Battlestar is only a "brilliant" sci-fi show when you compare it to lesser shows such as Stargate, or Heroes. It took me a while to figure out that that's what Battlestar's defenders were doing. Hard core sci-fi geeks are so amazed when a sci-fi show doesn't absolutely suck that they tend to overpraise it. A comment by Geoff Holsclaw over at the Church and Postmodern Culture blog helped me realize what was going one. Holsclaw writes:
Once Firefly was canceled (which still remains unrivaled in my opinion) I thought there would never be redemption for televised science fiction. I thought I was condemned to watching Andromeda or Stargate forever. I thought that I would eternally dwell in a universe created by Gene Roddenberry.
Holsclaw admits that Firefly is far better than Battlestar but then declares the latter great in comparison to crap like Andromeda and Stargate.
But I can't let him get away with his denigration of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Holsclaw's reason for thinking that Battlestar is better than Star Trek is that the latter was "really just a liberal, multi-cutlural fantasy giving us an image of what we aspired to be as a society without calling us out everything that hindered us." Now, the first half of this statement is true. Star Trek is a fantasy of why liberals aspire society to be. But I disagree that Star Trek didn't criticize liberal society's failings. On the contrary, every alien society the Starship Enterprise encountered was a thinly veiled metaphor for 20th Century Earth. While the future Earth as Star Trek envisioned it was perfect, each of the alien planets had some problem that the Star Trek writers saw in America. The show was specifially designed to critique the failings of our society and point us toward an idealized vision of the future.
As a postmodern Christian I see much to criticize in Star Trek. I think what Holsclaw is Star Trek's liberal assumption that the ideal society would be perfectly godless and secular. But that's not what he explicitly criticizes in Star Trek. He does not criticize its particular vision of the idealized society, rather he attacks the aesthetic of idealization itself:
As someone said, Star Trek was a symbol of what we hoped to be while BSG expressed what we really are: all messed up and barely hanging on. For the most part BSG unflinchingly dealt with the tragic aspect of humanity, that we are simultaneously cylons and humans, uh, I mean sinners and saints.
But I reject his premise that only realistic (as opposed to idealistic) art can be good. Art has both realistic and idealistic functions. Take 80s sit-coms, instead of sci-fi. While it might be important to have sit-coms like Roseanne or The Simpsons which show us a realistic portrait of a messed up family, it is just as important to have sit-coms like The Cosby Show and Family Ties which give us idealized families. An idealized TV family gives us something to aspire to and helps form our moral imaginations with images of what is possible rather than leaving us stuck with our current problems. Maybe no father is as perfect as Bill Cosy's Cliff Huxtable, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to live up to that standard.
Note: I blogged about this issue before in my post on Thomas Hibbs's idea that recent Christian artists have failed to imagine a world where goodness is attractive.