Luke Sneyd On… Battlestar Galactica

It begins with an act of war. Years ago, humanity and the Cylons fought a destructive war to a draw, so the Cylons withdrew. For forty years, nobody heard a peep from them, this rebellious robot race that humans had created. Each year, the armistice dictated they would meet at a distant outpost, a lonely space station hanging in the void. Each year, humans sent a representative, and the Cylons never showed. As the pilot to the brilliant reboot of Battlestar Galactica begins, a military attaché finds himself nodding off, probably for the tenth year running, sitting at a desk contemplating the empty hallway where the Cylons have again failed to appear. He glances at a folder of specs, centurion designs, the robot soldiers familiar to viewers of the original 1978 series. With a pneumatic whoosh and a clang, the far door opens. The startled attaché stares agog as two strange new centurions march into view, forbidding machine-guns protruding from their fists. They come to attention and the guns transform into only slightly less disturbing long fingered hands. But they’re not the strangest sight. For what comes through the door next is a beautiful human woman, in a captivating red dress suit. She draws uncomfortably close, studying him intently, and asks “are you alive?” “Yes,” he says breathlessly. “Prove it,” she demands, coming in close and they kiss. Outside, the station is engulfed in the titanic shadow of a Cylon base star, a missile arcing toward it and exploding. As she kisses the now terrified man, she says “it has begun.” The deadly hook is baited, and we’re plunged into the genocidal hell of Battlestar, in my book right up there with The Wire for one of the best series of the 2000s.

Ahh that original series. You could run, but you couldn’t hide from the 70s
Eleven years have passed since the series’ superb debut on Syfy (or Sci-Fi, as it was at the time). With all the horrific rumblings in the world, it’s just as relevant today. I came to Battlestar about a year late. I remember hearing about the planned remake and thinking “why the fuck would anybody want to do that?” It wasn’t that the original series was terrible, except that it mostly was. Don’t get me wrong. I’m old enough that I watched it on TV when I was a kid, and yeah, I had the toys. Battlestar Galactica had just the right amount of space-faring spectacle to excite a grade-schooler steeped in Star Wars. But it was kitschy and bad in a plodding seventies way, Lorne Greene’s Adama be damned. How could a remake not escape the lingering odour of so much decades-old fromage? What I failed to appreciate was that the reboot was the brainchild of Ronald D. Moore, together with David Eick. While Eick was largely a producer, coming from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Moore was a gifted writer and producer, authoring many of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He wrote a bunch, and for other Trek series, too, excelling as a Klingon specialist. All the great TNG eps that follow Worf and his complicated family history belong to Moore.

Better than his pedigree was his ambition for the new series. Speaking recently at the Hero Complex Film Festival, Moore said “It was extremely important to me that the show was relevant to our time, that it was commenting on our time, that it was asking hard questions about it, and that it was asking the audience to sort of challenge your ideas about peace and freedom and security and liberty.” In the wake of 9/11, a show about humanity in a war-torn existential crisis was immediate in its impact. Moore’s brilliant conceit was that rather than simply being a race of chrome anthropomorphic robots, as they were in the original, the new Cylons had evolved and innovated to take human form. Entirely synthetic, these Cylon models were perfect human replicas, indistinguishable from their human counterparts at the organic, biological level. Now a race of replicant spies, the twist raised the series to another level. The miasma of fear that followed the 9/11 attacks was omnipresent, and Battlestar Galactica capitalized on that fear with targeted intelligence. The enemy was among us, and the enemy could be anyone. What lengths would a society in such mortal jeopardy go to, in order to protect itself? What freedoms would people sacrifice, desperate and on the run? In the face of dire existential threat, would we lose the very things that make us human?

