Battlestar Galactica

Tagged: Film | TV

1. US television series (1978). Universal Television/ABC-TV. Created by Glen A Larson, also executive producer. Producers included John Dykstra and Don Bellisario; main writers Larson and Bellisario; directors included Christian Nyby II and Dan Haller. One season only, beginning with a 150-minute pilot, followed by 19 50-minute episodes, including three two-episode stories, plus one 100-minute episode. Colour.

Perhaps the least likeable of all tv sf in its ineptness, its cynicism, its sentimentality and its contempt for and ignorance of science, the original Battlestar Galactica was devised by Glen A Larson (who went on to do a similar job on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) in the wake of the successful film Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), which it resembles closely in many respects; moreover, John Dykstra, who initially did the special effects for Battlestar Galactica (he soon pulled out), had supervised the miniature photography on that film. The series tells of humans (related to us according to a von Däniken-derived narration) elsewhere in the galaxy being largely wiped out by the robotic Cylons. A group of survivors, including the crew of a military craft, the Battlestar, search for the legendary human colony of Earth. Space battles, the raison d'être of Battlestar Galactica, were carried out by planes apparently designed for flying in atmosphere, with fiery exhausts which, Larson is quoted as saying, "make Space more acceptable to the Midwest".

The casting of Western star Lorne Green as the patriarchal leader, Adama, emphasized the obvious subtext of wagon trains rolling west under constant attack by Indians. Other regular cast members were Dirk Benedict as Starbuck (né Solo), Richard Hatch as Apollo (né Skywalker), Maren Jensen as Athena and Noah Hathaway as the cute boy, Boxie, whose nauseating Robot dog (né R2D2) may have been the low point. Ratings began well but soon fell off and, since each episode cost three times as much as a conventional one-hour drama, the series was terminated. An attempt to resuscitate it in altered form was Galactica: 1980. (> Glen A Larson for a listing of the 14 spin-off Battlestar Galactica books 1978-1987, all, according to the covers, co-authored by Larson, mostly with Robert Thurston.) [PN]

2. Film (1978). Universal. Director Richard A Colla. Written by Glen A Larson. Starring the regular cast plus Ray Milland, Lew Ayres. 122 minutes, cut to 117 minutes. Colour.

To recoup production costs on the television series, Universal gave theatrical release to the (edited) pilot episode. This militaristic film (all politicians seeking peace are self-deluded weaklings) begins the Battlestar Galactica story with a battle against the Cylons, the round-up of survivors, the beginning of the long trek to Earth, a visit to a pleasure-filled but corrupt planet where they nearly get eaten, and a second battle against the Cylons (close relatives of Star Wars's stormtroopers) – clearly a near thing: "The Cylon fleet is five microns away and closing". The film is poor. Another two-part episode from the television series was theatrically released as Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack (1979); it is more cardboard still. [PN]

3. US tv series (2003-2009). R&D TV for Sky TV and The Sci Fi Channel. Created by Ronald D {MOORE} and David Eick. Producers include Moore, Eick, Harvey Frand, and Paul M Leonard. Directors include Michael Rymer, Michael Nankin, Rod Hardy and Sergio Mimica-Gezzan. Writers include Moore, Eick, Bradley Thompson, David Weddle, Michael Taylor and Jane {ESPENSON}. Starring Edward James Olmos as William Adama, Mary McDonnel as Laura Roslin, James Callis as Gaius Baltar, Tricia Helfer as Six, Jamie Bamber as Lee "Apollo" Adama, Katee Sackhoff as Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, Grace Park as Sharon "Boomer" Valerii, Michael Hogan as Saul Tigh, Aaron Douglas as Galen Tyrol, and Tahmoh Penikett as Karl "Helo" Agathon. Four-hour miniseries aired 2003. 73 one-hour episodes aired 2004-2009.

