I know, I know.
I've gone on long enough about why Korean people don't like Star Trek and science fiction (real science fiction, not the Will Smith every 4th of July variety), and I've all but given up hope that the Trek will make any inroads into Korean culture ever.
But Battlestar Galactica is a different story.
First, though, you have to do a few things in order to stick with me here. I know I've blogged about this, in passing, before. Sure, look that over, come back when you're ready. But this is a post that gives it the attention it deserves.
Second, I'd like you to completely forget whatever associations you have with the well-loved but cheesy original series from the 1970's, which was just a cheap television ploy to wed the grandiose feel of Star Trek with a dynamic, small-ships-battling-in-space, Star Wars kind of feel. This was as obvious to me then as it is now. The clothes and costumes (except for the Cylons) were cheesy, the plots never seemed to go anywhere, and everything outside of the space battles was kind of boring to me. I was always waiting for the ships and the lasers and the robots, instead of caring all that much about the plot.
Secondly, you have to leave whatever aversions to and aspersions against science fiction you have at the door, please. Just give this argument – and the show – a chance. Let me just say that BG is science fiction at its best, and I realize that most of the general public doesn't get to see "good" science fiction because of the process of the way broadcast television and Hollywood movies tend to suck the integrity and true SF out of most productions that they then present as "science fiction." Grrr.
Only sometimes does quality science fiction rise out of the relative obscurity of some very, very good works of that genre's literature, past some corporate boardrooms and number crunchers, and past the writers and directors who may see the story as a good action spectacle, star vehicle, or special-effects extravaganza.
There aren't many cases of good science fiction remaining good all the way to the time when audiences buy popcorn, Goobers, and Diet Cokes and sit down to watch some flick on a much-hyped opening weekend. The Terminator, Aliens, Predator, John Carpenter's The Thing, They Live and even Cocoon are notable exceptions.
But before we even get to what "good" science fiction is, it might help to clarify what science fiction is in the first place, right? Well, I think so, as part of the effort to clearly lay out my little argument of "why Koreans would love "Battlestar Galactica."
The way I see it, science fiction uses the future and/or technology to ask key questions about the present-day state of society, humanity, and even the nature of our existence itself. It's a commentary on the present, not a mere fantasy that has not much directly to do with our lives. Importantly, science fiction depends on the plausibility of things portrayed – as instinctively silly as that may sound – as a part of posing the question of "What if?"
That's why, under some purists (and my own) definition of the concept, Star Wars is a great story, but not really science fiction. Yes, it works with the trappings of science fiction, with its lightsabers, spaceships, and cool machines all set against the backdrop of space; but it's just set dressing, since it's not an extrapolation cum lesson about who "we" are or what "we" are about or what "we" might face – or presently face – in reality.
Star Wars – especially in its original trilogy – is really a pre-modern story of feudal relations, empires and alliances, swords and sorcery. The Jedis themselves are pre-modern throwbacks to the samurai, although in the Star Wars universe, they ride around on ion-engine and hyperdrive-powered horses. Their swords are made of light, not steel, and their powers come from "the Force" and not magical incantations and spells. But it is a universe that is actively separated from "us" from the git-go: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." It is not us – it is entertaining fantasy, much like Lord of the Rings.
As proof that such stories actually resonate quite a bit with the many pre-modern myth templates that are still alive in the literary imagination here in Korea, I challenged several Korean friends who asserted that "Star Wars is so American" as a reason the new Star Wars wasn't popular. I simply said that it was more due to the fact that Star Wars wasn't shown on big screens anymore and had become passé in a movie culture (which Star Wars largely made possible, too many people forget) that consumed Jurassic Park dinosaurs and blockbuster productions for breakfast. On the flip-side, will the next generation of kids, raised on holovision TV, recordable holodiscs, and Telepathic Tivo™ go all gaga over those long-ass, 4+ hour, weepily serious movies that we were enthralled to over the last several years?
"Mommy, I've seen Rings a million times!" [out of order and in parts, I might add]
"Come on, Johnny – it's a classic. You have to think of seeing this on the big screen," your year 2020 self might reply.
"But I've got a virtual reality holoscreen! Why do I want to watch some flat picture with bad special effects? It all looks so fake," irreverent Johnny replies.
"It didn't look fake at the time! Why, I'll have you know that when this came out, there were lines around the theater..."
Johnny rolls his eyes. Here we go again, he thinks.
