Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sunday Best: TV Dramas of All Time # 4 - Battlestar Galactica


I've already spilled a lot of ink over the years regarding my affection and admiration for this show. 

Based on the original science fiction show from the 1970's, the new Battlestar Galactica was planned to take a lot of the same basic ideas but change them around for a modern audience.  The basic story is that somewhere in space, human beings have colonized 12 planets.  But a group of sentient robots known as Cylons have made war on the humans.  The last remaining humans must find their way to the mythical planet known as Earth.  But to complicate matters, some Cylons can appear human, causing rampant paranoia throughout the series.

Starting off it had a few things going against it:

1.  It was a reboot.  Doing a rebooted show is a notoriously bad idea.  Usually anything good feels derivitatve and anything bad is blamed on the updaters.

2.  It was on the SciFi Channel.  This was a channel known for giving us old reruns and orignal schlock movies that had very little artistry.

3.  Hyper-sexualized.  The promotions for the show highlighted the model Six Cylon (Tricia Helfer) who plays very much the part of the seductress.

But when the mini-series which introduced the show premiered in 2003, everything changed.  

I was a latecomer to the show.  I had been resistant because of my passing familiarity with the original and had no desire to see a rehash of that.  But my friends who watched the show, particularly my friend Blimpy, kept heaping praise upon praise for the show.

When I finally did begin to watch, I was hooked.  This may have been my first experience of what we call today "binge-watching."  

It is no accident that the premiered after the events of 9/11.  Lead actor Edward James Olmos said that the script to the pilot was the first thing he had read since the attack that captured the emotion of that day.  And he is correct.  Some might find it offense to explore our national psyche in science fiction, but I could not disagree more.  Science fiction offers a removal from immediate reality which allows us a safer mental space to explore larger themes.  Shows like The West Wing or 24 dealt with intense questions of security vs. freedom.  But because they are set in our world, there is too much political baggage attached to those stories.  We bring too much of our real world political point of view, which closes us off to certain avenues of storytelling.  But when you transpose these to science fiction, as long as you don't hit the allegory to heavy on the head, it allows a freedom to see things from a different perspective.  And that is what occurs with Battlestar Galactica.

As the show progressed it became less like 24 and more mystical.  Many thought that this mixing of science fiction and fantasy to be disjointed.  But again, I enjoyed it immensely.  Too much science fiction has come under the influence of those like Gene Roddenberry, who attempted to remove or demythologize all of the mystery and mystical from the universe.  Just because we traverse the heavens does not disprove that there is a Heaven.

The ethics of the show were challenging at the best of times.  This was clearly a non-Christian society.  In fact, you could call it astro-paganistic.  And sometimes that lack clear connection between the divine and the moral led even our heroes in morally murky mud.  Sometimes seeing the absence of Christ, even in those trying to do good, can be an enlightening thing to experience.  The before-mentioned over sexualization remained a problem throughout the show, though not nearly as bad as on shows like Game of Thrones.  But mostly that sexualization was depicted as an empty cry against the emotional pits of despair.

The show was also shocking in that I truly had no idea what would happen.  Characters could be killed at any moment.  Over the course of the series I found that the show could change my mind completely about people and characters.  The person I hated the most at the beginning of the series, Executive Officer Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), became my favorite character by the end of the series.  
On of my favorite pieces of writing on any television show was in the 3rd season finale.  Gaius Baltar (James Callis) had been the show's main human villain.  He had betrayed the humans to the Cylons multiple times for various reasons.  He was placed on trial but was being defended by one of the show's main heroes Lee "Apollo" Adama (Jamie Bamber).  This made no sense to me as Baltar was obviously guilty and deserving of death.  The trial held no tension for me because it seemed a foregone conclusion that this bad guy should be punished and it seemed artificially ridicululous that one of the heroes would defend him.  But then Apollo gives a speech that completely changed my entire perspective on the series.  To this day I marvel at that piece of writing.

And the acting was incredible.  Edward James Olmos should have won multiple Emmys, as well as Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Tahmoh Penikett, and Aaron Douglas.  They put so much amazing skill and talent into those performances that it made this sci-fi world so real and tangible.



As good as the pilot is, it is this episode that sets the rest of the tempo.  I know a number of people who actually had their TV Tap Out moment in the pilot when Cylon Six murders an infant.  I completely understand.  The producers even admit that they pushed a little too much in that scene (if memory serves).  But if you can move past that to this episode, it will set up the tone for the rest of the series.  The remaining human fleet keeps hyperjumping away from the Cylons.  But exactly 33 minutes later they are found and have to jump again.  This occurs over the course of several days and the humans are working on no sleep and severe stress.  The tension in this episode is wonderfully intense and echoes through the rest of the show.




"Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down"

The series got their worst episode out of the way early on.  It was an ill-fated attempt to try and insert some sitcom-like humor into the show to mix in with the paranoia.  It doesn't work at all and leaves everyone looking a bit stupid.



 As Ovid said, "Call no man happy who is not dead," because he may still suffer great sadness until the end. Many tv shows start off wonderful only to devolve into muddled messes. Think of the last 2 seasons of Friends.  Battlestar Galactica began and ended with amazing power and precision. The finale was one of the finest I have ever seen. There were a number of people who did not like it and felt like it did not answer enough questions.  But for me it did what good finales should do: give you a chance to say goodbye to the characters with whom you have journeyed.  I do not wish to give anything away to those who have not had the treat of experiencing this wonderful storyline, but suffice to say that I finised the journey of the Galactica with a sense of awe at what had come and gratitude that I had been able to tag a long for the adventure.


Battlestar Galactica was a series that I do not believe could ever be duplicated.  The acting, directing, and writing were so powerful that they are now the standard for me of all science fiction space TV shows.

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