A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a TV producer named Glen A. Larson decided to rip off George Lucas in an attempt to bring the hype of Star Wars to the small screen.
One year after Star Wars blasted into theaters across America, a science fiction popcorn extravaganza called Battlestar Galactica burst into living rooms everywhere.
The premise concerned the 12 colonies of humanity who were annihilated by the robotic Cylons in a sneak attack. Only a rag tag fleet of spaceships survived, headed by the Battlestar Galactica, commanded by Lorne Green as Captain William Adama. The series was a continuous chase between the surviving humans and the murderous Cylons, who sounded a lot like my first talking Apple 2-E computer in elementary school, as the humans desperately tried to seek out the 13th colony, known as Earth.
This translucent plagiarism did not go unnoticed by 20th Century Fox, who sued Universal Studios for copyright infringement. The results were an out-of-court settlement, while history has rendered its public judgment. Battlestar Galactica lasted for only one season spanning 24 TV episodes, ending in April of 1979. Every kid that I grew up with had Darth Vader or Han Solo on his lunch box. No one knew who Starbuck was.
21 years later, a writer/producer named Ronald D. Moore angrily parted ways with the producers of Star Trek: Voyager. On his way out the door, he penned a pithy manifesto explaining that Star Trek was becoming juvenile, irrelevant and outdated.
After working for four years on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Moore had enjoyed a good deal of creative freedom on the franchise’s sequel series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Moore got to explore themes as wide-ranging as war, religion, overt politics and paranoia; themes that were frowned upon by Gene Roddenberry in previous Trek incarnations. Moore found Voyager to be a tired rehash of TNG (which it was) and was ready for new challenges.
Moore might have gone down in TV obscurity with Carnivale being his greatest achievement, but then, the god of fate smiled upon Mr. Moore in particular, and Hollywood in general. The kiss of fortune came on September 11, 2001, when 19 Muslim extremists hijacked four American planes and turned them into missiles aimed at various targets on the East Coast. The dye was cast for America to enter into a long period that would come to be known as the war on terror.
This war saturated the socio-political landscape of America and more concretely, was waged with boots on the ground in Afghanistan and later, in Iraq.
Like popcorn pop culture, history has rendered its judgments on the war on terror, but in the meantime, a glut of new creative TV sprung forth from the creative loins of Hollywood from such producers as Joel Surnow, David Simon and, of course, Ronald D. Moore. All of these producers used the war on terror as a springboard for creative ideas ranging from an invincible counter terrorist agent, to analogous metaphors to the war on drugs, to the total annihilation of the human race in another galaxy far, far away.
Moore watched an unaired pilot of a resurrected Battlestar Galactica produced by Richard Hatch of the original BSG cast in the late ‘90’s. That flight into creative fancy became the basis for the new reimagined Battlestar Galactica in 2003. At first, BSG aired as a two-part miniseries on the Sci Fi Channel. The ratings were dismal and the show might have died without resurrection once again, but for the intervention of the BBC, who agreed to help finance the regular series if they could have the privilege of airing each new episode before it aired on Sci Fi. Everyone agreed and the show burst forth, much to the delight of critics and a growing fan base across two continents.
The basic premise of BSG 2003 was the same as its 1978 predecessor. The Cylons, a race of artificially intelligent but sentient life forms, obliterated the 12 colonies in a sneak nuclear attack. The remnants of the fleet fled, staying just one step ahead of the Cylons at every jump.
Several of the characters remained. Commander Bill Adama was played by Edward James Olmos, an actor who seems to only speak in a low, growly half whisper, yet who could project the necessary weighty moral authority to guide the fleet through one tragedy after another. English actor Jamie Bamber played his son, Lee ‘Apollo’ Adama. When it came to Starbuck, the powers that be did a very (ahem ahem) enlightened thing and swapped the gender. Starbuck became Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), much to the consternation of Dirk Benedict. James Callis played Dr. Gaius Baltar, the narcissistic scientist who betrayed humanity by unwittingly allowing the Cylons access to the defense systems on Caprica by way of his penis. Boomer, an African-American male Viper pilot from the original, became Sharon ‘Boomer’ Valerii (Grace Park), a female pilot who turns out to be a sleeper Cylon agent.
