Battlestar Galactica vs Star Trek vs Lost

OK, I’m going to dip into the geek pool — familiar waters for me, I should add — and give my opinion on the Star Trek versus Battlestar Galactica debate. Sam J. Miller wrote a very good analysis comparing the two shows, highlighting the optimism of the former and the bleakness of the latter, also pointing out how they reflect their respective cultural zeitgeists. As he writes:

“These days, Battlestar Galactica’s warning that technology and progress will bring us to the brink of total annihilation is far more resonant than Star Trek’s hope that technology and progress will solve all of our problems.”

I was never that into the original Star Trek series, but I am a huge fan of The Next Generation. That show was quintessential science fiction, with some brilliantly inventive stories. We got some real mind-benders that dealt with the nature of reality, death, time travel, dreams, free will, and other aspects of human nature. But we also got some intriguing cultural and political parallels of the time — gay rights, abuses of power, the individual versus the collective, war treaties, colonialism, terrorism, etc. Each episode seemed to be a sort of life lesson and a means toward inspiring our better nature. American culture was more positive then, not to mention more innocent.

Ronald D. Moore was one of the principle creative forces on the latter (better) half of the show’s seven-year run. He is also the lead creative force behind his more recent project, Battlestar Galactica. This show displays humanity in a different way. As Miller points out, unlike in TNG, humanity in the BSG future is still very, very flawed. The “heroes” of the show rig elections, assassinate enemies, make bad decisions, destroy themselves, and behave like depressed drunkards. Why shouldn’t they? Most of their species has been eradicated and hope is fading. They’re confused and afraid.

This is the fear that underlies modern society. The fear of today isn’t simply that the Soviets or the Americans will hit the red button at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons; it’s the feeling that this time, perhaps we deserve our own annihilation (again, paraphrasing Miller, but also reiterating my own opinion, which I expressed here a couple months back). It is our own mistakes, our own lack of foresight, our misunderstanding of our enemies, and an inability to change that gives us this feeling that we are unworthy of continuing. This is an oft-echoed theme of BSG, and it’s the reason the show works so well. It’s also the reason that the constructed world of BSG is far more compelling and complex than TNG.

But does that make it a better show? This is where I’m going to disagree with Miller, Moore, and perhaps every media critic out there who adores Battlestar Galactica.

My issues with BSG are not conceptual, because clearly that aspect works. And it has nothing to do with acting or directing or production aesthetics, all of which are outstanding. My problem is that it seems to be purposefully convoluted. To me, the concept is burdening the story.

I’ll give an example: When I saw the movie Crash, I thought it was, well, thought-provoking. And as a provoked viewer I thought some more, and eventually came to the conclusion that I’d been duped. This was not a movie about people and their lives, it was a construct. It was some clever writer and director bludgeoning me with controversy, and it was delivered with forced dialogue, unbelievable coincidences, and uninteresting characters. It’s as if I’m too stupid to understand that racism is a complex issue so you must beat me over the head with it in narrative form. In short, the movie survived on its idea and little else. This is not good storytelling.

I like Battlestar Galactica. I think it’s skillfully executed through effective character dynamics and dialogue, and it gives me a lot to think about. But I’m not overly excited when the next episode comes up, unlike, say, Lost. The problem is that I don’t think it tells a good story. I think it has a good story it wants to tell, but it fails to do so on a consistent basis. For every good episode there are three others that seem to be biding time, mixing up what we thought we knew, abandoning characters, and throwing us another what-the-hell curve ball.

In this way it has similarities to Lost. Both shows have at their plot core an underlying mystery that is yet to be revealed. But Lost is something I do get excited about each week. The reason is that it knows how to tell a mystery. It teases in the right ways, the twists keep me in a state of wonder, and they reveal things while continuing to show something deeper underneath. Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, throws out plot twists, garbled philosophy, religious silliness, and random character changes to keep us eternally confused. I feel as though they don’t really want us to become involved in the mystery. Instead, they want us to remain in a state of confusion until they finally reveal things in their own time.

