for watching porn on the work computer, so you know how cool he was — ah, assigned roommates for hakwon workers… so bad!) but you can imagine I might associate the show with, well, not being very impressed because of the guy who *insisted* I watch it. That’s unfair, but it is what it is.

    I’m trying to think of other TV SF shows I liked, but having trouble. I only saw a little of Babylon-5 so I don’t know much about the series; I liked some of The X-Files but for me it just wore on later; I thought the Stargate series I saw bits of insulted my intelligence; Trek, well, TNG and original were okay but I had to turn off parts of my brain to enjoy them at all (and they are, at core, anti-science — think of how the technobabble in the series works). Earth2 started out interesting, but soon became a kind of mystical mumbo-jumbo dance, and when I rewatched some of it years later, I was not very impressed.

    Then again, there’s very little SF film I’d call great, either. I’m not convinced it’s impossible to make great SF film — hell, I just watched a very good one, called Perfect Sense, but as with other SF films I’ve found successful, it comes off like Mundane SF. As if removing spaceships and aliens from the equation makes for a harder-thinking, and more intellligent, script. (Not that it would have to lack aliens or spaceships, but that aliens and spaceships are, like Microsoft Windows XP, loaded down with so much cultural cruft that rewriting them from the ground up for the screen is very, very hard.)


  3. Actually, I am being way too generous with the 3% as it averaged out to less than 2% over the life of the series. And dvr penetration back when the series aired was nowhere near where it is now at 42% of the viewing audience. In 2007, it was about 15%. Personally, I’ve been extremely grateful that I’ve been able to dvr all of my television shows since 1999 thanks to DishNetwork and DirecTV and working in the ratings biz helped in my getting preview, and live, feeds of a lot of TV programs.

    I’m not trying to shortchange the series as the SyFy network ran episodes several times an evening and then over the weekend and following week garnering a total cume (cumulative) rating—they wanted every viewer they could get. Trust me when I say this, if the ratings had been anywhere near, or over, 3% of the U.S. population, the show would have lasted a lot longer. For comparison purposes, the current top-ranked drama, NCIS, is seen by about 25 million viewers each week or slightly over 8% of the total viewing audience available and includes live plus 7day dvr numbers in the total 25 million as well. And remember Stargate the TV series? It was able to last 10 seasons with several TV movies and spin-offs with comparable ratings, but it cost much less to produce than BSG.

    What the public doesn’t understand is that relatively few people (in the grand scheme of things) actually watch mainstream network television anymore as computer gaming, social networking, fantasy sports leagues, and alternative viewing sources eat away at the number of eyeballs that commercial advertisers are so desperate to keep. Cable TV (in the U.S.) is doing well because the production costs are supported by paying viewers though their cable and satellite subscription fees as each network gets a piece of the money pie. Hell, repeats of NCIS on USA network are among the highest rated on all of cable television and higher in repeats that BSG ever was in first-run episodes. Also, many people are sick and tired of being burned by becoming invested in new television shows to only see them pulled after a few episodes due to low ratings. They figure they can just download the series later or buy the dvds if it makes it through one or multiple seasons.

    So yeah, I haven’t really explained the perceived phenomenon that was the new Battlestar Galactica, but a lot of that had to do with new technology (blogs and torrents) and all the Sci-Fi community publicity that was generated by this re-Imagineering of a fond cult classic. This is akin to making a mountain out of a mole hill or blowing something way out of proportion. This is also why I liked and watched the series—there was nothing else much for us “science fiction” fans to get behind at the time (or any other time for that matter). It’s also why I try to find the good in a lot of, what many consider to be, these lesser sci-fi series. Yes, Firefly might have looked like cowboys in space, but it was closely related to Dave Wolverton’s first novel, and classic, “On My Way to Paradise.” Besides Whedon’s incorporation of Paradise in many of the episodes, he pretty much borrowed the Alliance and brain manipulation/transplantation as well when you look at Tamara in Paradise and River Tam in Firefly.

