The original TV series Battlestar Galactica (1978-1980) was so bad that even someone desperately looking for science fiction on TV like myself could not watch it. It was dreadful! I may have made it through one episode, but one was enough. It was a little more than a painfully cheap Star Wars rip off. I found R2-D2 in Star Wars annoying, but it was positively adorable next to Muffet II, the annoying robotic dog in the original BSG. Lorne Greene played Commander Adama and he made William Shatner look good. The show was also too 70s. From Richard Hatch’s blow dried hair to its token African American Herb Jefferson, Jr., the show leeched the worst of what had come before it. Still, Americans were so desperate for science fiction on television that it somehow managed to hang on for three years before it was mercifully put out of its misery.
In 2003, the SciFi Channel agreed to air an expensive “reimagining” of the show by producer and writer Richard D. Moore. To the extent that I was aware of it, I tuned it out. The bad vibes emitted from the original Battlestar Galactica convinced me the show had to have a jinx on it. I would likely still be unaware that I was wrong had various family members and friends not prodded me to watch this incarnation. A few months back I gave in and bought the first season on DVD. My wife and I have slowly been making our way through it, sometimes resting a few weeks before trying another episode.
Our rests between episodes is to some extent understandable because the BSG universe is an ultra dreary place. In case you are not familiar with the show, Galactica is the warship for a rag tag fleet of interstellar spaceships containing the last remnants of the human race. Unlike the Jews, who had Yahweh in the desert to send them manna from heaven, these humans get nothing but silence from the Gods of Kobol that many of them worship. (Why am I thinking it’s the Gods of COBOL? Do they really worship Grace Hopper?) Rest assured they get nothing but grief from the Cylons, a model of robots that humans created to serve them that got all uppity. The Cylons have evolved to the point that they are virtually indistinguishable from humans. One thing is abundantly clear: they want to exterminate the human race right down to our last strand of human DNA. Whenever they find any humans, they send out a vast horde of Cylon raiders to destroy them. Cylons are like roaches in that they seem to be everywhere but often hidden yet never invited in. That they are so hard to tell apart from human beings makes the humans very paranoid, unable to tell friend from foe.
The series starts with a terrific pilot, which is a full-blown movie in its own right. No question about it, it is slick! It is hard to think of it as a pilot because from the first frame it feels like the actors have been playing their parts for years. You can feel the close quarters and almost the smell their perspiration. Lorne Greene died in 1987, so he was unable to reprise his role as Commander Adama, which is just as well. In this incarnation, you get the craggy faced and raspy voice actor Edward James Olmos instead. Thankfully, Olmos is a 1000% better actor than Greene. I won’t mention all the ancillary characters as it is better to explore them for yourself. Most of the names have been retained from the original series but in some cases, some surprising changes were made.
Starbuck for example had a sex change operation and is played with impertinent eloquence by Katee Sackhoff. Boomer, instead of being African American is female and Oriental as well as potentially a Cylon, although she is not certain of it. Captain Apollo (Lee) got a much-needed haircut but still seems a bit too handsome, yet is convincingly played by Jamie Bamber. The best part: the only annoying robots are the Cylons, and most of the Cylons, while being villainous, are at least interestingly evil characters.
The principle Cylon in residence is the foxy and evil Six (Tricia Helfer), who appears only to ship physician research scientist Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis). She exists to taunt him, to tease his high-strung libido and to make him loathe himself by doing things to his species he should not do. They are quite a toxic pair; clearly, she is the dominant, and he is pussy whipped. If you have to loathe a character, Dr. Baltar is easy to loathe, since he is so easily manipulated by Six and not nearly as much fun as Dr. Smith was in Lost in Space. In fact, I was hoping the writers would do us a favor and kill him off. No such luck.
Richard Moore likes to tease his audience as mercilessly as Cylons do humans. If you like intrigue, you will love this incarnation of Battlestar Galactica, because it piles on the layers of mystery so deep it frequently feels suffocating. How is a lowly TV viewer supposed to parse through all the subterfuge? Clearly, those Cylons are way smarter than us humans, so maybe we deserve extinction. Somehow, a diminished set of humans seems to hang on from episode to episode against overwhelming odds thanks to an overextended set of pilots and the smart, fearless leadership of Commander Adama.
While the acting, special effects and writing are typically first rate, there are some oddities about this reimagining. Perhaps because the SciFi Channel wanted to pinch a few extra pennies, it has a very early 21st century feel to it. Obviously, it is cheaper to shoot exterior shots if you can go with today’s architecture, so we get cities on planets like Caprica that look suspiciously like Vancouver. Clothing too looks present day. Civilians like President Laura Roslin prefer to dress like Hillary Clinton. Some aspects are even more antiquated. Galactica is showing its age. Much information spits out of printers. No communicators for this crew. POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) will do just fine. Anyhow, it’s apparently much more secure to be low tech when dealing with those ultra shrewd Cylons.
Nor is it clear how the citizens of this ragtag fleet get their supplies. There seem to be no lack of consumables like printer paper, booze and cigarettes. They sure aren’t making pit stops on Earth, which is lost and half mythical anyhow, and their home world of Caprica is full of Cylon-induced radiation that destroyed all human life (well, almost all).
Battlestar Galactica is space opera, of course, so it is best not to trouble yourself with these details. Have a beer yourself and enjoy the show (if you can use that word with a show that is such an unrelenting downer) for what it is. After a terrific start, the show does sag a bit in the middle of the season. A couple episodes in the first season, like “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” are frankly below subprime. Naturally, like all shows hoping to be renewed, it ends on one of these impossible cliffhangers. This being BSG though it will have more dimensions, layers, shock and perturbations than a Matrix movie.
Anyhow, I’m hooked, so I better go buy Season Two. If you haven’t seen the series, based on its first season it may be depressing stuff, but it is really well done depressing stuff, so go buy it and enjoy.