Television

The unified Battlestar Galactica compilation post

For a while it seemed that every other post over at Bleedingfool.com involved Battlestar Galactica, specifically its terrible "reboot."

In fact, I've pulled it apart in so many different ways, I think it would be useful to have a handy place to reference the collection, so here we are.

These are the ones at Bleedingfool.com:

Yes, Battlestar Galactica (2004) was the First Punitive Remake

Battlestar Galactica’s Reboot was the forerunner of SJW Hollywood

Battlestar Galactica ’78: The Original Space Western

At the time I was also in a habit of doing posts linking to stories when they posted and adding some addition commentary here at Chateau Lloyd, so here are those links:

My Battlestar Galactica piece is up

Battlestar Galactica revisited

 

 


The faith of Babylon 5

Over at Bleedingfool.com I've got an article up celebrating that lost gem of the 1990s, Babylon 5.

One of my challenges in writing it was keeping my admiration for the show in check, because there is so much about the show to like.

I watched the entire run when it was on live TV of course, and subsequently got the DVDs and binge-watched it twice more.  I'm thinking I might be due for another viewing.

One thing I touched on that's germane to my current Spirit World kick is the degree to which all of the characters on the show not only have some form of religion, but this actually directs their actions.

That's not very common these days as politics have replaced religion.  It's worth mentioning that none of the Star Trek versions ever bothered with a ship's chaplain.  Oh, they had empaths and therapists, but no one regularly participated in prayer services.  When it was shown, faith was always individual.

Babylon 5, by contrast, highlighted how even aliens had a belief system that touched on the supernatural.  It is considered a universal feature of sentient life.

Whether one looks at the near-Islamic Narn, Dionysian Centuri or mystic Minbari, religion was a core part of the group's identity and how each character expressed that was a key part of their personality.

Another element that stands out is that the humans are portrayed as every bit as reverent as the aliens.  This also cuts against the grain.  The classic rule in Hollywood is that only non-Christian cultures have sincere religious faith; Christians are either hypocrites or raving lunatics (often both).

Babylon 5 doesn't do that and as the years go by, I appreciate it more and more.


Ghost hunting, psychics and spiritual warfare

Years ago (back when we had cable/dish service), my wife loved to watch those "reality shows" on ghosts.

I use the scare quotes because the shows were heavily edited, using spooky music, jump cuts and emphasizing reaction shots over actual footage.  Essentially, they were Scooby Doo in reverse, trying to assure the innkeeper that yes, your property does have ghosts so they can including it in their promotional materials.

At the time, I considered it nothing more than a low-rent TV version of The Blair Witch Project, but now I wonder if they were onto something.

Monsignor Stephen Rossetti - the titular exorcise in Diary of an American Exorcist - notes that these shows may be bogus, but they are based on the uncomfortable truth that the spirit realm is real.  He does not discount the existence of ghosts but says that what the low-light cameras and thermal lenses are likely tracking are demons, not the restless dead.

Similarly, the shows about psychics who can put people in touch with dead relatives are also powered not by a benign connection, but an infernal one.

As Father Rossetti notes, demons lie whenever it suits them.  It's perfectly consistent with them to tell someone what they want to hear to undermine Christian faith.  After all, if you can communicate with the dead, why bother praying or going to church?

There's also the secular angle - the notion of using technology to pierce the veil between the seen and unseen worlds.  It acknowledges the spirit realm, but remains faithful to the "science is real" religion by pretending that tools and curiosity can explain the secrets of the universe.

Assuming the hunters are in fact uncovering real phenomena, one wonders if the "work" ever follows them home.


Ford Madox Ford vs Evelyn Waugh part 2: Comparing The Good Soldier and Brideshead Revisited

A few months ago I wrote about the striking similarities and also the profound differences between two of the greatest English writers of the Twentieth Century: Ford Madox Ford and Evelyn Waugh.
 
I chose to conduct my comparison between them based on their war novels because in both subject matter and scope they had a great deal in common.  Unfortunately, for most people these works remain obscure.  Evelyn Waugh has by far the greater following today, but only die-hard fans have read (let alone heard of) his Sword of Honour trilogy.
 
Ford Madox Ford has (unjustly) fallen into obscurity, and while HBO produced a miniseries on his Parade's End series, I doubt that it drove many people to pick up the books, which remain difficult to obtain.
 
Upon reflection, a better basis would be the most popularly known works of the two authors: Ford's The Good Soldier and Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
 
If one does a search for Ford's work, this is by far the most popular option and there are many editions available for purchase.  Ford himself considered it his masterpiece (admittedly this was before he wrote Parade's End), and critics (which have the benefit of reading the latter work) still prefer The Good Soldier.
 
