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extreme makeover: galactica edition
sci-fi builds a better battlestar
by russ carr (@DocOrlando70)
8.24.05
television


When I was eight, Battlestar Galactica was It.

At least, Battlestar Galactica was It until George Lucas decided to make another Star Wars movie, but when you’re eight, you can’t really see past next week, or maybe next month if you’re a thoughtful child, and so any thoughts of Star Wars were limited to what you could do with the action figures you’d been able to get.

Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, was on EVERY WEEK. Space fighters! Robot dogs! That guy from the Alpo commercials! Star Wars might have been what got us hooked on sci-fi, but Galactica was our weekly hit on the crack pipe. Humans vs. the evil Cylons, to the death!

It’s amazing how stupid you are when you’re eight.

More than 25 years later, it’s pretty easy to see why Galactica lasted only one season. From the get-go, the plots were awful. In the pilot — the PILOT, mind you! — after the destruction of their homeworlds, the Galactica and her refugee convoy made their first stop…a DISCO planet! Tight budgets meant the same effects shots were seen in EVERY space battle (the middle Cylon always — always! — blew up). And between Dirk Benedict, Lorne Greene and John Colicos, there was so much ham on the screen that Jews were forbidden to watch the show.

That was then.

Last year, Sci-Fi Channel announced that they were bringing Galactica back. But this wouldn’t be a resurrection of the series, it would be a complete reimagining. A reboot. A reinvention, a reconstruction, a revamping. To my mind, it sound like a regurgitation. Why, by the Lords of Kobol, would anyone want to bring back what was arguably one of the WORST science fiction shows ever? Did they really expect that enough of the diehard Galactica geeks would rally around the show to make it worthwhile? Simultaneously, the Star Trek was doing a well-publicized crash and burn; even longtime franchise fans were giving up on Trek. Where was the logic in greenlighting the controversial retooling of a historic failure?

Well, apparently Vulcans don’t have a monopoly on logic. The new Battlestar Galactica debuted as a four-hour miniseries to huge ratings for Sci-Fi Channel. A full season of episodes was produced and aired last winter. NBC (big brother to Sci-Fi under Universal) picked up and ran the miniseries as a three-hour movie, and ran episodes of season one a few days before Season 2 premiered this summer on Sci-Fi.

But perhaps the most amazing thing is that the new Galactica isn’t just a stunning improvement on its progenitor, it’s flat-out good television. It’s right up there with Lost in terms of by-the-balls tension and intrigue, with an ensemble cast that’s as good as, if not better than, any other show I can think of.

Each week the show opens with the terse premise: “The Cylons were created by Man. They Rebelled. They Evolved. They Look and Feel Human. Some are programmed to think they are Human. There are many copies. And they have a Plan.” That brief explanation hints at some of the many changes of the new series. The Cylons are man’s creation; in the original, they were another race entirely; the tin soldiers they sent against humanity were merely automatons. They rebelled and evolved — think “The Terminator.”

As to looking and feeling human, and all of that… that’s perhaps the biggest change of all, and it’s one of the two points around which the entire series revolves. In addition to the robotic warriors (which are faster, meaner and far better shots), there are 12 “models” of Cylon which are organic constructs. Stronger and smarter than humans, but designed to duplicate them down to the cellular level. These “biological” Cylons have been infiltrating humanity for years; some are not even aware they ARE Cylons, not unlike Marco from The Manchurian Candidate. So the terror of Cylon attack from outside is compounded by the paranoia of Cylon attack from within. Like I said: tension.

Peel away the all-encompassing Cylon threat, and there are dozens of additional layers: an ongoing battle between the military, trying to maintain the security of the fleet, and the hastily organized Colonial government, determined to rebuild a working society; the terminally ill president with a messiah complex and the vice-president being used as a Cylon puppet; the fleet commander’s internal struggles with a rebellious son and an alcoholic executive officer; and so on, and so on. In fact, were it not for the Cylon element, it might be tough to distinguish Galactica from a drama like The West Wing. Except Galactica isn’t nearly as self-righteous.

