Friday, October 13

'Battlestar Galactica': Life, The Universe And Everything

Source: The Day

Chances are, unless you're a TV science-fiction freak - someone who can discern "Star Trek's" Vulcans from "Babylon 5's" Vorlons - the whole "Battlestar Galactica" juggernaut has passed you by faster than the Enterprise at warp speed with the Borg on its tail. You hear the words "spaceship," "alternative universe" and, heaven help us, "Cylons" (human-created robots who now want to exterminate their former masters) and your eyes glaze over like a Krispy Kreme.

But that's a big mistake. "Battlestar Galactica," the SciFi Channel cult hit that returned for its third season on Oct. 6, is so much more than the sum of its sci-fi parts, or its roots in the '70s-era series of the same name. By turns dark and brutal, reflective and triumphant, "Battlestar Galactica" has exploded space-opera expectations by digging into such topical issues as abortion, military prisoner abuse and, this season, suicide bombings. (And yes, it's the "good guys" - the humans - who deploy this against the Cylons.)

A moral ramrod like Captain Kirk might not approve, but that's what makes "Galactica" so compulsively watchable. It's complex and conflicted, and has proved strong enough to land a prestigious Peabody award earlier this year, alongside Martin Scorsese's Dylan documentary "No Direction Home"; "Bleak House"; and, well, "South Park."

The basic premise is simple, though informed by longstanding myths and legends. In some far corner of the universe, humans are living on a string of planets known as the Twelve Colonies, until the Cylons - the metallic robots meant to work for them - rebel, sparking a full-scale war. The Cylons ultimately retreat from human contact to someplace in the galaxy, agreeing to send an envoy to a neutral space station once a year for diplomatic purposes.

While the humans dutifully send their representative, the Cylons send no one - until 40 years after the war's end, at which point they've evolved into a new model that's even more bloodthirsty but has traded in its old look for one that's indistinguishable from humans.

Quickly, they kill the human diplomat, blow up the station and launch an all-out nuclear attack on the Twelve Colonies. Most humans perish, but nearly 50,000 manage to escape aboard the Battlestar Galactica - helmed by the stalwart William Adama (Edward James Olmos ) - or in a ragtag fleet of smaller ships accompanying it. They're on the run and on the hunt for a mythical 13th colony, Earth.

What's most striking about "Galactica" is the human interaction. In previous generations of science-fiction shows, they'd unite against a common enemy, but here they devolve into paranoia, scapegoating, violence, rancor and unresolved anger.

Some rally around former Secretary of Education Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), now president of the colonies as the highest-ranking surviving cabinet minister. Some in the military, such as second-in-command (and alcoholic) Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), want to dispense altogether with such constitutional niceties in a time of war.

Others, namely Gaius Baltar (James Callis ), are reeling with guilt from unwittingly helping the Cylons with their sneak attack - so much so that he may be hallucinating visits from a bombshell blonde Cylon, Number Six (Tricia Helfer). Maybe it's not a hallucination at all, but a Cylon chip implanted in his head. Or something else entirely.

Caught in the middle are, in Tigh's dismissive description of the civilian population, the "whiny, civvy crybabies," and soldiers such as Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), Karl "Helo" Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett) and Lee "Apollo" Adama (Jamie Bamber), who are sometimes torn between duty and morality.

At one point early in the series's run, Tigh angrily confronted a kid who's alone on the ship.

"Where's your mommy?" he barked.

"Dead. Where's yours?" came the terse reply.

As the old saying goes, the humans have met the enemy - and he is us.

The parallels to current world events are not accidental.

"When (the SciFi Channel) first called me, it was December 2001," recalls David Eick, who co-produces the series with "Star Trek" writing/producing alum Ronald Moore. "The wound (from Sept. 11, 2001) was really fresh. It was still the topic of the nightly newscast. It was impossible to do anything and not be informed by that. ... We weren't ripping from the headlines, like a Dick Wolf show, but it was more finding the best way to tell the story in a new way. And we kept finding ourselves feeling the fingers of contemporary social-political reality touching what we were attempting to do."

The basic "story," of course, was well-known to fans of the original series, which ran for a season in 1978 and returned as a short-lived sequel "Galactica 1980" in the spring of that year. In fact, writer-director Bryan Singer ("X-Men" ) once had been tapped to relaunch "Galactica," continuing the original story, but that deal fell through. By the time Eick got involved, it was felt a new approach was required.

"Our credo, going back to the first days, was that we were much more interested in an antagonist with a point of view, and a protagonist that's deeply flawed and more screwed up in the head than the bad guys," Eick says. "Great literature, films and storytelling have always used this approach, but it had become uncommon in science fiction, especially in TV science fiction. That's where it felt fresh. The idea was to approach the genre like you would approach a more sophisticated drama."

What's also striking about "Galactica" is that it takes place in a wide, empty universe where nothing exists but human and Cylon, twin images of each other locked in seeming perpetual struggle. "We were very clear with each other that (involving other alien forms) was one of the big no-nos," Eick explains. "Not that there's anything wrong with bumpy-headed aliens, but the other guys are doing that."

Eick says they've gotten no flak from delving head-first into current social issues, including religion, as the Cylons believe they're doing God's will in killing off humans and replacing them. "It's one of the advantages of science fiction: You can take religion, contemporary hot-button issues like abortion, torture and homosexuality, and, because you're in a science-fiction arena, it's allegorical. If they did that on 'The West Wing' you'd have all sorts of trouble. But (classic science-fiction writers) Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick - that's what they were doing, telling allegorical tales."

If the science-fiction genre offers allegorical cover, it also blinds viewers who might otherwise appreciate the series.

"Certain people aren't going to watch 'Battlestar Galactica,' no matter what they hear about it," Eick says. "It's unfortunate and frustrating. It narrows our audience in a way that feels like a missed opportunity. There's a whole swath of TV watchers - fans of 'The Sopranos,' '24' and 'Nip/Tuck' - who would dig 'Battlestar Galactica,' but they're not going to try it."

The situation is reminiscent of the mid-'90s Fox series "Space: Above and Beyond," which was created by "X-Files" writers Glen Morgan and James Wong, and dismissed by many as "'Top Gun' in space." The show was, in fact, a much more complicated tale of corporate and government corruption, but it lasted only one season.

By Cary Darling

Newshound: SciFi

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