Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Battlestar Galactica

Glen A. Larson & Robert Thurston Battlestar Galactica (1978)
I always assumed that the sudden shift of emphasis in cinematic science-fiction around the time of the first Star Wars movie was probably something to do with some great leap forward in special effects making it easier to depict a dogfight in space, but then I spent at least a few months of my youth assuming the punk explosion happened because the invention of the synthesiser made it easier to form a band. With hindsight I suspect it's mostly been down to politics, both the films and the punk rock.

Before I go off on one, I should probably point out that I don't believe in well-coordinated Machiavellian government organisations deciding we all need to start believing this or that, so buy a Ted Nugent album; rather I believe that it can sometimes look that way simply because ideas or enterprises of a particular ideological complexion will tend to receive better funding during times when the political mood of the country or its leadership is already leaning in the same direction.

Science-fiction cinema of the fifties, at least in America, often tapped into a sense of fear analogous to McCarthyism. Following the sixties, during which previously underground liberal notions rejecting the black and white morality of previous generations became more or less mainstream, science-fiction cinema began to question authority and to recognise moral grey areas, and so we had Silent Running, Planet of the Apes, THX1138, Zardoz, and even Logan's Run. An increasingly contemplative tendency within science-fiction cinema was growing up, developing a conscience, and then George Lucas did his thing and we're back to Flash Gordon expressed as Star Wars and a thousand variations on the same.

My theory is that, roughly speaking, thirty years had been long enough for us to forget that the second world war had happened for a reason. The war had become something belonging to the older generation, and as for the causes, we no longer needed to look any further than the simple existence of evil as something to which we were opposed. Unfortunately Vietnam made it impossible to reduce such horror to the basic colours of a Saturday morning serial, not least because, if we were going to insist upon the existence of bad guys, then Vietnam made it look a lot like that might be us, at least from one angle. We needed good and evil back, along with the happy simplicity of horribly complicated situations reduced to shorthand. Bad guys we understand may cause us to examine ourselves, so better that we don't even try; better that we just boo, hiss, and throw the occasional rotten tomato.

Of course, Star Wars eventually developed grey areas, but in 1978 it was still a fight against evil as something which wears black, barks orders, and is evil because it's evil; and this is even more apparent in the cheap knock-offs which lacked even the wit and subtlety of Star Wars, and so we come to Battlestar Galactica.

I actually loved the Ronald D. Moore version, and probably because it does almost the exact opposite of the Larson television series from which this novelisation derives. The problem with the original stems from the notion that because Star Wars was Flash Gordon, then Wagon Train in space should work just as well, and so it did providing you weren't too fussy about everything else being the standard mainstream television cheese of the time except on a spaceship - the proud general who cares more about his men than what the politicians may have to say, the rebellious kid who comes through in the end, and the idea that none of us can imagine anything better than a few hours spent goofing off on the golf course, or just hanging around the casino. It all seems very much tied into the peculiar American self-image of the respectable rebel who takes no crap from the stuffed shirts or the British, and maybe cuts a few corners, but nevertheless likes to picture himself reading Plato in front of ionic columns, all fancified and shit. I suppose it's fine in a way, but it's very simplicity renders it insubstantial and when you look too close - like maybe when you write a novel about it - it all begins to seem a bit crappy.

Robert Thurston learned his trade directly from Fritz Leiber, Damon Knight and others, and clearly isn't without authorial credentials of some description, but he's working from a television script. He does his best, even padding out the Cylons with some sort of back story. It makes them more interesting, but the tale doesn't really need them to be interesting, just evil; and so the novel ends up shooting itself in the foot over and over. Cylon philosophy is absolutely alien to us, and yet understandable because it is logical, regarding the universe as an ordered environment tarnished with the invasive presence of humanity; at least up until we find the Cylons working with the insectoid Ovions in contradiction of their own xenophobic principles, meaning their principles aren't worth much because actually they're just evil evil evil; by which point the heroes are struggling to fly tankers loaded with precious spaceship fuel from the Ovion mines back to the Galactica whilst the Cylons go apeshit. It's almost a variation on the last thirty or forty years of American foreign policy, which would be fine were it not trying to invoke our sympathy quite so hard, and to invoke our sympathy by laying it on so thick as to make The Waltons look like Hungarian Constructivist cinema.

Anyway, as a novel it's readable in so much as the show on which it was based was watchable, but it's pretty obvious that it exists because affordable VHS video recorders didn't; but even without the above, there's still a lot of horseshit to wade through, much of it betraying a typical seventies fixation on astrology and the zodiac as something meaningful. Unfortunately, even with some redeeming features stemming from the author's obvious efforts to make the thing resemble a bit of writing, Battlestar Galactica leaves you with that feeling you get after an eight hour viewing marathon, and not even a Battlestar Galactica viewing marathon - we're talking Family Feud or Wheel of Fortune.

Therefore ugh.

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