Tuesday, 15 June 2021

MRE Menu 2: Beef Shredded in Barbecue Sauce

You have to understand that television was very different in 2003. The medium had only recently switched from low-resolution analogue 4:3 to high-definition digital 16:9. People at home still had bulky CRT television sets. Jasper Carrott was still on the BBC. People could still remember Hale and Pace. It was a different world.

The newspapers weren't willing to give space to multi-episode television recaps, and science fiction was naff, and in fact television was naff back then. The budgets were low. No-one expected much. The golden age of HBO-led television drama was just getting into gear, but it could have been a flash in the pan. No-one expected that American cable TV would continue to knock out critically-acclaimed hit after critically-acclaimed hit.

At this point you're thinking, "didn't he eat one of these a couple of months ago?" Well, I write all of these blog posts months and in some cases even years in advance, and I have a chest freezer with all kinds of things lurking at the bottom, and you can piece together the rest.

There were exceptions. The broadsheets had a thing for The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City, to a much lesser extent 24, but even in the case of The Wire it was several years until the newspapers and newspaper websites were willing to devotes lots of space to television; they weren't yet desperate enough for online advertising revenue.

It wasn't until Lost, Mad Men and in particular Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones that the newspapers really went ga-ga for TV. It's anecdotal, I know, but there was a time when articles about TV shows on The Guardian's website always had a bunch of comments at the bottom saying that a posh newspaper shouldn't waste its time covering them. That doesn't happen any more.

Menu 9 has shredded beef, black beans, a chocolate chip cookie, a pair of tortilla wraps, cheese spread with jalapenos, a single cup of coffee, and topical punch. Mine had two packets of barbecue sauce. Perhaps the military-industrial complex was in a generous mood. It's a simple, plain MRE with three clearly-defined meal choices.

Lost is an interesting case; throughout the 2000s I didn't own a television, so to this day I haven't seen a single episode of the show. My only knowledge of Lost comes from the newspapers, and until recently I assumed it was an off-beat crime thriller along the lines of Twin Peaks, because that's how the newspapers presented it. They presented it as a crime drama. You'll have to take my word for it, because searching the internet for British broadsheet newspaper reviews of Lost circa 2005 is time-consuming and difficult and ultimately fruitless, but I have never lied to you before.

Newspaper writers were comfortable with The Sopranos and The Wire because those shows were crime dramas and thus grown-up, but Lost confused them; they didn't want to write about it because it was a fantasy show, but on the other hand it was a pop cultural phenomenon, and newspaper websites were increasingly desperate for page impressions, and writers have to eat. So the writers presented it as a crime drama instead.

Let's have quote the sandwich unquote. As always I threw away the sachet of donot eat, which isn't tasty at all. The tortillas are a brave effort - they're even a little moist - but as with all MRE breads they have a crumbly, cake-like consistency. I would have preferred old-style crackers.

There's another factor. Whereas most of the above were shown on terrestrial Channel 4 (The Wire and 24 were shown on BBC2, which is more prestigious), Battlestar Galactica was a satellite television exclusive. For ideological reasons some sections of the media are unwilling to write about satellite television. The Guardian in particular seemed to hate Deadwood purely because it was a satellite exclusive. I learn from this list that Grange Hill was a better show than Deadwood. I haven't seen Deadwood but I think it deserves more than that.

On a more prosaic level not everyone in the UK has access to satellite TV, and the show existed years before streaming took off, and no-one cares if it was a big hit on DVD, all of which explains why Battlestar Galactica was never a thing in the UK. It came and went. I avoided it entirely and only became interested in it years after it finished. As of this writing the show is dead and gone. Not many sci-fi TV shows can boast of having a wiki that went defunct; Battlestar Galactica can. The format doesn't lend itself to rebooting and the original production team tried several times to bring it back to life, failing every time.

Why did I avoid it? There's the obscurity, the lack of contemporary media coverage. The producers wanted to position the show as grown-up entertainment for adults, so the promotional images featured portraits of the cast rather than giant spaceships and robots. I assumed it was a cheaply-made character drama filled with talking heads, when in fact it had remarkably solid production values for a show that is now eighteen years old.

Cheese tortillas with barbecue sauce. Not just a meal but a postmodern commentary on industrial society. Without the barbecue sauce it would have been very dry and globby, but as presented it was surprisingly tasty.

There was also the disconnection between my memories of the original Battlestar Galactica and the reviews of this new TV show that had moral ambiguity and suicide bombers; what was the point of reviving this show in particular? Where was the connection, beyond the general format? What was the point?

