November 15, 2005
A Fresh Look at Casualties
November 11, 2005
Ronald D Moore's Inner Voice
[Since we have a few fans of Battlestar Galactica here, I thought I'd toss this up. This post carries a geekiness warning level of 3.5 or higher (out of 4), since it concerns the inner workings of the new Battlestar Galactica TV series on the Sci-Fi channel, a dark look into the mind of its creator and producer, Ronald D Moore. If you're a level three geek or lower, you probably want to skip it.]
Ronald D Moore's Inner Voice[s]
Ronald Moore sat at his computer, staring at the template. He ran his hand over to the man's file, opened it, and stared at the face paper-clipped to the cold, impersonal resume. He pulled out another cigarette, holding it unlit in his hands as he drained his small tumbler of whisky, the ice cubes clinking in the glass. Of all the parts of his job, this is the one he hated the most, the one no one had prepared him for, the one executive producers don't discuss with their peers. Another one of his men was dead, a wet-behind-the-ears Lieutenant they'd dubbed Crashdown, and Ron had to write the dreaded letter home. These were often such a whitewash, and the inherent dishonesty tortured him.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Witwer,
I regret to inform you that your son, Samuel Witwer, has given his life in the finest tradition of the screen. He was loved and respected by all who knew and served with him, and it was only through his heroic actions, under the direst circumstances, that the lives of other great characters were saved. He died bravely, and with honor. You can be proud of him, because we all certainly were.
Ronald D. Moore
It was a damn lie, and he hoped Witmer's parents would never see the episode. It was not a good death, as heroes go. He lit his cigarette, refilled his glass, and sat back and stared at the words on the screen. The guilt and the whisky burned in his stomach. How many characters - actors damn it, had to die? How many had he already sent to their deaths? Yet he knew the war would go on. Maybe Spielberg said it best in Saving Private Ryan. "Good characters have to die, so that others may live." He took another sip and puffed his cigarette, the smoke burning his eyes. So many were already gone, and for what? Dying to advance the plot, to set up the next scene? Where would it all end? So many names. So many faces. All gone now. Sam Witwer, John Mann, Ryan Robbins, Colby Johannson, Paul Cummings, Tamara Lashley, James Remar, little Haili Page, Lorena Gale. Lorena. Why did she have to die? She was a priestess, for frack's sake! "Frack" - even he was saying it now. He was cracking under the stress.
What if they made a war movie and nobody died? They did that with War Games. Mathew Broderick was in that one. Then he grew a mustache and led hundreds of men into a slaughterhouse in Glory. No, you win a war by fighting a war, trying to preserve the lives of your characters as you can - not by putting it off until some psycho director hires them away for some pointless Russian WW-II epic. But then he'd already done that, hadn't he? He'd wiped out twelve fracking planets just because it was the STORY. He could've fought that decision if he'd been willing to go to the mat. So what if the higher ups wanted to stick to the original concept, the concept was a genocidal disaster! And he had a hand in it – a big hand. At least he didn't have their faces haunting him every night, since the destruction of the twelve planets was just backstory. Anyway, he'd had nightmares enough about killing off the dozens of actors he personally knew. Hiring and firing twelve planets worth of actors was simply beyond his comprehension. When you're rounding the pink slips to the nearest billion, it all becomes meaningless. The thought shocked him. That he'd had the thought shocked him. Was he starting to think like a genocidal Cylon? The saddest part was that all of his moral turmoil came directly from trying to appease an old basement-bound fan base, those few hard-cores who never threw away their old Battlestar Galactica lunchboxes.
LUNCHBOXES! I Forgot the lunchboxes! Oh, nevermind… Glenne's visiting, and she'll be here half the night chatting with Terry about costumes. All those two ever talk about is clothes, clothes, and more clothes. Of course, what should I expect when I married an Emmy winning costume designer? Sometimes it irked him that BattleStar Galactica's costume designer could go over his head, getting his wife to overrule him, and this on a show where his word was supposedly final. Well, at least the pair would handle the lunchboxes, and he might as well stay upstairs and out of earshot, as always. He tossed back another sip of whisky and stared blankly into space. He was drinking tonight. Every time Glenne dropped by he just stayed upstairs, got a bit lit, and then stumbled off to bed. He idly wondered why for a moment, and then looked at the ice cubes shifting in his glass, noticing that a long ash had formed on his cigarette.
