by Jay Johansen | Mar 1, 2004
I just watched Sci-Fi Channel's remake of the old series Battlestar Galactica. Well, part of it anyway. I gave up after an hour and a half or so. It was too depressing. Too typical of modern Hollywood.
I'm not particularly a fan of the original 1978 Battlestar series. I'm not the sort of person who gets so deeply involved in any TV show or movie that I start to think the characters are real and that anyone who criticizes them is insulting my personal friends. I'm not writing this to defend the honor of the "real" Captain Apollo or any such thing. I'm writing it as a commentary on the pathetic world-view of modern Hollywood. (I did think it was an interesting series, that it had a lot of potential but that if often didn't live up to it. But that's another story.)
Why did Sci-Fi Channel decide to do a remake of Battlestar? Surely it was because the series had an enduring popularity. While, as I say, I'm not a great fan of the original series, there are many many people out there who are. SciFi no doubt hoped to cash in on this built-in audience.
Of course like any remake, they had to "update" the story. We expect that. What's the point of doing a remake if you don't have anything new or different to say? You might as well just pop the old one back in the DVD player. But what was SciFi's idea of how to update the story?
As a lover of science fiction, I was impressed with the way the original series didn't look like it was obviously made in California in 1978. For example, I've always found it a little -- naive, for want of a better word -- that characters in most TV and movie science fiction, even when it is supposedly set hundreds or thousands of years in the future, all appear to be from 20th century California. A particularly absurd example: There was an episode of Star Trek in which Kirk realizes that a powerful alien being they have just met is really his planet's equivalent of a mischevious little boy. And to explain this to Spock, he rhetorically ask him if when he was a boy he also didn't pull little pranks, "like dipping little girls' pigtails in inkwells". Ummm ... did they really have inkwells in the Vulcan Science Academy? These people have warp drives and phasors and matter transporters and ... and they write with pens that have to be dipped in inkwells? Even in our time, such a reference is seriously out of date. Maybe when the script-writer went to school they still had inkwells; I don't think I've ever seen one outside a museum. Surely the writers could have come up with some sort of schoolboy prank that would be consistent with the technology they're telling us these people have.
In most Hollywood science fiction, the men wear clothes that look an awful lot like 20th century Western clothes. Just ask yourself: Which would stand out more on the streets of a modern American city: A man dressed as a character from a recent science fiction movie? Or a man dressed in the style of Victorian England? Or traditional Indian garb? Or pretty much any time or place other than current America or Europe? (I use "man" in the non-generic sense here: women in science fiction have a tendency to wear far fewer clothes than anything worn in public in real life. I've concluded that warp drive engines must produce a lot of heat, to make the ships so warm that the women find it necessary to run around in so little clothing. But that's another story.)
The original Battlestar did quite well on that score. The people wear clothes that look different from contemporary Western clothes. They use rectangular coins for money. They play a card game using octagonal cards. The characters have odd -- but not ridiculous or unwieldy -- names like "Tigh" and "Iblis". They have different words for many things, like they talk about a man and woman getting "sealed" rather than "married", which leaves the audience to wonder if it is just a different word for the same thing or if it is not quite the same institution. The series has often been faulted for using a bunch of made-up units of time -- a "yaren", a "micron", and so on. But I thought this was a strong point. Our units of time -- years, months, hours, and so on -- are all based on the motions of the Earth through space -- how long it takes to go around the sun once and so on. These people were supposed to not even know where Earth was, it was just an old legend to them. Why would they be using Earth-based time measurements? Oh, and in what had to be a clever way to make the show work for a varied audience, they invented their own exclamations: When the characters were angry or frustrated they would shout "frack!" or say "what a bunch of faldercarb". It's never clear just how nasty these words are supposed to be. Are they the equivalent of "bummer" and "darn", or are they the height of vulgarity in their culture? That little move let the viewer imagine the talk to be as mild or nasty as seemed appropriate to him.
