Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Saturday, 1 September 2012

Why Star Trek Is Clearly Better Than Battlestar Galactica

I've just finished re-watching Battlestar Galactica for the second time, and Star Trek : The Next Generation for the ten millionth time. They're both very, very good shows and I've no doubt I'll watch them both again. And again. And again and again, eventually. Now it must be said that while BSG is far superior in terms of special effects, plot, dialogue, acting, storytelling, character development, political intrigue, costume design, sound quality, lighting, props, sets, hairdressing, and cinematography, TNG will always be the better show.

To be more specific, in terms of political drama BSG kicks donkeys. That's because it is a political drama. One that just happens to involve mystical forces in space with explosions and killer robots, which are pretty much guaranteed to improve anything.



Trek never tried or even considered being a commentary on contemporary American politics. Where it exceeds BSG is as a science fiction show. That's because it's got actual fictional science in it. Like phasers and photon torpedoes and warp drives and holodecks.

Spaceships not good enough eh ? Fine, add dinosaurs.
Neither show would benefit by gaining what the other lacks. Suppose Saul Tigh decided one day that instead of drinking to solve his problems, he'd go for a chat with Councillor Troy. Or that Gauis "Frakking" Baltar just got on with quietly scanning nebula all day like a good little scientist. Or that Captain Picard, instead of throwing the aliens a buffet reception, decided to shoot them all. Or that Dr Crusher found that treating patients was a waste of time and that she'd rather go and have sex with a nymphomaniac ghost.

I figured people would rather see this than Dr Crusher having sex with a ghost.
Err, well, ok, forget the last two - TNG actually featured both of these. But my point still stands. BSG is no more a science-fiction show than Star Trek is a political drama. In fact, comparing the two on equal terms is a complete waste of time, because it's impossible.

HOWEVER, the underlying psychology of the shows does not escape so lightly.  In fact that's where it gets interesting. While BSG is not really about cool tech in the way that Trek is, technology in the show is conspicuous by its absence. About the only ways in which the human civilisation in BSG is more advanced than our own is the use of FTL and cybernetics (although, importantly, Caprica did remind us that the Colonials were rather further ahead than this before the holocaust).

It also reminded us to beware of killer emo teenage robots. Very few shows do that.
The story of a great civilisation brought low by its own hubris and arrogant technological prowess is one of the oldest stories of all time. While the Colonials may have once prospered thanks to their advanced tech, ultimately their abuse of that technology becomes self-destructive. In the form of a bunch of angry robots, who were probably sick of having to spend every evening being miserable and alone in their black-painted bedrooms, in accordance with their emo progenitors.

There's nothing wrong with warning about the dangers of abusing technology. But Star Trek showed us what happens if we use it properly. Sure, it didn't come with anything quite as out-and-out cool as a lightsabre, but it did have holodecks, replicators, transporters, force fields and... iPads (they even called them pads, and this was 1993 for heaven's sake). It was also undoubtedly the inspiration for Google's decision to call their phone-based operating system "Android".

Star Trek was so utopian that even iPads and Androids could coexist.
While the Enterprise is basically a techie's flying holiday resort, you'd have to be stark raving mad to want to live on the Battlestar Galactica. Terrible food, squalid conditions, highly aggressive (though sexually insatiable) crewmates, and the prospect of a horrible death by killer robots / irate crew members / terrorists / the ship falling apart / summary justice / Adama's steely gaze each and every day. Worst of all, unlike Star Trek, I've never seen a single damn one of them drink any tea*. Actually, that probably explains why they're all so very, very angry. That and the genocide, of course.

* Caprica Six claims she does, once, but I don't trust her, on account of being a psychopathic anorexic killer robot.

What worries me is that Star Trek, by its very nature with a happy-clappy, "YAY TRIBBLES !" attitude, is a proven source of inspiration for legions of today's scientists and engineers. Battlestar Galactica isn't going to inspire anyone, because it doesn't contain a single piece of technology anyone either doesn't already have, or would want to invent. Unless you count - like many strange people - Caprica Six, but if anorexic genocidal robots are your thing then you can keep them to yourself, thanks.

"LOOK ! The monitor is too small. We need a viewscreen !"
In fact, I'm not so worried about BSG itself any more than I would worry that Yes Minister didn't feature enough zombie dinosaurs with lasers for eyes. What concerns me is the total lack of inspirational sci-fi shows around at the moment. Even Stargate made an attempt to jump on the "oh let's all be incredibly ANGSTY !" bandwagon, which it did with all the masterful control of a sheep trying to herd a bunch of rabid cats.

