The Ultimate Retcon, Part 2

I think I adequately explained why I call what happened to Battlestar GalacticaThe Ultimate Retcon,” since the 2003 miniseries and 2004-2009 series, telemovies and spinoffs truly were “Galactica In Name Only” (“GINO”).

Since I posted that I have learned, however, that “In Harm’s Way” is a better known WWII movie than I thought it was, and “Adam’s Ark” may have been first developed a few years earlier than I believed, in the late ’60’s/early 70’s.  And yes, Larson’s ultimate world-building was a framework we as the audience could fill in, but it was enough to show the diversity of Colonial society as a whole, and they continued to build the backstory throughout the series, visiting humanity’s birthplace, etc. so that we could fill it in.

I have also been accused of retconning the term “retcon,” and that accusation does have some merit.  So for clarification purposes, “retcon” is actually an abbreviation of “retroactive continuity.”  As you might guess, it means when a production takes aspects of an established universe and changes them to suit their whims.  So it’s a perfectly appropriate term for this discussion, even if I did screw up the acronym.

And I’m not “just another complainer.”  At the moment, I’m a historian.  An eye-witness.  So…

Just so you know, I love dystopian fiction.  I’ve always been a huge fan of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, which put Battlestar Galactica right in my wheelhouse.  And I’ll go so far as to say that, had they used an original universe for the 2003+ production, I might have been more of a fan – but probably not.

Let me try to explain.

First of all, I think there’s something missing in how the first Battlestar Galactica is often perceived by fans of the second.  I think age is part of that equation, frankly; having watched TV from the 1960s to today, I’ve seen it evolve from simplistic tales in black and white, where married couples slept in separate beds and the word “pregnant” evoked alarm, to CGI-enhanced effects and unmarried couples sleeping in the same bed – often with rotating partners – who swear sulfurously on broadcast TV and nobody thinks twice…  The technology has changed, the Standards and Practices have changed, the audience expectations have changed…

So it is unfair to judge a TV show from 1978 exclusively through the lens of 2020 – or 2003 – storytelling technology and audience expectations.  You must keep in mind that what was shown in 1978 was state-of-the-art for the time, and the audience was still expecting mostly episodic TV shows without many season-long story arcs.  SFX were actual models and moving cameras; composite images and rotoscoped laser fire was about as sophisticated as it got.  And as for the audience, the more sophisticated the storytelling technology gets the more we started to expect from a production; more character development, more realistic aliens, multi-episode story arcs, etc.  You can see it in the technical improvements of movie-making between then and now, and the changes in popular entertainment since 1978.

But that one-on-one comparison is what happens, often deliberately (there are a lot of trolls in sci-fi fandom, people who love to stir the pot just to be disruptive), so it’s denounced as being cheesy, disparaged for having disco hair, and ridiculed for outdated special effects.  Duh…  No – if you want to give any TV show it’s just due, you need to look at it through the lens of the time, and appreciate it for what it was then.  And if you do, some of the awe comes back and you can better appreciate the story and the message it is sending, because the message itself is timeless.

Because that’s the other major aspect to this discussion.  The “world view” that was shoved out the airlock…

Battlestar Galactica was always about pain.  Loss.  Treachery and betrayal.  Good vs. Evil.  Being utterly cut off from the familiar and being forced into a new reality.  And it was about rising to the occasion, rising above the circumstances, basic human ingenuity and resourcefulness, perseverance against impossible odds.  Hope, love, strength, coming together for the common good and fighting for what’s right – and being ultimately triumphant.  Life can go on, even after the unthinkable.

It was about our roots, where we came from, what we’re made of, flaws and all.  Being human…

On the screen, you saw people of all shapes, sizes, colors, creeds.  You saw selfishness, greed, misery, corruption – and love, compassion, family, faith, and strong men and women with moral compasses they actually followed.  Leaders the people could follow, men and women of honesty and integrity.  People you could aspire to emulate, to model yourself after, be a better person by their example.

That for all its faults, humankind can be a noble creature.  It was positive, in the darkest of circumstances.

And the fact these people were traveling through space, with advanced technology, pursued by a force that wanted to destroy them utterly didn’t hurt, from a sci-fi fan’s perspective…

This grabbed us.  It wasn’t the Borays or aluminum cowboy hats, it wasn’t a bunch of kids singing songs while they blew up Cylons (although Audrey Landers in that halter and short skirt certainly wasn’t painful to watch), and it wasn’t even Fred Astaire’s wonderful guest role.  And it certainly wasn’t the hair.  It was the overriding message that we can overcome, survive, and thrive even after the most cataclysmic events.  It was a message of hope.

The 2003 miniseries started off with a lie.  It was a particularly nasty lie, too, since it came from the one man everyone was trusting to lead them.  And every other character displayed the same moral ambivalence…

One of the criticisms raised about 1978’s Battlestar Galactica was that the characters were 2-dimensional.  Apollo was the true-blue hero, Starbuck the rogue with a heart of gold, etc.  I don’t fully agree, of course, but the characters were (and are) archetypal and were really only beginning to grow when the rug got pulled out from under them.  The fact that many episodes got rushed into production (the corporate interference I mentioned last post) upped the “cheese” level and didn’t help that situation one bit.

The 2003+ production did approach the characters differently, but they were still 2-dimensional; they chose to focus on the negative aspects of human nature instead of the positive.  Remember, these were not based on the characters created in 1978, they came from a completely unrelated source, and there was almost no comparison between the complex societies created for the 1978 production and the society created for the 2003+ production, since everything Glen Larson had built was rejected.

The 2003+ production promoted dysfunctional relationships almost exclusively, where 1978’s families came together to face adversity.  They minimized – some might say ridiculed – the role of faith in people’s lives in 2003, where it played a quiet but obvious and positive role in 1978.

Where Glen Larson used the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor for inspiration, Ron Moore used the 9/11 attacks as his, but instead of an enemy trying to rid the universe of human disorder, as was the case in 1978, Moore gave his Cylons the same kind of religious fanaticism as the Islamist terrorists, and portrayed the Colonials as petty, doltish tyrants who basically deserved what they got.  And the parallels were obvious to most viewers – but then, the 2003+ production was never known for it’s subtle political messages, either.

In an era where positive messages in entertainment were few and far between, the 2003+ production never relented in its negative portrayal of human nature.  There were also story, writing, acting, and direction issues I haven’t touched on that make me fairly certain that I would not have been a fan even if this had been called something different.

But if it had been called something different, nobody would have watched it, and we wouldn’t be talking about it now…

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