What would Isaac Asimov do?

I can remember a time before the SciFi Channel existed. I used to volunteer at my campus gaming club's annual convention back in college (mostly to advoid paying admission). One of the time-honored traditions of dork events like gaming conventions is the "flier table", where all the other dork organizations and movements in town get to stack their brochures and literature. (That's how dorks networked before the Internet.) One year, as I recall, the available literature included a flier from a group of noted science-fiction authors who were encouraging other dorks to support the creation of the SciFi Channel by contacting local cable TV companies.

One of the famous dorks advocating for the channel was the late Isaac Asimov. In his lifetime, he always insisted there was room for wide range of science fiction. He supported science fiction in magazines, in movies, (obviously) in televison, and (most famously) in books. He wrote a lot of books in his lifetime. Some of them were even children's books, but not all of them.

I've been thinking about Isaac's advocacy of the SciFi channel ever since reading Chris Rywalt's review of the second half of SciFi's Battlestar Galactica over at TeeVee. While there have been a fair number of negative reviews of the mini-series (mostly by fanboys who won't let go of childhood), Rywalt's critique of the new Galactica was especially pointed. He seems outraged at the death of a fictional child...

I understand why the filmmakers might have put that in there -- to put a face on the tragedy of genocide, to weigh us down with the sorrow of the extinction of mankind -- but I am angry with them over it. Because I think -- and I thought this before I had kids and I think it even more now -- portraying the death of a child is a big gun, and you're only supposed to drag it out if you've got something big and important to tell us. If you've got some place you need to take us, some place we absolutely must see, then, yes, pull out the big gun. I'm thinking of "Schindler's List" here, for example. Because I accept being manipulated by the movies: That's what movies are for, to manipulate us. And there are times when that's good.

But Battlestar Galactica is not the right place to haul out the big guns. Battlestar Galactica is a cheap piece of escapist entertainment. Yes, maybe, in some strange universe, it could have been more. But it isn't now and never was. It's just a crappy "Star Wars" knock-off made to sell cereal to the kiddies. No big guns allowed. The filmmakers, they stepped over a line, and they knew they were stepping over it, and they did it anyway.

I'm not sure Chris Rywalt was watching the same program I was, because I sure as hell wasn't watching "a cheap piece of escapist entertainment". Sure, the original Battlestar Galactica was cheerful fluff pretending to be something serious, but this version was about making tough decisions when the world is falling part. The scene Rywalt objects to is shown in the context of a leader making a difficult decision -- a civilian leader realizing that she can't save everyone she wants to save. That's anything but escapist fiction at work; that's confrontational fiction, taking the genuine horrors of an old premise and shoving them in the viewers' faces.

The miniseries, truncated as it was, is just a trial balloon for a possible revival of the Galactica series; but I'd only watch the series to see about the dead kids. Beyond that, I have no interest in watching yet another shadowy, digital video, someone-gave-me-a-gravitas-enema skiffy series in world already overfull with same.

Here I'm lumping the latest Galactica in with both installments of Dune, the American Doctor Who, all the Buffy/Angel shows, The X-Files, the mass of X-Files rip-offs that once dominated the airwaves, Deep Space 9, Babylon 5, Andromeda, Farscape, Stargate, and Flapdoodle and Pisswhistle. I might even be tempted to throw in Hercules, Xena, and those shows Monty's always writing about. Alias, too, come to think of it. Smallville. Cleopatra 2525. And judging by the ads run during Galactica, SciFi's got a bumper crop coming up.

I had to think really hard to name a recent science-fiction show that Rywalt doesn't seem to hate. You know what I came up? Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise, two shows widely reviled as some of the blandest science fiction produced since... the original Battlestar Galactica. Which is rather a problem here: It looks like Rywalt isn't just objecting to the new Galactica, he's objecting to any science fiction show that attempts to be more than "escapist entertainment". (Heck, he's even objecting to some the escapist shows that showed too much style.) When it comes right down to it, the new Galactica wasn't showing much that many non-sci-fi shows have shown. (The camera work he's complaining about wouldn't have been out of place on Homicide.)

Rywalt seems to be angry that Battlestar Galactica was science fiction for adults, not eight-year olds. What's wrong with making a science fiction show for adults? Nothing. We deserve television as much as the eight-year olds, and science fiction (going back to Shelly and Wells, at least) has always included work for adults. I don't think Rywalt's issues with the new series have as much to do with Galactica's flaws as they do his: He just doesn't seem to accept the idea of heavy-hitting science fiction on television. Rywalt's entire review is based on a flawed premise. I support (actually, I applaud) the SciFi Channel's willingness to show adult science fiction in prime time, and I think Isaac Asimov would, too.

Posted at 11:19:25 PM EST on 13 December 2003 from Trenton, MI