One of the two most important and influential genre television series of the last decade, the other being Lost (2004-2010). Moore and Eick's re-envisioning of Larson's cheesy Star Wars ripoff as a grim tale of bare-knuckles survival in the wake of genocide, prejudice and racial hatred run amok, and dirty Politics is arguably the most comprehensive retooling of a science fiction story ever committed. Like its original, the remake begins with a surprise attack on humanity (called Colonials for their belief that their twelve planets were colonized by the inhabitants of the planet Kobol) by their former Robot servants the Cylons. This time, however, the Cylons come in two versions – the familiar (though redesigned) mechanical one and a human-like Android, which comes in twelve models, each of which exists in many iterations who can, upon death, download their memories and personality into a new body (> Reincarnation). The attack and the Galactica's escape with a fleet of civilian Spaceships carrying less than 50,000 survivors is related in the miniseries, with the series' four seasons dedicated to the fleet's struggle to survive in the face of infighting and the ongoing pursuit of the Cylons, all the while trying to reach the mythical safe haven of Earth.

Galactica impressed fans and critics alike with high production values (the effects, by Zoic Studios, carry over the "found footage" look pioneered by Firefly (2002), with the camera often panning or zooming in on the action to evoke the sense of a documentary film, but are nevertheless magnificent; the series features some of the best-looking and most exciting space battles to have ever graced a television screen), but it won them over with its grim, "realistic" tone. Many of the characters were retooled into pricklier, less idealized versions of themselves. Adama is still a great leader who commands the unswerving loyalty of his crew, but also a more mercurial figure who is prone to tantrums when his authority is questioned. His love interest Roslin is now the former Secretary of Education – elevated to the role of President by the death of the entire cabinet – who reveals herself to be a fearless and devoted leader but also a ruthless one, more than willing to manipulate her citizens' religious beliefs or steal an election if it secures humanity's future. Two characters, pilots Starbuck and Boomer, are recast as women, the former a maverick whose frequent drunkenness and cheerful promiscuity conceal deep-seated emotional problems, and the latter revealed at the end of the miniseries to be a Cylon sleeper agent (like most of the actors portraying Cylons, Park ended up playing several versions of her model, each of whom had a different personality and storyline). Villain Baltar, meanwhile, is not a power-hungry monster as he was in the original series but a pleasure-seeking narcissist, who allowed his Cylon girlfriend (Helfer, one of the series' strongest performers and the only one to imbue a Cylon character with full depth and complexity) access to the Colonies' defence system and thus enabled humanity's demise, an act which his enormous self-absorption prevents him from regretting in any meaningful way. First-season storylines revolve around the uneasy negotiations between Roslin's murky civilian authority and Adama's very concrete military one, culminating in an abortive military coup; later on Baltar emerges as a player on the political scene, encouraging the fleet to abandon the search for Earth and colonize a habitable planet they discover, and then becoming a puppet leader for the Cylons when they discover and overrun the new colony. All the while, questions of prejudice – between Cylons and humans and between different human groups – continue to dog the characters, particularly when several Cylon characters are captured or defect to the human side, some of whom are attacked and even killed by their vengeful victims while others are fully accepted into human society. As the two groups rub shoulders. religious strife and cross-pollination between the polytheistic humans and monotheistic Cylons also becomes a major theme.

The critical reaction to Battlestar Galactica is unprecedented in the history of genre television. In a decade in which, it is often said, the medium came of age and gained legitimacy as an artform, Galactica was the face of legitimate television sf, even if its acceptance often hinged on downplaying the sf part. Write-ups in magazines like Slate, Salon and The New Yorker repeatedly fell into the familiar "this is good / Well then, it's not sf" formulation, stressing that the series' focus was on Politics and questions of morality during wartime rather than Aliens and space exploration, but also calling it one of the best series of the decade (an honour much repeated when the time came to make such lists in late 2009). In 2006, it won the prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in radio or television, the only genre series other than {MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000} (1988-1999) to have been so honoured. In March 2009 Moore, Eick, Olmos and McDonnel hosted a discussion of human rights and interfaith struggle at the UN. For longtime genre fans, the pleasures of the series were to be found in a level of writing and characterization that touched on more sophisticated, more adult themes than most genre television (often elevated by a fine and prestigious cast, two of whose members – Olmos and McDonnel – have been nominated for Academy Awards), and more than that in the palpable sense that Battlestar Galactica, rather than being the escapist sort of science fiction often derided by just those media sources now lauding the show, was not simply a political series but a deliberately relevant one. It is this political relevance – the fact that so many of the series' central dilemmas mirror the burning issues raised by 9/11 and the second Iraq War – that is at the core of much of the praise the series has received; but this praise ignores, perhaps because it does not view them as an evil, the compromises the show's writers had to make with their invented universe and worldbuilding in order to achieve that relevance. A prime example is an early third-season episode in which the humans, now living under Cylon rule, begin orchestrating suicide bombings. The reference to the Iraqi insurgency is clear, but requires the audience to ignore the absurdity of using such terrorist tactics against an enemy who cannot die. A ragged, near-dead cluster of less than 50,000 refugees fleeing the destruction of their civilization and the deaths of billions make for a poor analogy to post-9/11 America, and Battlestar Galactica's writers consistently chose the allegorical reading of their story over the science-fictional one, neglecting or twisting their invented world in order to accommodate its real-world analogue.

