Naturalistic science fiction
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"Naturalistic science fiction" (NSF) is a term created by the Re-imagined Battlestar Galactica co-creator Ronald D. Moore to describe that show's aesthetic. NSF is meant to be a realistic take on the SF genre, with its roots in drama rather than adventure tales. It eschews science-fiction staples such as one-dimensional characterizations, clear-cut conceptions of good and evil, so-called "technobabble" (technical-sounding terms that have mostly been made up), and "deus ex machina" approaches (in which a seemingly intractable problem in the plot is solved using a previously-unknown technical capability). In the case of episodic drama like the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, there is also more of an effort at continuity - the events in one episode have visible effects in subsequent episodes, unlike other science-fiction shows in which episodes are more stand-alone. Naturalistic SF combines elements of "soft" science fiction (where characterization is of prime importance) and "hard" science fiction (where plausible technical accuracy is preferred). Fundamentally, it is a drama with sci-fi elements.
Ron Moore's Essay on NSF
Battlestar Galactica: Naturalistic Science Fiction or Taking the Opera out of Space Opera
Our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of the science fiction television series. We take as a given the idea that the traditional space opera, with its stock characters, techno-double-talk, bumpy-headed aliens, thespian histrionics, and empty heroics has run its course and a new approach is required. That approach is to introduce realism into what has heretofore been an aggressively unrealistic genre.
Call it "Naturalistic Science Fiction."
This idea, the presentation of a fantastical situation in naturalistic terms, will permeate every aspect of our series:
Visual. The first thing that will leap out at viewers is the dynamic use of the documentary or cinema verite style. Through the extensive use of hand-held cameras, practical lighting, and functional set design, the battlestar Galactica will feel on every level like a real place.
This shift in tone and look cannot be overemphasized. It is our intention to deliver a show that does not look like any other science fiction series ever produced. A casual viewer should for a moment feel like he or she has accidentally surfed onto a "60 Minutes" documentary piece about life aboard an aircraft carrier until someone starts talking about Cylons and battlestars.
That is not to say we're shooting on videotape under fluorescent lights, but we will be striving for a verisimilitude that is sorely lacking in virtually every other science fiction series ever attempted. We're looking for filmic truth, not manufactured "pretty pictures" or the "way cool" factor.
Perhaps nowhere will this be more surprising than in our visual effects shots. Our ships will be treated like real ships that someone had to go out and film with a real camera. That means no 3-D "hero" shots panning and zooming wildly with the touch of a mousepad. The questions we will ask before every VFX shot are things like: "How did we get this shot? Where is the camera? Who's holding it? Is the cameraman in another spacecraft? Is the camera mounted on the wing?" This philosophy will generate images that will present an audience jaded and bored with the same old "Wow -- it's a CGI shot!" with a different texture and a different cinematic language that will force them to re-evaluate their notions of science fiction.
Another way to challenge the audience visually will be our extensive use of the multi-split screen format. By combining multiple angles during dogfights, for example, we will be able to present an entirely new take on what has become a tired and familiar sequence that has not changed materially since George Lucas established it in the mid 1970s.
Finally, our visual style will also capitalize on the possibilities inherent in the series concept itself to deliver unusual imagery not typically seen in this genre. That is, the inclusion of a variety of civilian ships each of which will have unique properties and visual references that can be in stark contrast to the military life aboard Galactica. For example, we have a vessel in our rag-tag fleet which was designed to be a space-going marketplace or "City Walk" environment. The juxtaposition of this high-gloss, sexy atmosphere against the gritty reality of a story for survival will give us more textures and levels to play than in typical genre fare.
Editorial. Our style will avoid the now clichéd MTV fast-cutting while at the same time foregoing Star Trek's somewhat ponderous and lugubrious "master, two-shot, close-up, close-up, two-shot, back to master" pattern. If there is a model here, it would be vaguely Hitchcockian -- that is, a sense of building suspense and dramatic tension through the use of extending takes and long masters which pull the audience into the reality of the action rather than the distract through the use of ostentatious cutting patterns.
Story. We will eschew the usual stories about parallel universes, time-travel, mind-control, evil twins, God-like powers and all the other clichés of the genre. Our show is first and foremost a drama. It is about people. Real people that the audience can identify with and become engaged in. It is not a show about hardware or bizarre alien cultures. It is a show about us. It is an allegory for our own society, our own people and it should be immediately recognizable to any member of the audience.
