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August 5, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Guides | August 5, 2008 |

“Battlestar Galactica” is amazing precisely for what it isn’t: It isn’t formulaic, it isn’t predictable, and it sure as hell isn’t your standard science-fiction show. Executive producer Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of the 1970s camp genre series is so far beyond its origins, so much better and sharper and more engaging than what inspired it, that any comparison would only serve as a reminder of just how deeply flawed the original show was and how low viewers are willing to set the bar for sci-fi entertainment. But the source material has plagued the new show since its inception, so much so that when it blasted out of the gate with its stellar first season, the Emmy campaign attached the trades was nothing more than a black piece of cardboard bearing all of the critical blurbs of adoration for the new show, with not a trace of the title to be seen until you pulled out the screener disc. It’s an admittedly cheeseball title, but it’s still the best and only way to summarily convey the sense of outer space, military action, and grand opera of it all. “Battlestar Galactica.” The series is in the process of wrapping up its final year now, a season that’s been mired in mythology and steeped in clunky plots and bad acting, but the first three years were stellar ones, kicked off by a breathless first season in which the show could do almost no wrong, when it turned convention on its head to present a gritty, believable, and thoroughly compelling human drama about the lives and heartbreaks of the sole survivors of an alien genocide. Running a trim but densely packed 13 episodes, Season One remains the best of the show’s run because it balanced the burgeoning mythology with relatable characters and pure-fire run-and-gun storytelling, the kind of adventure show that makes you realize how much damn fun it can be to see it done right.

“Yes, we’re tired. Yes, there is no relief. Yes, the Cylons keep coming after us time after time after time. And yes, we are still expected to do our jobs!”

“Battlestar Galactica” began life anew as a miniseries and backdoor pilot on the Sci Fi Channel, and like the show that would follow, the miniseries remains better than anything that Sci Fi Channel has a right to produce. On a third-rate network that seems to pride itself on original content about pterodactyls chasing Dean Cain, and that can’t even syndicate enough genre content and inexplicably airs WWE bouts, the arrival of “Battlestar Galactica” was a blast of fresh air for a genre that tends to cut corners. The premise, laid out in the miniseries, mines surprising depth from a pretty simple concept: the end of civilization. In another galaxy, humans create a race of robots called Cylons to do their heavy lifting, but the Cylons, as happens often, grew unhappy with their robotic lives and rebelled. The humans won the first Cylon War, after which the Cylons weren’t seen for 40 years or so. But they eventually return in a massive coordinated strike that eliminates human life on every one of the twelve colony planets, wiping out billions in a matter of moments. The surviving 50,000 humans are massed on the Battlestar Galactica, an old warship set to be decommissioned at the time of the attack, and a scattering of civilian ships ranging from cruise liners to mining facilities. In addition, the Cylons have evolved to develop twelve humanoid models, making infiltration of the human fleet and attendant paranoia all but inevitable. Building on that, Season One opens with “33,” a tense, frenetic episode that serves two important purposes: It establishes the aesthetic tone of the series — handheld cameras, burnished steel, blue lights, and the griminess of cloistered ship life — and it assures the viewer that the good guys are wildly outnumbered, hopelessly outgunned, and resolutely committed to the fight. The human fleet continues to flee the Cylon presence, jumping away via faster-than-light ship drives, but the Cylons find the humans every 33 minutes. No more, no less. The good guys jump away; they wait a little more than half an hour; the bad guys show up and unleash a staggering amount of nuclear warheads; the good guys jump away; repeat until insane from fatigue. The machines keep coming like clockwork for weeks, and the fleet’s small band of fighters are reduced to flying rapid air patrols and sleeping in ten-minute shifts. There’s no polish on the apple here: Everything is gross and small and lived-in and made as much as possible to put aside the inherent beauty required to make a show for television. The mythology that would come to define the show and provide it with its ultimate emotional shape was just beginning to take place: The Cylons speak of the love of the one true God, while the human resistance is a polytheistic one, worshipping the twelve Lords of Kobol. But while that mythology is important to the development of the series, the first season perfectly walked the line between the supernatural bents of the story and the completely real aspect of what it means to be a fighting man or woman — hell, just to be human to one another — when everything else falls apart.

The show revolves around a tight ensemble of characters led by Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos), leader of the Galatica and the fleet; his son, Capt. Lee Adama (Jamie Bamber), callsign “Apollo”; Lt. Kara Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), callsign “Starbuck”; Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis), who unknowingly helped the Cylons infiltrate and destroy mankind; Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), president of what remains of the Twelve Colonies; Col. Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), the Galactica’s executive officer who’s got a love for booze; Chief Petty Officer Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), a tough man with a fiercely loyal heart; Sharon Valerii (Grace Park), callsign Boomer; and, of course, Number Six (Tricia Helfer), one of the Cylon models who appears, among other places, in Baltar’s vivid hallucinations as an outlet for his guilt over his role as an accomplice and his natural sexual desires. None of them are completely pure or irredeemably evil, and in fact, the series goes out of its way to make sure that none of its characters can ever be easily slotted into a mold. Apollo is a good leader but has a blind spot for Starbuck; Starbuck is an attitude case but an invaluable fighter; Adama is a wise leader but single-minded in what he feels is the best way to protect the fleet; Roslin is reluctant to bow to the military counsel she’s offered but also willing to trust those who are experienced; etc., etc., etc. The characters bounce off each other’s nuances, and there’s never a shortage of growth or change in every episode.

“I swore an oath: to defend the articles. The articles say there is an election in seven months. Now, if you are telling me we are throwing out the law, then I am not a captain, you are not a commander, and you are not the president. And I don’t owe either of you a damned explanation for anything.”

