Battling Battlestars

On a whim I decided to compare and contrast the turn-of-the-century Battlestar Galactica and the original from the 1970’s.

Battlestar Galactica Model and Phot by Andrew Creighton

The stylistic differences are obvious, as thirty years of technological advancement has led to an FX wonder, but the primary differences are more fundamental, not only in their view of enemies, but much more critically in their view of humanity.

[SPOILER WARNING: If you have not seen these series, plot details will be given away.]

The differences in characterization are aptly summed up in a furious and accurate rant by the original Starbuck.

A quick excerpt:

So that a television show based on hope, spiritual faith and family is un-imagined and regurgitated as a show of despair, sexual violence and family dysfunction. To better reflect the times of ambiguous morality in which we live, one would assume. A show in which the aliens (Cylons) are justified in their desire to destroy human civilization, one would assume. Indeed, let us not say who the good guys are and who the bad are. That is being “judgmental,” taking sides, and that kind of (simplistic) thinking went out with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and Kathryn Hepburn and John Wayne and, well, the original “Battlestar Galactica.”

He does strike upon a fundamental change in the cultures that presented them.

First, we have gone from seeing right and wrong to hating the concept.  In the original series, the Cylons were a foreign threat, created by a lizard race, and turned against all life.  Humanity was just their latest hatred in a general pursuit of all that is different in life.  This echoed the societal view of a people with living memories of Pearl Harbor and the millions fleeing from Communist conquests across the globe.

Sometime in the 1990’s that view inverted, and now we have a Battlestar Galactica where the Cylons, just like all of humanity’s problems, are our fault.  Humans made Cylons, betrayed them, and deserved their ire.  This harks back to the liberal assumption that all wrongdoing in Earthly foreign affairs are due to America.  If we were not strong, we would not be hated.  If we did not have soldiers protecting humanitarian aid shipments, Somalia would have no warlords to attack them in Mogadishu, etc.

A truism in genre fiction is that heroes are proactive, and not reactive.  Heroes see what must be done, and do it.  This difference echoes strongly in the pilot episodes.  Adama is not a clueless reactionary in the original, but a cautious and guarded patriarch (oh my, yes, he is a patriarch worthy of respect, possessing power, compassion, and leading in faith and hope).

Comparing the pilots: Adama the Patriarch is watchful, cautious, and guarded.  Adama the Whipped is old, run-down, and weary with old wounds and dreams.  The power and wisdom of age has been rejected so blatantly that only women lead in any meaningful way, though they lead in circles, always questioning, doubting, and reversing themselves.

Adama the Patriarch leads first, and bears the burdens of his choices later.  Adama the Broken rolls with the punches first, and then tries to pull himself back up.  It breaks my heart because Edward James Olmos has been a favorite actor of mine since Stand and Deliver.

Colonel Tigh in the original embodied the hope of racial reconciliation and a truly colorblind society as he capably leads the ship in Adama’s absense, gives invariably sound advice, offers clarifying questions, and stands as an XO just as admirable and worthy of respect as the CO he supports.

Rebooted Tigh is more than broken, he a wasteland.  Alcoholic, assaulting subordinates, corrupt, foul-mouthed, and ascerbic.  He’s driven his wife away, and the only logical explanation for his continued place on the ship is his shelter in Adama’s coattails.

Starbuck the compassionate lady’s man turns female, violent, borderline psychotic, apparently an abuse survivor (because all women are victims).

In the original pilot, Adama suspects the trap.  His patrol discovers the ambush ahead of the attack.  Reboot Adama is caught by complete surprise.  Patriarch Adama calls an alert to the fleet, is countermanded, but he prepares his ship to fight anyway.  As a result, his battlestar survives to rescue people.  When he goes home, he and his son stand together where their mother died, unified in love and family.  Reboot/Rebroken Adama adopts a lie to people women have gathered, and he wants to abandon the civilians to die in hopeless combat.

The loss of family values is telling.  It isn’t, as the LA Times accuses, that getting rid of a robot dog that tells the switch.  In the Original series Adama’s two sons and daughter fight side-by-side as crew on the Galactica.  Their love for one another is open, unassuming, and endures great pains and tragedies.  In part 2 of the pilot mini-series, original Apollo gives his father a speech about his love for his father, his respect and lifelong admiration for the man.  Reboot Apollo has no good words for his father, who he blames for his brother Zac’s death (In the original series Zac dies fighting at Apollo’s side during the original ambush, but that is too heroic, so he dies in the past of the reboot because Kara and Adama cheated and set him up because like all the men in the series Zac was broken and unready.  He could not be a fighter pilot.)

