Looking at the new hotness of Starbuck, Boomer, and Number Six, Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky wonders what all those guys on Galactica have to be so glum about.
Our reviews of Battlestar Galactica: Season 2.0 (published January 9th, 2006), Battlestar Galactica: Season 2.5 (published October 2nd, 2006), Battlestar Galactica: Season One (HD DVD) (published January 28th, 2008), Battlestar Galactica: Season Two (Blu-Ray) (published April 12th, 2010), Battlestar Galactica: Season Three (published March 24th, 2008), Battlestar Galactica: Season Three (Blu-Ray) (published July 22nd, 2010), Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.0 (published January 16th, 2009), Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.5 (published July 28th, 2009), Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.5 (Blu-Ray) (published July 28th, 2009), Battlestar Galactica: Season Four (Blu-Ray) (published January 21st, 2011), Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series (published July 28th, 2009), and Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries (published February 2nd, 2005) are also available.
"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!"—Colonel Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), "33"
Those two words get people so worked up. Battlestar Galactica. Some people cringe in horror at the thought of another retread of a clunky old television series, viciously branding it overhyped and too eager to look hip. Some people say it is the best thing on basic cable, raving like converted religious zealots about its edgy look and ability to reenergize a tired genre. The new Battlestar Galactica has polarized science fiction fans like nothing else in years. Now that the pilot miniseries and the first 13-episode season are available on DVD, is it worth joining this ragtag fugitive fleet in their quest to find Earth—or should we join the Cylons trying to exterminate them?
Facts of the Case
Some say that life here began out there, on the mythical world of Kobol, where men and the gods lived together in peace. But that was before men crossed the seas of space to found the Twelve Colonies. Centuries passed. We became prideful and complacent, and we made the Cylons. And the Cylons rebelled. Many died in that war, after which the Cylons left to find their own corner of space. We never thought we would see them again.
Forty years later, the Cylons have returned. Now they look like us. They kill like us. And now, they have a plan…
The tangled history of the new Battlestar Galactica television series, brainchild of Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, has been well documented. I loved the original series—when I was in elementary school. My friends and I would play it all the time. I was always Starbuck. But we quickly forgot Galactica, and so did most other people. For years after the middling success of the 1978 Glen Larson series, the handful of fans who still remembered the adventures of Commander Adama, Apollo, Starbuck, and Muffet the Daggit hoped that their prayers to the Lords of Kobol would one day be answered, and the glorious quest of the Galactica could continue. Or at least not suck as hard as Galactica 1980. But after separate failed attempts by series regular Richard Hatch and X-Men helmer Bryan Singer to resurrect the show, it looked like the crew of the last battlestar would be lost in space.
I was skeptical when I heard Ron Moore, best known for the most intelligent of the Star Trek spin-offs, Deep Space 9, would finally be bringing BSG back as a miniseries on the SciFi Channel. Yawn, another dull remake. I skipped it, hearing the hardcore fans moaning in the background about how there was too much sex, and Starbuck was a chick, and Richard Hatch was throwing a fit…
I skipped the first few episodes as well when the show inevitably went to series. Then, the conventional wisdom started to turn around. The angered whispers eased into guarded praise. "Have you seen this new Galactica? It's dark as hell, and the characters are tougher, and they aren't afraid to talk about religion and war." I'd heard this before about Deep Space 9—nearly the exact same remarks—but always came away disappointed by how that show never was dark enough, tough enough, or showed the politics of religion and war in anything but a superficial manner. But I though I would give Galactica a shot. One episode. It was "You Can't Go Home Again," in which a stranded Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) tries to rewire a crashed Cylon fighter before her air supply runs out, while the Galactica searches for her fruitlessly. It is well-worn plot (indeed, it was even used in the only tolerable episode of Galactica 1980), and the show certainly played all the expected beats: grim officers counting down the minutes the hero has remaining; the commander insisting on risking the entire fleet to save one beloved pilot, while all others give up hope; the hero desperately trying to survive, using the enemy's technology; the last-minute escape—and the scene where the rescuers almost mistake the hero for an enemy and nearly shoot her down.
