Thursday, April 02, 2009

BSG, How I Heart Thee

By Marcus Sakey

It should come as a surprise to no one that I’m a big Battlestar Galactica fan. In fact, I’d have to say that it’s probably the best television show I’ve ever seen. I don't mean to disrespect The Wire, or Rome, or Firefly, but I don't think any other show has matched the breadth, ambition, and accomplishment of the series. Around 80 hour-long episodes, each better than the last. No other show has tackled so much—the war on terror, patriotism and its dangers, religious zealotry, faith and belief—while still managing to be a flat-out blast to watch, a thrill ride peopled with characters that I actually miss.

Anyway, last week my friend Alison Janssen, the talented-and-lovely editor of Bleak House Books and a fellow geek, emailed me to say that she had managed to get hold of the series bible, and would I like one?


A series bible is a document prepared by the lead writers of a television show that lays out the backstory of the characters, the style of the writing and direction, and the overall feel of the program. It’s a way to assure that writers working on separate episodes maintain a consistent tone.

This one is penned by Ronald Moore, a legendary sci-fi writer and the creator of the show. It includes some of the finest, most concise writing advice I’ve ever read. Hopefully Moore won’t mind if I post a segment or two here; no spoilers, and I think that writers, readers, and fans can all gain something from them.

(Ron, if you're out there and object, please email me and I’ll yank it immediately—and probably write you a love poem in iambic pentameter. Also, before anybody asks, no I won’t make you a copy, and neither will Alison. Unfair, I know, but I’m not really in the mood to piss off a guy I admire.)

Anyway. A few select bits:
“The key to the success of this series is to never, ever let the air out of the balloon--the Battlestar Galactica lives in a perpetual state of crisis, one in which the Cylons can appear at any moment, and where terrorist bombs, murders, rebellions, accidents, and plagues are the unfortunate routines of day to day life. There are no days off for our characters, no safe havens, nothing approaching the quiet normal existence they once knew. They are on the run for their very lives.”
That's a feat they managed to accomplish for 80 episodes. And they did it without wandering into the silly or exploding the premise.

From a section titled “Plot-Driven Stories”:
“Our plot-driven stories should be reality-based problems that our people could conceivably face on a journey like theirs. They have run into the night with little more than the clothes on their backs and whatever happened to be stowed on the ship on the day the world came to an end. Finding food, fuel, and air supplies are going to be never-ending problems as are dealing with the real-life difficulties in rationing those same supplies…

Our stories should spring from within the fleet wherever possible. In other words, we should avoid storylines which begin with, The Galactica discovers a strange space phenomenon which… Our goal is to tell human stories that are a natural outgrowth of the premise of the show.”

Which is immediately followed by a section called “Character Stories”:

“Our show is, first and foremost, a drama. It is about people. Our characters should always be the most important element of every story. Breaking the traditional rule of the genre, we should sacrifice plot at every turn in favor of character. Time spent discussing the technical problems of outwitting the latest Cylon plot will be better spent dealing with the emotional fallout of the Adama / Lee relationship.

Do not be afraid to expose our characters’ faults, for in their frailties also lie the seeds of their triumphs…Our people are deeply flawed, deeply human characters. They are not, by nature, innately heroic or noble creatures. They do not always make the right decision and do not always do the right thing. They make mistakes, act out of pettiness and spite, and occasionally do things that are reprehensible. However, they are also capable of growth, of change, of learning to overcome their many flaws and rising to he challenges laid before them and performing great and mighty deeds.

They are human.”
For any aspiring writers out there, read those again. Then again. There's gold in them.

If you haven't seen the show, by the way, start at the beginning, with the original miniseries. My money says you'll be hooked from the drop.


Barbara D'Amato said...

Great stuff, Marcus.
But can't we have the love poem in iambic pentameter too?

Alison said...

Dear Ron Moore,

Please come take me away and let me watch you work, every day, all the time. I can cook you mac'n'cheese. I'll use food coloring to make it look like a maelstrom. It'll be totally cool, you'll love it.

You're a genius,

(Not iambic, but from the heart.)

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Around 80 hour-long episodes, each better than the last.

That to me is the great triumph of that show. I can't think of another series that was so consistently good for such a long period of time, nor one that built so successfully to a climax. I'm not sure that I would say that each episode was literally better than the next--for me, the New Caprica story arc, with its inversion of um, current events (vague language in effect to avoid even hint of spoilerage), was the highlight of the whole series, but the comparison does nothing to diminish the seasons that followed. In fact the events on New Caprica ended up being the wrench that torqued the tension for the rest of the series.

To your point, though, if there was ever a series that begged to be watched from the beginning, it is BSG.

Sean Chercover said...

What is this television you speak of?

Okay, I have the miniseries and first season on DVD - thanks, Jon! - and I'm gonna buckle my seat-belt and start the ride...

"By your command."

Anonymous said...

For a newcomer, what is the order in which I should watch the series? Start with "Miniseries"--that I take it is a recap of the "old" version? Then what, go to season one? What about "Razor"?

Steerpike said...

Anonymous - if that is your real name - you can safely disregard the "old" series and movie. Just start with the new Sci Fi channel miniseries. Then watch the seasons in order up to the end of, say, Season 3. Then take a break and watch Razor. Then go back and watch Season 4.

Like Marcus and Alison I absolutely loved the series, and I loved how it ended (this is a bone of contention with some fellow BSG fans). As corny as it sounds, BSG was very much a modern day Odyssey - or perhaps it's more accurate to call it a noncheesy fictionalificiation of life after the Rapture. I always felt that the experiences of the characters matched what I'm told will happen once the Tribulation starts and God and Jesus are hurling the hardcore thunderbolts, and the writing is way, way better than those appalling "Left Behind" books.

I had the opportunity to hear Ron Moore speak at the Game Developers Conference some years ago, and he gave a 1.5 hour lecture titled "Building a Better Battlestar" - that is, taking a piece of mythology that already existed and then tuning and optimizing it to achieve his own goals. It was quite eye-opening, and it sounds like this bible was a crucial guide for that.

Nothing on television has compared to BSG's brutality, its bleakness, its nihilism, and its mythic sensibility. Even if you don't consider yourself a fan of science fiction, you owe it to yourself to at least try this show, because it is sci fi in the same way Unforgiven is a western.

Marcus, I am your blood, I'm exempt from your "no copy" rules. I'll expect it by post shortly. I'll even pay shipping. :)

Marcus Sakey said...

I loved the New Caprica sequence too, including the webisodes.

I'm watching the series again now with my wife, and it's interesting seeing it a second time and realizing how many nuances are changed once you know where it's going, and who is who. There are some wonderful ironies that just had to be intentional, and yet wouldn't be revealed for a year or more. That kind of planning and world-building staggers me.

Interesting to compare BSG to the Rapture; that fits quite well. I like.

Jared said...

I am lucky to work at a place where there is a digital projector handy and that goes virtually unused at lunchtime. A group of about 6 of us started BSG Mondays in January and are nearing the end of Season 1. In fact, one of us was so hooked that he went ahead and did some extra-curricular work between Mondays. He's somewhere in Season 4 now. I'm enjoying it, and even though we won't be done for over a year, I'm looking forward to the buildup and finale already.