Battlestar Galactica: Re-Imagining the Ragtag Fugitive Fleet
By John Sullivan
22 December 2003
The skeleton of the original Battlestar Galactica can be seen underneath the sleek skin of the Sci Fi Channel's new "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica miniseries. There are the relentless, mechanical Cylons, a devastating surprise attack, a handful of fleeing survivors and one last Battlestar with her fleet of Viper fighters. But ultimately, this isn't just an updated remake; it's an adaptation of the original material to a whole new purpose.
Many of the original show's visual elements are presented as leftovers from a "Cylon war" of a generation ago. But these Cylons don't just hate mankind because they're the bad guys. They're manmade machines gone out of control. In that former war, they were forced away, into deep space. Now, people are beginning to forget, asking why they must forego useful technologies. But wherever they went, the Cylons have evolved past the tinfoil suits of the original series. Some can perfectly impersonate humans. As this Galactica opens, they are returning to claim their birthright. Taking place over perhaps a day and a half, the four-hour miniseries deals solely with the Cylons' devastating assault on human civilization, and how a handful of survivors escape from the end of the world.
The producers of the new Galactica promised to explore the dramatic depths of a story originally more about action and adventure. They also made the rather bold claim that they were out to redefine television space opera. Did they succeed? This new Galactica may not be perfect, but succeed they did. Edward James Olmos, who plays Commander Adama, famously warned hardcore fans of the original not to watch the remake. And it's clear why. After seeing this version, you'll never be able to think of Battlestar Galactica in quite the same way again.
Galactica vs. Galactica
It says something about the human impulse to nostalgia that Battlestar Galactica has somehow become sacred in the 25 years since it originally aired. The series, an uneasy mix of Armageddon and swashbuckling space opera, with a bit of Mormon theology stirred in, started out strongly enough. But the demands of doing what amounted to Star Wars as a weekly TV show quickly overwhelmed it. Battlestar Galactica quickly sank, lasting a single season before giving way to the lower-budgeted Galactica: 1980 -- which not even two decades of nostalgic distance can beatify.
Through 25 years of litigation over ownership of the property, there had been attempts to mount a continuation of the series. These even included a quixotic effort by actor Richard Hatch, who had no rights to the show but seduced fans with a self-made trailer that toured SF conventions. Thus, when the Sci Fi Channel announced its "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica, it caught hell from fans. They savaged its female version of the cigar-chomping Starbuck. They derided the promised well-rounded characters as unheroic, PC weaklings. They mocked their more adult relationships, calling the show "Galactica 90210."
To be sure, this is a far cry from the original. The miniseries presents a very gritty take on the story. But then it's a story about the obliteration of the human race -- ten thousand 9-11's, all in a day. This Galactica is first and foremost about that event, and how it transforms the handful of survivors. It makes the original show's almost flippant use of holocaust as infantile fantasy, freeing its heroes to go have grand boys' adventures in space, seem almost obscene by comparison.
The Nuts and Bolts
But what is there about this Galactica that qualifies as reinvention of space opera? When describing what they wanted to do, the producers talked not about SF, but about war movies -- in particular Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. The intention was to strip away the clean, stylized feel of so much SF television in favor of a much more visceral experience.
The show achieves this in several ways. Actors don't just take positions on the set based on their importance and carefully trade lines. In a barracks card game, for example, the camera circles the action, with other lines running through the middle of a specific conversation between two characters across the table. The show's visual language also relies heavily on handheld shots. Cameras will pan between actors instead of cutting, occasionally with someone blocking the shot for a moment. It adds up to a very documentary feel that works well with the material.
The final product steps back from some of the more hardcore ideas about space sequences. There was talk, for instance, of eliminating "abstract" cameras. Every space shot would be from the POV of something actually in the scene, like a Viper's gun camera. The show ends up fudging that sometimes, but still goes to great lengths to create the feel of really being in space. Sometimes lighting is less than perfect, or a shot will begin wide, then zoom in on a tiny spacecraft as if the camera operator has just noticed it. Again, the overall effect is very convincing.
Most importantly, while heroism remains an important element of the story, the script isn't afraid to look unflinchingly into its dark heart. Characters survive largely by quickly learning to ditch the comforts of sentiment and make sometimes ruthless, but necessary choices. And one scene, in which a humanoid Cylon encounters her first human infant, recognizes its innocence and, knowing what's about to happen, offers her own kind of mercy, will make clear that you're not watching Star Trek anymore.
If there's a weakness here, its in pacing and editing. Given the more complex characters, establishing relationships and character backstories means a lot of unavoidable exposition up front. Also, in an effort to strip the show down to its barest essentials, the cuts sometimes seem to go a bit too far. In particular, the Cylons' motivations and guiding beliefs have become somewhat murky. But these are minor quibbles in an impressive achievement. Given the ambitious goals they set for themselves, and the flak they took at every step of the way, Galactica's cast and crew deserve credit. And, regardless of what you thought of the original show, the new Battlestar Galactica is well worth your time.
Copyright © 2003 John Sullivan
John Sullivan's life contains few fixed details, but he does write a lot, including coverage of SF films and television for the Sci-Fi Channel, and relies heavily on the beneficence of his lovely wife, Elisa.