I've mentioned more than once, over the years, that I have a tendency to not be up on the big pop-culture things when they're big, or up on what's the cutting-edge thing in my favorite genres right when it's at the cutting edge, and so on. For four years back during the 2000s, I heard nothing but good things about the 'reimagined' Battlestar Galactica series – well, nothing but good things, that is, until the show ended, at which point I heard some divisive stuff. But since I didn't have cable, I had to file BSG away for future reference.
Well, 'future reference' is now, and last week I finished watching the first season of BSG. I would post things to Facebook about it, and I'd hear a pretty uniform response each time: fans of the show telling me how jealous they are of my coming to the series for the first time. That's pretty high praise...which the show has, to my mind, equaled. At least in the first season. I've got three more to go. (I think.)
Anyway, Battlestar Galactica famously launched way back in 1978, on the ABC network. Even though it most definitely owed its network pick-up and investment (the show was very expensive) to the incredible success the year before of Star Wars, BSG had actually been under development by creator Glen Larson since the early 1970s. He'd had this notion for a show in his head for a while, and when SF space opera suddenly became wildly popular, his show got its chance.
The story had humans existing on twelve worlds, called the Colonies, and living in peace, until they are viciously attacked at the planet Caprica by the robot race called the Cylons. Caught unawares, the humans are smashed, and end up fleeing their planet with a 'ragtag fleet' of various ships, under the protection of the giant battleship – called a 'Battlestar' – named Galactica. As the tattered remnants of humanity begin to make their way across the galaxy, the leader of the Colonial fleet, Commander Adama, reveals their destination: the mythical, lost 13th colony, called 'Earth'.
This same background applies to the new BSG, although some of the details have been changed, as befitting a 'reimagination' of the idea. Larson's original series was not just a kind of "Wagon Train to the stars" (and was, in fact, probably a better exemplar of this idea than Star Trek, even though that's how Gene Roddenberry originally described his iconic show); he also infused it with a lot of veiled references to his own religion and its beliefs, the LDS Church. But for all that, the original BSG has gained a pretty unfair reputation through the years as a cut-rate Star Wars rip-off. I suppose this is partly due to its short run (a single season, due to the ratings not being quite good enough to justify sufficient advertising charges to cover the show's large budget) and to the follow-up series two years later, Galactica 1980, which was...well, it was, in BSG parlance, frakking awful.
In the years since, there was occasional interest in a revisitation of the BSG franchise, including a project that actor Richard Hatch (Captain Apollo on the original series) spearheaded. It was producer Ronald D. Moore, however, who got the new version off the ground. Moore had a strong grounding in genre teevee, having worked on Star Treks TNG and DS9. The reimagined series, when announced, caused some consternation amongst fans of the original series; I remember one fellow on the FSM boards who would get quite incensed whenever the subject of a new BSG would come up.
So, anyway, as of this writing, I've watched all of Season One and about a quarter of Season Two. I'm coming to this with little knowledge of what is to come, although I've heard some fairly uncomplimentary things about how the series ends. I suppose I'll find out soon enough on that score...but what do I think for now?
Generally, this series is amazing.
The main hook is delivered in a pilot miniseries that's about three-and-a-half hours long. There we open with a deep space station where a human delegate and a Cylon delegate are to meet, once a year, to discuss relations. Or that's how it's supposed to go...but what really happens is that the human delegate basically shows up, sits in a room, and reads the paper while no Cylons come. This time, however, the Cylons arrive: two menacing-looking robot types, and a Cylon who looks, for all the world, like a stunningly beautiful blond woman. She asks the delegate if he is alive, and then...the Cylon basestar (the term for a Cylon flagship) destroys the station.
It turns out that the blond woman, 'Number Six', is one of many copies, and whenever one of the human-appearing Cylons dies, their memories are instantly transferred to an identical and new body. This simple fact allows the same Cylons to appear in numerous places in the story, and there are quite a few scenes where a human sees a Cylon that he or she has previously killed.