Yet, it worked. It was the wealth of small touches. Starbuck's tiny chemical-strip gadget that determined whether the atmosphere was breathable. The Cylon fighter portrayed as an organism, rather than a ship with a pilot. The salty language that reflects real military grunts (a holdover from the original series, which wryly got away with lots of naughtiness by having the characters use the clearly obscene "frack" right under the nose of network censors). The close-ups, the dirt, and the sense of real danger created by taut direction by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (a frequent first assistant director for Spielberg, so he has the chops). A routine story was made fresh, like a comfort food recipe jazzed up at a cool restaurant. I came back for more.
The premise of the series, which I suspect you probably already know by now, is laid out in the pilot miniseries, and it differs only slightly from its 1978 incarnation. Forty years after the brutal war against the robotic Cylons, humans have nearly forgotten to be afraid. They have a shiny new fleet of battlestars, huge carriers that protect the Twelve Colonies—in some cases from each other. A computer defense network provides a sense of security. Besides, Cylons are easy to spot: The last time we saw them, they were huge, gleaming robots with piercing, red, cyclopean eyes.
Except Cylons evolved during their absence, creating organic versions of themselves that can infiltrate human society. One leggy model, dubbed "Number Six" (Tricia Helfer, a fashion model who ably manages to play both sexy and menacing), has seduced an egocentric scientist with access to the defense mainframe. And Gaius Baltar (wickedly funny James Callis), guided by his crotch, betrays the human race, a fact that may drive him psychotic.
The Cylon nuclear attack is horrific. Billions are killed, and the survivors barely escape in whatever ships they can find. The fleet is crippled by a Cylon computer virus and destroyed utterly. Humanity has no apparent hope.
The only remaining battlestar is the Galactica, a creaky holdover from the last war that has now been converted into a museum for bored schoolchildren to visit on field trips. Its Viper fighters and Raptor shuttles cannot even get spare parts, and its computers and communication systems are not networked (ostensibly to protect it from viral attack). Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos), an old warhorse who never played politics enough to get promoted to admiral, is about to get mothballed as well. But now, Galactica must become the rallying point for the refugees, the last 50,000 humans.
On the run and with little chance of defending itself, humanity may not have much of a future. To give the survivors hope, Adama tells them of a safe haven far away, a lost colony known as Earth. He knows the way, if they will only follow him and never give up.
He is lying.
It is this last detail, Adama's necessary lie—the pragmatic, perhaps cynical, approach to the aftermath of war—that most strongly sets the new Battlestar Galactica apart from its predecessor—and from most other shows in this genre. The old Commander Adama would never lie, because he was the good guy. And in melodrama, good guys don't lie. In real drama, they do. But rather than make a sustained comparison between the new BSG and the 1978 version, which has been done by others, I want to evaluate why the show works in three steps. First, I want to draw some comparisons between BSG and its most recent and critically acclaimed antecedents, Babylon 5 and Firefly. (The differences from the Star Trek franchise should be apparent as I continue.) Then, I want to break down the key characters and their relationships, because a survey of the plot threads of the first season (so far, I've only taken you through the miniseries, which sets up the show to follow) would be too complex and spoil too many surprises. Finally, I want to focus on one episode, the series premiere "33," in order to highlight the show's strengths and weaknesses.
Babylon 5 was a sprawling space opera. Joe Straczynski charted his story 1,000 years in both directions, and there is a sense that the main characters, as pivotal as they appear, are really just bumps in the grand course of history. Replace one captain with another? Write out one character and have another step in with similar powers or prospects? While the emotional core of the series was always anchored in the evolution of the characters, their role in the historical process was almost modernist in sweep: Hope will endure because evolution will endure. And the grand themes—good and evil, moral responsibility—were drawn with wide gestures, even if the characters themselves were a little gray.
Firefly (and I am including Serenity here) was quite different. Joss Whedon does not seem interested in grand themes of good and evil (he never seemed particularly comfortable handling them in the Buffyverse either, although he apparently felt they were necessary for the mythology). Character interaction is the core of his more enclosed universe. Apart from some political satire, there is only one key theme developed over the course of the show: the quest for paradise. The urban inner worlds versus the rural outer worlds—both sides are looking for their little patch of heaven, and they have very different definitions of what that heaven entails. The best episodes (as well as the movie) work because we can follow the desires of the characters: what they want, and what they will do to get that. Those desires drive the engine of the series.