So I challenged my friends to watch the Star Wars special edition on my 100-inch screen and in digital surround. I swear fo' the Lord that every one of them was begging to watch the next two discs, and in one's friend's case, she actually made an appointment to watch Return of the Jedi at a later date, since she couldn't stay for a third movie. Each one of them said – "I never knew it was so good! It's totally different seeing it on the big screen." Like I said. And most young Koreans – who don't ask – don't remember that Star Wars was actually quite popular in Korea when it premiered here, with lines around theaters and buzz around the block – even though the consumer culture, disposable income, and post-modern thinking all hadn't really come to pass yet.
Point is, the story is actually more compatible with cultures that still have ample connections to pre-modern themes, and presented along the same lines as the Rings trilogy, if you get people past their preconceptions and refusal to opt-in by buying an admission ticket to something "I've seen before", all the Korean folks I've forced to watch it ended up loving it. Really. And these were the friends who constantly teased me about my "American Star Wars-loving" and would go on and on about how much better Rings was. Pshaw.
But back to Trek. Even far-flung in the future Star Trek is an extrapolation, not mere fantasy. It may be somewhat utopian and way too far off in terms of ongoing contact with aliens and warping across the galaxy as if we're traveling to the next state over the ridge, but it still speaks to themes confronted by modernity. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that many of the questions are those of modern societies questioning the nature of modernity itself.
"What is the meaning of humanity?" as confronted through characters such as "half-human" Spock or non-human Data, who raised the question to a more post-80's tenor as he juxtaposed machine-based sentience and "life" against our human, organic notions of the idea.
"What are the dangers of technology?" as we see in Zion struggling against the Machines, the human resistance trying to take down Skynet or prevent machine "terminators" from performing retroactive abortions in the past, or even *COUGH* Will Smith turning out to be fighting against human pride and prejudice when we thought we were just fighting more uppity robots. The "pitfalls of technology" is a major sci-fi trope, one we should all be familiar with.
"Humanity doomed to its own arrogance" has been a theme with us since before the story of the fall of the Tower of Babel, but brought to acute form in science fiction in terms of the hokey-but-fun first romp through the first Jurassic Park, or interesting films such as 12 Monkeys or some such movie, in which the main protagonist says something like, "This system is foolproof!" or "The failsafe protocols are perfect!" We, the audience, knowingly roll our eyes and wait for the fun to begin. Hehe.
Such are many of the themes of Star Trek, or of most of the Hollywood science fiction movies we see, which, if you check, almost all came from novels written by science fiction giants; half of the ones used in Hollywood seem to have come from Philip K. Dick. If only he were alive to reap all them royalties...
My point is, good science fiction entertains as much as it asks questions that make you go, "Hmm." In the end, that's why the Matrix did so well, and why, in the end, many were so disappointed by the latter two, especially the final one.
They were thoughtful and deep. Now, I know, everyone is so above thinking those movies were either of those things – pshaw! – but it doesn't truly matter whether they were misappropriating Kantian philosophy or whether Neo was an believable Christfigur; the movie's innovative action and slick stylings worked because there was another world, another system operating according to a system of rules that was elegantly and economically presented to the audience in a way that gave everything apparent to the eye another layer to consider. It doesn't matter if it matches what you remember from your "Modes of Eastern Philosophy" graduate seminar, as a deep movie, The Matrix worked.
But people forget that the first Blade movie came out more than a year before The Matrix and had those cool action sequences (and in a way, more honest ones, since the action relied on good cutting and editing, not CGI) and very cool stylings. It had black people, martial arts action, and the main characters wearing sunglasses at night. Blade used automatic weapons almost as much as he defied gravity and the believable with his acrobatics, speed, and pure martial abilities. Yet, it was a cult hit, not an instant classic and touchstone for a whole new generation's way of looking at the world.
See, Blade was a throwback to pre-modernity, not a conversation about modernity itself. Yes, there were the rules of the gritty "real world" that really determined things in the "cotton candy fantasy world" we live in, but they are old rules, and firmly rooted in pre-modern fear as fantasy. Yeah, vampires were now wearing PVC latex, Blade shot bullets filled with silver nitrate and garlic extract, and they even had grenade bombs of concentrated UV sunlight – cool. But still just an update of the age-old human fear of walking alone in the woods at night, getting the "evil eye" from the crazy lady next door, or other superstitious beliefs that are as cross-culturally constant as swords, sorcerers, and dragons.
