Battlestar Galactica 2004 (contains spoilers)
When this was on a decade ago, I was incredibly resistant to watching it. I saw it as belonging to the trend of the time of TV shows and films which focused on realism, darkness and cynicism. I wasn’t much of a fan of documentary style filming, 24 is a show I still don’t like to this day and I associated BSG’s wobbly cam look with 24. Despite these foolish rationales, I finally gave BSG a chance this year and it’s completely changed my perspective on sci fi TV programs. I pretty much cannot watch Star Trek again in the same way without feeling that it’s all a bit turgid, safe, vanilla…BSG was revolutionary, effectively an extended film across four seasons which raised the bar substantially for sci fi in terms of writing, production, music and acting. It is everything Star Trek is not, where Trek is optimistic with a heavily populated universe, BSG is deeply nihilistic with mankind being chased across a cold and hostile universe by genocidal, religious robots. Characters in Trek are generally perfect compared to what they are in BSG. The battles in Trek take place in 2-dimensional space and are almost turn based, particularly in TNG and TOS. In BSG I have not seen space battles as vicious, brutal and terrifying, you really feel the fear and adrenaline of the Viper pilots going up against a multitude of Cylon raiders.
To briefly summarise for those who haven’t seen BSG the plot premise is simple: Humans, existing as an interplanetary organisation known as the Twelve Colonies created a race of robots to effectively work as slaves for their benefit. These machines known as the Cylon (Cybernetic Lifeform Node) rebelled and a war ensued which prompted the colonials to build battlestars, massive hulking military ships that would counter the Cylon effectively. The war resulted in a stalemate and a truce was settled with a space station established to facilitate diplomatic relations between the colonials and the Cylon who made no attempt at communication. Then 40 years later in a surprise attack the Cylon all but wipe out the colonials in a surprise nuclear holocaust. A ragtag fleet manages to survive protected by the last remaining battlestar, the Battlestar Galactica. Commanding the Galactica is Adama who is effectively tasked with protecting the last remnants of humanity along with an education minister now raised up to the office of president, Laura Roslin. They will soon have to deal with Cylon infiltrators in the fleet unaware that one of the survivors, Gaius Baltar, was implicated in the attacks and is haunted by a strange presence. In addition they have to deal with a political revolutionary Tom Zarek, insurrection, disputes from the Quorum and a multitude of resource shortages. Along the way we find out who the Cylon infiltrators are but there are a final five in the fleet who remain unknown to the Cylons themselves.
BSG is utterly uncompromising in its vision, there is very little uplift and although people will think of the ending, which I will go into later, every victory is hard won. There is no magic technobabble solution as you would get with Star Trek Voyager. In fact BSG is the perfect antidote to Voyager, if you’re watching the utter blandness of Voyager, drop it now and go to BSG where characters like Neelix and Janeway would be blown out of the sky without the benefit of super enhanced plot armour. For a start, BSG doesn’t talk down to its audience as Voyager does. Where Janeway is always presented as being right no matter how unethical her decisions, in BSG we are led to question character choices. And unlike Trek more generally the crew in BSG are far from perfect. Our heroes drink, smoke, swear and lie and yet we aren’t necessarily invited to vilify them, instead we’re presented with flawed and complex people. Where in Voyager the ship magically self repairs and characters come back to life through clunky plot devices (yes, yes I know…Starbuck, but wait for a minute), in BSG ships that get blasted or damaged, stay blasted and damaged, characters that die stay dead…usually. The realism of the show, though not of the hard sci fi variety is utterly refreshing. For example, the Galactica, throughout the show’s run it progressively gets more damaged and dirty, contrast that with the immaculately perfect condition of Voyager when it returns from the Delta quadrant. Furthermore, the vipers have to be the most badass ships in sci fi, in fact they’re much cooler than x wings or tie fighters in Star Wars though you could say they’re ripped off from the former craft (remember that the original BSG was basically a Star Wars knock off and they retained the design for the re-imagined series). This is because the vipers grungy yet aerodynamic with their aft, bow and stern thrusters, like formula one cars adapted for space flight and combat.