Meanwhile, the crew of the Battlestar Galactica is preparing the ship for a decommissioning ceremony, with all that entails – goodbyes being said, press members being led on a tour, the eventual revelation that one of the launch bays has been converted to a gift shop – when the Cylons launch their dreadful attack on Caprica. Almost immediately this ship, with its commander who is preparing for retirement and a crew mostly made up of young recruits who have never seen any kind of action before, are the leaders of the war effort.
As in the original series, the Cylon attack is staggeringly successful, to the point that all of the Twelve Colonies are destroyed, and all of humanity is reduced to around 50,000 people on a bunch of spaceships, only one of which – the Galactica -- is a warship. The rest are tankers and passenger liners and resort ships and the like. They quickly form up into the Colonial Fleet, and take to the stars, fleeing the pursuing Cylons lest humanity be wiped out forever. There's a deeply chilling scene where it becomes clear that only a portion of the Colonial ships have FTL drives, and as the Cylons launch an attack on the fleet, only those ships can escape, which they do – leaving thousands behind to perish.
The new BSG takes a much more realistic and serialized approach to dealing with this central story notion. Episodes tend to pick up where the last one left off, and problems from one episode are rarely solved in the allotted 60 minutes. Problems of supply, such as water and fuel, are addressed in ways that I don't recall the original series dealing with in great detail (not that the original ignored all that, by any means).
BSG, like all great science fiction, succeeds or fails based not only on its premise, but on its characters who are living that premise out. This version of BSG is full of interesting characters, with the line often blurred between who is villain and who is not. Alliances form and dissolve as various people find that at times their individual agendas align, while at others, they clash. Aside from the Cylons, there is no one on this show who stands out as purely good or purely evil. Even Commander Adama, who may be the most effective teevee starship commander since Jean-Luc Picard, has moments when he succumbs to his own inner demons and allows them to control his actions. The show is masterful at creating flawed people, but also people whose flaws aren't so debilitating that we can never sympathize or understand.
Even better, the flaws of the characters make sense. Colonel Tigh is an alcoholic who suffers from crippling self-doubt about his own abilities to command or make correct decisions – so much so that he often doesn't even realize it when he makes the right ones because he has to. He's the one who calmly makes the decision to seal off a section of the Galactica that is on fire and vent that section into space, even though this will mean the instant death of dozens of crew, because it's the only way to deal with the problem.
And then there is Kara Thrace, the brilliant cigar-chomping Viper pilot with a penchant for breaking the rules and who goes by the call-sign "Starbuck". I remember a lot of consternation when the show was announced that they were making Starbuck (Dirk Benedict's role in the original series) into a woman, but it really works here. This Starbuck is arrogant and skilled and resourceful and brilliant, but also brash, disrespectful, and racked with deep guilt that exists on several levels. At the point I've reached in the series, there have been some indications that Starbuck has a deeper level of significance in some way, but I haven't gotten there yet. She is a fantastic character, though. Nothing dull ever happens when she is onscreen.
And the roster of the show's best characters marches on. Laura Roslin is the Secretary of Education in the Colonial Government, and as such, she is 43rd in the line of succession to the Presidency...until the Cylons kill, in one fell swoop, the 42 people ahead of her, so this prim schoolteacher finds herself President of the Colonials during their greatest time of struggle in history. This, in fact, turns out to be one of the show's most frequent themes: the way in which history often forces the least likely of people to rise to the occasion and do what must be done to survive. The obscure cabinet member who works on education policy becomes President. The commander of the ship that's being mothballed becomes the leader of the entire war effort. The maintenance workers who repair the ships suddenly find their duties the difference between life and death. And so it goes.
BSG's moral ambiguity is most centered on Gaius Baltar, the brilliant scientist who is seduced into giving access to defense computers on Caprica to the stunning woman he's dating...who happens to be Number Six, the gorgeous human-looking Cylon. In many ways, it's his fault that the Cylons are so able to destroy Caprica so quickly, so utterly, and so decisively. But is he a villain? It's hard to see him as such, even though his agenda, to the extent that he even has one, doesn't really line up to the rest of the Colonial fleet's. As the series unfolds, Baltar is visited over and over again by Number Six, who may or may not be a figment of his imagination...or a vision placed via a chip in his brain. She is able to stoke his ego to enormous degree, first by getting him elected Vice President, and then by convincing him that he is an 'instrument of God'.
The BSG writers excel at creating situations where the moral course is not at all clear. In just this one season, we have the fleet having to rely on convicted criminals to form a work crew to acquire water; we have a decision made on incomplete information whether or not to destroy a Colonial ship that may have been taken over by Cylons; and we have the increasing evidence that what is happening to the Colonials has been foreseen in their scriptures, so that they must decide whether to continue fleeing or stop and retrieve an artifact from their once-lost home planet of Kobol. BSG provides its characters with few easy decisions – in fact, it's almost as if the writers delight in creating situations where their people are in a really bad spot and their only courses of action available basically constitute a grab-bag of suck. "Pick your poison" seems to be the general order of the day on this show...or the choice between the devil you know and the devil you don't.
I don't want to give the impression that the updated BSG is all dystopic depressing stuff, because it's not. It's intense and dark and a lot of bad stuff happens, but there are real moments of happiness along the way, and a couple of moments of outright triumph. This is a show that makes a major victory out of when the running tally the President keeps of the to-the-number population of the human race actually increases by one, and there are moments of humor along the way. Small moments, to be sure, but there's a constant sense that when a triumph comes, it is earned. Prices are paid for victories, but hope remains.
This brings me to the show's mystical and religious themes. The Colonials seem to be polytheistic, believing in gods who are modeled on the Greek pantheon of deities. Reference is made to Apollo and Athena, as well as others. The Cylons, however, are particularly interesting because they are not just a race of robots, as in the original series. The Cylons believe in a monotheistic God, to the point where Number Six, in her talks with Baltar, speaks to him in ways that are so spiritual that it's possible to wonder if she is some kind of angel and not a Cylon at all. The original series had its religious content as well, being famously shaped by Glen A. Larson to reflect the theology of the Mormon church. The BSG update doesn't quite do that, but it does address some of the big spiritual questions. Characters are said to be meant to do certain things, and there is the constant repetition of a single spiritual idea, used almost as a kenning in the show: "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again."
In terms of production design, BSG is top-notch. The Galactica itself is only mildly updated in design, as are the Colonial Viper starfighters – they are still long and sleek, with their tri-thrusters, but they're deadlier now. Interestingly, early in the show's pilot miniseries, there's a touching scene where the flight crew on Galactica provides Adama with a restored 'vintage' Viper, which is, of course, one of the ships from BSG 1978. There are other, small nods to the original series: the gold-plated Cylons of the original show are revealed to be an earlier model in this one, and the Colonial Anthem turns out to be the Stu Philips theme from the original show. These are all small nods of respect toward the earlier show. (The ultimate such nod is, of course, the casting of Richard Hatch -- who played Apollo on the original show -- as Tom Zarek, a criminal-turned-politician, who is one of the more interesting characters on a show that is loaded with them.)
There are other things about the production design that might seem a bit odd at first, but I quickly became used to them. The clothes on the show are contemporary – and by that, I mean, you could pluck just about any civilian character out of BSG, plunk them in the middle of any city in America, and no one would look twice at them. Suits with neckties, women in pants suits and the like...in truth, I found this aspect of the show easiest to swallow. Nobody really has any idea what would be in fashion in some future (or past) society, so why not just use fashions from right now and have done? It was no harder for me to get used to this than it was to get used to all the Western tack in Firefly. One design element in the show that I really like is how every piece of paper, every book, every bit of printed matter, is printed on octagonal paper. That little detail goes so far to make clear that this world, these people, look like our and us, but they're not.
And the music? There's some wonderful music on this show, and it uses a lot of different styles, from slashing synths to action cues that are nothing but percussion to a Celtic-theme for the father-son relationship of Adama and Apollo.
I will continue to report on BSG as I make my way through the series, but for now – what a great, great show.