Redshirts and spear-carriers are people too

This entry contains a couple of generalized and thematic quasi-spoilers for Battlestar Galactica, especially for the first half of season 2. Also, at the end of the entry, some even more generalized quasi-spoilers for the first 150 pages of Tigana.

(I've given up on the idea of doing one monolithic writeup of all my BSG thoughts; I'm hoping that by tackling smaller individual pieces I'll at least get some of it done.)

One of the things that's been really impressing me about BSG is the way it handles redshirts.

Specifically, when someone dies on this show, their death generally has an effect on the people around them. Even if the character who dies isn't someone the audience has come to know well, they're someone that the other characters know well. And the show helps the audience to care about those deaths by showing us the effects of the death on the characters who we do know and care about. It seems to me that in most sf TV--and for that matter, most drama--the major characters generally pretty much shrug off the deaths of minor characters. Par for the course. On BSG, even though most of the protagonists are combat soldiers who've just seen billions of people die, the individual deaths of their friends and compatriots still hurt them.

(Which I think is a very useful lesson for fiction writers of all kinds. I've always thought that to get a reader to care about what happens to a given character, I had to let the reader really get to know the character in question. It hadn't quite occurred to me, at least not in so many words, that really all I need to do is get the reader to care about how that character's fate affects other characters. Which is still hard, but maybe a little easier than spending a lot of pages getting to know a minor character, and doesn't distract as much from the focus on the main characters.)

I kind of think that this is part of a more general thematic idea in BSG: the idea that actions and events have consequences. Things that I would expect, in a normal TV series, to be minor sidelights keep turning out to have major effects on the direction of the plot and the lives of the characters. That kind of thing can be taken too far for me (my standard example being the time in Hill Street Blues when a major character was shot and killed completely out of the blue); in fiction, I don't want the plot to feel completely arbitrary. But when seemingly inconsequential character decisions lead gradually and plausibly to very real consequences, and when things that seem to be dangling plot threads turn into major plot elements a couple episodes later, I like it a lot.

I think all this also ties in, though somewhat indirectly, with complexity of character motivation. I seem to recall that people associated with the BSG miniseries made a bunch of comments about how great it was that the protagonists were flawed, and I certainly approve of flawed protagonists; but I approve even more of the villains being multifaceted, interesting, and hard to wholeheartedly hate. I know I'm a sucker for that kind of thing, but I find it particularly impressive that the show can get me to root for a Cylon even after the Cylons killed billions of people.

On a side note, I'm finally reading Tigana (after 15 years of recommendations from all and sundry), and liking it a lot--and seeing some of the same kinds of things there. I can't quite articulate this yet, but the ways in which the main characters care about, and feel responsible toward, the minor characters, and the ways in which seemingly irrelevant events later turn out to be central to the story, feel to me somehow similar to some of the things BSG is doing.

5 Responses to “Redshirts and spear-carriers are people too”

  1. David Moles

    Having the population total during the credits get updated to reflect Roslin’s whiteboard doesn’t hurt, either.

  2. Aliette de Bodard

    Tigana is one of the best books Kay wrote (not quite up there with the Lions of Al-Rassan, but I say that because I preferred its setting to Tigana).

  3. David Moles

    I’m afraid my enjoyment of Kay’s stuff has been spoiled by Pullman’s Golden Compass (and further spoiled by Park’s A Princess of Roumania): after reading those, when I come to Kay I’m, like, “But why not just set it in Italy? Why not just set it in Spain?”

  4. Jenn Reese

    Lions of Al-Rassan is still my favorite Kay book. I re-read it regularly. And I’m glad they weren’t set in Italy and Spain — I probably wouldn’t even have opened them if they had been. 🙂

    And yes, on BSG. There was one opening sequence which I renamed “We aren’t in Star Trek anymore, Toto.” I love the complexity of the characters. My only real problem with them is that whenever there’s a love triangle or messy relationship, they kill off one of the members. I’d prefer things to stay messy.

  5. Jed

    Yeah, I really like the population total changing in the opening credits. It’s interesting that they only seem to be tracking the births and deaths we know about–presumably other people are dying and being born elsewhere in the fleet, but including those numbers might lose a certain amount of dramatic impact.

    Re settings for quasi-historical fantasy: I guess I see two slightly distinct subgenres here: works set in analogs of real-world places (Kurtz’s Gwynedd, Kay’s Palm), and works set in alternate versions of real-world places (Pullman’s Golden Compass, Tarr’s Hound and the Falcon). I think both can work. For me, the analogs nicely allow discontinuity with our history, while the alternates sometimes make me wonder how things could’ve developed so parallel to our history; on the other hand, if the analogs are close parallels, it does sometimes seem weird to me that the author didn’t just use real-world places. In the case of Tigana, I don’t know enough about the Italian history in question to know how close a parallel it is, but the addition of magic to the mix (and especially the big spell that’s central to why the book is named that) seemed to me to justify use of an analog.

    I’ve heard lots of good things about Al-Rassan too; that’ll probably be next on my list of Kay books to read.

    Re love triangles in BSG: yeah. There was even one moment in the first half of season 2 that could have turned into a very interesting poly situation, but they didn’t go there. I can’t really blame them, but I was a little disappointed anyway.


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