Friday, July 30, 2010

Battlestar Galactica (2003) - Miniseries, parts 1 and 2

One of the consequences of both living without TV/cable for extended periods, and of having avoided serialized TV for so long because of it, is that I'll often discover I know way more about shows I've never watched than I ought to know. I can't even blame this on spoilers, really; it's more a matter of not knowing the significance of anything related to these shows, and as a result being unable to know when something is a big deal. The fog of time also clouds things, as one week's spoiler is the next week's calmly-accepted fact.

Battlestar Galactica is a show about which I know a lot of random, context-devoid facts. I've learned these things just from paying attention to the zeitgeist, as BSG is not a show I ever particularly fancied myself watching. See, I've never been a huge space-based sci-fi TV fan, it may shock you to learn. I have seen only a handful of out-of-order episodes of Star Trek and The Next Generation, for instance, and have never watched things like Farscape, Babylon 5Stargate SG-1/Atlantis, or any of the others except for Firefly. Even though I knew about the socio-political critiques BSG hid below its sci-fi surface, I couldn't seem to make myself care.

So perhaps it's slightly surprising that I enjoyed the three-hour miniseries/backdoor pilot as much as I did. And it was also surprising, to me, to witness as "big reveals" so many things I took for basic facts of the BSG world.

Yes, I know who at least a few of the surprise Cylons are, I know some details of what happens to these characters, and even a good deal about where the show ends up, due to how prevalent (and largely negative) reactions to the finale were. So it was very interesting for me to see where it all began. Or, at least, where it all began for this version; I've never watched the old series and have no intentions of doing so anytime soon.

The story -- for those of you who, like me, avoided this show for one reason or another -- is as follows: in the future, humans from the planet Kobol have split off into twelve "tribes" of colonists and founded the Twelve Colonies on planets in a distant star system. At some point, their endless fascination with technology led to the creation of the Cylons, a self-sufficient race of robots. The Cylons resented their subjugation to humans and fought back against them. After many years of bloody war, the two sides signed an armistice and the Cylons left for a world of their own. For forty years, the armistice seemed to hold, while secretly the Cylons created and evolved new models, virtually indistinguishable from humans. These new models infiltrated human institutions and prepared for the eventual destruction of the Twelve Colonies, the event which kicks the miniseries into motion.

During the prior Cylon war, humanity became somewhat technophobic, fearing the machines' ability to use networks and computers against them. During the forty years of peace, most have lost this fear, though some military men, such as Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos) of the Battlestar-class ship Galactica, remain suspicious. His suspicion pays off, however, when it appears that only his ship, partially decommissioned and turned into a museum, and a few far-flung smaller craft survive the Cylons' devastating attack on the Colonies.

Now, I know that this was probably always meant to be a back-door pilot for the series, which means that it doesn't entirely work as a stand-alone miniseries. There are far too many characters for that, and although there's enough material to color most of these characters and their relationships, it's clear these are just sketches of a larger, unfinished work. While the ending seems somewhat neat, a number of threads are left dangling in ways that lead inexorably towards the series. So it's difficult to evaluate this as anything other than an anticipation-builder for the show.

That said, many of the show's themes are already well-developed here. The humans' love/hate relationship with technology is apparent. All of the colonies and any ships with networked computing are easily destroyed by the Cylons, thanks to Number Six (Tricia Helfer) and her seduction of the most technology-friendly human, Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis). Yet, other ships are destroyed in subsequent Cylon attacks because they lack Faster-Than-Light technology and cannot "jump" out of the way.

There's also some interesting commentary about the dispute between the military and the civilian government. Secretary of Education Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), who was en route back to the central planet Caprica after helping dedicate the Galactica as a museum, becomes the by-default President when all 42 higher-ranking officials perish in the bombing of Caprica City. She's immediately forced to make tough decisions; she is the one who, ultimately, decides to condemn the refugee ships which cannot make the FTL jump. Her authority and military knowledge are questioned by Commander Adama, who refers to her a "schoolteacher", even when it's clear she's in the right. He eventually comes around, though he's still hesitant to accept her as his military superior. I'm certain this theme is explored further throughout the series.

Finally, the question of religion, which I know will later play a role in the ultimately-disappointing finale, is addressed on a few occasions. One Cylon (Callum Keith Rennie), left to wait on a planet that is literally destroying his "nervous" system, expresses his belief that God chose to give souls to the Cylons when humanity showed it no longer deserved them. Number Six also shows signs of religious fervor, while most of the humans seem to regard it as a mere formality or take comfort praying to "the Lords of Kobol" when confronted with death. All that aside, the theme is not yet developed so strongly as to yield much insight.

At any rate, BSG does seem to be a show I'll continue to watch. The seeds for thematic and character arcs are already firmly planted in this miniseries, and the characters are relatable and sympathetic enough (even if the Cylons are a little too purely evil at this point) to keep me interested. The three-hour runtime never felt like three hours, and if this level of engagement can be maintained, I've no doubt I'll want to burn through the series as quickly as I can. It will be interesting to see how the "spoilers" I already know will be revealed in real time. Expect, perhaps, an occasional update here on the subject, though I doubt I'll break things down by the episode or even by the disc.

Random Thoughts

  • I'm not sure where they found Katee Sackhoff, but she's quite a coup for the casting department. It's already tough to imagine anyone else playing this version of Starbuck, and I doubt there are many actresses in Sackhoff's mold just waiting around for jobs.
  • On the other hand, I didn't find Jamie Bamber (Lee Adama) terribly interesting to watch. Perhaps some of that blame lies with the character as written rather than the actor himself. Either way, I hope either his arc or his acting improves over the course of the series.
  • Not sure I dig this version of Number Six that lives inside of Gaius Baltar's head. She seems sort of like an easy plot device, though I realize she's not going anywhere. Guess I'll just have to get used to her.
  • I really dug Richard Gibbs's score throughout the show, and I understand that the regular composer for the series, Bear McCrary, is even better.
  • I've rambled enough. Shut up, J.J. ! (So say we all!)


  1. Katee Sackhoff was the best thing on the atrocious Bionic Woman remake.

    Many people seem to hate Jamie Bamber (Lee Adama)but I was never one of them.

    The head Six is certainly not going anywhere and plays a big role in making the finale disappointing.

    I don't remember thinking the Mini-series was all that good but it was filled with potential. It was a long time ago.

  2. I got past the issues I had with Jamie Bamber once they gave him a real story... the miniseries kind of just stuck him with a "DADDY ISSUES" plot that did him a disservice. I like where the character has gone from there.

    Yeah, I know the Head Six doesn't go anywhere. I'm in the second season now and I STILL find her to be one of the worst things about the show.

  3. The head six thing was kind of annoying but Baltar is one of the best characters on the show. It was very good of the writers to make him more of an unwilling dupe than just plain evil.