Monday, March 02, 2009

So Say We All....

The other day somebody suggested that the role of art during difficult times such as these is simply to be entertaining. During a recession, people don't want to consider weighty or grave matters, or to be confronted with intellectually or ethically challenging questions. They just want see a happy story with singing and dancing and forget about their troubles for a while. I understand where this line of thinking comes from.

But I don't see any reason why artistic work can't provide both entertaining escapism and still stimulate critical and analytical thought and energize deep human emotion. To prove this, I am going to give my best sales pitch for a TV show which I have, on occasion, found myself reluctant to talk about with my friends for fear of inviting their scorn.

Listen up, people. Battlestar Galactica might just be one of the best shows on TV right now. Yes, its on the Sci-Fi Channel. Yes, that means that is technically considered a science fiction program. And yes, I still stand by what I said. You don't have to be a sci-fi geek to like it, and if you hated Star Trek don't count this show out. It's wildly, completely unlike Star Trek in every way.

Of course, there are only three more episodes and then the show is over forever, so by this point if you want to watch it you'll have to catch it on DVD. However, it being so near the end of its lifespan, I feel I have to say a few words about the show.

The premise is something like this: way,way out in space there is a civilization of humans spread across twelve colonized planets. This civilization resembles ours almost exactly. The political structure of the Colonies is nearly exactly like that of the US, the clothing looks just like what we wear, and the military is run almost exactly like ours. The technology, while obviously more advanced in some ways, looks contemporary and believable. People don't tap little communicators on their chests to talk to one another, they pick up phones with cords. There are a few computer monitors, but mostly people are reading from actual paper. There's no "viewscreen" (a la Star Trek) but only a slightly more sophisticated version of radar.

Some years earlier, the humans created robotic servants that they called Cylons. These machines developed artificial intelligence and free will and rebelled against the humans (like the Matrix, but not quite). After a long and brutal war, the Cylons agreed to a truce and disappeared and the humans went back to living their busy lives. The show begins as Galactica, one of the oldest ships in the human fleet, a relic from the Cylon war, is about to be decommissioned to make way for newer, more technologically advanced ships. It's right at this moment that the Cylons, now with models that look just like humans, make their dramatic return, surprising the humans and destroying all twelve colonies in a brutal holocaust. Only the civilian ships who managed to get off the planets or who were already traveling escape, and of the human military only the Galactica survives. These few remnants of the human race cling together to try to avoid the Cylons looking for them and set out on a long journey to find the location of a legendary 13th colony, known only to them as "Earth."

Ok, so that sounds pretty nerdy, I'll admit. But over the course of four seasons, Battlestar Galactica has consistently put out extremely high quality work. The writing has generally been superb and I can't say enough good things about the acting. It boasts a large cast of extremely talented actors who each bring a unique and memorable character to the show. And while of course spaceships and robots play an important part in the context of the story, the tale of the straggling human survivors has from start to finish always been about realistic people dealing with unimaginable challenges, and the relationships they forge between each other. The show continually explores the complexity of ethics and morality in extreme, life-or-death situations. And it has spent a great amount of time examining and deconstructing the psychology of tribalism, the "us or them" philosophy that keeps the opposing factions, human and Cylon, locked in conflict.

Every time the show has begun to seem repetitive or predictable, it has completely re-invented itself. The show's producers have chosen to voluntarily end it after the fourth season, a move that suggests a desire to tell a complete story rather than draw out a successful show for several extra seasons. Looking back, it's amazing to see each character's arc and journey through the four years. Much has changed, but at heart these are still the characters we have loved since the beginning.

As this fantastic tale draws to a close, I can only give this as my best compliment: though eager to at last see the long journey of the Galactica crew and the human refugees in their fleet come to an end, the thought that soon the show will be over and that these people will no longer be part of my life makes me very sad.

Battlestar Galactica is a fine example for what I think is possible in modern theater. (Stay with me, I'm not crazy). The context of the story is fantastic, allowing for some degree of escapism, and yet the focus of the show is very much on our society, on us as individuals. The show has proved addicting to me precisely because it is simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking. Isn't it possible to produce work in the theater that walks the same fine line? I know that it is - the best new plays do exactly that. And so the entertaining/intellectual dichotomy is a complete fiction. But you knew that. Right?