For the first time today, I’m more than a little tempted to download a TV series. Generally I haven’t harnessed the power of the internet for evil.
TV is an insidious thing. I remember when my yen for Buffy was at its height, I’d check for Loey’s early bird reviews essentially before anything else on the relevant day. Sarah found that quite amusing, and contradictory: wouldn’t I enjoy the show more if I just waited and watched the whole episode rather than reading a summary over the course of 5 minutes?
Part of the joy of TV is in watching the beautiful people do beautiful things. The witty banter you probably couldn’t manage off the cuff, who could? The exploits about which you can only dream. The exotic locations that even if you could go there, wouldn’t measure up to the glamour of the TV.
Aside from the glib production, there are the characters. You’ve watched them grow, develop, overcome tribulation and achieve success. Or, you’ve watched them fail, torn down by flaws invisible to themselves but all too apparent to you in your god-like omniscience. Of course, bound up with this is the inexorable workings of TV fate: what will happen next.
The trouble is: most TV only tries to do any of these remarkable things, and as Yoda said “do, or do not: there is no try”. CSI tries to suck you in with a couple of quirks and pseudo-scientific mystery. Medical dramas stick some cardboard cut-outs near some important life moments, hoping your sympathy for the human condition generally will cloud your mind and confer sympathy for the specific characters. Then too, some get trapped in a crystal moment, dooming you to repeat the same motions season after season, they are just pretending.
For my money, what made Firefly better than Buffy wasn’t that the scripts were better, it wasn’t that it was a more cohesive and planned construction, it wasn’t that Morena Baccarin is hotter than Sarah Michelle… but that it didn’t shy away from telling the difficult stories with full blunt impact. Buffy, and it’s close sibling Angel always tried to maintain a cutsey angle to them, the sense that however dire things might be, they would always work out, and that the pain was only ever a precursor to an amusing anecdote. Episodes like The Zeppo took this motif and worked it into a thing of genius, but I never escaped the idea that the characters’ lives were unfolding specifically to entertain. Firefly had relapses at times, but episodes like War Stories and The Message had a truly dramatic chasis.
The show which has prompted this rambling discourse is:
I encountered Star Trek and BSG at about the same time, in the indeterminate 80s. I first saw “the motion picture” and the pilot respectively. Both screened one night after LA Law, the hot-newness on the TV, so I guess that puts it circa 86, but I seem to recall watching Hooperman at around the same time which would be ’87. In either case, I had long since seen Star Wars.
The pilot impressed me, and I watched it sporadically when it happenned to be on TV and I knew about it. Honestly, my memories were getting a bit hazy until it was re-run on TV4 mid saturday afternoon 3-4 years back. I then found it hadn’t Star Trek’s timeless charm and innovation, it was dull, the acting was bad, the plots hackneyed and the FX on which it clearly relied were not very good. So much for the charm of youth.
Last year I sat down to watch the TV Mini-series with some trepidation. It is extremely rare for remakes to capture what was liked about the original while bringing anything new that doesn’t curdle the mix. I could list a long stream of recent movie and TV adaptations of beloved ’70s TV which are shite! But, I’ve already used up 666 words, so had best move on. In short, the mini-series did not impress me at all. It had a substantially different plot from the original pilot, and they’d changed the characters… but it felt like it was just going through the motions. It felt like it knew it was a remake, and was trying hard to stay true enough to the original that it didn’t offend any existing fans. There was a certain amount of justifying the retention of the 70s looking Vipers and 20th century looking utilities and devices, for example.
My flatmates watched it religiously on TV when it was shown recently. I watched one or two episodes, and wasn’t impressed. However, when I found myself at home on Wednesday night, I decided to do some model painting. I can’t paint and watch something that demands vast tracks of my attention, so I ambled about the house looking for something that wasn’t too demanding. BSG, I thought, looked like the ticket. Well, the rest is pretty mundane.
So, what did I like about it? Well, I’ve tried to give some indication of that through earlier parts of the post. Principally I thought that it felt and watched like SF aimed at adults and that it didn’t feel the need to pull punches to accomodate some theoretical junionr/teen audience. This isn’t something you see very much in SF/Fantasy TV: it’s typically aimed at the young. BSG felt like any other show for grown-ups that just happenned to be SF.
The other thing I really liked was that it managed to have core SF elements of space (etc) without getting arbitrary about it. Both Star Trek and Farscape often had “Science” which felt like a completely arbitrary window-dressing for whatever crazy plot they wanted to have. Not so BSG, which like B5 kept its science subservient but essentially intact.
But, there are weaknesses. For one, I think BSG wants to be cleverer than it is. The Cylons are being given mixed-motivations and mysterious actions in the same way as the government agencies in The Pretender, Nowhere Man, The X-Files and Millenium.. and others I’m sure you can think of for yourself. While they tease you with some higher motivation, these things inevitably turn out either just stupidly convolutedly crazy or pretty banal. It’s also trying to examine the question “what is it to be human” in the same basic line as Data/Lore in TNG, or, goddamnit, pretty much every other SF show out there. It’s not going to come up with anything profoundly new, but feels like it wants to.
Overall though, I’m very, very impressed. It is polished, well scripted, likeable characters and an interesting storyline. I hope that in S2 they don’t rest on their laurels, but really hit their stride the way most of my favourite shows did. (For my money, B5, Buffy and Farscape were much better in season 2/3 than at first. The exception in my list of fav shows is Remington Steele, which had many cool bits after season 1 and became more polished, but which never exceeded its first season achievement)
The only trouble with my desire for Piracy? I don’t own an eye-patch, a parrot, or a clue. 🙂
(Oh, and the theme music? SUCKS ASS! Seriously, worst theme music ever)