Galactica, Actually

In the midst of an otherwise sensible post on “Battlestar Galactica” and gender violence, Ta-Nehisi Coates drops this head-scratcher:

I think so much of this revolves around the fact that, in the past decade, the ceiling for writing and acting on television has been raised. I can’t have watched “The Wire,” watched “Mad Men,” watched “Big Love” and felt as I used to. I simply can’t go back. BSG isn’t operating in the world that Star Trek: Voyager did. The game is the same, but more fierce. Measured against that backdrop, I think the writing, and acting, on the show is rather lackluster (skipping ahead in time, at the end of season, was incredibly lazy). When narrative isn’t done in a particularly inspiring fashion, it seems that the first people to suffer are women, and minorities. It’s no mistake that “The Wire” is not only one of the best written shows ever, it is also one of the bestdepiction of black people ever committed to television.

Head-scratcher is unfair, perhaps, because I know why people think “Galactica” is a level or two below “The Wire” (or even lesser lights like “Mad Men” and “Big Love”). And if you get a few beers in me, I’d probably concede that the show isn’t nearly as good as “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood” or David Simon’s oeuvre, though I think BSG has earned its place on the second tier of damn good shows that aren’t quite as groundbreaking as their creators seem to think.

That said, this is all a bit too apples to oranges for my tastes. Despite its many shortcomings, science fiction is a genre apart. Unlike contemporary or historical drama, it has no easy reference points or ready-made settings, which is why so many of its best authors rely heavily on some preexisting mythology (the superstructure of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, for example, is explicitly modelled on Gibbons’ Decline and Fall). Good science fiction requires its purveyors construct a coherent, believable future for characters to inhabit and interact with. Say what you will about “Galactica,” but its best moments marry an ambitious* alternate reality with real human drama, something that conventional shows can never match. At the very least, “Galactica’s” flawed efforts at constructing believable scifi represent a unique achievement in television, and for that I’ll always look back on the show with fondness.

*A caveat: “Ambitious” has become shorthand for “I really like this genre and want it to succeed on screen, so I’ll overlook or downplay its glaring flaws,” also known as “Dark Knight syndrome.” Because I enjoy starfighters and hyperdrives and space exploration, I’m willing to grant BSG a lot more leeway than I would a comparable show in a different, equally exotic setting. So maybe I’m just full of it.

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Filed under Culture, Science Fiction

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