Brideshead Revisited, on the other hand, is quite widely known, not only as a book but also as a peerless television adaptation. (There is a movie, but no one should watch it.)
 
With those preliminaries out of the way, let's dig in.
 
Points of Similarity
 
Right from the start we can note some significant similarities.  Both books are narrated in the first person by a participant who is looking back at the events described.  Ford's narrator is John Dowell, an American of an old Philadelphia family married to Florence Hurlbird, who is from a prominent Connecticut family.
 
Dowell clearly is proud of his lineage, and considers himself part of the gentry class, but socially he is still outside the British world of the landed aristocracy.   He is comfortable among them, but not one of them.
 
Waugh chooses Charles Ryder to narrate his work, and while is comes from money and is able to gain entrance to Oxford, he is socially inferior to the sons of the aristocracy with whom he interacts.
 
Both men marry poorly, and both will feel the sting of adultery by their wives.
 
The tales cover a considerable amount of time, with Ford's running more than a decade while Waugh's spans about twenty years.  Both stories take place amidst the background of material comfort, and eulogize a social scene whose day has already passed.  Ford is documenting the sunset of the Edwardian Age when the idle rich could spend their days visiting spas and taking "cures" for whatever hypochondriac condition they've decided they have.
 
Thus, the scene constantly shifts as they cycle to various resorts and only at the end to we get to see the home of the primary subject of the novel, the estate of Captain and Lady Ashburnham.
 
As the name suggests, Waugh's tale centers around the hereditary seat of the Marquess of Marchmain, Brideshead. Charles first encounters the place on holiday from Oxford and is slowly drawn into the dysfunctional world of the Flyte family through his friend Sebastian.  The scene shifts several times, including the family's London residence, Oxford, and also Venice, where Lord Marchmain lives in comfortable self-imposed exile.
 
Both tales therefore take place within the comfortable circuits of the upper classes.
 
The Wimp vs The Aesthete
 
One of the most significant differences is the portrayal of the narrator.  John Dowell is about as unreliable as one can get, constantly shifting his story as new information is revealed.  He comes across not only as a cuckold, but a rather meek and gullible one at that.  Clearly Ford is taking aim at the social rules of the time, which required a great deal of hypocrisy to maintain the veneer of respectability.  The Ashburnhams and the Dowells are quite contemptible in their own ways, and there's plenty of commentary already out there on the deeper meanings of the roles.
 
Suffice it to say that no one really comes out as either decent or even sympathetic.  No doubt Ford - who was already casting aside moral restraint in his own life - was making a pointed statement about everyone else who would presume to judge him.  He does the same Parade's End, having his main character (Christopher Tietjets) announce that just about every aristocrat is the product of an adulterous relationship.
 
One weakness of Ford's book is that Dowell is so much of a wimp.  It's hard to conceive that such a meek creature can even exist, let alone avoid almost immediate bankruptcy.  Even the most robust fortune can be squandered, and Dowell shows no evidence of prudence.
 
Charles Ryder, by contrast, is far more realistic and therefore sympathetic.  Like John, he teases out information slowly, often forcing a reappraisal of what's going on after key facts are revealed, but he is far more reliable as a narrator.
 
His character is also much more complex.  Chilled by the death of his mother, he is something of an introvert and the exuberant and eccentric behavior of Sebastian Flyte comes as a revelation to him.  Some readers have insisted that the relationship is homosexual, but this obviously false.  Ryder wants to be Sebastian, not have sex with him.  Moreover, Waugh himself has never pulled punches regarding homosexuality in his writing and the presence of the flamboyantly gay Anthony Blanche in the book is proof of that.  Waugh skillfully leads the reader to the suggestion of a relationship, however, because he wants to make it clear that Ryder is utterly obsessed with the Flyte family.
 
It is worth noting that Charles' idolization of Sebastian is paralleled by John's admiration for Captain Ashburnham, but the situation is profoundly different.  Captain Ashburnham is of course sleeping with Mrs. Dowell (and other women as well), and John has a perverse admiration for his way with women and exploitative assertiveness.  It is a creepy obsession, filled with self-loathing masked as compassion. 
 
By contrast, Charles' friendship with Sebastian slowly fades as young Lord Flyte descends into uncontrolled alcoholism.  As the story proceeds, Charles' friendship with Julia Flyte cements the notion that he wasn't so much in love with Sebastian as with the lifestyle and status of the Flyte family as a whole.
 
Another contrast can be found in the way Charles decides to leave Oxford and strike out on his own as a painter.  While John Dowell is a man of refinement, Charles Ryder is a true aethete, fascinated by art and composition.
 
