Well I’ll Be Frakked (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New Starbuck)
The wife and I don’t watch too much TV these days. We decided, before we got married, to forego the modern “convenience” of cable television altogether. I’d been living without it for several years beforehand, as had she, so it didn’t make too much sense to get it simply because we were tying the knot. The only time we get to enjoy cable television is when we go visit our parents’, or when we stay in a hotel, during which we go on something of a coke binge — which keeps us satisfied until our next stay.
The only TV we watch is that which comes in DVD form, or occasionally, via YouTube. Which means that we’re always at least a season behind on the shows that we do watch, such as Lost, and are always clamoring for new shows to rent, add to our Netflix queue, borrow from friends, or simply buy outright. We tend to get a little obsessive, which is fairly easy to do when you’re watching TV on DVD. It’s easy to blow through four episodes in a single sitting, or through half a season if you have a free weekend, if the show is good.
Or, as is the case with the new Battlestar Galactica series, really damn good.
Now, I see that hand in the back, and the answer is “Yes.” I did indeed write a rather scathing indictment of the reimagined version of Battlestar Galactica when it debuted in December 2003 as a miniseries. But I’ll admit it: I was wrong. Maybe I let my nostalgic attachment to the original series, as slight an attachment as it might’ve been, get the better of me. Whatever the case, I was dead wrong. The new Battlestar Galactica is everything you can hope from a good TV show: well-made and well-acted, gripping, action-packed, dramatic, and relevant.
Any fan of sci-fi will tell you that the truly best sci-fi is that which roots its fantastic visions of the future in the here and now, that uses its imaginative characters to comment on universal human truths, that uses gadgets and depictions of technology as means to tell a good story and not as an end in and of themselves. Battlestar Galactica fits all of those.
Yes, it depicts a farflung, advanced human race that has mastered space travel, constructing giant spaceships that travel faster than the speed of light. And sure, there are cyborgs bent on destroying the human civilization. There are many things about Battlestar Galactica that are fairly standard trappings in sci-fi, cliches even. But that’s all they are: trappings, devices used to explore themes that are relevant to the here and now.
It’s impossible to watch Battlestar Galactica and not notice the cloud of 9/11 looming over it. Themes of terrorism seem to pop up every other episode, as do examinations of the costs and sacrifices of war, suicide bombings, torture, the greyness of wartime morality. All of this plays out episode after episode, in subject matter that can be found in today’s headlines. And then there are those episodes that touch on abortion, political corruption (including the possible manipulation of elections), cults of celebrity, the media, religious tensions, discrimination, and so on.
Thankfully, the episodes are saved from becoming too pedantic as they wrestle with such weighty matters by a number of things.
The show’s production values are nothing short of amazing. Everything has been thought out, right down to the last, seemingly-trivial detail. Like Firefly, Battlestar Galactica is all about realism when it comes to depicting life in space. Sure, there are some concessions such as artificial gravity and faster-than-light travel, but the depiction of space travel, and especially space combat, is quite novel and refreshing in this day and age of Star Wars simply because it’s at least somewhat plausible.
The sets look real, lived in, covered in grime, scratches, and rust. The humans in Battlestar Galactica use technology that is roughly on-par with our own, spaceships notwithstanding. No more fancy rayguns, no more super-advanced medical equipment, no holodeck. The fantastic setting is rooted in the here and now, which makes it easier for folks not too inclined towards sci-fi to swallow some of the more fantastical aspects.
The acting is also topnotch. And here again, I’ve done a complete 180 from my previous thoughts. In my original indictment, I criticized the new version of being, for lack of a better term, “mean”. Every character was made out to be some manner of jerk trying to give everyone else the cold shoulder, or so I thought. Rather than “mean”, I would use the word “flawed” to describe these characters.
I once read an anecdote concerning Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show for which I still have a great fondness. Apparently, an order came down from the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, that none of the show’s characters could display defects or flaws. Considering Roddenberry’s humanistic outlook, this makes sense. But it’s a death knell for good drama and good characters. Good drama requires conflict, be it internal or external. When you strip characters of their flaws and present them as something more akin to demi-gods with nary a flaw or weakness, you might get awe-inspiring visions of mankind’s potential, but you’ve lost out on any chance for solid drama.
And solid drama is something that Battlestar Galactica, with its flawed characters, has in spades. There are times when the characters’ flaws are perhaps milked a bit too much, when the inevitable personal clashes and heartache seem a bit too contrived, their only purpose to set up some “big revelation”. But the twists and turns, the defeats and triumphs, the lack of surety — all of these prove to be intensely gripping. The tension between father and son, officer and president, lover and ex-lover, betrayer and betrayed, these things make for great drama, and the cast is uniformly up to the task.
I’ve come to respect and admire Admiral Adama, his skepticism, weariness, and determination constantly at war with eachother (and how Edward James Olmos perfectly displays that burden). President Laura Roslin may have seemed like something of a milksop early on, but has become an enigma in her willingness to do great evil for a greater good. And though I initially despised Gaius Baltar, he’s become a favorite of ours, a perfect blend of Machiavellian sliminess, insane ravings, and almost slapstick-ish hilarity.
But thankfully, the focus isn’t on just the high and mighty. The rank and file characters, those who would be considered “red shirts” in any other series, are also given moments to shine. Characters such as Helo (my personal fave because of his loyalty and devotion), Chief Tyrol, Billy, and Cally. They’re not the marquee characters, but they’re just as important and their story arcs are often as moving and powerful, even moreso, than the “main” characters.
But as much as I love the characters, I’m glad the series doesn’t play it safe. I’m glad the show’s creators aren’t afraid to kill characters off, or at least leave them terribly scarred (physically, emotionally, and spiritually). That may sound sadistic, but again, it’s realistic. Nothing is safe and predictable, something that too much “entertainment” sells us. It is a challenge to us viewers, to keep us on our toes, and to draw us in even more closely to the characters and their plights, to mourn when they mourn, to celebrate when they celebrate, to bite our nails when they’re in harm’s way and there’s seemingly no way out.
All of this is to say, this is what great art does, and for all of its commercial finery, I wouldn’t hesitate to call Battlestar Galactica at least very good art, as it challenges, provokes, asks questions, compels those who see it to think, communicates truth, and is, of course, incredibly well-made.
And the fact that it has shiny, machine gun wielding robots, cyborgs, and space battles… well, that’s just the icing on the cake.