Thursday, January 19, 2012

Battlestar Galactica

The television show “Battlestar Galactica” ended in 2009, but I never had cable, so I’m catching up now on Netflix. I’m watching it a lot. In fact, it’s the only thing I’ve been watching over the past month, a behavior that, in a mysterious coincidence pointed out by my friend David Ressel, was recently parodied on the brilliant comedy show “Portlandia.”

I’ve been making the argument to my family that “Battlestar Galactica” is extraordinary television, that the writing and characterization is amazing, that you have to absorb yourself in the episodes in order to understand the multiple levels of meaning, that Edward James Olmos is in it, that it’s not really cheesy science fiction like the original series in the 1970s but rather a profound commentary on the War in Iraq, etc., etc. Reality, of course, is that I used the same intensity to watch “Mary Tyler Moore” reruns in high school and, later, “The Young and Restless,” “China Beach,” and others. In fact, I’ve done this all my life. I have never really just “watched television,” simply doing the act of sitting and seeing whatever was on. I “get into” a show and watch it with focus and enthusiasm. Talk about being on the "edge of your seat"--sometimes I can't help but stand near the screen while a favorite show is on. (Actually, that started because the antenna reception on our TV used to be really bad for certain stations, and you had to get close to hear and make out the shapes in the periodic fuzziness, but still....). I suppose I have what you might call a fan-approach to viewing.

Two things that have come from my recent BG fandom:

1. Non-fans may find this odd, but the characters and plot-lines of these shows have affected me; they have become a part of my thinking and somehow woven into my accumulation of experiences. They crop up at different moments and shape how I understand things. Recently, for instance, biotechnologist Juan Enriquez visited RISD and gave a scintillating talk on the human genome and the ways in which cloning and manipulation of genetic code might aid medical science. When the discussion turned to ethics, I immediately thought, “Just look at what happened with the Cylons!” Sure, that’s the nerdiest thing you might hear today. But it was there.

2. I'm not sure what I think anymore about spoilers. During the days of the “LOST” broadcast, I wholeheartedly embraced the online world of Lostpedia and avidly moved around on discussion boards, like The Fuselage or DarkUFO, before and after every episode to try and crack the mysteries of LOST’s mythology. This time around, though, with "Battlestar Galactica," I have resisted. With "LOST," there was a sense of camaraderie and engagement in spoiling the series as it was happening. As Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell have suggested, spoiler culture was very much a part of Lost’s “operational aesthetics.” That may have been true, too, of "Battlestar Galactica," but in my engagement with it, now--after the fact of its broadcast serialization and with the answers to its mysteries readily available online--I feel the need to protect myself from those who have already watched it or know about it. When family members teasingly said that they had gone online and knew how the series ended, I covered my ears and fled. I don’t want to know how it ends, or who betrays whom next. This is not so much about eschewing extra-textual pleasures but seems instead about the deferred timing of my viewing experience. The series is functioning differently for me now, as a lone viewer, than it might have if I had watched it with others across the world when it originally aired. Or, maybe it’s just because I’m less interested in the “puzzle” of human-cylon history than in its characters’ developing relationships. I don't know.

I’m not big on extended self-examination, especially on a blog, so I’ll just stop now and say that this has me thinking. What are the various ways in which fans are managing their viewing experiences in this new age of media access? Are there real generational differences (broadcast/post-broadcast TV) that govern how we understand a series, or is it more appropriate to locate diverse engagement as more deeply rooted in individual preference? (After all, there has always been the divide between those who, say, read the conclusion of a mystery novel first and those who prefer to read with naivete). More broadly, what kinds of historical and personal circumstances govern how a person might choose to engage a text?

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