Battlestar Galactica: Season 1

Battlestar GalacticaI used to wonder why there were no toilets in Star Trek. The crew of the Enterprise did many things, from negotiating alien diplomatic treaties to discovering new life forms to working out their own personal issues, but going to the bathroom never seemed to be something that concerned Captain Picard and his intrepid crew.  Or Kirk, Sisko, Janeway, and for the most part, Archer.  Instead the ships and vehicles of Star Trek were sterile, functional, and polished to a high-gloss shine, and never bothered with the more base human elements like waste excretion.  By contrast, Battlestar Galactica, and the starship central to the show that bears the same name, is full of bathrooms.  And that’s only the beginning.

It’s hard to review Battlestar Galactica without comparing it to other science fiction shows, since science fiction, like most forms of creativity, is inherently derivative.  Without Star Trek: The Next Generation there would be no Battlestar Galactica.  Without Star Wars to inject new life into the genre there would likely be no Next Generation. Without 2001: A Space Odyssey there would be no Star Wars or Alien. And so it goes, back to the original Battlestar Galactica from the 1970s, the original Dr. Who, the original Star Trek, Flash Gordon, Metropolis, and far back still to the ancient roots of storytelling when men first looked up at the sky and wondered what else could be out there.  But like all good science fiction, Battlestar Galactica injects its own life and creative spin on a tried and true scenario, and though the results so far are somewhat middling, the show does have promise and I am eager to see where it goes in Season 2.

Battlestar Galactica Adama

Commander Adama, showing off his cheerful side.

The basic gist of the storyline, as outlined in the title sequence of every episode, goes like this:  The Cylons were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan. When the show begins, the Cylons initiate said plan by laying waste to Caprica, the human homeworld, and the 12 planets that were colonized by humans.  Now the remnants of our race are left to struggle and survive in the midst of the vastness of space, a ragtag group of roughly 50,000 individuals spread out among several dozen spaceships.  The Cylons were designed to be artificial life forms, subservient to humans and useful for taking care of many aspects of life.  But in the decades since the Cylons broke away from humanity they have evolved and now appear to be some type of genetically engineered human/robot hybrids, many of whom look just like humans and who may or may not have infiltrated the surviving band of humans.  It’s an interesting scenario, though the are-you-human-or-are-you-Cylon concept wears thin fairly quickly. Fortunately healthy diversity of both characters and conflicts keeps things moving along at a brisk enough pace, even though the show often devolves into more of an explosion-filled daytime soap opera than I would prefer.

Battlestar Galactica, despite reportedly being made on the cheap, is an absolutely stunning realization of futuristic space life.  Everything has an incredible sense of palpable authenticity, from the small fighter craft to the massive lumbering cargo ships, and the set design looks concrete and functional.  The Millenium Falcon from Star Wars was famously described by Luke Skywalker as “a piece of junk,” but it was a spaceship with character and life.  Similarly, every inch of the Battlestar Galactica sets strive for that same level of realism, and when you see greasy mechanics struggling to overhaul a spaceship engine, a dirty mess hall with games of space poker going late at night, or a devastated planet with bombed-out buildings and hovels, it feels almost documentarian.  Space dogfights are exceptionally well done, and it’s a testament to how far CGI has come to be able to whip out scenes with dozens of ships blasting away at each other for a weekly serial show like this.

Battlestar Galactica Grace Park

Lt. Sharon "Boomer" Valerii, ready to kick some Cylon tail.

But for all the pomp and imagery of Battlestar Galactica, things are somewhat lacking in the character department, which sadly is where the real connection of a show like this has to be made with the audience. There are a handful of individuals we are supposed to care about, like plucky young fighter pilot Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), tough-as-nails Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos, standing and delivering like it’s going out of style) and his alcoholic sidekick Saul (Michael Hogan), empathetic but hard-nosed president Roslin (Mary McDonnell, using the same character notes Roland Emmerich gave her for Independence Day), Doc Baltar (James Callis), resident space hussy Number Six (Tricia Helfer), and a handful of others along for the ride too. But aside from a smattering of true character moments, most of the people here are window dressing who exist simply to ratchet up the dramatic tension.  Gruff old Commander Adama always does what has to be done…but what if thousands of lives hang in the balance?  What then? President Roslin has to maintain order, but what if people high up in the military might be (gasp!) Cylons!  What then? And Doc Baltar, an unstable man plagued by constant hallucinations of a Cylon temptress, almost becomes an exercise in self-parody by the end of the season when he is promoted to the role of vice president.  It’s as if no one around him has any idea he is not only wholly ineffective at his job, but entirely unstable and unreliable as a man.  And yet we are asked to believe his character trajectory in the same way that the action/drama show 24 asks us to believe that a president’s daughter can go from flunkie to Chief of Staff of the White House in the matter of a couple hours.

Battlestar Galactica Fleet

The visuals are amazing, particularly considering the tight constraints of a TV production schedule.

As I mentioned earlier, though, there are some genuine moments of engaging character struggles, such as when Starbuck is stranded on a planet and Adama wrestles with the question of whether saving one life is worth putting many other lives in danger.  But science fiction is best when it examines human issues or gives us a lens through which we may view the human condition. Spaceships, lasers, aliens, hyperdrives…it only works if we are invested in the characters and they are examining issues that speak to us in the here and now. And when characters are tackling issues in bathroom stalls, hallucinating every time they appear on screen, and sleeping with each other as often and as casually as they might play a game of cards it’s hard to identify with them and, by extension, the show itself. To be sure, Battlestar Galactica is visually arresting and a lot of fun to watch, especially the fast-paced space dogfights and nail-biting chases through the streets of Caprica. But I can’t help but get the feeling the show is also a vehicle simply for generating Nielsen ratings, with an onslaught of sleazy how-much-can-we-gat-away-with-on-TV sex scenes, constant faux-swearing (the word “frak,” a facepalm-inducing substitute for another four-letter word, is peppered liberally throughout each episode so much that it’s actually comical), and episodes that seem to be more about pushing the envelope of televised violence and CGI wizardry than actually giving me a real, substantive reason to watch.

There’s a reason Star Trek has no toilets: they did not serve the story. Sure it would have been kind of funny or realistic to see Riker walk out of the men’s room from time to time, but Gene Roddenberry and his cohorts never let those moments happen at the expense of the story.  Battlestar Galactica, with its constant effort to portray realistic outer space life, sacrifices characters on the altar of spectacle.  Not all the time, mind you, but often enough.  I am hopeful for Season 2, however, and I also have to consider that many shows spend the first season struggling to find their footing. The overall plot is fairly interesting, with the idea of humanity struggling against absolutely overpowering odds and a relentless enemy, but so far the show reminds me of a fireworks display on the 4th of July: an impressive cacophony of light and sound, but ultimately somewhat hollow.


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