Thursday, March 19, 2009

All of this has happened before . . .

. . . . but after tomorrow night, it won't happen again.

That's a reoccurring theme in Ron Moore's reimagined series, Battlestar Galactica--a series quite unlike the `70s original (for which I have no childhood nostalgia). Both detail the near-annihilation of the human race by the "Cylons", a machine race, and the subsequent fleeing of the remaining survivors across the galaxy for safety. Working on a much wider narrative canvas than its predecessor, the remake has developed a deeper, more complicated story, and resonating themes about commitment, faith, loyalty, compassion, prejudices and self-preservation.

The saying is meant in part to explain the cycles of destruction and rebirth that the show has been working through and towards, and which will no doubt explain in large measure whatever happens tomorrow night. But it is also a nifty description for the show's dedication to serial storytelling, with multiple, overlapping storylines across several episodes and even seasons and weekly cliffhangers.

Its difficult to "explain" Battlestar Galactica's story to a newbie, or its appeal--not because its too smart or complicated per se, but because its narrative scope is so immense. Its something--a narrative affect, a deep sense more so than an idea--that has accumulated over the span of four seasons, which defines its appeal to me. If you haven't watched from the very beginning, it is absolutely impossible to appreciate the series finale tomorrow night.

That is what seriality is to me--an affect, that which is generated through the differences in repetition. We are invested in the stories and the characters, of course, but when we sit down to watch a new installment, or rewatch an old one, it is always as much about the ritual of viewing as it is about specific knowledge, and our commitment is provoked by a deep affective bond we've formed through that ritual with the sum total experience of the show.

Does it really matter how the show ends? I'm more inclined to suggest that what really matters tomorrow is that it is ending.

This is my last night of anticipation.

But of course I'm also curious about what will actually happen. (GEEK ALERT) I remain convinced that Gaius Baltar's journey is the core of the show, that he is the embodiment of humanity's strengths, weaknesses and contradictions on BSG, and so he will somehow play a very central, pivotal role in the very ending, despite his (typical) act of cowardice last week. I do not think Kara's mystery will be fully explained. I think the "opera house" dreams refer not to Kobol but to the "Colony," the ship where Hera is being held captive, the place built by the final five, and which they are coming to find her. I think the vision of Baltar and the 6 coming to take her away might be a reference to the Head Baltar and Head 6, not the actual characters. They are quite likely the faces of God. I think that BSG is describing our own pre-history. And I think it is quite likely that everyone will die. . . but not in an apocalyptic sort of way which marked the show's beginning. Everything is pointing towards a rebirth, led by Kara (end GEEK ALERT).

So, I care about the story itself. Its just that it, whatever it ends up being, tomorrow night won't change my commitment to the show. And I look forward to tomorrow night not to finally "know the truth," but because I will never be able to look forward to any new BSG episodes again, and so this is it.

It might be ironic to know that this time last year I had never seen a single episode of the show, even though I can remember as far back as the fall of 2003--living in Oklahoma--and seeing the mini-series hyped on TV. It was only around early April of 2008 that I finally decided to rent the mini-series from a local video store because I was burned out on old Star Trek episodes, and so many different people had been raving about this show for a long time (its hard to believe now, but I was once actually offended when a friend suggested to me that I might like the show. With the exception of Trek, I do not see myself as a "Sci-Fi" fan at all, and BSG looked to me like another Babylon 5 or Stargate Atlantis.

I was hooked by the end of those three hours. And thanks to my department's media library, I was able to check out the box sets and plow through the first three seasons of the show is a little over a month. Then with the help of new episodes of season four on "Sci-Fi Rewind," I was completely caught with the show before the first half of season 4 had even concluded . . . less than two months after watching my first episode.

There is something profound about how DVD and the internet is fundamentally changing not simply the transmission of television, but also its very aesthetic--a new age of seriality, and of narrative ambition. Freed from a sole dependence on the fragmentation of syndication, thereby necessitating that each episode be a self-contained whole, television series can now tell larger, more complicated stories, one hour at a time, because DVD and the internet make it so much easier to follow along, or to get caught up to speed. Or to experience the entire journey, for the first time, all at once.

