It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Genesis of the Cylons

When a television series pilot opens with what seems to be a vision of hell – writhing naked bodies, men fighting bloodily to the death, people being shot, human sacrifices – and then later features a suicide bomber on a train… you know you’re not watching your usual anodyne and juvenile science fiction series. But then Caprica is the new series from the makers of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, and Battlestar Galactica could never have been described as “anodyne and juvenile”.

Caprica is set fifty-eight years before the events of Battlestar Galactica – in fact, Commander Adama is a child in the Caprica pilot – and sets out the events which led to the creation of the Cylons and their eventual revolt against the humans.

Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) is the CEO and driving force behind an electronics company on the world of Caprica, one of the Twelve Colonies. He invented the holoband, which provides access to a virtual world or cyberspace called V-Space. At present, he’s working on a robot soldier for the Caprican government, but is having little success. Graystone’s teenage daughter, Zoe, is a computer genius. She has invented an AI copy of herself, called Zoe-R, in the virtual nightclub she and her friends frequent in V-Space. It’s the nightclub which is the aforementioned vision of hell.

Joseph Adams (Esai Morales) is a lawyer on Caprica, although he is originally from Tauron. He has connections with the Ha’la’tha, an organised crime syndicate on that world, but refuses to do their bidding.

As in Battlestar Galactica, the Twelve Colonies practice pantheism – and again, their gods share the names of the Greek pantheon. But Zoe and two school friends have turned their back on the gods and embraced monotheism. They are secretly members of a group called the “Soldiers of the One”. Zoe and her friends run away to Gemenom, where they hope to contribute to the monotheistic cause. They don’t get very far. One gets cold feet and doesn’t even get on the maglev train to the starport. And, while on the train, another reveals that he is carrying bombs strapped around his middle. Which he promptly detonates.

Daniel Graystone and Adams meet at the enquiry into the terrorist attack. Adams’ wife and daughter were on the same carriage as Zoe and her suicide bomber school friend.

It’s not hard to see where the story will go. Graystone is struggling with his robot, his daughter has created an AI. Put the two together and you have a… Cybernetic Lifeform Node (which is, I must admit, a particularly naff backronym). This, then, is the genesis of the Cylons.

Adams’ role in the story is less immediately obvious. Towards the end of the pilot, he admits his family name was originally Adama, and vows to change it back. This certainly explains his connection to Battlestar Galactica, if not to the story of Caprica. Because up until that point, he has only been used by Graystone, chiefly by approaching his Ha’la’tha contacts and asking them to steal a chip created by a competitor which Graystone needs to load Zoe-R into the Cylon. Adama’s payment for this will be an AI of his dead daughter.

One of the things that made Battlestar Galactica such compelling viewing was its full-frontal assault on the difficult subjects not normally tackled by sf television series. Perhaps sometimes it tried too hard to be edgy, and so sacrificed rigour for the issue of the week. Opening Caprica with a terrorist bombing shows the series certainly plans to continue Battlestar Galactica‘s dramatic use of contentious topics. While the programme makers have married this to a religious war – monotheism vs pantheism – they’ve also demonised the monotheistic worldview by defining it using only a black and white moral framework. There’s no reference to a creed, or a body of law, only the repeated insistence that morality is polar and imposed on humanity by their god. It feels overly simplistic, as if the monotheistic cult were invented by Zoe and her teenage friends.

Also appealing in Battlestar Galactica was the care and depth of detail with which its world had been built. Admittedly, it’s easy enough to create a futuristic, and not quite recognisable, world when the programme is almost exclusively set inside various spaceships. It’s harder to do for a programme set in a city – especially if the city is not entirely CGI. Caprica uses production design to show that it predates Battlestar Galactica, but it doesn’t quite work. Hats and old-fashioned suits are not enough. Of course, Caprica of sixty years prior to Battlestar Galactica is not going to map on any comparison between now and a US city of the 1940s. But there are enough differences between the two Earth time periods – not just the clothes; but the cars, the sensibilities, the technology… – to at least suggest that Caprica doesn’t really feel as though it takes place sixty-eight years before Battlestar Galactica.

Also somewhat problematical is Graystone’s motivation. He’s a fat cat captain of industry. He wants his Cylon to succeed because it means a huge contract from the Caprican government. Zoe-R is a means to an end – on first meeting her in the V-space nightclub, he dismisses her as a sophisticated software construct, not a true AI. Yet he offers to create a similar AI of Adama’s dead daughter. Not his wife, but his daughter. And Adama comes close to seriously considering the offer, even though he has a son (who grows up to become Commander Adama of Battlestar Galactica).