Battlestar Galactica fits neatly in between both these shows, at least with respect to its balance of character and theme. Ronald D. Moore and David Eick have created, much like Firefly but unlike Bablon 5, a hermetic environment. The human world is all there is: We created the Cylons, we created the colonies, and now everything is coming apart. (There are hints emerging in the series that the Cylons are developing their own culture, but the details so far are sketchy.) There is a desperate, linear focus to the series: We must survive. No "let's explore the universe" or "let's set up a new life in a vast, open space." There is no openness. The cramped command deck, tiny cockpits, cluttered decks and quarters, fevered close-ups—the BSG universe is always tightly enclosed. Characters sweat. The desaturated color and murky lighting make everything on the battlestar appear oily and uncomfortable. Even exterior locations like the planet Caprica are filmed from low angles and in dense forests or abandoned ruins. One day, open space might beckon, but for now, heads are down and focused on the immediacy of the situation.
In fact, open space is a threat on BSG. On B5, space is potential, progress. You never know who will be around the next corner. On Firefly, space is freedom, the distance you can put between yourself and those who oppress you. On Galactica, space is an obstacle, either for the humans to get around or for the humans to use as a roadblock to stall the Cylon advance. There is none of the "wonder of space" that marks nearly all other science-fiction television. Space is dark, empty, and very cold.
If this sounds depressing, well, Battlestar Galactica is in part about surviving a catastrophe. The characters are trying to work through their immediate problems, and their survival, even their hope, is only achieved incrementally. Curiously, this makes every small victory on the show taste a little sweeter, because you can never be sure they will succeed enough in the task of the moment (finding water, finding fuel, surviving this attack) to get them a step ahead on the next crisis. So when they do take that small step ahead, the show feels momentarily invigorated.
But (and here is where the show is more like Straczynski than Whedon), Ron Moore and David Eick are also interested in exploring questions about the nature of evil, the complex role religion plays in our political identity, and the problem of cultural perspective. The Cylons believe they have a holy mission (the parallels here to 9/11 have been much discussed already by fans), that their one god has plans for the heathen polytheists of the human race. These plans, as they have evolved over the course of the series thus far, are far more complicated than the usual "kill 'em all" of melodramatic villains. And the parallels between the Cylons' sense that their god needs to convert the world through force for its own good feels uncomfortably close to our own history of western colonialism. I get an uneasy sense that Moore and Eick are steering the conflict between humans and Cylons toward an eventual fusion of the two cultures—a fusion that neither side is going to be happy about.
That transition is still years away, however, and whether it even comes will depend upon the ratings the show chalks up on SciFi Channel and how many copies of these DVDs you buy. So I will move on in my effort to entice your further. Battlestar Galactica is an ensemble show: Part of its success hinges on the complexity of the characters and their interactions. There are more than a dozen relatively important characters, but I will introduce only the key players from first season here.
• Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos): The more things come apart, the more Adama bottles up his feelings, grits his teeth, and whispers out his orders with razor intensity. But he has a dry sense of humor and cares deeply for those close to him. Through a calculated performance by Edward James Olmos, we see an Adama different from not only his 1978 predecessor (assayed by Lorne Greene) but from any other captain we have seen in television science fiction. The easy route would have been to make Adama a paternal figure. But he is less a father figure than a real father to these people: flawed, stubborn, frustrated, and often afraid to show weakness.
• Colonel Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan): A functioning alcoholic with a short fuse, he trusts Adama more than he trusts himself. He may make the perfect "bad cop" to Adama, but is he capable of holding the fleet together if anything should happen to the "old man"? In peacetime, no military would tolerate his behavior for long, but Adama needs a pocket despot like Tigh to make himself look good by comparison.
• Captain Lee "Apollo" Adama (Jamie Bamber): Galactica's air group commander (CAG), he came aboard ship during the Cylon attack as a clean-cut model officer with a grudge against his father. He is an idealist who believes the best of people, but he finds his sense of order tested daily, as he slowly hardens into a tested commanding officer. Watch the scene in the episode "33" in which Starbuck rebukes him for not reprimanding a rebellious officer—namely her. Then they laugh together, a sign of their friendship beyond their roles as officers. (A side note: Fans of the original series will realize that the names of the pilots in the 1978 version have now become, more sensibly, military call signs.)
• Lieutenant Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff): Flight trainer and the best pilot aboard Galactica, Kara is an emotional time bomb, smoldering from childhood abuse (hinted at later in the series) and guilt over her role in the death of Adama's younger son (and Lee's brother) Zach. Does her rebellious attitude harbor a self-destructive streak? When her energy is directed the right way, she is a devastating warrior; but she can turn on her friends—and herself—just as easily as her enemies.
• Sharon "Boomer" Valerii (Grace Park): Shuttle pilot and unwitting Cylon agent, Sharon begins to unravel when she begins to suspect she is an inhuman enemy spy. Can her clandestine lover, Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), help her? But there is also another Sharon as well, traveling with stranded Galactica officer Karl "Helo" Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett) across the burned landscape of Caprica. Her role in the story is even more complicated…
• President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell): Roslin was the Secretary of Education, visiting Galactica as part of the museum-opening ceremony when the Cylons attacked. The only surviving member of the government, she has become president by default, and some people are not happy about that. Worse, although she is a shrewd and moral woman, prophecy has given her an uncomfortably messianic role, and her agenda does not always agree with that of Adama. In a catastrophic war, does the military lead or serve the civil government? Should the survivors gather their hope from prophecy in the absence of something more tangible? Worse still, Roslin is dying of cancer.
• Gaius Baltar (James Callis): Narcissistic, petty, and a compulsive liar, Gaius Baltar may be responsible for betraying the human race to the Cylons. He also may be completely psychotic. Everywhere he goes, he talks to—and even fantasizes sex with—his Cylon lover Number Six (Tricia Helfer). Is Six a chip in his head, a means for the Cylons to get inside information and thwart the Galactica's mission? Or is she just a manifestation of Baltar's guilt, Jiminy Cricket in lingerie? The chemistry between these two characters is one of the most delightfully bizarre aspects of this show, as Baltar weasels his way out of every crisis (at least initially, Callis's performance appears inspired by Jonathan Harris from Lost in Space). But Baltar is not a cardboard or campy villain: Though troubled and difficult, he is evolving into a compelling figure in search of redemption—if he does not give in to his baser instincts first.
There is a wealth of well-developed supporting characters, some of whom I have mentioned in passing here and some I did not leave room for. Because the series must budget time for their subplots (Petty Officer Dualla's cutesy romance with Roslin's assistant Billy, for instance), individual episodes of the show are actually fairly short on plot points and long on characters reacting to the specific events of any given episode. As such, little gets accomplished from episode to episode. Some viewers may find this frustrating. I mean, how many episodes is Helo going to run around Caprica while his relationship with the other Sharon develops? Why does the fleet never seem to be going in any particular direction, much less toward Earth? But BSG is not about the product; it is about the process. One of the benefits of watching this series on DVD is that the accretion of short character scenes begins to add up. Week to week, Helo's journey apparently goes nowhere. Watched more closely together, it becomes a coherent story arc that will eventually pay off with surprising consequences in Season Two (and continues to develop).
To given you a sense of how this plays out, I want to focus on "33," the first episode of the series proper (and winner of a Hugo Award, an impressive achievement for a freshman series). The miniseries, perhaps a little unsure of being taken seriously, grinds along a bit too slowly at times, as if the meandering pace is meant to establish gravitas. Once Moore and Eick feel more confident in the material, and director Michael Rymer begins to trust his actors to convey the show's gravity, the pace in the series quickens. As the first episode of the series following the pilot, "33" must establish that the show has enough energy and direction to sustain itself. It must reacquaint us with the characters without bogging the pace down with exposition. And it must make us want to come back next week.