In the new Battlestar, they tossed all this. The characters wear 20th century American clothes. They use 20th century American language, right down to the slang words and obscenities. (Lots of obscenities.) Their cities all look like Los Angeles. They even went out of their way to rename the characters with 20th century American names, explaining that the names from the old series are nicknames and call signs. Indeed, at one point they refer to the space ship carrying the president of this interplanetary republic by the call sign "Colonial One", an obvious borrowing from the American "Air Force One". Are we really expected to believe that a civilization hundreds of light years away, that has had no contact with Earth for thousands of years, would have coincidentally invented such a similar name for the chief executive's personal vehicle? It's just silly.
As a lover of science fiction, that would have been enough to make me dislike the remake. But as someone who observes our culture, there were far more interesting differences.
In the original series, the main characters are all admirable people. Adama is a wise and decisive leader. Tigh is his practical and dedicated lieutenant. Apollo, Starbuck, and Sheba are brave and daring soldiers. Serena is a loving mother. And so on. Of course to keep them believable they are not perfect. Adama sinks into despair when his wife is killed and neglects his responsibilities. Starbuck is a gambler and a womanizer. Etc. From a literary point of view, they are all characters that we can like and care about. From a realism point of view, they are people we can readily see playing important roles in saving their civilization from destruction: they have the stature and the ability to make things happen.
The remake tears all the heroes down. Starbuck (who is curiously recast as a woman) becomes an obnoxious troublemaker who is in and out of prison. Tigh is indecisive, petty, and an alcoholic. Adama is not widowed but divorced. Apollo is a self-centered jerk.
In the original, Adama's son Zac dies bravely fighting the enemy while politicians dither about sending help. In the remake, Zac dies in a training accident and it's all Adama's fault because he pressured him to join the military when he had no desire or ability to pursue such a career. A loving father who grieves for his son is replaced with a tyrannical father who destroys his son's life -- literally in this case -- by setting standards that he cannot possibly meet. Wow, we've never seen that character in a Hollywood production before.
The producer explained that they wanted to make the characters more "realistic". Sorry, but I have a hard time believing that this sorry set of losers could successfully unstop a toilet, never mind save a civilization on the brink of destruction. Maybe people who spend their lives spaced out on drugs, who are consumed with petty jealousies, who cannot get along with any other human beings ... maybe such people can be succesful Hollywood film producers, but they rarely achieve great things in the real world.
Oh, I mentioned that Starbuck, one of the fighter pilots in the original, was recast as a woman. I presume this was a nod to political correctness, but if so, it was rather pointless. The original already had a number of female fighter pilots among its characters. In the remake, as far as I could see they left out all the female fighter pilots, and then turned some of the male fighter pilots into females. Huh? They even changed a black male -- Boomer -- into a white female. Doesn't this just leave them even on the PC score card? They also changed Tigh from black to white, but maybe after they turned him into a drunken moron they figured it would be less PC to leave him black.
In the original, the people have a religion that at least some of them take seriously. Of course it's not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, because these religions are rooted in historical events that these people would know nothing about. So instead their sacred scriptures talk about how God saved their people when they fled the planet Kobol and that sort of thing. I found this one of the most interesting things about the original series: They had a religion that was not Christianity, but that was the sort of religion that a Christian would expect people living far away on another planet to have. Their religion is tied to specific historical events, it involves belief in God, and it inspires people to hope, ro right moral conduct, and to the pursuit of truth.
In the remake, religion is something that inspires fanatics to kill innocent people.
In the original, the characters are proud that their technology is superior to that of their enemies. Technology is viewed as a creative act that people engage in to solve their problems. Their enemies use technology too, of course. Indeed their enemies are technology -- they're robots. But this just means that technology can be used for good or ill. Indeed, this is pretty much the whole point of one episode, "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero": technology can be used for good or for evil, and it is the responsibility of people to use it properly.
In the remake, people are afraid of technology. The fact that their technology fails them in a crucial scene shows that it is dangerous to rely on it. The fact that their enemies are robots is one more proof that technology is evil.
Battlestar is far from the only example; it's just the last one I happenned to see.
