Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Cyberclunk of Battlestar Galactica

The recent Battlestar Galactica “reimagining” (is it so hard to say, "remake?") at least for the first two seasons, was pure cyberclunk. Intercoms, nuclear warheads, guns that fired actual bullets. Computers with low-tech and monochrome displays. No digital handheld devices of any kind. Aesthetically there was a clear effort to give the technology a low tech look, making the ship resemble and actual battleship on its interior  more than a spaceship. Star Trek, even in it’s later incarnations, tended to eschew digital devices and displays as well, but it was more of an earnest attempt at futurism, while Battlestar Galactica made no pretenses to being about our future. BSG took place on a different world with different rules, and it was clear that technology had evolved in its own way. The choices made here were also purely aesthetic, low-tech mixed with high-tech, like spaceships with biological nervous systems. But BSG, like Star Wars, took place a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, letting us know that the world we saw had nothing to do with technology as it had evolved on our world.

There were  other aesthetic choices made in the series that denoted a kind of naturalism. The shaky documentary-style cinematography. The dialog and acting style was more contemporary, less formal than Star Trek, or whimsical like Star Wars. Though there were inconsistencies, there was a general sense of intention behind the whole series for those first two seasons, until season three when they lost their way.

Season three was notable for expanding on the metaphysical theme presented in the previous seasons, but this direction seemed more aimless than purposeful. We went from speculation and ambiguity in the first series—does Gaius Baltar, the resident scientist have a chip in his head that allows him to see this ghost version of the Cyclon number six, or is he hallucinating? What is the significance of these shared dreams that some of the characters are having? What is the motivation or “plan” (as the opening is continually alluding to) that the Cylon’s have concocted? There’s a particularly great scene in the first season where Starbuck interrogates one of the Cylons who claims there’s a connection between the two of them. Unfortunately by season three and four, all of these mysteries are given quasi-mystical explanations, and more and more we get the sense that they never had a plan at all, that they were making it up as they went along Lost-style, and all that pseudo-mystical shit amounted to was an elaborate deus ex machina to wrap up loose ends.

By season three, concepts that veer more towards a kind of futurism are introduced. We already knew that the Cylons can download into new bodies, and the lack of practical explanation for this does nothing to detract from the potency of the concept. It’s completely consistent with the mash-up of technology introduced in the beginning. But then they casually add another computer metaphor in season two, what the Cylons call, “projecting.” Cylons can project their own imagined environment on on the bare metal walls of their ships, generating their own, personal virtual reality "skin" wherever they go. It’s not inconceivable that the Cyclons would have this kind of computer-related technology, but this brings us further into a world of virtual environments and the kind of computers that we haven’t been seeing in the series, and like many decisions at this point, seems arbitrary and random. This is the same season that “the final 5” idea is introduced, an obviously improvised placeholder to explain why we only see 7 of the earlier mentioned 12 Cylon models. More quasi-mystical rationales are introduced to fill in the gaps, and the internal consistency of the show starts to fall apart.

The prequel, Caprica, meant to represent a back story for the series, is pure traditional science fiction futurism. Virtual reality factors in heavily, and since computers, aside from a navigational tool, hardly factor into the original BSG series at all, this introduction of computer technology in the prequel is not only inconsistent with the later series, but it has an entirely different intention and feel than the retro technology of those original two seasons. Here are computers as we know them, and the technology is as recognizable as the technology in most contemporary sci-fi. At times, there's a noirish feel, but it's more in the Bladerunner tradition, an affectation of style rather than the deliberate and integral choices made in the early seasons of the first series.

The first series is still notable for the intentions of its early beginnings. For a while it was unique to dramatized sci-fi in both TV and film, with the show’s willful disregard for contemporary technology and naturalistic feel. For a while, itwas true Cyberclunk.

I hear a new series is coming out, Blood and Chrome, that’s meant to fill in the gap between the two series, which seems like a completely unnecessary exercise in the vein of the Star Wars prequels. But maybe this time they’ll get it right. Maybe this time they’ll focus on the clunky, contemporary technology subverting approach of the first series. But probably not.

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