Bleak House

Victorian Zombies!Tonight I watched hours and hours of two series that have a lot in common: 1) they’re both shown on the SciFi channel, 2) they’re both revamps of notoriously nerd-ridden franchises, and 3) they’re both awesome.

Battlestar Galactica
Nothing cheers up a Friday like suicide bombings, descriptions of eyes getting plucked out, nighttime death squad abductions, stolen ovaries, abandoned and unwanted babies, and mass execution by firing squad! TGIF!

If there’s any doubt left that this is a well-made show, I’ll tell you it has to be. Because I wouldn’t put up with something this grim and depressing if it weren’t. At one point, Adama says, “things are going to be okay,” which really puts his intelligence into question. Dude, look around you. In the past three years, when has anything been “okay?” The only bright spot I have to hold onto is that as miserable as they all are, they’re still anal-retentive enough to cut the corners off all their paper, and even the windows of their computer displays. Well, that and the promise of seeing Fat Apollo get chewed out.

But then they have scenes like the first ones with Starbuck and her new roommate, which are cool enough to make the whole thing worthwhile. I’m kind of skeptical that a magic squad of paratroopers descends on the firing squad and whisks everyone away to freedom, so things aren’t looking too good for Apollo v1.0.

Annihilation!After watching tonight’s episode, I remembered a “Battlestar Galactica” comic book I had when I was younger and a huge fan of the original series. The cover had a drawing of people running away from Cylon Raiders as buildings fell and laser bolts hit all over the place. The title of it was “ANNIHILATION!” I remember thinking at the time how incredibly cool it was, and having to look up the word “annihilation” because I didn’t know what it meant.

Even armed with the definition, it never registered with me how the show I was watching was a goofy, happy-go-lucky take on the near-total obliteration of the human race. Or that Starbuck’s girlfriend Cassiopeia was a prostitute. So apparently, the story’s in the telling. There are a lot of really interesting aspects to the universe and the premise of the show that were there all along, just hidden under layers of cheesy 80s television.

Doctor Who
Much like “Doctor Who.” I’ve only seen a smattering of episodes from the original series — I’ve never seen an episode with the Daleks, even — and I was never a fan. I tried, I really did, because it just seemed like something I should like. A time-traveling alien, a robot dog, monsters, pretty-but-British-so-they’re-not-so-pretty-as-to-be-inaccessible women, and the second best theme song in TV history*. How could it go wrong?

A lot of ways, it turns out. Obviously, after Star Wars and “Battlestar Galactica” the special effects were going to be a disappointment. But there was still something about it that never grabbed me as a kid; it seemed too talky and distant, like it was aimed at very dour British children.

So the new revamp of the series has gotten a lot of hype, and it turns out it’s all deserved. I watched the first DVD of the first season, not the new ones that started airing tonight on SciFi.

It’s just great. The interviews with the exec producer and writers reveal that it was made by people who grew up with the show and dreamed of writing for it ever since they were little. But you don’t really need the interviews to see that; it comes through in everything. They captured everything that makes the premise so appealing, but with well-written stories from a post-Douglas Adams England.

It’s not just the special effects that have caught up with the concept, it’s the tone and quality of writing. The British have always cornered the market on clever, and here’s a great example of it all working. It’s funny without being campy or too ironic, clever without being condescending, fun without being inconsequential, serious without being too dark and heavy.

And the last bit is what baffles me. When I was younger, I never understood that in the UK, “Doctor Who” was targeted towards kids. It definitely wasn’t like children’s programming in the US; it seemed closer to “Star Trek” than anything I was supposed to be watching. With the new series, they’re clearly targeting a wider audience; in the DVD special features, the lead actor describes it as aimed at the whole family, which is the kind of thing you’re supposed to say on a press tour interview.

But just in the first three episodes, we’ve seen the destruction of the Earth, speeches about how time is fleeting and everything around us is going to die, two characters sacrificing themselves for the good of others, at least four violent deaths of speaking characters, and scores of reanimated Victorian-era zombies. I realize I had a very sheltered childhood, where I always got the Disney version of every story and still wasn’t even allowed to see Old Yeller, but it still seems a lot darker than what most American kids are used to seeing.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t, of course — the show is a hell of a lot of fun, and probably American kids need to get toughened up anyway. I’m just interested in how there can be that wide a cultural divide. We get Disney and Dr. Seuss, they get Roald Dahl.

Also, did I mention the scores of reanimated Victorian-era zombies? The show rocks so hard.

* Of course, “Space: 1999” had the best.