Saturday, August 6, 2011

Readers Enjoy Battlestar Galactica

One of the nice things about the dark show Battlestar Galactica (BSG) is that it lessens my loneliness. In a time when most people see the world through a lens of television instead of books, the makers of BSG are surely like me: avid readers. How rare for Hollywood. New York Times best-selling author Rita Mae Brown, another avid reader, reports her frustration at "creative" Hollywood meetings. Everyone makes their references... in terms of other movies! They read not books nor stage plays, neither do they know the world.

Strange—you would think that anyone responsible for millions of dollars would take the time to get some book learning—perhaps they wish to fit in with rich blond hotel-owning peers.

Writer Donald Hamilton, in his grim Matt Helm spy series, spoke for a lot of us: Helm mostly works on American soil.  Like me, Helm has days of feeling alienated and frustrated. An experienced war veteran, Helm finds himself saddled with horrified bungling young partners, always liberals, bungling because their philosophies and actions come from watching TV. Furthermore, Helm's boss, one of the most dangerous men in the world, has a Winston Churchill-like distaste for imprecision or destruction of the English language. Me too. (A courtroom observer may be uninterested; the judge must be disinterested.) As with BSG, I found the Helm series lessened my sense of isolation: Like Helm, I too sometimes wonder what planet liberals come from. I guess liberals spend fewer man-hours reading than they do watching TV.

Helm grew up on a practical ranch; I grew up far from any boob tube city folk. Our shack had a chimney (for coal and wood) but no TV antenna. When Dad built his tar-shingled house over in the next field, using his veteran's allowance, he made sure of one thing: every blessed room had a stout overhead light. He valued reading. I never had to frown and try to keep my book in the light of a lampshade; I never had to drag a table lamp over until my elbow threatened ruin. Now that I'm grown up enough to "waste" money on American hotels I find they are just like American living rooms: designed to encourage TV over reading.

(Fiat lux)

Yesterday a Filipino told me that, like me, she was really struck by the absence of light over here. Back home even cheap hotels have overhead light. My only answer for her was that a Canadian lady once told me that being forced to use lamps "felt elegant." Go figure.

I grew up with a jumbled basement, sans attic. A book lay face up called D-Day 6th of June 1944. A date I can't forget. (Dad landed on the 16th.) Brochures on civil defense lay in a cupboard. I learned that one should put furniture against the walls and windows, and that basement cement would block rays better than a wooden wall. Of course I read novels about atomic attack, such as a Reader's Digest condensed 1954 book Tomorrow! by Philip Wylie, a tale of two towns and their volunteer civil defense preparations. I read stories of life among the ruins. To this day I can't look at a city real estate map, with concentric circles showing the distance to downtown, without thinking of radii of destruction and ground zero.

One year, as an adult in the 1980s, I lived in a boarding house with two young men. They watched a television special movie, The Day After. The men were amazed, simply amazed, to see that atomic war was that bad. I almost bared my canines to snarl, "Where were you in sixty-two?" But I didn't. Those young men had never traveled to '62 or anywhere else. Not via books. Only TV was real.

Years later various men and women who saw Saving Private Ryan told me they had no idea, none, that war was so bad. Again I manfully restrained myself. 'Think positive,' I told myself; 'bless the innocent civilians,' I said. After all, on the idiot box, war was small elite teams with minimal casualties. Real cool. Maybe someone would be wounded in the right shoulder. My father knew better. He knew war was not cool. Not like on Hollywood.

In my big brother's room I once found a signet edition of Robert Heinlein's Revolt in 2100. (Recently I bought that same yellowing edition just for the cover art.) In the story, published in 1948, the U.S. is under a theocracy. The future regime varies from historical oppressions only in the details. Unlike sharia law, all the stonings are impromptu, ...instead of Taliban patroling the sidewalk to whip transgressors, there are secret police. The hero joins the underground. Soon he is considered for work as an assassin, but unfortunately, psyco-aptitude tests are clear: He has an even chance of being caught on his first time out. The real assassins have a kill ratio of "three point seven accomplished missions" before being stopped. They carry cyanide... Is this too grim?

A few years later I read that for tank destroyers in WWII the kill ratio was... three panzers before being killed themselves. One of my fellow writers was with the TD's. He received four bronze stars. I'm grateful he made it back. These sorts of statistics never make it to Hollywood. Non-democracies make life grim for all of us, but at least I can try to learn about them. Like agent Matt Helm I try to be facing life, by reading books, and not always be escaping into television.

(Bronze stars)

And so I am grateful for a little line in Battlestar Galactica. Picture the colonies's best athletes: They had been training in remote hills when the Cylons killed everybody else. So the players begin armed resistance. Eventualy they are found by a lady pilot from the Galactica. A famous team captain gives the pilot his report. I was touched: it turns out the vast majority of athletes they started out with are dead... For Hollywood, that is a rare moment of reality. But BSG has many such moments.

On the first episode of BSG I thought of Matt Helm: I saw how the old executive officer, a war veteran, is hated by the innocent young training crew. Then war—an attack. Suddenly the Galactica is losing air—the old XO slams the airtight door and dogs it shut: trapping and killing the crew on the other side. Now the horrified people really hate him! I stood up, "Yes!" And all this being shown not in a big tragic movie but in a mere TV show.

The makers of BSG read enough to know things. They know that a freedom loving pro-abortionist can change her mind when the world changes... They understand that legalities matter. They know, surely from reading, that a pilot officer carries a side arm merely because it fits in the cockpit; an army officer carries a dinky little pistol for a different reason. Near the end of season three, gentle old Adama figuratively puts his pistol to the head of a young woman beloved to him, and to we viewers, and says, his tears held back, that he will kill her if that is what it takes to ensure that all future orders, no matter how unwanted, will always be instantly carried out... This echoes a young officer in the episode Fragged, and seasoned officers on the Battlestar Pegasus. It ain't pretty, but then again, truth does have a special beauty. War is not like TV...

(Eternal present)

I suppose "watching TV and never reading" is the secret to being an irresponsible liberal: staying in a bubble of now-time. Never weaving together a personal sense of world history. Focusing on a TV-like eternal present without consequences .... And if such a person gives loud narrow-eyed opinions then conservative people holding library cards will back away and be silent; then he can tell himself that smart conservatives don't matter, don't count, and shouldn't even be around us liberals...

A certain BSG episode about civilian resistance "is almost unwatchable" said a friend. I agreed. I am reminded of that French-made documentary that exposed French WWII resistance, The Sorrow and the Pity. By interviewing witnesses it achieved great power, going unseen in France for ten years although you could watch it here. I saw it only once, with all my brothers, on a black and white TV with rabbit ears. The documentary, probably unseen by lovers of TV daytime soap operas, was my first exposure to irony, or counterpoint, or whatever you call it, because at the end of that horrible show a man appears on camera to say he will sing a happy song. He ends the show singing!...

Today I'm amazed, and grateful, that BSG has tackled such subjects as the sorrow of resistance and the pity of human suicide bombers. The producers and writers are not afraid to read, not afraid to tell.

As one of the older seasoned actors, Edward James Olmos, said, "You will never see another program like this again in your lifetime."

Sean Crawford
wishing for someone to say,
"Let me tell you about this book I'm reading!"

~ Commander Adama is no Captain Kirk: at the start of the mini-series he is being retired because he is not good enough to make admiral; his old XO is not good enough to make captain.

~Ms Brown's harsh observations of Hollywood are in her book Starting From Scratch: A Different kind of Writer's Manual.

~A good explaination of "infotainment" is in Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death.

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