Science. Our spaceships don't make noise because there is no noise in space. Sound will be provided from sources inside the ships -- the whine of an engine audible to the pilot for instance. Our fighters are not airplanes and they will not be shackled by the conventions of WWII dogfights. The speed of light is a law and there will be no moving violations.
And finally, Character. This is perhaps, the biggest departure from the science fiction norm. We do not have "the cocky guy" "the fast-talker" "the brain" "the wacky alien sidekick" or any of the other usual characters who populate a space series. Our characters are living, breathing people with all the emotional complexity and contradictions present in quality dramas like "The West Wing" or "The Sopranos." In this way, we hope to challenge our audience in ways that other genre pieces do not. We want the audience to connect with the characters of Galactica as people. Our characters are not super-heroes. They are not an elite. They are everyday people caught up in a enormous cataclysm and trying to survive it as best they can.
They are you and me.
Analysis of NSF Principles in the Show
For the new Battlestar Galactica series, naturalistic science fiction means that characters are more three-dimensional, complete with flaws, neuroses, and even addictions. There is an attempt to stay away from stereotypical archetypes in science fiction or adventure stories such as the "smoking chauvinist," "loyal soldier," "heroic lead," "spiritual commander," Spock-type alien, or "whiz-kid genius."
The characters change over time, showing different facets of their personalities: President Laura Roslin begins the first season cautious and rule bound; by the second season she has ordered that a high-ranking military member be assassinated (Resurrection Ship, Part I) and attempts to steal an election (Lay Down Your Burdens, Part II). The Cylons, who in the beginning are out simply to destroy humanity, later have a change of heart, feeling guilty about the destruction they have brought about, and decide simply to enslave them (Lay Down Your Burdens, Part II).
As a general rule, the characters of Battlestar Galactica are not carbon copies of character archetypes found in other TV science fiction. For example, instead of the "lovable, irascible doctor" like Dr. McCoy on Star Trek, Major Cottle is arrogant and rude to his patients.
Counterpoints and aired contradiction
Some characters in Battlestar Galactica do act like cliched sci-fi characters, though. Starbuck, as the rude and cocky pilot, fills a well-known archetype, similar to Han Solo of Star Wars. Still, there are more facets to her personality than that: from the beginning she is plagued with guilt about her role in the death of Zak Adama, and later her flying skills are perceived to have atrophied as a result of alcoholism and apathy (although Solo is also flawed with sheer recklessness, a passion for gambling, and distrust). Other characters occasionally fill in stereotypical sci-fi character staples; for example, Adama is reminiscent of the general gruff military officer staple, and the Cylons are (albeit superficially) similar to other fictional robot races, such as the machines from Terminator and The Matrix, which are also machines that rebel against their human creators and take on human form.
Technology is far enough advanced for star travel to be possible (see: FTL travel) and plausible, yet every other aspect of Colonial technology is humbly realistic. Instead of using technology such as Star Trek's transporters, people need to be physically shuttled between ships on smaller craft like Raptors. Fanciful ship defenses, such as photon torpedoes, shields and cloaking technology do not exist. Ships instead rely on point defense batteries, hull plating and stellar anomalies to foil enemy DRADIS and defeat their enemies.
Energy weapons such as Star Trek's phasers and photon torpedoes are replaced with ordinary projectile weapons and Earthly mass-destruction ordnance: guns, bullets and nuclear bombs. Other SF "deus ex machina"-style comparatively fanciful technologies are avoided entirely or replaced with technology more in line with what's seen in modern life on Earth today. When the Fleet runs out of water, Galactica is forced to search for a planetary body that has water (Water). Technology looks familiar to the viewer, from the phones to computer screens to the bathrooms.
Much like Aaron Doral notes in the opening of the Miniseries, form follows function when it comes to the ship designs. Galactica is designed as a battle cruiser / aircraft carrier in space; the hull is lined with armor plating, strengthened by structural ribbing and insulated from external explosions by internal structures such as water tanks (Water). The command center of the ship, the CIC, is buried deep within the ship and protected from any attacks, unlike Star Trek Federation starships, whose bridges are openly exposed at the top-center of the ship on most classes, as few are technically designated for war. Also unlike Star Trek, in which starships could be involved in battles and suffer near crippling damage, only to appear pristine in the next episode, Galactica's damage remains consistent throughout the series. She starts out with no battle damage, and is suffering from hull breaches and burn marks by the end.
