Reclaiming My Inner Geek

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I haven't seen much of the Battlestar Galactica revival, so I shouldn't pass judgment on it; if I watched a full story arc I might warm to the series. But the episode and a half that I did see seemed self-serious and dull—when critics call it "The West Wing in space," my internal response is "Maybe, but I hate The West Wing." If you want to watch some producers dig into the TV vaults, pull out a long-dead science-fiction show notorious for its campiness, and create a new version filled with sly political commentary and aimed at intelligent adults, I've got a better suggestion: the regenerated Doctor Who, a major hit in Britain that finally comes to the U.S. tonight on the Sci-Fi Channel.

I wrote an article about that series before it debuted, focusing on how its arrival might affect the old show's long-established fan culture. But that piece was an exercise in cultural studies, not eager anticipation, and I didn't have high expectations when I finally got a chance to see an episode myself, through a means that may or may not involve illicit downloading. What I saw was unusually good. It had its flaws, of course (the first two episodes have anticlimactic conclusions, and so for that matter does the season itself), but the writing and acting were sharp and unexpectedly satiric. Battlestar Galactica may well have broadcast a story parodying the Iraq war, but—if you want to avoid spoilers, you should jump to the next paragraph right about now—I doubt it began with a flying saucer crashing, 9/11-style, into Big Ben; and I doubt it revealed that Britain's leaders are, David Icke-style, really reptilian aliens in disguise.

Another episode mocks Rupert Murdoch's news operations. An easy target, perhaps, but what's especially intriguing is that we return to the same world a few stories later and learn—spoilerphobes better jump ahead again—that the Doctor's intervention actually made things worse. The tidy endings of the old series are gone, along with the cheesy costumes and rickety sets.

Bonus points: My favorite story of the season, told in the episodes "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances," manages both to mock Star Trek and to borrow from Philip K. Dick's novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Point me to a Battlestar Galactica tale that does that, and I'll embrace the series immediately.

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  1. Living within range of Canadian TV has many benefits: Curling all season, Street Legal, Wonderland… and the new Dr Who. We saw all the new episodes last year, and they were great. I’m happy that the rest of the US is getting a chance to see them now.

  2. Actually, I find that BattleStar Galactica is more like an ER in space. Everyone is stressed to the limit, always cleaning up after other peoples’ messes, and eager to hop into bed with one another.

    Also, another thing working against the West Wing analogy is that the leaders are clearly depicted as flawed and don’t come off looking like Solomon in every episode (despite the fact that the president is literally Moses).

  3. I’m with you on the West Wing. Never understood the appeal of the show. A realistic depiction of White House goings on would play more like Reno 911.

  4. I loathe the new Dr Who. To me it seems like the typical rubbish produced by the BBC these days – lowbrow crap for chavs and kids. I simply found it uninteresting and unintellegent.

    Sci-Fi fans seem very devided on this though.

  5. YOU LIVED! What did you do with all the money, db?

  6. Oh you know, small teaching gig at a community college in Mexico, minor libertarian activism, new identity, a bit of work in british tv and film (which has maybe given me a bias against their productions), the usual sort of thing …

  7. I haven’t watched the West Wing, but I have watched an armada of episodic science fiction. This re-incarnation of Battlestar Galactica is by far the most intelligent, well-crafted drama among them fleet. I’m most impressed by the deep character motivations — some of which manifest themselves as policy questions facing Madame President.

    Should you be willing to watch another episode or two, I’m sure you will feel well rewarded.

  8. Rhampton: I’ve got several friends who like it, so I’m keeping an open mind. Maybe someday I’ll rent it on DVD.

  9. I hate West Wing too.

  10. I’ve wondered if they’ll ever re-do The Prisoner. While I wouldn’t mind seeing the series get more attention, I doubt it would ever be as intellectual, subversive, and just plain odd as the original.

    That said, I rented a few Dr. Who episodes a while ago. They struck me as truly awful.

  11. One thing that surprises me about BSG is the lack of red shirts. They spend an episode or two developing a character before they splatter it across a cockpit.

    My favorite quote, “Bitch took my ride.”

  12. I’ve never liked Dr. Who.

    Red Dwarf is much, much better.

  13. Hate The West Wing. Love Battlestar Galactica. Gonna miss Dr. Who–goin’ to a dinner party.

    I think BSG is the best show on American TV these days, but I don’t have HBO, so I might change my mind if I did.