In its defence the original Galactica had a clever premise, and the producers had the good sense to give the cast cool jackets instead of spandex spacewear, but the best that can be said is that it was occasionally not as cheesy as Glen Larson's contemporary Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. As with Space: 1999 the original Galactica had good modelwork and production values allied to dull scripts. There was an air of efficiency about it, competence, rather than a spark of life. Dirk Benedict was charismatic, Lorne Greene was regal, but everybody else was dull as dishwater and I really think Lorne Greene should have given one of his e's to charity. Lorne Green works just as well.

Why else did I avoid the new Galactica? Why do I continue to avoid it? I'm unwilling to commit to a show with an ongoing plot, and furthermore my knowledge of the series is tainted by the fact that I know how it ends.

I know how it ends because I've read about it; the ending was controversial. It's one of the few things that the newspapers wrote about. Not so much the ending as the build-up to the ending.

One cup of coffee, instant, type II. Some MREs have sugar; some have sweetener. I'm not a sugar-snob, but the sweetener just isn't as tasty. In this shot I should have waited for the coffee to cool down a little before adding the creamer. As coffee goes, imagine supermarket own-brand coffee - the cheap stuff that you buy for work.

The new Galactica began as a two-part miniseries that was broadcast in late 2003. Far off in the galaxy the people of Caprica are attacked by their robotic former slaves, the Cylons. Caprica and its colonies are devastated by nuclear bombardment so a remnant of the planet's space fleet flies off to find refuge on the mythical planet Earth. They are led and protected by Galactica, the sole remaining capital warship in Caprica's space fleet.

The ship is run by Commander Adama (Edward Lee Olmos). He is in theory subordinate to President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), the highest-ranking survivor of the Caprican government, but no-one respects her authority because she was only a relatively minor official before the invasion.

Roslin eventually displays hidden depths of presidential moxie, but to complicate matters even further Adama finds himself outranked by Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes) of the Battlestar Pegasus, a state-of-the-art warship that also survived the Cylon attack. Cain typifies the show's writing, in the sense that she is initially presented as a massive asshole, but her reasoning is sound. She is simultaneously wrong and wromatic and also right but repulsive, to paraphrase 1066 and All That.

Meanwhile the Cylons lurk in the background, their motives unclear. The universe is a cold, hard, empty place, with no aliens and no help from outside; the human survivors are engaged in a desperate struggle for survival with a foe that outmatches them on a technological level. To make things worse some of the Cylons are the spitting image of human beings, albeit that there are only a handful of different models, so they eventually become easy to spot, and to complicate matters yet further not all of the Cylons were keen on the initial attack. Far from being a united front they are led by a Cylon who may have engineered the war as a result of a petty grudge rather than a grand philosophical plan.

Conflict is the key to good drama, and Battlestar: Galactica had lots of it, in contrast to the original Galactica, where the goodies were all great pals and the baddies were evil and that was that.

I was unsure if I should eat the cookie or not. Some people are too weak to fight off their addictions, and for me it is Cookie Clicker. Don't click on that link. Please don't. The cookie itself was okay, although the chocolate was obviously "chocolate-flavoured candy" rather than actual chocolate.

The miniseries was followed by the show proper, which ran for four series from 2005-2009 for a total of eighty-four episodes. There was also a pair of one-off episodes that squeezed a bit of money out of existing sets fleshed out some of the backstory, and there was Caprica, a soap opera set before the war that no-one watched because it was just people in suits talking to each other. It lasted ten episodes. All of this happened before you were born.

The series ended with Blood and Chrome, an internet-only prequel that was released in 2012, and at that point the revived Galactica fell silent. You can't say that it didn't have a good run. It wasn't cut off in its prime; it had its time. 2003-2012, and yet for all that it passed me by. As mentioned up the page I don't watch television, but I keep up-to-date with contemporary trends. Galactica just didn't register.

There was a curious lack of ancillaries. Perhaps it was too dark for merchandise. No LEGO sets. I don't recall any toys. Four novelisations that appear to be out of print. A couple of computer games that no-one played, although in the producers' defence there was already a pair of excellent Battlestar Galactica games - Homeworld and Homeworld 2, which came out in 1999 and 2003. It's uncanny how similar the latter game's soundtrack resembles the music of Galactica. I've always wondered if the games influenced the show.

The general critical consensus is that the miniseries was terrific. And that the first two series were pretty good as well. It was a gritty space action drama with complex, well-written characters; it was dark without being hopeless; it dealt with unpleasant themes without being prurient. All of this is normal nowadays, but it was unusual in 2003. Babylon Five had gritty themes but was at heart an epic space opera, ditto the Sci-Fi Channel's 2000 version of Dune. Battlestar: Galactica on the other hand presented itself as something akin to 24 or JAG in space, with storylines that dealt with the use of rape as torture and the morality of suicide bombing as a means of resistance. It was not afraid to deal with issues that were of contemporary relevance in the mid-2000s.

