Monday, July 16, 2007


As I was thinking about old TV shows that I liked as a kid in a previous post, Buck Rogers made me think of Battlestar Galactica. Whereas the original Battlestar Galactica only lasted a season (we're just not going to mention Galactica 1980), Buck Rogers made it three. Both series were produced by Glen Larson and were very similar, except for one very important factor: Setting.

Battlestar Galactica took place in a self-contained universe. Earth was only mentioned as a place to which they were going. Buck Rogers, on the other hand, was about a 20th century red-blooded American male (and all that implies) who wakes up still on Earth, but in the 25 century. There was a connection there to be made with the American public. Buck brought sometimes-archaic 20th century sensibilities into the sterile world of the future, trying to reawaken the pioneer spirit and drive in the highly-evolved technologically-driven future. Be that as it may, I thought that Battlestar Galactica was the better show of the two.

Battlestar Galactica supposed a civilization "far across the heavens, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans." Their civilization paralleled our own, but clearly their ways and cultures were alien to us. Prostitution was legal, yet frowned upon, and gambling occurred in the open.

What I found charming about Battlestar Galactica, and probably what most people found annoying and alien, was its use of unfamiliar terms to describe familiar things. A "centon" was a measure of 1/100 of a "centar" roughly equal to a minute, and a "micron" was a tenth of that. Not only were centons and microns measures of time, they were measures of distance as well. A year, or the equivalent, was a "yahren." A unit of money was a cubit (I can hear Bill Cosby now: "Riiiggghhhht...What's a cubit?") Here's a list of these fascinating terms.

But the funniest parts of this translation were the swear words. Battlestar Galactica literally allowed you to say some very bad things on television. "Felgercarb" was solid biological waste. And "frak," well, frak was the equivalent of one of our four-letter expletives that also starts with f and ends with k. I'm not going to tell you which one.

When the recent
remake of Battlestar Galactica premiered, it was nearly unrecognizable, yet superior in so many many ways. Characters were different, story elements were changed radically, many fans swore they'd never watch it, myself included. But when I saw a repeat of the miniseries on NBC one summer (smart move, by the way), I was hooked.

One thing that I truly appreciated from the 1978 show was retained. "Felgercarb" was nowhere to be heard, but boy, did they make up for it by saying "frak." "Frak you," "Frak off," "You motherfrakker," it's all there and there's not one thing censors can say about it. It's frakking hilarious!

Of all the shows, though, I think
Firefly had the most charming way of masking profanity. "Did a piece just fall off my gorram ship?" or "Ain't no ruttin' way I'm doing that." Firefly also used Chinese profanity to great effect.

The common use of masked profanity makes you realize just how silly swearing is and how much sillier people are for getting upset by its use. They're just words, and mostly words that have no meaning except to provide shock value. So why are we not shocked with abandon when someone says, "Frak?" It means the same thing but it spelled and pronounced differently. Sometimes my students accidentally curse in front of me. They are surprised when I don't send them out of class for it. I simply tell them that what they said was inappropriate. We give so much power to certain words, it's just easier to dismiss it when they accidentally let one slip. When we overreact, they are actually encouraged to say it more in private because it evokes such a response.

But I have no idea how I'm going to react the first time a student says, "Frak you, Mr. McClain!"

Postscript: Other science fiction media apparently did this years ago. Check out this article from Oxford University Press for details. I discovered it while writing about this topic.

1 comment:

Martin said...

Jim, a wonderful posting. I always found the cussing on some of these sci-fi shows very amusing. The perfect way to get past the censors.