Monday, April 12, 2010

In Which I Rant About Science Fiction Fans



Well, science fiction is not, and traditionally hasn't been, about the future, science or technology. It's about us. Now. - Joel Kelly

WARNING: BATTLESTAR GALACTICA AND STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE SPOILERS AHEAD


Lately I've been getting more and more aggravated with so-called science fiction “fans” on the Internet. It began when the series finale to Battlestar Galactica aired. Unsurprisingly, there were all sorts of opinions about the finale. I liked it overall, though I was disappointed by some of the unresolved plot threads. The mystery behind Starbuck's return from the dead and the identity of the “head” versions of Baltar and Six were chalked up to God sending angels to directly intervene in the affairs of the characters. With the angels' purposes fulfilled, they vanished. It felt like a cop-out from the writers. They couldn't seem to come up with a satisfying explanation, so they simple brushed it aside with a bit of religious mumbo jumbo.

Still, BSG remains my favorite science fiction show of all time, and probably holds my personal top spot for any show, period. It presented believable characters in a horrible situation and examined how those characters, and the remnants of their society, coped with losing their entire civilization. It avoided or subverted the typical tropes of most sci-fi shows today: the alien or monster of the week; snarky characters bubbling with repressed sexuality; the believer and the skeptic; the nutty professor. It was most interested in how real humans find the will to survive.

Sadly, some have taken this show for granted and for many people the ending is a travesty they can't forgive. This hit home for me when I began trying to discuss the new prequel series to BSGCaprica, with folks on the Internet. I'd start a discussion on a message board about the latest episode and invariably one or two people would post about how “terrible” BSG's ending was and how they would never watch another show from this group of writers. When I pressed them to better explain their feelings, the basic explanation was, “The writers have established a universe where at any moment they can just have God swoop in, wave his hand, and save the day. The prospect of a Deus Ex Machina is never far away.”

Suddenly everything made much more sense to me.

Remember that Caprica is technically a prequel to Battlestar Galactica. It shares a setting and a few characters, but in every other aspect it is a fully standalone show. No knowledge of Battlestar Galactica is required to enjoy Caprica, though watching Caprica and knowing that that entire civilization is doomed does add an extra layer of texture to the experience. The writers on Caprica take some of the central ideas of BSG like what it means to be alive, the role of technology in society, how people cope with tragedy, and religious fanaticism leading to terrorism and examines them through a more intimate and down to earth lens. Battlestar Galactica had a more epic scope, while Caprica keeps things personal.

Most science fiction media has devolved into a pale shadow of what the early masters like Asimov, Clark, Heinlein, and Dick explored in their stories and novels. What I consider pure science fiction is about exploring ideas from an altered perspective to make them more palatable to the reader. Big ideas like the nature of humanity and what it means to be alive were explored in fantastical settings that made you willing to go along on a journey and open your mind to something bigger than yourself. These writers told good stories, but they were also interested in and concerned about the direction toward which humanity was heading. Their stories acted as warnings, philosophical ruminations, treatises, and exclamations of hope. Science fiction is about ideas, and is about us. A moral quandary faced by their characters in the future is really a moral quandary we face now.

At some point, however, science fiction began following in the footsteps of fantasy and became absorbed in building huge universes and detailed encyclopedias of lore. Maybe the release of Star Wars and its brand of space opera spurred this on. I don't know. Science fiction became less about ideas and more about the lasers and spaceships that originally surrounded those ideas. I recently tried reading David Weber's Off Armageddon Reef. I had to give up on it before too long because the author devoted page after page to detailing the history of his world, the political bodies and personalities behind it, and the family histories of the main characters. It was almost bizarre how much the author expected me to give a damn about his universe without introducing any likable characters or other reason to care. It also followed the now-tired premise of a band of scrappy rebels taking on a massive empire.

The shift from big ideas and believable characters to self-centered world building has been the downfall of many a science fiction series. The Matrix is a prime example. The first movie dwelled on the nature of reality and free will, and also managed to be a stunning action and science fiction movie with clever writing and good characters. The sequels degenerated into self-absorbed anime pretentiousness. While I enjoyed the sequels for what they were, they didn't come close to approaching the first movie's intelligence.

Star Trek fell into this same trap, along with simply running out of new ideas. Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation originally built themselves around a what-if? scenario each week. What if there was a society that executed its citizens for the smallest infraction? What if there was a race of beings completely absorbed with making money at any cost? What if there was a machine race that grew by absorbing other societies? What if you found out you had been genetically engineered to be perfect? The characters in these shows perhaps played second fiddle to these scenarios, but they grew over time, became more fleshed out, and most of us grew to love them as time went on. Star Trek usually had a point to make about our own society. Unfortunately, by the time Star Trek: Voyager ended and Star Trek: Enterprise was canceled, the franchise had become mired in the decades of lore it had built up.  The producers of the show were unwilling or unable to genuinely shake things up for fear of alienating those obsessed with continuity (we can't have anything that contradicts how we "know" the warp core works!), and the same tired ideas were endlessly recycled (the machine who wants to be human).