There is the future of family in the series.  I originally watched Galactica in the 1970’s as a boy, and I admired Boxey, the 7-year-old boy who lost his father in the assault.  He and his mother rapidly become Apollo’s adopted family as the young officer steps up, provides, protects, and revives the hearts of the refugees.  In the reboot Boxey’s father is a Colonial officer who dies at Armistice Station while making out with a Cylon slut-model-6 in front of the pictures of wife and child.  The reboot abandoned Boxey and his mother entirely.  There was no place in the story line for a pre-teen orphan.  Why?  The heroes are no longer heroes.  There is no place for them to show enough loyalty or solidarity to build a family amidst the soap-opera of spies, and soft core pornography.  The new Apollo could never become a father any more than the new Starbuck could be stable enough to grow and mature opposite Cassiopeia.

The original series began and ran through with hope.  Adama really did know the legends about earth.  Reboot Adama lies through his teeth to his people to inspire him, and much of the plot in Season 1 is the legend true despite his lies and manipulations.

In the original, Gaius Balthazar was an anti-Patriarch.  He betrayed his people their deaths knowingly, believing that he would be placed at the head of a Vichy-style subordinate government of his sole surviving colony.  He was betrayed, of course, and his colony wiped out along with the others.  The new Gaius is an incompetent womanizer, who could not even knowingly betray his people.  Craven, with no redeeming qualities, even the villainous men are irrelevant and powerless in the reboot.

The original story was one of faith and hope from the beginning.  Though the odds were long, there was always a belief that Earth was out there, and with courage and unity the Galactica would reach her.

The reboot has the Earth as a myth, a fable that the leaders do not actually believe in.  When they discover their faith, that faith proves to be futile, because Earth is an irradiated uninhabitable wasteland.  Not only does the mythology state that evil is humanity’s fault against itself, but humanity’s self-destruction is the rule, the unchanging cycle that defines the fictional universe.  So, even when Cylons and Humans come together to find a habitable planet at last, they cast their ships into the sun (because technology is the root of all of the fruit of mankind’s evil) and start what turns out to be our own world.

The new series has bolder writing, infinitely better special effects, and a great step forward to show the next logical generation of Cylons.  But what does it profit a story go gain a digital world if it loses the soul that made fans love it in the first place?

The original Starbuck was a flirt, but he was never mean, cruel, or untrustworthy in a crisis.  The original Apollo was the ideal warrior, and he spoke about it.  He was the sort of character who delivered the line, “The lives of everyone depends on our skill as Warriors.” and never stutter, because the character reflected the attitude of heroes from old lore, who knew their role as heroes and accepted the burden and the challenge from the off.  The original crew was a family, and not an incestuous one.  There were self-seeking and foolishness among the first colonial journey, but not overt treason, not humanoid plants too self-unaware to even know their own identity.

I own every season of the reboot, but I will always love the old one, with its derivative effects and blue-screen models, for the heart and the challenge to belief, to move forward in hope, to build family, honor friendship, and become a stronger and better person for the journey.

Rumors that Boxey grown to adulthood will star in the upcoming film reboot makes me think that I am not the only person who longs for the heart of the old series, as the dependent character was rejected by the new series so that the adults could escape the burdens of parenthood and act like pubescent children for the entire show.

Filtered Fiction and New Page

I’m thinking of adding a new page to the site.  I used to have a lending library next to the door of my apartment, full of the best assortment of paperbacks that I could give out.

I’m thinking of posting the list on a separate page, and incorporating a great point I heard from Jim Butcher in an interview.  His basic point was that you have to filter your fiction.  “There is one Matrix movie.”  That’s true for a lot of fiction, where the original story was excellent but market-driven sequels, or the author’s failure to maintain performance levels, ruins the rest.  Frank Herbert’s Dune is perhaps the greatest example of all time.  The first book, and only the first book, should be required reading by freshman year of college.  The rest… compost.

In television this principle shows up best with Babylon 5 and Supernatural.