The main event. All MREs suffer from the lack of a potato/rice/chips analogue - it feels odd to eat meaty stew by itself - but the black beans almost make up for the lack of roughage. Pictured here is the flameless ration heater, doing its thing.

Furthermore the producers went for a deliberately un-sci-fi presentation. The characters wore cargo pants and business suits; the weapons were lightly-modified machine-guns that fired bullets; cars, buildings etc looked much like our own here on Earth. There were, as mentioned, no aliens. The original show had imaginary time units - centons, microns etc - but the new Galactica did away with that. The technology was deliberately clunky and there was a minimum of technobabble. It was a bit like Space, Above and Beyond, but much more consistent and better-written, or a grown-up take on Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, minus the bugs.

The individual episodes told self-contained stories, but there was an overall arc, and despite the show's serialised nature the writers were prepared to kill off major characters and at least give the impression they were going to change the format permanently.

From the clips I have seen on Youtube the show hasn't dated all that badly on a technical level. It's rough around the edges. The sets look spartan and the spacebound CGI is deliberately underlit so as to hide the low-resolution models. The use of unstabilised cameras and crash zooms for the sake of documentary verisimilitude now looks very dated, because modern TV news footage tends to use stabilised cameras and graceful drone footage instead.

On the other hand the brooding, percussion-heavy soundtrack is excellent and makes the show feel more expensive than it was. As mentioned it has something of Homeworld 2, a mixture of booming drums and one-woman-wails. The choreography of the space battles emphasised the contrast between the graceful, swooping bulk of the Galactica with the sudden violence of missile impacts, and even Tricia Helfer was effective. She was a model-turned-lady-actor who featured heavily in the publicity material. She pulled off the difficult job of playing multiple variations of the same character with aplomb.

This kind of publicity image put me off. Who are these smug-looking yuppies? Is this a financial drama set in space?

The show apparently reached a peak at the beginning of the third series. The space refugees find a planet to settle, and in an unusual move for a serialised show they settle there for several episodes. The Cylons eventually find them, but because they are having second thoughts they decide to rule over the humans instead of killing them. The episode in which Galactica's crew return from exile to rescue their people from Cylon oppression is regularly cited as the show's highlight, particularly an elaborate effects scene in which Galactica abruptly drops from orbit to launch its complement of fighters.

With the barbecue sauce. It looks horrible, doesn't it? But it tastes really nice. The beef isn't a patch on the chunky meat in Polish MREs, but it is at least a little bit chewy; the black beans complement it well; the only downside is that it's a bit too salty.

Alas the show had two fundamental problems. The writing team had a bunch of story ideas but no clear idea of the overall thrust of the plot. The unexpected success of the pilot episodes resulted in the last three series being extended from thirteen episodes to twenty, which meant that by the third series the writers had used up their original pool of story ideas. The elaborate effects shot mentioned above was impressive, but it had the effect of rewinding the plot by half-a-dozen episodes; resetting things to how they were before the humans had landed on New Caprica. The same thing happened again mid-way through the fourth series.

Signs of the show's problems became apparent early on, when a plot thread about a resistance movement on (old) Caprica was abruptly dropped, seemingly because the writers were unsure whether the Cylons wanted to wipe out humanity or enlsave it. In fact the writers never seemed to have a handle on the Cylons. There were ominous hints that they had a plan beyond simply killing everybody, but nothing really came of it.

The second problem is that the writers' desire to create shocking twists went off the rails in the latter half of the show's run. The show abandoned level-headed sci-fi action in favour of outright mysticism. The decision to have Galactica's crew discover Earth mid-way through the final series - instead of at the very end - was generally praised as a clever idea that worked well, but it was surrounded by a series of questionable decisions.

There was a revelation that five long-term characters were Cylon spies. The show's head writer admitted that he came up with the idea on a whim, and picked the five spies at random. The spies were apparently crucial to the long-term survival of the Cylon race, but it didn't make sense; some of them had survived the destruction of Caprica by random chance, and during the first half of the show's run the Cylons had tried to kill them on numerous occasions.

Do you remember how The Sixth Sense was carefully plotted so that the nature of Bruce Willis' character was kept secret until the end, but on repeated viewings the twist wasn't contradicted by the rest of the film? Galactica wasn't like that, because the writers were making it up as they went along.