To anchor big questions like these, the show needed a compelling cast and seamless realism. The show’s stern beating heart is Commander Adama, played by Edward James Olmos with gruff intelligence and steely determination. His counterpart is the President of the Colonies Laura Roslin, captured by Mary McDonnell with an equal backbone and a moral compass that almost never fails. Merely the Secretary of Education when the pilot begins, the slaughter on the home-world Caprica raises her up to the level of President, and she’s forced to take on a challenging job in impossible circumstances. As if that wasn’t enough weight on her shoulders, she’s dying of cancer. Sounds melodramatic, but Moore builds the layers gradually, letting the pieces assemble themselves. Starbuck, a cigar-chomping mischievous pilot and fan favourite from the original series, is reinvented as a woman here, and Katee Sackhoff easily tops Dirk Benedict’s winking take. She’s wild-eyed, a gifted pilot, messed-up and rebellious, and she still chews a mean cigar. Jamie Bamber essays Adama’s estranged son, the pilot Apollo. Starbuck, Apollo and Adama form a tortured triangle, torn up by the accidental death a few years back of Adama’s other son, Apollo’s brother Zak. Starbuck was involved with Zak as well as being his flight instructor. The lingering tension in the way she and Apollo look at each other makes a complicated stew of mixed-up emotions with plenty of guilt and blame tossed around for Zak’s poor flying skills, old man Adama bearing the brunt of it as far as Apollo is concerned. The original bad guy Baltar, a hammy creep in John Colicos’s portrayal, is more nuanced and complex here too. James Callis is superb as the slippery scientist who unwittingly sells out humanity for steamy sex with Tricia Helfer, the Cylon agent Number Six. Completely lacking the ethics Roslin and Adama have in spades, Baltar’s contortions deceiving the rest of the crew and even himself in the wake of humanity’s slaughter are one of the show’s many perverse joys. His hallucinated conversations with Number Six on the Galactica add another layer of narrative complexity, leaving us to wonder if they’re beamed transmissions, guilty visions, or something even stranger, some kind of eerie spiritual visitation. Plus they can be pretty hilarious, like when the invisible Six starts to give Baltar a hand-job to the incredulous looks of those really around him.

All that would make any dramatic series proud, but Battlestar goes even further, contrasting the polytheistic beliefs of the human Colonial society with the monotheism of the Cylons. The contrast is a wry one, making the enemy the one who shares the beliefs of our own Judeo-Christian society, or Islam, for that matter. And the show is not afraid to wade into theistic questions, or philosophy, or ethics, even as it delivers blistering action and enough relationship machinations to leave a soap opera cold and shivering on the floor. The series espouses a stylized realism, too, which grounds its headier moments. Battlestar has a grainy, documentary look, relying on jittery camera-work at a time when the convention was still pretty new to dramatic series. The ship is grimy and industrial, and you witness it breaking down over the course of a few years of flight and combat. The dogfights in space fail the realism test, opting for zooming space gyrations and pummelling machine-gun fire, but my childhood self wildly approves, waving his hands like fighters in the air and making battle noises.

In space, no one can hear… aww screw it shit blows up real good.
Moore wanted Battlestar to capture the real flavour of military command, rather than the space fantasy of Star Trek. In a real hierarchy, the command crew would never be the ones going out on missions. Instead we’re presented with a proper bridge crew, led by Adama and the alcoholic XO Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan). There’s the pilots, led by Apolo and Starbuck. The engineering crew, led by the stalwart Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas). There’s the civilian fleet, with its own headaches and political machinations. And even a guerrilla resistance movement, back on the abandoned planet Caprica. We get the Cylon leadership, too, their strange deliberations between clones, as they constantly question what it means to be created and their purpose in the universe. It’s a lot to juggle, but the series does exceptionally well balancing these elements. Over all this are the two driving mysteries of the show, whether Battlestar Galactica’s fleet will find the lost colony of Earth to renew humanity (are these desperate survivors in fact our ancestors?), and who those dastardly Cylon agents are. “There are twelve Cylon models,” Number Six reveals to Baltar in the pilot, and the slow reveal of each agent’s identity is superb. There are some great narrative experiments along the way, including a few series altering cliff-hangers, and one colossal misstep involving Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watch Tower” (I won’t say more, but all I can think is Moore must smoke a ton of weed—sometimes it’s best to leave an idea with the bong, man). While it could get pretty out there, Moore and company reel it back in every time (though it takes a few episodes to find its way back on occasion).

Is it Galactica or The Last Supper? If any show could go there, this one surely can
Today we’re confronted with a world losing its mind over terrorism and issues of race and religion again, even as the spectre of environmental annihilation looms larger. If anything, Battlestar Galactica seems more relevant today, as we seem set on repeating the mistakes of a previous decade. During the course of the pilot, Adama gives a speech in the hangar of his battleship, about to be decommissioned and turned into a museum. His earlier argument with Apollo makes him deviate from the words he’d planned, and boy do they ring through the ages. “You cannot play god then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore.” One of the philosophical concepts deeply embedded in Battlestar is the idea of eternal return, that all of this has happened before and will happen again. An infinite universe or a finite one in an infinite multiverse, our history plays out again and again, perhaps the same, perhaps with different actors. In such a universe, is there free will? Do our actions change the course of history, or are we doomed to repeat the same tragedies, over and over? Big questions, but we really do exercise these choices every day, like when we close our hearts and borders to terrified strangers, fleeing the violence that has consumed their own homes far away. Watching minds close is so sad. At least bingeing the series on Netflix, we can see beings aspire to be better. Some fail, but the lucky and determined succeed. It’d be nice if we could really live that way. But hey we can always be more on TV. So say we all.

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