What with the tornado of excitement created by my own releases, reviews, signings, and convention attendances in March, and the tidal wave of resulting reviews, I realise I’ve utterly neglected my important duties as far as slagging off other people’s hard work goes. Time to put that right…
I haven’t spoken much about TV before, except perhaps indirectly, but apart from working in the business for some 10 years (though mostly in the areas of live music and documentary rather than drama), I’ve also been a keen watcher of the stuff most of my life (like most of us, I’m sure), and have observed some interesting and exciting shifts in the way it’s been approached over the last decade, especially US drama. I’ve watched with ever increasing delight the realism, depth, unpredictability, and outright darkness of shows like Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, 24 (before it became utterly ludicrous), The Shield, Nip/Tuck, Deadwood and so on, and I think a lot of this stuff has been an undoubted influence on the way I write, and the kind of stories I want to tell.
All in all, it may seem odd to say, but I take in a great deal more fiction via TV these days than I do via books, as most of my (lamentably limited) reading is non-fiction. TV seems to have gone from the medium of light, schmaltzy, disposable, poorly-made entertainment, with film as the cultured, clever cousin, to the medium in which all the clever stuff gets done first while film (at least the commercial end of it) is looking ever more cheesy and repetitive. The long format of TV series seems to allow the development of deep approaches and long arcs that you just can’t manage at the cinema, while the relatively lesser outlay seems to allow for a greater level of adventurousness. Massive generalisation, of course, and there’s still plenty of rubbish on the telly box (though don’t you dare tell me So You Think You Can Dance isn’t brilliant), but for the discerning watcher there’s more quality product out there these days than you can shake a fistful of confusing remote controls at.
The advent of DVD, and in particular for me Amazon’s system whereby they send you stuff through the post from a list, you send it back when you’re done and they send you more, has only made things better. Now you can get hold of a series and burn through the bastard in the comfort of your own living room in a few days, three or four episodes at a time. No more waiting for next week’s installment. Truly we live in a privileged age. Lately I’ve watched three different series, all excellent in their own way, my opinions on which I thought I’d share with the world. Or at least the people who read this blog…
First onto the chopping block, Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica (new version, obviously). I totally missed BSG when it first came out, so I’ll probably say a load of stuff that you’ve all been saying for months, if not years. Still, doing something everyone’s already done and calling it original is what I do for a living, so here goes … Haven’t seen Razor yet, by the way, so don’t spoil me in the comments.
The first two series, and parts of the second especially, are frakking brilliant. Shades of grey? Oh yes. Deep and interesting characters? Most definitely (self-destructive frak-up Starbuck and mean-ass one-eyed drunk Tigh are my personal favourites, though there’s much great acting going on all round). Technical quality? Oh yes again – very interestingly edited, in fact (editors never get the respect they deserve), and featuring some of the best space combat scenes I’ve seen in anything. Best of all, though, is the way that at its best BSG uses sci-fi to investigate some highly relevant questions about the real world that contemporary drama would probably balk at. How far should we compromise liberty in the pursuit of security? Does democracy work against extremism? Are terrorism or torture ever justified?
Season 3 hasn’t been quite as good as the other two, but better than I was expecting from what I’d been told. A few bad calls seem to have been made, though a lot of them I think are the result of the writers’ willingness to change things up radically and shift the focus, the courage of which I greatly respect and applaud. It’s what you have to do if you aren’t going to become a bad parody of yourself. Still, some characters don’t really work. Apollo in particular seems always to be led around by the vagaries of the plot rather than by any personality of his own, as a result of which he doesn’t really seem to have a consistent personality at all (Though I will admit that fat Apollo was a stroke of genius). Baltar seems to have gone from a fascinatingly conflicted and ambiguous character to a whinging ass. The Apollo/Starbuck forbidden love plot is weak as well, and constantly repeated to very little effect of any kind. Their eyes meet across a crowded room. They both look lean and tortured while hugging someone else. He even more chiselled than in previous series, she more tanned, having evidently spent some time on a sunbed (careful, that shit gives you cancer).
There seems to have been a general loss of focus and attention to detail round the middle of this series, which is exemplified for me (yes, yes, I am a borderline obsessive/compulsive) by the way in which the rank insignia on the various characters’ uniforms are constantly swizzling round and pointing off sideways so they don’t match any more. That happens literally in every other close-up. The hard won feeling of reality that the show was so good at generating previously is nearly frittered away by some poorly plotted episodes and a bit too much reliance on pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo. The show is best when it engages with the real, and the prophecy stuff seems like movement in the opposite direction. One episode in particular involving some sort of radiation cloud just made no sense at all. They had to fly through it, but I’m sure in a wide shot later you could see it in the distance and there was no apparent reason why they couldn’t have just gone round the bastard.
Way the biggest mistake for me though, which started back in the second series, was the “deeper investigation” of the Cylons, which on New Caprica appeared to be lots of identical pretty people in coffee bars, and now in space seems to consist of Baltar in a bed with Lucy Lawless and a shed load of dissolves. Note to the gallery. Loads of dissolves don’t make an otherwise tedious and nonsensical sequence seem mysterious and alluring. In the first season the glimpses of Cylon environments seemed truly alien and strange – otherworldly mixtures of flesh and machine. Now the inside of a base-star is revealed to look something like a cross between a successful New York lawyer’s practice and a seventies disco. Folks in suits wander round the same stretches of bland corridor looking smug, and occasionally having unconvincing, bitchy conversations. The odd slime bath does not a tantalising alien civilisation make. Though you do gotta love Dean Stockwell.
The problem is that the show was much at its best when the Cylons were simply the unknown, implacable threat, the enemy within, a device for putting pressure on human civilisation and investigating the human reaction. Looking at them in detail makes the whole thing a) less frightening, b) less relevant to reality, and c) occasionally quite silly.
Anyway, despite a disappointing middle the season starts and ends as well as ever, and one can’t deny that sci-fi tv seems a way tougher, darker, edgier and consequently more interesting place as a result of this show. It’s often said that there’s nothing more dated than past visions of the future. I look back happily on Star Trek the Next Generation, though I was well aware even at the time that many of its episodes were poo (anythin
g involving Lwxana Troi springs to mind). I still think fondly of Picard, Data, prune juice and Cardassians. But it’s amazing how trite and disposable it all seems in the light of this dangerous new breed.
Gone are the glossy, sanitised environments of the Enterprise, in comes beaten-up, falling apart, low tech junk. Gone are the clean and shiny people too. The characters in BSG are tormented, damaged, generally drunk and strung out on drugs, often hate each other, often have sex with each other, sometimes hate and have sex with each other, and almost always have bad hair. Gone, most of all, is the noble mission to the stars. These are not people seeking out new life or new civilisations. These are people running for their lives, with hell at their backs and in their pasts, doing absolutely whatever is necessary to keep themselves alive. It’s a dystopian starship with a dystopian crew, making the best (and sometimes the worst) of a shitty, unfair universe. I particularly like the fact that they stand always ready to resort to nuclear weapons because, I mean, you would, wouldn’t you?
The future of futuristic telly has never looked so grim. And that makes me very frakking glad.