Monday, September 7, 2009

Monday Movies Post

TV this week, instead of movies. The topic? Ron Moore, and religion and politics.

I assume you all know Moore's recent series, Battlestar Gallactica (the recent remake, not the original; if you don't know it, you really should give it a try). Moore was also a leading voice in the Star Trek spin-off Deep Space Nine. I'm not enough of a nerd to know exactly which things Moore was responsible for on DS9, but the focus on politics and the ideas about politics were fairly consistent between the two shows, so that's good enough for me to give him credit for what I liked about Star Trek.

First, a bit about the two shows...Gallactica was an excellent show with a lot going for it, but what really set it apart was the outstanding cast. Where to start...Mary McDonnell (Laura Roslin), Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck), and Michael Hogan (Tigh) were all astonishingly good, as good as any performances in any TV drama I've ever watched. They have great characters to work with, but the actors turn great characters into whatever category is beyond great. And that's just the top of the top: it's also the case that this is a deep cast, with Edward James Olmos, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Aaron Douglas...it's not worth listing them all. I'll go the other way; I didn't think that Jamie Bamber as Apollo was outstanding. There's another dozen terrific performers, easily, above the ones I named.

Deep Space Nine...not so much. I'll approach it the other way: Colm Meany, Rene Auberjonois, and Armin Shimerman are all very good, and quite a few of the bit players are excellent (Louise Fletcher as Kai Winn, and also Mark Alaimo as Dukat and Andrew Robinson as Garak). And then...well, not everyone was as bad as the kid playing Jake Sisko. It's a fine show (if you gave up on it during the first season, it takes about two, two and a half seasons to really hit it's stride, and there are a few clunkers throughout, but it's fine once it gets going). I like a lot of the characters. The acting, though? Really, no.

(For those who have watched both shows: how about Winn as a proto-Gaius Balter? They aren't identical, but once you get past the mannerisms I think they have more than a little bit in common, although I guess their paths are different).

OK, I'm supposed to talk about the politics of the shows. There's a lot there, of course; both are Big Space War shows, and so you have war as politics. Both are interested in the terrorist/insurgent question. Both are interested in torture. At their best -- BSG almost always, DS9 sometimes -- they show us a world in which people really differ about things. Politics isn't good guys vs. bad guys; it's about real conflict between people who really oppose each other. (In both shows, that's especially true about the "good guys" camp, in which the good guys disagree among themselves, but it's even true to some extent about the war(s) in general).

What I really like, and really find interesting, is the portrayal of religion and politics in these shows. Both shows give us characters who are believers. That's pretty rare in TV (and motion picture) drama, I think, outside of cheap stereotypes. In both DS9 and BSG, there's a complication in that the divine is literally real, although in both shows the divine is at least mostly inscrutable (that's especially true in BSG, which of course is the better of the two shows). Both shows also show belief as a range, not as a on/off quality -- all the Bajorans are believers in some way, but they aren't all believers in the same way. Clergy can be cynical or worse, but they can also be not cynical -- and whether they're a force for good or not is only somewhat and sometimes related to how cynical (or ambitious, or honest) they are.

I'm supposed to be writing about religion and politics...the problem of religion and politics is that religion tends to introduce absolutes, and politics doesn't handle absolutes very well. We see that in American politics all the time, when the answer to requests to keep religion out of politics is that if your identity is fully tied up in your belief, then it's impossible to be involved in politics without bringing your belief with you. But yet it's still true that politics and absolutes don't mix, so if people enter political action as religious identifiers, it is hard for truly political action to take place.

DS9 handles these questions well; BSG handles them extremely well. I'm not going to get into details, because I hate spoilers myself, and because neither show exactly gives answers. What they do is what good fiction does, which is to help us to think about things for ourselves.

High recommend for Battlestar Gallactica; high but qualified recommend for Deep Space 9 (basically, try BSG even if you normally shy away from science fiction, but I don't know that I'd say it's worth investing in seven seasons of DS9 unless you're at least somewhat open to that sort of thing).

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