Thursday, January 5, 2006

Cursing Like A Sailor In Primetime

Leave it to two science fiction outlets to break down another barrier – profanity in primetime.

Four decades ago, Star Trek broke the race barrier with TV's first interracial kiss, in brazen defiance of network censors. Now SciFi Channel's original series Battlestar Galactica (a re-imagining of the campy 1970's cult phenomenon) and Joss Whedon's feature film, Serenity (the resurrection of the short-lived Fox series Firefly) have ever so discretely pushed past draconian FCC censors by cursing like sailors, openly and frequently – unintelligibly.

Both franchises feature prolific vulgarity disguised cleverly through the use of alien colloquialisms and Chinese dialects.

Battlestar Galactica's intense, embattled Colonials use a number of amusing alien swear words as substitute for the harsher curses employed by their real-world military analogues. The original 1970's version of the Battlestar franchise preferred the gratuitously syllabic "feldercarb." But the modern series makes much more profitable use of the simple alien expletive "frak."

And despite the replacement, there can be no misunderstanding of the word's intended meaning. Like it's English counterpart, "frak" has a variety of different meanings and uses. It has been used in series dialogue to describe sexual relations, "You know what? I don't care who or what he fraks"; as a pejorative, "Frak you"; as a component of various compound words, "Talk to me, you motherfrakker!"; as an adjective, "Does anybody else think that this plan is frakking nuts?"; to express agreement, "Frakkin' Eh"; and, of course, to express shock or surprise, "Oh, frak me!"

Despite the current series' love affair with "frak", it was only used once on Galactica's maiden voyage in 1978 –filthy "feldercarb" was uttered twice.

Joss Whedon's Serenity and Firefly , each incarnations of the same science fiction concept (henceforth simply referred to as Firefly), dodge the same vulgar bullet without devolving into alien etymology. With rare exception, Firefly's pirate crew take advantage of the multi-cultural nature of the universe and curse, sometimes in lengthy fashion, in Mandarin Chinese.

Firefly's uses of Chinese are many and varied, ranging from words or phrases that closely approximate English language vulgarity – such as "Ta ma duh!" which means "Frack me blind!"* – to those with no such analogue – "gun HOE-tze bee DIO-se" meaning, "engage in a feces hurling contest with a monkey." And while the Firefly actors's pronunciation is, according to Fight.Boredom's resident Mandarin linguist, passable but not precise, the meaning of these Chinese replacements is rarely unclear.

Firefly's most frequent expletive, "gorram" (as in, "Did the Primary Buffer Panel just fall off my gorram ship for no apparent reason?") is the exception to this Mandarin trend. "Gorram" has no Chinese meaning but is used to approximate the English expletive, "god damn," expressing extreme displeasure, anger, or surprise.

What is the lesson here? It's not that primetime programming can, or should, use frequent cursing to liven up their dialogue. It is, rather, that a little bit of imagination and wit can alleviate the need. That it is two science fiction shows that have pressed the envelope of primetime vulgarity in such an inventive way is not surprising – their medium allows greater leeway in regards to the acceptable use of language, real or imaginary.

And if you remain unconvinced, that this kind of linguistic replacement can achieve the desired expletive affect, then queue up Battlestar Galactica on your TiVo and rent Serenity – you'll be surprised, as we were, what a little creative cursing can do.

"DONG-luh-MAH?" Ni cho lyen, yo mei yo?"
** I frakkin' hope so. fb

*Like this clever tie-in? We like being clever.
**"Are we clear here?"

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