So, once again we descended to our basement room, the missus and I, for the watching of the DVDs and, when we were settled into our accustomed spots, our beverages at our sides, our laps warmed by bowls of savory stew, the lighting set just the way I’m told we like it, I took the remote in hand, pressed play and we sat back, as we have so many nights before.
But tonight, strange forces were at work and before we knew what was upon us, worlds were at war, planets were exploding and millions of lives were suddenly cast into the void. Because tonight we had somehow found ourselves watching the pilot episode of the new Battlestar Galactica.
Honestly, I suppose it’s no real mystery how this came about. One day, not long ago, I was at the store with my boys, when they spied the series on the shelf and hatched the idea of giving it to the missus for her upcoming birthday. I thought this was a brilliant idea since I knew that she had a special place in her heart for this show, so I gave the nod, young Paris snatched up the slim, dark volume from where it sat, lodged between Barney Miller and Baywatch, and handed it to his brother, Agamemnon, who carried it to the checkout where it fell in amongst the frozen peas, creamed corn, kitty litter and other sundries that had provided the original inspiration for visiting the market in the first place.
All that is to say that I didn’t really much look at the thing before we bought it—I heard the idea and I got on board. In the course of daily conversation, my wife would sometimes allude to the exploits of Commander Adama and crew, sometimes to throw a little light on whatever challenge we might be currently facing, or else just because some small thing had reminded her of these old friends. At these moments, I always felt a bit off to one side, as if I’d just missed an opportunity to know her a little better and enjoy the way she works.
And then there would follow the excruciating experience of watching her realize, yet again, that I knew nothing of Battlestar Galactica—a feeling akin to, I guess, suddenly discovering that your lover doesn’t really care for oysters. Not a deal breaker, certainly, but a question mark, a little spot on the white tablecloth, the kind of thing that lingers. And if some day it should all go to hell somehow, suddenly that’s the thing she remembers, that’s the piece that stands for the unutterable whole—“You know, he never liked Battlestar Galactica. That shoulda’ told me something, right there.”
In my defense, the show started in 1978, which pretty much precisely coincides with when I abandoned TV in favor of the more proper pursuits of youth—driving my car to McDonald’s and wishing I had a girlfriend. The missus is just enough younger than me that what seems reasonable now would’ve been criminal then, young enough, in other words, that in 1978 Battlestar Galactica represented something of a thrill to her.
So I was excited to have this chance to relive it with her and I chalked it up to luck. As my thinking went, the new, modern Battlestar Galatica remake of which I had heard rumors must’ve incited a kind of groundswell of interest in all things BSG, leading to the rerelease of the old series on DVD and hence to my boys’ request and so forth.
Of course, as I’m sure you already realize, we’d purchased the new incarnation of BSG, not the venerable, original work starring the Olivier of outer-space, Lorne Greene. This was made clear to me when I saw the missus open up the boys’ gift and say, “Oh, cewl. I’ve been really interested in watching this.”
I’m sorry. What? Interested in wuh? This is Battlestar Galactica, your old favorite.
“It’s the new series, silly. You knew that. I don’t even know if the old one is out on DVD.”
As if the DVD format simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to house a personality as expansive as Lorne Greene. So much for my groundswell theory. It seems that in reality there is not a grassroots clamoring for the rerelease of the old warhorse; in reality, the old has been forgotten and the new has been embraced without a backward glance, which, to me, really just points to what a disappointing place reality can be. If this were, like, ancient Greece, a world of gods and passion, Lorne Greene would rise up and smite someone.
I should have known, of course. It was out there in the zeitgeist.
For example, we went to this dinner party a few months ago—an excellent, bohemian affair, candlelit, intimate, populated by interesting friends and curious strangers of all types—the intellectual, the hedonist, the rapier wit, the contrarian, the free spirit, the moody poet, the back-to-the-land agrarian, people of various sexual orientations, representatives from across the political spectrum, from liberal to communist, on and on. To be clear, it wasn’t a big party—some people were forced to carry several categories on their own—but it was the kind of party where you felt like things could happen, words might be had, someone might get sloppy drunk and go home with a stranger—I believe at one point I smelled marijuana in the air. It was that kind of party. It even had a kind of modern-day version of the Mitford sisters, these two dark-haired, pale-skinned beauties, reflections of each other, like mismatched bookends, who engaged in rapid-fire verbal battle for the entertainment of the guests. Mordant, trenchant, sardonic, biting—so far as I can tell, these words have been lying around idle, waiting for these woman to give them a raison d’etre.
But it was the boyfriend of the elder sister who provided the moment I want to call to your attention. A dark, brooding, good-looking man with a tousled mane of curly brown hair atop a permanently furrowed brow, he was constantly stalking out to the porch for a cigarette, where, from my vantage in the dining room, he stood like an iron shadow, his face periodically lit by the glow of a savage drag on his bone, revealing eyes that bore into the rainy night as though he could, by staring hard enough, will himself somewhere, anywhere else.
