I would say that much of my work on the blog has been based on the idea of Stories being an essential part of being human. That they are a shared dream, a universal way of us all working out our collective neuroses in collaboration. “..a narrative shared to teach, understand, entertain and bind us together.” A vital building block of community, an essential teaching tool to draw us to adulthood, a spur, a warning, an escape.
And they are a mirror, held up to show us what we were, what we are and what we can be. Story as mirror both reflects and reverses what we see; simultaneously allowing us to examine ourselves and to bend our reality. And that distortion is a kind of playing; it’s our communal “what if” question. And isn’t all play just storytelling? Or is all Storytelling just play? Isn’t it all just that moment of standing in front of the mirror with a hairbrush; sitting in a box in your living room; cloaking yourself with an old curtain. Isn’t it all just what if I was a fireman or a cowboy or a ballerina? We’re all just constantly trying on costumes and ideas and building our moralities and ethical frameworks until we can live with ourselves.
And communally, Story gives us that way to play with reality; to play with what it is that makes us humans; to try on the costume of different viewpoints and perspectives; to play with varieties of situations that shed light on new ethics and morality that just might help us find a way as a community to live with ourselves. Or… it can just help us ask questions. Questions about the nature of power, of love, of abuse, of conflict. And what interests me in a story isn’t always that the narrator or characters or even the audience ever comes to an answer – it’s the questions themselves I find more compelling.
This experimental play, the questions and reflections also become much easier to explore and present in a fantasy setting. It’s a helpful way of distancing the audience/listener, to an extent, from the material. And it protects the storytellers, especially in authoritarian contexts. For example if you’re asking ethical questions about violence, insurgency and oppression by an occupying force, it’s a bit easier to avoid the occupiers shutting you down if there are space ships and robots… which of course brings me to Battlestar Galactica.
Galactica is a fantasy ensemble piece of storytelling that, like Buffy, Angel, Lost or Game of Thrones (for example), for me falls into the category of True Storytelling; what others might call Meaningful Entertainment. It’s a true modern myth – a stark reflection of humanity in a desperate situation. An ultimate “what if” playing with any number of ethical, philosophical, spiritual, social and personal questions – and maybe giving us answers that perhaps might make us squirm rather uncomfortably.
It presents a picture of humanity in distilled form that ultimately asks the question “Do we deserve to survive?” Do we? It sets up a questionable vision of the nature of humanity – “You, your race, invented murder; invented killing for sport, greed, envy. It’s man’s one true art form.” – and then spends much of the story spelling out how wrong that is. That there is sacrifice, devotion, joy, silliness, loyalty.
It shows us how different kinds of leaders impact communities; presents us with different iterations of Faith, religion, Spirituality; shows us the power and peril of science; and does it all through beautifully rich, deep, flawed, characters that love and fight and frack. Because all of the wonderful themes aside, I wouldn’t connect with this story if not for the characters that the writers very quickly make you care about. And though I find the themes meaningful and challenging and rightly holding up a mirror to what we’re going through right now, all of it becomes less meaningful if I don’t care about Courageous Screwup Starbuck, or Righteous Rebel Apollo, or Unexpected Leader President Roslin – or even the Traitor Doctor Baltar. Caprica Six gives one assessment of the good doctor –
“Gaius Baltar is a brilliant, gifted human being. In the time I’ve known him, he’s made a sport out of mendacity and deception.He was narcissistic, self-centred, feckless and vain…”
And yet, there are moments we feel for him, hope for his wellbeing, look to his potential redemption.
These are fully realised, fully rounded characters that I genuinely like and and enjoy disliking. I want to spend time with them and spend time watching how they work out how to be better humans, to disprove the accusation that murder is all that humanity has to offer the universe.
And then there’s the numbers. They’re a device. I don’t often talk about the mechanics of Storytelling, but this is a brilliant one. It’s a really simple device, perhaps derived from simple budgetary issues on the show. It’s numbers on a whiteboard. I’ve written numbers on a whiteboard hundreds of times. It’s something that’s right there in the very first episode (After the Mini-series set up, the series itself started with the tense “33”).
The numbers are written on the board by former teacher, former education secretary (imagine that, a secretary of state who has expertise in the field they are secretary for – radical) now President Laura Roslin. They represent the number of survivors in the fleet that escaped the Cylon attack. The number is less than the population of the biggest local town near me. 47,973. Recorded with a marker on a whiteboard. Amidst all the lasers and spaceships and robots it’s the banality of the numbers on the whiteboard that pulls us in.
And Roslin wrestles with the pen each time she has to change it down after they lose another ship. She wrestles with it as she wrestles with her grief, as she wrestles with the responsibility suddenly on her shoulders, as she wrestles with doubts and her personal tragedy of illness. Every time she has to change the number down, you can see it affects her personally; each life lost is a wound and the fact she feels compelled to physically record it adds to that wound, but also adds to her authenticity as a leader. This is what makes her the President for me as an onlooker. Not the title or the oath or the hard decisions she has to make. This. An empathy and pain suffered on behalf of the people she is responsible for. I wish there were more leaders like that.
The numbers don’t just act as a device for defining the character of Roslin, but also in a way for the premise of the show itself. Because the numbers don’t just go down. They go up as well. And therein lies humanity’s hope. And Hope for not just survival, but for humanity’s flourishing, for our Thriving is at the heart of what makes it great.
So yes, stories are vital. They’re not some non-essential item to be put behind tape in a shop. Just as children need food to feed the body – a fact some people sadly need reminding of – so we need stories to feed our minds and hearts, to fire our imagination, to lift our spirits and to remind ourselves we are more than just blood and bone; or even circuits and switches. Let’s show those who would reduce humanity to weighing a cost benefit analysis that we are higher than the angels; let’s show those who portray a failure of ethics as a difference of opinion that their excuses for cruelty are beneath us all; let’s look in the mirror of story and be honest about our failures and celebrate our glory – and then aim for the stars.