Monday, March 23, 2009

Epic

Recently, several friends (both online and in person) watched the finale of Battlestar Galactica, a show that I've heard was a landmark achievement not only for science fiction as a genre, but for television dramas in general. Its popularity among critics no doubt rests on the fact that, unlike many science-fiction shows, it tells one over-arching story instead of relying on situational narratives. Those types of epic narratives are usually breathtaking, and, like a good novel (or series of novels) they give fans the chance to really interact with the story, figuring out secrets and plotlines and picking up on clues that the writers leave scattered about like gems.

Now, you can tell that I really appreciate this type of storytelling. I haven't seen Battlestar Galactica because I did not want to jump into a story in its last season (which is when I realized that I had been missing out). I intend to get the DVDs and watch them this summer, and even though I've already been spoiled to a certain extent (you couldn't go anywhere online without being told who the Final Cylon was, for example), I don't want to be spoiled too much, so keep that in mind in the comments.

One of the reasons I think Battlestar looks like such an amazing show is because it is character-driven (as this promo and this series of promos, all expertly produced, show). Instead of focusing on dogfights or alien races, the show makes a point to be about various interesting and psychologically-complex characters going through a series of fantastic events. That, I think, is good storytelling. I think that often, fantasy and sci-fi works can get bogged down in the ins and outs of their respective worlds. THey lose their characters, in a sense, which should be the focus of any story.

I feel that having a character-driven epic is one of the most difficult types of fiction to write. Not only do you have to build this fantastic world and people it with a large cast of characters, but you also have to make the characters deep and psychologically-interesting. That's hard enough to do when you're just writing a short realistic fiction piece with only one or two characters, so the fantasy epic is quite the feat.

It's also something that I think every mildly ambitious writer (myself included) wants to do, whether they admit to it or not. Whether they are in film or in novel form, people just tend to respond to these types of epic stories. They are often what lasts in terms of staying in a cultural consciousness. The sheer scale of them just does something to people, but only if they are done in a way that talks about people and their relationships with one another more than swords or spaceships.

10 comments:

Brandon said...

This is how I felt about Star Trek Voyager. I knew the show existed, but never watched any of it until after it was cancelled and Fox was showing reruns of it late at night. The whole premise of the show is that a Star Fleet crew gets lost in space and has to find their way back home. The depths of the characters in the show is just amazing. One that fascinates me the most is the crew's doctor who is a backup hologram whom they allow to evolve, learn, and become as human as he can be after their real-life doctor is killed in the first episode. But he's a hologram! How cool is that? Anyway, the way you wrote this note just reminded me of how I felt about Voyager. I may now have to look into Battlestar Galactica. :)

Jon said...

You should try Blake's 7. The show is very low budget but has a heartbreaking and fascinating set of characters and arcs.

Norm! said...

I discovered the new BSG while scanning titles at a DVD store. I figured the miniseries would be just another ridiculous, cheap SciFi TV movie. Wow, was I wrong.

The show is definitely a complex character-driven epic, but it's also a sociological epic too. How society reacts in a constant mortal threat and what civilization is are on-going themes.

I do envy that all the episodes are new to you. I will warn you that the miniseries is much slower paced than the rest of the series.

Glenn Houtchens said...

I, also, have not seen this series, but you make a number of important points. Much like Dune, the miniseries, which although I initially disliked, over time it grew on me more and more. Why?

As I tell my 7th grade Reading class, "It's all about the *story*"

It's about getting your readers, or viewers, in this case, to care about the characters. It's about rising conflict and the ability to suspend disbelief. This is not only done with description, setting, characterization and subplots, but also with what is *not* said, allowing the reader/viewer to fill in the missing spaces. A great example of this is when Scrooge questions the ghost of Christmas yet to come, but receives silence as an answer to each of his continued inquiries.

Great article, Jay!

G.Houtchens
armchair coach
amateur historian

TRiG said...

So you disagree with CS Lewis, who felt that if the world is fantastic, the people exploring it should be fairly ordinary? He said that the blandness of the characters in Haggard's King Solomon's Mines was a strength of the novel.

I have a collection of Lewis' literary criticism, with the title Of This and Other Worlds. It's fairly interesting stuff.

TRiG.

Joe said...

Oh boy, this is one Sci-Fi series that I have managed to stay away from since it started. I will now have to buy all the DVDs! :)

kurt_t said...

The only Battlestar Gallactica I know about is the one with Lorne Greene and the guy who was married to Marie Osmond.

I can't tell you how long ago in dog years that was.

(If you weren't around in the '70s, this whole comment might make no sense whatsoever.)

TRiG said...

I have no television. And I really don't miss it.

TRiG.

Jay said...

Brandon: I loved Voyager! My brother is a huge Star Trek fan so I would always watch it with him. I think that was probably my favorite series (Enterprise was pretty cool too).

Jon: Never heard of the show, but will definitely check into it. Thanks for the comment!

Glenn: You know, I've always wanted to read Dune. The series looked fascinating when it came on TV but I only caught bits and pieces of it. Hope you're doing well!

TRiG: I've never read that book, so I'll probably have to pick it up. If that was his assertion, then I have to say I'd disagree with it. It all depends on what you want the focus of your story to be, I suppose. I would want my characters to be the focus of any story I wrote.

Joe: It was the promos, wasn't it? That first one has a sample from cellist Martin Tillman's "Ceremony," which I downloaded and have been listening to nonstop. I believe a lot of the show had a classical soundtrack, all the more reason to be interested in it. Hope you're well!

Kurt: I do know who Marie Osmond is. And I believe Richard Hatch, who played Captain Apollo in the first series, returned to the re-imagined series as a new character (a terrorist-funded politician, I believe). Other than names, though, there aren't many similarities between the '70s series and the most recent one. Hope you're well!

Selly said...

Another vote here for BSG. I LOVE this show!

I tend to wait till the season is on DVD before I see it so I haven't seen this final season. Thank you for not including any spoilers Jay. I still don't know who is the final cylon.

I was not a a big fan of sci-fi before I saw BSG (I have never seen Star Trek or Star Wars or any of the other well known stories, except FireFly, which is also really good). But I have watched and loved BSG.