Friday, April 23, 2010

By Syfy's Command

Battlestar Galactica was never a deliverer for the Syfy Channel in the ratings department – some seasons it was the channel’s highest-rated series; other seasons, it was among the worst – but it did perform in other, less-tangible-but-equally-valid ways: it had considerable cache among critics, earning consistent and varied accolades, raising Syfy’s profile and chic among the television intelligentsia. (Galactica also managed to move a considerable number of DVDs throughout its six-year tenure, making Universal Home Video a bunch of very happy campers.) Caprica, thus far, has continued the trend, becoming a critical darling despite lower-than-desired ratings, putting the show on track for a second season renewal and providing a literal manifestation of the franchise’s “all of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again” mantra.

But it just may end up being a short-lived never-ending cycle. Syfy has some ideas in its collective head about why the prequel is underperforming, and they seem to all revolve around the same idea. Caprica’s entire identity is predicated upon being the anti-Battlestar Galactica: a terrestrial, (largely) action-less series that plays up soap character drama and downplays tension-fueled pacing. This is precisely not the series that most BSG viewers would want to watch, and, instead of applying pressure upon David Eick and the rest of his writing-producing staff to change up the formula (as nearly every other studio or network would be keen on doing), the channel is instead considering a different option: a third production.

“Production” is an apropos term as we have absolutely no idea just what form this new venture in the Galactica universe may take; when Mark Stern, Syfy’s vice-president of development, announced that he was talking to BSG mastermind Ronald D. Moore about a second spin-off, he proffered two concretes: while it will end up being more space-based than Caprica, “it would not necessarily be a traditional series.”

And this is where excitement – thoroughly intermixed with dread, as studios’ concerted efforts at branching out franchises dredges up memories of Babylon 5’s several progenies, half of which never got realized and only one of which was as good (or better) than its antecedent – comes in. Just what does Moore, suddenly out of work thanks to his pilot never being picked up and his feature script being rewritten by another scribe, have up his sleeve? While a theatrical film is out of the question, thanks to original series creator Glen Larson’s contractual control over movie rights, there are so many possibilities left over: a series of DTV telefilms (such as Razor [2007] and The Plan [2009]), a series of webisodes (like The Resistance [2006], Razor: Flashbacks [2007], and The Face of the Enemy [2008-09]), a miniseries, or a television show proper.

Even more intriguing is the production’s story. Since Moore has said time and again that he will never set any Galactica tale after the events of ”Daylight,” the series finale, and given that the events of the First Cylon War – from the war’s outbreak to the arrival of the Final Five – would more than likely make perfect material for Caprica (should the series be allowed to run its course), there aren’t that many space-based scenarios left in the BSG mythos. But what does remain is suitably, perhaps even superbly, exciting.

In the three-thousand-year sweep of Battlestar history, from the exodus of Kobol to the arrival on (new) Earth, the time period that holds the most potentiality is the original war against the original Cylons, waged on the homeworld of all civilized life, Kobol. Not only is it the primordial conflict that spawns all the others, from the nuclear devastation of Earth to Caprica’s Cylon War on the Colonies to the imminent present-day arrival of the fifth generation of artificial life, it has also yet to be documented; while we know bits and pieces of ancient Colonial life, from archaeological ruins to the remnants of human sacrifices (the image of men in business suits slaughtering an innocent on the altar of the gods would prove to be one of Battlestar Galactica’s most enduring visuals, particularly if committed in the name of continued success in the war against the machines), we have no idea how these components fit together to form all subsequent existential patterns and ontological motifs. In G
alactica’s era, it is understood that man was forced to depart Kobol, the dwelling place of the gods, due to his transgressions against his creators – is this how the twelve tribes viewed their emigration at the time (if, indeed, they even held that Zeus and his divine pantheon inhabited the planet)? We as audience members don’t even know what the very first Cylons looked like – are they as similar to Graystone’s Colonial Centurions as are the Earth variation?

Whether a mini- or a full-fledged series, the first installment could show the end of this inaugural war and the decision by both sides to leave the battlefield behind. The next could show both man and machine on their meandering journeys across the stars, ultimately landing on the Twelve Colonies and Earth, respectively – an especially compelling prospect, given the opportunity to see President Roslin’s predecessor at work keeping all twelve tribes cooperating instead of fraying and succumbing to an illness (cancer?) before arriving at the Promised Land for his (her?) troubles. The final chapter could contain, as an epilogue, a flash-forward to the Cylons, now fully biological entities, being wiped out on Earth at the hands of their Centurion creations, just as “Daybreak” ended with a tag set 150,000 years later, foreshadowing the next iteration of the ongoing struggle between organic and artificial life.

