It may be hard to believe that the best science fiction television show of 2005, maybe one of the best shows on television of any genre, is a reinvention of a schlock 1970s Star Wars rip-off, but it's true. The SciFi Channel's new version of "Battlestar Galactica" is quite possibly the most engaging, best-written pieces of science fiction TV since "The Twilight Zone." To make it all the more interesting from a worldchanging perspective, the producers have embraced the potential of the web in almost unprecedented ways.
The new version may be superficially similar to the original -- a struggling remnant of humankind flees the relentless pursuit of the robotic Cylons -- but the differences are significant. The series deals with the political repercussions of a catastrophe, conflicts between military and civilian authority in a seemingly-endless state of emergency, limits on resources, human rights, religious conflict... As with most pieces of good science fiction, it explores what we are going through in the present without ham-fisted allegory.
Don't believe me? The first episode of the recently-concluded first season, "33," is available online for viewing in full, uncut. Check it out for yourself (requires RealPlayer plug-in).
The use of the web doesn't stop there. The page for each episode includes deleted scenes -- something normally reserved for the DVDs, months or years later -- and, starting late in the season, an audio commentary from the head writer/producer, Ron Moore, done as an MP3 file timed to match the pace of the show. Moore has a blog, as well; while it's not updated as frequently as one might hope, it does contain interesting observations about the nature of science fiction and the show.
Expect to see more of that with television and other serialized entertainment media. Television producers know that audiences are declining, and that there are many other choices for viewers; moreover, they know that the television market of the present doesn't often give time for a show to develop a following. If it's not a hit immediately, it's likely to disappear. Using the web to establish a connection with an audience isn't terribly new, but using it to build upon that connection is far less common. The material on the website is important to the telling and understanding of the story.
Television shows may seem trivial cultural ephemera in comparison to larger planetary issues, but we neglect them at our peril. Even low-rated television shows attract audiences in the millions; storytelling is one of the oldest of human activities, and television is quite possibly the world's most powerful storytelling medium. When a story is told particularly well, and when it is told in ways which simply would not have been possible even a few years earlier, it's worth taking note.
I didn't intend to get into watching Battlestar Galactica, not despite but because the early reviews were good.
Good modern TV shows are thoughtful and thought-provoking; they require something I call thoughtshare. You have to keep track of things and think about them. You tend to spend time talking to folks about them. This is why I never tried to get into Buffy. There's only so much time . . .
For lack of anything else to do, I watched the shortened version of BSG shown on NBC. And, damn, not bad! And for the most part the show got better. There's some serious heavy shit there.
A few things bother me a lot:
* How could anyone trust that Baltar guy? He's obviously raving nuts.
* The nature and origin on the human colonists. They look and act and pretty much talk like 21st century Earth people. As a worldbuilder and wanna-be SF writer, I find this a shocking lack.
OH, COOL! My dog is barking in her sleep. She's twitching and moving her paws and making bizarre muffled little barks. I wonder what's going on in there . . .
Finally, the season finale, while utterly gripping, had some mystic-revelatory stuff that was a bit cliched.
I saw part of this BSG and was impressed-more Alien than Lucas:
Relavent to this my son just had me watch Star Wars Episode 2...If it wasn't the general bad construct of a reality (who is evil here, they all seem super wealthy but unmotivated?), the pathetic acting, the devoid script, the unendearing actors and security for the princess-senator with a thousand gowns carrying her frikkin luggage while the robot follows. You've got 1000s of tons of levatating traffic, but youve gotta walk your luggage a mile from the spaceport.
One day someone will make an elegant and serious sci-fi flick that will hold up 50% as good as 2001. No Jar-head senators and show us how the R2 robot went up the steps.
I agree with you regarding use of the web. For now, it's a novelty, an edge if you've got a quality product to begin with. If it's crap, no web site is going to save it. I personally think that this is the next step on the convergence of web and TV. I like the commentary idea. I expect things will go farther eventually. A few years ago, The Drew Carey Show did a great episode in which Drew gets a webcam, and if you went to the site during the first-run of the show, you could see the bizarre things that went on in Drew's house while he wasn't there. But eventually, this will become the norm, expected, just part of the audience. And then the edge will disappear and online will become just another part of the production process.
Stefan, clearly, these people and their culture ARE more or less 21st century humanity, in an "alternate history" scenario.
That's actually part of what makes the show so good, and it's a time-honored approach in science fiction.
In BG's 21st century, they happen to have to developed some more sophisticated technologies than we have, but much like us, those technologies are biting them back. And, supporting/challenging/forcing an evolution of their religious beliefs, depending on which of the characters you ask.
As I told Jamais when he was visiting, this show made me want to get TV again -- it was so fresh, so good -- and then I remembered I could buy the DVD and save myself the bother. Loved every minute of it, especially since some of the backdrops were filmed in BC, my home town. Howe Sound vistas were unmistakable.
The recently revived Outer Limits series, also a Canadian production, was also quite remarkable for exploring issues of current concern. Many of its episodes raised stark and difficult ethical questions well worth asking in an ethics class - and ignored in other fiction, even science fiction.