Remember Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible? The original series was about a group of dedicated, intelligent, highly-skilled spies who fight communism. Indeed, in the classic American tradition, they don't even work for the government: they're some kind of independent spy entrepreneurs. I don't recall the characters ever debating whether or not freedom is better than tyranny. The answer was obvious: they just went in there and did their jobs. In the remake, they are turned into a bunch of corrupt manipulators who kill innocent people just to protect their own positions. For of course, to modern Hollywood, the idea of an independent American who fights corrupt foreign governments as a "hero" ... they just don't see that as a believable character. It's almost a side note that the remake was completely unable to reproduce the thing that made the original series interesting -- their complex plots and sophisticated gadgets. The best they could come up with was a miniature hidden video camera. How clever.
Remember A Very Brady Movie? The original was about a (mostly) loving family who solved their problems with honesty, integrity, and hard work. In the remake when the father talks about doing what's "right" it's a big joke, and the family is portrayed as a bunch of simpletons because they don't realize that homosexuality is okay now, etc. As the end credit rolls by, they play a song from the original that talks about a "time for change". But in the original the context was that a boy was growing up and now becoming a man. In the remake the context is clearly that morality has changed and these people just didn't get it.
In the war movies of the 50's, courage and patriotism were the ideal. When a character ran from the battle this was a tragedy: If he was the hero in the story, in the end he would return to the fight braver than anyone. If he was the villain, his shame would be left as a disturbing message for all. In modern Hollywood, the character who stays to fight is portrayed as either a crazed killer or a dupe of the corrupt establishment.
In the romance movies of the 50's, marriage and fidelity were the ideal. When a character considered an affair or divorce this was a tragedy: If she was the hero in the story, in the end she would return to her husband and repair the relationship. In modern Hollywood, a woman who abandons her husband is portrayed as liberated, finally overcoming societal conventions that would trap her in this loveless marriage. (Of course to make the story work, the abandoned spouse is always portrayed as inconsiderate, abusive, or otherwise at fault.) In the old Hollywood the ultimate romance was marriage. In the new Hollywood the ultimate romance is a one-night stand.
In short, the originals and the remakes represent two vastly different world views. When Hollywood decided to remake Battlestar, they had to "modernize" it. That is, they had to replace the worldview of the original writers, who still clung to many outmoded ideas like family and patriotism and faith and honor and intelligence, with a more modern worldview based on cynicism and decadence and mockery.
How typical of modern Hollywood! They look back at the work that their predecessors did in the past -- especially in the 40's and 50's -- and they see that there is something about it that is so much better than what they do today. Not all of it, of course. There was plenty of junk made back then. But there was a lot produced then that was clearly so much better than anything being produced in Hollywood today. And people know it: That's why there's nostalgia for some of those old movies and TV shows. But they don't know how to begin to recapture that quality in an original production, so they try to do a remake. But of course, they have to make it "modern". And so they proceed to gut everything that made the original good and replace it with the same trash they produce every day.
People liked the old Hollywood productions because it upheld the ideals they believe in. People despair of the new Hollywood because it attacks these same ideals. How often have you heard critics praise a Hollywood production with a phrase like "it challenges the audience's middle-class assumptions"? Translation: It deliberately insults the audience. Modern Hollywood delights in telling Americans not only that they are failures. And not because you fail to live up to your ideals, but rather because those ideals are worthless, stupid, and out-of-date.
© 2004 by Jay Johansen
Sasquatch May 23, 2014
I agree about modern Hollywood's disgusting worldview. But there's much to despise about old Hollywood also. As late as the '60s it was common in movies to see a man slap a woman as if that was just the way you dealt with women. Hardly the message I'd want to send to my kids. And while I'm all about honor, bravery, integrity, and other such noble traits some of those older movies went over the line and glorified blind obedience. I can't think of a single movie from any era that captures what I consider my ideal worldview. So I stick mostly to movies with boobs and explosions. That way I don't have to think too much.
Jay Johansen May 25, 2014
Of course it was also common to see women slap men. :-)
Of course it's tough to be precise about broad generalizations. Personally I don't see blind obedience to authority being a common theme in entertainment of the 50s and 60s. Indeed I would think resistance to tyranny WAS a common theme, and that's rather the opposite. We'd have to kick around some examples.