The cast consists largely of unknowns, to the exclusion of Edward James Olmos as the long-suffering but steel-spined Commander Adama, and Mary McDonnell as the equally stubborn President Roslin. Most of the complaints from old-school Galactica fans centered around the changing of several original characters race and gender: “Boomer,” once a black man, became an Asian woman; Colonel Tigh, a taciturn black man with no apparent personality, became an alcoholic white man with a manipulative wife; and in the cruelest blow of all, “Starbuck” — the cocky, womanizing ace pilot played by Dirk Benedict — became a cocky, man-hungry ace pilot played by Katee Sackhoff. The way I see it, the biggest change isn’t making males into females or blacks into whites — it’s making one-dimensional cliches into fully-realized characters with backstories and emotions and personal agendas and deeply rooted flaws.

It’s those all-too-human flaws which make up the other thematic point of the show. Spirituality constantly informs both the Colonial and Cylon camps. The Colonials are polytheistic, worshipping the twelve “Lords of Kobol,” while the Cylons are monotheistic, recognizing a deity they simply call “God.” To hear a Cylon explain it, humans were God’s perfect creation until they went astray and destroyed all they had been given by their sinfulness. The irony, of course, is that the Cylons were in turn created by humans, a flawed race. Nearly every episode testifies in some way to man’s cruelty to his own kind; dispassionate observations of human behavior by the Cylon watcher "Number Six" are often brutally condemning and wholly deserved.

Put simply, the new Battlestar Galactica is all that's good about science fiction, without all the campy, geeky schlock that chokes the quality out of a series. No muppets, no funny foreheads, no weird alien hookers, omnipotent beings-of-the-week, brainiac kids or technobabble. No other space adventure-type show has ever approached the concept quite like this. Even Television Without Pity respects it, recapping new episodes with an astonishing lack of snarkiness. Snag the miniseries and season one on DVD, or just jump right in. You might decide it's the best television you've missed all year.


ABOUT RUSS CARR

If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.

more about russ carr

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COMMENTS

sandra thompson
8.24.05 @ 8:28a

Since I trust your taste in sci-fi, I reckon there's another thing I'll have to Tivo. Drat! And my dance card is so full.....

russ carr
8.24.05 @ 10:42a

Please do! You might find BSG pushing your other shows out of priority in your queue, however. I do highly recommend watching the miniseries and season one on DVD, though. It's not crucial to picking up the story, but this new incarnation is more like a serial than episodic TV. While not every episode ends in a cliffhanger (though some have) each episode does build on everything that's come before. Time passes, supplies dwindle, characters die. I don't want to call it 'Lost' in space (for obvious reasons) but the showrunners are very keen on continuity and establishing a real framework for the stories. The more you know, the more you enjoy it.

tracey kelley
8.24.05 @ 10:48a

I appreciate the effort put into it. Truly. I recognize good writing. I love me some Edward James Olmos. I dig the Richard Hatch send-up. I'm even warming more to Starbuck's arrogance.

But I find the show beyond depressing, and just can't watch it anymore. I need a little more hope or humor in my weekly dose of escapism.


dave lentell
8.24.05 @ 10:51a

Couldn't agree more Russ. Like you, I loved the old BSG growing up. In fact, when I got in trouble, I'd rather be spanked as punishment than not get to watch Battlestar. But having watched the original series DVDs just as the new show was coming out... Talk about Deep Hurting (with the exception of "Living Legend")

With the new BSG, I was skeptical at first when I heard about it, but I gave it a chance and have come to the conclusion that the new BSG is one of the best Sci-Fi shows ever. Period. But as Russ says, it's not just fantastic Sci-Fi, it's plain good TV.

I assure anyone reading this that you don't have to love sci-fi to like this show. BSG is about characters and story and plot... all of the good things that seem so hard to find on TV these days. And the rating bear this out.

I found it interesting that BSG got twice as many viewers as Star Trek: Enterprise even though Enterprise - being on a broadcast channel - was in over twice as many homes as BSG! It's not just sci-fi geeks watching this show! It's men women and children of all ages because it's That. Damned. Good.

So as Russ says, check it out. Sci-Fi is very good about re-running episodes to get everyone caught up. The mini-series and first season are out on DVD. But if you can't find them to rent and you don't want to commit to purchase, but you really, really want to see it, I'll be your BSG Netflix. Drop me a line and I'll hook you up.

By your command.


[edited]

russ carr
8.24.05 @ 11:09a

Okay, you übergeeked on that last line, which I dutifully avoided in my column.

They do lay on the heavy, don't they, Tracey? The last few episodes of this season in particular have been pretty bleak. I expect they'll do something to lighten things up a bit after the end of this current little arc...right before plunging us into another pitch black tunnel.

