June 1, 2008
I’m currently hopping back-and-forth between DVDs of the original Blake’s 7 and [coughmumblecough] of the Battlestar Galactica ‘reimagining.’ It’s instructive, because in an odd way they’re rather similar shows.
OK, so Galactica’s sets wobble a whole lot less, and since most of the action is ship-bound one doesn’t notice that every inhabitable planet in the known galaxy looks uncannily like a gravel pit. Apparently. Plus there’s the whole ‘studio lighting and tube cameras ghosting like crazy’ style vs. ‘gritty hand-held high-def in extensive 360° sets’ contrast. $$$.
But both series are bleak and surprising, in contrast with the usual SF tropes of ‘idyllic futureworld’ (Star Trek) or ‘overcoming the monster’ (Star Wars). Crucially, both feature central characters whose moral alignment is both malleable, and obscured to the audience. No easy viewer proxies here: both series blur the lines between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys to the extent that it’s no longer clear which is which, nor even if such simplistic concepts apply.
Blake’s 7, for all its campy space-opera façade, has always had the elements of thoroughly sophisticated drama. Paul Darrow’s Avon, in particular, may be a dreadfully vain ham but is strangely riveting nonetheless. He’s a profoundly unsympathetic character, and yet we consciously will him to make the right decisions. He makes us care about the monster, even when on the verge of doing something monstrous. Which is, of course, the central trick of Galactica: the bad-guy robots are more caring, more sympathetic, simpler characters than the good-guy humans. They’re easier to like, which only makes them creepier.
More parallels: both series suffer from cripplingly bad pacing and bizarrely uneven and clumsy script editing. Blake’s 7, in its third series (the first one without the titular character) is a wayward mess, too obviously joining the crew in being leaderless, flailing around in search of a purpose. Some good stories are severely hampered by unmotivated or inexplicable character actions, sweeping continuity leaps, and baffling aimlessness.
Similarly, I’m sorry, but some of Battlestar Galactica is plain rubbish. They consistently over-run, it seems, with the result that minutes of carefully-crafted storytelling have to hit the cutting-room floor in order to squeeze in the episode’s obligatory cliffhanger. It’s replaced with crammed exposition dubbed onto a reverse shot, or wild narrative leaps, or… unmotivated or inexplicable character actions. At times it’s so bad, it can be hard to make sense of what’s going on, or why.
The closest similarity between the shows, however, is that both series are more relevant now than they were in the late 70s. By abstracting discussions from the present-day context, both allow examination of critical ideas.
Galactica’s portrayal of the ‘good guys’ as harried, victimised, and proud-but-on-the-back-foot warriors was perfectly timed for the sheen coming off Desert Storm. The humans’ descent, via hostile occupation, into the depths of desperation and suicide bombing was breathtaking. While ‘the separation between the executive and military’ thread has never quite held together, we’ll forgive them everything for portraying the ‘bad guys’ as principled religious ascetics, and a sophisticated overall approach to the rôle of individual faith.
A reimagined Blake’s 7, if done right, would have to explore concepts of individuality, the limits of personal expression, and the boundaries within which the state must work to protect its populace. In the original series ‘The Federation’ is one-dimensionally totalitarian, drugging its subjects to maintain order and relying on ubiquitous surveillance and profiling to identify transgressors.
Our ‘heroes’ — convicted criminals, the lot of them — oscillate between self-serving pettiness, freedom fighting, and idealistic political agitation, and in the original they’re fighting an outrageously campy pantomime villain, in Servalan. This is perhaps the greatest difficulty to overcome in a reimagining, but the rewards are considerable.
Britain is presently caught between two great powers, either or both of which may be rendered irrelevant by sweeping changes further afield. Multiple generations have grown up with no concept of previous national ‘glories,’ yet the institutions and edifices of Empire still drive the country. We’re thoroughly screwed up about immigration, yet see no conflict when curry is the nation’s favourite meal. And our leaders appear fixated on blanketing cameras around the country and giving the population ID cards so they can tell everyone who they are.
Meanwhile, we have only a few standard forms of national mythology. Doctor Who has always been the Merlin of Arthurian legend, and James Bond is, pretty much, a thug given just enough room by his controllers to be useful. Which leaves Robin Hood. ‘Band of outlaw freedom fighters disrupt corrupt regime, giving hope to the common man’? Sounds familiar.
Of course, Robin Hood’s Merrie Men are hopelessly outnumbered, and their chances of anything like a stable victory are, basically, nil. Yet we celebrate them for being underdogs, for their ‘pluck’ — which is how we liked to think of ourselves in the war. Tenacity, backed up by idiosyncratic boffins. Where has all that gone?
Reimagining Blake’s 7: it’s about time we had proper discussions about the role of technology in society, the limits of personal freedom and state oversight, and the potential for wider influence by minority powers.
They’d better not screw it up.