Saturday, January 5, 2008

Cylons Over America: Critical Studies Vs. Battlestar Galactica

After pulling the new anthology Cylons In America: Critical Studies In Battlestar Galactica from a local retail shelf, I had to wonder. "What? The Journal of Popular Culture hasn't already done an all-Battlestar issue?"

Apparently, the Journal hasn't given much space to BSG scholars, so Tiffany Potter and C.W. Marshall have stepped in to give us their own volume of criticism. Readers who've finished all of the critical anthologies rehashing The Matrix and philosophy might find Cylons in America a breezy read.

In the introduction to the anthology, the editors observe that the original series' name "evokes associations for a significant number of viewers. But there is also something resembling shame in the connection." (Potter and Marshall 3). Where could this "shame" have come from? Is it the shame in admitting that, as a child, you liked a program that you KNEW was borrowing heavily from other popular media? Glen A. Larson's BSG cashed in on the "ancient astronauts" craze popularized by Von Danieken's Chariots of the Gods? and its sequels. Perhaps the most beloved episode, "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero", is just The Guns of Navarone in a slightly more exotic setting. (I didn't know it at the time, but I found out soon enough.) Universal at least paid for the Star Wars-level effects by going to the source and hiring John Dykstra away from ILM. I'll give Mr. Larson a pass for the public-domain ideas such as the 13 tribes of Israel and Pearl Harbor.

Perhaps the best summary of the old show comes from Star Trek's Walter Koenig, who polled his co-stars about their opinions of BSG on the set of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was the day after the original Galactica first aired:

Nichelle (Nichols): "They did borrow from every science-fiction movie ever made, didn't they?"
(Koenig, Chekov's Enterprise, 94.)

The strength of the "re-visioned" BSG is that it can justifiably generate a whole volume of academic criticism. The old show had tried to become "relevant" before, in the much-derided spinoff Galactica 1980. Newly released on DVD by Universal, Galactica '80 tried to address topical issues: the problems of nuclear power after Three Mile Island, kids in poverty, toxic dumping, and prejudice against Mexican immigrant families. Stranding the show on Earth served none of those issues. It just lumped the program in with other Universal TV series of the time, such as The Incredible Hulk, which were as overtly moral but with much better writing.

Of course, the current BSG addresses "current issues" within the framework of the show, instead of importing them from Earth. It has allowed for many approaches in Cylons in America. The essays range from BSG as a portrait of post 9/11 America to a discussion of the show's relationship with "authorized" and "unauthorized" fan production. Don't expect many bell hooks-like exposes of dominant and hidden paradigms. Christopher Deis's "Erasing Difference: The Cylons as Racial Other" comes closest, and that essay cites, logically for its subject matter, bell hooks.

No, many of the authors here seem to be fans. That gives extra pleasure in reading the essays--the feeling that the authors are goofing off from their day jobs and getting paid to write about something they love instead. I talked to a fellow MFA program veteran about the unashamed snobbery we had witnessed. My friend was marked down in a poetry seminar for writing about Charles Bukowski. I can't imagine the scorn I would have faced if I had announced I was going to write seriously about Battlestar Galactica.

If critical studies about BSG aren't enough for you, don't worry. There is a forthcoming anthology of Battlestar Galactica and philosophy, according to Amazon.

No comments: