”Yes, we are tired. Yes, there is no relief. Yes, the Cylons keep coming after us time after time after time. And yes, we are still expected to do our jobs!”
Here’s the short and sweet premise of Battlestar Galactica: It’s a post-apocalyptic story, with humanity on the brink of extinction, set in the vast reaches of outer space instead of the dusty deserts of Australia.
At the tail-end of 2003, the SciFi channel finally launched a long discussed revamp of the 1978 short-lived Battlestar Galactica. They billed it as a miniseries, but let’s not kid ourselves here: this was a testing ground for the development of a new series, an expensive pilot they could endlessly promote until viewers were frothing for an actual series. A year or so later, and Battlestar Galactica hit the ground running with a stunning 13-episode first season, during which it won a Hugo for the episode “33”. Following that, SciFi picked up the show for an even longer second season, and the fan base pretty much exploded. Any scifi geek worth their salt has latched on to this new endeavor – not just because it’s pretty much the only decent ongoing scifi show on the air, not just because of a misguided loyalty to the old 70’s series, but because it’s simply an incredible, awesome and astonishing story.
Unlike many scifi setups, this one doesn’t have much to do with Earthians in the future (at least, we don’t think so). Instead, the humanity of BG lives far away, contained to twelve planets named after the Zodiac (sort of). The technology is advanced, but not so much so that you can’t understand it, and humanity is at peace 40 years after their homemade robotic creations, the Cylons, went berserk and turned on their masters. The Cylons have disappeared to look for their own world, but now they’re back… and it’s not pretty.
In the opening miniseries, BOOM, the second Cylon war begins – and it’s pretty much over within hours. Attaining complete surprise, the Cylons nuke the human homeworlds, completely obliterate their military (the Cylons have the ability to infiltrate computers and deactivate electronics), and begin to systematically hunt down the few survivors.
Survivors like the final remaining human fighter carrier, Battlestar Galactica.
A relic from the first Cylon war, the Galactica was turned into a museum and replaced by the newer ships (all of which were completely vulnerable to Cylon attack). Unlike the newer technology, Galactica’s hardware is practically primitive, but designed so that the Cylons couldn’t invade it. Turning tail and running, the Galactica herds all remaining faster-than-light ships in the area and flees, trying desperately to save what’s left of the human race while finding… a new home? The myth called Earth? Revenge? Wherever they’re going, they’re not going to have an easy go at it – supplies are low, weapons are few and far between, and humanity didn’t leave their own petty squabbles and problems back on their world.
I am a huge sucker for military science fiction, of which Battlestar Galactica has in spades. The special effects are tremendous – fighters launching, dogfights, missile strikes, bullets flying everywhere, explosive decompression, new planets, transforming robotic soldiers, and so on. But I’m even more of a sucker for a great story, one which you want to keep reading/watching until you find out how it ends, and Battlestar Galactica has this as well. I began watching it on SciFi on my own, but my wife – who normally looks down on my weird scifi aspirations – got pulled into the show as well, and watches it with me religiously. It’s really that good.
I’ve given you a brief overview of the setup of BG, but very little of the actual content. Created by Ron Moore, the praised brainchild behind some of the better changes in Star Trek in the 90’s, this series starts dark and goes darker, using the survival story of Galactica as a platform to examine many of our modern topics. There’s terrorism and war, of course. There’s (gasp) religion – polytheistic and monotheistic. There’s betrayal, suspicion, unhappy relationships, personal flaws, and moral and ethical dilemmas. The 70’s Battlestar Galactica was more concerned with the high adventure of the concept – Whee! We’re heroes! We’re saving humanity! We’re kicking Cylon booty! We’ve installed shag carpeting on the flight deck and a disco ball on the bridge! In contrast, the 2000’s BG is a survival epic which keeps the overarching story going, brutally examining how this upheaval affects all of the lives involved.
Plus, and here’s one of the best twists on the premise, the bad guys might not be all that bad. Yes, we hate the Cylons for the whole genocide thing, but can you exactly blame them when they rebelled against their masters who pretty much made them to function as slaves? Part of the time, the series lulls you into a false sense of plot security: you assume the Cylons are just out to find these last 50,000 people and kill them. Perhaps. But then the show alludes and hints at a grander Cylon “plan”, as Cylons are now making machines to look, feel and act as humans. They seem to appear to test humanity, to manipulate them, to guide them to their ultimate goal. And almost always, the Cylons seem to be about ten steps ahead of the best and brightest minds that humanity has left. Do we even have a shot?
You betcha sweet butt, we do. The fleet survives because of ordinary men and women who become extraordinary in this moment of crisis (see the sidebar). These military and civilian souls are far from the carbon-copy pictures of perfection that we’ve seen in so many other scifi franchises (such as one that rhymes with Far Dreck) – they’re prone to serious mistakes, errors in judgment, bicker among themselves, and sometimes seem to be even a greater threat than the Cylons to each other. On the other hand, they’re earnestly doing the best with what they have left, and it’s moving to see how each of them grows and shapes as the series progresses.
Plus, and I cannot emphasize this enough, Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell deliver magnificent performances. Repeatedly. In a show bustling with good, young actors, these two weathered faces trounce any up-and-comers from stealing their thunder. Olmos is the master of the steely expression, a reserve of emotions that only leaks out when you least expect it (one of my favorite scenes is when his son asks the dad what he would do if the son got lost in space as a pilot; when you see the tears on the dad’s face and hear his gruff, “Son, I’d never leave”, you can’t help but be knocked back). McDonnell, on the other hand, is an intelligent fount of leadership, a super-mom in space. These two are terrific leaders and smart, but differ in style and often lock horns – and it is thrilling when they do so.
Not every episode is about the imminent Cylon threat, however. The series follows an almost completely separate substory with a couple of downed Colonial pilots trying to survive on the surface of a Cylon-invaded world. There are gigantic problems within the fleet itself: a lack of water, a ship full of prisoners, a democratic people who resume their own political differences as the government reforms. Unlike many episodic drama series that have self-contained stories, this show rarely ends back at the same spot that it begins.
Another thing to note is the “feel” of the show. It’s filmed almost like a documentary, although with much higher production values. Colors can be muted, washed out, fluorescent lighting turning pretty faces into masks of horror, graininess seeping in. The producers “borrowed” (and were free to give credit where it was due) the hand-held space shots of Firefly. The camera shakes and bumps around, zooming in to focus on what’s really important. Sometimes this is disorienting, but always it makes you feel as though you’re really there, or observing it on the news, not watching a mere TV programme. Also unlike Star Trek, the show doesn’t revel in technology too much. Everything’s very hard core, solid, useful and not too removed from what we’re used to today. The airlocks, computer screens, telephones, locker rooms, ducts and even uniforms suggest that this is a real, breathing world where a fancy use for technology isn’t the answer for whatever space anomaly they’ll bump into that week.
While I may miss some of my favorite – and cancelled – scifi TV shows, it’s heartening to see that Battlestar Galactica takes some of the best elements of these shows from the past couple decades and builds upon them. There’s the “We’re never quite secure or safe” aura that Farscape had, the “People act like real people” acting direction that Firefly boasted, even the rewarding bonus of paying attention to the smallest details, that might very well come in useful down the line in later episodes (such as Lost and many others). You really do need to catch this show – give both the miniseries and the first few episodes of the first season a shot, to get a real flavor for the show, and just see if you haven’t found a new favorite.