B-5 thought they were being cancelled in season 4 so they crammed all of the critical final plot into the last few episodes (it shows, but it’s still worth it.  I would really have enjoyed watching Boxleightner spend 4 or 5 episodes as a POW it would have been very powerful.)  When season 5 renewed they had no original plot left, so the act of introducing new threats never bore real fruit.  The end result was season 4’s triumphal ending.  Season 5 basically just showed that the triumph was empty and the ending went to hell as everything good and golden rotted before your eyes, and up yours, viewers…

Similarly the TV show Supernatural was invented and produced as a 5-season story arc.  I stand it utter awe of creator Eric Kripke.  He envisioned a unique (frequently blasphemous, perpetually innovative) mythology for urban fantasy, threw “Luke and Han Solo on a road trip” into the mix, and told a solid and coherent story for five years.  Characterization, rising levels of power and tension, the reasoning behind all motives and plot from episode one to the season five finale, they all work together as well as anything I’ve ever seen.  SPOILER: If you’re really quick, he even answers the final two season’s question, “The apocalypse is coming, where is God?!” in the final episode.  I won’t say where or how.

When the series was to be continued, Kripke walked off the project.  He basically said, I have told the story.  My story is done.  Folks, if you are ever in the same room with the man, shake his hand because very, very few people in California have that sort of intestinal fortitude and integrity.

The show was still bringing in the ratings, but with a new producer, the ending must be un-made, and the characterizations and mythology quickly disappear under the tires of the mercantile bus, sacrificing story for sales in seasons 6 and 7 (seasons 8-10 are all right if you relax and accept that this is a parallel, slightly crappier universe with less coherent logic and no God).  The pro-family, hunting-values character has to have conflict with his new family, so suddenly he goes from eternally grateful for his training and knowledge to hiding and ashamed of it, refusing to teach his son how to survive the supernatural world (which, go figure, ultimately leads many times to his near death and helplessness in scenes were pre-teen Sam and Dean would have simply shot the monster and had McDonalds), the mechanisms behind humanity and demons is destroyed so a character can have no soul, but not be a demon, though that was how demons were made in the mythology…  Every single character’s path had to get shredded.

As a perk, in the 200th episode, when the final 5 seasons were summed up, the writers put in the line from a character, “That’s the crappiest fan fiction I’ve ever heard.”

Amen.  Preach it.

This has happened for most every continuing series that I know, and most that I love.  (Macross is a fantastic story, Southern Cross ruins Robotech…)

I’m a writer and a monk.  In American terms, I have no life outside of fiction.  So I am planning on starting a page to highlight what’s great, and where to avoid the pitfalls that can ruin the best stories I know of in our age.

Sound off with requests and comments.

Honorable Baek Dong Soo

Around the time of the American Revolution, a Korean martial artist and swordsman named Baek Dong Soo and his group of what we would in modern terms title “kung fu bums” saved the dynasty of Korea from assassination.  That is not a teaser for the excellent manga-inspired series Warrior Baek Dong Soo, which I highly recommend on Hulu+ or Dramafever.com.

As in, why are you reading this and not watching this yet?

What kills me is that this amazing action and historical melodrama series is not licensed for sale in the USA.  How can a manga-oriented, action-loving, entertainment-centered culture like America, a culture with a LOT of Korean immigrants and even more adherents to Korean martial arts, NOT have this series for sale?!  Honestly!  Does everyone with Korean family just borrow a copy from Cousin Park or Uncle Kim?

The good news is that it is available streaming on video.

This series has a lot to like.  It has depth, following the main character from his birth through his early twenties.  It has an amazing series of foils for characters.  The Sword Saint, most famous swordsman in Korea is frenemies with the Sky God, elite leader of the Heuksa Chorong (translated as Black Ninjas).  Short of Byzantium, no one does corrupt bureaucracy the way Confucian monarchies do corrupt bureaucracy, so that a villain we love to hate can sit down to tea with the man he’s planning to assassinate, they both know it, and the structure of society demands the niceties be observed.  Folks, that is a recipe for superlative drama.

Three young men grow to manhood as martial artists and warriors, just far enough on the outside to deal with the secret war between the shadows of the Black Ninjas and self-appointed martial artist protectors of the crown prince!  Loyalty and friendship, ill-fated destinies, romance, beautiful scenery, a secret book of war that threatens the balance of power, more swords than you can swing a… cat at, some decent if slightly overplayed soundtrack, beautiful circular Sino-influenced Korean martial arts, bright colors, and melodrama oozing out of various orifices…

This series is nerd porn.