Many Colonial civilian ships are spaceborne variations of ships you may see in the air or at sea in the real-world Earth. Colonial One is designed to be a jetliner in space and is set up similar to a real world passenger airliner with rows of seats separated into various classes down the fuselage, cramped airplane bathrooms, windows with pull down shades, cargo bays in the ship's underbelly and private cabins for VIPs.
Counterpoints and Aired Contradiction
A seemingly large violation of this rule is Laura Roslin's sudden cancer cure in "Epiphanies", and tied in with that, the ability of Cylons and humans to conceive children such as Hera, given the unlikely blend of Cylon physiology to human physiology and the Cylons' continued use of silica pathways in humanoid Cylons (this is illustrated on copies of Aaron Doral and Leoben Conoy at Ragnar Anchorage). The "naturalistic science fiction" concept clearly applies more to Colonial technology than to Cylon technology, which is much more advanced.
No "Deus Ex Machina" Concepts
Characters like Colonel Tigh are annoyed by endless technobabble. Complex procedures needed to further the plot are often explained in context to the episode in simple and down-to-earth terms, if they're ever explained at all.
When technology is mentioned, it is typically analogous to something found on the real-world Earth. Terms such as "stims", "morpha", "DRADIS" and "wireless" have somewhat-familiar real-world counterparts.
Galactica and its Fleet have to be creative with the very limited resources in the Fleet. They cannot barter with other civilizations (as there aren't any) or make parts with "replication technology." They have a limited supply of everything: fighters, ammunition, food, water, and people. Specialized crew members, such as pilots and doctors, are in even shorter supply. In Battlestar Galactica's world, they don't have a home-base or a parent government: What they are and what they have is literally visible in every episode--and everything is wearing or running out. This is can be seen in the deteriorating conditions of Galactica's Vipers, which began the Miniseries in pristine condition, but, through extended use, all now have significant battle damage, burns, scars, scrapes and dents; several have been damaged beyond repair (Flight of the Phoenix).
Counterpoints and Aired Contradiction
Again, Roslin's cancer cure by Gaius Baltar suggests a sudden and undesirable use of the deus ex machina tactic to further a plot line (the survival of the child later known as Hera). Also, Boomer is often involved in unlikely scenarios that further the Cylon aspect of her character, the discovery of water and tylium just a few examples of this phenomenon.
Space is big...and lonely
There are no "planet-of-the-week" episodes. The Fleet does not encounter a new planet or culture every week as is typically done in episodes of Star Trek and Stargate (or to a certain extent the 1978 Original Series). The universe remains so big as to appear almost empty, with the odds of meeting other intelligent beings (excluding, perhaps, remnants of the Thirteenth Tribe) practically nil. Many Battlestar Galactica episodes primarily focus on internal Fleet survival issues ("Water", "Bastille Day", and "The Hand of God").
Humanoid or other intelligent life (save that of the Fleet's nemesis, the human-created Cylons) does not exist, as almost all of the encountered planets will be mostly uninhabitable and lifeless.
The characters do speak of animals from the now Cylon-occupied Colonies, and they share most of the names we use in the real-world Earth: for example chickens, dogs, cattle, and cats existed on their worlds. Socinus notes while on Kobol that he is able to listen to the birds in the trees for the first time since the Cylon attack (Scattered). A dog, Jake is seen on New Caprica in "Occupation"; it presumably came with passengers on the Fleet.
Counterpoints and Aired Contradiction
Whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, and whether it is in fact common, has long been a controversial issue, and a matter of speculation. At the moment, there is no way to know whether the "naturalistic science fiction" approach to exterrestrial life is in fact the accurate one.
Storytelling and music
Battlestar Galactica avoids the thematic elements found in Star Trek. The series has a documentary-style, cinema verite visual feel and tribal music that stands in contrast to the more standard orchestral overtures used in Star Trek, Star Wars, and the original Battlestar Galactica.
Counterpoints and Aired Contradiction
Arguably, several ceremonies conducted on the show were appropriate times for traditional Western martial overtures or marches (Miniseries, "Act of Contrition", "Pegasus"), and they could have been used based on the parallels between the Colonial Fleet and modern armed forces; given this, their exclusion may be a loss of authenticity for some.