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Thursday 6 October 2005

Battlestar Galactica: Season One:
Television's New Math

by Cynthia Ward

Executive Producers David Eick and Ronald D. Moore

Starring Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Tricia Helfer, Tahmoh Penikett, Grace Park

An Alchemical Transformation

When I heard Hollywood was remaking one of the cheesy 1970s' cheesiest TV shows, my eyes rolled so high, they almost popped out of my head. If remakes had descended to refashioning the world's most blatant Star Wars ripoff, then Hollywood had run out of barrel bottom, and started scraping dirt.

But: "The Battlestar Galactica pilot is surprisingly good," the SF writer Thomas Marcinko told my partner and me. "In fact, it's excellent" — and he pressed the miniseries DVD into our hands. "You'll see."

My partner and I were exhausted, so "We'll only watch an hour," we agreed, sure we wouldn't finish that first hour.

We watched the whole three hours in one sitting.

With 2003's Battlestar Galactica: Miniseries, Executive Producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick performed an amazing alchemy, turning cheese to gold. They thought through the implications of a robot terrorist attack that puts the human race only 50,000 lives from extinction, and they avoided trivializing terrorism. They replaced the 1978 series' simplistic, racially-dubious morality (good cowboys/flyboys vs. evil Indians/robots) with the moral complexities of real life, and they deepened the characters, mixing great heroism with personal weaknesses that could doom humanity.

And, in a television first, the miniseries' creators extrapolated the Cylon robots' revolt with the classic rigor of print SF. As the Cylon space fleet tracks down humanity's last survivors, Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos) doesn't dream up some new, physically impossible space-battle maneuver that whisks millions to safety. Engineers wring no miraculous last-minute burst of energy from their tylium fuel. Science genius Gaius Baltar (James Callis) doesn't whip some wondrous new teleporter, photon super-torpedo, or nanotech Cylon-disassembler out of his butt. A small two-pilot spacecraft rescuing humans from a nuked planet must, because of strict weight limits, leave most of the refugees, and one pilot, to die.

In short, the creators of Battlestar Galactica: Miniseries achieved a second TV first: they extrapolated with the merciless logic of Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations." The characters in the miniseries face horrifying dilemmas that allow no good choices.

This pitiless logic continues in Battlestar Galactica: Season One.


La Belle Series Sans Merci

In Season One's first episode, the deserving Hugo Award winner "33", Cylon basestars and warships appear every thirty-three minutes to attack the humans' small, desperate fleet. One human ship disappears — but eventually reappears. Did the Olympic Carrier experience FTL engine trouble, or a Cylon takeover? This isn't easy to determine, because the newest, self-created Cylon models look and feel human, with at least one model programmed to think it is human. The refugees don't know how to sort human from Cylon. Should the Olympic Carrier be welcomed like the prodigal son, at the risk of Cylons annihilating the last 50,000 humans? Or should this civilian passenger ship be destroyed, at the risk of massacring 1,345 innocent humans?

Commander Adama and President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) make the decision to destroy the Olympic Carrier; the leader of the Viper fighter pilots, Captain Lee "Apollo" Adama (Jamie Bamber), makes the decision to obey the order. And the knowledge that he may have cold-bloodedly killed over a thousand people haunts Lee. Should he "take responsibility for his actions, right or wrong," and get over it, as his father and commander, William Adama, advises? Or should he, as President Roslin counsels, appear perfectly confident that he did the right thing, but remember and learn from his mistakes?

The cold equations of brutally-necessary choices and inevitable consequences affect all the characters. The best fighter pilot, Lieutenant Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), chooses to obey the order to torture a human-seeming Cylon, in an attempt to extract the location of a nuke, which the Cylon claims to have hidden in the human fleet and programmed to go off in mere hours. The Cylon suffers pain, as any tortured human would, and believes sincerely in God (the Cylons are devout monotheists; the humans are polytheists). Starbuck leads the Cylon to doubt in his salvation, but he plants doubt in her mind about her Gods and the nature of the soul.

The choices and their costs are probably best represented by Laura Roslin. A minor cabinet member (Secretary of Education) until the Cylons eliminated the president of humanity's twelve Colony worlds and the forty-odd other officials preceding her in the line of succession, Roslin was sworn in as president during the miniseries. She is viewed as a naive school-teacher by Commander Adama and his second-in-command, Colonel Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan).

They are mistaken. Roslin is a shrewd and sophisticated politician, idealistic and inspirational, yet expert in the Machiavellian manipulation, dissembling, and backstabbing of Realpolitik (you'd swear BG's producers abducted the better writers from The West Wing). After a dangerous political foe (a recently-freed prisoner who may be a noble freedom-fighter, or a terrorist plotting more deadly violence against his human opponents) forces a new election, Roslin changes vice-presidential candidates. She replaces the more qualified candidate, who is her old friend and most loyal ally, with the inexperienced, arrogant, charismatic, and popular Dr. Gaius Baltar, because he's the best choice to win. Yet her choice of the weak, possibly delusional Baltar — the traitor who enabled the near-total genocide of humanity — will surely cost the humans dearly.