If you are reading this sentence, you fail, because you still haven’t started to watch it yet.

Go!

Danny Solano is Dead

The death of 12-year-old Danny Solano begins the ten part murder mystery Gracepoint which aired on Fox this fall, and I enjoyed the ride.

Gracepoint is an American adaptation of a British crime drama called Broadchurch, and former Dr. Who actor David Tennant plays the lead detective in both versions!  That would be treat enough, but there is a whole lot more to like about this series.

Gracepoint is a ten-part series, which means that unlike the interminable dramas and adventures (it is no longer noteworthy for a TV series to hit a tenth season), Gracepoint has the vanishingly rare troika of basic story elements: a beginning, a middle, and an end.  If you want technical terms like introduction, technical climax, and dramatic climax, you can use them, but they mean the same thing.  The writers knew how the series would end before filming began.  This means that every detail is consistent, the false leads and bunny trails laid out in advance, and subplots could be paced perfectly to carry the tempo through to the final episode.

Mysteries are only a passing hobby for me, not my primary genre, but I enjoy them when they are well-written enough to catch my eye.  Gracepoint is full of dynamically flawed small-town personalities.  That is something markedly different from the current Hollywood cop-out that everyone is some version of Satan walking around in a meat suit.  Every major character has weaknesses, strengths, and positive moments.  The most villainous recurrent character has enough depth to alternate between mysterious, menacing, and even sympathetic depending on the moment.  There is precious little over-acting, but even simple characters carry their scenes well.  No one grasps for more screen presence or overplays their hand.

The coast of northern California provides a beautiful back-drop for small-town scenery.  The quiet setting contrasts nicely with the ongoing tension.  Gracepoint provides an immediate feel of deep roots and interconnected back stories.  If Agatha Christie set a story in Passamaquoddy, it might look something like this.

An intelligent, interesting, and mercifully finite mystery, I heartily recommend Gracepoint.

Constantine’s Feast

When people said that the new Constantine show reminded them constantly of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels, I sat down to check it out, and fortunately my subscription to Hulu means I can watch shows that are on when I’m at work.

Constantine is Harry Dresden with out the humor or the heart.  Both characters are mages living in the modern world.  Both of them have wry commentary.  Both stories touch upon the tales of contemporary mythology, with heavy interactions between heaven and hell.  Heck (see what I did there?), both characters start their story arcs off with a well-deserved doom hanging over their head.  Butcher’s Harry Dresden is under the Doom of Damocles; as a teenager he killed his evil master in self-defense, and he’s on probation with an immediate death sentence if he breaks any more rules.  DC’s John Constantine accidentally sent an innocent girl to hell in an exorcism gone wrong (more on how frakked up that idea is later) so he’s damned to join or replace her because he’s earned it.  Both characters are poor, into long coats, they don’t wear hats, and the women around them are constantly in trouble over their head.  Both characters have the chance to take more power than is good for them.

The difference between the two characters is the difference between hero and antihero.  Dresden, the hero, will accept any punishment in order to save himself and his loved ones.  In A Feast of Friends, John Constantine manipulates his friend on hard times into becoming a human sacrifice to save a city.  Dresden is about self-sacrifice to protect the others.  Constantine will sacrifice other people, but hey, he’ll feel sort of bad about it.  I mean, it matters that after you turn your childhood friend into a screaming pile of pain you hold his hand until he dies, right?

Hope is another big difference.  Constantine is grim and ugly in his attitude that he knows he’s damned, no matter what he does.  Dresden deals with the ugliest and most horrible of consequences with an attitude of hope. He puts his life on the line when a kid who has put a foot into dark magic is about to be executed, because he believes that people can change.  Constantine is constantly tearing open pits to hell and throwing demons in, and the demon-possessed frequently right along with them.  In Dresden’s world the super-powered semi-Jedi Christian Knights of the Cross don’t exist to destroy their counterparts, the Knights of the Blackened Denarius.  The Knights of the Cross have the power to fight the bad guys to a stand-still to give them time to repent.

While I’m an avid Butcher fan, the resonating hope motif is not excusively Jim Butcher’s.  Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International series, perhaps more popular than even the Dresden files, as killer werewolves overcoming their bloodlust, fallen angels re-earning a chance at salvation, an orc tribe turning into supernatural bodyguards for the good guys, and even the characters apparently damned by their contact with the Old Ones using their powers to support, encourage, and protect their loved ones for as long as they possibly can.  This is a group of people who fight side by side, and we understand why they do it.  More than that, we wish we could be right there alongside them.  Even the people who die do so with their internal victories to make an otherwise outright tragedy a bittersweet moment.

Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces novels is likewise about an ex-con trying to find inner peace and some personal redemption in semi-voluntary service to the magical establishment.  In the course of the three books we see him earn first begrudging gratitude, then acceptance, and ultimately trust from the magical enforcer who originally drafted him to be mere cannon fodder because that was all a criminal was good for.  You can go way darker and stay there longer if the dark side is the start of a path to the light.

Constantine’s outlook is nihilistic where Dresden’s is graceful.  That isn’t a comment about ballet or “PARKOUR!”  It is a comment about the outlook of a human soul.  Constantine and the people who act like his friends (though I still can’t understand why because he is never nice, kind, encouraging, or supportive of them in any consistent way) believe in the works-righteousness sort of world.  Good people do good, but screw up enough and your damned, and F— you.  Dresden lives in a world where some monsters have the heart to become something other than monsters, such as the sexual predator vampire who struggles all the time to become more than his inborn desires.

Both stories have demons and angels ever more prominent in their stories, but their depictions are different.  Dresden’s world has the supernaturally good and evil as a balance, but though it is pretty clear that God and angels could wipe the floor with every bad thing, they withhold their hands to give people free will, to give the fallen and sinful people a chance to repent, out of the hope and belief that things can be better.  Constantine still fights, but his is the fight of a man who has no hope in himself or love for his fellow man just trying to take down as many other bastards as he can before he goes.

Ultimately, whether you call your good things angels and your bad things demons, Constantine represents the ultimate path of the occult worldviews: There are supernatural powers out there.  Supernatural good can’t or won’t help you, so you have only your power and your allies against all the darkness in the world.  Ultimately, though, this outlook comes smacking up against the fact that human power is never going to be enough.  So we need more power.  That’s where the sacrifices start, when we start to sacrifice things to get enough power beyond our own to make reality what we want.  In animistic and pagan religions like my own tribe’s darkness before Christianity, that meant sacrificing to divine the future, to change the natural balance in our favor, to hold off the things that go bump in the night and are just too big for us to handle.  So, in A Feast of Friends, the ONLY hope is to con your oldest friend into becoming a human sacrifice to trap a demon.

In Dresden’s world, which is much more heavily influenced by someone who at least at some point was an active Christian (Mr. Butcher went on a missions trip to Brazil at 19 years of age and has an interesting story or two to tell about it), hope comes from many sources.  Love is more powerful than despair, and true love is the great saving grace for the vampire I mentioned.  While there is life, there is hope for change, improvement, escape from dark deals and improvements even while the world seems to be going to heck.  It isn’t that Dresden kicks more ass than Constantine in terms of mystical might, though it’s hard to say, it is that Dresden does it with a goal and in an author’s world where positive, hopeful change is worthwhile and lasting.  Dresden’s victories improve the lives of people around him, changes them for the better, makes them grow into better, stronger people, and over the course of fifteen novels we witness him weave a community that is able to stand up and fill his shoes once he leaves Chicago.  Maybe not as well or as efficiently as he did solo, but he accomplished the holy grail of teaching: to render oneself unnecessary.

Constantine mostly leaves a lot of dead bodies.  Also, because Constantine believes he is damned, he does whatever he wants to whomever he wants.  He invades the minds of people, hypnotizing them whenever he needs to.

In terms of writing craft, it isn’t enough to make your hero clever, snarky, powerful, and effective. Both John Constantine and Dresden do those things all the time.  The critical problem of characterization is empathy.  I care a lot more what one pig-headed blue-collar plumber of magic does because he wants to protect the innocent, right wrongs, and hold to his own chivalric code than I do about someone so cold that they lose at least one old friend every other episode.  Constantine does not generate empathy for me.  I gave him four episodes and I still can’t tell you why I should care if I see him in another show, or if he lives or dies.  That is the crucial, epic failure of the character.  It’s the difference between Batman (a crime-fighter who is about protecting the innocent and bringing justice) and the Green Arrow (an almost identical crime-fighter whose main view of justice is progressive socialism, or as Batman puts it in the second Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, “He’s just a Communist with a bow.).  Batman is among the top five most beloved superheroes of all time.  The Green Arrow has had a bit of a revival, but only insofar as they have changed his character to reflect Batman, not vice versa.  We care about childhood trauma, the quest for justice, and a hero who doesn’t kill  way more than we care about a killer on a class-warfare vengeance kick every other novel or so.

