TCS Daily

A Worthy Battlestar

By Kenneth Silber - February 11, 2005 12:00 AM

The new Battlestar Galactica television series has enjoyed a fair amount of critical and commercial success, yet it is disdained by enthusiasts of the 1970s series on which it is loosely based. Having watched the original series during my junior-high-school years, I am somewhat mystified to learn that there are such enthusiasts, although this may partly reflect my overall lack of 1970s nostalgia. In any event, I acknowledge the original series was better than its awful, short-lived sequel Galactica 1980.

The new Battlestar Galactica is an intelligent and thought-provoking contribution to the annals of televised science fiction. As such, it is particularly welcome at a time when the pickings in that field have become increasingly sparse. The recent cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise means the venerable Star Trek franchise will cease producing new shows for the first time in 18 years. The offbeat, imaginative series Farscape was cancelled in 2002, with some loose ends tied up in an October 2004 miniseries (in which the lead characters insistently and uncharacteristically proclaimed the importance of peace, making the cosmic story's denouement seem like some kind of anti-Bush campaign ad).

The premise of the new Battlestar Galactica is similar to that of the original series, although there have been notable changes in characters and plot elements. As in the original, humans aboard a fleet of spaceships are fleeing from their robot enemies, the Cylons. The robots have attacked and essentially destroyed humanity's home worlds, the 12 Colonies of Kobol. Now, in their desperation, the surviving humans hope to find refuge on a distant, perhaps mythical, 13th colony -- the Earth.

Among the changes in the new series: The Cylons now are human creations who rebelled, not the products of reptilian aliens; indeed, it is unclear if aliens exist or have been discovered in the revamped Galactica universe. The Cylons no longer necessarily appear as metallic entities; rather, some of them now have the look and feel of humans. Starbuck, the hotshot fighter pilot, is now a woman, as is another character named Boomer. The fleet is still protected by the Galactica itself, but the battlestar now is an aging vessel that was about to be consigned to museum status when the Cylons attacked; its lack of advanced computers is why the robots were unable to gain control of the ship.

Among the show's strong points are the psychological realism and complexity of its characters. Whereas Star Trek long tended to present an idealized version of humanity, Battlestar Galactica gives us people with personal liabilities as well as assets. The battlestar's top officer, Commander William Adama (played by Edward James Olmos) is a capable but dour figure who has a troubled relationship with his son, Capt. James Adama (Jamie St. John Bamber Griffith), who's known by the call sign Apollo. Lt. Kara Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), a.k.a. Starbuck, is a formidable pilot with a volatile personality. She has contempt for the ship's number two officer, Col. Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), who is an alcoholic. Unlike on a typical Star Trek ship, the crew do not all like each other or engage in good-natured banter. Nor can the humans all be trusted. Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis) is a brilliant scientist whose personal weaknesses have left him vulnerable to Cylon influences and deeply implicated in the disaster that has befallen humanity.

The series also portrays political situations with an interesting complexity. Commander Adama shares power uneasily with President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), formerly the education secretary. Having been 43rd in line of succession to the presidency, she was sworn in after all the more senior officials were killed in the initial Cylon attack. In the emergency, civilian control of the military has frayed, and the civilian government itself sometimes operates with less-than-perfect accountability; Roslin is concealing her severe cancer, and only under pressure agrees to a regular schedule of elections. Nor does the society that has been destroyed seem to have been an idyllic one. One ship is filled with terrorist prisoners who fought to overthrow the political order on one of the 12 Colonies.

By contrast, the various Star Trek series often presented far less ambiguous moral and political messages, as when aliens would be confronted for engaging in clearly unjustified discrimination against their own ethnic and sexual minorities. Such messages had some novelty during the original Star Trek of the 1960s, but took on the tone of vapid public-service announcements in more recent decades. The new Battlestar Galactica emphasizes that moral and political decisions often are difficult, with real pitfalls and tradeoffs involved. One interesting theme that looks likely to be developed, moreover, is how religion fits into the Galactica universe. There are indications that at least some of the humans are polytheistic -- they say things like "thank gods" -- while one Cylon has been heard speaking cryptically about "God's plan."

The series has yet to portray technological possibilities in as interesting a manner as it delves into personal, political and ethical scenarios. The fleet's relatively low-tech quality makes some sense in the context of the plot, and its use of nuclear weapons and guns with bullets contributes to the show's gritty appeal. Still, this is a society that has developed interstellar flight, intelligent robots, and other advanced technologies, and how those technologies play out in the conflict between humans and Cylons offers considerable storytelling potential. One positive sign is that the series avoids the common sci-fi fallacy of audible explosions in the vacuum of space. Rather, its space battles feature a creepy silence that seems to symbolize the doom against which the humans are struggling.


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