Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Re-casting versus Re-Imagination

Well, my brief comments regarding the new Battlestar Galactica apparently roiled some readers around the blogosphere yesterday, particularly over at Lee Goldberg's terrific blog and at the popular TV Squad, both of which picked up snippets of my post (which was meant to be congratulatory to the new series...).

I didn't mean to stir the pot, but I do believe that my primary point was overlooked in some places and in some reader comments. I wasn't advocating that Battlestar Galactica (or James Bond, for that matter) shouldn't be re-cast. Unfortunately, we're all mortal and no actor lives forever (Lorne Greene and John Colicos R.I.P.). Re-casting is a necessity if we want our pop-culture legends to survive. Frankly, I would rather see a re-cast Star Trek with a new Kirk and Spock than meet another 22nd or 24th century starship crew. But that's a debate for another day...

However, in terms of Battlestar Galactica, the changes are much more dramatic in the new series than simple re-casting. Characters, races and themes have been altered, and that's why I recommended Battlestar Galactica should have been named something different. (Maybe something like Space: Above and Beyond...)

Here are just a few of the changes:

On the original Battlestar Galactica, Starbuck was a happy-go-lucky womanizer and scoundrel, but one heck of a pilot. In the new show, the piloting skills have been retained, but Starbuck is now a female, and one with anger-management issues. Again, I'm not saying which character is "better," just that they are very different. Re-casting isn't the issue; the two characters really share only their job description and name. Oh, and they gamble.

On the original Battlestar Galactica, Apollo was the adopted father of Boxey and loyal son of Adama. These characteristics are important, because the original Battlestar Galactica was actually a series about how families cope and stick together in a time of crisis. Apollo's sister, Athena, also played an important role. Family was so important on the original series that many critics compared it to Greene's Bonanza. On the new series, Apollo is not a father himself; does not have a sister on the bridge; and is perennially at odds with his father, Adama. Once more: I'm not saying that one idea or concept is superior than the other, only that the character concept has changed dramatically.

Colonel Tigh on the original Battlestar Galactica was a highly-competent officer, a loyal friend of Adama, and a man suspicious of "politics" (in the person of the Quorum of The Twelve). He had an acerbic sense of humor and a bit of fatalism in his personality. On the new series, he is a bald white man and an alcoholic who has a personal grudge against Starbuck.

On and on it goes. Boomer is now an Asian woman instead of a Black man; Baltar is a sex-addict instead of a two-dimensional Judas. The Cylons are now humanoid "sleepers" for the most part (and ones with religion) rather than centurions built by a dead race. The point is that casting doesn't really matter a lick, but the core character concepts have changed so that the "people" of the Galactica are not recognizable in terms of the original series. Sure, I accept Roger Moore as James Bond, in part because there was an attempt at continuity (anyone remember him visiting his wife's grave at the beginning of For Your Eyes Only? Or clamming up over XXX's comment about his one-time marriage in The Spy Who Loved Me?) Also, his character remained pretty much the same in each film: 007 was a guy dedicated to saving the world, and who loved the ladies and a good bon mot. Imagine, instead, if the producers of the James Bond series had given the character a long-term wife and four kids at a home in the suburbs, made him American, and then also changed Bond into a hippie pacifist. See, that's the difference between re-casting and re-imagining...

Also, to state that the new Battlestar Galactica is better than the old one is just fine. That's a matter of opinion and critical judgment and many, many folks will agree with the assessment. However, to state that the new show is actually more popular than the original is not borne out by the numbers. When the original Battlestar Galactica premiered in 1978, it drew a whopping sixty-five million viewers. When the original series aired throughout the year and 1979, it remained in the top twenty-five slots of the Nielsen ratings. It was cancelled by ABC because it was expensive, not because of ratings. I hasten to add that the original Battlestar Galactica was so successful that a re-edited version of the three-hour opener was cut to two hours and released as a movie in territories such as Canada and Japan...places where it outgrossed such motion picture hits of the day as Grease (1978) and Jaws II (1978).

By contrast, the new Battlestar Galactica draws between two and three million viewers to the tube every week. Today, of course, viewership is fragmented in a way it wasn't in 1978, and the series is considered "a hit" on cable. Great for Galactica. Great for the Sci-Fi Channel. But it is clearly a niche hit. If it aired even on the WB, it would have been axed already.