In the same way, Dresden lives dirt poor because he won’t take advantage of anyone with his magic, he’s a sucker for a damsel in distress, he’s a terrible liar, and he won’t back down no matter what the odds if there’s someone to protect on the line.  John Constantine takes advantage of people all the time if it’s convenient, he kills women and men equally (and doesn’t our gut reaction put the lie to feminist equality right there), and he will spend half an episode setting up to torture a friend to death if that’s what it takes to stop a demon too powerful for him alone.

If Harry Dresden’s catchphrase is “Chivalry isn’t dead, dammit,” then John Constantine’s is, “The people who are around me die, and if you can’t deal with that you had better leave.”

Advice well taken, John Constantine.  I’m done with your cold-hearted, murderous, scheming, friend-sacrificing creep-tastic self.  Next urban fantasy, please.

***

As a historical note, I would like to say that the one good thing that I get out of shows like Constantine and the martial arts flick Ong Bak, where occultism (magical self-worship) and idolatry (worship of inanimate objects) lead to a desperate sacrifice for self and desperate search for more power.

What confidence and grace we have with the Dresden Files way, the concept that even our ongoing struggles are a sign of patience, a chance for things to get better, where the heroes’ victories count for more than they can know because there is a power out there strong enough and involved enough to work behind the scenes, where the bad guys can become good, the good guys can change others for the better, and if the world survives the long dark night, it can be a better place.

And hey, outside of fiction, we constantly face dark things more powerful than ourselves.  But we don’t need to kill our friends, or offer up our children to Molech (though Planned Parenthood does a passable imitation if you substitute Molech for prosperity/ease).  The Sacrifice that was made was Infinite, one for all people, all places, and all times.

Whew.

A Flashing Arrow on the Small Screen (super Heroes and a little rant about endings)

The CW has released its pair of superhero dramas for the fall.  The Arrow continues with its third season, and a spin-off series in the same universe will deal with The Flash.

For the DC comic universe, I like The Green Arrow a bit more than The Flash.  Originally a shameless Batman rip-off, Arrow on the CW has avoided the camp and spoof of the original Green Arrow (boxing glove arrows, anyone?) and caught the edge of the darker, more original Batman when he carried a gun and did kill people.  (Don’t take my word for it.  Look it up.)  When the camp died along with the Frank Miller reboot of the franchise, Batman went darker and The Green Arrow turned into a flaming liberal poster child for whatever PC cause was on at the moment.  (Honestly, in an interview the producers at DC lamented that they had like a whole year with a Green Arrow not written by a Democrat, but a moderate, *Gasp*  *Horror*)  Anyway, Arrow on CW avoided nauseating political hack-jobs (which really get old from any side of the aisle) and kept the edge of a roof-leaping vigilante detective who has the toys and the violent skills to do some justice.  He’s struggled with killing, lying to his family, issues with drugs, issues with intimacy, trust, and what justice means as opposed to vengeance.  These are some pretty cool topics worth looking at.  Season 2 dug into Marvel fan faves Loyd Slate and Ra’as al Ghoul’s League of Assassins, along with the Canary, Tiger Claw, and Deadshot.  There are no ridiculous codpieces or nipples on body armor, there are no spandex uniforms (for which I offer a sincere prayer of thanks to God), and the supporting cast is riddled with solid performances.

The ability to run has never seemed sufficient super-power for a solo magazine.  The Flash is a magazine popular with the Superman crowd (read: seven to ten year-olds) and I think it will be a tough sell to a more mature TV audience.  The show is off to a good start so far, with great effects for a TV show, no painful acting jobs yet, and some more campy humor than Arrow, but that is also true of the magazines themselves.

The premier episode was entertaining, moderately well acted, and had a big enough special effects budget that even if it works I think that they’re going to cancel after one season, not because of ratings but because they can’t afford to keep making the show.  This has been the truth for several excellent shows that I recommend: The Dukes of Hazard couldn’t afford to keep replacing cars.  Almost Human was a decent police procedural that had strong echoes of Isaac Asimov’s buddy-cop android drama, but relied so heavily on FX that there was no way that it was feasible.  Ditto for the groundbreaking concept work on Terra Nova which had some amazing supporting actors supporting a mediocre family.  No Ordinary Family was another heavily VFX laden show that did manage to tell a complete story arc before its inevitable unaffordability.