  14. I’m a huge fan of the new BSG. Personally, I see little resemblance to the West Wing. The ER comparison seems like it might be a good one. The creator of the new BSG has cited Hill Street Blues as an influence, as well. I almost don’t think of it as sci-fi, really. The one thing that impresses me the most about the new BSG is the dialogue–one of the few shows where the characters actually say things that sound like what real people would say.

  15. “…the cheesy costumes and rickety sets.”

    That was one of the the best parts.

    And the Daleks yelling, “EXTERMINATE!”

  16. I watched BSG for the entire first season, but it just didn’t click with me. The shows I tend to dig either go on so long that I lose interest (X-Files) or get fucked over by the network just as they are achieving greatness (Firefly). Babylon 5 and the first two “new” Star Trek shows managed to pretty much avoid that, though (syndication rules!).

    That said, I’m recording Doctor Who tonight, because it looks and sounds pretty damn good.

  17. BSG is the best thing on TV right now. It is not remotely West Wing in Space.

    Get season 1 on DVD.

  18. I should turn in my BCGs for this but I have yet to actually catch an episode of the new Battlestar. Liked the new Dr. Who though. It’s a shame that Christopher Eccleston left the cast though. Probably the least cheesy Doctor ever. Bang for buck in recent years though has to be Firefly.

    Damn Fox, damn them to hell!

  19. childish: fool! My Daleks DO come back! You cannot destroy my Daleks! You cannot have Doctor Who without the Daleks! They are… THE… perfect beings! They… are… so… perfect… they… are… easily… mistaken… for… Republicans!

  20. The best Daleks story ever is, of course, Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

  21. BSG is better on dvd than the Sci-Fi broadcasts anyway, as you get it in proper widescreen format and with the surround sound. UniversalHD has been broadcasting the episodes lately, which is especially nice.

  22. > The best Daleks story ever is, of course, Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

    And it had Heather Locklear.

    IMHO, the episode where they were hiding in a basement and had a group orgasm, complete with out of control voices, whilst chanting exterminate was the best.

  23. Firefly.
    Firefly, Firefly, Firefly.
    The best scifi-Western-Libertarians In Space ever seen. Blows BG out of the water.
    (sorry, Whedonphile here)

  24. look i must hate dr who to like battlestar galactica and i must hate battlestar glaactica to like Dr who….this is a game i play with my friends 9 year old son….star wars vs battlestar.

    It is fun to play with a 9 year old and that is about it.

    By the way “Philip K. Dick’s novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” suck ass…yes P K dick is a good author and yea he has some really good books but to referance one of his worst is really, well, intentional eclecticism in a vain atempt to be cool.

  25. Good PK Dick moment in BSG:

    A beloved crew member turns out to be a Cylon (Version 2.0) agent, a replicant indistinguishable from humans. Cylon did not even know she was a Cylon, and behaved bravely and was much-loved, until a sleeper program in her brain launched and caused her to shoot the Captain, quite against her “will.”

    Not bad, but the really interesting part came later. The creepy human scientist, a Cylon expert, alone understands that in order to pass as a human, the Cylon had to have genuine human emotions. So in order to get her to talk, he poisons the HUMAN that she had loved, refusing to administer the antidote until she talks, which she does. The doctor, of course, may well be a Cylon himself, or crazy. We don’t know.

    By the way, in the BSG universe, the humans are polytheistic, while the Cylons believe in one true God and consider humans to be heretics.

    Best show on TV.

  26. Firefly.
    Firefly, Firefly, Firefly.
    The best scifi-Western-Libertarians In Space ever seen. Blows BG out of the water.

    Well exept for cowboy bebop which was only about a millions times better…but yeah firefly was good.

  27. To follow-up on John’s comments…

    The Baltar character from the original BSG series has nothing on the Baltar character in the current series.

    OMFG I just figured out why he has the Six personality!

  28. I’ll watch the new Who, but I doubt it will impress me. The classic Who was great by accident. It was a children’s show and wasn’t trying to be anything more. Dr Who became more that it was intended too by some great writers like Douglas Adams that delivered higher quality than was asked of them, and by Tom Baker’s realization of the part. Once Who fans became loyal and numerous enough to hold their own conventions, the show started to pander to them, and of course declined rapidly.

  29. By the way now that we are talking about BSG…and I am assuming you all have seen the season finnaly…is it just me or has the show just “Jumped the shark”

    Also john is dead on right about the PK dick influance on BSG…i don’t know about the best show on TV, but i have been paying a 1.99 per episode and it is the only show i do that for. (i gave up my TV a few month ago) So he might be right.

  30. “Well exept for cowboy bebop which was only about a millions times better…but yeah firefly was good.”

    CB is good. But you know what? Firefly rules.

    “If your hand touches steel, I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you.”

