January 27, 2004
Living in Canada, I only recently got to see the four hour remake of
Battlestar Galactica when it premiered in this country. Now, I
never really liked the original series back in the early 1980s.
Still riding the Star Wars high, I was looking for special effects and,
while the John Dykstra effects in Battlestar Galactica were pretty
mindblowing, even a kid could see the same effects shots cropping up
again and again in the course of the series. There were only so
many times you could see that same damn Viper banking through that same
damn debris cloud from that same damn exploding Cylon ship before you
wanted to chuck your Buster Browns at the damn screen!
Then too, I was severely conflicted where the bad guy Cylons were
concerned. On the one hand, I thought the Cylons, with their
glowing eye slits, were honking cool; on the other hand, I began to get
tired of seeing the same villains week after week. I quit
watching about the time our heroes visited a wild west planet and the
desperado terrorizing the townsfolk turned out to be, you guessed it, a
malfunctioning Cylon! I guess I was kind of looking for Star Trek
stories but with Star Wars special effects. Yeah, I know -- take
But, with the passage of time, I've developed a nostalgic soft-spot
for that series. The effects may have been repetitive, but they
were still better than the modern computer generated cartoons we get
now. And the characters were
likeable. You wanted them to survive, which is more than I
can say for, oh, Wesley Crusher. I wouldn't call myself a fan
exactly...more like a fanlet.
So, you'll understand if I, like the legion of hard core Battlestar
Galactica fans, was a little offended by the recent
remake. Whereas the original series was intended to be a
fun-filled, sci-fi adventure, the modern remake, as scripted by Ronald
D. Moore, was meant to be, if you'll pardon my French, some serious
If you've seen the remake, you already know the filmmakers kept
most of the main character names -- Commander Adama, Apollo, Starbuck,
Boomer, etc. -- and stuck to the basic premise of the original
series. So, again, we witness a surprise attack by the evil
robotic Cylons on the twelve colonies of humans who exist somewhere out
among the stars in a galaxy far, far away. Again, the human
survivors band together to form a "rag-tag fugitive fleet", led by the
only surviving armed-to-the-teeth-and-loaded-for-bear warship,
Battlestar Galactica. Unable to defeat the Cylons, our heroes do
the only sensible thing and, to quote Buffy The Vampire Slayer, "run
like a girl". Next stop, Earth...(yeah, like we'd have 'em!).
But the filmmakers indicated in interviews that they felt the
amiable flavour of the original series was a product of its
time and they wanted to "update" the idea, making it a product for our
time. Specifically, for the "post 9/11 world". They fiddled
with the characters, giving them different (read, "darker")
personalities. And, more importantly, they changed the tone of
the story, the mood. Now, the emphasis was on the dark and gritty
REALITY of war. Tough decisions had to be made and our heroes had
to make them. Weak kneed Liberals need not apply.
Now, the reason I was offended was because I felt, if you're going
to cash in on a name like Battlestar Galactica, you have a certain
obligation to respect the fans and their feelings. There's
nothing wrong with doing a dark and gritty take on future warfare, but
then don't call it Battlestar Galactica. Call it something else,
like, oh, I don't know, Space: Above and Beyond?
Still, it's no big deal. Like I said, I was a little offended
and I mean that. Only a little.
It was something else that
really bothered me and that I want to talk about here. I want to
talk about the NATURE OF HEROES.
Here at the Mighty PDF, our bannerline reads: "Where the heroes
are!" That's because behind most good stories, especially Pulp
stories, there stands a hero. And the nature of heroism is kind
of important if you're going to tell stories about heroes. It's a
truism that villains get the better parts, but in the end, the
hero gets the applause. We identify with them. And, in some
special cases, we emulate them. In which case they are a special
breed of hero which we call "a role model".
We could probably come up with all sorts of definitions of
heroism. But intrinsic to heroism is the concept of
SACRIFICE. A hero is someone who makes a sacrifice for the good
I think we can all get behind that definition, right? But
here's a hum-dinger of a question. Which is more heroic: a hero
who sacrifices his own life; or a hero who sacrifices the life of
someone he cares about?
The reason I ask is because I have noticed that second breed of hero
-- the hero who sacrifices someone else -- cropping up an
awful lot. Stephen King has used the idea several times, notably
in The Stand. Terry Brooks, the author of the Shannara fantasy
series, has used it as well. I recall an episode of Star Trek:
The Next Generation where Deanna Troi ordered a crewman to his
death. And now, we have the remake of Battlestar Galactica.
In the remake, there are no less than three scenes which involve a
hero sacrificing someone else. First, a fire breaks out on board
the Galactica and, in order to save the ship, a character orders all
the crewmen trapped in the flaming sections to be flushed out into
space. Then, in another scene, the refugees' hide-out is
discovered by a Cylon scout and the human president (on the advice of
the heroic Apollo) makes the decision to abandon half the refugees
to certain death while the others (including Apollo and the human
president) make a run for it.
Thirdly, when a blood test suggests that a civilian may be a Cylon in
disguise, the civilian is marooned on a planet and left behind, even
though there is some doubt as to the accuracy of the blood test.
The civilian cries: "What sort of people are you?" To which one
of our heroes grimly replies, "We can't take the chance."