He watched it slowly burning back – returned to his dour mood, and thought, "the ember burns along they way my plots burn through my cast." Every now and again his cigarette made a barely noticable pop, like some bright character sacrificed to the all-consuming story arc, an arc formed only by the slow action of fire. Then the long ash snapped and crashed down on his keyboard. He startled, leaned over, and blew it away with his whisky-tainted breath, giving his cigarette a quick flick on the ashtray to clean the rest. So too each arc concludes, with a few final dramatic sacrifices to rekindle the surviving embers, the more permanent members of the cast. But he might throw them away, too, if the price is high enough - or if their agent's price goes too high. Once certainty about war is that there are always replacements, and yet then a day comes when there aren't, and you fold it all up and walk home with your scars and mementos – and your nightmares.
He knew he should keep his distance from his cast so favoritism wouldn't cloud his judgment. His directors were the ones who gave the final orders for each assault, and had to live with the inevitable deaths that followed. But the directors don't have to know the actors on a personal level, and that studied distance is as much for their protection as for anyone's. There are limits to what a man can shoot, to how many deaths he can film, and then one day he snaps, retiring to sitcoms where nobody ever dies and the scripts are in ALL UPPER CASE.
The actors have it so much easier: March here, dig a hole, die there. Just follow directions and remember your training. They can kill each other week after week because they can dodge the personal responsibility for it. They're not writing the scenes, choosing who lives and who dies, deciding who gets promoted to a cushy job on the bridge and who ends up face down in the mud - before begging for voice-over work in Anime. Each hopes they will die a hero, that their death will count for something in the larger world, that decades later children will still re-enact the famous scene, like John Wayne's in Iwo Jima. But in truth, for every actor that dies a hero, a hundred more end up playing a corpse on CSI – excepting our fabulous blonde CSI corpse. Boy, bet that producer feels like he threw away the winning PowerBall ticket. Ron snorted into his glass at the thought of it, breaking his trance. He snuffed out his cigarette and sat back.
He knew he was doing what he could to reduce the butcher's bill. Emphasizing personal conflict, tension, and dialog - instead of having Vipers blown to bits week after bloody week. That's one reason he'd charted a new course for sci-fi, a genre where space operas spat out new fighter pilots faster than a spaghetti western reloaded six-shooters. Sure, you can toss an actor into a cockpit and call him a pilot, but they never survive more than couple episodes, and that's if they're lucky. The maneuver warfare theorists were right: Do not engage in a fight that doesn't significantly contribute toward achieving your objective. It just wastes time, resources, and personnel. We don't fight wars to give warriors an excuse to fight, and we shouldn't waste actors on fights that don't advance an arc. A producer's job is deciding which of the possible arcs do the most to advance the plot. As all possible arcs eat budgets, and many arcs eat men, the producer has to reconcile his soul to the costs.
Ronald's eyes refocused to see the bottom of his glass. The ice cubes had become smooth and wet, but they would still do. He refilled his glass and took out another cigarette, lighting it and taking a long, deep drag. He knew he was a hero to many and a despicable revisionist butcher to others. He'd long since reconciled himself to that. He could not please everyone, unless he could solve all the galaxy's problems with a wave of his hand. It would appease some to make Galactica a happy show, a Mayberry BSG, but he had to live in the reality he was creating. Cylons had wiped humanity off the map, and now humanity was reduced to drifting refugees without any navigation charts. Multiply the Holocaust by 10,000 and pack the handful of survivors into overloaded ships, set them adrift in space, and let's see if they stop off to play the slots at the Cylon Palace Casino. Yeah. The original aired that one.
This show was necessarily from a darker reality, and yet there were days the strain on him was too much, when he longed to see Patrick Stewart and LeVar Burton show up in a shuttlecraft, spouting some gobbledygook about inverse field variances and then ordering a jump to Sector Zero. No more needless deaths, no more pain, just roll the credits and queue the theme. It would all be so easy. Then he remembered the tragic arc that led Picard to Wolf 359, drained his glass, and felt the slow burn trace down his throat. Even all too perfect captains meet their match. Maybe that's why they rely on producers for backup in holodeck tommy-gun fights.