Moore stirred in some original ingredients to his interstellar brew. Included were Mary McDonnell as Laura Roslin. She begins the series as the cancer-stricken Secretary of Education, but is quickly promoted to President of the civilian fleet when she is the sole survivor in the political line of succession after the Cylon attack. Some of the best drama from the early seasons occurs as Roslin and Adama wrestle each other over moral, tactical and political decisions that affect the very survival of humanity. Tricia Helfer plays a Cylon agent known only as Six, and who appears only in the mind of Dr. Baltar; at least, early on in the series, until we learn that there are numerous copies of Six running around space in various get-ups.
And there is one of the great twists of the reboot. The Cylons are no longer cheesy ‘70’s era robots. They are now evolved into fully flesh and blood antagonists who can easily blend into the fleet and work to undermine the efforts of humanity to save itself by acting as spies, saboteurs and propagandists. Once the humans discover this, paranoia runs rampant throughout the fleet as the major question becomes, who is really human and who is really a Cylon? The stakes are further raised when we learn that Cylons cannot die, but merely download into another copy and return if they are killed.
The first two seasons of this epic series range from good to brilliant television. Moore did in deed surpass Star Trek (and even Star Wars) in his wish to tell a thoughtful, compelling story of human survival and desperation in the wake of a genocidal apocalypse. The tone and tenor of the series is best summed up by the premier episode, “33,” in which the fleet is attacked by the Cylons every 33 minutes, thereby depriving them of sleep. The episode climaxes with Starbuck and Apollo being forced to fire on one of their own vessels in fear of its being infiltrated by the enemy.
Other plots involve a continuous tug-of-war between Adama and Roslin over religion, Boomer’s inner conflict as she realizes that she is a Cylon, Baltar’s continual cerebral encounters with Six and the discovery of another military ship (The Pegasus) commanded by Michelle Forbes, which ultimately causes more problems than it solves.
If only Moore and company had not yielded to the lesser angels of their political souls, Battlestar Galactica might have gone down as one of the best science fiction TV epics of all time. Alas, cracks begin to appear in the show’s third season. The humans have settled on a planet they name New Caprica and are trying to rebuild their civilization when the Cylons show up and establish an occupation force. President Baltar immediately surrenders and is taken prisoner, the remaining space fleet jumps away in order to fight another day, and the planet bound military under the command of Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan) forms a resistance to fight the invaders. Said resisters come complete with suicide bomb vests, which was a deliberate and sympathetic comment on the plight of insurgents battling U.S. forces in Iraq, circa 2006.
You can be skeptical of the wisdom of the Cylon occupation plot and still enjoy it as I did. The arc climaxes with an epic battle as Adama and Apollo return to save the survivors on New Caprica. More powerful than the battle was Colonel Tigh’s murder of his wife, whom he learns has been colluding with the Cylons.
Much of the remainder of the third season concerns the aftermath of New Caprica as the fleet continues to search for Earth. Baltar is held captive by the Cylons and he learns more about their culture. Starbuck and Tigh deal with PTSD. Apollo, Adama and Roslin all question their choices. A bunch of the crew hold boxing matches to work out their feelings. All of the main characters get married while being in love with someone else. Baltar is returned to the humans and is put on trial for the betrayal of his own people.
And this, my friends, is where the show officially descends into Stupidville. Apollo acts as Baltar’s lawyer and manages to get his client acquitted. This is due to an Aaron Sorkinesque speech in which he basically says, “Sure, President Baltar did some questionable things, but we all do questionable things in the fog of war.” Apollo’s assertion that there are always moral equivalents in war was a nonsensical means of letting Baltar (and by extension, the Cylons) off the hook. The anger and desperation that fueled the early episodes slowly gives way to a facile sense of proportionality that humans and Cylons are equally guilty, even though the Cylons committed genocide, which is acknowledged in our own civilization as a war crime. Rationalizations such as these are often made in comfortable circumstances around a conference table in Hollywood, far from the battlefield of reality.