So what about this Battlestar Galactica? Why am I so hot to trot about it? And why the hell would I think Koreans would take a hankering to it? It's simple – because Korea's sooooo ready for good science fiction.
Korea's hellish experience with a forced and compressed modernity marked by overlapping experiences of colonial, authoritarian, and neo-colonial control and violence, followed by a giddy, but now more guarded transition into postmodernity, all add up to a pretty heady cocktail veritably bubbling over with most of the themes that really good science fiction deals with: humanity vs. authority, humanity vs. machine, humanity vs. mechanization, humanity vs. "them," humanity vs. itself.
Check, check, check. Battlestar Galactica, baby!
But importantly, BG isn't a bunch of humans and humanoids running around in sparkling spaceships living according to utopian ideals – I think that doesn't jibe much with Korean esthetic sensibilities in drama. No, BG is barely obviously "futuristic," is steeped in real human drama (love triangles, jealousies, and suspicions abound in this, more gritty universe – Korean dramas, anyone?), and there are no laser guns, transporters, or anything else noticeably new.
Besides the fact that, yes, humans are living in a huge caravan of ships traveling between stars, only a few (but importantly, very good) sci-fi actions sequences punctuate what is actually a very good drama. It does what science fiction does at its very best – it lets the technology step out of the way and set up really, really, really interesting and thoughtful situations, such as what do you do if someone takes your DNA and makes you a mom against your will? What if your best friend or colleague turned out to be something he wasn't, a clone? If you fall in love with the enemy – especially a cloned "skinjob" enemy, can you just turn that off?
Such are many of the sci-fi setup questions that come up in the show. But there are more mundane ones as well: What are the rules of war? Under occupation, what defines collaboration? What defines a "terrorist" and how far shall we go to stop them? Where does the line fall between stopping terrorism and becoming ones ourselves? What moral line do we cross when we allow torture as a society?
These are obviously questions that American society is confronted with in the now. But aren't these questions that Korean society has either faced, or brushed not-so-neatly under the rug? The National Security law, torturing dissidents in the bowels of Mt. Namsan, "disappearing" people in the name of fighting Communism, censoring information in the name of "preserving democracy" – the list can go on.
When you parse the more general themes mentioned above through those dealt with in the show, and match them against some of the things that modern Korean society, both past and present, has been dealing with, it gets pretty interesting:
- the excesses of faith in technology, especially in cloning and robotics (hello, Dr. Hwang, Korean military DMZ sentries!)
- the realities of nuclear annihilation, the ethics of civil war (need I even give examples here?)
- the constant threat of war, the cloying fear of spies and infiltrators
- the politics of dealing with "collaborators" balanced with the need to foster healing and moving forward
- the journey from being a nationalist underdog that uses terrorism and assassination to survive (national hero Ahn Chung Geun is the obvious example) to being a nation that uses terror tactics to squelch dissent (the ghosts and the historical score of Kwangju, no matter what show trials there have been, have still yet to be settled)
I could go on, but then I'd be giving away specific plot points. In any case, my point is that BG is actually a cultural product that is dealing with many of these issues anew, whereas for Korea, such issues are largely old news, but remain quite unsettled.
MINOR SPOILER IN THIS SECTION
The most recent episode dealt with the question of who was guilty of "collaboration" and, more importantly, how such collaboration was defined. In the show, the secret committee designated to quickly and quietly make the secretly convicted disappear (without the right of habeas corpus, but as a jury of the accused's peers) came to define this not as those who were in no position to resist, but rather those who actively sought out collaborative roles and committed "crimes against humanity" – and given the fact that they are fighting non-humans, this term suddenly takes on a special kind of weight. They are truly traitors – to the entire human race.
What continues to be so impressive about this show is how it thoughtfully and realistically avoids moral absolutes. The self-righteous collaboration committee performs its duties – not without some degree of trepidation and conflict, however – until it nearly executes a former friend cum enemy based on ample circumstantial evidence that makes his guilt nearly painfully obvious, but upon the revelation of a single, crucial fact – quite accidentally – just before his life ends, they realize that they have made a nearly-fatal mistake.
