I don’t feel bad for having missed the new Battlestar Galactica when it premiered on the SciFi Channel. First off, everything on that network sucks. It’s possibly the biggest wasteland on television, as far as I’m concerned, filled with generally low rent garbage and the occasional old campy TV show or movie. Secondly, the new Galactica came highly recommended from some of the same people who had recommended crap like Farscape and Babylon 5 to me – the kind of junk that makes you realize an awful lot of genre fans just aren’t that discriminating when it comes to scifi on TV.
The show passed me by, and I would most likely have remained ignorant of what I was missing if I hadn’t been sent a copy of the first season on DVD (this, by the way, is not an official CHUD DVD review. Someone else will be doing that). I decided to give the thing a shot, especially since it included the mini-series that kick started the rebirth as an extra feature. I found the idea of a whole mini-series as an extra feature to be too funny.
It was slow slogging through the first half of that mini-series. Edward James Olmos was pretty great as Adama, but the rest of the cast was leaving me cold. I didn’t mind the changes from the original series – God knows that show is only valuable at this point as something to watch while stoned – but the new versions of the characters weren’t gelling for me, and the introductions were all boring.
How glad am I that I stuck it out, though? Very glad. The mini-series begins as the Battlestar Galactica, a relic from the first Cylon War 40 years earlier, is being decommissioned and turned into a museum. Just after the big ceremony, though, the Cylons suddenly reappear and nuke the living shit out of all the 12 Colonies where mankind lives in this section of the galaxy.
It’s here that the show really started to work. Battlestar Galactica suddenly shifted into hardcore, gritty mode. The devastation – the genocide committed by the Cylons – feels real. The writers of the show obviously sat down and thought about what people would really do in these situations, about how the military would really respond, about what actions politicians would take.
I can’t say enough how important that realism is. In the mini-series the Galactica takes a nuke to the side. A section of the ship is engulfed in a blaze, with hundreds of crewmembers scrambling to escape. The fire is in danger of exploding the ship’s fuel lines, so the Executive Officer makes a tough call – he vents the sections that are ablaze, sucking the fire out of the ship along with 100 people. In most scifi TV that would be the focus of an episode. This mini-series establishes that these kinds of decisions – hard choices that will kill people – are what the characters will face daily. In the course of the first season Adama and his people have to keep making choices like that, often leading to death – in some cases thousands of deaths.
The laxness that I felt in the opening of the mini-series barely returns for the rest of the season. Galactica isn’t really a science fiction show – it’s a military meets The West Wing show set in space. The scifi elements are barely important here, and never take center stage.
Once the series begins the basic premise is essentially the same as the original show – Galactica and a ragtag convoy of survivors escape the Cylon holocaust and search for the mythical 13th Colony, Earth. Along the way they are harassed by the Cylons, but in this show things are a little different. First of all, man created the Cylons, who rebelled 40 years previously. In the time since Cylons were last seen (at the end of the Cylon War they found their own planet and fucked off to it) the robots have evolved – the latest generation of Cylons look and feel just like humans. They even have blood and internal organs. They’re the ultimate biomechanoids. And since they look just like humans, they can infiltrate the Galactica fleet to wreak havoc.
To be honest, I think they infiltrate the fleet a little too much. There’s a run of about four episodes where yet another Cylon is discovered amongst the humans. But when not overused, the enemy among us concept is great, and not only gives everything the feel of Cold War paranoia but is also relevant to today’s turbulent world. Hell, there’s even an episode where a Cylon is a suicide bomber.
The new series also actually gives the Cylons a point of view. They’re very religious, which is an interesting choice to make with robots (and which also helps create the connection between the Cylons and say, Palestinians) but ultimately a very cool one. After all, robots KNOW they have a creator. It isn’t hard to see the leap of logic that allows them to decide Someone created humans as well. And the computerized, orderly mind of a robot would love the idea of a guiding, rational force behind the universe.
And having the Cylons take on human aspect ends up with them taking on human emotions. Things get incredibly complicated when it comes to human/Cylon relations, especially since some Cylons in the fleet are sleeper agents unaware that they’re even robots. Unfortunately the Cylons also have some kind of “plan” which extends across the first season but never really seems to make sense. The Cylons seem to play cat and mouse with the humans too much – it keeps the show from ending very early, obviously, but it should have some other reasoning. My guess is that the Cylons want the Galatica folks to lead them to Earth (don’t spoil me if this has been revealed in season 2!), but even that seems a little weak. They’re immortal robots – I bet they could find it on their own.
One of the disappointments for me in the first season of Lost was how little civilization building the castaways did. I can’t make that complaint about Battlestar Galactica – amidst the hard-edged military action (there are some awesome dogfight scenes in this show) and constant paranoia, the surviving humans spend a lot of time trying to remain surviving civilized humans. They hold elections, consider how government will work when there are only 500,000 people left alive, and have basic disagreements about the roles of the military and the government. They try to get basic resources like water. It’s this aspect that kept me watching episode after episode. I expected the writers to just drop this stuff, but they kept going with it. I have to say that this is what made me love the show.
There are nitpicks that I have with the show – the characters all act and speak like they grew up in Pasadena. The show can’t seem to do comedy all that well, especially in the annoying and omni-present “comic relief” relationship between sort of bad guy Gaius Baltar and the Cylon who seems to live in his head or some shit. While the new Starbuck, a girl this time, is ass-kickingly cool, the new Apollo (now Adama’s son) is too much in the James Marsden bland pretty-boy mode.
But that’s all mostly minor stuff (although the Gaius crap has more than once made me get up and poke around the fridge while leaving the DVD going). The truth is that Battlestar Galactica is a great TV show. I would say that it’s the best scifi show in years, but I honestly don’t know when the last really good scifi show as even on. Galactica is just a really great show, period. I haven’t always been open to the show, and I’ll happily admit that I was wrong – this is the real thing.
The second season of Galactica is half over, and they’re releasing the first ten episodes on DVD on December 20th, just before the second half of the season starts up (yeah, I don’t get it either). The SciFi Channel is airing the second season in repeats right now – my TiVo is programmed. To the folks behind this show, especially the writers, I have to offer my hearty congratulations. I’m a tough audience, and this has completely won me over. I have no problem recommending the first season DVD set to anyone who likes really good serialized television.