the science fiction
fantasy horror &
BattleStar Galactica: Season One (2004-5)
Developed by Ronald R. Moore
review by Jonathan McCalmont
It's perhaps one of the great ironies of the history of TV sci-fi that this series should be a remake of a cheesy, camp piece of space opera fluff made purely to cash in on the success of the original Star Wars film. Setting aside issues such as the changes in design and character you simply could not have two pieces of television sci-fi that were more radically different.
BattleStar Galactica is a child of its times. The psychological complexity and depth of the characters is reminiscent of The Sopranos while the political elements show the same level of understanding of realpolitik as the very best of The West Wing. It is also the spiritual child of Joss Whedon's Firefly, a series that actively attempted to make genre TV that wasn't about genre issues but about real people with real relationships and real problems. Whereas Firefly's attempt at re-defining genre was cruelly cut short by its cancellation, BattleStar Galactica succeeds at recasting genre TV, so it's not about space battles and robots and FTL travel but about big ideas explored through the lens of scientific speculation. Battlestar Galactica marks the day when genre television finally grew up and showed that it was just as capable as exploring big and challenging ideas as any novel. It chooses as its theme possibly the most important issue facing mankind today: this is a series that is about 9/11 and the relationship between rationality, religion, and politics.
The Cylons have acquired the ability to look human as well as the ability to duplicate existing humans and even program Cylons as sleeper agents who don't even realise that they are Cylon until they are activated. This allows the show's writers to explore the sense of paranoia that gripped the US after 9/11 and saw many Arab-Americans locked up with little justification. This paranoia not only affects the relationships between the main characters as some are feared to be Cylons and others actually are Cylons but also the politics of the remains of human society. The political situation is also nicely complicated by the presence of a freedom-fighter/ terrorist who becomes involved in the politics of the fleet but the writers don't ever answer the question of what his real agenda is or indeed whether he has truly renounced violence as a means of political change. This willingness to be ambiguous and vague and to allow the audience to reach their own judgements and form their own hypotheses is one of the most welcome differences between Battlestar Galactica and the moral absolutism of Star Trek or even Buffy. Despite the futuristic setting the writers make the world of BattleStar Galactica realistic by stressing that in the real world there are no easy answers to big questions and any answer you do reach invariably has consequences. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the President's character arc.
The President was sworn in during the pilot TV movie as the last surviving member of the cabinet. Despite being a schoolteacher and a junior cabinet member she is not politically naïve. Right from the start the President and Commander Adama are constantly testing each other's limits, it's a battle of wills and political visions which is all too real even in our world as the pragmatic nationalism of the military conflicts with the idealism and emotivism of civilian politicians constantly mindful of the court of public opinion. However, the President has a secret; she is dying of cancer. Early on in the series we see the President refuse medical treatment, preferring to use an alternative therapy. Soon afterwards she begins having visions that tie into religious prophecies that talk of discovering the home of the gods and Earth. The President's retreat into religion plays out during the series, eventually culminating in her convincing a pilot to return to Cylon-occupied Caprica in order to reclaim a religious relic that she hopes would show them the way to Earth.
The President's retreat into religion is nicely mirrored by the mental state of Gaius Baltar, the man who betrayed humanity. He slips in and out of visions of a beautiful Cylon woman who guides him and pushes him continually to accept God. When Baltar refuses the Cylon disappears from his mind and starts to appear in the real world. Baltar's treachery is nearly uncovered a number of times, but events and the words whispered in his ear by the beautiful Cylon convince him that he is an implement in God's hands. Again, the writers brilliantly leave all questions about Baltar's mental state unanswered. Is he completely mad? Does the Cylon woman really exist outside of his mind? Does the God the Cylons speak of really exist? It is the belief system of the Cylons that is undeniably the most brilliant aspect of this show.
The Cylons believe in the existence of one true God. They are spurred on to kill humans and even themselves by the belief that ultimately upon their death they will return to God and be reborn. They are fanatics. One episode showcases the Cylon belief system by having Starbuck interrogate and torture a Cylon, even this locking of horns has no clear winner as the Cylon's observations hit home, but so do Starbuck's attempts to force the Cylon to question his faith. Where The Sopranos used psychotherapy to explore the psychological depths of its main characters, BattleStar Galactica deploys philosophy and religious discussion as ultimately the humans and Cylons are as driven by the myths and convenient fictions they adopt as Tony Soprano is by his inner demons and his relationship with his mother. Indeed, the Cylons appear to revel in playing mind games with the humans, often playing elaborate tricks on them as a part of their grand plan. While its full scope is only hinted at in this first series at times it is positively Freudian as the children recreate themselves in the image of their parents as a means to destroy them.
These are huge questions that TV rarely comes close to tackling even in such highbrow fare as Dennis Potter's oeuvre, but BattleStar Galactica never opts for an easy answer and challenges all sides of religious and political issues: where do you draw the line between religious beliefs and delusions? Is the best response to religious fanatics' authoritarianism? What if religious teachings really were true? Can a head of state acting on the basis of religious zeal be trusted to make decisions? Would the abandonment of democracy be a viable option to get away from such a leader? BattleStar Galactica refuses to give easy answers to this question and muddies the waters even further by making the traitorous and possibly delusional Gaius Baltar a sympathetic character and we even begin to care for Cylons posing as humans. The end of the series is full of surprises as literally no character escapes unscathed as one after another they are forced to make difficult decisions or confront what it is they truly believe and who they really are.
BattleStar Galactica builds upon what made Firefly such a great programme but its much greater ambition as well as refusing to fall into what Joss Whedon found to ultimately be the restrictive and binding demands of post-Buffy genre TV makes Galactica not only a brilliant and important piece of genre television but it's continual proof that we're living through a real golden age of drama on American TV. Remorselessly challenging and brilliant BattleStar Galactica deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as The West Wing and The Sopranos as great drama. Oh... and the space battles look amazing and there isn't a 'daggit' in sight.
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