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004: Battlestar Galactica

A deep-dive into the sci-fi TV series.

Jeremy Finch
Jeremy Finch
9 min read
004: Battlestar Galactica

Science fiction places familiar topics in unfamiliar settings so we see them from a new perspective. And uses this as a mirror to reflect our human shortcomings.

The reimagined Battlestar Galactica TV series excels on both counts. I will argue (at length) that this early-2000s space opera is more relevant today than ever.

drawing of Battlestar Galactica logo

Don't be put off by the spaceships, robots, naval motifs and the post-apocalyptic sci-fi survival storyline - BSG actually offers popular appeal.

It explores a timeless question:
“What does it mean to be human?”


Series background

BSG was a show in the 1970s that was revived in 2003 by Ron D Moore and David Eick. It ran for ~75 episodes until 2009. The reimagined version produced modest live TV ratings. But earned critical acclaim and a devoted fan base.


Caveats

BSG takes itself very seriously.

Brows are furrowed. Stiff upper lips are maintained. And dire messages are growled dramatically into PA systems!

BSG suffers from two weaknesses:  

  • The "religious mythology" went off the rails (seasons 3-4)
  • Melodrama can get tiring, when not balanced by comedy

Still, I think BSG's (many) strengths easily outweigh the shortcomings.


So, why does this series endure?  

  • Timeless themes, smart writing
  • Strong acting, good characters
  • Production value (on a budget)
drawing of the Battlestar Galactica ship


“Action stations, action stations”



⚠️
Spoilers below!

Begin jump prep.
Set condition three throughout the ship.


DRADIS GIF with "reason #1" drawon on top
part #1: enduring themes, smart writing


Plot: A sole-surviving military spaceship must protect the remaining ~50,000 human beings from a hoard of vicious, rebelling robots. The human planets are destroyed and the vengeful Cylons remain in close in pursuit.

Can the beleaguered human survivors unite under a common banner? Rebuild a semi-functioning society, while on the run? Survive in space?


The action appears to be set in the future, but we learn that it has taken place in our past. There is recurring tension between individual agency and cosmic destiny.

This has all happened before. It will all happen again.


At the end, one of the most stubborn characters (Lee Adama) reflects:

If there’s one thing we should have learned, it’s that our brains have always outraced our hearts. Our science charges ahead. Our souls lag behind. Let’s start anew."


Looping GIF: track where a brain "outraces" a heart


The Cylon storylines explore hard questions:

  • Should a sentient AI have rights or free-will?
  • Can robots “love” each other, humans or deities?
GIF of Cylon helmet with laser eyes


Ultimately, BSG tells a cautionary tale: Technological ambition comes with responsibilities and inherent risk. Many thinkers have pondered similar themes.


GIF of Jeff Goldbum's warning in Jurassic Park


That said, the show is only minimally about tech. In fact, most episodes explore human issues like relationships, love, work, race, and gender. Also: The black market, religious fundamentalism, and civilian-military government.


Various plotlines explore :

  • The rule of law, freedom, and security
  • Occupation, populism, and rebellion
  • War, peace, reconciliation

Heart and mind, science or ethics, can vs. should etc. All topics that humans continue to wrestle with today.


As Lee wonders in that finale episode:

If all of this has happened before, does it have to happen again?"
loop drawing (cycle)

reason #2
part 2: strong acting, 3D characters


Skilled actors can bring characters to life.

Over four seasons, we see characters grapple with difficult situations, confront core principles, and make painful mistakes. In the process, we see them as flawed, striving, and (somewhat?) relatable.


Gaius Baltar is a charismatic, cigar-smoking scientist. He repeatedly betrays humanity, putting his own egomaniacal interests above the greater good. At turns, Gaius becomes a Cylon collaborator, a savvy politician, the President, a war criminal, new-age cult leader and - eventually - the savior of humanity. He is a cowardly, hallucinating philanderer who seems to somehow fail upwards, accidentally saving all.


Laura Roslin, a former schoolteacher and the Secretary of Education, becomes President of the 12 Colonies after a nuclear attack kills everyone else in the line of succession. She is a dying, spiritual leader, acutely aware of her mortality - guided by drug-induced visions and an ancient prophecy. President Roslin makes some bad decisions, but turns out to be a mostly intuitive and strategic shepherd for humanity. McDonnell's performance is masterful.