Until a month ago, I had never watched a "live" episode of BSG, and yet I knew the whole story by heart.

That's something the cinema cannot provide. Secretly I have been far more enamored by television in the last five years than film. The experience of an epic television journey (on DVD), be it BSG, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Office, or what have you, has each been a more rewarding experience than any two hours I've spent in the multiplex during that time.


emarsh said...

I agree that the epic length of a TV series gives a longer time to develop characters and plot, and, when done well, is really satisfying. About seriality, soap operas predate all of our technologies of repetition (VCR, DVR, DVD, etc.) and have the most complex narratives imaginable. But you're right about the Sopranos and BSG and the like. In this case, there is something about it ending that is very important -- and unlike soap operas. I love BSG and I also don't really care what happens tomorrow. I have little expectation for the end, and I expect loose ends, but I don't think it will ultimately awe or disappoint me, which is probably a good thing and a credit to the writers of the show.

Jason Sperb said...

Hi Eric,
Yes, I was also thinking of soaps, but they were an exception that proved the rule . . . and they were unique in that they depend upon a fixed presumption of a certain kind of static viewer (the stay at home, daytime mom). Newer technologies have kind of broken down those kind of programming boundaries.

Too bad I'm not still in Royal Oak; we could watch it together!


Bob Rehak said...

"...but after tomorrow night, it won't happen again."

We disagree on this, I think; the very fact that a series can be reimagined, remade, rebooted, rerun, just generally "re-ed," suggests that, within serial chains, the final instance never arrives. And the fact that RDM and co. are now investing their resources in prequel series like Caprica (to the detriment, some would say, of this season's storytelling) hints that seriality itself, in the age of transmedia, demands rethinking as something more "networky" and rhizomatic; stories that ramify outward and inward at the same time, fractally encrusting themselves, like coral.

(All that said, I'll be watching too!)

Good post.

Jason Sperb said...

Of course, convergence offers endless possibilities for deferred anticipation for both producers and consumers (I was thinking in particular of the forthcoming prequel "The Plan" when I wrote that). But its silly to argue around the fact that tonight also presents a particular kind of finality--to be celebrated, not mourned.

Bob Rehak said...

Goodness, we wouldn't want to pollute the academic blogosphere with silly arguments, now would we? :)

You're right, of course, that endings are good things -- all too rare in the world of serial narrative, where moreness is always the imperative. Rather radical the decision to conclude BSG after four seasons! I'd just feel better if SciFi -- excuse me, "SyFy" -- weren't so eagerly pimping its prequels, dress auctions, and tie-in-toasters on the solemn occasion of Galactica's passing.

Jason Sperb said...

I had no problem with the comment at all, especially when directed towards my first publication, which I don't really like that much anymore. And I've had much worse said about me and my writing on the internet, so its all relative. Besides, hey, isn't the greatest compliment a writer can get is to provoke a response? Otherwise, what's the point?

To answer your question, I would rewrite the essay to focus more attention to affect theory, particularly the affective charge of the simulacrum (following Deleuze), which is after all what Enid's "anxiety" is--dealing with a depthless consumerist society, but also trying to negotiate the (temporal?) power of the atemporal simulacrum. It would be less about postmodernity per se, and in particular less about Jameson's preoccupation with historicity, or if so, it would be framed more around the question of the present's relationship with the past, and less about an authentic past to recover. Or so I think. I honestly don't remember everything I wrote, or how I wrote it.

And yes, with better terminological grounding (which I simply didn't have at the time), I would mainly pay closer attention to cleaning up those passages which you rightly note don't make much sense. Hey, what can I say? I think I'm a much better writer, and more careful thinker, than I was in 2002.

I appreciate feedback, and that's why I touched base with you. Peace.