That really is the key, though, and it is something that Japanese animation has nailed and American television struggles with.  You can have a 1-season, or even a 3- or 5-season story that works just great as long as you tell your story and end at the right point.  Many great anime series run for just a single season, or three, like Avatar: The Last Airbender (Sorry, fan-boys, The Legend of Korra has neither the wonder nor the fun of the original bit of kung fu steampunk).  Here in America that idea hasn’t really aught on.  Babylon-5 in the 90’s told its story in four years and then trashed the franchise to hell and back with a tacky fifth year that killed the sense of victory, and didn’t really complete a single major story in the entire twenty-odd episodes.   I have a lot of respect for the creator of Supernatural, who had a five-year story, told it, and then walked rather than compromise his vision for what happened next.  It was good that he did, because once again in order to keep money coming in characters had to be re-written, the victory despoiled, and mythology-eroding new threats introduced.  Enterprise was another series that told a concrete beginning, middle, and end, from the first true human starship to the foundation of the UFP.

By and large, though, American TV shows are more irresponsible.  The later seasons of Supernatural, and many pilot shows that end on cliff-hangers knowing that they’re going to be cancelled (The Sarah Connor Chronicles is the most egregious of these evil-doers) as a sort of cosmic up-yours to the viewing audience who didn’t want them cancelled in the first place.

My anticipated fall line-up is not complete yet.  The Walking Dead begins soon.  Grimm has another season coming up with a mythology that continues to build organically, and we’ve come a long way from a weekly procedural with animal-themed monsters.  I have mixed feelings about Gotham so far, and the setting throws a lot of weight on the acting chops of a thirteen-year-old kid, who may or may not be able to convince us that he will become Batman as Gordon paves the way and the first of our future whack-jobs rises.  So far so good.  These will all probably get their own posts later.

The Walking Battlestar Galactica:

I love a good Apocalypse, not so much because I want to watch the world burn down (though the CNN news that constantly plays at the break room at work is almost enough to engender such misanthropy), but because of the original meaning of the word apocalypse, which meant revelation.

The act of burning something down is an act of revelation.  That which is strong and true endures the flames, and that which is unworthy and impure (another word whose very roots go to the idea of fire, puros in the Greek).  If you see the supporting frame, steel girders, and chimneys still standing on a solid foundation after a house fire, you have some idea of what I mean.

The start of some of my favorite stories are apocalypses: The fall of Atlantis begins Lawhead’s Taliesin, my favorite take on Arthurian mythology.  The destruction of the 12 Colonies meant that the last Battlestar, Gallactica, would lead a rag-tag-fugitive fleet on a quest for the lost colony of Earth, and I wished I had a dagget as a kid.  The destruction of Alderaan put the Rebel Alliance on its heels and set the stage for the return of the Jedi Order.  The superflu wiped out humanity in King’s The Stand.  I particularly enjoyed Stirling’s Dies the Fire and the first trilogy of noves of The Change, where electricity went out across the world.  (That’s right, JJ Abrams totally stole that idea.  Deal with it.)

I love these settings because stories are about conflict, and conflict reveals character.  Meaningful conflict does not just expose character but impacts the hero’s world.  In the I Robot series Asimov’s detective sets off a new wave of colonization that will lead to the world of the Foundation books.  You find out what someone is really made of when all the polite social reasons to play nicely with others goes out the window.  This person and nice guy is actually a predator.  This mild-mannered reporter turns out to be Superman full-time now.

Like the Judeo-Christian Apocalypse/Revelation to John, the destruction of the old order is not an end in and of itself.  A good apocalypse story is not a global snuff film, but it is the beginning of a new order.  This is where the genre truly shines.  When the old is destroyed and the heroes step up to establish the new, the possibilities spin a storyteller’s head right round on his shoulders.  The character of the heroes does not just define their actions, but they can be the people about whom generations of hypothetical characters will tell tall tales, or look to for an ethical standard.  The Song of Roland is the death of an entire small army, but its example served as the definitive reference text for chivalry for centuries.  A single old prophet woman calls together the right sort of people to rebuild the world in The Stand.  The Postman is one of my favorite Costner movies not because of the apocalypse or the Holnists, but because of the vicarious joy I feel when I watch the return of communication restore hope and start to forge a new world.  What starts off as a con game becomes a tale of personal and worldly redemption.

