Category: Sci Fi

BSG: Cylons were the protagonists

I didn’t mean to leave the last post so anticlimactically, especially since I was getting to the good part: the reconfiguration of the relationship between drama and audience and the resulting destabilization of identification with characters that was a constant in literature for most of the 19th century and still haunts young adult literature and a good deal of genre fiction, even some contemporary literary works. In film, of course, seeking to attract as much as repel the audience is not new. But for tv it is, partly because tv is extremely representational and is often obsessed with realism. Interestingly, BSG is a realist show, a mimetic or imitative show (the reality indexing that happens when the inside of a spaceship looks like what we think of the inside of a submarine, for example) in spite of the fact that its “appropriate” genre is sci fi. And it is this realism, down to the untidy and uncomfortable heroic characters, that provokes attraction and repulsion that is not a gimmick but rather part of an unraveling mystery.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, the human forms of the Cylons is being fully explored in this third season. On the one hand, the plot implications of this detail are tantalizing, though almost completely exhausted by this season: in season 1 and 2, there are enough encounters with these humanoid Cylons to provide suspense and adventure. Finding more hidden Cylons in the fleet would just be repetitive and unimaginative. The more important aspect of the epistemological confusion this Cylons form entails is a questioning of what is human. The question had been suggested in seasons 1 and 2, but Cylons then were united in their pursuit of destroying humans. That goal is now questioned. The diversity of opinion, the debates among the Cylons, their visceral discomfort of resurrection (the download into now bodies when they die), and their obsession with love puts us firmly into the world of “humanity.” Moreover, the humans’ use of suicide bombings and thirst for revenge upon the human collaborators of Cylon occupation suggest their “inhumanity.” A version of this is already offered in the Pegasus’ crew physical and sexual abuse of their captured number 6 model. What emerges is a model of humanity that is extremely contingent, situational. The monotheist/polytheist debate subtends this contingency, particularly as the mystics of each camp consider each other’s visions valid: the future is already written and does not define the characters, their subject positions are reconfigured given the relational networks in which they exist and through which they move. This is BSG’s recasting of our globalized world.

As unsatisfying as this contingency may be for aesthetic and philosophical theories of the subject–and it IS unsatisfying–the series does a much better job of exploring these issues than the hints of the post human Morrison’s run in New X-Men offered. The problem with how Morrison did this with the X-Men have very little to do with either Morrison or the merry mutants. It is probably a genre problem of the comic book, particularly the superhero comic. But it does suggest that humanity’s others: mutants, Cylons are the actual protagonists of the drama, not the vectors of destruction they represent, and the original humans, though they are the targets of the narrative focalization, are the actual ancillary subjects.

BSG continues to offer a new look of what is human, and it certainly indexes quite well the specific shades of this question most important to the mid 2000’s.

Originally published on 15 Mar 2012

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Battlestar Revisited

Recently, I have been re-watching old shows: I think it’s the cheeto presidency that’s driving me to shows that make me feel comfortable. One show in particular I’ve been watching is Battlestar Galactica.

I’m currently in the beginning of season 3, in which the epistemological problem that Cylons are indistinguishable from humans is being fully exploited: after having her hybrid baby, Sharon has been made into a lieutenant aboard the Galactica, humans are engaging in suicide bombings of other humans and Cylons in the name of the resistance, and the uniformity of the Cylon models is cracking thanks to the Cylon war heroes, Caprica 6 and Boomer. These plot reversals and inversions are important not so much in terms of creative plot development (though that creativity must be acknowledged) but most importantly because of how they reconfigure the audience’s relationship to the series. That is, who are we to root for? And why? Well, yes, the humans. But the characters themselves remind us that suicide bombing crosses a line. And are we now going to throw in with Colonel Tigh, a character we are constantly reminded is not to be trusted? The viewer has to be pragmatic here, even if it is distasteful. And the Cylons, what to do with them? As dastardly as they are, our apprehension is intimately related with how like us and our history they are. What even the human characters are beginning to grapple with is the idea that Cylons have souls (something the audience could always entertain but which now they have to face more seriously). And yet they decimated billions, a crime that cannot just be forgiven, especially by the survivors of such decimation.

This is why Battlestar Galactica is such a great show: the series seeks to constantly reconfigure the bonds of identification and disidentification between audience and fiction. For there is much we admire about the characters as well as what repels us. President Roslyn’s moral certainty, until it becomes tyrannical. Adama’s decisiveness and leadership is comforting at the same time that it’s narrow minded and the character can never truly be approached; we are Lee in many ways. This push and pull goes down to the setting: space age humans in a gritty, rust bucket fleet. Not the star trek sleekness we’re used to for a space drama.

I’ll sign off for now, but I have more to say on this topic.

