Friday, May 14, 2010

The Saga of a Star World, or What Were They Thinking?

Rose-colored glasses refers to things that are remembered or generally perceived as better than they are or ever were.

That is how fans of the classic Battlestar Galactica series remember the show. I often fall victim to my own pare rosy shades, but upon viewing of any episodes from the series the glasses tend to slip down my nose and I see what I did not see at the young age of my first viewing.

Granted, Battlestar Galactica had its work cut out for itself: to bring the big-budget spectacle of Star Wars to a weekly t.v. network production.

As I mentioned before, the original series cost approximately one million dollars per episode. The reimagined version cost about the same. The difference is that decades of special affects advancement and inflation have changed what a million dollars can do for a network production. One million dollars today is far less than what one million dollars was decades ago, and with cheaper technology, you can actually stretch the budget a lot further. So, we end up with a reimagined Battlestar Galactica that looks far more realistic and has better editing than the classic series.

Another thing that has changed over the years is general scientific knowledge and what viewers think they know. When the original Battlestar Galactica was written, the "science" of the day was incorporated into the show. A lot of that science was wrong and has evolved so those classic stories appear somewhat ridiculous. There was also a general lack of military understanding and the strategies and politics involved were clumsy at the least. Again, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica made up for the lack of knowledge in spades by incorporating believable military strategy and political drama that the classic series simply was unable or unwilling to accept as good science fiction writing.

Classic Battlestar Galactica had abysmal editing in story and footage. Sometimes the characters are seen trading one-off cliches that have little to do with the main plot and even less to do with their personalities, as if the writers simply had nothing else to include in the dialogue.

Basically, what we had was a show with too much money, not enough time, and people who were more invested in the spectacle than the story. It could have been just enough money, but the producers did not know what to do with it, so they wasted it at almost every turn. The writers treated the viewers like idiots and did not really want to create an engaging sci-fi epic. Or maybe they were limited by the over-worked special effects team. Obviously, a story that depends on fantastic visuals will be limited by the visuals that can actually be completed in time and within budget.

I wonder how often the plot of an episode was changed mid way because a set went over-budget and/or ran out of time to be completed.

Sci-fi television will always have these problems. The crime is not expecting the problem and simply hoping it will go away. This leads to a crap story with awesome visuals most of the time.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


There is some bizarre science relating to ones perception of time and space. I do not know the "official" name of the topic or the research behind it, but it crops up from time to time in scientific articles and sci-fi stories.

In a Discover article a few years ago, I read about how passing you appears to be going faster and the car you a passing appears to be going slower, but in reality, somehow, you are both going the same speed.

A more recent example I cam across claims that as the questions of the universe are answered, or as we learn to perceive the universe differently, the universe itself becomes different.

A similar observation has been made in quantum physics, it appears that the act of observing atomic particles actually changes their nature.

The first two examples are mind-numbingly insane. Take the passing cars: if one vehicle is going 10 miles per hour and the other vehicle is going 20 miles per hour, does it not make sense that one is going faster than the other, thus one should pass the other? This one will certainly take more reading for it to make sense to me.

As for the changing universe, I think it was just a play on words, as in the better you know something, the more different it becomes to what you used to know. Personal relationships work the same way, the better you know your spouse, the more she seems to change. Or better still, it used to be that watching her trim her nails was cute, but later realizing how much detail is fussed over, she now seems to have OCD, which makes her a completely different woman.

The change in atomic particles do to actual observation...this one is different. This property has some actual observational data associated with it and a number of scientists back it up. In fact, it is such a pervasive trait that Einstein hated the very idea of it. And really, it does change everything.

Imagine looking at a tree, looking away, then looking back and the tree is still there. Now, do it again, but use a video recorder and upon play-back you find that at the moment you are not directly observing the tree, it has changed into a bizarre rock formation, or even something more spectacular. This is the basic idea behind the observational trait of quantum physics.

What does it mean? Never mind the religious debate, what does this mean for the universe we live in?

Furthermore, how can these perceptional concepts be transformed into fun and engaging sci-fi?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Modern Dr. Who (Part Two)

The Dr.Who that I remember always had some campiness about it. But the sci-fi material was to die for, especially if you only had the three big networks and Channel 17 (sometimes) and PBS.

