Celebrating 10 Years of “Battlestar Galactica”
The 1990s were the heyday of science fiction television programming. The broad success of Star Trek: The Next Generation proved that there was a rabidly interested audience clambering for more programs in the genre. Furthermore, it proved a sci-fi program could succeed by being produced directly for syndication by the cable networks. Once cable networks realized that they could independently fund sci-fi programs which would draw a respectable viewing public to their channels, they leaped at the opportunity to capitalize on the success which Star Trek started. Sci-fi shows multiplied dramatically: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, Babylon 5, Farscape, The X-Files, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, a revival of The Outer Limits, Quantum Leap, Sliders, Earth: Final Conflict, Andromeda… the list goes on.
But by the turn of the century, television became a bit tired of sci-fi programming. Networks realized that the audience for those programs was too specific, and franchise fatigue also came into the picture. Star Trek, for all its brilliance, had run continuously from 1987 to 2005, often overlapping series. Shows started getting cancelled. TV had changed with the advent of reality shows, broader cultural shifts, and the devastation 9/11 caused in American culture. Sci-fi had trouble keeping up. The early 2000’s became a sci-fi wasteland, with very few serious programs running. Most channels shifted their genre programming towards fantasy, or lighter fare like Futurama, Eureka, Warehouse 13.
Then, a guy named Ronald D. Moore, a veteran of three Star Trek series, had a really good idea.
Moore had been a writer for The Next Generation, but had a much more prominent role on Deep Space Nine, overseeing a transition to a darker, more conflicted series that explored aspects of human life that did not fit well in Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a modernist utopia. Moore attempted to carry this work into Voyager, where a single ship stranded 70 years away from home had to survive alone. His grittier sensibilities didn’t play well on Voyager, though, and he quickly left. Nonetheless, he held on to his core concept: a group of humans totally cut off from all resources and fighting to survive.
And then, Ron Moore met Battlestar Galactica. And perhaps the greatest science fiction program of the 21st century was born.
The original Battlestar Galactica was created by Glen Larson in the late 1970’s, and was billed as a family sci-fi show that dealt with occasionally dark subject matter in light ways. Starring Lorne Greene, Richard Hatch, and Dirk Benedict, the show was often quite engaging. It told the story of a ragtag fleet of starships fleeing the destruction of their homes at the hand of the robotic Cylons, closing a thousand year long war. The show was boldly optimistic and uplifting, with noble characters who pursued the good of the fleet unswervingly. It seems somewhat cheesy to the modern viewer, but to many it retains the charm and optimism that turned it into a cult classic. The show was cancelled after only 1 season (though an attempted resurrection in the form of the awful Galactica 1980 did occur, much to the chagrin of all), but it left enough of a mark to still be a viable property 20 years later.
Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, pitched in the wake of September 11th and a number of failed attempts at sequels to the original, was something different from every sci-fi program which had come before. The plan was radical: Reboot the original series. Reinvent the characters. No Treknobabble. No one-off episodes. No idealized characters. The cinematography broke with traditional television norms. The scoring for the series had a unique sound based on ethnic instruments. The sets were expensive, and outdoor shoots were always on location. The Sci-Fi Channel even provided sufficient funding to create high-quality CGI that, usually, would not have been out of place in a pre-Avatar motion picture. But, most significantly, the story was deliberately serialized, and the characters were the central driving force of the drama. Moore’s writing staff built characters who were real people, not idealized Kirks and Picards. They were rich and textured in a way that other sci-fi shows had been unable to fully realize (Babylon 5 and Farscape excepting).
And the story was dark. An entire civilization is wiped out in the opening moments, victims of their own creations, the robotic Cylons. A rag-tag fleet of civilian ships, with the only remaining military vessel, Galactica, are forced to flee their ancestral homes in search of a new one. Along the way, they are forced to scrounge to survive. They are forced to make hard choices about leaving people behind in order to save the fleet. The civilian government clashes with the military command, and sometimes it isn’t pretty. And the show does what every great work of classical literature does – it asks what it means to be human: What responsibilities and rights does our humanity entail? It asks who we are, and it also asks why we are. It’s a show unafraid to genuinely embrace questions of spirituality and religion, and is so bold as to occasionally leave such questions to faith.
The cast of characters built by Moore were brought to life by a number of veteran actors, as well as relative newcomers, who universally demonstrated immense talent on Battlestar. Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell were specifically chosen for the leads roles of Commander William Adama and President Laura Roslin, though Moore never expected they would actually sign on for the show. Once those two actors came onboard, the rest fell into place. Katee Sackhoff was cast as Starbuck, now reimagined as a insubordinate, wise-ass Viper pilot with more than a few emotional scars. Jamie Bamber became Lee “Apollo” Adama, the morally upright, responsible, and compassionate estranged son of Commander Adama. James Callis brought a complex cocktail of humor and gravitas to Dr. Gaius Baltar, the man who inadvertently betrayed humanity, and is constantly being challenged to look beyond his own overriding self interest (and sex drive). Tricia Helfer redefined sexy as Number Six ( a subtle reference to Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner), a Cylon made to look… and feel… human.
For the entirety of its run, everything went well for Battlestar Galactica. The Sci-Fi Channel backed the show all the way. The critical reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The show quickly assumed a high place on the list of best television programs ever made. The third season saw some weak episodes, and the series finale was just as controversial as the end of Lost. Yet the show as a whole redefined science fiction television for a post-9/11 America, and at the same time represented the consummation of the promise of the 1990’s. Space opera style sci-fi had finally reached its full potential. It even spawned a spin-off series, Caprica, a high quality show that was cancelled too soon.
Last Sunday (December 8th) was the tenth anniversary of the premiere of the miniseries which acted as a pilot for the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series. It’s difficult to believe that so much time has gone by – but it’s more difficult to believe that it has not yet reached a broader audience, nor received the public accolades it deserves. It certainly jump-started a number of careers: Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, Tricia Helfer, Mary McDonnell, and a number of the minor actors had a jolt to their careers as a result of this show. Bear McCreary, the immensely talented composer of the show, has gone on to score some of the most popular shows on television (including The Walking Dead, which I find to be absolute drek, but has good music).
If you’ve never seen the show, go and watch it. If you don’t think you like sci-fi, go and watch it. You can find the entire series on Netflix and Hulu Plus. Start at the beginning and don’t stop until you see daybreak. It’ll be worth it.
“So say we all.”