Thursday, May 12, 2005

TV: Galactica for Grownups

I'm not the first person to say this, but it's worth saying again: Battlestar Galactica is not only the best science-fiction show on television but the best science-fiction show in years.

Now, I'm not one of those people who enjoy mocking the original series. I quite liked it. It was never possible to take it seriously, but it was possible to consume it like a handful of popcorn...and then move on to more substantive sources of entertainment. If the remake of Battlestar Galactica had been, well, a remake of Battlestar Galactica, I would've watched it and been content. There's nothing wrong with indulging in a little fluff, now and then.

That said, the original series is not a show I'd recommend for adults (who were not its intended audience anyway). It glossed over the disaster in the pilot episode, focusing instead on the plucky band of Colonial Warriors setting out on a journey toward Earth. An enormous amount of time was spent on kid-friendly plot diversions like games of Pyramid and teaching a robot dog tricks. The Cylons were never scary--in comparison to Star Trek: The Next Generation's Borg, the Cylons were as threatening as baby goats. In fact, we used to root for the Cylon underdogs because they were so bloody stupid. A reference in the new series to the first Cylons as "walking toasters" made me laugh out loud.

So imagine my surprise and delight to find that Sci-Fi Channel had unexpectedly broken its recent pattern, in which paranomal reality shows and dopey monster movies had become the stock-in-trade. The new Galactica is as dark, sexy and topical as its predecessor was light, sexless and indifferent to current events. The old Galactica was a live-action cartoon; the new one is a genuine drama, scary, tense and at times heart-wrenching. If it weren't for the character names and the shape of the Vipers, it would be hardly recognizable as a remake.

The reason this works, despite gimmicks like making Starbuck a woman, is that Battlestar Galactica is very much a post-9/11 drama, infused throughout with the sense of what it's like to have your civilization utterly changed in the course of a few hours. The characters are literally running for their lives, their existence reduced to a long, drawn-out forage for food, fuel and water occasionally punctuated by savage conflicts with a determined, dangerous enemy. (Let's face it, there never was anything light about how the colonists came to be out there looking for Earth.) The losses these people suffered and the struggle they face are palpable in every episode, sometimes implicitly stated and sometimes shown in a brush-stroke detail. We see survivors crowd into the Galactica's communications shack, desperately seeking lost loved-ones, tacking hundreds of photos of their friends and relatives all along a corridor; the president wonders how long it'll be before she grows tired of the only three outfits she has left to wear. The Galactica itself is old, on the verge of decommissioning at the time of the attack, stripped of some vital equipment and short on personnel; when it comes to maintenance, improvisation has become the order of the day.

Meanwhile, the characters are loaded down with the baggage they had before the Cylons attacked: President Roslin has breast cancer; Apollo hasn't suddenly lost his myriad self-doubts and disillusionments about his father; Adama still grieves the loss of his other son; and Starbuck's guilt over Zak Adama's death continues to fuel her recklessness. Gaius Baltar's many neuroses grow more painful every day, now that he can't salve them with multiple sex partners and heavy doses of publicity as he used to do back on Caprica.

And the Cylons have been imbued with some real menace. Their end-game is as yet unclear, they're sneaky, and much like our own real terrorists, they're embedded and mostly invisible among the general population. It's possible to fall in love with them and even to breed children with them, and at least some of them appear to be religious fanatics.

How can you not love this?

I'm thrilled at the differences, but there's one aspect of the old series that I was glad to see return: Richard Hatch. It's a near certainty that, without Hatch's efforts to keep the concept alive, the new series never would've happened. And his new character, Tom Zarek, possesses a moral ambiguity that's given Hatch an opportunity to do something he never was allowed to do in the original series: demonstrate that he can act.

I have only two minor complaints: That nobody seems to have noticed how astonishingly weird Baltar is and the similarity of the wardobe to 21st-century western fashions. Why Baltar wasn't the first person to be suspected of being a Cylon is simply inexplicable, just because his behavior is so off-the-wall, yet it never seems to have entered anyone's mind to question his human-ness. If nothing else, you'd think someone would wonder why he so often appears to be having sex with the air. And second, I get that there's a need to establish parallels between the colonists and earthly humans, but wouldn't you think that a human civilization that grew up on another planet a galaxy or two away might have invented something to wear other than business suits? I mean, come on, neckties?

But those are quibbles. This is one of the few television series I've ever seen in which characters' injuries, no matter how serious, aren't magically healed in the next week's episode. The series has raised questions about how to deal with betrayal and terrorism. It's delved into the treatment of detainees and privacy issues that subtly force one to think about the "Patriot Act." Politics hasn't been pushed aside in favor of survival, and as the characters lay groundwork for a new presidential campaign, the vultures are swooping around, struggling for a bite off what's left of colonial civilization. Bring on the swift-boat veterans.

This is Galactica for grown-ups, and that's a very good thing, because most of us who watched the original series now are quite grown up. I haven't felt this heady about a television show since Star Trek took on the Cold War and racial prejudice.


At 11:06 PM, Blogger Bobbie said...

Yes, the costuming does bother me, as do several other things. They communicate from ship to ship with telephones, that is one of my quibbles about the show. Ms. Helfer's wardrobe is another; it seems to come straight from Victoria's Secret.


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