So, to some extent, a new Dr. Who series should not have too much difficulty being better than the original material.

Well, yes and no.

It really depends on what an individual viewer liked most about the original series. Monsters, high sci-fi, campy sci-fi, historical themes, mythology of the Time Lord never knew what to expect.

To that end, the current material keeps you on your toes. It has even won some serious sci-fi awards. We have everything that any classic fan might have loved (the presence of Tom Baker excluded) and more. Plot threads that hold entire seasons together, one-offs to give the viewer a break from the building and expanding mythology, cameos from classic characters, modern science themes, and a Doctor who is on a serious god-trip, possibly resulting from severe emotional instability.

One problem I see however, which is common in far too many sci-fi stories, is the inclusion of too much modern human elements: a cell-phone that receives and sends anywhere in time or place, a typical key that is "more" than a key, the apparent need to keep going back to the same time and place (a budgetary decision perhaps?), and the Doctor is proving to be responsible for more and more events in human history. Also, the historical/classic horror jaunts seem a little too obvious: a werewolf that is not a werewolf, a ghost that is not a ghost. There is even an episode spoofing modern game shows and other t.v. entertainment.

These stories are fun and quirky but far too typical. They are not poorly done, just unnecessary.

Some of the stuff that works though, works very well. Captain Harkness is too awesome and can completely steal the spotlight in any episode that portrays him correctly. However, I think the producers made a mistake by taking away his time/space toys and allowing the character to be hijacked into the poor spin-off Torch Wood. He would have been great in a solo spin-off with him trekking about the universe through time and space, getting into all sorts of troubles that only a true con artist can get out of. But, we were given Torch Wood instead and Captain Jack Harkness lost his tools of trade.

Since this post is getting long, I'll stop here and come back to pros and cons another time.

Modern Dr. Who (Part One)

It is hard to believe that I missed four seasons of the ongoing Dr. Who series already. I remember when it was being discussed and I thought that it might turn out ok or prove to be an utter failure. I had seen some episode advertisements over the past couple of years and they looked fun but I did not pay much attention to them, really.

I have cable but I don't really watch t.v. The cable is for my internet connection and I take advantage of the occasional science feature that peaks my interest. Otherwise, most of my media is viewed from discs that I own or have borrowed or from Youtube streams. For instance, I recently discovered a site that streams documentaries from various sources around the net, I'm in love.

Anyway, the point is that I do not watch t.v. often enough to be sucked into the newest sci-fi trappings even though I love the genre. So I've missed four years of Dr. Who. Last year I ordered three DVD sets of The Baker Years from and I did not even bother looking at the new material. But this year I just that. I was torn between some more Baker material and the new "1st season". I went with the new series and was promptly blown away.

I immediately borrowed other people's DVD sets and will eventually purchase my own for my collection, they are that good.

I remember way back when Dr. Who could only be found on PBS. Tom Baker was the only Doctor that I was familiar with. When he changed into the next doctor, I just could not get past the fact that MY Doctor was gone. I did not even know there were more Doctors to come and was not aware of them, or that the series had gone on for almost another decade, until the new material was being advertised.

So, there is a little history of my Dr. Who experience. Next post will include some pros and cons of the current series.

Battlestar Galactica v3

The IMDB message board for this upcoming Bryan Singer film has a good question:

Why do we need this?

Version one was campy while version two was dark drama.

Both versions appeal to unique niches. However, version one did not do so well, being canceled after one season and being sort-of re-imagined into the Battlestar Galactica 1980 treatment that fans universally call trash. Meanwhile, the recent dark and dramatic version did fairly well and lasted four full seasons and two one-offs (with more possibly on the way) and even has an ongoing spin-off, of sorts.

One of version one's failing was the million-dollar-per-episode budget. Version two had the same budget but with modern technology was able to do much more with it. And frankly, a million dollars today is a pittance compared to a million dollars in the seventies.

So what can a version three do to keep the "magic" alive?

