Thursday, June 9, 2011


I somehow missed Adam Serwer's post on Battlestar Gallactica earlier this week, but I caught up with it today...I'll be very interested to see how Serwer's reading of the series changes, or doesn't, as he continues on with it. At any rate, Serwer linked to an amazingly misguided old column by Jonah Goldberg about how Ron Moore supposedly ruined the show by, in Serwer's words, "going all LIBRUL" in season three.

Goldberg, as far as I can tell, entirely misread the series. There's no big shift where he sees one. Yes, I'm sure Ron Moore was conscious of what was going on in the real world while he put together his series (and I've only occasionally read interviews with him, so I don't know what he thinks he was doing), but as far as I can see it's just perverse to assume that the human insurgency against the Cylons he was so upset about was supposed to represent the Iraqi insurgency against the US, with Americans cast as the evil Cylons.

As it happens, I'm just a few episodes away from finishing rewatching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which was also (at least to a large extent) a Ron Moore series. As I've said before, the two shows have a lot in common; BSG is basically, in its themes, a DS9 with much, much, better acting and without the constraints of the Star Trek universe (here's my post about the two; I also wrote a related post about Caprica). And you know what? In that series, made well before the Iraq disaster, insurgency/occupation is a major recurring theme. Indeed, the specific things that Goldberg thinks are transparently about Iraq (insurgents as good guys, imperial overlords who can't quite believe that the natives can't appreciate them) are very much present in the earlier, pre-Iraq show. One of the central characters in DS9, real white hat, is a former terrorist -- indeed, that's the word that's used to describe her.

I could say more, but apparently there's quite a history of both pro- and anti-Iraq War attempts to shoehorn BSG into supporting their views...I was late to the BSG party, and was avoiding reading much about it for a long time while I caught up, which didn't really happen until the last season, so I guess I missed the whole thing. Without delving into it, I can only say that watching DS9 along with BSG makes it highly improbably that Moore was interested in anything remotely literal about Iraq. Perhaps the fact of that war gave him an excuse to revisit old themes; more likely, in my view, it was just a case of people seeing what they wanted to see, while Moore did exactly what he wanted to and would have done regardless of outside events.


  1. One problem with Goldberg's argument is that he complains about Moore's (liberal) agenda in later seasons as if having an agenda at all is a bad thing, just after he's given us a fairly coherent discussion of the agenda of the early seasons, which Goldberg liked. He thinks the show went off course when he perceived an agenda different from the one he approved of.

    But BSG was never easy to like if you insisted on a particular philosophical or political framework. Goldberg picks just the right quote from RDM: he was interested in asking questions, not giving answers. He wanted viewers to question their own assumptions. Goldberg apparently thinks the series went off course at precisely the moment when his own assumptions might have been questioned.

    Yes, there were always parallels between the BSG universe and our own. But they were complex parallels. And as you note, there was no big shift. Sometimes the ragtag band of humans represented modern-day Americans; other times, we were more like Cylons. Good people did bad things, bad people did good things, and the only certainty was that no one was ever 100% right.

    Goldberg is correct that some of the narrative's evolution was flaky ... the whole idea of a "plan" is a great example. But that's not due to a liberal agenda, it's because the show was so ambitious, it was always in danger of over-reaching, and when that happened, even the most hardcore fan couldn't help but notice.

    But what do I know ... I liked the ending.

  2. It's good to know I'm not the only one to recently start watching DS9 from start to finish (mid-season 5 atm). The same reasons I wouldn't give it a chance as a teenager are exactly the reasons I'm enjoying it in my 20s: the politics/religion mix and long, multi-episode story arcs.

    The sad thing is that Paramount were apparently really keen to avoid any episodes dealing with the politics/religion issues and leaned on the writers to steer clear after a few seasons. I guess as a cable show BSG had more latitude to explore without being told "now do a big space battle" every few episodes.

  3. My major problem with this post is that it implicitly suggests that BSG is better than DS9, which is just not true.

    I approve of the Jonah Goldberg demolishing though.

  4. Glad to see some DS9 love... and I've got to agree with Ryan, DS9 is the better show. And although Jonathan, in his previous post, mentioned a few of the excellent DS9 actors, he failed to mention Avery Brooks' incredible performance of Captain Sisko, one of the most fully-realized African-American characters I have ever seen in film or television. The episode of Sisko envisioning himself as a science fiction writer in Harlem in the 1950s is perhaps my favorite episode of sci-fi TV (and TV generally) of all time - especially as it so clearly shows the visceral impact of racial progress by juxtaposing the talented, 24th century Starfleet commander at the top of his profession and the oppressed black writer whose dreams are denied in the moral wasteland of 20th century America.