Now, make no mistake, I know precisely what the filmmakers would say to my criticism. They'd say, the people making those decisions aren't heroes, they're just human. In fact, at one point a character says precisely that. Having sacrificed half the refugees, the human president reveals that she is dying of cancer. With humanity on the brink of extinction, all she can think about is how scared she is of dying of cancer. How selfish is that? she asks, wracked with guilt. To which another character replies: "It's only human."
But that's just playing with words. When we say they are
human, we mean they aren't perfect; we don't mean they are outright wrong. They can't control
basic emotions like, for example, fear of cancer. But we
still assume that their actions are essentially as heroic as can be
expected, given that they are human. In a sense, these characters
serve to mark a level of behaviour to which we should all aspire --
even if we can't quite reach it.
So why is it that, watching the remake of Battlestar Galactica, I
kept wondering...What would Captain Kirk say about all this?
Now, I'm not one of those Star Trek fans with a T-shirt that says,
"Everything I know in life, I learned from Star Trek". But
Captain Kirk, after all, was designed
to be the ultimate "Hero", with a capital H. For him, there were
no greys in life where moral questions were concerned. There was
my way and there was the highway. And we all remember those
righteous speeches he loved to make, (usually broken up by carefully
spaced pauses, so that, years later, every two-bit impersonator could
do a fair imitation). And that's why it isn't hard to picture
Kirk's reaction to the remake of Battlestar Galactica.
Take the scene where our heroes decided to abandon half the refugees
to the Cylons so that the other half might escape. Certainly, the
filmmakers had set up a terrible dilemma. The Cylons had
discovered the refugees' hide-out. It was only a matter of time
until they attacked. If those who were able to escape waited for
the others, they would almost certainly all be killed and the human
race would perish. If, on the other hand, half the refugees
escaped now, abandoning the other half, the human race might
survive. All they had to do was agree to sacrifice thousands of
people. As the heroic Apollo summed things up: "I hate to play
the numbers game but..."
To all this, Captain Kirk would have come out swinging. He
would have made some impassioned speech about how we have to stand together because
that's what makes us human. If the only way we can survive is by
turning on each other, then what's the point in surviving? Sure
we could survive by
sacrificing thousands, but would we deserve
to? Is survival the ultimate imperative or are there other issues
at stake? Doesn't morality trump survival? That's
what he would say.
Of course, the filmmakers would no doubt argue that, sure Captain
Kirk would say all those
things, but that's because Captain Kirk lived
in TV Land, where all problems can be worked out in time for the final
credits, where we can afford to espouse impossibly lofty ideals, where
heroes are more than human. But the remake of Battlestar
Galactica (they would argue) was trying for something more
realistic. It was showing us the REAL WORLD -- specifically, the
post 9/11 world.
In the REAL WORLD there is no place for Captain Kirks.
Terrible decisions must be made. But that doesn't mean there are
no heroes. It just means there are different heroes. Because,
you see, Apollo and the human president both have to live with the
consequences of their actions for the rest of their lives. They
to live with the knowledge that they sacrificed all those lives.
And in that sense, they are perhaps more heroic than the hero who
sacrifices his own life (this is still the filmmakers talking,
remember), because if you sacrifice your own life, by definition you
won't be around to suffer the consequences. But if you sacrifice
someone else, you carry that burden the rest of your life.
Here's what I think of that.
In theory that makes sense. But in reality, the survival
instinct is so strong in the human beast
that, when the moment comes to make such a decision, it takes a lot
more guts to sacrifice your own life than it does to sacrifice the life
of someone else, even someone you care about. When you're
standing on the deck of the Titanic and that ice cold water is lapping
at your toes, it takes something pretty damn special under the hood to give up
your seat in the lifeboat to the lady with her child. Guilt or no
guilt, you want to live, dammit!
The fact is, I would have had less objection to that scene in
Battlestar Galactica if the filmmakers had at least put forward the
Captain Kirk viewpoint with some conviction. Instead, it was the
heroic Apollo who argued for abandoning the refugees while the
who took the contrary (Captain Kirk) position later turned out to
be...a Cylon in disguise! How fair is that?
Now, let me make one thing clear. I am not saying that I think
the filmmakers should have created idealized characters who espouse
values impossible in a post 9/11 world. I am saying that those
Captain Kirk values are not
impossible -- in fact, they are essential... especially in a post 9/11 world.
I can't tell you the number of times I have heard someone say, in
the two years since that horrible September 11th, that "we live in a
new world now". That "we have to be prepared to make
sacrifices". I notice that those sacrifices usually involve
giving up someone else's freedoms. Like the heroes in the
Battlestar Galactica remake, we shed crocodile tears and convince
ourselves that we are making tough but heroic decisions, even as it is
someone else who gets it in the neck. That isn't heroism.
That is just plain selling out.
My brother and co-editor gave me this take on heroes.
Fictional heroes serve to show us how we ought to behave. Of course we
often fall short, but by their actions, they tell us what we are aiming
for. If we lower our heroes, we lower our own expectations.
We no longer even try.
Apparently, the filmmakers who gave us the remake of Battlestar Galactica feel there is no room for Captain Kirk in the new post 9/11 world. It is a tougher, grittier world where we don't have the luxury of ideals. Now isn't the time for Captain Kirks.Well, don't you believe it. Now, more than ever, the world needs a Captain Kirk.
Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate
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