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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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Short one tonight, and largely unrelated to music. Tomorrow, a rant about penguins, musical ones. But for now: The sci-fi soap.

Recently the paper and virtual rags have been genuflecting to Battlestar Galactica, as if science fiction salvation had arrived on the small screen. The first season had left me, well, bored. I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong. Here was a spacecraft-bound dystopian non-society whose only reason for existence was survival, and a race of cybernetic bible-belters bent on destroying them. Within that context, it seemed to be a militarized version of Lord of the Flies, as if middle America had been swept up into a spaceship and could do little but yell on camera and play metal bed-buddies off camera.

Then Salon called the show "the most thrilling and trenchant dramatic series on TV" because it was making plot analogies to Iraq. Go read it. If you haven't seen Battlestar Galactica, you'll get the gist once you plow through the shock-n-awed prose.

Here's what makes me nuts. Galactica is playing for the cheap. It has no original moments. Its dialog is pure Days of Our Lives with video game pretensions, and to make allusions to Iraq or the Nazis in Paris is more prank than powerful. Cylon genocide is handled in soap opera fashion, mouthing lines from USA Today and working for depth by means of puppydog looks and the fainting couch voice of the Education Secretary Roslin turned President. The soft-spoken president is in deliberate contrast with the rest of the cast, but again it is faux contrast. Nothing is credible.

The camera work is postmodern television rinsed in dishwater: unstable, handheld camera from 1960s documentaries pushed through Law and Order and shaken, not stirred. The look of the sets if pure Star Trek Borg, but dirtier, and the nasty streak (and extra dirtiness, plus dark external ship shots) is lifted from Babylon 5.

So far, though, it's ordinary sci-fi, with its history of stealing from the most recent fashion. On the Beach was the pinnacle of apocalyptic novels, with degenerating stories down through Escape from New York and artsy attempts like Blade Runner. Good stuff, mostly, but hardly great film art. The heritage of sci-fi wasn't much to speak of: Buck Rogers and Superman, comix on radio and film. The great romantic novels of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells suffered by stripping out the characterization in favor of plot, and remakes stripped even that in service of special effects. For a few years, short stories reigned, in the form of Rod Serling's brilliant The Twilight Zone vignettes, and its awkward but occasionally twisted imitators Way Out and The Outer Limits.

Star Wars pushed sci-fi back to cowboys 'n' Indians, Moslems 'n' Christians, monsters 'n' humans+buddies fantasies of triumph over the gone-bad, the antediluvian sci-fi model with its own bag of cheap psychological tricks and visual horseplay. Battlestar Galactica adds darkness and strikes the humor, a hell of tortured psyches that the Cylons should put out of its misery. Cold blue shots, sepia shots, faded color and washed-out lighting are contrasted with certain implication-filled deeply saturated colors, a heritage of the X-Files perpetual flashlights. The dialog itself is compact -- in other words, many sections are absent of dialog, all the plot work done in montage -- but not particularly good montage, just lots of it. The fast cuts rival television advertising, and bargain-basement soft porn shots are the only moments where the camera lingers. Oh, and the credits. Long credit-strewn introductions are de rigueur, with tonight's credits finally ending at eighteen minutes into the program.

The music? Twenty-first century soap opera. Cheap. Beat machine music provides tension and alternates with transition-free synth noodling, using synth pads to underpin the scenes identical to how night club music backgrounded the classic television soaps and synth solos did the same in modern soaps. (Yes, the soaps played in the television repair shop where I worked a day each week. I watched them all.) Unlike the powerful underpinning of Barber's Adagio in Platoon, though, these synth pads offer only cliché and the dismissal of expectation. It's a TV dinner in reverse.

Pseudo-religious content has infected sci-fi since Dungeons & Dragons. Even though religion became a strong after-player in War of the Worlds, for example, it was with the fairly recent and highly visible rise of fundamentalism in many religions that it became deeply integrated into plot lines, such as in the franchise Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which was a virtual clash of religious determination. But in Battlestar Galactica there is not even DS9's cursory attempt at philosophy. The fundamentalist Cylons are imbued with nothing but an instinctual drive that makes the viewer wonder how they might have evolved such sophisticated behaviors -- at least those evidenced during sex and torture.

Battlestar is the alternate fightin' future of Star Trek time travel, except it won't stop. Whatever unpredictability it shows arises not from the progression of plot, but from the action of writers and deus ex machina events. Gosh, somebody offed them Cylons tonight, and that gosh-darn moral crisis was avoided. Shee-oot.

Yes, I've already made the complaint about retro visuals and especially retro music infecting advertising, and sci-fi remakes like Dr. Who are pitiful, not evolving through characterization, but just splattered in the frame of plot & special effects. Stargate almost broke the television sci-fi mold with a fine concept of a gate linking distant places, but it too devolved into shoot-em-ups, some of them beyond embarrassing, wasting its concept -- and a great musical theme.

What lacks most of all in the sci-fi of Battlestar Galactica is the science. A robot race and a bunch of starship models do not fine speculative future sci-fi make. Where is the deep sense of a changed or alternative future with a different society, structure, and toolset? Where is the wedding of science and humanity that transforms the world view of the audience, even for sixty minutes? In this Battlestar Galactica utterly fails. It is just us, grim and with gadgets. Or just us. There is no transformation as in the H. G. Wells novel The Day of the Comet or even the advanced music of The Day the Earth Stood Still or Forbidden Planet. It's Beverly Hills 90210 in zero gravity.

There isn't even a good doctor singing opera. Speaking of which, tomorrow: Penguins.

Not the Crawling Eye

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