Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Genre fiction must know its bounds

I’ve been binge-watching the “reboot” of Battlestar Galactica (BSG) that aired on Sci-Fi from 2004 to 2009. I’m presently at the beginning of Season 2. 

Overall, I like what I see. At first, I was skeptical of the reimagining of Starbuck as a female character. While the new Starbuck (portrayed by Katee Sackhoff) is only vaguely comparable to the testosterone-charged, Dirk Benedict version, the female version mostly works. 

I have mixed feelings about the Cylons as human creations gone awry, versus straightforward alien invaders. But once again, I can live with it.

The humanoid Cylons (Tricia Helfer being the most memorable of these) are another matter. True, this innovation makes for some interesting plot lines. But it also makes the Cylons less fearsome, less, well…alien. And a Cylon should always be alien.

My real misgivings occur, however, when the rebooted series attempts to become something other than a space opera, and decides to dabble with being a religious/philosophical/spiritual work of art, as well. 

The reimagined Battlestar Galactica includes a complex religious mythology, which has elements of Greek polytheism, Mormonism, and Abrahamic monotheism, all mixed together. It’s a garble, in other words, like the languages in the cantina scene of the original Star Wars movie.

This would be all fine and good, so long as it remained a mere factor in the background. The writers of BSG, however, devote entire episodes to exploring this aspect of their creation, often with lamentable results.

Just when the action is getting intense, the BSG writers decide to take us down sundry rabbit holes of pseudo-spirituality. These diversions are taken far enough to become significant distractions, but not far enough to allow for any useful conclusions. 

These remind one a bit of those drunken Saturday-night discussions that everyone recalls from high school or college, in which a roomful of people speculate aimlessly about topics like ESP, soulmates, and reincarnation.     

And then there are the episodes that attempt to show the emotional extremes of BSG’s major and minor characters. Often this results in drawn-out, repetitious scenes in which BSG characters rant and rave and ruminate at length, without really saying much of anything. 

In these scenes, moreover, the main characters become overly dark and “edgy”. We don’t mind our science fiction heroes having their flaws, their moments of self-doubt. But we don’t want them to be downright neurotic.

Oftentimes, too, the characters sound too much like the typically self-absorbed, griping American of the twenty-first century. In one scene, Starbuck ponders her troubled childhood, her abusive father; and I find myself wondering which show it is that I’m watching. 

One of the fundamental pitfalls of speculative genre fiction (horror, science fiction, fantasy) is the temptation to try to stretch the boundaries of the creation too far, to do things that the genre’s envelope was never intended to encompass. When this happens, the result is audience (or reader) confusion and disorientation. 

This temptation is so prevalent in the speculative genres because the creator is already breaking the rules of reality to begin with. So he figures: Why can’t my zombie novel have a space alien or two? Why can’t my ghost story have a talking unicorn? Why can’t my space opera include elements of Touched by an Angel, Animal Kingdom, and Friends?

The answer is: Why not?—because you lose congruency. 

Dan Simmons succumbed to this booby trap in his novel Carrion Comfort (1989). Carrion Comfort is a novel that can’t decide if it wants to be a vampire tale, or a techno-thriller, or a historical novel about the Nazis…or—an exposé on the excesses of Reagan-era America. This is why the book is so long—and so disjointed.

In the same way, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica is frequently disjointed. The series’ long philosophical and emotional meanderings are incongruous with its more solid space opera elements. 

I know what you’re going to say: Didn't the original Star Wars franchise begin this trend, with Yoda and Luke Skywalker having those lengthy discussions about the nature of faith on the planet Dagobah in Return of the Jedi? Yes and no. Return of the Jedi didn't overdo it; the spiritual/philosophical segues didn't interrupt the overall arc of the story. Congruency was maintained. 

The original Battlestar Galactica was a straightforward, swashbuckling space opera. It was fine for the writers and producers of the rebooted BSG to add depth, to expand the scope of the original story. I should note that episodes of the original Battlestar Galactica come across as shallow, even a little cheesy, when viewed today. Battlestar Galactica was a 1970s concept that was in need of an upgrade. But the new crew of writers and producers shouldn't have tried to make the series something that it wasn’t. 

Just as a story can stop short and do too little, it can also try to do too much, and go in directions that a genre was never intended to go. A vampire tale should not be a teenage girl’s love story (i.e., Twilight). A space opera, meanwhile, can be easily derailed by too many literary and quasi-philosophical pretensions.