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Monday, February 2, 2009

The Telly

Hi Wavers! Lisabeth Laiken here. Since I am writing these posts it should come as no surprise that I like to talk to people about television. Sooner or later in many of these conversations I bring up Battlestar Galactica and quite often the response to that is an adamant or dismissive “I don’t watch sci-fi.” I always find that funny because dollars to donuts, one of the shows that we have already discussed would has been Journeyman, Chuck, Day Break, Lost or Heroes. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya: “ I do not think it means what you think it does.”

To be fair, science fiction shows run the gamut, and Battlestar Galactica - about a ragtag fleet of spaceships traveling by means of FTL jumps through the galaxy looking for Earth while being chased by human-form robots - is pretty far into the red zone. Being a reboot of what is remembered as a pretty cheesy show doesn’t help. But Ronald D. Moore and co. have spectacularly subverted the original, managing to eerily flip what we remember to its own shadow. This is science fiction as allegory, providing a stark stage on which to play out a civilization’s reaction to crisis and tragedy. Shot in a realistic, hand-held style, it’s a show that makes its characters walk through pitch just waiting for a spark to set them all ablaze. And over the course of the four seasons there have been plenty of sparks.

No show suits everyone, but I highly encourage those of you who haven’t watched Battlestar Galactica to check it out. If you are looking to write for the screen of any size you can learn a lot from this show, and if you are looking to write television, there are opportunities with BSG to get under the hood and see how it all works that I’ve never seen offered before.

If you’re a newbie or had given up on it because it was too dark (and it is dark, really dark, bleak, and cold, like so many of last year's Oscar movies), the first thing to check out is this video, which manages to encapsulate the story of three seasons in eight minutes. It's a great primer on finding the plot points. Also, Salon posted a comprehensive low-down on the whos, whats and whens. After these two you will be ready to watch this season. The latest Season Four episodes are up on the Sci-Fi channel and Hulu; the other seasons are available on DVD.

Now seeing it once is good, but seeing it a second time with commentary track is even better. On these iTunes downloads, Ron Moore talks about how each episode developed and discusses the difference between the original scripts and the shooting scripts - he really gives an inside look into how a show with such a long and complicated arc is accomplished. Look for the other goodies like audio of story meetings and David Eicks videoblog to get some other insider views.

Some other things else to check out from the writers' perspective, are the webisodes. The Resistance, Razor Flashbacks and The Face of the Enemy [Julie:] all show you storytelling in miniature and are a great introduction into this new and upcoming storytelling format.

Ron Moore and the writers give incredibly in-depth interviews with Maureen Ryan at the Chicago Tribune. I’ve never seen a production team talk so openly about their creative process before the show is over. There is even an example of a first draft of a scene with a discussion on why it changed. I am hoping that these keep up through the end of the season (I think they will) as they add so much to my understanding of the show and of the crazy, controlled chaos that is creating long arc television.

So check out Battlestar Galactica (on the Sci-Fi channel 10pm Fridays) before it’s over and dip into the extras. And if you are one of those who say they don’t watch sci-fi, let me know if this has changed your mind, or if at least you find it to be interesting storytelling.

Lisabeth Laiken has been scrutinizing television since they got the breed of dog wrong on Little House on the Prairie. After ending her college years watching movies and television critically in a joint Film Studies and Semiotics program, she went on to use two VCRs to collect and catalog all her favorite shows (over 500 tapes) long before DVR was a glimmer in anyone’s eye.

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Luzid said...

BSG is fantastic television, and an utterly engaging story overall.

I mean, the recent eps - WOW.

Some of the best in speculative fiction out there.

LindaM said...

BSG jumped the shark a while ago. It's a terrible shame, because the first two seasons were terrific. They made a few basic mistakes once they realized the show was actually going to survive past the first season:
1) They didn't sit down and clearly ID what the Cylons could and couldn't do and then work the story from there. Instead, the episodes have a lot of contradictions which have gotten worse and worse as the story has gone on.
2) Instead of creating an overarching story line, they've been pretty much creating story season-by-season in a crazy by-the-seat-of-the-pants manner. This results in them having to go back and clean up big problems, such as the pathetic recent "oh no, the baby's not half Cylon because Tyrol is not the real father" episode. Bad, bad writing/story.
3) They haven't kept the characters true to their inner beings. Yes, some personality contradictions are always interesting, as is personal growth, but people tend to remain true to basic personal values. And the last few seasons have the main characters shifting like the sands of the Sahara.
If you want to study how really great a television series can be, go watch Babylon 5. J. Michael Straczynski, who just wrote Changeling, wrote a five season story line in which the characters deepen and the story line strengthens each season. Magnificent.
It's a shame about BSG, 'cause I really liked it.

Barbara Caver said...

Quick gush: Lisabeth introduced me to Rouge Wave. I'm highly enjoying this site, and not only because I think this is the second best arena for the woman with the most overactive DVR on the planet. Nice job to all contributors!

Now, my comments... I'm a relative newcomer to BSG, and I am catching up while at the same time watching new episodes. I did see the original movie from the 70s, and I must applaud the creators of the re-invention for their work at making this a relevant allegory. Every time I watch it I find it engaging and interesting, but BSG remains my rainy day, I-don't-want-to-clean-the-bathroom series. And I've never approached it as a writer, so I'm taking your challenge, Lisabeth, and I will report back.