What Do West Wing and BSG Have in Common?

I wrote this days ago, and then forgot to post it! Ah, me. I got busy picking up my daughter from college, and one thing led to another, and here we are. In the U.S., it’s Memorial Day, a time to remember with gratitude those who have fallen in defense of our nation. Maybe that’s not such a bad occasion to offer some reflections on Battlestar Galactica, whose fictional crew sacrificed much in the defense of humanity.

As we all know, BSG ended recently, and my comments on that (which I posted earlier on another website) will follow in a moment. But lately my family and I have been watching another favorite show, The West Wing, from the beginning. (I picked up the complete DVD set for a relative song on ebay.) I’ve been vividly struck by two things these shows have in common:

1. Edward James Olmos! I had seen him before, as Judge Mendoza, but had not recognized the actor. Prior to BSG, I wasn’t all that aware of Olmos, although I realize now that he’s been in a lot of great stuff, including the movie Blade Runner (where, as in BSG, they talked about “skin jobs”).

2. Brilliant writing of human drama and engaging dialogue, coupled with a thundering inability to write anything about science. In West Wing, if I feel any reference to science coming on, I steel myself to groan. I know I will. Perfect example: In one episode, Sam is concerned about a UFO that’s been tracked for several hours from Hawaii to the American coast. It turns out to be harmless—a Russian rocket booster that (paraphrased from memory) “failed to achieve a high enough velocity to escape Earth’s gravity.” That’s just stupid on so many levels. But let’s start with the fact that a reentering booster would burn up in a matter of minutes, not hours, and that the tracking people would know exactly what it was the whole time. In the commentary below, I mention a similar lapse in credibility from BSG. The thing is, the writing on both shows was so terrific otherwise that I was completely willing to forgive these lapses. It’s funny, because I would never overlook that kind of dunderheadedness if I were reading a work of hard science fiction. That must say something about the importance of expectations as a viewer or reader.

Here’s my BSG commentary, reprinted from SF Signal’s Mind Meld:

Much has been written about the end of our beloved Battlestar Galactica. I avoided reading most of it until recently, because I hadn’t seen the ending and didn’t want any spoilers. (Yes, I wrote the miniseries novelization, and at the time was given access to a limited amount of insider background informationthough not enough to keep me from writing a few things that shortly became “noncanonical.” But I had no more idea than you did where the story was going in the end.) A couple of weeks ago, I finally watched the last few episodes in one long burst.

Whoa. Not altogether what I’d hoped for—but powerful stuff nonetheless.

My reactions were intense and complex. On the one hand, it was a stunningly choreographed conclusion, breathlessly paced, and to me at least satisfying in the sense that we finally found resolution, and our characters, battered and bruised, finally found a measure of peace. Even Kara. Yes, even Kara Thrace, Starbuck. The change of tone at the very end was perhaps a bit overdone. But I felt our people had earned it.

That they found and settled the world known to us as “Earth” came, of course, as no surprise. Most of us, I think, had been expecting an Adam and Eve story (or should I say, Adama and Eve) all along. How could it have been different? It seemed built into the very fiber of the series, from the start. And while the “Adam and Eve” story is perhaps one of the most clichéd ideas in all of science fiction, there is no reason that even a clichéd story cannot be retold in a fresh and engaging way. So I had long ago decided to forgive that point, granting that if the BSG people could tell it in a sufficiently original way, I wouldn’t quibble.

So, did they or didn’t they? Well…yes and no.

Plausibility-wise, the notion that the fleet would agree to transport all of the people down to a wilderness planet, equipped only with what they could carry, give or take a few Raptors, and send the rest of their considerable technology into the sun, was absurd. Suspension of disbelief—come back! What else can I say about that? Except it was probably considered necessary to the plot not to have too much star technology lying around to be unearthed by latter-day Indiana Joneses.

But BSG has never been about plausibility in the scientific or technological sense. Do we all remember back in—Season 3, was it?—when the fleet had to fly through an exploding star, instead of…um, going around it? And does anyone believe that after all this time, they would have left the fleet dependent on just one Tylium ship to supply the needs of everyone? Okay, forget scientific plausibility. It was never there to be an issue. When I wrote the miniseries novelization, this was something I encountered in a multitude of small ways, and I did my best to strengthen plausibility where it felt thin. But this BSG has always been about other things, anyway—humanity at war with its own worst elements, and the dark places of the soul where people find the strength to endure, and to fight back. For all of its edges, it was never hard SF; it was pure human-drama SF, and every time it careened near the edge of a cliff even in those terms, it always somehow staggered back.

So forget the scientific plausibility part. What about the angels? Starbuck—an angel? That seemed to stick in a lot of craws, including my wife’s and daughter’s, mainly because it seemed from out of left field, and not terribly…well, plausible. For one thing, how come Starbuck was a solid, hard-drinkin’, kick-your-ass physical kind of angel, while the Six and Baltar angels were purely will o’ the wisps, here this minute, gone the next, visible to no one else? And why did Starbuck have to go through such torment, trying to discover who she was? Is she the only angel who doesn’t know she’s an angel? I grant all of those quarrels. And yet—despite my qualms, I kind of liked it. For one thing, how many real SF shows have ever been willing even to entertain the notion of there actually being a God (even if he doesn’t like to be called that, says Baltar), or heavenly or spiritual beings? BSG had the nerve to do that, and do it baldly, in midst of a gritty human drama. Did they do it successfully? Certainly not all the time, and probably not at the very end. But my hat’s off to them for trying.

Having written a BSG book in which I was invited to make up answers to some questions that the producers couldn’t, at that point, answer for me, I was perhaps a little oversensitive to certain small points in the conclusion. One that comes to mind is Caprica Six, who had no name in the miniseries. I called her Natasi in my novel (and no, I didn’t notice that Natasi was “I Satan” backwards until a reader pointed it out). That seemed fine with the BSG staff at the time. Later, David Eick was quoted as saying that he’d imagined that Baltar never knew Six’s name, even as he carried on a torrid affair with her. Truthfully, I never found that believable. Then we saw it happening, in the final chapter, and I went, “Gah!” You win some and you lose some.

I will defend the writers against charges of racism stemming from the interpretation that the fleet personnel obviously subjugated and lorded it over the indigenous population, right up through the present day. What (goes the argument) about the African origins of humanity, which present-day evidence strongly supports? Well, as I read the ending, fleet personnel gradually intermingled with the native population, as their remaining technology wore out or failed, and thus 21st Century humanity is very much a blend of the native and immigrant forms of human. So Lucy and Eve and all of our other forebears are still very much a part of the picture. As for the Cylon blood—well, I guess there’s a little bit of that in our DNA now. Somewhere along the way, we lost the glowing spines, though. Tough break, that.

But now we know: “All Along the Watchtower” is in our racial memory. It just took Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix to give it back to us.

(Check out other authors’ comments on the earlier Mind Meld page.)

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