According to Caprica‘s makers, the programme will be a soap opera of sorts, focusing on the Graystone and Adama families. A rich industrialist with a low ethics threshold versus a lawyer who denies his crime syndicate background as a matter of personal morality sounds way too much like a loaded scenario, especially given the simplistic moral framework the Cylons are plainly going to inherit from Zoe-R… Nonetheless, I suspect it will be addictive viewing and I plan to buy the Season One DVD boxed set of Caprica when it is released in UK later this year.


Why Television Sci-Fi Sucks

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching Battlestar Galactica seasons one and two on DVD. I missed most of the episodes when they were broadcast, so I bought the DVDs. Battlestar Galactica is one of those sf television programmes that is allegedly so good, people desperately try to find ways to describe it as not science fiction. The same has been said of the new Doctor Who. And yet, and yet… If television sf is good, then it seems to me it’s more by accident than design – after all, we’re talking about programmes created by people who are not sf fans, and aimed primarily at an audience that is not composed of sf fans. And so it should be – for a TV programme to succeed, it has to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. What this means is that sf programmes are often good drama but bad science fiction. Sometimes, they’re both bad drama and bad science fiction. But programmes that are bad drama generally don’t survive.

This post was sparked off by BSG. On the whole, I like the series. It’s well written, well acted, and it presents its fictional universe convincingly. Well, okay: it presents its fictional universe mostly convincingly. The laws of physics are still frequently sacrificed to the rules of drama. And, if you think too hard about the Cylons, you realise they don’t actually make much sense. They’re supposed to be machine intelligences, a “race” of AIs created by the humans. Fair enough. That doesn’t mean the interiors of the raiders can’t be organic, or that there can’t be ones who resemble humans. Except… the latter are humans, by any meaningful definition of the term – biologically, and they’re sentient and aware. They just happen to have been created artificially. It strikes me that the makers of BSG haven’t actually worked out the full ramifications of “machine intelligence”. The Cylons are merely television villains – in other words, a blank canvas on which to paint a suitably-disguised version of Western society’s current enemies.

But I didn’t set out to pick apart the Cylons. I wanted to show that good science fiction and good drama are not only possible, but result in excellent television sf. And that doing either badly can spoil a programme. I recently found myself annoyed at the direction the story-arc took in BSG’s season 2. Beginning with the final episode of season 1, ‘Kobol’s Last Gleaming: Part 2’, in which Adama “terminates” Roslin’s presidency. The last time I looked, in a democratic state the military does not have the authority to unseat an elected ruler. It happens, yes – Musharref in Pakistan, for example. But that’s a coup, a military takeover. So, Adama doesn’t “terminate” Roslin’s presidency. He seizes power. And he does so in a fit of pique – because Roslin persuaded Starbuck to undertake a mission against orders. It gets worse… Several episodes later, in season 2, Adama hands power back to Roslin. There’s a clear inference that the democratic process only exists through his largesse. Which makes a mockery of earlier episodes in which various people – including terrorist Zarek – insisted that the fleet must maintain a democratic government. It seems that in BSG, a democratic government can only exist if the military allows it to. Which makes any political commentary the series might wish to make immediately invalid.

In season 2, a new battlestar appears, commanded by Admiral Cain. And the annoyance factor shoots sky-high. Cain, the superior officer, takes command of the fleet. The president is completely ignored. In the US, the president is also commander-in-chief. But not in BSG. (There’s no reason why she should be, of course.) Cain’s singlemindedness then results in her and Adama almost going to war, and actively plotting each other’s assassination. Why bother putting a government in place in the fleet, if the programme makers are going to ignore it every other episode? Especially when Cain’s past actions come to light, and are clearly those of a war criminal. Not only are these actions ignored, they are tacitly condoned. After attempted genocide by the Cylons, Cain deliberately left survivors to die – and no one thinks this is a terrible offence? There is an off-putting current of militaristic fascism running throughout BSG which has been steadily increasing as the series progresses.

It’s not just the laws of physics or politics which are blithely ignored in order to present “good drama”. There’s economics, too. In episode 11 of season 1, ‘Colonial Day’, Zarek makes a long speech about how people in the fleet no longer require money. Since supplies are provided, there is nothing to buy… and so no reason to pay people for the work they perform. This makes sense – the fleet is comprised of refugees, and whatever supplies they might carry are being managed by the military. But sometime when writing season 2, the makers chose to ignore this. In season 2’s episode 14, ‘Black Market’, Commander Fisk of Pegasus is murdered, and the Galactica officers learn he was running a black market. In fact, black market profiteering is rife in the fleet – and is controlled by a single gang lord. So much for not needing money. You can’t have a black market without money – not only so that people can buy from it, but if there were no profit in it then it wouldn’t exist. Not only does this directly contradict earlier world-building, but the episode’s situation was clearly created for drama’s sake. It’s implausible within the setting. Story-telling discipline is more important in science fiction than it is in other genres. Readers know what is and what isn’t possible or plausible in the real world. In sf, the creator determines what is possible or plausible. And if they chop and change that from episode to episode, they undermine their creation. It’s no different to Hercule Poirot pulling a clue out of thin air to solve the crime.