It is just an idea, briefly jotted down and even more quickly parsed out, but it shows the vibrancy and surprising depth of Moore and Eick’s reimagined sandbox.

Let’s just hope they don’t invite Jane Espenson to tag along.

Tiny Japanese Girl

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

On "Foodie" Obnoxiousness

(Forgive, if you can, occasional pronoun and article omissions.)

Hello, Poplitiko. Today, I'm sharing with you my response to what struck me as epicurean posturing on another website.

I was curious what peanut butter people on the Internet considered to be the best peanut butter, so I did a Google search for "best peanut butter." I found the following post on
"I love peanut butter. The best I have found is the Safeway Organics Old Fashioned Crunchy. Just peanuts and the right amount of sea salt. I am not a fan of sweet peanut butter, so I really don't like most of the major brands that put sugar in their peanut butter. One of my least favorites is the Trader Joe's brand. Their crunchy peanut butter always taste burnt." -- Craig
Every sentence after the first one (I don't really have a problem with "I love peanut butter") makes me like the person less--despite my never having met the person. In fact, here's some commentary on each line:

The best I have found is the Safeway Organics Old Fashioned Crunchy.
This person eats organic peanut butter. Could be for health reasons. Could be this person was introduced to this peanut butter and liked it. Bought at Safeway, which is a fairly big chain. Price: cheap ($2.99). Not necessarily a douche, but likely one.

Just peanuts and the right amount of sea salt.
Sea salt and proud of it? (And not just sea salt, but "the right amount" of it.) Likely a current or former grad student and/or upper middle class. Unless this person is genuinely worried about iodine overdose (unlikely), then this person may actually be one of those people who believe they can taste the difference between iodized salt and sea salt when both are mixed in with things. Probably believes self to have "refined palate."

There are salts more pretentious than sea salts, I guess. A few weeks back, my roommate brought home some Trader Joe's Brand Himalayan Pink Salt Crystals (pictured above). Thank you, Trader Joe's, for facilitating further oneupmanship among the superior salt crowd. I bet all those folks who bought lifetime supplies of sea salt to show off to their wine and cheese party guests will quake with shame when they realize there's something more show-off-able than Plain Jane sea salt.

I'm glad Trader Joe's is kind enough to let me know its Himalayan Pink is a product of Pakistan. I'm gladder still to know it was packed in South Africa. I'd fuck a raging rhino dead before I'd buy Burmese-packed Himalayan Pink.

I tried it. Tasted like salt.

It was better than that iodized crap Morton sells, though, wasn't it? That stuff tastes like salty blood! This stuff just tastes like salt--but with a pinch of pink and a hint of the Himalayas!

I am not a fan of sweet peanut butter, so I really don't like most of the major brands that put sugar in their peanut butter.
Showy dismissal of major brands, plus showy expression of preference for unsweetened peanut butter. Approaching ever nearer state of indefensible douchiness. Am increasingly tempted to tell this person that what this person wants isn't peanut butter, but (sea) salted peanuts, lightly crushed.

One of my least favorites is the Trader Joe's brand.
Do some shopping at Trader Joe's, do ya? Unsurprising. (There's nothing really wrong with this, even though I have noticed that those who consider themselves to have gourmand-ish tendencies are more likely to shop at places like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods than they are other places. There are also people wholly unlike this who shop at both places.)

Their crunchy peanut butter always taste burnt.
Follows telling us of Trader Joe's patronage with weak criticism of Trader Joe's house brand. Am tempted to believe this person invented criticism just to be able to bring up shopping at Trader Joe's, and to lend snob credibility to original statement of preference. (
I even tried the Trader Joe's brand, and found *it* to be lacking! And I usually *like* the Trader Joe's brand of *everything*! But theirs turned out to be one of my *least* favorites of all the many peanut butters I've tried in all my years!) The other option--that this person actually believes claim about Trader Joe's "burnt" flavor--is too frustrating an option to consider seriously. Am left with impression of person moping through first thirty years of life, distraught because no peanut butter has ever truly been able to satisfy. Then, when no hope remains, person decides to buck trend and go to Safeway (instead of Trader Joe's) to find the ingredients for one last meal before ending it all (after which point the person imagines breaking all bodily constraints and floating up to that great peanut butter manufacturer in the sky). Then, as if guided by some celestial hand, the person spies a jar of Safeway Organics Old Fashioned Crunchy...

(A friend with whom I shared this person's "review" made the following observation about the last line: "Torog no eat Trader Joe's peanut butter. It taste burnt. [If you're so pretentious you have to eat organic peanut butter made with sea salt, at least learn how to conjugate a fucking verb.]" I'm less prone to harp on typographical errors than my friend [considering how often I, myself, make them], but his observation made me laugh, so I am including it.)

* * *

If you're wondering, yes, I do feel like a prick when I jump to these sorts of conclusions about people I have never met.