Another thing that sets BSG apart from other sci fi fare are the high production standards. As I’ve already mentioned it really does feel like you’re watching an extended film, not least due in part to the presence of actors such as Olmos but also due to the high standard of the fx (which still holds up today) and cinematography. You don’t really get these standards in the 90s sci fi shows that predate it although you could argue that Firefly or Enterprise have similar production values (still not nearly as good in this reviewer’s opinion).
Before going any further, I think it’s useful to establish a few important thematic threads first. Having watched the show in one go rather than waiting week to week for each episode, I can say that the religious dimension is consistently carried through from its inception to its ending. Basically the Cylons are monotheistic and this forms an important thread with respect to Colonials who are polytheistic. From the outset you have a mystical force at work, initially it appears that the ancient prophecies concerning the Lords of Kobol, deities that created humanity, will guide the fleet to Earth. In later seasons you get the sense that there is one power at work rather than a pantheon of gods. Starbuck’s resurrection could be explained by this power, effectively she dies going into what seems like a wormhole on a stormy gas giant but later appears at the end of season 3 telling the fleet that she’s been to earth. Her later disappearance though makes you wonder what the hell the writers thought they were doing with her character. But ultimately you could ground this in the idea that this mystical force, who it is implied is the jealous god/Lord of Kobol, is basically a very advanced alien who has this power of resurrection and later deletion. Also we should consider that this idea of an all powerful presence is a nod to the Seraphim/beings of light in the original series. I think the ‘religious’ aspect to the finale isn’t entirely reducible to a deus ex formulation. The fleet really have to go to great lengths to earn their survival and they get a helping hand from this being but it’s ultimately dependent on them to show that they deserve to find Earth and escape the Cylons.
The second aspect of this show is its political dimension. Conceived of in the aftermath of 911 there are heavy political overtones from the start. The Cylons with their religious fundamentalism and infiltration capabilities could be akin to terrorists, particularly when you consider that they are a creation of the Colonials. For example, in the first season one of the Cylon models carries out a suicide bombing on the Galactica. On the other hand, the show explores some taboo areas which it can get away with as it’s sci fi and not set in our present world. So in Season 3 you have the Colonials carrying out suicide bomb attacks on Cylon occupied New Caprica. The situation for the Colonials has become so desperate that they’re forced to take these measures. However, we’re invited to ponder the question concerning where terrorism begins and a legitimate political cause ends. You also have the value of democracy under the spotlight when the fleet votes in favour of Baltar to become president on the basis of his electoral promise to settle New Caprica. Roslin initially uses her power as current president to spoil the election results but has a change of heart when Adama asks if she can live with herself knowing that such a move would be tyrannical. But as it turns out Roslin may have been right to alter the vote as Gaius’s decision proves disastrous. The pros and cons of Gaius’s presidency are later interrogated in the court room drama at the end of Season 3. Many people found this boring but I thought it did an excellent job of exploring the social and political conflicts at the heart of the fleet. Apollo’s speech about civilisation no longer existing with the fleet being merely ‘a gang’ was outstandingly written. And basically we’re shown that no one, not even Gaius could have expected a Cylon occupation, that the decision to land on New Caprica may not have been a good one but it was one ultimately marred by misfortune. Apart from the twin predominating threads of this series being politics and religion another important element is characterisation.
Take Edward James Olmos as Adama. He projects authority and steely determination yet is essentially a person of deep sentiment despite his military exterior. I particularly liked his breakdowns near the end of the show. Consider the fact that this character has been entrusted with safeguarding the survival of the entire human species for four years. While some may say the breakdowns were overdone I think it was an entirely normal and realistic reaction. The pressure even for someone like Adama was overwhelming and Olmos acted it so very well that it was pitch perfect realistic. Olmos made some interesting comments about the character in an interview in which he stated that Adama is essentially broken by his experiences, he becomes a drug addict and an alcoholic due to the stakes involved and then he simply wants to live out his days alone on Earth beside his dead lover, Laura. I can kind of go with that. In addition Mary McDonnell does an excellent job of portraying Roslin who undergoes some very interesting character changes throughout the show. You can tell she’s very intelligent, sensitive and yet utterly ruthless when she needs to be, sometimes to a menacing extent. The relationship between her and Adama was also well written in that it wasn’t overly schmaltzy or dull, in effect it didn’t overtake the series and seemed fairly genuine. There was one very cool moment when they’re reunited which manages not to be either incredibly smug or dull as you would get with romance plots generally. On this note you could contrast this with the love triangle between Lee, Dualla and Starbuck which became fairly tedious, though one caveat is that it added to the richness of their characters.