I believe it's possible for a balance to be struck between ideas and lore, and the third Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine, achieved this the best of any of them. The majority of the show focused on a galaxy-wide war between the generally peaceful Federation and the sinister Dominion. This war spanned more than half of the show's seven seasons. However, it used this premise to examine the effects of war and how far people are willing to go for victory. The morality of the show was often gray. In the season 6 episode "In The Pale Moonlight," Captain Sisko and another character, Garak, concoct a plan to trick the powerful Romulan Empire into allying with the Federation. Sisko tries to convince a Romulan senator that the Dominion plan to invade the Romulan Empire. When the plan goes awry, Garak detonates a bomb on board the senator's shuttle, killing him and making it look like a Dominion attack. The Romulans join the fight against the Dominon. Sisko eventually accepts this as a small price to pay to stop the Dominion. Religious themes and examinations of how an oppressed society handles regaining its freedom were also heavily prevalent. It was a premise enhanced by knowledge of the show's lore (the history between the Federation and the Romulan Empire is well established within the various Star Trek series), but still managed to make it about characters and individual morality.

It's no surprise then that the lead show-runner of Deep Space Nine, Ronald Moore, was also one of the principle minds behind the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. The remake took the original campy '70s space opera, extracted the original genuinely horrifying premise, and turned it into a serious and thoughtful military and political drama examining what it might really be like if the entire world ended and the survivors had only the barest hope of a mythical lost home to keep them going. It took that premise and constantly asked what if? What if you had to leave behind or even kill thousands in order to ensure the survival of thousands more? What sort of government would arise from the ashes of this society? What would make the “good guys” turn to suicide bombing? How would people react to being told by their leaders that their arch enemies were now their allies? The first line of spoken dialog in the opening miniseries is, "Are you alive?" It's a frequent question throughout the show. It had a cast of believable and complicated characters trying desperately to survive while also struggling to be worthy of that survival. Some rose to the challenge, while others did not. One of my favorite plot lines was of the young lieutenant stranded with a group of mechanics in hostile territory. The officer was utterly incompetent and couldn't act as a leader for his team. As the situation worsened, he became progressively unhinged until he finally ordered his team to participate in a suicidal attack. It was a fascinating way to look at the incredible stress and pressure of military command under fire, and thankfully didn't have the typical gruff but loving platoon leader.

In this way, Battlestar Galactica was a return to form for (sort of) popular science fiction. Like the earlier Star Trek shows, BSG used science fiction as a means to explore humanity in the here and now. It's easier to watch our heroes act as terrorist insurgents on a far away planet than it is to think about what leads disillusioned and hopeless Muslim men and women to strap bombs to their chests and blow up crowded markets. Even the widely and deservedly reviled "Black Market" episode had an interesting question at its core: what would the criminal underground look like in this post-apocalyptic society?

Battlestar Galactica's misstep was to shift away from the ideas and focus on the lore. Once the show began dwelling on the Final Five Cylons during the latter half of the third season and who they were, why they were important, and what they meant, the show stopped being about us and started being about the writers' universe. While the show dropped Lost-style mysteries right from the beginning, they weren't the focus of the show. Even the search for Earth was less of a central plot and more of a means to motivate both the characters and viewers to continue. While it was interesting in theory to show how the Final Five reacted to learning their true nature, in practice they mostly just moped around. The one exception was Tory, who used it as a nihilistic excuse to give up her humanity and morality. The show regained its footing briefly during the mutiny storyline after the fleet finally discovered that Earth was nothing but a radioactive wasteland. Felix Gaeta's tragic character arc ended here, and was probably the best of the show. Only a few episodes later, though, the writers pooped out an episode where nearly the entire backstory of the Final Five and the reason for the twelve Colonies' destruction was finally revealed from one guy's mouth while he was stuck in a hospital bed.

The problem with the finale, then, was that it didn't focus on the lore and mysteries to the same degree the last season and a half did. It was concerned mostly with wrapping up character arcs. Most of these were satisfying to me, but even I had bought into the central mysteries of the show and was disappointed when they were left dangling at the end. Fast-forwarding 100,000 years to show our society was almost required and could have been cool, but the writers instead decided to jump back to lore mode and throw in more obtuse references to God (who apparently doesn't like to be called that) and ended with an awkward robot montage that seemed to act as some sort of warning against... AI? Technology as a whole? It wasn't really clear.

Having said all that, the issue I have with the people who feel the ending “ruined the show” is that they ignore all of the brilliant work that came before. The morally gray situations, the complex characters, the stellar music, and the believable writing have been swept aside by these “fans” just as much as the writers swept aside their lore for the finale. Claiming that the final 20 minutes of the show invalidates all of the 80 hours that came before is ridiculous. If you stuck with the show all the way to the end, I can't believe that it was the vague hints at divine intervention throughout that kept you hooked. It had to be the characters, and the writing, and stories that worked their magic on you. Some shows' finales deliberately sabotage the audience's expectations. I don't believe that Battlestar Galactica's is one of them.

So for those of you who refuse to give Caprica a chance, get over your misplaced sense of betrayal. The writers employed science fiction the way it was meant to be: to let us critically examine ourselves from a safe distance. Caprica is continuing that tradition. It isn't perfect. It's a show in the process of finding its feet. But to dismiss it outright is to give tacit approval to the weak and shallow Warehouse 13sHeroesStargates and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallens of the world. 

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