(That reminds me I really need to find out if that was based on a novel and read that novel!)

UN-fortunately, this is where the modern apocalypse stories go wrong.  In order to tell a good story, there needs to be a continuing and escalating conflict, but most apocalypse stories these days are TV series.  TV series aren’t just written by writers (except the rare times when studios give Joss Whedon enough head room to run!!!) they are approved or not by studio executives who want to make money.  Fair enough.  Without a profit there would be no TV series in the first place.  But businessmen like business models.  A writer worth his salt must continually take risks with his characters.  Any executive worth his salt wants to stick to a business model that yields a profit with a good product.  That latter pressure is necessarily a conservative (in the literal sense) force acting on any story.  Battlestar Galactica‘s re-boot had a pretty good first season, but it was decided that the show would only always be about the ship on the run, outnumbered, and outgunned.  Only the side plots could change.  The original Galactica had an equally cheezy spin-off.  They attempted to tell the story about the colonials actually reaching Earth and integrating into our society.  There genuinely did turn out to be a higher power that was guiding them, as evidenced in the white-uniform episode or two.  Their faith was not in vain.  They made effective strikes against the Cylons and won their freedom.  Season after season of the reboot dragged on, and every revelation turned out to be hollow.  The humans found a new colony, so that had to turn into a prison camp from which they had to flee in a rag-tag fugitive fleet (back to the formula, my imaginary executive demands).  Instead of turning the colony into a base, rebuilding, fighting back, maybe retaking the colonies or fighting to a truce with the Cylons, the story dragged on until even the ships couldn’t bear the strain any longer (Galactica‘s ultimate death was due to wear and tear, just like the story’s plotline).

A good apocalypse story tells of the fall, then starts to rebuild.  A bad one can do nothing but remain a burned-out hulk because it cannot turn into anything else, it can’t risk trying to tell a new kind of story that the heroes of the last sort of story had earned.  But folks, in order to get back to a fresh apocalypse, you have to burn down everything that the characters have built so far.  Apocalypse is like adolescence.  You can die, or move on, but it is impossible to remain in transition forever.

As bad as the film was, the best ever apocalypse-to-rebuilding story I have ever read is Battlefield Earth by certifiable nut-job L. Ron Hubbard.  The film was an abomination, but the book was miraculous.  The opening crisis starts off with a young man leaving his village and exploring a deserted city.  The exploration story becomes a POW drama.  The POW drama becomes a heist story.  The heist complete, we return to deduction and techie drama with some internal conflict.  As that winds down there is a flat-out war story / siege tale.  Hubbard’s novel changes genres again and again, revisiting themes, but growing in genre as the characters grow and change the world around them.  Hard-core pseudo-intellectuals slam the book because it is the largest single work of pulp fiction I have ever come across, but if you are looking for a book to lose a weekend in, you could do a lot worse.

(Having read my last copy to pieces a really need to buy a new copy of that book!)

The result of this is that I have frequently wanted to write an apocalypse or two.  Events in book three of the Adrian Campbell series are definitely starting to lean that way, and I have done more than a year of pre-writing for the world that will be left behind when the dust clears.

But I am afraid, because season five of The Walking Dead starts again this month.  This has been the best story of an apocalypse to come along in an easy decade.  The character development has been good, the acting solid, and the plot escalation so far has been well-done as everyone learns how to manage the current threats and deal with new ones.

Season five is going to be a make-or-break moment for the television adaptation of the series.  If the producers are willing to take risks with the story, The Walking Dead can surpass the comics just as Game of Thrones is a far better video series than the novels.  OR The Walking Dead will pull a Battlestar Galactica and throw away the momentum it has earned with more of the same.

Gain a home at the cost of friends, fight for the home, lose the home, move on…

If they just repeat this formula enough, we will stop caring, because no matter how wonderful the characters or well-crafted the world, if there is no hope and growth in the story then all the producers are asking us to do is to invest more of ourselves into something we know we will lose.  It’s an invitation to masochism that I no longer have the time or energy to indulge.

If they make the risks, go for the big leaps forward, then this may be the greatest running series for more than a decade.

Time will tell.