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Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Revising a Pseudo-Classic: The New Battlestar Galactica

The original Battlestar Galactica was a show with many faults, including uneven acting, gaping plot holes, and laughable science.

But the show had its merits, too, chiefly its premise, a science-fiction take on the old story of the Jewish Exodus, with a liberal dose of Erich Von Daniken's screwy "Ancient Astronauts" pop-mythology of the seventies. A thriving civilization is betrayed and ambushed by a terrifying enemy, and the devastated survivors are left with no choice but to flee, led by a visionary prophet (Adama) to some far-off promised land (Earth).

Having just re-watched the entire original series on DVD, I am more aware than ever of the grand potential of the show, a potential that never came close to being realized. There certainly were a number of good episodes, notably the original three-part pilot (much better than the whittled-down movie version most of us probably remember), "The Living Legend," in which the Galactica encounters another Battlestar, "The Gun on Ice Planet Zero," "War of the Gods," and the final episode, "The Hand of God."

The friendship between pilots Apollo (Richard Hatch), Starbuck (Dirk Benedict), and Boomer (Herb Jefferson, Jr.) is nicely developed, and I've been forced to reevaluate Dirk Benedict's skills; he clearly has a lot of charisma, great comic timing, and a better emotional range than I once gave him credit for. Herb Jefferson deserves a lot of credit, too; his Boomer is eminently likeable, and believable as a no-nonsense, if somewhat resigned, Viper pilot. Richard Hatch is a little wooden at times, but he certainly portrays Apollo's love for Serena and Boxey convincingly, and the depth of his grief (after the loss of his younger brother, and later Serena) is well-acted.

But while the show's creators were working hard to develop a larger mythology for Battlestar Galactica, their efforts were undercut by far too many "planet of the week" episodes, in which either Apollo or Starbuck crashed on some lost colony or other, which usually had a Wild West or medieval theme, almost certainly to make use of existing Universal sets and props. Episodes such as "The Young Lords," "The Magnificent Warriors," "Fire in Space," and "Greetings from Earth" are either ridiculous or mind-numbingly dull, and have done much to diminish this series' reputation. Maren Jensen's overwrought turn as Athena doesn't help, nor does the obnoxious robot dog, Muffit II. And the short-lived but disastrous follow-up series, Galactica 1980, with its flying motorcycles and tired "fish out of water" jokes, seemed certain to completely destroy any hope of redemption for the series.

The new version of Battlestar Galactica, then, comes as a pleasant surprise. While by no means perfect, it is certainly intriguing, and well worth a look for anyone who enjoyed Space: Above and Beyond, whose storytelling ethos it seems to most closely resemble.

In this retelling of the myth, the Cylons were not created by lizard-like aliens, but humans themselves, and some forty years before the events of the series, the Cylons turned on their human creators. (Obviously the Colonials hadn't been exposed to Earth fiction that could have warned them of this possibility, such as Demon Seed, Colossus, or the aforementioned Space: Above and Beyond.) The humans won the war, the Cylons retreated, and an uneasy peace was born. But as the series opens, the Cylons launch a sneak attack, using electronic counter-measures to disable almost all of the Colonial defences and lay waste to the twelve worlds of humanity. Even worse, there's a new model of Cylon, indistinguishable from human beings, and possessing incredible depths of passion and righteous anger. One of these Cylons, played by Edmontonian beauty Tricia Helfer, dupes one of the Colonies' leading scientists, Dr. Gaius Baltar, into handing over access to vital defence facilities. This time, Baltar isn't a diabolical traitor, but a selfish and arrogant fool, one so wrapped up in his own genius that he forgets his obligations to his fellow humans. Whether he'll grow up at some point in the series is an open question.

Of course, there's one ship that survives the initial assault: the Galactica, an old, worn-out hulk that's immune to the ECM weapons because her ancient technology isn't sophisticated enough to be vulnerable to such attacks. While the ship is full of computers, they aren't networked, and information is relayed from deck to deck by old-style telephone headsets and computer printouts. Very retro, and quite cool.

As the colonies burn - an event that is chillingly portrayed, and quite believable - the Galactica retreats to a human weapons depot, having no ammunition because of her imminent decommission. Meanwhile, human survivors are fleeing in whatever ships they can find, some with FTL drive, some without, which leads to a heartbreaking - and shocking - decision by the new Colonial President, formerly the Minister of Education, a woman so far down the line of succession she could never have dreamed of wielding such power.

In the original series, military authority was infallible, and the civilian Council of the Twelve was filled with buffoons. Thankfully, this time around there's a bit more balance; the civilian President and Commander Adama each have very difficult decisions to make, and they make them pragmatically. By the show's end, it's clear that while these two characters may butt heads, they share mutual respect, something quite lacking in the original show.

The new Apollo is pretty dry, but the new Starbuck - this time a woman - is delightful. Boomer, too, is a woman this time around, one with a shocking secret that promises to provide plenty of dramatic tension if the miniseries is turned into an ongoing series.

I also liked the focus on "lower decks" characters, the maintenance crews who make the hotshot antics of the pilots possible.

The special effects are as excellent as one expects these days, and the re-imagined starships are quite ingenious, particularly the living Cylon raiders. The FTL effect is pretty nifty, and the landing bays need to retract before the ship jumps, giving the Viper pilots plenty of incentive to get aboard before the train leaves the station, as it were.

In the final analysis, this new incarnation of Battlestar Galactica has as much or more potential as the original, and thus far much more of that potential has been realized. I hope that the show is picked up - it promises to be more entertaining, at least, than the current Star Trek series, Enterprise.

Much more.

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