Perhaps we don't really need science fiction for inspiration, and this meandering rant hasn't achieved anything. All I know is that Star Trek is one of the two reasons I chose my career (the other is that nebula are goddamn pretty), and this is true for a lot of other people as well. Scientists are by no means Trekkies by definition, and vice-versa. And no doubt some scientists became Trek fans after discovering science, rather than the other way around. Just don't come running to me in twenty years when today's young BSG fans grow up and the hordes of angst-ridden robots start nuking the place.

7 comments:

  1. I'd like to add another point. I just got Netflix and watched Battlestar Galactica for the first time (I was in grad school when it first came out and school took priority). I also have been watching Star Trek: Enterprise again (I DID make time for that, ironically). And I have to say one thing. BSG made a very poor decision in how it tied itself to Earth history (at first it was set in the future, then in the past, then it got very confusing with The Five and Earth's Timeline and how Cylons knew there were 12 but didn't know who the Five were [how could they be certain there were five and not 25, considering the five predated the skinjobs by 4000 years], how Athena knew there were 8 more on the fleet, but not who they were, how "Mitochondrial Eve" got explained wrongly, etc), and then I went back to Star Trek: Enterprise and decided that your blog is absolutely correct.

    Listen to the theme song of Enterprise. It took us a long time, but we followed our hearts and dreams and we built a better world, with images of NASA astronauts on missions, space-walking, and I feel it in my chest every time. I feel connected to it. I feel like ST:Enterprise actually connects with me. BSG doesn't. The first 2 seasons did, but at a primal "this is pretty gritty realistic warfare" at a time of utter darkness for humanity. But by the end of the series, I don't feel connected. The "humanity" I admired was Starbuck, Anders, the Chief, etc. Cylons. Oops. I guess not humanity after all. And it was humanity of the future/past (?) And it was about how the "One God of Cylon Religion" directed the whole thing the whole time. From Adama's mistaken attack (see the Hero episode in Season 3), how Starbuck found Anders because God willed it. Helo's insubordination (killing the five prisoners) was okay for Adama because God willed it. How Balthar knew exactly what to always do, sometimes irrationally, out of character, (literally, Balthar was nothing more than a walking Deux Ex Machina the ENTIRE SERIES), how Boomer became Athena because God willed it. Col. Tigh wasn't killed on New Caprica in captivity and Ellen slept with Brother Cavil because God willed it (they were The Five, obviously). Ugh. So, the heroic valiant effort of those fighter pilots in all those episodes was all irrelevant because the Human/Cylon Mitochondrial Eve was always destined to find Earth again (and the cycle will always repeat, right, due to the collective consciousness, right?) no matter the price paid by anybody. In other words, the way BSG was finally done, it can be summed up in one sentence: Leobin and Caprica 6 were right all along - It is all God's will.

    Whereas Star Trek:Enterprise is NOT that story. Its about the heroism of the human heart and a vision of what we can still be if we try. I just wrote this after watching Terra Nova (Episode 5), and I liked what Captain Archer said to the Terra Novans - "You're human. We're human. Humans help each other. That's what we do." What else is there to say?

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    1. Another bone I want to pick with BSG: So, if the Cylon plan was to get a Human/Cylon love child, and if #8 was intended to be the agent of that, then it makes sense that Boomer would ensnare the Chief right? Well, up until the reveal that Galen (the Chief) was a Cylon. Oops. Maybe Boomer just didn't know he was a Cylon, right? Oh, wait... didn't Balthar almost kill the Chief in order to blackmail Boomer/Athena to tell him "how many Cylons are still hiding in the fleet"? Yes, and did Boomer/Athena know? She did. She said, "eight more." Oops. She did know how many were left (but not that the Chief, who she loved and who was her "human" target was a Cylon? huh?). But she knew there were 8 more hiding. And remember when Adama asked her "will you tell me who they are?" and she said "No." And he said, "I can believe that." Oops. I think what happened was BSG writers got sloppy, didn't think about the overall plot, and realized sometime near the end of Season 3 that they had failed to develop the other 5 hidden Cylons. So, they slapped together a hit-list and shoved a few well known characters into the slots, last minute, and didn't realize how they were unraveling most of the other threads (a lot of what were originally "chekov's guns" turned out to be "red herrings"). And of course, since Balthar/Caprica were just a Deux Ex Machina the entire time (why did he ever give a Nuke to the Cylon agent anyway?), it was pretty easy to just finish out Season 4 with one extended D Ex M. So, Anders' bravery and Starbuck's love for him to return and save him was just a Cylon-Cylon love affair the whole time? Okay, I loved BSG up until middle of Season 3, and then I got confused by the out of character whiplashes, and by the end of the series, I was missing Star Trek. So, now its ST: Enterprise first, then back to the original series with Kirk and Spock, some motion pictures, and then Next Generation. And by the way - I think that if people want some really awesome special effects and other BSG staples (including some political intrigue), they can get it with the new JJ Abrams/Bad Robot alt universe Star Trek movies. Great movies, updated with new tech, and compelling character development. And no worries that Spock's heroism or Kirk's loyalty are just divinely ordained D Ex M plot twists.