Furthermore a major character was killed off towards the end of the show, also on a whim. Then the major character was brought back to life as a literal heavenly angel, resurrected by God to guide the fleet to their eventual home. This isn't sarcasm; the character was literally resurrected by God.

Do you want to know how the fleet eventually finds a safe haven? The navigator channels the notes of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" and enters them into Galactica's flight computer.

Again, that's literally what happens. Earlier in the show, before it went off the rails, the crew of Galactica used detective work and some commando action to find the location of Earth, but in the finale the cast channelled Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower", the actual song. Apparently the tune pervades the fabric of space.

I mean, the actual song, including the lyrics, which were written in English in the 1960s here on Earth. Somehow aliens out in space can understand them. I'm not making any of this up. The show began as a gritty action drama in space and ended as a Baby Boomer's religious fantasy.

Let's press the slow button and have the drink. Is it on? You will not have the drink. Is it on? You will not have the drink. Etc. In my book if something has "natural and artificial flavour" it's artificial. There's no such thing as semi-natural.

Surprisingly head honcho Ronald D Moore was born in 1965. He grew up with Blondie and Sheena Easton, which makes me wonder why he picked Bob Dylan as the salvation of humanity. It doesn't make sense. Do you know how the Cylons are ultimately defeated? A stray rock. In the last episode a rock hits the cockpit of a disabled spaceship that causes it to launch nuclear missiles into the Cylon base that then falls into a black hole and that's how the Cylons are defeated. Because God made it happen.

The sad thing is that the actual ending is perfect. Bittersweet, sad, with a melancholic undercurrent. In a way Galactica was a victim of its own success, because if the ending had arrived sooner the show might be more fondly remembered today. In fact some fans like to end the show mid-way through the fourth series, jettisoning the second half of the third and fourth series entirely. I can't comment because I haven't seen a single episode and I doubt I ever will.

Yes, but what about the decision to cast a woman as Starbuck? What about the big gap in the middle of the fourth series? What about Richard Hatch? To which my answer is that we're in the future and no-one cares. It doesn't matter.

Do I have anything else to say about Battlestar: Galactica? It briefly coincided with Star Trek Enterprise, which was cancelled within a year of Galactica's debut. At its peak Enterprise had far more viewers than Galactica - the first episode was watched by 12.5 million people in the US, versus four million or so viewers for Galactica's opening miniseries - but by the end of its run both shows had around 2-3 million viewers, which was disastrous for Enterprise. It was more expensive and had wider distribution, and it was Star Trek; science fiction royalty.

With the cancellation of Enterprise it seemed as if Trek was dead and buried, that its cosy niceness was obsolete in the post-9/11 age. It's hard to understand the tenor of the times from a distance of fifteen years, but there was a subtle cultural shift in Hollywood and US television after 9/11. I imagine the same thing happened post-Vietnam. The television news was a parade of car bombings and atrocities. And yet Paris Hilton and American Idol were huge, so what do I know? Culture isn't monolithic.

Voyager in particular became the butt of internet jokes after its run concluded. The show was initially advertised as a darker, more mature Trek, in which a vulnerable captain found herself trapped on the far side of the galaxy with a crew composed partially of people hostile to the Federation. However within a few episodes the show settled into a comfortable encounter-of-the-week format in which nothing bad really happened and no-one died. The occasional attempts at introducing moral ambiguity felt ham-fisted. Voyager still has a bad rap today.

In contrast Galactica had a palpable sense of hopelessness running through it. The reboot's creators pointed out that in the original Galactica human civilisation was destroyed in the opening episodes, after which the show turned into a light-hearted comedy, because nothing was consequential; in the reboot the awful isolation of the remaining survivors was a continual theme, and with one exception there were no comedy episodes. Even then the comedy episode followed a story in which the heroes brutally tortured and then executed a Cylon spy; the writers felt the need to lighten the mood.

Of course Trek didn't die, and I suppose in a way Galactica didn't die because there is something of Galactica in modern Trek. The 2009 Star Trek film was a big hit, and as of this writing the live-action TV shows Discovery and Picard are simultaneously under production, alongside the animated Lower Decks, and there are more in the pipeline. Like the British aristocracy Trek survived by co-opting its former rivals; in particular Picard has some of the darkness of Galactica, albeit that it still presents a fundamentally optimistic view of the future.

As mentioned in the main text Galactica's key problem is that it was both tonally and dramatically insular. The format didn't lend itself to expansion beyond a single long-form story, and there comes a point when unremitting failure and death becomes wearying.

Besides which the war on terror is over and 9/11 is a distant memory. The economy is going great guns, and barring asteroid impact or some kind of global pandemic - both equally unlikely - the future as of December 2019 looks pretty sweet.