    Also, BSG is an absolutely humorless show, which is an unforgivable sin IMO. Whereas the warmth and comedy of DS9 is one of its most memorable qualities. The latter almost always makes for more 3-dimensional characters in episodic television, and the deeply "human" population of DS9 as compared with the flat, dull, automatons of BSG is no exception.

    OK... nerd rant over... I will give BSG some credit as being a memorable document of the feelings of darkness and dread that pervaded the US during the worst of the Iraq War and the Bush years. Those feelings have largely faded (or at least have been replaced by primarily economic anxieties), and it's already hard to remember what it really felt like. What I've seen of BSG still hits those notes pretty well.

  5. Adam,

    It's actually my 3rd full time through DS9: the original run, then I watched it again some time back, and now I'm watching it with the oldest kid.


    I mostly liked the ending with the possible exception of the last sixty seconds, or whatever that was. I'm pretty much OK with how the plot developed over time; to me, everything that really needed to be revealed or explained was in fact revealed or explained.

    Agree too on the quote from Moore. I wanted to keep the post focused on the DS9/BSG point, but yeah...Actually, Goldberg is correct that it reveals an ideology; it's just that it's a real world view, and not at all a "ideology" that boils down to adopting all the issue positions that the US Democratic or Republican Party happens to hold this week.

  6. Ryan and Lodus,

    I don't know...I'm actually about to start BSG for the second time, and I'll see how well it holds up. I like both shows; I think that DS9 has both the advantages and the limits of Star Trek, and so I'm not sure I'd recommend it to someone who doesn't like Star Trek, while I'd definitely recommend BSG to those who usually don't like science fiction. You're right about the humor, though. On the downside, there are quite a few dud episodes of DS9. BSG had some that didn't really work well, but nothing as bad as the total duds that DS9 gave us.

    And, yeah, I'll just have to disagree about Avery Brooks as Sisko. I like him, but I wouldn't call it terrific acting, at all.

    I do think that DS9's update (from the 1960s future of the original show) of the ethnic future was very nice, and nicely done.

  7. I feel it's a phenomenon that conservative pundits - maybe it's just bloggers - constantly try to read pro-ideological messaging in movies, music and TV shows they themselves like. I remember in 2007 there were several people (which I think included Goldberg) claiming that The Dark Knight was a parable of President Bush. Or the National Review's poll of Top 50 conservative rock songs?


    Please. No, the Sex Pistols and the Pretenders were not conservative. Quit seeing things that aren't there. You're ruining good music.

  8. "the flat, dull, automatons of BSG"

    As someone whose cats are named Starbuck, Boomer, and Six, I cried a few tears when I read the above. Although, now that I think of it, Boomer wasn't all that exciting, so I'll give you that. And it did largely lack humor (although I have a soft spot for the scene where Adama and Roslin share a doobie).

    But neither Katee Sackhoff nor Tricia Helfer were flat or dull, nor were their characters. Add Dean Stockwell, Dean Wormer's daughter, One-Eye Saul Tigh ... I get the lack of humor, but I don't see flat or dull.

  9. The Cylons on New Caprica were definitely meant to represent the United States in Iraq. Not only are the parallels blindingly obvious, but Ron Moore has commented on how that arc did contain allegory, with a role reversal from what the audience might have expected (with the US analogue representing the "bad guys").

    This isn't to say that Moore was arguing Iraqis -should- kill US troops in Iraq, or even that the occupation was evil (though he clearly wasn't a supporter) but he was certainly being deliberately provocative by asking the audience to consider how an occupied people might view being occupied by an outside power that says it's only there to help.

  10. Anon,

    I don't think so. There's a real rabbit hole of stuff from back then that I've been trying not to waste all my time looking at, but so far the quotes I've seen from Moore are about how he certainly had Iraq in mind, but only as the most recent example of occupation/resistance.

    I strongly disagree that "the parallels are blindingly obvious." Yes, it's an occupation/resistance situation. Beyond that?

  11. If we're drawing parallels I always assumed that the Bajoran/Cardassian post-occupation situation was supposed to echo the relationship between Russia and the former communist countries (Poland etc).


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