"33" picks up a few days after the end of the miniseries. Baltar is dreaming of his lake view estate as a clock loudly ticks in his ear. Six tells him of God's plan for the world. Viper pilots watch a countdown; Starbuck shakes off crushing exhaustion. Every 33 minutes. Again and again. 237 times. Five and a half days without rest. The Cylons attack, the fleet jumps, and the Cylons attack again.
Another show might easily solve this problem or sentimentalize the situation. Instead, we feel the tension, the reactions of the characters, as this onslaught continues. Relatively little screen time is budgeted for space battles (we often see just the beginning or ending), there is no search for the reason why the Cylons attack (any down time the colonists have is taken up by personal business), and plot points are often revealed during other bits of character business.
A tiny character scene says so much. While Adama rattles off another desperate plan to throw the Cylons off track, hopefully during jump 238, Tigh sits in one of Adama's chairs and nibbles at a bowl of ramen noodles. Adama grimly asks Tigh to move so he can get to his jacket. "You eating this?" Tigh asks through a mouthful of noodles. "Not any more," Adama says in a distracted manner. They have a casual manner with one another, two old friends who can be a little impatient with one another in private. Later, we see pilots ritualistically touching a mysterious photograph on their way to their fighters. We do not know why (a deleted scene tells us more). The world feels fleshed out, full of background detail. Throughout the series, we will gain fragmentary knowledge about the Twelve Colonies and the survivors, just enough to sense the losses (Roslin mournfully scratches off the numbers on a dry-erase board). The confusion is part of the experience of living with a catastrophe: The survivors are still counting the dead, tallying their supplies, forming new relationships while accepting that their old connections have shattered.
Baltar learns that a scientist aboard the ship Olympic Carrier has information that might reveal the good doctor as a traitor, but we are told this in the midst of Baltar's schizophrenic dialogues with Six, which focus more on his own guilt and need for repentance. In other words, the plot point is couched as a narrative manifestation of a psychological problem. Most other shows would initiate the plot point and then develop the character's psychological reaction. BSG seems more interested in its characters, their reactions and evolution, with the overarching plot used as a set of triggering circumstances.
The sense of a world pieced together on the fly extends to the physical look of Galactica: A piece of paper taped to the face of an analog clock warns us when the next 33-minute cycle will be up; the command deck communicates with pilots through a corded telephone; computers glitch; the enemy fires guided missiles. Battlestar Galactica depicts a world in which shiny gadgets rarely solve our problems. The ships are battered metal. The deck crews are greasy and burned. Later, Baltar will build a "Cylon detector" that looks about as well-endowed as a Commodore 64.
"33" is photographed with handheld cameras that mimic the frazzled nerves of the crew. This "documentary" feel gets a little overdone in some of the early episodes (it even extends to the space shots, which are done "handheld" style in the manner of Zoic Studios' similar effects work for Firefly). Colors are muted, but lights pop out, creating odd shadows (partly a result of the hi-def digital photography). Close-ups show every crag in Edward Olmos's face, like the surface of some blasted moon. These are not beautiful people cruising among the stars. These are refugees. When we are given a touching moment, as when Roslin is told that a baby has been born among the survivors in the last moments of the episode, it feels hard-won and meaningful.
But those successes are rare. There is no real feeling of victory at the end of the episode. We never do find out how the Cylons find the fleet every 33 minutes, and why their attack stops. For Baltar, the attack is tied to his repentance, at least according to Six, who may just be his own guilty conscience. Characters hide their real motivations from one another (and reveal little more to the audience), and subplots are rife with conspiracies, personal secrets, and misunderstandings. What plans do the humanoid Cylons have in store for Helo, as he races through the woods on Caprica, blasting robotic Cylons as he goes deeper into some insidious trap? It will take several more episodes for this part of the story to unfold, and even at the point I am writing this (midway through the second season), there are still a host of unanswered questions about this plot thread.
More than just building dramatic tension, "33" also serves as a fine example of how Galactica deals with tough questions and does not cop out on the consequences. When the Olympic Carrier vanishes after jump 238, Adama and the fleet are immediately suspicious. Did it jump to the wrong coordinates? Did the Cylons get it? And when the ship abruptly rejoins the fleet—well, that only makes the situation worse. Now, the carrier may have been infiltrated. The Galactica must make a disturbing choice: allow the carrier close to the fleet and risk annihilation, or destroy it and slaughter any innocents aboard.