But complete condemnation of the committee doesn't ensue, especially when its existence is revealed to the inner circle of authorities. There is a grandstanding speech about rights and justice and "sacrificing our ideals" as a society, but the character who had been in charge of the operation counters, not so much in his own defense as much as to remind everyone of the actual social utility of the act, saying that he had just saved their recovering society-on-the-run that he just saved them years of show trials, recriminations, and witch-hunting.
Everyone had just escaped to the fleet and still hadn't been officially accounted for. Since the most egregious of traitors had just "been disappeared," wouldn't it be best to just be quiet and move on as this society tries to reestablish itself. Or would the new president rather drudge up the cases of people who were no longer with us and thrust the shaky fleet of human survivors into factions and in-fighting? Silence ensues, and the point is made.
A general pardon is given by the new leader for all actions committed during the occupation, made possible mostly by the fact that most of the hardcases have conveniently "not made it back." A kind of Truth and Reconciliation" committee is formed for the sake of history and posterity, but for all practical intents and purposes, society had been ordered to move on, remember later, not fight now.
MINOR SPOILER ENDS
Anyway, something well worth chewing on. Given the present-day debates about collaboration, sweeping pardons, and cleansing the nation of the ghosts of authoritarian Christmas pasts, the most recent episodes of BG would have found a receptive Korean audience.
I've introduced a few Korean friends to it, and even watched a couple episodes as I offer clumsy plot summaries and rough translations as they match that with what is obviously going on onscreen, combined with the snippets of easy English that leap out from the fog of chatter.
In the end, it's a really good soap opera, since only a small percentage of the show focuses on space battles or other kinds of fancy future action. It's heavily plot-driven, although the show foold you into thinking that it's more actiony than it is. This is not to criticize them for this – what I'm saying is that the show is a lot deeper, with real characters whom you care about, than most people would have assumed before they actually started watching the show.
And there's another thing – Grace Park, Korean American actor extraordinaire, is on the show. She's Korean! She's hot! She can act! What are Korean folks waiting for? Here's another "Korean" person to write up in the newspapers. Why aren't there more stories about her?
Of course, it's just a few people, but I'm not conducting a market study. But they all think the show's really good and wonder why they've never heard of it. I think one major reason has to do with this not having been attached to a major network (BG is played on cable's SciFi Channel), but now, I hear BG is getting played on NBC from this season. It's also been released on DVD and is the top-selling television show on Amazon, according to what I heard over on the Diggnation podcast.
Hmm. A major NBC series, already on DVD – maybe we might get it carried on Korean television sometime? Or at least get the DVD's? We'll see. But if they did – man, would I have a 3-day BG marathon, like those old Star Trek marathons of times past. Ahhhhh. I get teary (and bleary) eyed.
And for you expats who aren't watching the show – I'll tell you how to get in on the action and in high quality to boot.
Doesn't matter whether or not you own an iPod – you can download the Apple iTunes program for free. Just go here, download it, and get into the Apple Store from the program. You can download a million podcasts (all free!) to boot and watch them. Again – YOU DO NOT NEED AN IPOD TO DO THIS. The only thing an iPod does it let you take your stuff with you.
Then do a search of TV shows and find Battlestar Galactica. You can buy a season (more economical) or buy by episode (why would you do that?!), but before you decide, you can download the free show overview that got rave reviews from people who wanted to play catchup but didn't know quite how to jump aboard a bandwagon that has been going for 3 years now.
Seriously, the little show – Battlestar Galactica: The Story So Far, which was broadcast on TV and even played as in-flight entertainment on some airlines) – is amazing. One of the main characters – the former Secretary of Education who finds herself President after she is found to be the highest-ranking government official alive – narrates the "history" of the present conflict as actual key moments from all the episodes are played in order. It's fun to watch in itself, and does an amazing job of compressing a 3-year television story line into about an hour of programming.
Now, you'll be podcast-compatible as well. Join the podcasting revolution and watch them all for FREE, all without buying an iPod.
And if you already own an iPod, you have no excuse whatsoever. Why aren't you subscribing to and listening to podcasts? What? Huh? What was that? Come again?
Didn't think so. Get off yer butt and download this FREE program and at least watch the free synopsis. If you don't find yourself glued to the screen, mouth open with a puddle of drool forming on your desk as you stare at the screen, I'll buy you lunch.
Trust me. This is not a geeky show, there is no litany of alien races with strange abilities and weird names, no pseudo-futuristic technologies to know, nothing like that at all.
Why are you still reading this post? You're not downloading already?!