By Gregory Wolfe
One of the perils of editing a journal of high culture (and publicly lamenting the dumbing down of the culture generally) is that people assume I’m an art snob. Few seem willing to say this directly to my face, but a couple of the more candid folks out there have told me they imagine me spending most of my time listening to atonal string quartets by Schoenberg and reading Nabokov novels. Sitting, I presume, in some sleek, German-designed, and profoundly uncomfortable chair.
Yo, my peeps, it ain’t like dat.
The problem isn’t really Highbrow versus Lowbrow. That’s a simplification. The criticisms of pop culture I most resonate to are not the ones that decry pop because it’s not sophisticated and complex. No, the problem with popular culture these days isn’t that it comes up from the people. It’s that it comes from massive corporations, who produce it according to marketing statistics so that the end result is bland, lowest-common denominator schlock.
True pop culture came from the people; it was hand-made, plucked on guitars and sawed on fiddles. It arose out of common experience; it had a history, even a tradition. I won’t belabor it but there are many historians and critics who have shown this to be true of jazz, the blues, and even rock and roll (just to take music as an example).
This even goes for genres—those classic forms where certain conventions and expectations provide the audience with much of the pleasure. Science fiction, noir, westerns, mysteries—they all arose out of certain deep cultural needs and circumstances, mostly urban in nature (western being a sort of pastoral fantasy for city dwellers).
I love books and films in an array of genres. While I was generally terrible at math and science as a child, I was always intrigued by those subjects and loved gazing up at the stars. I joined the Science Fiction Book Club when I was around fourteen, always awaiting a new delivery of Asimov and Herbert, Clarke and Niven. 2001: A Space Odyssey made a big impression.
And yes, I was a Trekkie. At least when it came to the original series. The blend of the exotic and topical was fascinating. And I now think that what I loved the most was the male camaraderie of Kirk, Spock, and Bones.
When The Next Generation came along, I was as eager as anyone to get back into the series, and Patrick Stewart’s Shakespearean chops played well with the more thoughtful aspects of the genre. But pretty soon I lost interest. It wasn’t just the PC Counselor Troi who made me gag; it was that the wobbly premise of the original, that mankind had gotten past the conflicts and dilemmas of history, had now got out of hand. Everything was too easy, with holodecks and so on. I longed for Kirk to get dusty on a planet grappling with a monster or a girl.
My disaffection with science fiction in book and televised form became thoroughgoing—too long a story to tell here.
I would occasionally get reports of something good. My daughter Magdalen turned me on to the tragically short-lived Joss Whedon series, Firefly (and its feature-film spin-off, Serenity).
Finally, I heard enough about the new Battlestar Galactica to decide to check it out. And I was astounded. What had been an awful, goofy series in the 1970s had been completely re-made by Ronald D. Moore, an old Star Trek hand who had himself become disaffected with the franchise.
BSG has everything I’d always loved in sci fi—space battles, ethical dilemmas, and a certain grittiness that reminded me that those space-faring folks were still profoundly human. The retro elements of the series—the Battlestar is more like an aircraft carrier in WWII than a starship, there are no transporters, and they still use telephones attached to the walls!—keep it real. Moore has given us a series that contains three things that Star Trek had abandoned: politics, war, and religion.
Moreover, by having the rebellious robots (known as Cylons) evolve into biological entities indistinguishable from human beings, Moore came up with a perfect device to explore the ambiguities of the human condition.
So I started watching BSG from the beginning on DVD. I’m nearly caught up now. And I’ve been having a frakking great time. Go on, Starbuck, get me some toasters. Good hunting!