Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Battlestar Galactica — Season 1

It's almost wrong to call this a "re-imagining" of the original Battlestar Galactica. The original essentially condensed the mania of Star Wars into TV form, producing fey versions of our beloved Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in a straightforward narrative about noble, womanizing (I'll get to this later) heroes fighting the cold robot villains. The show was the most expensive of its time, and ABC canceled it after one season, only to bring it back with Galactica 1980 after a then-unprecedented fan campaign that bombarded the studios with letters. It too got axed, and fans made do with conventions and the occasional call for a re-boot over the decades.

Then Ronald D. Moore and David Eick pitched a re-imagined miniseries, one that would both pick up after the events of the original show while basically shifting the characters forward into this future as if they had started there. Some genders were changed around, and voilà: new show. After the three-hour miniseries proved successful, a full series was ordered, with a first season of 13 episodes. The result was the greatest piece of science fiction television ever created and one of the greatest shows of all time.

Set 40 years after the humans and Cylons signed an armistice, Battlestar Galactica starts out with the return of the Cylons, some of whom now look human. One of these models, a blond designated Number Six, seduces Dr. Gaius Baltar, the most brilliant human mind in the Twelve Colonies, into giving her access to the defense software he's developing for the Colonial Fleet. She installs back doors in the programs, and, when the time is right, effectively shuts down the humans' defenses as the Cylons appear and nuke everything. As all this happens, Batlar learns just how culpable he is in all this, and it drives him to madness.

The only battleship that survives this genocide is the outdated Galactica, a relic of the war with un-networked computers. Apart from all the pilots and military officials, new President of the Colonies Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) stays near the ship on her transport Colonial One. Formerly the Secretary of Education, she was the highest person in the line of succession after the Cylon attack killed nearly everyone in the government, yet she immediately establishes a commanding presence and proves a strong leader. Even Baltar manages to find himself on the Galactica, plagued by visions of Number Six, leading to a number of comical and a few deeply profound moments. All of these people -- even, to a certain extent, Roslin -- come under the umbrella of Commander William Adama, the de facto leader of the military.

Edward James Olmos gives undoubtedly the best performance of his excellent career as Adama. He plays Adama as sort of the grandfather who also happens to have been a Marine: he's kind and supportive to his men and women, but proves to be resourceful and commanding in battle. His relationship with his son Lee (callsign Apollo) is turbulent as Lee blames his dad for the death of his brother Zak. Adama's guilt over that death may be why he so tenderly cares for ace pilot Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, who was engaged to Zak. First and foremost, Adama is an officer who breaks all the stereotypes about how high-ranking officers don't care about the men and just focus on the glory, and it makes him an endlessly fascinating character.

In the aftermath of the attack a rough census places the human population at around 47,000, and Cylons, accidents, and natural deaths lower that number every day. But what makes Battlestar Galactica so interesting is that it openly asks us a sobering question: "Does mankind deserve to be saved?" People still steal, murder, rape; Lee even has to deal with a prison riot orchestrated by Tom Zarek, a charismatic ex-terrorist who now has his eye on political power. The first season only hints at the barbarism later exhibited on the show, but it makes you wonder whether the survival of mankind would matter at all as the ships jump through the vastness of the universe searching for Earth.

The other aspect of the show that makes it so damn interesting is the advent of the humanoid Cylon. Spirituality plays a big part in the show, and the Cylons themselves have a religion. These human models crave humanity with every fiber of their being, and what better way to confirm they have souls than to believe in God? Their plight works on two levels: 1) the fact that Cylons can infiltrate human society adds a post-9/11 bent, and 2) it mines the depths of Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? and of course Blade Runner. The quest for Cylon "humanity" provides an understated juxtaposition to mankind's struggle to maintain its own.

I feel as though I haven't discussed a great deal of the show; I originally wrote one hell of a long review going into most of the episodes and just generally gushing, but it sucked all the fun out of everything. Battlestar Galactica is a show that can be endlessly analyzed and debated, but to do so would require the incorporation of the events of subsequent seasons, and would bring the whole thing into massive spoiler territory. Not to mention, I'd be here all damn week. Suffice to say, BSG is one of the most philosophically rewarding and scientifically plausible (muted sounds in space, an adherence to realism even when starfighters are blasting each other in space) pieces of fiction -- be it television, film, or literature -- ever created, and there isn't a weak moment to be found in the three-hour miniseries or the 13 episodes within. For my money, the first season is one of the 20 best I've ever seen, and whether you like science fiction or not, you owe it to yourself to give this show a shot.

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