Roslin makes other difficult choices with grave consequences. She chooses to avoid eroding humankind's remaining hope by keeping secret her inoperable breast cancer, which gives her less than six months to live. But, because it's too late for conventional therapies to save her, she begins taking a controversial herb. This treatment causes hallucinations. They turn out to be prescient. Roslin consults the fleet's high priestess, and learns that her visions, illness, and impending death seem to fulfill an old, shockingly clear prophecy. It's a prophecy with which Roslin was previously unfamiliar, and it describes a Moses-like leader with a wasting illness, who will lead humanity to the Gods' planet, Kobol, and then, though she will not herself enter it, to the Promised Land: the mythic, lost thirteenth colony of Earth.

In the pilot, Commander Adama rallied the remnants of humanity by announcing that they would find Earth. However, neither Adama nor the president believed Earth existed. But when a planet greatly resembling lost Kobol is discovered, President Roslin makes her most momentous decision. She decides she is carrying out the Gods' will. As a result, she manipulates Starbuck into disobeying orders and taking off in the fleet's recently-captured Cylon flyer. Starbuck jumps across the light-years to Caprica — the former capital-world of the Colonies, nuked and overrun by Cylons — in search of an artifact, the "Arrow of Apollo," which, according to prophesy, will lead humanity to Earth. Sending Starbuck to Cylon Central endangers the human fleet, and precipitates a military coup that results in Roslin's incarceration and Commander Adama's perhaps-fatal incapacitation.

The cold equations of Battlestar Galactica: Season One permit no easy choices, have severe consequences, and raise serious questions. Is it permissible to lie, if a lie may be humanity's only hope? Should a loyal ally be sacrificed to political expediency? If the president isn't elected, is the government legitimate? Is martial law ever justified? Should personal feelings override group safety, or is the group always more important than the individual? Is it okay to negotiate with terrorists? Is terrorism ever justified? Is torture permissible when the survival of the entire human race is at stake? Should you tell people that some foes are indistinguishable from friends? Should you share this knowledge when you don't know how to sort human from Cylon — and when sharing will lead to paranoia, witch hunts, murder, the breakdown of society, perhaps even extinction?

Among the questions raised by the series are the biggest: If a leader makes her decisions based on religious beliefs or visions, is she crazy, or doing the right thing? Does a supreme being act in human affairs? Is there a God? If robots share every trait of their human creators, are they truly any different from humans? Do only humans have souls? What makes a human, human?

Battlestar Galactica: Season One offers no clear-cut answers. Morality remains conditional, complex, uncertain. It's left to us, the viewers, to decide whether each character's decisions and actions are right or wrong. In this, BG resembles no other genre television show, past or present, and few non-genre shows of any season.

As in The Sopranos, The West Wing, and Nip/Tuck, the problems and crises in Battlestar Galactica: Season One are as complex and demanding as those in a great novel, in or out of genre. And the characters attempting to solve those dilemmas are as complicated and flawed as the characters of a great novel. But the show's biggest questions — about God, faith, the soul, and the nature of humanity — are asked by relatively few novels, and no other TV show.

And as it incisively explores our most vital questions and concerns, Battlestar Galactica becomes not only the best SF TV show ever, but the best show on TV.


DVD Extras

The DVD box set (Universal, 2005) collects all thirteen Season One episodes of Battlestar Galactica, with the three-hour miniseries that preceded it (you needn't buy the separately available miniseries DVD). Miniseries and episodes are in anamorphic widescreen. The miniseries has commentary by Executive Producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick and Director Michael Rymer. Nine episodes have commentary by all three, by Moore and Eick, or by mastermind Moore alone. Disk 5 includes scenes deleted from the episodes; they generally provide additional insight into the characters and stories (though you'll be glad that the scenes with the annoying wiseass brat, Boxy, were deleted).

Additional bonus material consists of "Sketches and Art" (including photos and short videos); "Battlestar Galactica: The Series Lowdown"; and eight "Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes." Like the commentary, the features are interesting; they provide additional insight into the miniseries and Season One, and will be of especial value to anyone hoping to write scripts, act, direct, do special effects, etc. However, fans of print SF will be infuriated by the featurette "From Miniseries to Series," which condescendingly discusses introducing people-centered, realistic drama to "sci-fi." And, while the "Epilogue" is a little puffy about how everyone just totally loves working with everyone else, you know the actors aren't exaggerating when they express their joy in playing such wonderful characters.

© 2005 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.