Lauren and I watched Battlestar Galactica end-to-end over the course of the last couple of months. I thought the form was more interesting than the content.
The Form · It seems like a new thing in the world to me. That is to say a serialized drama, planned out (to some degree at least) in advance, with a central story arc which has a beginning, middle, and end, and an aggregate length measured in the dozens of hours (BSG has 75 episodes).
There are obvious precursors, on both sides of this mixed marriage, from Dickens’ serialized bestsellers to All in the Family. Of course, it’s all about storytelling — no human communication is ever not about storytelling.
But length matters a lot; and the single greatest failing of the cinematic arts has been that movies are too short. You can take a fine short story and capture its essence in a fine movie, for example James Joyce’s The Dead. But big books? More hits than misses, and the hits leave too much on the table.
Now they’re not too short any more. I look at BSG and Lost and The Wire and their ilk and they’re a good thing. But there are a lot of great books out there that resist cinematization largely for reasons of scale. Or used to. Like how about, just from the Twentieth Century, Seth’s A Suitable Boy, or the Gibson “Sprawl” series, or Updike’s “Rabbit” books?
Directors have always struggled against the shackles of time. One of the nice things about BSG was that they could take scenes that needed to be played slow, and play them slow, whether or not they were critical to the story’s progress. I look forward to those particular frontiers getting pushed way back.
The Critical Apparatus · People have always loved not just stories, but meta-stories; writing about writing. And here I am, writing about writing about writing: for example, Lostpedia and Battlestar Wiki and so on. What a concept: living lit crit.
They could have tried way harder on consistency and continuity.
The female actors were so much stronger than the males.
The finale totally should have stopped with Adama on the hillside.
Now I want better music in all my TV shows.
Those of us in Vancouver enjoyed it more than the rest of you, because all those planets are just places round town here.
I already said this, but I admired that they had the courage to go slow, now and again.
Also admirable; some of the leads weren’t pretty people.
How-To · We got sucked into Lost, and detoured through BSG while waiting for the Season Five DVDs. Which reinforces the lesson that there’s really no good reason to watch TV on TV. Wait for the damn series to be over already and then consume it at your pace. Just like you would a big book.
Comment feed for ongoing:
From: Chris Jefferson (Dec 14 2009, at 00:34)
I agree with what you say, except for the "new thing". Babylon 5 was a multi-series sci-fi series based in space with multi-series plot lines planned in advance long before the new BSG.
From: Adam Fitzpatrick (Dec 14 2009, at 00:42)
I completely agree with you on The Form - I think it's one of the reasons I enjoy television so much more than film - except for the part where you're obviously trolling fans of Babylon 5, to which all of that first paragraph applies.
From: Aleksey (Dec 14 2009, at 01:00)
Under each word.
Especially last point about going at your pace. Regrettably, channels will not listen to this, canceling shows with low ratings.
Hard to imagine smb filming smth like BGS keeping in mind DVD release.
It's very geeky, but I can't but mention Firefly, The Drive, Dollhouse (apparently). 4400?
As for BGS - it's really the way you put it. Telling a long novel more than just showing episodes. They also have nice 1:30 cinema about Silon birth.
From: Henning Brinkmann (Dec 14 2009, at 01:20)
I share your view about the form.
However, the first TV show with a central story arc I can remember is Babylon 5 (5 seasons, 122 episodes) that started in 1994. :-)
From: Vassilis Rizopoulos (Dec 14 2009, at 02:10)
Have to second all the B5 references. It was the first and I think still the best sample of this form.
The BSG plot line is more linear, Lost feels like it's been made up along the way with an effort for consistency.
B5 was conceived beginning to end before it was shot.
Even there you notice the 5th season was added on as the main stories wrapped up on the 4th season under threat of cancellation.
B5 was also the first series I watched in one shot (friends send us VHS tapes from the States. It took us about a week to get through the first 4 seasons - had plenty of free time back then) and since then I don't really watch series on television.
From: Jonathan Hartley (Dec 14 2009, at 02:25)
Agreed all over. We loved it here too.
For the record, if there had been a method to pay the creators to download it instantly by bittorrent, then I would have signed up immediately, even for higher prices than the DVD.
But there was not, so rather than wait for the DVD to be released, I just illegally downloaded it for free instead.
Even that was a net financial win for the creators: The number of people I have recommended it to, plus the number of people I have actually bought DVDs of it for, far outweighs any loss they made from me stealing it in the first place.
From: Janne (Dec 14 2009, at 06:07)
This form is much older than that. Here in Japan the pre-planned limited-time drama series is an old television staple, old enough at least that my wife remembers them as a child, and I'm sure Japan is not the first place to have them.