Edward James Olmos plays Bill Adama, "the old man" at the helm. A gruff, principled leader - he's armored in stoicism, and willing to do anything to protect the fleet. Adama is stubborn and fearless: He kills Cylons with his bare hands, survives getting shot in the chest, and falls deeply in love with President Roslin. Every time he growls "begin jump prep" or "this is the Admiral speaking", I half-expect to hear Al Pacino's halftime speech from Any Given Sunday. Classic.


Every grizzled leader needs a smart, funny, insecure second-in-command. Saul Tigh is a bitter, one-eyed sci-fi pirate and BSG's Executive Officer. A hard-drinking sailor, Saul is a prickly and confrontational XO. Tigh stubbornly refuses to accept that he is anything less than 100% loyal to Galactica, even after finding out that he's a Cylon sleeper agent. I love it when he yells at Baltar. Tigh hates Gaius Baltar.


Katee Sackhoff plays Kara Thrace, a swashbuckling hothead and ace fighter pilot (call sign Starbuck) with a bad self-destructive streak. She drinks - and angrily punches a lot of people in the face. Later storylines paint her as humanity's "Harbinger of Death", but I see Starbuck as simply a bruised human. Searching for redemption, meaning, and love. Heart and soul of the show, in my opinion.


Alessandro Juliani plays Felix Gaeta, an ambitious junior officer in Galatica's bridge. Gaeta is a technologist and a loner - proud of his intelligence, loyal to the few who believe in him. Most (apart from Baltar) never seem to fully understand Gaeta's principles. He is betrayed and loses a leg. He ultimately takes a mutinous turn in revenge - leading to execution by firing squad. A devastating loss.


Lucy Lawless plays cunning humanoid Cylon Number Three (D'Anna). She's fully devoted to vanquishing humans. Later, she questions her faith (programming?) and rebels against her fellow Cylons. Cool, confident, and badass.


There were many other great characters (Zarek, Dee, Doc Cottle) - the list goes on.

Bonus mentions :


Romo Lampkin is a kleptomaniacal trial attorney and Gaius Baltar's public defender (while on trial for war crimes). Lampkin is an expert manipulator, an endearing cat-lover and (briefly) the final President of the 12 Colonies.

I also enjoyed the season two storyline where sad Lee Adama loses his mojo, gains weight and wallows in misery until finally snapping out of it. Jamie Bamber in a fat-suit (highly relatable).

Lastly, tip of the hat to John Hodgman - who wrote about BSG as a journalist and then finagled a (speaking) role as assistant to Doc Cottle. Well played, sir.




reason #3
part 3: "solid production value (on a budget)"


A few caveats...

  • Bear McCreary's score got distracting. I didn't like the patriotic "Titanic" theme or Gayatri Mantra song.
  • The intro montage spoilers felt gratuitous.
  • The shaky camera movements can get old.


From a business perspective, BSG was obviously not getting nine-figure FX budgets. In fact, this was way back in the old funding era of terrestrial TV.


drawing of a Colonial Viper ship

But BSG's modest budget is precisely why the new Cylons looked like humans. What started as a practical constraint turned out to be the key plot device that fueled everything. As the saying goes - if you can't fix it, feature it.


The locations and production design were also solid: Recognizable enough to suspend disbelief. A well-imagined sci-fi world has to make some sense (providing a few points of attachment). The characters mostly wear modern clothing, use familiar-ish technology, and speak minimal techno-jargon.

Endearing details: The non-gendered use of "Sir" and broadcast-appropriate "Frak".


drawing of a Cylon Raider


The art direction adds believability.
Parts of the CIC set were (apparently) pulled from a real decommissioned vessel.

As Hodgman writes:

The interior of the Battlestar Galactica is a warren of shadowy, angular hallways and spare functional chambers split over two sound stages situated on the semi-industrial fringe of Vancouver, British Columbia. The Galactica is a spaceship, but it does not feel particularly space-age. The communication panels on the walls were scavenged from a Canadian destroyer; the desk lamps are from IKEA."


Here, storytelling beats snazzy production value (no $100M+ budget necessary).

It’s no coincidence that, in the early episodes, the Battlestar survives a surprise Cylon attack mainly because it uses ancient, analog technologies aboard.

Sometimes the tried-and-true outperform the fancy and new.




What did you think?

If you're still reading, you probably watched it too. This is only one person's opinion.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.



📬
hi@thefirejar.com

"so say we all"

📚

Dwight Schrute, BSG fan
The original announcement post (2003)
"Ron Moore's Deep Space Journey"
"Space Opera Returns: One Last Step for Mankind"
"Better than The Wire?"
⭐️   Ronald D. Moore's "Series Bible"  ⭐️
Battlestar Galactica Wiki



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