This brings me back to Star Trek The Next Generation. It bears no resemblance to the things I’ve mentioned above, conceptually, narratively or aesthetically. It has its faults — the future is too clean, too idyllic, and its characters too perfect. And, of course, everything gets tightly resolved in the end. It’s not always a happy ending, but you get some resolution of the story. If BSG is a novel, TNG is a collection of short stories.

What makes The Next Generation a superior show for me is that it satisfies my need for a good yarn. Every episode has characters who struggle with very deep issues. They work through them, trust their instincts, and make the best choice they can. And they learn a little bit more about themselves, about humanity, and about the universe along the way. The characters may lack the depth you find in BSG, but the show has a different form of creative restraint — each episode needs to stand on its own. It’s sort of like if Stravinsky tried to write a 3-minute pop song for guitar, bass, drums, and lead vocals. He couldn’t do it. There’s an art to short stories, more like sculpture. You have to cut away the random tangents and get down to completing the story. Somehow TNG does this while also managing to offer a high level of intelligence and a great display of empathy regarding the characters and their condition. With BSG, we’re always adrift, and more often than not an episode ends with me feeling unsatisfied.

So why does Lost work for me? That show’s an anomaly. It is so brilliantly designed and executed from a narrative aspect. Rather than feeling, well, lost, I can empathize with the ongoing threads of redemption, of science versus faith, and some of the really great love stories it has. These characters have their own individual motives, but they’re all fighting for something. In that regard, it’s also a much more hopeful show. Maybe in times like these, that’s what I really want.


6 Responses to “Battlestar Galactica vs Star Trek vs Lost”

  1. earlgreyrooibos Says:

    I’ve never seen TNG (although I should try it at some point because all of my freinds tell me I’ll love it), BSG and Lost are both tied as my favorite TV show. I do think your assessments of storytelling quality between the two is apt. In my opinion, BSG has gone a little downhill in that respect; I think in its first season, it was Lost-quality narrative, but since then has struggled. And I think that’s because the large narrative has grown almost unmanageably complex. With Lost, you started out complex, but as the mysteries began to unravel, the connections became more obvious. Things are still convoluted, but you can see how things fit. But with BSG, I think things get more complex even when the writers try to explain things, and that’s the problem. They’re not resolving any issues before bringing in new ones.

    Still, I can’t wait to find out the final cylon in 2009 . . .

  2. Great points. I agree completely.

  3. I’d be interested to hear what you think about Firefly. It managed to present a bleak future (hero fought on the losing side of the war, mainstream society is a totalitarian structure, etc) with the well drawn-out characters of Lost and BTG, AND with good humor.

  4. I was just getting into Firefly (via Netflix) when I moved to Korea. So I’ve only seen a couple of episodes. I liked what I saw though, and people seem to rave about it. I’ll have to pick it up again. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. I like both shows. They are each two styles of story telling. The optimism by TNG is very in line with the spirit of the series. BSG is filled with pathos and approaches the human condition in such way that even in our weaknesses and trials there is hope.

  6. I agree completely. This is the reason why I prefer Lost over BSG too. And TNG is good in its own right: it has some extremely good episodes that make you think and change how you see the world, episodes like “Who watches the Watchers”, or the one with the ancient alien hologram telling everyone that all alien races are connected. These episodes have touched me, and molded me, much more than BSG ever will. BSG tells a story of how crapped up humanity is, but I know about it, and I don’t want to waste my time throwing up on myself while watching it. It ain’t fun, and I learn nothing new. Especially its religious and confusing supernatural things piss me off. Sure, Lost has such mystery too, but it’s better constructed, it’s more engaging, and more fun.

    From the people who watch both Lost and BSG, I think that most would prefer BSG. But not me. It’s good, but it ain’t hella good, it’s not fun for me. I prefer to engage my geekiness with puzzles in Lost, rather than this convoluted confusing character squirminess between the BSG characters.

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