Being one of those science fiction fans who has a discerning palate when it comes to entertainment, I find that when I hear of the Next Big Thing to come to sci-fi entertainment I'm almost always disappointed. Most movies and television made by the mega-corps are not very good and some are just plain awful.
If you've ever had to endure a long-winded, poorly written and directed episode of Star Trek: Voyager, the inimitably bad Star Wars: Episode I or the goofball adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen you deserve a medal for enduring the sheer mental pain such bad entertainment can inflict on the thinking, reasoning mind.
It's unfortunate that most TV and movie sci-fi is so bad, because good sci-fi can explore ideas and concepts that a story based in the world of today or the past can't. While some can't get past the inherent goofiness of robots, clones, big space ships, etc. and see a good story, most people can - but only if there's something there to see in the first place.
However, most writers these days seem to feel that the only way to make their work "meaningful" is to have longwinded soliloquies and lots of "grokking and talking" (think Star Trek here) to give their work some much needed gravitas.
Instead they succeed in putting the audience to sleep, and turn off thinking people from whatever it is they are trying to say, which usually is some ham-handed morality tale of good vs. evil, or spewing some tired old BS about how we can all "get along" if we'd just all get cyber-PC implants or something. Woo hoo.
Thus, when an attempt is made to resurrect or re-conceive some of the older stories into something new, the reaction by the public can be one of knee-jerk rejection. This is unfortunate since there have been some well-written, directed and acted dramas of late that can provide great entertainment and intelligent drama. Stargate SG-1 is just one example of a fun, intelligent, worthwhile piece of entertainment, now available on DVD.
I've noticed, though that when I talk about a particular new offering by the Sci-Fi channel, the moment I say the name of the program, the assorted groans tend to drown out anything else I say. What am I talking about?
Yes, I am serious. No I'm not inhaling glue or smoking crack here.
There is no denying the original 1978 TV series, replete with bad 70's hairdos, ham-handed Mormon morality tales, and some of the goofiest plots put on television was BAD only exceed by the even-worse . Galactica: 1980,which if you don't remember, consider yourself lucky and count the brain cells you saved by avoiding such dreck.
We really need someone to burn all evidence of this and every other bad TV program so that future generations won't think we were a society of cretins (but that's a whole column for another day!)
Unlike my geek bretheren who wax poetically about the nostalgia and greatness of the old series, I'm not afraid to call this one for what it was - crap TV. Sure I watched it when I was a kid, but as an adult, I can now see why my parents weren't too thrilled to have to watch this with me on Sunday nights. Thanks for your patience, parental units!
Thus, when the Sci-Fi channel announced it was commissioning a four-hour miniseries remake, I figured that a coup had been staged and the Geek Bretheren who worship at the altar of Galactica were going to make a dreadful remake of a bad show. A colleague of mine TiVO'd it and invited me to watch and I reluctantly let myself watch an hour, and figured it would be worth the laugh, and I'd go home.
Four hours later, I realized I was wrong. Here was a drama that had it all: a real script, obviously written and edited by people who figured out that good writing for television stands on it own, replacing lots of talk explaining what's happening with well-written action and dialogue that tells you what is going on without the BS.
It moved fast, always introducing something new, while building a bigger story out of its many pieces. The program featured a cast that could actually act, led by Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell who, with their fellow cast of young and talented actors, provided excellent performances al around. Best of all, it communicated a story, a simple one really about what it would be like to go through the end of the world (or in this case the end of 12 worlds).
If you missed this, catch it on DVD when it comes out later this year. I won't spoil too much of the plot, but will say that many people I know who don't even like sci-fi enjoyed this film. Essentially, humans living in a group of 12 planets created cybernetic "Cylons" to work for them, doing their toughest jobs.
The Cylons, unhappy perhaps with the lack of a health-care plan or whatever, rose up against their human masters and a 40 year war ensued. The plot picks up after the war has been over for some time and everyone's at peace - but no one has seen their enemy for ages. The enemy Cylons return, and their mission is simple - eliminate their former masters from existence. No negotiations or speeches - just a good old fashioned total nuclear decimation and the chaos that ensues.
Battlestar Galactica was not a safe, happy movie, with a panacea of "PC" plotlines and safe, happy-face endings. It was a film where the horrors of war and survival were shown for what they were - taking the world of these people settled in 12 planets far away in space as a "reality" for the moment, it told a story about how people - not 2D cutout charters - would react in a situation as horrific as a total destruction of civilization and the will to survive, and the hard choices such survival entails.
Commander Adama, played by Edward James Olmos, was one of the best characters in the series, portraying a career military man on his way towards retirement, with some regrets in life, who takes it upon himself to lead when all around him is going to hell. Confronted with the enemy in hand to hand combat, he does not do some wire-assisted kicks and leaps - he fights in a brutal, bloody, and truly nasty fight that ends with the enemy Cylon a bloody, torn up mess.
This is not "Ben Cartwright in Space" - this is a realistic portrayal of what a career military officer, thrust into such situations, would actually do. And when faced with the reality he has to be more than a military leader, but a true leader of his people, he rises to the challenge, not with the ease of a Trekkie, but with all the trepidations a real person would have.
Mary McDonnell, as the politician 43rd in line of succession to what's left of the civilian government, did an excellent job as someone who never thought they'd have to lead anything - and end up having to lead their people at the worst possible time (i.e. a total annihilation) and surprises everyone with her ability to find within herself the ability to keep it together and lead when people need it most.
I won't go into too many more details (as I hate it when previews and reviewers spoil things for the viewing public), except to say that pilot "Starbuck", this time played by a woman, was an interesting update of the old show - and it was nice to see they cast an actress who looked like an in-shape soldier who could throw a mean punch if she needed to (and does, decking a corrupt officer at a card game) and not some Typical Hollywood Waif. (can we really imagine a Lara Flynn Boyle type kicking the crap out of aliens?)
The cinema-verite style filming also gave the program a "you are there" feel - as if you're with the embedded journalists covering the war, not spectators at a Lucas/Spielberg "epic" and the absence of a loud, John Williams-like soundtrack made the scenes that much more intense.
So it's worth a look. Push aside your pre-conceived notions of how bad most of this stuff is, and give it an hour. You may find yourself surprised when four hours pass and you've not moved from your seat.
Besides, after listening to the day's news, it's nice to sit back and watch something that has nothing to do with Iraq, President Bush, the latest attack on Howard Dean, the bogus-ness of John Kerry's loans, or the inherent screwed up nature of corporate rule. Life's too short to waste it watching CNN and FOX News all day.
And, they can say "frak" all they want and the censors can't do diddly about it.
PS: At this point, I am beginning to wonder if the only guy that at the very least can keep 2004 from becoming a Stalinist landslide for Bush is Gen. Wes Clark who has some credibility on matters that career politicians do not. Besides, he's the only one who comes close to being our nation's version of Commander Adama.