Originally published on 13 Mar 2012

Torchwood and Nostalgia

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Torchwood

I was streaming a lot of the 2005 Doctor Who (BBC) series in 2011 (because that’s what doctoral candidates who are trying to write their dissertations do?). Aside from the Doctor, I would most like to marry Martha Jones, though Rose Tyler is an awesome Doctor companion. In the second series (in the UK, seasons are series–get this, in the UK they expect a show to have a narrative arc and therefore each season is a series!), the Doctor and Rose Tyler meet Captain Jack Harness. He’s cheeky, bombastic, good looking, ridiculous: American (though the actor who plays him, John Barrowman, was born in the UK but was raised in the U.S.). Jack Harness is stereotypically debonaire and reminds of me an Elizabethan braggadocio character – a lot of hot air, good looks, but more an impediment to the resolution of the plot than anything else. And that Jack Harness is: he is not quite an impediment to plot resolutions but, unfortunately and interestingly, he is often at the root of the problem; his past actions set in motion events that he will later have to clean up and/or redeem, though he can’t often do so. We learn that Jack Harness is polysexual (I say that because it seems that he’ll sleep with any gender of any species, so there you have it), and he seems to develop a crush on the Doctor. Steeped in sci fi, I was surprised to see bisexuality represented on a sci fi show–and so nicely matter of fact. Whatever the appeal (the actor is very handsome, almost to the point of looking artificial), the character and actor are so charismatic that the show Torchwood was developed with Jack as the leader of the Torchwood team, a team based in Cardiff whose mission is to protect the Earth (UK) against alien threats. The team has its own cast of pretty interesting characters: Gwen Cooper, Owen, Toshiko, and Ianto Jones.

What strikes me both about Doctor Who and Torchwood is that while the plots are interesting and action packed, the shows are very geared toward relationships and exploring the nuance of relationships. These shows are particularly good at tying the plot/problem they have to solve with the characters that have to solve them. They also expect a smart audience. In Torchwood, as the team solves the problem, characters will voice some of the conclusions the viewer might come up with herself and push beyond. The point is that you’re trying to solve the puzzle, just like them, and they really know their stuff. But it’s in the romantic entanglements that both characters and viewers delight and get stumped. I’ve already noted that Jack is bisexual (Torchwood is really set on Earth, and though we can argue about how many genders there are, the show really only has men and women as love objects), but all characters except Owen engage in same-sex action. What the show does with sexuality, then, is to make it so movable and fluid as to make it a given, not something to be solved.

Within that matter-of-fact fluidity, though, we are activated by gay love, or at least same-sex love, through the relationship of Captain Jack and Ianto Jones. Ianto Jones is adorable, by the way. Their relationship spans the first three seasons of the show, and at least in the last two seasons, it is a constant. However, because Jack is secretive and Ianto is professional (in his nicely tailored “smart” suits), their relationship is not center stage. Which is to say that it doesn’t have to be because it is not exceptional the way a gay plot might be in another show (I shudder at the ridiculous lesbian plot in The O.C.–bleargh!). We are treated to passionate kisses in aside moments, one character barging during a pre-sexy sexy scene (pants on), and other moments both sexual and romantic.

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Ianto and Captain Jack

Weirdly, then, what makes this character pairing nostalgic for me is that the peripheral representation of same-sex love in this show reminds me of the kind we used to see in the 90s, where a movie would be “gay” if someone’s best friend’s sister or brother on tv was gay. At that time, and at that age (teens), I was hunting for any representation of gay love I could find but couldn’t find a thing, or at least not very much. My favorite movie at the time was the film version of E. M. Forster’s Maurice and that because it was so (unrealistically) romantic…but it lacked in passion (in a way that Edwardian period pieces do not these days). So Torchwood makes me hunt for these peripheral moments, and when I get them, I get passionate kisses and slow dances: I get passion and love. In a sci fi series. On tv. Completely flabbergasted by that. Of course, it is British tv, so that makes it less surprising. At any rate, the nostalgia is for a remembered sensation of a pleasure that came from finding something but fleetingly because it was so taboo. The pleasure now comes from the fleeting moment that is normal, that can be fully real in the same way the other relationships in the show are portrayed. Captain Jack is a man plucked from the 51st century and has been on Earth since the nineteenth century waiting for the Doctor to return. He is, as the Doctor says, a fixed point in time and space. Because of his longevity and the tasks before him, everything is fleeting: he outlives most of his partners while on Earth. The thematic unity between the Jack-Ianto plot is at the heart of the Torchwood/Doctor Who theme of being both a traveler through time and space but also, because of it, being out of sync of both. The Doctor and Jack’s permanent state is one of loss and nostalgia, even though they focus, of course, on the present and fleeting. In this way, those of us who are “out of sync” notice the powerful same-sex relationship, but the show of course speaks to everyone as this theme is reworked through other characters and many of their adventures.

I realize blog posts should not be this long, and I apologize. But I think the fragmentariness and fleeting quality of this love plot in Torchwood produce and reflect nostalgia, a nostalgia organic to the show but also organic to what it is to be human in the 21st century. I can’t tell you how the love affair ends—it’s a doozy, but this show doesn’t have good writing for a sci fi show. It just has good writing.

Originally published on 21 Mar 2011