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In Praise of Battlestar Galactica

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Jan. 10th, 2007 | 11:26 am

All images in this review are copyrighted material belonging to the Sci-Fi Channel (US) and Sky One, and are reproduced here for strictly non-profit making and critical purposes, and can be removed on request. There are also some minor spoilers in this article.

No, no, no… come back. You don’t understand. You really don’t. We are not talking about robot dogs. We are not talking about some lazy Star Wars rip off with Face from The A-Team. We are not even talking about the usual formulaic and hackneyed episodic America TV Sci-Fi this reviewer has spent too many wasted hours slumped in front of.

No… we are talking about the new Battlestar Galactica, a TV drama that can hold its own against any prestige production HBO or the BBC can produce. At its best, the new Galactica is the perfect marriage of human drama, social commentary, political allegory, taut action, blockbuster production values and soap opera. At its best, it is perfect and, so far, it has seldom been off-form.

Trailer for the original 2003 mini-series of Battlestar Galactica.

For those who are not familiar with either series, the plot effectively takes its cue from the Book of Exodus – a persecuted people are in flight from an oppressive military force, looking for sanctuary in a fabled holy land. The original series used this premise in quite a simple fashion, a fusing of late 70s trends – Buck Rogers, disco and Star Wars, so much so that George Lucas threatened legal action (Gloria Gaynor’s response is not recorded). It looked increasingly cheap as the series went on, it was cheery, and is best viewed as a ten year old after Grandstand on Saturday with the weekly treat of Fish and Chips.

Given that the first episode of the new series culminated in a suicide bomb attack in a scenario that was meant to clearly evoke the current situation in Iraq, it is safe to say that BBC 1’s prime time schedules will not be bothered by this latest, and best, in 70s nostalgia driven resurrections. Obviously, this could lead the show to accusations of sensationalism or pretentiousness, but such is the calibre of the script and the performances, the show carries off its narrative with conviction and without embarrassment (unlike so many of its Sci Fi compatriots).

The cast of the new Battlestar Galactica

Galactica succeeds in having a well developed set of characters to draw on, and is not afraid to wrong foot the audience, with major characters being offed if the plot requires it, without hesitation or concern for fickle audience recognition of characters. Meanwhile, characters glimpsed in the background occasionally come to the forefront, becoming major players in their own right. Galactica is truly an organic show – it grows according to the needs of the narrative or the whims of the scriptwriters, not according to actors' salaries or egos.

But what a cast… Edward James Olmas plays Admiral Adama, the most senior military figure left after the humans' planet is wiped out in a brilliantly realised nuclear apocalypse in the revival’s original mini-series (first shown in 2003). Possessing a pock-marked Easter Island face and the voice of Clint Eastwood, Olmas makes Adama a more fully-rounded character than the usual ‘military=fascist’ caricature that these programmes normally resort to. Adama has to lead the last vestiges of humanity in Dunkirk fashion towards a fabled planet called Earth. The fleet is an ill-sorted, ill-equiped mish-mash of ships, protected solely by the eponymous Battlestar Galactica, and Olmas is superb in conveying the tensions and dilemmas he faces by masterful command of minimalist gesture or a subtle emphasis on a line. Traditionally, sci-fi tends to resort to a clichéd grandstanding speech to signpost the plot or the allegory to a bovine audience a la Captain Kirk.

Olmas: Easter Island face, Clint Eastwood voice

Off-setting the solid-yet-conflicted authority of Adama, a whole host of characters revolve, putting different pressures and perceptions on humanity’s plight. We have Colonel Tigh, the flakey, alcoholic bosom buddy of Adama, played to fatally flawed perfection by Iain Duncan Smith look-a-likey Michael Hogan. Once the fleet is off and out of immediate danger, humanity demands democracy, and there is soon an elected president, former school teacher Laura Roslin, played by Oscar-winner Mary McDonnell. Roslin is effectively Nancy Pelosi before Nancy Pelosi, so liberal she makes Gore Vidal look like Peter Hitchens. This leads, somewhat inevitably, to tension between Adama and her, which forms the crux of the first two seasons (although Galactica wrong foots the audience as Roslin goes Billy Graham, causing all kinds of havoc and quandaries for the fleet).

Away from the higher elchelons, we have the military grunts; Apollo, the idealistic son of Adama; Starbuck (a woman in the new series) who’s the rebel of the series with baggage and attitude to boot; the compromised Chief Tyrol, who is the moral conscious of the fleet while also (in some ways) its Achilles' Heel.

So who are they running away from? Well, viewers of the original series will remember the iconic Cylons, who looked like the bastard lovechildren of Darth Vader and the car from Knight Rider. Well, they are still present and correct, but given an aerodynamic make over. To add to the series’ underlying feeling of threat, paranoia and persecution, some Cylons now also look like, and are virtually indistinguishable from, humans. Giving a Mephistophelian backdrop to the humans plight, is the stunning ‘Number 6’, played with coquettish sophistication by former model Tricia Helfer. She’s the malign Harvey in the life of dodgy scientist, Gaius Baltar, who is inadvertently responsible for leaking the defence secrets that resulted in the holocaust, which happens at the start of the series. Baltar is played by Brit actor James Callis, whose portrayal gets increasingly reminiscent of Tony Blair at his most oleaginous as he rises up the ladder in the new post-genocide order. The series toys with the idea that Baltar may be in fact mad, and that Number Six exists only in his head, a guilt driven psychological manifestation, which is played out in some genuinely funny and witty scenes, that offsets the general unrelenting seriousness of the show while still advancing the ongoing story.

Callis as the Blair-esque Baltar along with the Mephistophelian 6

Galactica has the good grace to credit its audience with a modicum of intelligence… the writers know we have seen this kind of thing before, and is also aware of all the other prime time quality dramas that captivate an audience, and they rightly take the line that just because you’re writing in a science fiction medium does not necessitate a slacking off of standards or an automatic contempt for the audience (which was the natural default position for the makers of the various Star Trek shows for the last five years of that franchise, as it slowly ground to an inglorious halt).

And it's not all Ingmar Bergman on the USS Enterprise. The action sequences are physical and gritty in the style of the Jason Bourne flims and 24, while space battles are wonderfully rendered, with mock ‘handycam’ direction, as if Tarantino were directing the last 20 minutes of The Return of the Jedi. This show really does have it all.

If one were to level a criticism at the show, it would be that it only fully rewards the loyal viewer. It’s a serial not a series, and to truly enjoy it you have to watch it right through. The quality is sufficiently high to immediately arrest the casual viewers, and the editing deftly weaves in past backstories and flashbacks to signpost some of the more obscure narrative for the less committed, but ultimately it is not enough to get the most out of this beautifully crafted programme. If you want to really enjoy the show, start at the beginning: the 2003 miniseries (which can be picked up on DVD for £5 at most HMVs and Virgin Megastores these days).

Trailer for Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica - minor spoilers.

The third season of the show has only just started broadcasting in the UK at 9pm on Tuesday evenings on Sky One. The first two episodes show no sign of the series losing its edge, its guts or its way, but reports from the US indicate that the series gets increasingly grim and bleak as it goes on, losing some of the aforementioned humour. This is a real shame and a risk if true, as any programme that takes itself relentlessly seriously runs the risk of ridicule – let’s hope that the show can, like its protagonists, hold onto its humanity as it truly boldy goes where no science fiction series has gone before.

Official sites:
Sky One's Official Battlestar Galactica microsite.
Sci- Fi Channel's (US) Battlestar Galactica page.

Unofficial sites:
Battlestar Wiki

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