    “Dear diary, today my brother was pompous and I was crazy. Then we were kidnapped by hillfolk, never to be heard from again.
    It was the.
    best.
    day.
    ever.”

  31. The real question here though is will anything surpass the great Star Trek epsiode The Way to Eden?

  32. as good as BSG and Firefly are…

    Until you have seen Bobobo-BO bo-BO-bo (sp?) on cartoon network (Sat 10) you can’t make an informed call. It is like Akira meets Rocky & Bullwinkle animated by R. Crumb.
    Strange and beautiful.

  33. I hate The West Wing, but I love the new Battlestar Galactica, which, as Deux ex Machina said, is more like ER, to the extent it’s like anything. The best episode of BG so far is “33,” but if you’re looking for a humorous episode, then “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down,” fits the bill. Both are from the first season.

    Of course, I also love the new Doctor Who, which is a totally different creature than Battlestar Galactica. My favorite episode is “Father’s Day.” Damn thing actually made me cry. But I’m really looking forward to the new season, as the new Doctor, David Tennant, may be the best Doctor since Tom Baker.

  34. Franklin – I completely agree on “33” being the best episode of BSG. I’ve liked almost every episode, but that one(1st after the initial mini-series) is still the best done one, imo.

  35. Franklin’s Top 10 SF shows of all time (each taken as a whole; some series have fabulous seasons/episodes that are undercut by crappy seasons/episodes):

    10. Doctor Who (original)
    9. The Twilight Zone (original)
    8. The Outer Limits (original)
    7. Star Trek (original)
    6. Firefly
    5. The X-Files
    4. Cowboy Bebop
    3. Doctor Who (new)
    2. The Prisoner
    1. Battlestar Galactica (new)

    I have spoken.

  36. Jesse,

    BSG has Philip K. Dick conundrums and Blade Runner visuals (and a BR actor), realistic dialogue, politics, and religion, and a central storyline that is continuously unfolding (the opposite of stand-alone episodes typical of Star-trek). It is really good sci-fi, and without any lame lumpy-headed aliens.

    You’re missing out. You should watch the miniseries from 2 years ago that got it rolling.

  37. I’ve seen all except the last two BSGs, and have had that coasting sensation a couple of times this season, but the Caprica episode a few weeks back convinced me it’s still a great show. I just hope to hell Moore has real resolutions in mind for all the plot threads he keeps stringing around, because if ideas like the Baltar/Six – Six/Baltar dualism end up being handwaved away like the last two minutes of a ST:TNG episode I may put my foot through the set.

    They’ve even made Richard Hatch’s character interesting. Surely that alone is one of the greater achievements of television history?

  38. Franklin,

    Off the top of my head your list is missing

    MST3K
    Red Dwarf
    Space 1999

  39. Warren, I don’t really count MST3K as SF, otherwise it would be near the top. I love “Space: 1999,” but Top 10? And I’m probably the only person who never really warmed up to “Red Dwarf.”

  40. On-topic but tangential: Have scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory ever studied the phenomenon of how a particular instantiation, which is neither the first nor the last, becomes the definitive version of an entertainment with many successive casts and crews?

    Examples: Tom Baker seems to be permanently ensconced as the ultimate Dr. Who, even though there were several Drs. Who before him and several more after. When people think of the Harlem Globetrotters they’re always thinking of the Curly Neal/Meadowlark Lemon version of the team, which had been around forever and is (I think) still around today. Mad magazine is generally considered to have been at its best (and certainly sold the most issues) in the 1970s-two decades into its existence.

    If you really want to get technical, even the Three Stooges fit this pattern. The team started out as Larry, Moe, and Shemp, with the Irishman Ted Healy as the straight man. But obviously they hit it big as Larry, Moe, and Curly; when Curly was later incapacitated and Shemp rejoined the team, that’s generally viewed as a jump-the-shark moment, with Shemp as some kind of intruder. (I make no excuses for Curly Joe DeRita, who I suspect is somehow responsible for DoD flack Larry DiRita.)

    I’m sure there are more prominent examples, but I’ve just begun my study of this mystery. Are there general laws of behavior or reproducible results we can glean from mid-cast dominance? Might these rules be applicable to the U.S. presidency, the papacy, Menudo? I believe we are just at the beginning of a revolutionary new understanding of our universe.

  41. Oh, you mean like how most people agree that Hit and Run was at its best back in the Matt Welch days. 🙂

  42. C’mon, Tim. Everyone knows Mad was at its best when Harvey Kurtzman edited it in the ’50s.

  43. OK,
    I watched the new Dr. Who last night.

    Ugh. What utter crap.