Some other show would wrap such a decision up neatly, absolving the characters of any guilt by answering whether their choice was ultimately justified. "33" does not. Lee must destroy the carrier before the truth is known. Can he live with that choice? The decisions characters make on the show have repercussions for both themselves and others. The survival process, both material and psychological, is ongoing throughout the series, and in stressing this process (as opposed to the original series, where the destruction of civilization was quickly glossed over), Ron Moore and David Eick have crafted a situation in which ethical choices have devastating consequences.
You can trace the journey of the Galactica and its ragtag fleet in Universal's DVD boxed set of the first season, including the pilot miniseries. (Do not confuse this set with the Best Buy exclusive version, which contains the UK edits of the show, no miniseries, and no extras.) Ron Moore is known among fans for his candid appraisals of the series (check out the SciFi Channel website for podcasts and his blog), so it should be no surprise that the commentary tracks here (10 in all) are detailed and revealing. Moore is joined at times by coproducer David Eick (and on the miniseries and "33" by director Michael Rymer). Want to know whether the producers think Baltar is microchipped or just insane? Want to hear the parts of the show they are actually disappointed with, as well as the parts they like? Moore's candor about the series, its strengths and weaknesses, never comes across as whining or backpedaling. He clearly cares about the show and wants to make it succeed, and he is responsive to the fans, even if he intends to do things his way. I get the sense, given the way he approaches these commentaries, that Moore felt quite hampered on Deep Space 9 by Paramount and Rick Berman, the limitations of the Star Trek universe, and the pressure of a fan base often resistant to change. So his tendency here is to be expansive in his assessments (much more so than Straczynski in his reticent Babylon 5 commentaries) and take responsibility for the final product.
Disc Five of the set packs on the extras. Nearly an hour of deleted, alternate, and extended scenes from all 13 episodes helps fill in some background details. However, the deleted scenes from the miniseries that were available on its previous DVD release are missing in action. While the cast unfortunately never shows up to do episode commentary, you can watch them kid around in a jokey promotional special from the SciFi Channel. A series of featurettes covers the transition from miniseries to series, Starbuck's and Boomer's gender switch, designing the new CG Cylon warriors, the retro production design, the delightfully mad Baltar, the cinematography, and the special effects—an hour's worth of behind-the-scenes material. Even the production art and modeling look great, judging from the 4-minute "gallery" video. Oddly, this is the only place you can really get a clear view of the new Galactica design, since the camera rarely offers a solid overview of it during the actual show.
And to those of you disturbed by rumors that Boxey appears in the new series? Calm your nerves. He only makes a couple of casual appearances, does nothing overly cute, and then vanishes. With any luck, if he ever comes back, we'll discover the truth that fans of the original series suspected all along. The little fracking bastard was a Cylon agent all along.
Do you need another indicator of how strongly one can get converted by the new BSG? Richard Hatch, the original Apollo, was an outspoken critic of the show when it began, mostly because it scuttled his own plans for a Galactica reboot that would pick up where the 1978 version left off. Now, he is a semi-regular character on the show as the sneaky Tom Zarek, former terrorist turned political leader. It is a great part, and Hatch chews into it with zeal. If he can join the colonial fleet (and even agree to play against type rather than taking a vanity role), why can't you?
Battlestar Galactica continues to mature as it progresses into (as of this writing) its second season. It would be hyperbole to declare it a "classic" this early, especially since there are so many opportunities for misstep that have so far mostly been avoided. But Battlestar Galactica: Season One has everything a good science fiction show needs to succeed: intense performances, plenty of action, and the ability to speak about larger issues and ideas without pandering to its audience. Ronald D. Moore and David Eick should be proud of what they have accomplished so far, and I look forward to seeing the survivors of the Twelve Colonies wandering in space in search of a home for a long, deliciously painful time.
The Galactica and the fleet are given a head start before we begin the chase once again. They had better stay as fast and nimble in future seasons as they are in this first one—or there will be hell to pay. Until then, this court stands in recess.
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