Battlestar Galactica's storytelling began to flag in its third season, which prioritized a turgid romantic quadrangle between Starbuck, Apollo, and their respective spouses, and Baltar's immurement in an all-female, Cylon-friendly cult, over the development of its political storylines or its overarching plot. From its beginning, Galactica's writers teased the existence of a grand endgame for the series. The opening credits in the first three seasons promised that the Cylons, whose catch-and-release pursuit of the fleet often seemed pointless, had a plan for humanity (these credits were changed in the fourth season to remove all reference to said plan, a worrying sign of things to come) and various characters had recurring, surreal visions of, it was suggested, enormous significance, possibly indicating divine intervention in their fate. "All of this has happened before and will again" was an oft-repeated catch-phrase. As the series drew closer to its conclusion, however, it became clear that the writers had never planned a payoff for their build-up. A major third season plotline, for example, revolved around the search for the five remaining Cylon models, unknown even to the other Cylon characters and hidden in the fleet, but when these were revealed among the main cast the writers freely admitted that none of these characters had been originally envisioned as Cylons. After a noticeable improvement in quality in the latter half of the fourth season, Battlestar Galactica wrapped up its dangling plot threads with a much-reviled series finale in which they turned out to be components in God's Rube Goldberg-esque plan to bring the fleet, now composed of humans and renegade Cylons, to Earth, some 150,000 years in our past, so that they can abandon Technology and die off leaving no sign of themselves except for mitochondrial DNA, bequeathed to humanity by the first Cylon-human hybrid.

The general consensus among fans is that despite a risible ending Battlestar Galactica was worth watching for most of its run, though opinions differ on precisely when the rot set in. There is, however, no question that it has established certain standards for genre drama, both within Fandom and outside of it – an emphasis on real-world Politics and soapy character arcs, a grim tone, the absence of any Space Opera derived elements such as Aliens – and it will likely be some time before genre television escapes from its influence. Aside from various tie-in books, Comics, and Games, Battlestar Galactica was spun off into two television movies: Razor recapitulates a mid-season-two story about the Galactica's encounter with another surviving battlestar, the Pegasus, whose commanding officer, Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes), will stop at nothing and sacrifice anyone in her pursuit of vengeance against the Cylons, retelling it from the point of view of a junior officer aboard the Pegasus; The Plan retells the events of the attack on the Colonies from the Cylons' point of view. Galactica was also notable for being an early adopter of online content as a means of winning over and keeping an audience, with deleted scenes and episode commentaries by Moore posted after each episode's airing. It was therefore one of the first television series to explore the webseries concept, with two ten-part series containing additional scripted material posted online. The first, The Resistance, takes place before the third-season premiere and describes the humans' experiences living under Cylon occupation. The second, The Face of the Enemy, takes place in the middle of the fourth season and highlights a heretofore secondary character who would go on to play a major role in the series' final plot arc. A prequel series, Caprica (2009-2011), was announced in 2006, but it was not until 2009 that a two-hour pilot was released on DVD, and its first season screened in early 2010. A more soapy and overtly science-fictional exercise than Galactica, however, it failed to capture the parent show's audience, and was cancelled after a single season following the announcement of a second proposed spinoff, «Galactica: Blood and Chrome», to take place during the first Cylon war. [AN]

see also: Scientific Errors.

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