My anti-snob snobbery makes me feel shame. Just because I have met people who were snobbish about food in a showy way and turned out to be jerks doesn't mean all people who are snobbish about food in a showy way must also be jerks.

I noticed when I visited Craig's profile that Craig had made no other posts. My guess is that Craig was so passionate about this peanut butter that it precipitated the creation of an account. Perhaps Craig is simply a passionate person. Is this to be faulted? I suppose not.

I've seen similar passion in a number of those who choose to try to live the "organic" lifestyle. I'm sure
some of these people are motivated by a genuine sense of morality and a desire to build a better world. Some of these people go out of their way to live this lifestyle, despite having to struggle to afford it. Others might not be so honorably motivated. For some, I'd guess, this life is lived for presentation's sake. (Some argue that the organic market is willfully exploiting people. [How and why is probably best left for another post, though I doubt I'd be able to shed a brighter light on the situation than the better-informed folks already have.] If this is so, then it is regrettable that these well-intentioned folks are getting exploited alongside those who live such a lifestyle for presentation's sake. What's that? Fine. It's regrettable that either group might be being exploited.) It's hard to know which persons belong to which group. It's harder still to say why I care one way or another.

Clearly, though, I must.

Friday, April 16, 2010

By Your Command -- Intermission

Nine episodes, one of which is a two-hour telefilm, is sufficient material with which to establish character, deduce theme, and generate narrative momentum. And, indeed, there is much to be said about Daniel Graystone’s meandering quest to reclaim his daughter, meet his impending government deadlines, and fend off his obsessed adversary – but there are many characters who have received neither the quantity nor quality of development that Graystone has.

This is to be expected, given the show’s large cast (which contains one character more than Battlestar Galactica’s) and even larger ensemble of recurring characters (smaller than BSG’s), as well as the simple fact that only half a season has transpired thus far. What’s more, these half-formed characters – like Yahweh’s original man, cast aside in mid-creation for Adam, his second attempt – do contain substance enough, possessing the density of clay despite lacking shape or consistency.

But of these half-characters, there are two who stand out among the rest, whose incompleteness, depending upon the way the writerly winds blow, may either give way to definition or dissipation. It is in their filling out that the best glimpse of the series’s future, from plot resolution to thematic exploration, resides.

* * * * *

Essentially – and existentially – speaking, Joseph Adama is the negation of Daniel Graystone. Where one leads, the other regresses; where one ventures out into the world, into boardrooms and sports arenas and television studios, the other is subsumed and consumed by addiction, both to virtual worlds and physical drugs; where one engages in motion and production, the other is enveloped by physical and emotional atrophy.

This is a none-too-trivial distinction. Graystone imposes his will and personality upon his society, delivering unto them holobands and Cylons – the archetypal hero, the prototypical leading man. Even when wrong, such as engaging in corporate espionage, theft, and murder, he is still proactive; he decides to confront his situation, and not the other way around. Adama is a product of his environment, of his fate, just as much as the U-87 is a product of Graystone Enterprises. In literary theory, characters are defined by their actions, which comprise the plot and generate theme. Adama is not a man of action – he is a creature of reaction.

In this way, Joseph serves just as much of a foil for his son, the good admiral William in Battlestar, as for his Caprica counterpart, but it still is a character arc – one of sliding perpetually backward in fits and starts as opposed to surging steadily forward – that needs to pay off, preferably within the back half of the season (and which particularly would if Daniel switches positions with Adama, becoming ensnared in his own emotional cocoon as a result of a homicidal daughter and suicidal wife). Inaction must, at some point, lead to action – or Ronald D. Moore and company run much of the same risk that befell Babylon 5’s original protagonist, Jeffrey Sinclair: namely, being escorted to the curb by his replacement.

* * * * *

Committing suicide is an active decision that must be consciously made and carried out, and, in this regard, Amanda Graystone has one up on Joseph Adama. But it is a decision hastened by a deteriorating psyche, one which has so profoundly lost its grounding in reality that it experiences visions of a dead loved one seemingly at random, making Amanda the most vulnerable – some would say the most brittle – character of the series.

The whole span of season 1.0 is a story of Amanda’s downward spiral, starting at bad, quickly progressing to worse, and immediately slamming into dead (or, at least, possibly dead – Moore still has too much of the Star Trek ethos ingrained in him, a corporate-imposed mandate not to significantly alter, including through death, any of the regular cast). That the writing staff would choose to start off one of their central characters in this fashion is interesting; that they would ratchet up her psychological frailties and failures – the death of her daughter, the subsequent discovery of Zoe’s terrorist inclinations, being terminated from her job, seeing her dead brother, rekindling her drug addictions, discovering her husband’s part in theft and murder – pushes the issue in an extreme direction and in an extreme manner (so extreme, in fact, that the actress begged the writers not to head down this path so soon and certainly not so strenuously). Even in a show dedicated to an imploding civilization that is comprised of collapsing characters, Amanda stands out as a nihilistic lighthouse, absorbing and trapping light rather than emitting and freeing it.