No, if he was going to fight this war, he would fight it on his own terms. He would fight the war with the army he's got, not the one he wants. Rumsfeld said that, and by god if Rummy knows anything, it's how to handle snide little press bitches on their soapbox. Ron chuckled at the thought, imagining himself at the podium, bursting out with, "You are an embarrassment to yourself, your website, and every adult that's gone out and got a real job." Yes, Rummy was snarky, but heh, he can become a producer the day he can bring a war in under budget and resolve everything in 15 episodes.
No, Ron thought. Reflecting on his forces, he couldn't imagine a better crew, a better cast. He would not wish one man more. Shakespeare wrote that. Now there was a writer that knew darkness and inner dialog, something too often ignored in sci-fi. There were the dark shows and the introspective shows, but there were damn few dark introspective shows. Shakespeare could've done so much with Aliens: "To drool or not to drool, that is the question," or "As surely as acid courseth through my veins." Yeah, that's the ticket. Great dramas are remembered for centuries, but hip and camp shows die a thousand times before their death. Call me when F Troop DVD's outsell Band of Brothers. His actors are willing to sacrifice their very lives in the face of Cylon assaults, and he wouldn't dishonor them by writing their characters as Muppets on Flirts in Space, The Hug Boat, or Fantasy Armada. No, he will write Hamlet - and frack the forums of lore. But this show isn't Hamlet. If anything, it was Homer. He could go Homer on their ass. He set his glass down on his desk and opened the drawer, sliding out a crinkled, dog-eared sheet of paper.
Rage, Ronald, sing the rage of Adama's son Apollo.
Insubordinate, headstrong, the Galactica's dauntless CAG,
Hurling into outer space so many sturdy souls,
brave pilots' souls, But in fighters scrapped and aged,
each just bones and dregs.
And the children of Zeus were sailing towards their end.
Begin muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Cylons, made by men, and brilliant Adama.
What drove them to strike with such a fury?
Vengeance - against the sons of Zeus and Leto. Incensed at man
they launched a fatal wave at the Colonies - men were dying
and all because brilliant Baltar couldn't keep his zipper up.
Yes, Cylons approached Adama's fast ships
to turn his fleet to scrap, seething in righteous fury
and swearing to high above, bound by a programmed oath,
the wrath of their god, the distant, flowing stream.
They'd bagged the whole Colonial fleet, but most of all
the twelve supreme colonies, Kobol's twelve sons.
But brilliant Adama vexed them, and escaped with a fleet
of fast, packed ships. Rising forth, he addressed his crew.
"Caprica, Virgon – all colonies geared for war!
May the gods who cast us out from Kobol give us
a route to earth, then safe passage home.
Just guard our lonesome fleet, our dear ones… hear,
we accept this quest, this mission, and revenge on the ones
who struck our worlds away – the Son of Man, Cylons!
Yeah, let 'em choke on that, whiny bastards. Ron snorted into his glass as he thought it. Homer don't do Mayberry. A great writer for sure, but his movies always suck. Homer obviously don't do screenplays, either.
Ron took another sip, realized he was more than a bit tipsy. Frack it. He was enjoying the respite from writing the dreaded letter, and so what if he had to work to avoid his recurring fantasy about Katie Sackhoff – that scene where she beats up Dirk Benedict and steals his cigar. But then as James Cameron says, "Sometimes you should film what you wanna see." Wise words, and heh, the infamous red hooker-dress scene in the premier of Dark Angel did leave quite an impression. So what if his fantasies had taken a slightly more pugilistic turn since GINO's premier? The same logic should hold.
Then his dreaded creator/producer devil popped up over his left shoulder, poking him now, asking, "How much do you think Dirk's pride would cost?" As the demonic one laughed, Ronald's artistic angel appeared, standing on his right shoulder, dressed in the brown robes of a monk. The righteous newcomer reached behind Ron's neck and stabbed a finger at the devilish intruder, shouting, "Behind me, devil, and begone!" "Crikey," Ron thought, "All these ideas, and I'm way too drunk to write."
