I have become a Battlestar Galactica evangelist. In the past couple of months, I have pressed the season 1 DVD set upon half a dozen people. Several are now fans, and the others are at least interested. I would like to convert even more. Thus this blog post.
At first blush, it seems absurd to suggest that anyone should spend precious time watching a remake of a cheesy 1970s television show with Mormon themes. Assurances that “it’s not like the original” and “it’s really good” don’t carry much weight because, after all, it is based on the old show. It has the same name and many of the same characters. It even has robots with shifty red visor eyes. Why would artists with real talent associate themselves with this silliness?
That was my thinking, anyway. And that’s why it took me so fracking long to actually sit down and watch the show. Time went by, and now and then I would hear someone say they were watching it, it was really good, it wasn’t like the original, etc. And each time I would have the same doubts. But they got weaker each time.
One Friday evening I reached the interest threshold and turned on the TV to sample the show. It was the season 1 episode “Act of Contrition“. I had missed the first 20 minutes, but quickly gleaned that Starbuck was working out some Issues, Mary McDonnell was very sick, and the camera work was jittery and showy and at times very reminiscent of Firefly. (I have since learned that this was no coincidence or unacknowledged borrowing; the visual effects supervisor on Battlestar Galactica was told to emulate the work done on Firefly. See this article for details.) I thought, “This is better than I expected,” but I wasn’t bowled over by it. It had style, it was intriguing, but the writing seemed a little obvious, and the derivative elements bothered me a little.
Some time later, I was invited to watch the 2003 miniseries with some friends. This time, I saw the entire thing, and there was a lot more of it. While I wouldn’t say I was in love yet, I was impressed, particularly by the mournful depiction of the demise of most of the human race. The show wasn’t about thrills and yee-haw explosions. (Though of course there were some of both.) It was serious business.
Finally, in September, the first season DVD set was released, and after seeing only a couple of episodes I bought a copy for myself. And that’s when I fell down the rabbit hole. Within a week, I had watched the entire set. Learning that the first half of season 2 had already aired, I resorted to downloading and within another week, I had seen all the existing episodes. Then my conversion campaign began.
During the conversion process, I do tell people that it’s not like the original, it’s really good, etc. But I also like to mention a few other things.
1. The show is extremely relevant to today’s events. The miniseries (filmed in 2003) is full of references to 9/11. The ongoing series moves on to explore the boundary between just rule and tyranny, the importance of democratic principles and civilian government in a time of war, and the difficulty of engaging with an implacable enemy without becoming utterly paranoid or losing one’s moral compass. It also portrays the military in an evenhanded way in a time when it would be easier to either valorize or demonize it. This is very thought-provoking and meaningful stuff in a time when we really need it.
2. The story is woven together with amazing skill. From the miniseries to now (the season 2 episode “Resurrection Ship, part 2” just aired), the overall plot has moved forward at a startling pace while numerous subplots have moved with it, all fluidly shifting places and balancing one another in a dance I have found truly mesmerizing. I read an article in the New York Times a few months ago about how television shows have developed over the past 20 years into an extremely complicated art form. Back in the ’70s, shows like Starsky and Hutch had very few ongoing story lines. They were pretty much the same show over and over again, with a single plot line dominating. Now, shows like The Sopranos have story arcs that develop over years, and single episodes can move 10 or 12 individual subplots along in the space of 50 minutes. While The Sopranos has given my mind plenty of workouts over the years, I think it has bogged down in all the details and lost its momentum. So far, Battlestar Galactica has both the complexity and the forward drive. This is what I couldn’t know from watching a single episode, or even the miniseries; you have to watch a number of episodes in a row to get it. Once you do, it’s an exhilarating ride.
3. The cast is a diverse and vibrant ensemble. One of the things I loved so much about Firefly was that the regular cast of nine had obvious chemistry and were a pleasure to watch interacting with one another. Battlestar Galactica has an even larger number of core characters, and while they don’t have quite the same level of spark and fun that Captain Tightpants & Co. had, they make up for it with the greater complexity and openness afforded by their larger numbers. I never know who is going to be interacting with whom from episode to episode, and I have been surprised many times by unexpected combinations of characters and how they work together. And I want to be clear: some of them really do make sparks. Starbuck and Apollo? Yowza!
Three is enough for now. If this hasn’t been enough to convert you, look forward to further persuasion as season 2 continues…