Why would one "pine" for the old Battlestar Galactica? Well, why would one pine for the original Star Trek? The 1968 Planet of the Apes? The 1980 version of The Fog? The 1977 Hills Have Eyes? The 1933 King Kong? The Toho Godzilla? The Lugosi Dracula? Perhaps because each of those productions spoke to their original historical context and the cultural Zeitgeist in an interesting, unique manner and captured a generation of young admirers. I n its day (and I was nine when I first saw it...), the original Battlestar Galactica had the best special effects money could buy, a very likeable cast, a fascinating "Chariots of the Gods" sub-text and some wacky (but fun...) Biblical and Greek Mythology underpinnings. It also helped pass the time between Star Wars films. Sure it was goofy and imperfect, and now it's dated, but that doesn't mean it was or is worthless. Why else appropriate the franchise name in 2003?

And frankly, there's one way that the original Battlestar Galactica is genuinely superior to its usurper. The original show attempted through production design (like the Viper helmets and uniforms) and through language, particularly the Colonial Lexicon, to suggest that the people of the Colonies are brothers of Earth men...far out in the stars. These Colonials measured time differently ("microns," "centons" "yahrens") had different names for dogs (daggits), etc. On the new show, few such distinctions exist. The Galactica has phones with cords, people wear contemporary business suits, ties and eyeglasses, decorate their rooms with props from Pier 1 and refer to Earth movies like Top Gun ("I feel the need, the need for speed," Starbuck stated in one episode).

In other words, there is no attempt in the new series to suggest that these characters actually come from another time and place. They are simply and purely post-September 11th Americans in space. And - come on - aren't these guys supposed to be aliens? How do they know to quote Patton or Top Gun? Why do they refer to cigars as stogies? Why do they mention lemonade? Imagine if the aliens on Star Trek, the Vulcans for instance, began to quote Top Gun? Or said, out of the blue, that they like to drink "iced tea" (Vulcan is hot, after all...) What would the fans say about that? Or if the Jedi started quoting The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo or The Seven Samurai in Star Wars movies? My point is that the new Galactica lacks a critical verisimilitude in terms of production design and universe believability, but that its fans overlook that because they choose to. Just like fans of the old show choose to overlook its flaws: the western pastiches, the flaky science, etc. We're all the victims of our own biases, folks.

So while there is much to love in Battlestar Galactica the re-imagination and I encourage everybody to enjoy it, it's clear that there was a whole lot more changed in the franchise than simply "re-casting." The characters are totally different, though they bear the same names. The Cylons are different too (and I'm not saying they aren't better...), and the focus has shifted from the family unit to a blatantly reminiscent political context. Again -- good for the show for making a statement about the times we live in. But if you change the theme, the universe, the look and the characters of a production, why name it after that production? Isn't the comparison a hindrance? Thus my original thesis: this show shouldn't have been called Battlestar Galactica. The vehicle is the same, but the tires have been changed, the engine has been replaced, and the interior design is totally different.

I'm delighted that the new Battlestar Galactica is well-written, atmospheric and nail-biting week-in and week-out. I'm glad it's a good show. But I wonder - can those who love it so deeply today imagine how they will feel in 20 years when this incarnation of Battlestar Galactica is totally "re-imagined" and everything they like about it is altered? When the shoe's on the other foot. When critics of that future day say things like the new one is better in every way shape and form and more popular than the one that you grew up with? Watch out, cuz karma can be a bitch...

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm...dare I ask what you think about the upcoming spin off - Caprica?

    Seriously though, you have a fair opinion of the re-imagined series. If the original series had lasted longer, I would have been more opposed to the re-imagining. But it made more since to start fresh than deal with the Battlestar Galactica/Galactica 1980 history. I’m not sure all of the changes were for the best, but you can say the same thing about Ultimate Marvel Universe vs. Marvel Universe. Ultimate Marvel Universe being a re-imagining of the Marvel superheroes like Spider-Man, X-Men, Avengers (called Ultimates in this universe), and Fantastic Four. The Ultimate universe is also a darker version, especially Ultimates. Hmmm…why is everything new have to be darker?

    I strongly agree with you about the clothing and speech style of the crew being too much like ours. I'm wondering if Moore isn't setting up a twist, where they find out that Earth was their original home and this is just set in the far future (unlike Galactica 1980). Perhaps they will find an Earth that was long abandoned due to pollution, but has since recovered. Or…perhaps it will be controlled by insect aliens…or ZOMBIES…who knows.

    BUT, one explanation can be the old parallel evolution theory that the original Star Trek used. Remember the Gangster planet?