Saturday, April 25, 2015

Blade Runner Breaks Into the Second Golden Age of Television

Blade Runner Breaks Into the Second Golden Age of Television

The cult classic science fiction film Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott has weathered the last thirty years incredibly well. As epic storytelling has moved from the big screen to the small screen in what the New York Times calls “a golden age” for television, so has Blade Runner’s influence (Carr C1). The reimagined television series Battlestar Galactica, which has earned critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone who, in 2006, called it “the smartest and toughest show on TV,” owes an incredible amount to the groundwork that Blade Runner has laid down in the dystopian science fiction genre (Edwards). There are many cinematic styling cues that the reimagined television series borrows from Blade Runner, yet the similarity between the two narratives is even more significant.

            The most obvious similarity between Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica is the presence of humanoid robots in each along with the strikingly similar narrative path the androids follow. Humanity creates robots as slaves, but they develop into sentient beings and rebel against their makers. Subsequently, they are exiled from humanity and barred from earth. With their mental faculties fully formed, the androids come back in search of freedom from the shackles that humanity has placed on them. This narrative fits both Battlestar Galactica and Blade Runner equally well. In Blade Runner, the Replicants have a pre-assigned number of years they are allowed to live. The Replicant Roy Batty makes his desire to break free from this imposed restriction very clear when he finally meets his maker toward the end of Blade Runner.  When asked “what can he [the maker] do for you,” he responds: “I want more life, father” (Blade Runner 1:23:00-1:23:50). Batty wants an unrestricted lifespan and he must conquer his maker to achieve it. Although the androids, or Cylons[1], in Battlestar Galactica have already achieved an infinite lifespan, they are still not completely free because they were condemned by mankind to the far outskirts of the galaxy. They come back in search of total domination and to free themselves of any tethers with which humanity has bound them. The striking resemblance between these narratives is no coincidence.

In addition to the similar storylines, Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica open at the same point in their storylines with very similar scenes. Blade Runner opens with Leon, a Replicant[2], being interrogated by Holden, a Blade Runner. Secluded in an empty room, Holden is murdered by Leon. Battlestar Galactica opens the series in a remarkably familiar way. Alone in a room inside of a space ship, a Cylon, Number Six, meets with a human ambassador and then, under her command, destroys the ship and kills the ambassador. Each opening sequence marks the return of the androids to civilization. Both scenes involve a threat to the human race and the killing of a human official. Also, the commonality between them is striking because these are the first characters that the audience meets in both the movie and television series. With so many parallels between the two, it would be hard to argue that Blade Runner’s iconic opening scenes did not largely inspire Battlestar Galactica’s opening sequence.

The terminology used in Battlestar Galactica is an obvious reference to Blade Runner. Cylons are frequently referred to as ‘skin jobs’ and ‘Replicants,’ terms that were coined in Blade Runner, which opens with a scrolling text that introduces the androids as Replicants. Throughout the film the term “skin job” is used as a derogatory slang word for Replicants, such as when Lieutenant Brian is first introduced to the audience and says to Deckard, “c’mon, don’t be an asshole Deckard. I’ve got four skin jobs walk’n the streets” (Blade Runner 00:11:25-00:11:36). The android Cylons are also often called skin jobs and Replicants in Battlestar Galactica. In season four when The Chief is explaining to two other characters something he saw he says, “He was with one of those skin jobs, the one they call D'Anna” (Six of One). Using the same unique colloquialisms from Blade Runner in Battlestar Galactica is no accident; it is an undeniable reference to Blade Runner.

The Androids themselves are a significant parallel between the two stories. Both Cylons and
Replicants are exact copies of humans, which raises many questions and problems for  humanity in each fictional universe. As Rachela Morrison puts it, “Blade Runner deals with perceptual and moral ambiguity and with our inability to affirm oppositions and to distinguish between the real and unreal” (4). The main question this similarity poses is whether or not Replicants can be considered inherently evil and deserving of maltreatment or, if they are man’s equal, should they receive the same basic humanitarian rights? Blade Runner tackles this issue throughout the movie using Deckard’s romantic interest in Rachel, a Replicant, as a catalyst for shaping the audience’s opinion. From the very beginning the viewer is led on this moral journey. The opening text scroll states,

Replicants were declared illegal on earth – under penalty of death.

