Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Spoiler Alert

Friends of mine are big fans of the new Battlestar Galactica. It's a show with many fans. Very positive things have been written about it, for instance, here, here, here (scroll all the way down), here, here, and here. It recently won a Peabody Award.

I like science fiction. I like good stories. And I like TV shows with good production values and strong acting. So when I picked up on the hype after missing the boat when the 2003 miniseries aired and the series began, I was eager to see the miniseries and get caught up. Naturally, I was delighted when I stumbled upon a re-airing of the miniseries late one night a few weeks ago.

It was pretty enjoyable science fiction with solid production value and strong acting (plus Tricia Helfer!), so I became a little worried about the danger of becoming hooked on a weekly series after catching up with the back episodes. Then Gregg Easterbrook, on ESPN of all places, solved that problem for me by providing a sufficient excuse to disrespect and disregard the acclaimed television phenomenon.

[The] core problem with "Battlestar Galactica" is that the people of the show's imaginary space society are incredibly stupid. True, there are lots of stupid people on Earth, so presumably there would be stupid people on the opposite side of the galaxy. And folly is, inarguably, a grand theme of history. But practically everyone in "Galactica" is so astonishingly falling-down dumb, it's hard to care about their fates: And this is setting aside how, if they're so stupid, they were able to construct enormous faster-than-light starcruisers.

In the pilot for "Galactica," a society spanning 12 planets is threatened by a race of living machines called Cylons. The machines are known to sabotage computer systems. Yet all defense systems on all 12 worlds, along with all military spacecraft, have a common password. A human scientist named Baltar unwittingly gives the password to a Cylon; the Cylons transmit a computer virus containing the code; all humanity's military systems stop working; the planets are helpless against the attack that follows. Now, do you suppose there is one single password that controls every device in the American military? We'd be idiots to engineer such a code, exactly because it might fall into the wrong hands. Yet on "Galactica" not only can every defensive system built by humanity be remotely deactivated, the information necessary to do this has been placed in the hands of a mentally unstable scientist. This is one stupid society we've got here. (Two gigantic space battleships did not receive the deactivation transmission and are protecting humanity's survivors, creating the premise of the series.)

The author James Blish has said that much of sci-fi relies on Idiot Plots, defined as stories "kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot." (See the entry on Idiot Plots in the 2005 edition of the "Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy," said entry by Official Brother Neil Easterbrook of Texas Christian University.) Consider a brief rundown of "Galactica" stupidity as exemplified by the character Baltar, named after the traitor of the original 1970s series. Baltar escapes the Cylon invasion and becomes a trusted science advisor to the remaining human leadership. No one in military intelligence seems struck by the fact that all the defensive systems turned themselves off precisely at the moment of the attack, nor wonders whether this might have had something to do with Baltar, who possessed the code. Baltar rises to become vice president in the survivors' government. He obtains high position though he often speaks, aloud, to a Cylon avatar that manifests in his consciousness. That is -- the other characters hear Baltar talking to a Cylon, yet are too stupid to think anything of it.

In the final few episodes of the recently concluded season, Idiot Plots drove the action. Baltar is assigned to interrogate a Cylon spy and instead helps her escape, killing a guard in the process. No one suspects Baltar, though he and the guard were the sole people with the Cylon and though, presumably, faster-than-light starcruisers would have video monitors in their detention cells. Baltar claims he can build a Cylon detector, but needs plutonium for the device. Rather than supply Baltar with a vial of plutonium the fleet's leader, Admiral Adama, gives him a complete working nuclear warhead, which Baltar is allowed to keep in his cabin.
There are a couple more good paragraphs, in one of which, especially, Easterbrook further drives home his point. Scroll down about four fifths of the way through the article, or just do a word search in it for "stupid." (Without the quotes, of course.)

My life has got enough of an idiot plot already. I don't need to tune in every week for more. Thanks, Gregg Easterbrook!


Anonymous Lynn S said...

Well... yeah, but other than all that it's really an awesomely great show. :-)

9:10 AM  
Blogger JPW said...

Yeah, it's kinda hard to argue (except with the first part - there's no actual "password" to the human military systems; rather, Number Six was permitted access to the mainframes which, presumably, held all the code for the Colonies' military firmware. Chuck a backdoor in the firmware and bang, you're in. This was covered in the first few episodes of season 1) but I'm happy to accept a bit of stupidity when it means awesome space battles and Edward James Olmos strutting around owning every other actor on the set. I could do without Starbuck's dramatics and Apollo's angst, though, and hope a few people die soon.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Steve Ely said...

...And two years later I find myself hooked on the show and agreeing fully with the commenters here.

10:18 PM  

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