Of course, Charles will eventually become a captain in the British Army, and Waugh's description of his disillusionment of military service (likening it to a failed marriage) remains one of the great passages of English literature.  This also puts him in stark contrast to John Dowell who ends the story as he starts it: a hopeless caregiver.
 
A Question of Faith
 
Both novels can be read as tragic stories, chronicling dysfunctional relationships that mark the highest levels of society.  However, Brideshead Revisited has a secondary purpose: it is a conversion story.
 
Several characters in the course of the book have chances to choose Ford's ideal outcome of throwing aside convention and proceeding with their heart's desire.  Indeed, given the eroded morality of the 1930s, such a move carried much lower social costs than in Edwardian England.
 
However, Waugh flips the script, and in the process demonstrates that there are other considerations more important than one's temporary satisfaction.  Life isn't about just us, it's about faith as well, and how our actions help or harm others. 
 
Contrast this with Ford's story which ends miserably for almost everyone.  The one exception is Captain Ashburnham's wife Leonora, an Irish Catholic who Ford's narrator distrusts and later vilifies - but always in a backhanded, apologetic way.  He even remarks near the end of the tale how Catholics have "queer, shifty ways" but always end up right.
 
It is important to recall that Ford himself converted to Catholicism, married and had children before launching into a series of open affairs, one of which resulted in a lawsuit.  He never reconciled and for the rest of his life seemed determined to find a perfect romantic happiness beyond the constraints of society and faith.  He didn't.

By the end of his life, his reputation and literary influence - two things he treasured - were in decline and the writers he once nurtured are alleged to have backed away from him.  One reason he fell into obscurity is that he had no champion to promote his work.

Waugh's final years were not particularly easy as money and ill-health continually afflicted him, but because he maintained an intact family, it was possible for them to sustain his reputation after his death.  Of his many children, Auberon Waugh became an accomplished writer in his own right, and his son (Alexander Waugh) has continued to sustain the family's literary name.
 
It's interesting to note how many writers are indebted to a literary heir to keep their reputation alive.  J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis come to mind, and there are other examples of how "literary societies" only come to fruition if there's someone dedicated enough to get them going.  Ford Madox Ford spent several years teaching at Olivet College in Michigan, but you'd never know it from their web site.  But I digress.
 
A key point is that Waugh doesn't show faith as way to obtain a traditional happy ending.  Many of the characters who find it (or reclaim it) are often worse off than before.
 
But what they get in return is a sense of purpose, and renewed strength to sustain them.  The line of the Marchmain family will come to an end in the present generation, but in the process, faith will be restored in its members and spread to others whom it otherwise would not have reached.  That's a good and worthwhile thing, more important than who owns a lavish estate.
 
Faith was a major part of Waugh's war novel, and it also permeates Brideshead Revisited.  Ford's books carry no such message and while The Good Soldier has a far more complex and innovative structure and style than Waugh's work, it's ultimately empty.  It can in fact be dismissed a story of miserable people doing miserable things to each other and lying to themselves about it.
 
Waugh's portrait of the Marchmains is one of a family is slow collapse, but there's so much more going on that people continue to turn to it for enjoyment and inspiration.
 
As an admirer of both, I unquestionably enjoy Brideshead Revisited more.  Repeated readings bring renewed appreciation for Waugh's talent.  The Good Soldier doesn't have the same effect, and while one can go back and admire Ford's craftsmanship, the story itself is just unpleasant to read.
 
Still, as I said in my other piece, Ford's writing was known and available to Waugh.  If his tale of the idle rich is inferior to that of Waugh, it is still an important milestone in literary development.  Both books are well worth your time.

Unintended works of genius

I'm not sure if anyone has noticed, but my ruminations here often find their final form over at Bleedingfool.com.  Since I don't always bother to link to my articles (because I don't always know when they run), prudent readers should check the site from time to time.

My latest concept is how it often happens that a creator's vision is thwarted in some way, with the result that the finished product is better than it otherwise would have been.

One of the catalysts for this has been my recent viewing of The Caine Mutiny, which differs from the book insofar as Humphrey Bogart is considerably older than his character, Capt. Queeg.

In theory, this should be a problem, but in fact it makes for a much better story.  In the book, Queeg is a jerk and a coward, a villain devoid of any redeeming qualities.

For the film adaptation, the character was subtly changed - Queeg is a seven year veteran of the Navy, but there is a remark that he has 14 years "at sea," which means he was a merchant sailor prior to joining the service.

Bogart wears a class ring, so presumably Queeg went to the Merchant Marine academy, captained a merchant ship and then decided to pursue a direct commission into the Navy - perhaps because the Great Depression was hurting trade.

