This past weekend, I watched a fantastic four hours of television science fiction. The two-part miniseries had a tight plot, strong characters, an exciting script, good directing and good acting. As well, (and this is a rarity for television science fiction) the miniseries had an understanding of the physics involved in space travel and space combat. Trust me on that last point: I was watching this miniseries with Erin, a physicist as well as a poet, and she was happy to point out all of the cases where the movie-writers did it right for a change, and there were plenty of them.
The miniseries was entitled Battlestar Galactica.
Please don’t get the straight-jackets. Just hear me out.
Battlestar Galactica has something of a reputation, especially among those who follow science fiction only peripherally. The series, which ran on network television from 1978-1979 (followed by a truly atrocious sequel called Galactica 1980) was for some the epitome of cheesy science fiction, replete with bad special effects, funny looking monsters and hokey plots. I was six when Battlestar Galactica first came on and, although I was mesmerized by the flashy rocketing Vipers, I don’t remember enough of the series in order to defend it. It hasn’t been widely available in rerun or on DVD, either, and its reputation makes me leery of looking back to it after all these years.
But along comes Ron Moore, possibly the best writer of the Star Trek canon (with long experience in the best series under the Star Trek canon, Deep Space Nine), with a project to revive Battlestar Galactica. It will have the latest special effects; the hokey character names will be cleaned up (but still used — Captain Apollo becomes a call-sign, not an actual name), and he and the other people involved with this project will just run with the ball and see what sort of science fiction show they can produce.
And it helps that they start from a good foundation. Whatever the faults of the original Battlestar Galactica series, the broad strokes of its plot are sound. Consider: humanity is a space-faring species from an original, lost planet (not Earth). It’s billions were spread over twelve colony world until a terrible war with the artificially intelligent Cylons destroys all the worlds, leaving the rag-tag remains of the human race to meander across the galaxy, looking for the legendary “lost colony” (Earth).
From this you have your humans in crisis plots. You have people fighting each other for scarce resources, and trying to pull together to face a common enemy. It can be World War II all over again, or you can recreate the plight of the Donner Party. You have classic heroes and classic villains, all in space suit gear. There is plenty of material for a good writer to sink one’s teeth into.
Ron Moore does just that. The new miniseries takes this plot and tweaks it. The Cylons are now a force of robotic servants which rebelled against humanity and, after a long war, pulled back to their own area of space. The movie starts forty years later. The Cylons have changed; their newer models are now indistinguishable from human beings (and they seem to be expressing the first signs of emotion — and are not entirely sure what to make of this). Using their ability to infiltrate human society, the Cylons sabotage the colonies’ defence networks and launch a brutal attack which catches all the humans unawares. The twelve colony worlds are destroyed before the military has a chance to fire a shot.
Captain Adama, the commander of the Battlestar Galactica, finds that his ship is the last big vessel left to fight the Cylons. Although he has the advantage that his ship is so old (it being a valued living museum for its stellar service in the last war) that the Cylons are unable to corrupt its systems with their computer virus, he doesn’t have any ammunition. Meanwhile, the former Secretary of Education (and 43rd in line for the Presidency) finds herself the last member of the government still alive and entrusted with the job of rescuing the few remaining survivors from the thoroughly nuked homeworlds and salvaging something from the human race. Meanwhile, the Cylons continue to mop up, relentlessly driving the human race towards extinction. It all comes down to a final battle at the munitions dump of Ragnar Anchorage — literally the battle at the end of the world (see Ragnarok), and things look grim for our good heroes, but you know the script. That doesn’t make this movie less watchable.
Couple this solid action movie with realistic and quality special effects that acknowledge the science of what’s being done here, and you have a movie that’s gritty and more real than anything Star Trek is putting out these days. And although fans of the original Battlestar Galactica are still up in arms over this realistic reimaging, the result is something that’s not often seen in television science fiction. The show has echoes of Babylon 5, operating under the understanding that, as Douglas Adams so succinctly put it: space is very, very big.
The show also has incredible attention to detail. Not only are the little scientific elements right (conservation of momentum in space, the “whoosh” of passing spaceships that’s clearly more incidental music than sound travelling through the vacuum of space, the double-flash of atomic explosions, the very creepy effects of nuclear war, the list goes on), but writer Ron Moore paid homage to the original television series in a number of subtle ways. Battlestar Galactica itself looks similar to the original, and the old Viper fighters are clearly based on the original series. Tying the fact that these elements now look dated to us with the fact that, in this fictional universe, these elements are dated, is a stroke of genius.
Finally, there is the characterization. There are no bad apples, here; everyone seems on form and real, and the actors just lap it up. It helps that they have two Academy Award nominees on board (Edward James Olmos as Captain Adama and Mary McDonnell as President Roslin). Everybody has conflicts and everybody reacts in a very human manner. Captain Adama has strained relations with his son Lee (Captain Apollo); the executive officer is an alcoholic that’s buckling, but not breaking, under the strain. The new president does not want to be where she is, but is giving her all to lead her people to safety anyway. All of this is presented upon a backdrop of pure disaster, of self-sacrifice and desperate fear. A lot of good people die, and the mini-series makes it hard not to feel for them. Choices are made, including some bad ones, and everybody is forced to live with the consequences.
Even old Count Balthar, formerly the meglomaniac who sold the humans out to the Cylons, comes across as real, and quite conflicted (and, more importantly, very interesting). The new Doctor Balthar is still a sociopath, but one who was tricked into giving information to the Cylons and who now regrets it (albeit with a strong dose of “oh, God, I hope nobody finds out and kills me!”). He’s now on board Galactica, dealing with a guilt and a fear of being caught that’s driving him insane (along with what might be a Cylon implant giving him visions of the Cylon woman he betrayed the human race for). The bold strokes of the original series have been tightened, so that while we have heroes and villains, we don’t have angels and devils. Everything is imbued with an interesting shade of grey.
Then there are the new Cylons themselves. Their human form makes them more terrifying than the mechanical originals (though they too make welcome appearances in this mini-series), and the hint that they might be experiencing emotions for the first time (including regret), is a major step forward on the old Battlestar Galactica mythos and one which should bear considerable examination in subsequent episodes, should they come.
And they will come. As a backdoor pilot, Ron Moore’s little experiment seems to have worked. A new series has been commissioned, to air in 2005. Robert Hewitt Wolfe, one of the other good writers from the Deep Space Nine crew, is coming aboard. All of this is good news.
I used to worry, with the departure of :Angel:, that television was going to be getting stale after 2004. No longer. Mark my words, in 2005, Battlestar Galactica, along with the resurgent :doctor who:, will be the television show to watch that year. And it will be a very good year.
Doctor Who Lives
Yes, you heard me correct: :doctor who: is coming back. The BBC have confirmed production on a season of 13 hour-long episodes helmed by none other than award-winning writer Russell T. Davies. The lineup of writers is a veritable who’s-who of current top-rated BBC drama (and, incidentally, the top end of :doctor who: fandom).
The BBC have just announced that Christopher Eccleston will be the ninth actor to play the role of the Doctor on the television series. Christopher Eccleston is known as the star of the movie 28 Days and the ITV religious miniseries The Second Coming (a project written by Russell T. Davies himself). Other credits include a major role in the British series of Cracker, and an apperance in the David Cronenberg film eXistenZ.
Filming will soon be underway and the show could be on British television screens in January 2005.
Told you it will be a good year.