Nothing but the Rain: Worldbuilding Lessons from Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica (BSG) has had many incarnations: A 1978 television show, a 2003 miniseries, some TV movies, and a long running series running from 2004. We will concern ourselves with the first ten minutes of the 2003 miniseries.

One of the problems of writing speculative fiction is the need to establish the universe within which events will occur. This is known as worldbuilding. It should be noted that even realistic fiction needs some degree of worldbuilding because the reader needs to know enough about the setting to be able to follow the narrative. Most narratives depict a world that may be so specialised that the reader cannot relate without some grounding. Examples include Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the world of post-mortems in Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta series of novels, the Baltimore drug culture in ‘The Wire’. The consumer of the narrative may have no idea and I have read of some people needing subtitles for season 1 of the wire because of the dense AAVE (African American Vernacular English).

Worldbuilding thus involves transferring a lot of information from the writer to the reader/consumer. When done well it is seamlessly woven into the narrative. When done in a cack-handed manner what you get is infodump: blocks of dense data essentially outside the narrative stream.

The first ten minutes of BSG show an elegant use of time and narrative structure. The 1978 show was before my time, although I was aware of it and had seen the memorabilia. The problem of a remake is to satisfy the old fans and bring in new fans at the same time re-imagining the universe.

How does BSG do it?

It opens with a number of declarative statements, but not that foul, infodump scrolling text that Star Wars does. It tells us simply that man created cylons to help, cylons went to war with man, armistice was declared and we haven’t heard from cylons in forty years. That’s it. While these sentences fade in and out we see a space ship dock with a space station. A uniformed bureaucrat arrives at a table (not a desk) with two seats. This is Armistice Station, where diplomatic relations between human and cylon are meant to occur. Cylons have never attended on the designated annual day. The man flips through some files which are the design specifications of the cylons (which are essentially robots). What this does is let the viewer know what to expect should the cylon’s appear. Which they do.

Two cylons walk in, gravitate to either side of the door and stop. They look like the design spec the bureaucrat has been perusing. He is surprised, of course, but at least they are what he (and the viewer) expects. Then a beautiful woman does a catwalk strut towards the table and sits on it. This tells us that there are humanoids working with the cylons. Some oddness ensues, but we go outside the space station and see that a gigantic star ship dwarfs Armistice Station and torpedoes it. While it breaks apart the woman is not surprised and states: “It has begun”.

This statement makes it clear that a. the destruction is expected. b. the cylons are the agents of the destruction, c. the woman is not afraid to die, and d. more destruction is coming.

Given what happens later I have to wonder what the motivation of the cylons was for sending the woman to Armistice Station, but it is irrelevant to the worldbuilding.

The second scene is of a woman jogging on a space ship. She is Starbuck (played by Katee Sackhoff) and the ship is Battlestar Galactica. The jogging serves a specific function. It allows the camera following her to establish the innards of the ship, to meet principal cast briefly and to drop some nuggets of information all in the guise of an action shot.

One of the first clear sentences in this scene is “Form follows function”, an architectural term with its origins in the writings of Roman architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. It means the shape of an object or building should be determined by its function. The speaker was talking about Galactica, but it could easily have referred to Starbuck’s jogging.

She first comes across an escort talking to a group from the press. The escort is talking about Galactica and we learn in a few seconds that it is the last of its kind, it is one of twelve, it represents a planet called Caprica. This speech trails off and we focus on an older man rehearsing a speech. This is Commander Adama (played by Edward James Olmos), a verteran of the Cylon War.

The speech itself serves a function. The contents are simple, that the Cylon War is over but we should not forget. This is repeated several times, but in the guise of rehearsal, therefore it is not jarring. Also, Adama is constantly interrupted so we never get to hear what exactly he does not want us to forget. This is irrelevant to worldbuilding. It is relevant to pacing as it keeps the viewer interested in the speech, but from a worldbuilding perspective it establishes ad nauseaum that the war is over and complacency may have set in.

Adama himself walks through Galactica as he practices, and the interruptions serve to let us know that he knows the names of all his crew members, that he is both respected and loved, and that Galactica is being decommissioned. The interruptions also establish a sort of class system on board: the brass, the pilots and ground control. Civilians are possibly beyond contempt.

Starbuck jogs up to Adama and keeps pace with him, and the following exchange ensues:

Starbuck (smiling): Good morning, sir.

Adama: Good morning, Starbuck. What do you hear?

Starbuck: Nothing but the rain.

Adama: Grab your gun and bring in the cat.

Starbuck(mimes shooting with index finger): Boom, boom, boom.

The compression of storytelling in this conversation is breathtaking. Adama is Starbuck’s senior officer, but there is clearly a lot of affection between them, such that they have their own informal language that is meaningless to the rest of us (and indeed is repeated but never explained in the rest of the series) but serves as phatic communication.

The camera follows Adama to the communications centre where Lt. Gaeta informs him of the loss of contact with Armistice Station. It is attributed to some kind of mechanical failure just after Adama has said “we should not forget” yet again. We the viewers know that the failure is because of cylon action, and it makes the rehearsal more significant.

Gaeta leaves the comms room and walks past the XO who is clearly in his cups, then past the press corps who are being told that Galactica has many retro features like corded phones in order to thwart the cylon’s ability to exploit technology.

Adama ends up on the flight deck where we learn that he used to fly a fighter twenty years back, and that he has two sons. Looking at the photograph saddens him, so we know there is some emotional baggage that will come to light.

This is all done in ten minutes. We should note that regardless of what function they served in the rest of the story, certain techniques eased the worldbuilding.

KISS : Keep It Simple, Stupid

Background information has to be given, hence the initial declarative statements, but they are kept simple, to-the-point and informative. It is the minimum you have to know to enter the narrative flow.

Props rather than words

The declarative statements about cylons link with the visual design specifications of cylons, which links with the initial robotic cylons arriving till the woman ends that particular cycle. It establishes that this woman is an agent of the cylons. Subsequent scenes are easy to understand. i.e. this is a world where a human might be working for the cylons (I can’t say more without spoilers).

Jogging for the establishing shot

The jogger serves to walk us through the set essentially. “This is where things will happen.”

Press corps

The primary purpose of the press corps is to deliver hard data. This is a device used in many narratives (like the interview, the press conference, etc). The infodump is broken up by the camera following either Adama or the jogger.

Adama’s speech

The purpose of the speech is to let us know that the world of the humans is complacent. The repetition would have been unnecessary otherwise and they could have shown us an Adama who was ready for his speech.

Conclusion:

These techniques were quite effective in drawing in the new viewer and I believe they can be adapted for any medium. Delivering such information with finesse in, say, books or short stories can improve the reading experience immensely.

(c) 2014

More info:

Battlestar Galactica

 

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