This career path is very similar to the one followed by James Cagney's character in Mister Roberts.  Both men have a chip on their shoulder, both are older than normal for the rank they hold, and in the case of Queeg, the strain of combat duty has proven too much.  This makes Queeg much more sympathetic and interesting.

It also met the Navy's requirement that the story be altered in order for them to participate.  The book painted a very unflattering picture of the Navy, particularly in who could rise to positions of authority.  Herman Wouk might well complain that the integrity of his work was compromised by self-interest and politics, but I think the result is far superior.

There is a tendency for people to treat books as authoritative, particularly if they are fictionalized accounts of historical events or experiences.  With greater creative freedom, books can "go there" and reveal the dark sinister truths that otherwise would be unspoken.

This view is particularly prevalent in the military, where disparaging one's service can be a career-ending experience.  However, the shield of creative license can also be used as an offensive weapon as well.  Using a thinly-disguised work of fiction to settle scores is a time-honored way to skirt libel laws (particularly when they were more rigorously enforced).

For example, Pat Conroy's The Great Santini was a bitter, angry attack against his father.  When it was made into a film, the decision to cast Robert Duval necessarily make the character of Santini more sympathetic, and some changes were made to the story to make him  more likeable. 

In the process, the character became more believable.  Again, the artist's vision (and goal) of vicarious character assassination was thwarted, but with the result of making a better work of art.

Don't be surprised to see a longer discussion of this in the near future, because I think it's worth examining.

 


I'm not a fan of the Amon Sul podcast on Lord of the Rings

Based on my enjoyment of the Lord of Spirits, I thought for sure I'd love Father Andrew Stephen Damick's Tolkien-centric Amon Sul podcast.

Not so much.

I think I'm fairly near the upper end of the Tolkien fandom spectrum.  No, I don't speak Elvish, but I used to read Lord of the Rings every year, have most everything J.R.R. wrote and can accurately recite some of the songs and poems.

Maybe that's my problem: I seem to know more about the books than the host, which is really irritating.

Father Andrew also makes some pretty significant mistakes, conflating battles, names, events and this combined with his (freely admitted) "fangirl" behavior to really turn me against the show. 

I think the final straw was his refusal to completely and unconditionally condemn the Peter Jackson movies.  These are terrible, both as adaptations and as standalone movies.  I wish to emphasize that second point, because people will sometimes argue that Jackson can't be blamed for having to make a few concessions to the necessities of putting the story on film.

If you take the movies as they are, they are completely incoherent.  The plot is completely incoherent.

I've already linked to my trashing of the film, and so I won't repeat (or add to) my previous invective.  Suffice to say that Father Andrew's unwillingness to put those atrocities in their place - either because he's too nice or simply doesn't see the problems - is a deal-breaker.

I tried, but I can't take it anymore.  I'll stick with Lord of Spirits and leave it at that.


Some Thoughts About Prequels

I've written at great length about the many problems with the Star Wars prequels (including of course the Man of Destiny series), but one area I've neglected is the problem of creating tension within the story.

Yes, it's possible to keep an audience's interest in seeing how a character gets out of each scrape.  This is the foundation of the James Bond franchise.  No matter how bad things look, somehow Bond survives for yet another adventure.

I'm not particularly interested in those kinds of stories, however. 

I think the best way to pull off a prequel is to relegate the known main characters into supporting roles.

This allows other people (who don't have script immunity) to come forward and provide the proper dramatic tension.  It can be interesting to see how events formed a future hero, but for those who want actual suspense, you can have that with all the additional characters getting bumped off (or looking like they might get bumped off).

I will say that if you are going to make the future main characters take center stage, the demands for a very good story become that much greater.  And as noted above, that's hard to do when physical danger is categorically out of bounds.

In fact, emotional danger's also largely taken away because they have to come out reasonably intact.   I'm tempted to say that prequels are by nature locked into a static characters, but that's not entirely true.  You can take a beloved character and show him as a complete dope who will turn into something more familiar.

But even there, with the outcome known, it's critical to make that path of that progression really interesting.

I've been asked a couple of times to write a prequel to Man of Destiny and the natural thing to cover would be the Deimos War.  It's vague enough that I'm not giving anything away and any "crossover" characters from Man of Destiny would be children.

The thing that holds me back is not just the potential scope of the project, but the fear of giving in to "fan service" type call-backs.  If I were to do it, I think I'd have to write it as a standalone book, explaining everything anew.  I think only then would it be worthwhile.