It’s not enough that science fiction should have a central conceit, but it should also follow its own internal rules. Television sf may be the intellectually-challenged brother of written sf, but if it wants to be “good” then it’s still bound by the same rules, it should still use the same techniques. It recently occurred to me that part of the problem is television sf’s lack of subtlety. Written sf is not just action-adventure in outer space – even some Star Wars tie-in novels aim higher than that – but whatever commentary it might present is often disguised. Television sf has much less room to manoeuvre – episode lengths of up to an hour; aimed at an audience chiefly ignorant of the language of science fiction; and must appeal to the least sophisticated members of its audience as much as it does to the most sophisticated. As a result, commentary in a television sf programme – where it exists, which is not often – frequently involves beating the viewer about the head. I don’t have a problem with this – except, when the desire to create such drama means the rules and techniques of good science fiction are abandoned. Throughout season 2, Battlestar Galactica has done this.

All this makes for an interesting comparison with Doctor Who. BSG, of course, is American; Doctor Who is British. I was as excited as any other fan of sf when I learnt Doctor Who was returning to television. And, on the whole, I have to say the new series are a great improvement over the old ones. We might well remember past Doctor Who stories with fondness, but it’s often best to leave them as that – memories. Watching them anew on DVD only spoils the magic because, let’s face it, many of them weren’t very good. They were done on the cheap, and it showed. In Doctor Who – The Green Death, the UNIT air support proves to be a two-man helicopter, with the words “Twycroft Helicopter Rentals” (or something like that) painted on the side and a man leaning out and dropping hand-grenades!

Of course, nowadays it would all be done with CGI – and CGI has been used to great effect in the new Dr Who. This is both a blessing and a curse. The ability to realise alien worlds with such convincing verisimilitude often results in poor science fiction – just look at the Star Wars prequels (not that the original Star Wars trilogies were paragons of science fiction; far from it). Doctor Who series 3, for example, we had the sfx-heavy ’42’ (the title no doubt a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), in which the Doctor and Martha find themselves aboard a starship falling into the sun. They have 42 minutes to save the ship. Not only did the episode seem like a rip-off of Sunshine, but a race against time to survive when you know the protagonists will be back hale and hearty next week is entirely pointless. And suspense-free. Yet the best episode broadcast so far – of all three series – was pretty much sfx-free. Steven Moffat’s ‘Blink’ was not only excellent drama, it was also excellent science fiction. It was gripping drama, peopled by engaging characters, and made clever use of the Doctor’s time-travelling abilities. ‘Blink’ deserves both a Hugo Award and a BAFTA.

The remainder of the series could only be a let-down after an episode like that. And so it was. The humans at the end of time in ‘Utopia’ were, well, too human. When Worlds Collide at the heat death of the universe strikes me as more like a heat death of the imagination. And then in the two-parter ‘The Sound of Drums’ and ‘The Last of the Time Lords’, we had the Master conquering Earth… and the Doctor putting it all back as it was before it happened through some sort of psychic deus ex machina… From the sublime to the ridiculous.

Interestingly, Doctor Who’s much freer set-up means it rarely drops into the trap into which BSG so often falls. The Doctor travels so far and so wide, that any rules as to what is possible and plausible attach only to him and his behaviour. There is no setting, as such, in which the series is, er, set. The world or universe need only be consistent within the episode itself (we’ll ignore the greater inconsistency of baseline humans and Goths inhabiting Earth at the end of time in ‘Utopia’). The only objects within the “Whoniverse” which require consistency are those which are common to many stories – such as the Daleks, the Cybermen, the various other alien races which have made more than one appearance. Admittedly, the Doctor’s time-travelling nature means any inconsistencies with these can be explained away as his encountering them at different points in their history. So, for instance, series 1 and series 2 can end with the destruction of the Daleks… only for them to pop up again halfway through series 3. As anti-narrative consistency devices go, time travel is both the perfect weapon and the perfect defence.

I set out with this post to discuss how internal consistency in television science fiction should not be sacrificed to drama, that good drama and good science fiction produce superior television. Instead, I’ve just pointed out why BSG is often bad science fiction. And that the best piece of television sf I have seen recently is Steven Moffat’s ‘Blink’ – an episode which clearly demonstrated the benefits of good sf as well as good drama. I probably need to think more on this subject. I shall endeavour to do so. Expect a continuation of this post sometime in the future…