The New Yorker Magazine has posted up an essay regarding Galactica:
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
A battlestar is reborn.
by NANCY FRANKLIN
Issue of 2006-01-23Posted 2006-01-16
It’s easy for people who aren’t science- fiction enthusiasts to laugh at the genre—its earnestness, its lingo, its fans’ awestruck romance with the idea that God is in the details of equipment and uniforms and security codes and how many moons orbit Planet X and why it’s called Planet X in the first place. Does it have something to do with the number ten, or is it meant to be a leaning cross, or is it a reference to the mark on Captain Blah’s forehead in the second episode of the third season of “Star Bores”? (Usually, a writer’s answer to such questions is “I called it Planet X because I liked the name.”) Making fun of science fiction became even easier after William Shatner, in a 1986 “Saturday Night Live” sketch set at a “Star Trek” convention, exploded at fans who asked him insanely pointless questions, “Get a life!” At first, even civilians who had never owned a “Star Trek” trading card or a toy phaser were a little stunned by this slap at the faithful; it’s amazing that Shatner ever worked again after inflicting that Vulcan nerve pinch. But his admonition was eventually incorporated into the fans’ self-image; you see self-aware, amused references to it in sci-fi blogs when someone goes on about something in a way that he knows may brand him as a geek.
If you switch to the term “speculative fiction,” which many sci-fi writers prefer, the genre seems more interesting. In fact, the genre is so capacious that it’s not even very useful to call it a genre—at least, not as a put-down or a comment on its limitations. Stories that are geared to ask “What if?” and “What then?” and “Who are we?” and also have some life to them beyond the nuts and bolts of imagining an alternative reality are a genuine achievement. On the other hand, don’t feel bad if you don’t like watching shows filled with characters who have disturbingly shaped heads and faces. I myself am of the school that believes that frontal lobes belong inside the skull. I’m delighted when a character on TV has a brain—I just don’t want to see it.
The Sci Fi Channel, of course, is dedicated to what-if shows. For a number of years, it caught a lot of viewers in its net—viewers who would otherwise have swum right by—with “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” a clever series in which two robots and a guy watched terrible old sci-fi and horror movies and made rude and funny comments about the onscreen action. Now the network is extending its reach, with the success of its popular Friday-night lineup, starting at eight with “Stargate SG-1,” continuing with the spinoff “Stargate Atlantis,” and ending with “Battlestar Galactica.”
While the two “Stargates” are essentially adventure series (they double as employment schemes for the very attractive), “Battlestar Galactica,” which the producers describe as a “reimagining” of the short-lived late-seventies series of the same name, begins with apocalyptic disaster and involves the quest for a new home for mankind, or what’s left of it. This version of “Galactica” was developed by David Eick and Ronald D. Moore, a “Star Trek” veteran who worked on “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine,” and, briefly, “Voyager,” as well as on “Roswell,” a WB show about three teen-agers from outer space stranded here on Earth. The journey in “Battlestar Galactica” is born not of the urge to explore strange new worlds but of the need to survive; space isn’t the final frontier for these characters—it’s the last chance. And all because of those damn Cylons—robots created by man “to make life easier,” words on the screen tell us at the beginning of the four-hour miniseries that aired in late 2003, thirteen months before the series proper began, last January. These beings then waged war on their makers until, “after a long and bloody struggle,” an armistice was declared. In the four decades that followed, the Cylons never showed up for the annual keep-the-peace meetings; then one day, as the human envoy waits at a space station for his counterpart, in walks a vision of a soft-core porn star: she’s a tall, hyperblond sexpot in a tight red suit (the least revealing outfit we’ll ever see her in) and high-heeled boots, with a runway model’s stride, one foot petulantly plunking down directly in front of the other. “Are you alive?” she says, leaning toward the envoy and breathing hotly in his face. When he says, tremulously, “Yes,” she says, “Prove it,” and enlists him in a serious kiss. Seconds later, as we see from a vantage point far outside the space station, the station blows up. So much for diplomacy.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the galaxy, on board the Galactica, things are winding down. The ship, the last of the fleet that fought the war with the Cylons, is being decommissioned and turned into a museum, a relic of a long-ago war. In a ceremonial speech, its commander, William Adama (Edward James Olmos), departs from his text and talks about the high cost of wearing a uniform; sometimes it’s too high, he says, thinking of his son Zak, a military pilot who died a couple of years earlier, and of the even higher price that mankind has paid for playing God and inventing Cylons in the first place. On Galactica’s home planet, Caprica, a brilliant, sleazy computer scientist, Gaius Baltar (James Callis), has just found out that the woman he’s been sleeping with—who looks exactly like the woman in the space station—is a Cylon and has been using him to gain access to defense secrets. Shortly after Baltar—a genius but also a selfish twit, like “Lost in Space” ’s Dr. Smith to the nth power—realizes that he has played a crucial part in this nightmare, massive nuclear explosions occur all across the planet.
For further, excruciatingly detailed plot points, you can read the millions of words about the show that have been posted on the Web by fans of the old series, many of whom have invested tremendous emotional energy into deciding whether Moore’s version is good, bad, or acceptable on any level. Some fans, for example, were bothered by the fact that this version does not pick up where the last one left off; it starts all over from the beginning. And a couple of very important characters who were men in the first series are now women. But what interests people who normally don’t care about science fiction is how timely and resonant the show is, bringing into play religion and religious fanaticism, global politics, terrorism, and questions about what it means to be human. (There are also a couple of funny jabs at the media, particularly at talk-show airheads who don’t, or can’t, distinguish between news and entertainment.) There’s no woozy space-aginess in the show, no theremin or symphonic music—the score consists mainly of taiko-inspired drumming, sometimes to the point of tedium, as if you were at a never-ending Iron John weekend. “Battlestar Galactica” is frank and graphic about sex and death. It’s not the kind of show where you find out after the fact that someone is pregnant and everyone is wondering whether the baby will be an alien; here, you see the baby being made. The central twist is that both the Cylons and the human beings they’re trying to kill are religious: the humans believe in gods, and the Cylons believe in God. In killing people, they think they’re doing God’s work. A wrinkle in that twist comes when the President (played by Mary McDonnell)—who arrived on board as a Cabinet secretary, forty-third in line for the Presidency and now in that job only because the forty-two ahead of her are dead—begins to believe that she is destined to lead the survivors to a promised land, and it’s not clear whether her visions are to be taken seriously or are side effects from a cancer treatment. You’re never quite sure yourself how much to invest in certain characters—will they turn out to be Cylons, or drug-addled wackos?
There have been a couple of good episodes focussing on the realities of being stuck in space—the need for water, and the need for fuel. The characters are well drawn and have unfolded in a way that could keep people watching for several more seasons. One of the fighter pilots, a hot shot named Kara Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), whose call sign is Starbuck, was engaged to Zak Adama. She’s a smart-mouthed tomboy, too—when she’s thrown in the brig for punching a colonel, she says she’s there for “striking a superior asshole,” and then smilingly admits that she’d been saving up that phrase. It takes a pleasant while before you learn how much more there is to her than her flygirl swagger. The story isn’t ridiculous—something that viewers are on the lookout for in science fiction more than in any other genre—and it raises questions that nag at you in the same way that life on Earth does. “Battlestar Galactica,” refreshingly, is as real as science fiction gets.