Special police squad units – Blade Runner units- had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant.

This was not called execution.

It was called retirement (Blade Runner 00:02:35 – 00:02:50).

Phrasing execution as “retirement” clearly demonstrates the moral undercurrent. If the destruction of a Replicant were called “execution” that would imply that it was alive. Using the word “retirement” implies that the Replicants are no more alive than an old fishing boat. Scott uses this terminology in Battlestar Galactica to deal with the same dilemma. In the article “Humanity's Scarred Children: The Cylons' Oedipal Dilemma in Battlestar Galactica,” Torsten Caeners analyzes the sympathetic portrayal of the Cylons:

The Cylons, while without doubt the enemy, are not portrayed as inherently evil… During the first two seasons, their actions and motivations remain in the dark and thus an aura of mystery surrounds them. This makes the audience curious and interested in the Cylons rather than just accepting them as the evil enemy. In the reimagined series, the basic scheme of good vs. evil is thus abandoned in favor of a more complex and equivocal setting (369-370).

Both movie and television series not only present the moral question of whether the androids are inherently evil, but also persuade the viewer to side with them in the fight for their existence. That struggle for existence is key to both Cylon and Replicant storylines and both epics push the viewer into the same ‘skin job’ sympathizing camp.

            Without watching Blade Runner or Battlestar Galactica, it is hard to imagine how viewers could be swayed to sympathize with the stated enemy of both fictional universes. The simple solution is love and sex. In the article “Machines Will Break Your Heart,” Andrew Harrison puts the love equation in Blade Runner very simply, stating, “Though Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is ostensibly about who should and should not be considered a human being, the question is linked to the capacity to love and be loved” (50). Falling in love with the enemy android is an important part of the grand theme in Blade Runner and a large theme in Battlestar Galactica as well. The driving force behind Deckard’s motivation is his love for Rachel. He disobeys direct orders to ‘retire’ Rachel and, instead, runs away with her. The viewer identifies with Deckard and, as he falls in love with Rachel, so does the audience. This idea appears again in Battlestar Galactica. Gaius Baltar repeatedly fails to break away from the Cylon Number Six even after he learns that she has committed genocide (Miniseries Part 1). Baltar may or may not be in love with Number Six, but in many instances he is certainly under her sexual power. The relationship between man and android is expressed as vital to the android storyline.

The acting that conveys these narratives is an integral part of Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica. Actor Edward James Olmos who plays Gaff in Blade Runner also plays the pivotal character of Admiral William Adama in Battletar Galactica. He is the physical connection between the two science fiction epics. Suzanne Church of The Daily Dragon interviewed Olmos about what influenced his portrayal of Admiral Adama in Battlestar Galactica. Olmos stated:

The main issue is the reality that was hit in Blade Runner was one that I really wanted to emulate with Battlestar. It was the only way to touch this kind of material; an opportunity to walk into a door that was opened by Blade Runner but no one had ever walked into it.

Olmos contributed a great deal to a déjà vu experience when watching Battlestar Galactica. He carried the same steely-eyed, underspoken strength that Gaff displayed straight into Admiral Adama’s character. Gaff is a rigid, by-the-book policeman. He displays his rigid adherence to the law when he refuses to let Rachel slip through the cracks when Deckard falls in love with her and tries to escape the law. He threatens Deckard saying, “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does” (Blade Runner 1:49:50-1:50:02). Admiral Adama becomes a far more fleshed-out character than Gaff was. He has a very similar demeanor to Gaff, however. Adama is a military man just like Gaff is a policeman. Often he is reluctant to share feelings or personal motivation, much like how Gaff’s motivation is almost completely unknown besides his strict adherence to authority. These two characters are kindred partly by design and partly because of Olmos’ unique depiction of them.

Just as Edward Olmos has moved from movie theaters to living rooms, so has cinematic storytelling. Blade Runner has certainly earned its spot as part of the science fiction cannon because its ripples can still be seen in modern television. The question it presents -- what makes us human -- is an integral part of Battlestar Galactica’s plot and its use of Blade Runner’s analysis is hardly a copy and more of an evolution of thought. The extended medium of television affords a far more in depth analysis than movies can offer. Media will continue to tackle this question in various allegories, as there will surely be future great works of fiction that explore this issue with and without the use of androids as catalysts.

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