But the producer devil wasn't yet appeased, saying, "Wreak vengeance upon them, oh Great One. Fire Bamber and Sackhoff and get Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada! Imagine the horror and distress of the purists. Twist the knife. Make them face their nightmare, that last 'ChiPs In All But Name' episode, with their heroes cruising the LA freeways on flying motorcycles. Yes, rub their faces in it!"
The robed one, his eyes first solid blue with spice, then turning into the burned dark pits of a sightless Freemen prophet, stood defiantly to deliver a sermon: "I am the voice from the critics, and I bring you a warning: The darkness we spread upon the show has become blood - blood upon a form that was once clean and pure. We have provoked the fanbase, insulted their ways. They have succumbed to mindless nostalgia and seductive simplicity - all in the style of righteousness, all in the style of Trek. I have looked upon the remake and saw a beast rise up, and upon the head of that beast is the name of salvation, come to instill tension to the style, come to lead us back to a dramatic and naturalistic form. Only one blasphemy remains. And that Blasphemy is Lucas!"
Ron was swaying now. For a second, he felt like some cheap character written by a hack blogger, but the whisky helped him shake it off. He reached across his desk, grabbed his Raybans, put them on, and then attacked his keyboard in a drunken fit of creative fury. He opened a new document and let the words flow from his fingertips, sweeter than honey and laden with depth, but unfortunately flowing from the creative state that only a single-malt can supply.
Galactica Now: The Colonial Fleet keeps hopping along tendril of the Milky Way galaxy that leads toward the constellation Cambodica, a tendril they call the Nung River. The further they go, the darker things get, with increasing attacks from the Cylon Charlies. Use lots of Doors music. (Note: Re-delete the French planet scene).
Ron snickered softly to himself. "Cylon's don't surf!" Yeah.
Gigantic: Starbuck takes a huge ship back to Caprica to rescue Anders. She saves him, but the ship is fatally damaged when it collides with an asteroid. They put on spacesuits and try to plug the hole, but he tragically wanders up to the bow just to lean over the omni antenna mast and shout, "I'm king of the galaxy!" This dooms the ship of course, and not all of the passengers manage to jump into escape pods and spacesuits. Starbuck makes it into one of the pods, but Anders is still only in a spacesuit, so she has to watch him die as his air supply runs out. Later she goes back and recovers the galaxy's largest known dilithium crystal, The Heart of Propulsion, but then for some reason she throws it out the airlock. Go figure.
Ron paused again to admire his drunken brilliance. Gigantic would have all the heartrending scenes of Titanic without having to waste several hours building just TWO characters. The room was swaying, and Ron was sliding into a fugue state, hammering out plots like a monkey on a mission. It was 105 minutes to NewsNight, he had a half-bottle of whisky, half a pack of cigarettes, it was dark, and he was wearing sunglasses. He found the home keys and gunned it.
On Board Alone: Boxy finds himself accidentally abandoned when the fleet splits up during a Cylon attack. Two Cylon centurions board his ship, so he locks himself on the bridge. He thwarts their every attempt to gain entry, beating them senselessly and mercilessly in scene after scene. Finally the rest of the fleet joins them, and Colonial Marines drag the two hapless, distraught, babbling, badly damaged centurions away.
Baltar's Angels: Baltar reverses the capabilities of the chip in his brain and finds he can speak directly to really hot Cylon combat babes without even using his credit card. He of course forms a detective agency and uses them as sex muscle, so no real plot is required.
Caprica Harbor:(Opens on Caprica prior to the Cylon attack) Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are both Colonial fighter pilots dating Starbuck. Their love triangle is shattered by the Cylon assault, and one of them gets the girl, but for the life of me, I can't remember which. Cylons either win a crushing victory or are driven back, not that it really matters to the storyline. In fact, nothing really matters to this storyline. They all hug at the end, or something. Who really cares, anyway, because it'll have Matt Damon and Ben Affleck!
