Battlestar Galactica: Razor? Boo! Boo! BOO! What should have been an alternative story to the post-apocalyptic survival of humanity could have been called “Baser Instinct” (for its gratuitous use lesbians as vamps). I admittedly enjoyed the trip down memory lane with the return of the original series Cylons. In the end, I came away with the impression that humanity is indulgent when it comes to its memory. Indeed, most of the story concerning Pegasus’ escape and subsequent terrorism comes through the memory of one character.
This has become a too familiar plot device for the series. A character relives past experience, often of events that preceded the destruction of the colonies, only to find her/himself isolated from friends and co-workers and constrained in her/his actions. Violence and abuse (usually chemical, but also emotional and physical) follow. If remembrance does not lead to some sort of destruction, it also does not lead to healing. The best that a character can do is repair his or her reputation through foolhardy heroism (and minor characters often die). In the dreaded boxing episode, Apollo and Starbuck remember their brief affair through pugilism. The best example is Baltar, who lives with his genocidal lover in his head.
Ronald Moore, the show’s producer, receives high marks for introducing the darker side of humanity to science fiction. Heroes are alcoholics, leaders subvert democracy, collaborators are populists. Moore has himself written much about how the show explores issues related to politics, fundamentalism, and human nature. However, he seems to have little to say about memory.
Memory could be just a plot device or a framing tool. It need be no more complex than that. What happens to memory often comes up. Cylons download their memories upon death to a central repository; some are incorporated into new models. During the “Vichy” episodes, the priest Cylon, played so well be Dean Stockwell, complains about the cumulative pain (psychic and physical) caused by his recurring deaths and downloads. Conversely, humans wrestle with how they will memorialize fallen comrades, whether to choose to remember how they lived their life or how they sacrificed it–being a hero in the present is the best one can hope for.
Galactica is not, though, the only Proustian television show created by a former writer/producer from Star Trek. Bryan Fuller’s Pushing Daisies (as well as his previous offering, Dead like Me) has a similar dynamic. Cataclysmic events violently rend past from present, and characters dwell on their memories in order to understand the meaning of the rift. In Fuller’s shows, the rift is caused by death: the murder of a woman (Chuck) who is revived by the unexplained powers of her childhood sweetheart; and the enlisting of a young woman, killed by a toilet seat from the de-orbiting Mir, to work as a grim reaper. In the back of my mind, I wonder why Star Trek produced two talents who structure stories in much the same way.
Yet their shows diverge on the meaning and texture of memory. Fuller’s character don’t obsess on the past as much as have a dialog with it. Childhood events, too complex for an immature mind, are retrieved and reprocessed. Consequently, the interpretation of the past changes. They let go of trivial issues that caused them pain in favor of a comprehensive outlook on the past. Character may even find ways of finding reconciliation, emotional and spiritual if not personal. In Dead Like Me, George abandons the resentment she carried for her mother and sister before her death, acting anonymously to improve their lives. Sometimes remembering strife within her family is a vehicle to find better relationships with her co-workers, especially those that have become her surrogate parents (Deloris and Rube). In Pushing Daisies, Chuck acts through surrogates to lift the aunts who raised her out of their isolation and depression, becoming an active vehicle to help them cope with Chuck’s death (Chuck even frames these actions in terms of the five stages of mourning). And “the Pie Maker” finds his post-AIDS, “safe sex” relationship with Chuck a vehicle for unleashing the sincerity he locked up inside since the early death of his mother and disappearance of his father.
I have memory on the mind for other reasons, of course. Numerous historical examples reveals myriad strategies for coping with trauma. Forgetting, in the short term, is a necessary strategy for a society to move forward, a strategy that is embraced in South Africa and was embraced in Poland. A century of psycho-therapy has accustomed popular culture to see repression negatively and remembering positively. Both shows prove that exploring the recesses of the past will not always make the healthy person, as it did Liza Elliot. In Battlestar Galactica, it can lead to greater tragedy; forgetting can be the best strategy for overcoming what cannot be reconciled between past and present. In Dead like Me and Pushing Daisies, the pain from the old memories is forgotten in favor of new memories that are sweeter and, ultimately, more mature. Forgetting does not repress trauma; it makes it manageable.