When Battlestar Galactica finished, it took an era of visionary television with it. What’s a TV junkie supposed to watch now?
Thu, May 7, 2009 (midnight)
Illustration by Jeff Drew
Needless confession: I watch a lot of television. As of March 20, I watch a little less.
That’s when Battlestar Galactica broadcast its last regular episode (a follow-up movie, The Plan, will air this fall, thank gods), and more than a month later I still find myself struggling with its absence.
I also find myself still plumbing BSG’s depths, and pondering the fascinating degree to which its conclusion divided fans and critics. In some ways I feel their pain: BSG’s final half-season had a lot of loose ends to tie up with regard to its complex mythology and characters, and not a lot of time in which to do so. So events in Season 4’s second half tended to happen faster than they could readily be absorbed, although that’s something I admired about the show from the start—it demanded that we pay attention to even the least-significant-seeming details, and required a robust, agile memory. The final batch of episodes simply upped the ante, and perhaps people were annoyed because their viewing facilities had grown flabby in the interminable break between the first and last halves of the season.
It’s certainly not because any of these episodes’ disclosures or twists were unnecessary or extraneous, despite the clamor. The reveals, both big and small, all fit beautifully and logically into BSG’s overall arc, and exhibited the narrative dexterity and creative bravado that made it such a pleasure to follow.
Ironically, the big disappointment for most of the faithful was that the show didn’t back away from its focus on religious belief. It’s going too far to say that a metaphysical deity (or deities) directed BSG’s difficult-to-rationalize coincidences and instances of impossibly perfect timing, but what series masterminds Ronald Moore and David Eick left us with was a workable conception of the divine: The strong suggestion that there’s something in the universe larger and more enduring than the petty Manichean divisions of a few billion bipeds—or 40,000, give or take a few hundred—with haphazardly developed cerebral cortexes, and that we bump against it most effectively when our decisions benefit others and not just ourselves. In essence they posited a secular Christianity without the Christ; no wonder people were so torqued.
All of the above strike me as reasons to love BSG even more, so maybe the fan ire is simply a way of easing the pain of so major a loss. If that sounds melodramatic, so be it: It’s not every day, or even every year, that a piece of seemingly disposable pop culture proves to be a bona fide work of art.
Or is it? Between January 1999 and this past March, it was possible to watch fresh episodes of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield and Battlestar Galactica all in a given week. It’s difficult to fathom that so much excellent, form-altering TV aired at the same time—or that Mad Men debuted just a month after David Chase’s sporadically brilliant suburban-mob epic coasted to a halt, and Friday Night Lights came along less than two months after Deadwood's premature death.
Now, with BSG a fading memory (and face it, even the best television has a vaporousness specific to the medium), those last two shows are all that’s left of this brief era of visionary TV. What is there to replace these lost gems? Lost? No, thanks—its characters and premise could be ported over to a sitcom with no alterations, and it’d still be the same show. Heroes? Nope: As BSG proved again and again, the only thing harder to come by than a hero is one you can trust around an airlock. Kings? Only the big-money mooks at NBC Universal would consider a watered-down mash-up of BSG and Deadwood a good idea. Caprica? Let’s hope so: The pilot was smart, graceful and hugely promising, but Sci Fi’s twitchy scheduling habits mean the actual series is at least a year away.
To at least partially fill that gap, and feed my appetite for dark, complex television, I’ve had to leave my comfort zone. Yes, the flow of old television shows on DVD continues unabated, but the offerings grow less involving the emptier the network vaults get. (Those multi-disc sets are too pricey anyway: The studio labels may be immune to the tits-up economy, but I’m not.) And true, legit websites like Hulu and YouTube’s TV-oldies channel stream episodes of old and new series for free, but they generally feature shows that aren’t viable for commercial release or artistic fulfillment (Airwolf, anyone?). Besides, even self-programmed nostalgia orgies grow tiresome after a while—the stuff that’s going to tide me over until the next great new show needs to be edgy and at least somewhat unfamiliar.
Thankfully, the television works of British playwright and science-fiction screenwriter Nigel Kneale are newly accessible. His Quatermass series—three multipart BBC TV plays broadcast live between 1953 and 1959, plus a filmed follow-up from Thames Television in 1979—have stark, sometimes shocking similarities to Battlestar Galactica. All are in a closed-serial format with distinct arcs, and feature apocalyptic milieus, an uncomfortable collision of science and superstition and an ambivalent, tragically flawed lead. Indeed, rocket scientist Bernard Quatermass may end up saving humanity in all four of his eponymous series (The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II, Quatermass and the Pit and just plain Quatermass), but he’s also the one who put us in peril in the first place. Sound familiar?
All the surviving Quatermass episodes are available on Region 2 DVDs—or, for enterprising Yank cheapskates, online as pirated torrents—and all are well worth tracking down, as is Kneale’s 1972 BBC sci-fi ghost story The Stone Tape.
It’s a shame he retired the good/bad professor so soon in his career (Kneale lived and worked for another 25 years after Quatermass), but his restraint is also admirable—and, again, echoes BSG. Like BSG’s Kara Thrace and Ron Moore, Nigel Kneale knew when to burn the corpse and move on.