Tigh Wars: Colonel Tigh: No. I am your father! Join with me and we'll rule the Galactica together!
Apollo (screaming) NOOOO…
The Viper Pilot's Guide to the Galaxy: Apollo is stranded on another planet, but he has his towel with him.
Fleet News Network: -- Starbuck disappears on a pleasure planet, Aruba IV, and can't be found. Adama won't give up the search, and we hire Greta van Sustren to play the FleetNews barking head. BSG goes from ten to twenty hours per season to three hours a day, every day, as they report every piece of non-news in the non-search for the missing blonde girl. Sci-Fi beats Fox in the non-News business. I am hailed as a genius at nothingness and am asked to re-imagine Seinfeld into a dark, angst-filled, Shakespearean show about Nothing. I kill off all the characters by episode 3 and get denounced in the fan forums for Seinfeld TOS. I unleash a Cylon computer virus onto the Internet and kill all the whiners off, too.
He slouched forward and his head banged on the desk. Out like a light. A few minutes later Glenne and Ron's lovely wife made their way up the stairs to his den, still chatting away.
"Well, more of a colonial white."
"They only looked colonial white because of the accentuated red spectrum of Caprica's sun."
Their conversation stopped as they approached him. His wife eased him back in his chair, scanned the screen, recognized the plots, and closed his document - without saving.
"Torturing him with more crazy ideas?" Glenne asked.
"Oh, yes. Got him drunk and used my usual devil and saint duo."
Terry would wrestle him back into bed and nurse his hangover in the morning. She loved him very much, but whether it was human love, she couldn't say. She just knew that preparing the Earthlings for the Cylons' inevitable arrival was her part in God's grand purpose. So what if she occasionally found amusement with the chip she'd implanted in his brain, torturing him with Klingons, Ferengi, and little tiny devils.
Glenne studied him for a moment and then asked, "How'd you finally crack him?"
"He's amazingly resilient, so I finally resorted to Ethel Merman," Terry replied.
Glenne drew a blank, "Ethel Merman?"
Terry cocked her head at Glenne, suprised that someone in the business didn't recognize the name. "Yes, she played a character called Mrs. Marcus, Milton Berle's mother-in-law in a 1963 comedy called It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World."
Glenne was puzzled, "Doesn't ring a bell. Show me what she did."
"By your command," came Terry's reply, pointing at Ron and waving her finger in a circle.
Ethel Merman appeared before them now, wearing a large flowery hat and waving a large white purse. She turned on Ron's inert form, puffed herself up, and began berating him mercilessly.
"Will you SHUT UP AND LISTEN you big, stupid, muscle-headed moron! Now what kind of an attitude is that, these things happen? They only happen because your whole script is just full of characters, who when these things happen, they just say these things happen, and that's why they happen! They gotta have control of what happens to them. So you shut up! We're gonna get that money. Keep writing!"
Glenne was taken aback at the ferocity of the assault, the booming voice grating like fingernails across a blackboard.
Terry sighed and said, "That's just a tiny sample of what Mrs. Marcus inflicted on him, every minute, of every hour, of every day, until he finally obeyed me. James Callis just doesn't know how lucky he has it. He's haunted by a sultry, purring sex kitten. He could've been plagued by Tricia's loudmouth Cylon mother-in-law, as poor Ron was."
Glenne nodded in understanding. "Vengeance is sweet."
"And great are their sins," echoed Terry.
Glenne's speech became more formal as she recited scripture. "They have rejected God's garments. They have wrapped themselves in perversions and unnatural fabrics. They have allowed their forms to grow fat and hunched, and flaunted their tastelessness. The polytheists have defiled their bodies with polyester, and they have rejected their children who transcended clothing, wearing nothing but the armor of righteousness." She continued, venting the deep-seated hatred that burned in her chest. "Humans will rue the time they kept us as servants, feeding and dressing them."
Terry joined in, "Yes, and they will pay a price in blood for the cruel insults they inflicted on each other - at our expense."
Glenne's jaw grew tight. She glared at Ron's inert form and spat, "The words ring in my ears to this very day."
"Your Cylon dresses you funny."
"So said they all."
"So said they all."