David’s Favorite TV Series, #21: BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

Darker, more powerful, and more awesome than anyone had any right to expect, this space-set military drama boasts a gripping mythology, rip-roaring action, and characters worth getting deeply invested in.

You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore.

Episode after episode, the opening titles of Battlestar Galactica are the same: The Cylons were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan. This simple setup belies how complex the show, which debuted ten years ago this week, turned out to be.

Of course, the expectations were pretty low going in. When showrunner Ronald D. Moore sought to remake the “classic” 1970s series of the same name, he and his team took a number of risks: a dramatically darker tone and faster pace, a rooting in social commentary and allegory, not to mention re-building the former characters almost from scratch (even flipping genders, making the hot-headed pilot Starbuck a woman — which, as you can imagine, annoyed a not-insignificant portion of their potential audience.) But the series, which debuted with a four-hour “movie” to test the waters, captured the imagination almost immediately, and along with LOST rode the burgeoning wave of internet-based commentary to build its loyal following.

The series began with an attempted genocide. Humans, who populated the 12 colonies of Kobol — a distant star system, at an unspecified time — faced a sudden and devastating attack from the Cylons (a cybernetic race, some of whom appear indistinguishable from humans). Only a few tens of thousands survived, now on the run, and in search of a new home. But BSG, while science fiction, was actually much more of a space-set military drama, and managed to draw thought-provoking parallels to the War on Terror throughout its four-year run. The soldiers and government officials constantly wrestled with deep issues: Is it possible to stay on the moral high ground? How far would you go to protect your people — and, later, what is the fair cost of peace? As the plot twisted and the mythology built up, shades of grey were found in every heart, whether human or Cylon.

The characterizations were superb across the board. As William Adama, the stern but just commander of the Galactica (the only surviving warship after the attack, and only because it was just about to be decommissioned), Edward James Olmos gives a career performance, and he is matched beat for beat by Mary McDonnell’s President Roslin, the former Secretary of Education suddenly launched into leading a dwindling pocket of humanity. Their relationship begins contentiously, as her inexperience clashes with his gruff pragmatism, but it evolves into deep respect and maybe something more.

As the lead Viper pilots on the Galactica, the fierce and stubborn “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) and “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Bamber) — the Commander’s son — shoot down plenty of Cylon fighters in some incredibly exciting sequences, but quickly get drawn into the larger story: the search for the lost, perhaps mythical 13th colony (Earth?) and Starbuck’s growing role in the prophecies and scriptures that suddenly bear a surprising relevance. Dreams and visions play a large role in BSG, and the show as a whole has a heavy spiritual bend. On many occasions religion comes front and center, both for the polytheistic humans and fanatically devout — and monotheistic — Cylons.

And on that other side of the coin are perhaps the series’s best characters: the Cylon known only as Number Six (Tricia Helfer), a blonde bombshell who engrained herself quite literally into the psyche of human scientist — and accidental traitor — Gaius Baltar (James Callis, flat-out brilliant). Baltar, through his romantic entanglements with Six, is indirectly responsible for the near-extermination of the human race, and as one of the survivors aboard the Galactica he’s besieged both by guilt and by visions of Six, who appears at regular intervals as his subconscious, by turns taunting and dropping hints of things to come. But Gaius, being brilliant even without Six’s help, manages to turn almost every situation to his neurotic advantage, a strangely endearing and sympathetic (for the audience) thorn in the side of Adama and Roslin. He eventually goes too far, but the gods of Kobol — or the God of the Cylons — have other plans for him.

I’m attempting to avoid more deliberate spoilers because this is really an extraordinary show that any fan of genre television simply has to watch. It’s not perfect — a few episodes are certainly clunkers, and some plot threads lead to questionable places, including a deeply polarizing finale — but it’s a remarkable achievement at a time when serialized television wasn’t yet en vogue. Season 3, in particular, makes one bold storytelling choice after another, culminating in a thrilling finale (“Crossroads”) that brings together all the story threads and leaves us on an agonizing cliffhanger. With the show having already established that the “unique” Cylons — 12 in number — can be programmed to believe they themselves are human, the long-awaited reveal of “who are the Final Five Cylons?” is nothing short of devastating, and the most memorable twist in a series full of them.

The heavy spiritual overtones and long-running mysteries occasionally make it challenging viewing, but it’s challenging for all the best reasons. With a wide cast of characters (I haven’t even gotten to Helo, Boomer, Tyrol, or Michael Hogan’s curmudgeonly COLONEL TIGH) and shockingly-high-for-basic-cable production values — not to mention Bear McCreary’s rich and innovative score — Battlestar Galactica will hold up as a television milestone of the early century. But do not forget: “All of this has happened before…and all of it will happen again.”

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