Frakking Good Storytelling

Jeff has waxed lyrical about Firefly and Buffy in the past. I’m definitely a Joss Whedon fan, but I think one of the finest TV shows—science fiction or not—is Battlestar Galactica. No, not the late 70’s Glen Larsen space opera starring Lorne Green and Richard Hatch but Ron Moore’s gritty dystopian remake.

I have to admit I was reluctant to watch it when it first came out as a miniseries on SciFi Channel. I had a soft spot for the glitzy, somewhat camp 70’s show. (It was TV’s answer to Star Wars—minus the really good writing.) However, Ron Moore stood that shiny, cheesedog of a cold war allegory on its frakking head by making some really bold and fearless choices.

Realism. The original was very clean and shiny, and evidently the best and brightest survived the massacre of the human race. On BSG, the Battlestar Galactica survived because the ship was an old rust bucket about to be decommissioned. The Cylon attack didn’t disable its systems because it hadn’t been upgraded. Commander William Adama was in charge of the Galactica because of some questionable decisions. And Colonel Ty was a drunk, whose wife was a notorious flirt. Apollo (real name Lee Adama) hated his father, and Starbuck (Kara Thrace) was in the brig for punching Ty during a poker game. Oh, and the day the Cylons attacked, the President found out she had terminal cancer. And, the Cylons can look human and have sleeper agents on board the Galatica. Good times.

Strong Female Characters. On the original, the only major female character was a reformed hooker. (Yes, Cassiopeia was what was euphemistically called a sociolator.) And then she became a nurse. Paging Nurse Chapel! (That's a Star Trek reference, btw.)

On BSG, Starbuck, the President, the commander of Pegasus, Boomer / Athena, Six, Diana, and about half of the characters, Cylon and human alike, are women. Strong, complex women. And no one questions or even remarks on it. (Ok, the diehard fans of the original show had a hard time with Starbuck being a woman, but they got over it. For the most part.)

Tough subjects. The original, as I mentioned, is kind of a cold war allegory. The Cylons were the Soviets, and they wiped out the humans because we let our defensive guard down. BSG is far more complicated. Moore didn’t shy away from terrorism, religion, free will, destiny, and what it means to be human.

Plot Decisions. The original had its moments, but the plots were mostly predictable. And everything was wrapped up in 42 minutes. (Or whatever the length of a standard hour long drama was in 1978.) And they found Earth. (At least on the short-lived Galactica 1980.)

Moore envisioned BSG as more of a long form. He had the overarching story in mind when he started. And he never took the easy road to get there. For instance, after establishing the Cylons as monotheistic terrorists chasing and infiltrating the humans, Moore turned the tables. Thinking they’ve lost the Cylons, the humans find a habitable planet to settle, which they call New Caprica. A year later the Cylons arrive and decide to occupy New Caprica—and reform the humans. Here, have a look:

After this, the humans have to become terrorists themselves to combat Cylon occupation. (I won’t mention the utterly heartbreaking—and damned ironic—choices characters like Ty make.)

I could go on. And on. And on. The long and short of it is that Ron Moore made his characters—human and Cylon—deeply flawed and tested them in the worst possible situations.

That’s frakking good storytelling.

Any BSG fans out there? How did Ron Moore make BSG work for you? What were some of your favorite moments or characters?

BTW, I found Ron Moore’s podcasts / episode commentary—which are available on the SyFy site and iTunes—great lessons in storytelling. He talked about the writing and editing process for the each episode and the series in general—usually while sitting in his living room, smoking a cigar, and drinking scotch.


Stephanie Lorée said...

I'm a huge BSG fan. Some of the best Sci-Fi storytelling out there. I'm currently rewatching the series, it's good enough to watch over and over, the viewer is always taking away something different.

And Starbuck is my favorite character.

Matthew MacNish said...

I haven't seen the new version of the show, but you make several excellent and universal points. Great post!

Angie Smibert said...

Matthew (and anybody else), the whole series is on Hulu as well as SyFy Channel (I think).

Mandy P.S. said...

I have not and never been a huge BSG fan (though I did watch every episode). But that's my own personal rant about turning science fiction shows into soap operas and having characters who are "too flawed", ie--they have no redeeming qualities and I feel absolutely no sympathy for them whatsoever.

But what I did like was:

1) Uber-scary cylons. That's the way cylons should be. Terrifying.

2) Fairly realistic dynamics for the Vipers. They actually used thrusters! I'm not sure they thought through how much delta V a Viper would have and how they would store it, but this was one step forward for SF writers. They actually listened to what engineers have been telling them.

3) The ending. Moral of the story: Humans never learn, we just rinse and repeat. I really loved the ending of the series.

Tere Kirkland said...

Sometimes I felt like the characters were too human. Oh, Dualla! I still cry over you!

What I mean is, they made decisions that didn't always make sense, or seemed out of character, like regular normal people, not fiction characters who's motivations are supposed to be consistent and make sense.

Then there was the episode (or maybe it was Razor?) where the #6 was imprisoned and the consequence— I'm trying not to give too much away, so forgive me for sounding vague— of her being a Cylon was tough to watch, but it was a subject that I'm glad they touched on, even if it felt a little too real.

I did love the show, and I liked how the ending was a little open-ended as to what actually happened (ie, to Starbuck).

All in all, some of my favorite female television characters.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I loved BSG, not least for it's realism (and making Starbuck a GIRL!!). They had me, perched on the edge of my couch, right up until the end ... and then, what?

I know it's horribly difficult to wrap up long-running shows like that, but I was disappointed in the whole Starbuck-is-really-dead-or-whatevs. But other than that, I'm with you a 100% on BSG being compelling storytelling.

Krispy said...

I was also a bit iffy about watching the series at first, mostly because I thought it was just another Syfy drama, but I kept hearing good things. I loved BSG for a lot of the reasons you mentioned, but especially for how it didn't shy away from difficult subjects. It did make watching more than 2 episodes in a row draining though - mentally and emotionally. I was a bit dissatisfied with the end, but I did generally like it.

Jemi Fraser said...

Love BSG! It was such an intriguing series - you never had a clue what to expect! So many shocks and twists. Awesome :)

Elena Solodow said...

I'm not a sci-fi fan. Never was. But I am a good daughter, so I sat down to watch BSG with my Dad one day and we ended up watching the whole series together.

I respect anything that's remains realistic while serving the goals of it's genre: BSG & Harry Potter are both good examples. Believability has always been my major issue with sci-fi, because the technology can be so far-removed from what we know today, but BSG made it work.

EVA SB said...

BSG has been my favourite show of recent years. I love sci-fi but best of all I like military space drama.

I never saw the original so I came to it fresh but having heard so much I was really excited - it didn't dissapoint.
I loved all the characters - flaws and all.
Helo was the character I respected most for his principles but Starbuck was my favourite - despite all her emotional mess I would love her in real life.