Of course, in order to periodically stalk out onto the porch, you must, periodically, come inside, and during these intervals, the boyfriend seemed to collapse in upon himself. He sat either in the overstuffed chair in the corner where he could keep an eye on the porch, or else at the dinner table, to the right hand of his woman, his wineglass clutched in his hand, his head bowed, as his lady spun her web of words over and around him.
At some point the conversation turned to television shows—I don’t know, I suppose it’s possible I mentioned that we’d been watching a lot of ER—and this got an immediate reaction from the sisters.
“ER?” said the younger. “That’s the medical drama?”
“You know very well it is,” said the elder. “It’s the one with George Clooney.”
“George Clooney hasn’t been on it in years,” said the younger.
“No, but it hasn’t been the same since he left. Hasn’t maintained the same standards,” the elder sister stated. “In fact, I stopped watching it the moment they let him go.”
I started to venture that, while the Clooney years were important, the subsequent seasons had in some ways surpassed the very high bar set by—
“You know, my man has a show he watches religiously,” the elder sister began. “And I mean that literally.”
“It’s like he’s attending mass,” the younger sister agreed. “If you interrupt him or bother him while the show is on, forget about it.”
“Who wants to be interrupted?” the boyfriend said mildly, into his lap. “Or bothered, really?”
His gal simply spoke over him.
“Gawd. I know. He’s very serious about it, aren’t you? It’s that space thing—Battleship Galactica.”
At the sound of the name Galactica, the boyfriend was transformed. His head came up, his eyes, steely and red-rimmed, bore into me, simply because I happened to be sitting across from him—if I had been a potted plant, his gaze would’ve been as steady—and, in a voice that had none of his earlier mildness but seemed instead to quiver with the nuclear force of the opinion behind it, he said:
“Battlestar Galactica is the most insightful, honest, unflinching commentary of the current state of American foreign policy and the deterioration of American values in the world today. Nobody—nobody—is shining a spotlight on the hypocrisy of this administration, and its criminal disregard for constitutional values—for human life, for chrissakes—with anything like the courage and passion of this show.”
It was a stirring, almost thrilling, speech to hear, delivered just like that, with a kind of stunning articulate passion, and it made my heart go out to the guy. But it was not a conversation starter. Rather I think it tended to make one feel like it might be better to stay quiet for a moment and let the storm clouds pass. He looked around the table at each of us in turn, inviting us—daring us really—to take issue with his assertion. No takers. I felt the urge to speak, to offer support, but it was hard to know what kind of thing to say—“You like the show then, do ya? That’s nice.” I found myself feeling suddenly very complicit in the wars we are undertaking in the name of freedom, as if maybe it weren’t enough to cast a hopeful vote once every four years and in the meanwhile simply shake my head at the murder, torture and lying that has come to substitute for good ol’ American values, and in the tense quiet that followed his speech, I almost heard myself ask him, “But what can we do?” before it occurred to me that, in his current state, he would probably tell me, in very personal terms, exactly what I could go do.
So I let it go. And in another minute he was back on the porch, burning a cigarette and staring into the rain.
But what he said stuck with me. So on a recent afternoon, when the missus and I found ourselves in need of something, I saw the DVD peeking out from a stack of things meant to go down to the basement and, with some feelings of disloyalty to my friends in the medical profession, we sat down and watched the three-hour pilot.
It was fantastic. Literally fantastic, I suppose, but in other ways, entirely believable. I will not go into details of plot here—I feel I’ve already strayed too far from the governing principles of this blog—but in essence, we watched the end of the world—not our world, but something like it—and for the rest of the day we kept catching each other in moments of deep contemplation, maybe walking around with a long face, or staring out the kitchen window looking at the clouds, and a gentle reminder would need to be issued that millions of people did not actually die; the world is not truly in the hands of murderous robots programmed to pursue a ruthless agenda; life has not been reduced to a struggle against extinction.
It was, in fact, just a TV show. And a good one, as they go. Maybe a great one, even.
But I think I’ll stick with ER.
I think ER reminds you that people die as individuals and that the world doesn’t cease to exist when all of us die, it ceases to exist, over and over again, when each of us dies. Or to put it another way, my death is the end of my world as I know it, and yours is the end of yours. Death is something we do alone. But life is the opportunity to do something together—to build something, to know something, to feel something. To see your own existence reflected in another human being—to raise a smile or a tear, to feel a hand on yours, to tell a joke and get a laugh—is the heart of living.
Now, I’m not discounting the possibility of an afterlife. Ok, actually, maybe I am, a little. It’s like our friend Sam Gasner said, when he had death in his sights: “Everything matters.” He meant, I think, everything while you’re alive.
That’s what ER tells us. We’re just this unlikely sack of tubes and fluids, thrown together in a remarkable, fragile way. It is awesome and temporary. Get out there and enjoy it.