If Sister Clarice Willow is Caprica’s equivalent of Gaius Baltar, then Amanda is this series’s rendition of Starbuck, the damaged goods who has the silver lining of being ordained from the gods to help humanity reach its ultimate destiny, even if that destiny winds through equal parts serenity and sorrow. Whether or not her brother’s disembodied soul mucking around or her daughter’s newfound immortality via technological bodies is truly a sign of what is to come, she is the wild card in the show’s lineup, the dynamic lynchpin that can sway the entire production hither or thither.

Just like Kara Thrace.

For better or worse.

Friday, April 9, 2010

By Your Command -- Part 8

"End of Line" (109)

Well. Who saw that coming?

In retrospect, of course, it’s so obvious, it hurts. The writers slowly cultivate a relationship between Philomon and Zoe – whether it be the mechanical U-87 or the virtual (in more ways than one) Rachael – whose primary purpose, or so the audience thinks, is to be thematic foreshadowing, a precursor to Colonial-Cylon relations. When it’s time to put Philomon’s liberal leanings to the test, he fails, lying to and then betraying his newfound spiritual partner, making him the first casualty in the still-taking-shape Cylon War.

But his death ends up being more than a preview for what is to come on a wider scope and a grander scale; it’s a tug on the audience’s heartstrings in the here-and-now, an emotional sucker-punch the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Anastasia Dualla’s suicide (“Sometimes a Great Notion,” 411) or Billy Keikeya’s murder (“Sacrifice,” 216). In a show that has hitherto manipulated thematic perceptions almost exclusively, it is a nice change of pace and, perhaps, the finale’s greatest foreshadowing.

It is also a twist of fate, a wrinkle of irony. Zoe’s attempt to flee from her father ends up bringing her closer to him than ever before: they now both have blood on their hands.

* * * * *

One can easily tell that “End of Line,” beyond its title (a play, of course, on the Hybrid’s peculiar locution from Battlestar Galactica, which, in turn, is a play on Tron [an ever-present set of references in the BSG universe]), is the mid-season finale: in addition to a far-higher-than-normal concentration of tension imbuing every scene and the sheer number of cliffhangers at the end of the episode, Philomon, one of the show’s more prominent – and, certainly, more likable – recurring characters is killed off.

Such a litany of events or attributes, of course, wouldn’t cause a hardened BSG viewer to even blink; “Line” simply registers as basic fare for a standard Battlestar installment, particularly a latter-season one. Just as the first hour-long ep, “Rebirth,” established the fundamentally different approach to pacing and structure from its predecessor, the mid-season finale, more than anything else, definitively underscores that difference – even when Caprica is firing on all cylinders, it’s still only half-throttle to BSG’s action-fueled frolics.

The ultimate irony here is that, by episode’s end, there still isn’t much that has happened by way of actual developments. The Zoe Cylon has finally managed to escape her father’s lab, but she’s still planet-bound; Lacy Rand ingratiates herself – after a fashion – with Barnabas Greeley, but the ability to ship her “package” off-planet is as elusive as ever; Sister Willow endeavors to report to STO HQ on Gemenon but doesn’t get much farther than the road to the spaceport.

If the pacing of this first half of the season came in fits and starts, it’ll be interesting to see if either there’ll be bigger pauses in-between the fits or if one of these hiccups will turn into a cough, propelling all and sundry forward on their narrative arcs in the eleven chapters to come.

* * * * *

There may not be that much action, but, in typical Caprica style, there is a huge focus on character. And the most intriguing character by far in this week’s chapter was Barnabas Greeley.

Lying, manipulating, threatening to splatter one’s brains out – these are all par the course for an experienced terrorist, but such one-dimensionality is a rarity in the Battlestar mythos. Gaius Baltar, the main antagonistic force in the original BSG, is made into one of the most nuanced, humorous, and identifiable characters in the re-imagined telling; the Cylons are likewise made more human, both literally and figuratively. That the audience holds no compassion for Buffy alum James Marsters’s character is either, given the track record of executive producers Ron Moore, David Eick, and (now) Jane Espenson, a calculated move designed for maximum impact when personal revelations are made down the line or, simply, a miscalculation, an overlooked mistake. The odds are, at this early juncture, fifty-fifty.

Whether by hook or by crook, Barnabas is, thus far, an anomaly in the annals of Battlestar Galactica – and remains one of the most alluring reasons to tune in for the second half of the season.