Friday, June 22, 2007

My Battlestar Paper, Part 1

One of the things I have to do while I am here is finish the first draft my Battlestar paper. For no particular reason, I've decided to post the sections of it as I finish them. Below is the intro "teaser" section. Comments welcome. [Updated to fix typos]

What a Strange Little Man: Baltar and the Image of the Tyrant

A Tale of Two Baltars: From Chair Swiveling to Prayers and Sniveling.

Baltar spent most of the original series of Battlestar Galactica sitting in a huge chair atop a 20 foot pedestal, in an otherwise empty, circular room aboard a Cylon base star, which he commanded. He was lit primarily from below—indeed, he seems to have chosen to keep a flood light between his knees. In “Gun on Ice Planet Zero,” when his subordinate Lucifer enters, he is facing the blank back wall, and turns his chair slowly around to address them. The set is preposterous: how does he command a military operation from up there? What if someone needed to show him a map? What does he do on that perch when not addressing his henchmen? Is his day filled by pressing the fingertips of his two hands together and laughing maniacally?

Actually, questions like those are misguided. The writers of the original BSG hired the late character actor John Colicos to play a classic melodramatic villain, a type he had played with great brio before on countless TV shows like Star Trek and Mission Impossible. Melodramatic villains don’t need to make too much sense: their purpose is to thrill the audience with their image of power and freedom from petty conventional morality. (Think Ming the Merciless.) In “Gun on Ice Planet Zero,” Baltar ruthlessly runs his troops into the ground in order to convince Adama that he has more power than he actually does. This image of power and freedom can actually lead the audience to identify more with the villain than the putative hero of the story. This happens especially in slasher movies, where monsters like Freddy Krueger or the Firefly family in House of 1000 Corpses and Devil’s Rejects become the real focus of the narrative.

Now consider Gaius Baltar in the reenvisioned Battlestar Galactica episode “Final Cut.” Although he has been given the first name of the infamous roman emperor more commonly known as Caligula, this Baltar does not look like he should be issuing cruel commands from a high throne. He’s dawdling in a corridor of the Galactica hoping to be noticed by reporter D’anna Biers, who has just finished interviewing a crewperson, Anastasia “Dee” Dualla, for a special on life on Galactica. Baltar’s pride is wounded because Biers hasn’t asked to interview him, but it would be beneath him to ask for an interview, so he has to pretend to just be milling around. Meanwhile, he is being goaded and manipulated by hallucinations of Six—the hypersexual Cylon woman whom he helped to sabotage the Colonial defense computers, leading to the near total genocide of his own people. The hallucinatory Six often tries to wheedle Baltar into advancing the Cylon agenda or embracing the Cylon god. This time she wants him to do the interview with Biers, presumably because his political career is useful to the Cylons. When Biers finally approaches him, he acts like he doesn’t know her and says he has to talk to his aids to check his schedule. (As far as the audience has seen, he only has one assistant, Mr. Gaeta, a bridge officer assigned to help him by Commander Adama.) After he parts awkwardly from the scene, D’anna remarks to Dee “What a strange little man.” This Baltar is hardly likely to impress audiences with his dark power. He is still the great Judas figure, the man who betrayed the human race. But he is also cowardly, vain, easily manipulated, and a prisoner of his passions.

The change in the portrayal of Baltar—apparently initiated by actor James Callis and picked up by the writers—isn’t just a clever bit of television. It represents a deep philosophical difference in the way evil is conceived. Ethics has always been a central concern of philosophy, no matter where or when it has been practiced. Ethics is the study not of how things are, but of how they should be, typically with a focus on the right thing to do or the right kind of person to be. Western philosophy has been particularly concerned with the question “Why should I do the morally right thing?” After all, don’t nice guys finish last? The Western religions try to answer this question by holding out the promise of heavenly reward, but even then the annoying tendency of nice guys to finish last poses a problem: why would an all powerful, all knowing and all loving God allow the unjust to prosper and the good to suffer?

One of the first answers put forward by philosophers in the Western tradition is that the lives of evil people are only superficially desirable. They accrue the trappings of power, but have weak souls, pinched by misery. You may think that the bad guy is the old Baltar, an imposing figure who swivels his chair to the camera to deliver his pitiless orders, but really he is the new Baltar, a sniveling coward who would prostrate himself in prayer before a strange god just to appease the ghost of an old girlfriend. Two thinkers who pursued this tactic of reenvisioning the villain as less enviable are the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BCE) and a Roman philosopher with a big long name, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c.480–c.524 CE), generally just known as Boethius. For Plato, this point is crucial for justification for being moral; for Boethius, the explanation of God’s ways to man. Both were particularly focused on the image of the tyrant: a powerful person who gets what he wants, and who wants a lot. Both wanted you to see that the tyrant is not someone we want to be, and in fact, the more apparent power they have, the less we should envy them.


MT said...

By taking the old BG as your only named artistic point of reference, you seem to be treating the new BG like it's an adaptation of the original, in the way a movie might adapt a play or a novel. But the new BG is BG in name only, far as I can tell. So the artistic scholarship comes out looking thin to me. How about a reference to Ming the Merciless? Or at least Darth Vader, who must have been foremost on the minds of the original BG TV producers, since the show was all about cashing in on the enthusiasm that Star Wars created, or so seems reasonable to suppose. Since all of these guys (including Ming) have capes, maybe Bela Lugosi's Dracula belongs in the club too.

Also I think weakness is an idea in it's own right, which I think you're poorly serving in making it an aspect of the "unenviableness" of his life (separately: "unenviable" defines what the new evil isn't, and a term or phrase that defines positively would be more evocative).

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Yeah, I figured people would know the type without explicit reference to Ming the Merciless or Snidely Whiplash, but some explicit references would not hurt.

I don't think, though, that the new BSG is Galactica in name only. The producers are consciously inverting many important aspects of the original show. The politics of the original show were alarmingly far to the right. The whole message of the opening movie/episodes was that negotiating with the Soviets was, well, like negotiating with genocidal space robots.

In the original show the civilian government only appeared occasionally as a weak and incompetent comic foil for the noble military. Honoring military leadership over weak intellectuals is an old fascist trope. Taking military/civilian relationships seriously, and doing real honor to the idea of civilian command of the military, is one of the best ways the new show inverts the old one.

Minivet said...

(a) Will we eventually be able to see all of this?
(b) Editing note: "In Western philosophy has been particularly concerned with the question “Why should I do the morally right thing?”"

MT said...

The producers are consciously inverting many important aspects of the original show.

"Consciously," sure, but "with the intention of evoking and opining on the original artistic choice" (as with a child's folktale retold for adults ala Anne Sexton), that's what isn't obvious to me. The inversions you mention are folk ideologies, so I share your feeling that commentary is happening. I just felt dubious as a reader with the old BG seeming to be set up as the referent--as opposed to the ideologies themselves. I'm guessing you're trying to do both at once and that rhetorically or stylistically you've picked the wrong one to be your explicit focus.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Minivet: Part 2 is now up. Part 3 will be up once it exists.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

MT: Obviously, the writers main goal in changing these things is to communicate something to the body politic about the world, but I bet they are also interested in science fiction per se, and therefore in the images that come from science fiction. Writer Ronald D. Moore worked on various Star Trek series for a very long time.

In any case, I merely introduce the contrast between the two Baltars for rhetorical effect.