    “I wanted to write back sooner, but I am pretty ill right now. I just hope some of my points make sense.”–John

  4. John,

    Thanks for explaining. Though I am watching more TV series than I used to, I tend to end up having to get them through alternative sources here, and the world of ratings is kinda alien to me. So if 8% is high-ranked, is 3% low-ranked or just so-so?

    As for BSG lasting longer, it is to weep… would that a show like Dead Like Me could have lasted longer instead. But to be honest, I think TV shows that last too long inevitably suck, unless they do some serious game-changing along the way. I’m not all that crazy about How I Met Your Mother at this point: I’m ready for him to meet the woman and for the series to end, so everyone can move on to other stories…

    Feel better…

  5. A couple of years ago, three percent was a certain death sentence, but depending on the demographics (mostly age and wealth), some shows have been able to last quite a few seasons (“Community,” “Chuck,” “Parks & Recreation,” etc.) due to TV executives’ hopes that there will be a good deal of future ancillary money due to syndication sales. Plus, with the right demos, shows with actually fewer viewers can make much more money selling commercials than those that are viewed by much larger older audiences. In addition, it also depends on who produces the program. Years ago, there were countless production companies, but now most networks produce their own programming in a return to vertical integration of the early 1900’s film industry. They do this to save money in the short term and in hopes of making more money over the long haul. Also, in the case of the aforementioned programs, NBC had/has nothing better to replace them with as they found out the hard way after Jay Leno’s primetime move debacle.

    What’s really amazing is that it is all pretty much a ponzi scheme, especially now as more and more people no longer watch commercial television outside of sporting events—Professional and College football in the United States are the real ratings winners as they draw in huge numbers of live eyes that hopefully aren’t fast-forwarding the commercials or skipping them like so many are now able to do with dvrs I know for a fact that many people do record the games and join in at a later time in order to skip the commercials as I do myself. And, while soccer is more popular worldwide, it isn’t easy to fill with commercials when there are no breaks during the matches.

    For the time being, “How I Met Your Mother” doesn’t cost too much to produce and brings in enough viewers that we will be waiting to find out who Ted marries for the foreseeable future. Personally, I find Ted and Marshall annoying as hell, but I watch for Robin and Barney. It looks like Charlie’s meltdown did not doom “Two and a Half Men,” and it looks like the show and Ashton are here for a while as well.

    And why is this? Well, for those of us who religiously watch TV, there aren’t a lot of alternatives other than revisiting great programs from the past (I’m re-watching the 1960’s great, “The Avengers,” right now). Anyway, I believe that the U.S. will soon give in whole-heartedly to the British system of (at most) 13 episode seasons per year, especially as most cable produced programs are now doing this (“Psych,” “Burn Notice,” “The Closer,” “Futurama,” “Archer,” etc.) or giving in to reality (“Mythbusters,” “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” “Deadliest Catch,” “Ice Road Truckers,” etc.). If you get a chance, I highly recommend “Archer.” It stands will above “How I Met Your Mother.”

  6. John,

    Before I reply to your comment: are you typing your responses in a word processor and then copying and pasting them here? If so, I recommend you try a plain text editor for this purpose. You have curly quotes turned on and it makes your comments a horrible mess to read. (I fixed it, above, this time.)

    All of that is interesting. Ponzi scheme indeed. I’m kind of waiting for what happens when the creative people figure out a way to skip the network middleman, following maybe the same kind of route that Whedon & co. did with the Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog project. Audiences may be dwindling, but there are enough geeks out there online to support projects like that financially, I think… if they’re good enough.

    On HIMYM I don’t mind Marshall, but Ted is meh, and Robin doesn’t entertain me. I think the one character I truly like is Barney. Well, like is the wrong word, but I enjoy Stinson… and I enjoy Neil Patrick Harris as an actor. I have never seen Two and a Half Men, and likely never will. (I don’t know most of the fiction shows you mentioned, either, aside from Futurama.)

    I’ll check out Archer. It sounds sort of like Chuck, without the geekfun. I liked Chuck, but didn’t get into it enough to follow it…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *