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Controlling the Discourse
...Battlestar Galactica and Canadian values in an American (pop cultural) world


A few weeks back I seem to recall reading how a Remembrance Day survey of Canadians found a significant percentage of respondents mistakenly identified a historical American general as Canadian. Of course, it's not surprising. So much of the pop culture Canadians imbibe is American in origins, it's easy for them to muddle the two countries. I remember as a kid trying to fathom the connection between the President and the Prime Minister. After all, I knew there was a prime minister, because I'd seen his picture in newspapers and magazines -- but I also knew there was a president, because he existed in all the movies and TV shows and comics I read. It wasn't until I was a little older that I understood there was no connection between them -- they were leaders of separate countries.

So does it matter whether Canadians get confused about historical generals? Well, maybe not. But there are lots of areas where it does matter.

An argument that comes up when discussing Canadian film and TV is that Canadians need to have their own movies and TV shows to reflect themselves and their values. But what are these values? Surely Canadians hold all sorts of different beliefs. The last thing a vital and creative entertainment industry needs is someone arbitrarily deciding what can and can't be made by measuring it against some subjective "values" stick. But beyond subjective "values" there lies something less disputable -- objective realities.

Which got me thinking.

Currently on TV there is a U.S. series that is a re-imagined version of the old science fiction series Battlestar Galactica. The new version has completely reinvented the wheel, and is being heralded by its fans, and many mainstream critics, as one of the best shows on TV -- a gritty, challenging, thinking man's series that reflects current issues through the prism of its make believe premise.

In a recent episode, a key character discovers his wife has betrayed their human resistance movement and must execute her himself -- in a scene meant to be touching and heartbreaking. In another episode, an officially sanctioned Star Chamber goes around flushing traitors out of airlocks. Over the course of the episode, one of these appointed judge-jury-executioners begins to have qualms about their mission, and the episode ends with the new president shutting down the Star Chamber.

Because the new Battlestar Galactica is supposedly a thought provoking, thinking man's series, message boards have debated who should and shouldn't have been flushed into space, and what factors mitigated the crimes, whether contrition negates atrocity. All well and valid discussions, to be sure. But what I never saw in any of these discussions that I read was any debate about the punishment itself. Who should or shouldn't be executed is debated...but not executions themselves. Indeed, many a message boards have summarily called for the execution of unpopular characters. And these debates seem to transpire between people, not just from the United States, but Canada, England and elsewhere.

So here's the thing: the United States executes people. Canada does not.

Neither does England, the European Union or, well, many countries -- even some states in the United States have abolished it. If you include, not only countries that have abolished the death penalty, but countries that, though it's still on the books, haven't actually used it in years, the majority of modern countries don't execute people, suggesting there's actually been a global movement over the last few decades to abolish capital punishment.

Extrapolated from the current earth model, it could be argued it would be unlikely to find a democratic, space faring civilization that still executed people. (Actually, it could be argued that if a civilization had been reduced to a few tens of thousands, as it has in BSG...would they really be whittling away at their own population base further by executing people? But that's a debate for another website).

Yet Battlestar Galactica presents a sophisticated, high-tech civilization...that executes people. And the BSG reality is supposed to echo modern civilization -- the themes and metaphors wouldn't resonate if the viewers weren't supposed to see themselves and their society reflected on the screen. After all, if the heroes started crucifying convicts, I think the fans would be shocked. If they started segregating the drinking fountains, the fans would be non-plussed. This despite the fact that both things are a part of human history. But BSG isn't supposed to reflect history, it's supposed to reflect the now...but it's a decidedly American now (characters wear western-style clothes and many have western-style names like William, Laura and Sharon). And in modern America, people get executed.

The death penalty makes for good plots -- after all, it's far more exciting to have a character faced with imminent death, than to face a few years in prison, with avenues of appeal, and time off for good behaviour. But BSG isn't supposed to be some Saturday matinee thrill fest where heroes escape Ming the Merciless' executioners. It's supposed to be a thinking man's drama.

And yet none of those thinking fans, or the supposedly "sophisticated" critics praising the show in newspaper columns, (to my knowledge) have questioned the existence of the death penalty. They ask "who?" should die, not "if".

Nor am I saying a series can't debate, or even endorse, capital punishment. But with BSG and its fans, there's no debate -- it's accepted as the norm, despite the fact that in many countries, it is now abnormal.

Though filmed in Canada with a predominantly Canadian cast, BSG is an American series, so of course it's perfectly reasonable for it to reflect American values and experiences. But where it becomes interesting is in the fact that the series is, of course, disseminated all over the world, and eagerly lapped up by fans in Canada, Europe, Australia -- fans whose social and political points of reference are probably largely defined by American pop culture.

One wonders if you asked many of those non-American fans whether their own country has the death penalty, how many would just assume that it does, because the American movies and TV shows they watch have the death penalty? And how many who knew their country didn't have it would still assume that their country is a weird, temporary aberration, and the normal practice of human justice is and always will be execution -- after all, if it's good enough for the heroes of Battlestar Galactica, then by the Gods of Kobol, it's good enough for us!

Interestingly, in the original 1970s Battlestar Galactica, apparently there was no death penalty in the series -- and that show is dismissed as cheesy and childish by fans of the modern show, who see the modern series as "realistic" and "grown up". So even as most western democracies have abolished the death penalty, fans of the modern BSG embrace the notion that in a "realistic" vision of civilization, the death penalty will be freely employed. Why? Because America defines their visions of reality and in their minds other countries, even their own, are but fleeting phantasms -- cultural experiments that have gone awry.

Would a Canadian BSG be any different? Well, probably not, largely because Canadian filmmakers are themselves so immersed in American images and values, they would feel uncomfortable presenting a vision of reality that wasn't American (see my earlier essay here). In fact there's even an embarrassing, self-justifying movement in the Canadian entertainment biz that maintains Canadians should devote themselves to making movies and TV shows about the U.S. -- that, having an "outsiders" or "observers" perspective means Canadians can provide more telling insights into American society than Americans can.

Which is kind of like telling a little girl that she shouldn't dream about growing up to be successful in life...she should only dream about marrying a successful man, that there's where her true calling lies.

But in an ideal world -- yes, a Canadian BSG might be quite different.

And maybe that's why there needs to be a Canadian film and TV industry, making mainstream, populist films and TV shows -- including science fiction -- but reflecting Canadian values and realities.

Not because traitors get flushed out the airlocks in the modern Battlestar Galactica -- but because no one even questions it.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

December 4, 2006

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