I remember very clearly that version two was treated viciously when it was announced that Starbuck would change sexes. Nothing else really mattered, it seemed, only that one of the key characters would be completely the matters of sexual orientation. Otherwise, as it turns out, she was everything the original Starbuck was, just the opposite gender. Fans of the classic series also did not like that Cylons were going to be more humanoid than reptilian. And there would be lots of sex.

Though I do not know if any fans were really too distraught over the sex.

Something to think about is that the classic series was based on very epic sci-fi/fantasy tropes. There was not a whole lot of room to delve too deeply into character growth while telling the epic story (which went off the rails rather quickly to be honest). While version two was a bit more high sci-fi, focusing on questions about the nature of humanity and immortality, life and death, existence...

I think a version three could put the epic sci-fi back into the story. Something that focuses more on the struggle for survival against overwhelming odds, the exploration and discovery of a universe that is bigger than the heroes had thought. Sci-fi combat with a bigger budget would be great for us geeks.

And less sex. Sorry, but I like to be teased. Give me clingy uniforms and flowing gossamer that suggests more than it shows.

And less modern slang and other dirty language. This is a story set in a far-distant part of the galaxy, not my local pub. Get creative with the writing or find another career for crying out loud.

Frankly, I would like Battlestar Galactica v3 to be more family friendly. It does not need to be kiddiefied with monkey-dogs but I should be able to watch it with my 8-14 year-olds, unlike the tragic filth-fests that the Transformers movies turned out to be.

In closing, Battlestar Galactica v3 could open up the franchise to a much wider audience than the classic series currently has or version two ever had.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Star Trek Lets it Stay Broken

Finally got around to watching the Star Trek reboot. Nevermind the special effects and other "Wow!" moments. The biggest treat for me is that we have a time-travel story that dose not get fixed at the end. Let me say that again.

A time travel story that does not get fixed.

That is awesome on so many levels. It does not just allow the creative team to work in their own little part of the universe. It allows for the studio to go in any new direction that it wants to. This movie is not just a shot in the arm. It is not a band aid. It is not just a reimagining. It is what might have happened at any point in the multitude of time travel stories in the Star Trek franchise if even one of those plots were not neatly tide up and fixed at the end of the episode.

I can't wait for the sequel.

What is Science Fiction? (Part One)

This is an ongoing debate in the medium and I certainly do not have a solid opinion yet. This is just an attempt to jot some thoughts down and maybe I'll change my idea on some of them later.

On one side, you have what I call "purists" who believe that good sci-fi must always be introspective, thought-provoking, speculative. They believe that if the story does anything other than make you think about what the future holds for humanity and how we might choose the most positive solutions to our problems, then that story is trash. The pure sci-fi story wins the awards.

On another side, you have writers who just want to have a good time telling a fun story. They place their heroes into a time or environment that we currently can not reach (or might soon) then they kind of roll some dice to see what befalls the characters until the end of the story is reached. This story could be an action adventure, an epic tale of cosmic empires clashing, a time travel or alternate dimension tale of hi-jinx and swashbuckling. These stories do not win many awards, unless the story is a blend of purist speculation and fun.

I understand some of the origins of the debate. In the past, sci-fi was so broad and undisciplined that is was often confused with tales of medieval fantasy and magical tales. When the speculative authors emerged, the brought with them some direction for the genre. The stories that they wrote, the ones that made the reader stop mid-sentence and think for while, were a fresh experience. The science in the speculative stories was based on real, actual science and some of it was very cutting edge.

Some of that cutting edge science has not aged well. Since some of the thought provoking speculation was based on that science, some of the stories themselves have unraveled. That does not mean the "other" old science fiction has fared any better. As modern tastes and intelligence has changed, many of those stories have proven to be nothing more than silly tales of fanciful ideas that no longer have a place in modern society.

A purist will tell you that just because the story has a space ship or time travel does not mean it is a sci-fi story.

I understand the idea. A part of me wants to agree with it. At this time, however, I can't. A space ship suggests future technology, time travel suggests future science. A weapon that does not currently exist in the modern era, but has a place in your story suggests future warfare. These are the components, or tools, used to tell a sci-fi story. It may be a story that makes you feel dumber after having read it, but it is a sci-fi story none the less.

Those are my thoughts on the topic so far.