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    2. Wow, that's a heck of a reply. :)

      BSG's timeline is indeed confusing, but for me it made a lot more sense on a second viewing. I honestly can't remember any of the details you describe though.

      I personally think BSG is a pretty near perfect show from start to finish, though I understand why not everyone feels the same about the later seasons. Although some of the main characters are Cylons (Starbuck wasn't), for me this doesn't take away their humanity. They behave essentially as humans would in almost every way, the fact that they are not actually human is almost incidental (much as Spock, Data, 7/9 and T'Pol are an attempt at examinations of humanity from and outside perspective, but more extreme : the Cylons are clearly very, very close to being human). Which makes it more interesting, not less : their actions cannot be attributed to them being innately evil, mindless killer robots. Rather their genocidal strike against the humans is not inconsistent with human behaviour, which is very different to the behaviour of - for instance - a Dalek (who would annihilate the humans because of a very simple, straightforward belief that they deserve to die).

      Actually that's the one point I felt BSG was very weak on, especially in The Plan (which was the one BSG episode I didn't like). It is never really explained satisfactorily why the Cylons felt the need to wipe out humanity rather than, say, just move somewhere else. It's a big galaxy, after all.

      Yes, some things happen largely because Deus Lo Plot (the plot wills it), but this is true of every single show ever made, bar none. However, I very rarely (if ever) felt that this caused out-of-character behaviour. It always felt like a natural evolution to me, though I preferred Baltar as a deluded, egotistical scientist than a cult leader.

      I always saw the mystical elements of the show as something not to be taken literally. If you accept the show at face value, I think it's tremendously weakened - especially the ending. There were actually angels all along and everything was predetermined ? Nah, don't buy it. I see it as one interpretation rather than the real truth - and honeslty I wouldn't have wanted the show to have provided all the answers. I prefer to make my own interpretation, e.g. http://astrorhysy.blogspot.cz/2010/09/truth-behind-battlestar-galactica.html :)

      Mind you, the Enterprise theme tune is the worst thing that ever happened to Star Trek apart form the God-awful J.J. Abrams movies. Urrgh.

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  2. On the contrary I found BSG to be completely inspirational in terms of getting me to read about scientific progress. I don't know whether it's because they depict a civilisation not unlike ours in terms of technological capabilities or the fact that the story and characters were so compelling but I'm actually impatient now for FTL and genocidal robots. The thing about the ending that's so frustrating yet symbolically perfect is that we had all this advanced tech 150,000 but they threw it away because of apocalyptic levels of post traumatic stress and the fact that the tech was going to break down anyway. So now it's like, come on, we have to get back to that level. The reason they used nukes in space was that it would be scarier according to Ron Moore, and it is, and more realistic, than magic weapons like photon torpedoes. The formula 1 dimension to the Vipers and the fact that they use bullets instead of lasers just adds a level of coolness and makes you want to see these technological advancements now. So I found it inspirational, it reignited my interest in space where Star Trek had inspired previously, specifically TNG, VOY ruined that inspiration by being so full of smarm and nonsense, regarding technobabble and taking Federation perfection to an irritatingly, unbearable extreme. ENT was similarly rubbish. DS9 was ok but didn't really capture my imagination, BSG was a breath of fresh air and is totally overlooked nowadays. It disappoints me when people say they prefer VOY over BSG, what?! It's Disneyfied, bland, ultimate vanilla TV. Anyway to return to the point, I actually resisted watching BSG for over a decade but when I finally saw it this year it completely changed my expectations about sci fi, I can't watch hokey stuff anymore, TNG and TOS I can watch because they're classics but definitely not Stargate.

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    1. Well, that's certainly an interesting alternative viewpoint, but I think we're going to have to disagree. :)

      I do agree that Voyager is bland, but I've never heard anyone say they prefer it to BSG. I'd probably slap them if they did.

      A photon torpedo is simply an anti-matter warhead, which is perfectly plausible and quite consistent with established Trek and even real-world physics.

      I still love BSG, but to be honest I'm kindof done with bleak sci-fi. Time to get optimistic about the future again.

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