Sunday, October 7

Battling for Hearts And Minds in Space

source:The New York Sun

Whether or not one consumes movies and television shows vocationally, there's always a backlog to catch up on, and, as the end of any given year approaches, a modest sense of urgency can take hold. One Saturday night in December 2005, while in the throes of one of those year-end efforts, I rented two DVDs that, though much discussed, had eluded my Netflix queue. On the surface, the two films in question occupied polar extremes at either end of mainstream entertainment. Even before I pressed play on the first, I was sure it would demolish the second in the storytelling prizefight that choosing the two films in question had provoked.

The first contestant was Alexander Payne's "Sideways," a film that, it seemed, everyone had spent some portion of 2005 praising. The second was the three-hour pilot telefilm for the Sci-Fi Channel's "re-imagining" of "Battlestar Galactica," broadcast amid much hype and ludicrous-looking subway ads in December 2003.

It was no contest — and a surprise upset. When both discs were over, I realized that despite considerable skills and efforts put forth by Mr. Payne, his co-writer, Jim Taylor, and star Paul Giamatti, the latter's character, an obsessive, middle-aged, straight white male semi-alcoholic writer and critic — nearly my demographic twin — had failed to engage my empathy with anywhere near the intensity that I experienced watching a Nordic-featured infant euthanizing a genocidal religious zealot sex robot named Number Six, played by actress Tricia Helfer. Mr. Giamatti's desperation, loneliness, and anger I saw and I understood. Six's peculiar mixture of ardor, evangelism, and anxiety, I felt, and felt deeply.

It's always a slippery rhetorical slope to define something by what it is not. But "Battlestar Galactica" has two antecedents that are simply too relevant to ignore. The first is the original "Battlestar Galactica," a 1978 attempt by television producer Glen Larson to cash in on the big-screen popularity of "Star Wars" with a small-screen aesthetic copy of George Lucas's box-office sensation. The show starred Lorne Greene as Admiral Adama, commander of the titular starship who is charged with leading the remnants of a human civilization that has been all but wiped out by robot aliens called Cylons to a safe haven. They were now beginning on a planet that legend said had spawned Adama's people: Earth. Mr. Larson was the creative force behind "Knight Rider," "The Fall Guy," and several other highly successful and less-than-challenging network programs. Outside of a nod to Mr. Larson's Mormon heritage, "Battlestar Galactica" did not represent a departure from his prior orthodoxy. The show's pastiche of cardboard characters, cute robots, and idiotic "alien" slang were the laughingstock of my schoolyard the morning after its ballyhooed Sunday night debut. As the series ground on into two full seasons, the show's lack of originality (Lucas Film and 20th Century Fox unsuccessfully sued for copyright infringement) and shameless recycling of special effects footage only added to its infamy.

The new "Battlestar Galactica," the brainchild of writers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, takes the bare bones of the original series premise and uses it to compellingly and meticulously explore how a society under siege preserves itself, and the corrosive pressure that preservation puts on individual beliefs and relationships. Messrs. Moore and Eick have remade the Cylons, which were portrayed as anonymous metal men on the original series, into a multiethnic race of clones who are both sensualists and religious zealots. As in the original, the Cylons' sneak attack sends Admiral Adama (played by the ageless, pockmarked, and gravelly voiced Edward James Olmos) and his fleet in search of Earth. But this time it also lands Adama on a personal and professional collision course with Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), a cabinet level education secretary promoted to president and commander in chief by the Cylon extermination of everyone above her in the political chain of command.

During the course of one 13-episode season and two more full 20-episode seasons, the new "Battlestar Galactica" has remained acutely of the moment. By dealing with civil liberties issues, the war on terror, presidential privilege, abortion, fear-mongering mass media, and religious hatred in a dramatic and sympathetically contextualized way, the show has presented cable audiences with a more honest and emotional accounting of the human needs and choices behind these grave issues than either CNN or FOX.

While the characters on the show see themselves as freedom fighters, martyrs, heroes, villains, and saviors of humanity, their realistically self-destructive actions always argue otherwise. Everyone on "Galactica," including the robots, is a deeply flawed human accumulating new layers and new scars in each episode.

The other show the new "Battlestar Galactica" favorably does not resemble is "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the '80s "Star Trek" spin-off on which Mr. Moore began his writing and producing career. "New Generation" offered a sleek, soft-toned Enterprise that shepherded jump-suited purveyors of enlightenment and tolerance all over time and space. "Battlestar Galactica" imprisons a motley assortment of soldiers, refugees, quislings, and bureaucrats in an outdated interstellar aircraft carrier that escaped destruction simply because it was obsolescent. The only thing that the Galactica's dark, cramped passageways have room for, besides makeshift photo shrines to the dead, is a mammoth payload of emotional baggage shared by everyone on board.

The character tapestry that "Battlestar Galactica" wove during its first two seasons proved so richly textured that the Sci-Fi Channel aired "Webisodes" devoted to an otherwise unaccounted for story arc between seasons two and three. Beginning this Saturday night, the network will air what it describes as new "Battlestar" "minisodes" during prime time. At two-to-three minutes apiece, they might better be described as nanosodes, and, as they encompass backstory details for "Razor," a standalone two-hour "Galactica" dramatic digression to air in November, truth in advertising suggests that the word "trailer" or "preview" might be more representative. The minisodes will re-air on Sci Fi's Web site, and when the "Razor" telefilm comes to DVD, they will be part of the package.

For those of us who are irrevocably hooked on "Battlestar Galactica," the new minisodes won't just be an adventure in viral marketing, they'll be sweet relief. The series, which is expensive to produce and not the ratings bonanza that its producers hoped, is currently slated to conclude at the end of its fourth season next year. In the mean time, mini, Web, or otherwise, I'll take any kind of episode the "Battlestar Galactica" brain trust is willing to show me.

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