For a former catwalk model Tricia Hefler is surprisingly good as Caprica Six conveying an intimidating mix of sensuality, manipulative zeal and psychological depth. She’s also very effective at portraying different No. Six models and her shift in consciousness as Caprica Six as she begins to have a more enlightened view of humanity.
It’s a testament to BSG that it has so many strong female characters who aren’t presented in a heavy handed way as feminist icons or something to that effect. They’re strong not because they happen to be women, their gender isn’t the main focus, their personalities are. Starbuck invited a lot of scorn from fans because in the original version of the show the character is a man. However, I think simply watching Kattee Sackhoff’s portrayal over the course the series should be enough to silence the naysayers. I’ve seen both versions of BSG and Sackhoff’s Starbuck is infinitely superior, she is the definitive Starbuck, yay, she is to Starbuck as William Shatner is to Kirk. In other words she owned that role. It’s actually amazing that she manages to make Starbuck into this kind of ultimate soldier/warrior of epic proportions. However, while she may be a brash, stubborn, insane risk taking maverick, hotshot pilot, she is also quite vulnerable and has a tragic past that explains her very combative demeanour.
The character who gets shitted on the most is Galen Tyrell. I thought Aaron Douglas did a good job of portraying Galen, particularly when he finds out he’s a thirteenth tribe Cylon. But his character arc is akin to Harry Kim’s in Star Trek Voyager as the show’s whipping boy. Not only does he discover he was never human to begin with, his girlfriend in Season 1, Boomer, is revealed to be a Cylon, his subsequent wife Cally is flushed out the airlock, Boomer comes back in Season 4 only to deceive him, he then discovers that his fellow Cylon Tory murdered Cally and before this he also learns that Cally’s child was never his but was instead the lovechild of a man named Hotdog. Indeed. So it’s entirely understandable why he wants to live alone for the rest of his life in prehistoric Scotland at the end of the series.
Gaius Baltar, played with tragicomic genius by James Callis is the everyman of the show, he is us in that he’s selfish and cowardly and lacks the exceptional qualities of Starbuck and Apollo. However he has moments of bravery and genuine selflessness. For a supposed scientific genius he can be somewhat clueless, even dumb in certain situations. What Callis does so amazingly is bring a significant element of comedy to a role, which is probably the darkest and most depressing in the series. Indeed as Callis says in a BSG convention panel interview, he played up this comic element from the start when they were filming the pilot as he found something inherently funny in the idea of man unwittingly responsible for the near annihilation of the entire human race. And I think this is a fairly good insight; when confronted with overwhelming tragedy perhaps one response is gallows humour. Well Gaius fits into that in my opinion. Nonetheless, Callis also does a great job of portraying a man haunted by this monumental blunder. This was a highlight of the show with regards to Head Six. We weren’t sure whether she was a projection of Gaius’s troubled psyche or a Cylon implant until she was later revealed as a messenger from an all powerful deity. Also how can we forget his moments of panicky selfishness, hysteria and general strangeness or his displays of utterly shallow social charm when trying to cover his tracks.
And now to the soundtrack. Contrast TNG era’s sonic wallpaper with BSG’s incredible score. The pilot has Richard Simm’s Caprica Six theme which definitely sets the tone for epic, dark and gritty space opera. But Brian McCreary composed the show’s most compelling music. My favourites are Prelude to War and Battlestar Sonatica. Honestly some of this music raised the hairs on the back of my neck it was that good. Again I would consider this an area where BSG reached cinematic levels of excellence.