Perhaps the greatest of the many wonderful ways the series attempts to engage its universe on a real level was the way the humans tried to hang onto their crumbling civilization. When the rest of existence is nuked into dusty oblivion, Roslin is the secretary of education and aboard the Galactica, and she’s soon sworn in as president of the colonies because the humans will not let their way of life end without a fight. It’s an admirable use of the chain of succession, it feels more real than having the real president miraculously out of harm’s way when the attack happens, and it also adds to the drama of Roslin’s plotline by making her a leader whose title was reluctantly thrust upon her. But the show doesn’t stop there. A big part of the first season revolves around defining what it means to be a society and how to govern yourselves when you’re forced to start over, and it’s brought up that Roslin is just serving out the remainder of the old president’s term, having never been elected herself, which sets the stage for tense, nuanced political drama unlike anything you’d expect from a sci-fi show. The episode “Bastille Day” is the first one to drag these problems to light. Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch, star of the original series) is a convict who leads his fellow prisoners in a revolt calling for Roslin’s resignation, but he’s bartered into submission by Apollo. Apollo settles Zarek down by saying elections will be held within a year, and Roslin and Adama initially balk at the suggestion, setting the stage for a potential rift between the three of them along the fault lines of moral duty and governmental stability. Adama doesn’t want to grant Zarek any ground because he believes it will weaken the position of the fleet, whose government is necessarily highly militaristic given the war, and Roslin feels the same way. But Apollo comes at it more objectively, believing that to defend the law is to defend the ideals the humans once held in such regard in their old lives: that all men are created equal, and that not even the president is above the law. No side is painted as being a clear moral victor, and no side pays a price for naivete or cynicism. This is just the way things are. Rather than structure the series around conventionally solvable problems, “Battlestar Galactica” is about people coming to the conclusion that their problems probably aren’t solvable at all, at least not without violating whatever rules they’d like to consider unbreakable. The series hangs on the decisions of people running a group of survivors just big enough to be a self-contained society but just small enough to feel cut off forever from the codes they were raised on. It’s about building from the ground up, and about deciding where to draw the line between fairness and prejudice, between safety and tyranny.

It’s that psychological maturity and sense of introspection that makes “Battlestar Galactica” special both in its genre and against the rest of the modern TV landscape, and the series pairs that heady drama with consistently engaging action. The dogfights and battles in space are frenetic, soaring scenes where the camera struggles to follow the action, often relying on zooms or rack focus as if the viewer is a first-person observer trying to keep track of what’s going on in every direction. (It’s a visual technique the FX crews borrowed from “Firefly.”) The fighters fly one-man birds called Vipers, and they launch out of tubes and into the blur of space in a way that both recalls the original series and forever leaves it in the dust. But the humans’ repeated skirmishes with the pursuing Cylon fleet, which shows up almost at random, are built around another key theme of the season: The good guys get their asses kicked. A lot. From the endless flight of “33” on down, the battles aren’t so much a chance for the humans to fight back against their genocidal aggressors as they are a way to let the rest of the fleet jump to safety before the Galactica and her big guns follow suit. In modern sci-fi TV, the easiest comparison is “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which was about a giant and superpowerful ship designed like your dad’s den that pretty much did whatever it wanted because it was a flagship of an interplanetary federation bent on colonization. No one was ever in any real danger on that show; no one ever had to worry about getting hurt, since the doctor could fix anything, or going hungry, since the computer could summon food out of thin air. “Battlestar Galactica” is the polar opposite of that utopian road trip: No one is ever really safe, people die all the time, there’s never enough food or water, missions are divided between patrolling for Cylon raiders and sending away teams to mine for food or fuel, etc. The guns fire bullets, bones get broken, and wounds are treated by the only doctor available, Doc Cottle (Donnelly Rhodes), whose name is a play on the kind treatment patients aren’t likely to receive in a world that’s been blown to the edge of extinction. That’s what makes the action so good: Like everything in the show’s universe, it has consequences.

“You’ve lost sight of the purpose of the law: to protect its citizens, not persecute them. Whatever we are, whatever’s left of us — we’re better than that.”

I find myself unable to write much more because I’m in danger of simply going through every episode and trying to outdo myself with superlatives for the way the stories weave together plotlines about the human cost of fighting a war and what it means to live in a state of panicked martial law, and what it means to forge a new world from a clash of religious and political ideals. “Battlestar Galactica” is a sweeping show, and though the episodes lack the kind of idiosyncratic or specialized dialogue associated with creators like Joss Whedon or David Simon, it’s nevertheless a show of grand ideas and complicated people acting out a space soap better than you could want it to be. It’s a probing series that never stops asking what it means to be human, and how far you would go to pay for your mistakes. The Cylons, again, aren’t an alien threat wreaking havoc on humanity for fun; they are mankind’s own misbegotten heirs, flesh-and-blood machines who have rebelled and turned on their makers. The humans who survive the genocide pay for the price of their lost civilization’s arrogance, but they never stop trying to fight their way to freedom. The best way to think about it is in terms of the first season’s yearlong arc that deals with Lt. Karl Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett), callsign Helo, who was stranded on the planet Caprica while helping to evacuate civilians in the aftermath of the attacks. Helo — alone, hungry, and suffering from radiation sickness from the nuclear fallout — shouldn’t be able or willing to keep moving from cover to cover, scavenging for signs of life and taking out Cylon centurions two at a time. He has no way of knowing that help is in store, that he’ll be rescued, and that he’ll find himself in the center of a brawl about the nature of existence and the humanoid Cylon race. He has no reason to think he will survive against his oppressors, let alone win, but he does just the same. Even as he runs, he keeps fighting, a light in the darkness. He’s operating under the assumption that a future is not deserved but earned. That’s hope.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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