Olmos has been amazing recently. The man knows 'burdened patriarch.'

matt kelley
8.24.05 @ 11:48a

Galactica is virtually the only star in my TV galaxy. You want ubergeek? I watch nothing else regularly, now that Discovery’s home & NASA-TV is back in re-runs. Okay, and Buffy on DVD.

Contrary to the masses, I never got hooked on HBO’s “Deadwood,” though I tried. After watching much Battlestar alongside me, my wife’s convinced BG is really just Deadwood in Space. Similar us-against-the-world/universe themes, sure. While the underlying mood may be of foreboding, death and darkness, there’s also a spark of prevailing hope and a passion for survival of the species.

Will they ever find Earth? Doubtful. Gilligan never got off the island, right? In the original series, didn’t they find Earth & lead the Cylons right to us? Oops.

Sorry, Russ. I hated the robot dog.

Anybody else see Olmos and have Miami Vice flashbacks?


dave lentell
8.24.05 @ 11:59a

Russ - Yes, but who else but another Galactica ubergeek would get that reference?

Tracey - I understand where you're coming from, but it's a show about the end of the world and how folks like us - not your stereotypical TV heroes, but folks with all the strengths, weaknesses, foibles, fears, hopes and dreams that real people have - might deal with it. I think that's what makes the little glimmers of hope and happiness that much more meaningful.

Matt - And don't forget that on top of all that's great about BSG, the eye candy ain't too bad either. : )

russ carr
8.24.05 @ 12:02p

They only found Earth in "Galactica 1980," and the less said about that, the better. If you've swallowed poison and don't have any ipecac, read this to induce vomiting. Flying motorcycles! Mutant genius kids! Lorne Greene with a face tribble!

Finding Earth ranks up there with David sleeping with Maddie and midichlorians. It is the death knell of the series.

And yes, I hated Muffet, too.

[edited]

matt kelley
8.24.05 @ 12:43p

Speaking of eye candy, it's reported Lucy "Xena" Lawless is going to make a guest appearance on BSG in the September 9th episode. Please tell me she won't take on the yummilicious Cylon Number Six with her trademark HiiiiiYA!

dave lentell
8.24.05 @ 12:47p

Matt - No Six vs. Xena. (Though I'm sure some idiot will write a Fanfic about it. If they haven't already)It's a serious role - she plays a news reporter who gets caught up in events on the Galactica. And yes, add her to the eye candy list. I've seen the publicity photos. She looks FANTASTIC!

tracey kelley
8.24.05 @ 2:08p

Ah sheeesh. Go buy the new TV Guide (the one with Sela Ward on the cover) and drool over "The Women of BG."

lisa r
8.24.05 @ 9:02p

I hate to burst your bubble, Matt, but Gilligan did get off the island. Granted, it was in a movie sequel to the series, but he did escape.

adam kraemer
8.25.05 @ 10:46a

Yeah, but then they had that "Gilligan's Planet" cartoon. That was a low point.

Interesting idea for a BSG crossover, though.

russ carr
8.25.05 @ 2:41p

As long as we don't see The Harlem Globetrotters on Battlestar Galactica, I think we're safe. And I'm thinking Lawless won't be wearing a leather bustier in her guise as a reporter. At least I hope not. They've done a good job of avoiding gimmick casting so far, the only real bone being thrown to Richard Hatch (the one who played Apollo on the original, not the guy from Survivor). He tried long and hard to get the original Galactica back on the air, and it just went nowhere. Personally, I think the guy was just happy to have some semi-steady work, instead of appearances in direct-to-video stuff like "Ghetto Blaster" and "Delta Force Commando II: Priority Red One."

tracey kelley
8.25.05 @ 4:01p

I think he does a good job, actually.

russ carr
8.26.05 @ 10:50a

He does. And his character seems to be ramping up right now. It will be interesting to see which way he goes.

Found this morning: an excellent writeup about one of the main characters (the new Col. Tigh) and BSG in general from one of the writers/producers of Lost. Pretty high praise from one of the other best shows on TV.

robert melos
8.29.05 @ 3:43a

I have to say I was glad to see the type of character Richard Hatch is playing. This version of BSG really isn't your father's BSG, so to speak.

I love the little moments of humor, and the new Col. Tigh. Truthfully, I didn't remember much of the original series even though I watched it, so this really came across as a new series for me, with a few familiar character names.

And I love the column. Very well written.



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