Finally I’ve got to what I was going to say about the ending which many have criticised it. In fact upon first seeing it I was very disappointed. It evoked conflicting emotions, irritation, sadness and a deep curiosity about its implications. Essentially the Colonial fleet end up on earth 150,000 years ago and have established the basis for all cultural, social and political developments to date in the history of the human species, through the medium of a collective trans-historical subconscious (another theme in the show that is played up and not simply dropped in to justify the outcomes in the finale). Kara is central to this ending as she brings them to earth after coming back from the dead before disappearing. I think the most likely explanation is that Kara was an incarnation of Aurora, the goddess of dawn and one of the twelve Lords of Kobol. The name itself signifies the dawn of a new world i.e. Earth and the idea daybreak after the night of the fall or in other words the nuclear apocalypse. I would posit that as an earthbound messenger Aurora wasn’t aware of herself but thought she was Kara, so that humanity would ‘earn’ their survival by choosing to listen to her; if she were just a goddess sent down from on high then it would be obvious what to do and their survival would be too easy and undeserved. This would be similar to the way in which Messengers Six and Baltar probably adopted characteristics of the people they were impersonating although in their case they were conscious of what they were. They were messengers of the god who cannot be named or the jealous god, another Lord of Kobol and the one who was responsible for the mass exodus of humanity from Kobol to the Twelve Colonies. Although it’s not spelt out in the series, the Lords of Kobol were the ‘divine presence’. If they created humanity and gave them technology too soon, this would explain the cycle of violence experienced by the colonies and the thirteenth tribe of Cylon who created their own Cylons that rebelled against them. In this sense there would be a justification to lead them to new Earth where they would have 150,000 years to iron out their deficiencies. There is the argument that it was pointless for the Colonials to sacrifice their technology and adopt a hunter gather lifestyle, as they would be quickly killed off and wouldn’t be able to impart the lessons they had learnt about AI. However, I think the fact that unlike them we have narratives such as Terminator, Ex Machina, 2001, The Matrix and hey! even BSG warning us of the potential dangers of Artificial Intelligence indicates that the cycle has been broken. So the ending was a bittersweet one, it was sad that the colonials sacrificed all they had for a new beginning and are in our past, but also uniquely happy because Messenger Six is right, this time it will be different as we have a cultural precedent for AI, we won’t necessarily repeat the same mistakes, the cycle is broken.
Also the Colonials ditching their tech is also explicable if we take into account that they’ve suffered post-apocalyptic levels of PTSD from the technology they created. And in any case without a manufacturing base their ships were only going to last another century at least before becoming defunct. Now this isn’t to say I don’t dislike Lee Adama’s decision to go native, this was one aspect of the ending that very much annoyed me but I think the overall idea wasn’t so much to have a logically consistent ending than one which was thematically consistent. As noted, that Adama goes off on his own to live on a mountain never to see his son again seems strange, but he’s essentially been psychologically broken by his experiences. The fact that the colonials mirror this in going their separate ways to start settlements in different parts of the globe, in addition to the fact that none of them seem to be picked off by predators in the African savannas is irrelevant, if we contextualise these seeming inconsistencies in terms of the idea that the Earth in this ending is a veritable garden of Eden. This links up with the religious theme of the series and what we could say is that the Colonials have earned their survival and a kind of relief from any further toil. They enact civilisational suicide as this plays into the idea reiterated throughout the series that humanity must die and be reborn. Hera, the half human half Cylon hybrid is the progenitor of our race, not the Colonials.
The few problems I found with the storyline of the show were mostly centred on the later seasons. Ok so the finale was a bit awkward but as I’ve explained, the criticisms made about it can be rationalised and this doesn’t necessarily point to it being weak, but rather signifies that things aren’t spelt out for the audience so you have to think about it and figure it out, which often times is the sign that the ending is in fact good! Despite the clunkiness of the plotting I think it all came together in thematic terms rather well. Yeah the actual details of the final five’s storyline might not add up in places but it does fit perfectly with the theme of cycles of violence, technological progress outpacing societal evolution and so on. And there again you have people criticising the show for making the Cylons too sympathetic in later episodes. But what this illustrates perfectly well is that in war there are no good guys or bad guys, just varying shades of bad and less bad. True the Cylons are monumental assholes for almost wiping out an entire species but then Colonials ultimately created and enslaved them! The point made in the series is that a cycle of hatred and continual warfare is perpetuated when we see the other side as unanimously evil without taking into account the conditions that make them our enemy!
As can probably be seen from this overview I love BSG and in my opinion it is probably the greatest of all TV shows, in having the grittiness, acting and production standards of shows like Game of Thrones and the philosophical depth of TNG in its finest moments.