They typically run three months or six months with one one-hour episode per week, though there's plenty of scope for variation. A very popular series about the life of a popular author ran as a fifteen-minute episode every morning for six months, for instance. And just as you say they run one overall story arc, and fairly often they are adaptations of an existing novel.
From: Gordon Haff (Dec 14 2009, at 08:17)
Star Trek Deep Space 9 is another example of a serialized science fiction series, albeit somewhat less intensely so than the other examples. (And, yes, I'm aware that there's controversy around the fact that DS9's similarity to B5 may not be purely coincidental.)
From: Paul Guinnessy (Dec 14 2009, at 08:22)
If you get Netflix Live you can watch it while you wait for the discs to turn up.
From: John Cowan (Dec 14 2009, at 09:22)
*Upstairs, Downstairs*: single story arc, conceived in 1969, aired from 1971-75, story time 1903-1930, 68 episodes. The (anglophone, at least) granddaddy of them all.
From: jim Harvie (Dec 14 2009, at 09:46)
Your point about movies being too short to properly portray a novel is the basis for the old saw about the book always being better. Look how much it cost, both financially and screen time, for Peter Jackson to get Lord of the Rings made into a movie.
Television has always done a series of continuing stories along with short one episode plots. Think Coronation Street or any soap. Hill Street Blues mastered it on American TV and before that the Sandbaggers, which the BBC would not finish after the death of the writer.
More recently Carnival ended its one and only season with a great teaser for next year. Alas not to be.
Too bad these media giants don't really get the changing patterns of viewing.
From: Matthew Ernest (Dec 14 2009, at 10:23)
"there’s really no good reason to watch TV on TV"
Someone has to watch it on TV so that there are 4-5 seasons for you to consume on DVD after the series is over, instead of only 13 episodes of a canceled 1st season.
From: len (Dec 14 2009, at 11:36)
It's good. It struggled to tie up loose ends and telegraphed the ending. Too many problems with reimagining the original and not being able to keep the various subplots under control.
Great soundtrack. Do see the 'background' information on that. Interesting sources. Awesome in 5.1 with a decent woofer.
Overall for a conceived set of arcs, Babylon 5 did a better job although it felt like it jumped the shark toward the end. Cinematography definitely better in Battlestar.
From: Eric Meyer (Dec 14 2009, at 11:55)
I knew the B5 fans would descend on this post. I know, because I'm one of them.
I'll throw in a friendly word of warning, Tim: if you decide you want to try out B5, be prepared for some fairly clunky dialogue and acting, especially in the first season. Avoidance of that initial clunkiness is something I think recent long-form shows have gotten much better at minimizing (not perfect, but much better). And in fairness, the writing and acting for B5 did get noticeably better as the show progressed. It's much like ST:TNG, whose first season is mostly cringe-worthy but which eventually hit its stride and produced some really exceptional episodes.
What kept me going when it was on, besides my youth and abundance of free time, was how a minor in-passing comment would pay off BIG six episodes later. Or even two seasons later. It was really something to behold, and latecomers tell me it still is.
And if you stop at the end of B5 season four, it might be for the best. You can skip to the very last episode ("Sleeping in Light") after finishing S4 and suffer nothing at all. In fact, some would argue you'd gain a great deal by taking that approach.
From: Hub (Dec 14 2009, at 13:31)
BSG has, to its credit, captured non Sci-Fi audience which is quite a performance.
According to one of the featurettes, several of the lead actor gave a chance to the show reading the script, because of an introductory note from the producer/creator of what they wanted to achieve: a show that was really centered around the characters, where Sci-Fi is just a part of the decor, instead of being part of the excuse. This note was actually not intended for the actors, it was mistakenly left, with a very positive effect.
I think it sets a new standard, far away from Star Trek.
From: Michael Ashbridge (Dec 15 2009, at 00:24)
See also: "Megamovies, TV shows as days-long movies"
From: Fabian Ritzmann (Dec 15 2009, at 00:24)
I am recording TV series on my hard disk recorder and delete them after watching. Why would I buy a DVD set that I am going to watch only once?
From: Matthew Laird (Dec 22 2009, at 12:08)
I also have to second all the Babylon 5 references.
If you can get over the campy acting, this series had a predefined story arc over 5 years. The first season was a little weak, and it got shifted up a little when there was debate over if a 5th season would even happen, but overall it goes this same continuity.
Where in later seasons you can look back and go, "Ooooh, look where that old story fragment led to..."
It's well worth a watch if you're looking for something to occupy your evenings.