About the same time as Baltar is getting off, several crew members begin humming notes to All Along the Watch Tower. They meet up in a cargo bay, set up a chorus of a humming choir and figure out that they are all sleeper Cylon agents. One of them is Colonel Tigh. Even though the groundwork was laid for this, the twist still falls flat.
Meanwhile, Starbuck, who died in a cosmic maelstrom three episodes before, suddenly reappears with no explanation and claims that she knows the way to Earth. If you were like me, you finished up the third season finale and muttered, “What the frack?” aloud.
The fourth season is a slog to finish. Starbuck keeps screaming, “WE’RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!” which may as well be a metaphor for life in the writers’ room. Baltar becomes a David Koresh-style figure as he becomes the leader of a cult. The Cylons fall into civil war as they begin to question their campaign against humanity. Roslin keeps having weird visions that don’t ultimately amount to anything. Adama softens from a stalwart military figure into a flaccid consort who reverses and re-reverses himself whenever a character cries loudly enough. More characters keep prattling on about God, destiny, fate, etc.
By the time the humans make it to ancient Earth and we learn that we got our Greek mythology from the 12 colonies, I was too weary to care. All I can tell you is that Roslin succumbed to her cancer, Adama built a cabin somewhere in the wilderness and Starbuck disappeared without explanation.
Ahh, Gods. I don’t even have the energy to write about the two TV movies, Razor, and, The Plan.
Why did such a promising series go off the rails? The answer lies in TV critic Alan Sepinwall’s book, The Revolution Was Televised, in which he interviews Ronald D. Moore. Sepinwall dubs Battlestar Galactica as, “Sci-fi for the thinking man.” As Jonah Goldberg points out, only if you don’t think too hard.
BSG is a victim of high-minded pretentions that ultimately amount to nothing more than one big deus ex machina. The writers constantly tease the audience with the promise that the Cylons have some great master plan. As it turns out, their plan is a series of tortured, contorted retcons that make no sense. Moore admits that he merely relied on his instincts in plotting the series, particularly in the final two seasons. He had no grand vision as to where the fleet was going or what they were doing. The resurrection of Starbuck with no explanation is the ultimate proof of Moore’s rudderless, half-baked theologizing under the guise of science fiction. It’s one thing to engage in world-building, but quite another to betray your audience by making them feel cheated by failing to answer questions that you’ve dangled in front of them all along. Many fans compare the underwhelming series finale to that of Lost, another show that was much better at asking questions than it was at delivering satisfying payoffs.
I first tried watching this show during the platinum age of television back in the mid-2000’s. I ultimately gave it up because it was just too visual for me to follow. But I held out hope that one day, I might get it described. The Brits finally accommodated me, but I knew what I was in for. I was spoiled on the ending. Still, I wanted to make up my own mind. If anything, most fans have underplayed the idiocy of the final season and the finale.
Two spin-off series to BSG were attempted, Caprica and Blood and Chrome. Neither got very far, Moore having squandered his credibility with those whom he needed to entice for another investment. . Today, no one aside from diehard fans speaks much of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Meanwhile, the world waits with baited breath for season three of The Mandalorian.
Put that on your algae cracker and have a good crunch, Mr. Moore. You can digest it and shit it out, along with the hard fact that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the better series. It is certainly more padded, but it is more consistently entertaining and explores most of the same themes as BSG and does so more effectively.
So say we all, except certain fan boys masquerading as critics. Such as Alan Cylonwall.
Final tidbit. One quote you hear repeated again and again is, “All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.” Think that’s deep? Wrong. That quote was lifted from Peter Pan. Maybe the ending would have been more satisfying if the crew of the Galactica had wound up in Never Neverland.