The Good Kind of Static Characters: Star Trek and other shows

One of the "think pieces" talked about a few days ago has posted at bleedingfool.com.  In it I take a few swipes at the original Star Trek series and movies, and I think it's worth a deeper dive over here.

Static characters - who never really change or grow - are generally considered inferior to dynamic ones.  I don't think I need to dig into why, but instead I want to look at where they can be useful or create interest.

The most obvious example is classic American television shows where each week the audience gets to watch a cast of fixed characters deal with various situations.  There isn't an overall "story arc" or series-wide plot per se, just a series of encounters with the world.

The original Star Trek was famously pitched as a Wagon Train to the Stars wherein we would watch a cast of fairly fixed characters deal with guest stars or other challenges.  The joy of watching came not from seeing our characters grow up or change, but rather how their innate talents and abilities help them win through all sorts of different challenges.

In fact, this was the predominant form of television show for many years, arguably culminating in the "detective show" boom of the 1980s.  There was a staggering number of "private investigator" kind of shows and what set them apart was the various quirks of the detective.  Is it two brothers working together?  How about a male-female team, seething with barely suppressed attraction?  Maybe a husband-wife combination would be amusing.

This was closely related to the classic "cop show" where - as above - you see hardened detectives use their skills to break open various cases.  To be clear, these guys aren't trying to work their way through life, and there's no "big picture" behind the various adventures, it's just a fun way to pass the evening.

Also in the 1980s, you started seeing shows trying to create some actual story arcs.  These were open-ended and convoluted to be sure, and they were inspired by the conventions of soap operas.

But even there, the idea was you got a cast of interesting people effectively stuck in reactive mode to whatever the writers cooked up that week.

My point is that this can be entertaining, and even inform one about the human condition, but it only lasts so long.  The original Star Trek only lasted two and a half seasons.  More popular shows got higher ratings, but it was still unusual to see more than a half-decade out of the same old people acting the same old way.


Some "think pieces" at Bleeding Fool

So far, I haven't gotten much in the way of complaints about abandoning (temporarily?) the Geek Guns project.  I found having a weekly deadline really restricted me creatively, and since I wanted to start doing another book, I needed to clear some space for that.

At the same time, I also wanted to clear out some of the drafts I'd left lingering around the place, and so I've put a new (and somewhat long) piece at the other site about the role of fear in making brave characters.

Having written that article, I was inspired to do another, and I foresee at least one more musing on the elements of good writing and compelling storytelling.

Of course, I'm not exactly a smashing success myself (although I am technically a best-selling author, if only for a day), but most of my negative reviews deal with poor editing, not the actual content.  Alas, I fear that as grammar and spelling continue to be condemned by the educational establishment, things will only get worse in those respects.

I think a good story can overcome those defects - even if it takes multiple post-publication revisions.

To put it another way, the craptastic character development of Anakin Skywalker wasn't the result of a typo.

 

 


When the actor defines a literary character: Alec Guinness and George Smiley

I'm not generally a fan of the spy genre.  When I was in middle school I started reading some of the James Bond novels - not the originals, the later ones that were current at the time.  They were quite similar to the Star Trek adventures, which is to say palatable only to someone who didn't know better.

I bring this up because I've never read a John le Carre novel and don't think I ever will.  I have a sense it would likely be a let-down because the Alec Guinness adaptations are simply so good.

Indeed, Guinness inhabited the role of the protagonist, George Smiley, to such an extent that the author himself modified his character based on the portrayal.

Basically, Guinness had the definitive take, not le Carre.

It happens from time to time.  I'm told that Tom Selleck basically defines the Jesse Stone literary character because of his superb portrayal. 

One could of course mention Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable defining Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, but even in our modern age a well-done adaptation can shape the source material.

So it is that I'm watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and will then move onto Smiley's People, both of which I own on DVD.

The plots in both are intricate and interesting, but the actor's performances are what really get me to watch it again and again.  They are superb. 

I think that's really the biggest factor in the success of a film adaptation of a book.  The plot being mulched is also a risk, but it can survive if the actors are compelling enough.

Remember, the Golden Age of Hollywood wasn't about superior stories, it was about larger-than-life performances.  Sometimes, as in the case of Clark Gable or John Wayne, you weren't looking to see a story so much as a known actor do his thing.  Gable didn't have immense range, but the man had vast reserves of presence and charisma. 

Guinness is the opposite - seemingly unassuming, he can shift form like a chameleon, equally at home as a brash British officer, a Soviet KGB general or an Arab sheik.  In George Smiley, he gets one of his best roles, because Smiley himself is a master of deceit, and can be both quiet and meek as well as cunning and vicious.

It's a pleasure to watch and the written version just can't compare.