  44. After the dinner party, I saw one of the new Dr. Who episodes; I was not impressed. It wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t special. Too bad. I was hoping for more.

    When I first saw the new BSG miniseries, I was definitely impressed. The BSG theme music is better than anything in the new Dr. Who (as far as I can tell).

    Tim Cavanaugh at March 18, 2006 12:54 AM was a great post. Was it fueled by St. Patty’s Day alcohol consumption?

  45. Tim,
    How about Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) as John Steed’s affable colleague in The Avengers.

  46. I make no excuses for Curly Joe DeRita…

    You have to admit though: Curly Joe DiRita, pathetic as he was, was still an improvement over Joe Besser…

  47. OMFG I just figured out why he has the Six personality!

    Oh, good, would you please let Ron Moore know? If there’s one thing BSG could learn from DW, it’s how to plan a story arc.

  48. I’m with Jesse. The first two hours of the new Who looked really promising. It’s too bad they didn’t sign Eccleston to a two- or three-year contract; and the girl’s squarely in the cute-but-not-too-cute tradition of Who sidekicks. But why, oh why did they not use the Timelords’ “Doctorin’ the Tardis” as the theme? Are they afraid Gary Glitter might use the half-royalty to bribe his way out of whatever southeast Asian prison he’s in?

  49. Well, no one mentions Stargate SG-1.

    I love that show.

  50. The first two hours of the new Who looked really promising.

    In what universe?

  51. Oh, good, would you please let Ron Moore know? If there’s one thing BSG could learn from DW, it’s how to plan a story arc.

    I really really like BSG but i have to admit you have a point. I havent watched DrW but the multi-episode story arcs of BSG tend to suck, end ebruptly and illogically and the characters really ae not effected by any aftermath. The shows strengths tends to be in single episode intense character portraits and unresolved conflicts that build…saddly everytime one is resolved it is abrupt and pointless…

    No one has said anything about the last episode of the season being a “jump the shark” moment.

    Adama has a mustasch for god sakes!

  52. Don’t forget Farscape. That show rocked.

    I’m optimistic about season 2 of the new Dr Who. Season 2 of BSG had just enough redeeming qualities that I will tune in for season 3, but it had better improve fast. Season 2 was a real disappointment after the excellent season 1.

  53. In what universe?

    All I can say is, tune in when they get around to showing “The Empty Child.” It’s the best the program has ever been.

    (Better yet: Don’t tune in, tape it. That way you can skip the Sci Fi Channel’s ridiculously high volume of commercials.)

  54. My favorite episode is “Father’s Day.” Damn thing actually made me cry.

    Me too. I think the new DW is fantastic. It’s FUN, and it’s a good substitute for the Tom Baker days which have mostly faded from my memory.

    I try to get into BSG, but I don’t know what the hell is going on.

  55. New Who blew, but not because of the characters or stories.

    They’ve got a serious problem. The old Who was in serials, so, I think, more goofy action and suspense per story. The new one, while still goofy and with a little suspense, just seemed like one of the serial episodes, stretched out.

    The sidekick wasn’t bad, though. Up to the Sarah Jane Smith standard, I thought.

  56. The new one, while still goofy and with a little suspense, just seemed like one of the serial episodes, stretched out.

    Well, there are a lot of 2-parters later in the season.

  57. I really enjoy Battlestar Galactica, but it seems like all of the plot twists (some just for the sake of saying, “Didn’t expect that, did you?”) are starting to catch up with them. I’m reminded a bit of The X-Files, where all of the subplots started to get so convoluted that I craved shows without any mention of them. Anyway, I hope the latest radical change works. I still like my thought that it (much later) turns out that we’re artificial constructs, too, that turned on the creators on Kobol long ago. Though “we” might be the wrong word if it turns out humans on Earth are descended from the real variety. That sort of plot line would be very Dickian, that’s for sure.

    Firefly was/is better than BSG, though I think there’s room in the world for both 🙂

  58. Well, there are a lot of 2-parters later in the season.

    …and in a sense, the season itself is one long serial. This becomes more clear later on; the later episodes are more plot-heavy than the first two eps, which felt a bit like they had storylines grafted onto them at the last minute. (Hence the anticlimaxes.)

  59. New Doctor Who: Very good.
    Old Doctor Who: ranged from very bad to very good, but you needed to have a quirky sense of the world to appreciate it.

    –Mark
    Here in Iowa, we still have the original Doctor Who running on the local PBS stations and the PBS station raises money from it!
    http://www.iptv.org/festival/2006/dr_who.cfm

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