Note: Yes, I’m aware that this piece is over a month late from the real anniversary. Yes, the show technically started with the miniseries in 2003. No, I don’t care, because I couldn’t resist the chance to write about this wonderful series.
The Sopranos. Breaking Bad. The Wire. Mad Men. Lost. These five shows are frequently recurring talking points in the conversation about our “Golden Age of Television” in the new millennium for various reasons. Whether it is for Breaking Bad’s lead performance, The Sopranos’ impact on television, or Lost’s science fiction elusiveness, these shows have remained in the zeitgeist to varying degrees. It’s that last one that springs to my mind, because the same year that gave us Lost also brought the premiere of another sci-fi series: the Battlestar Galactica remake. Yet for whatever reason Battlestar never caught the same degree of cultural attention that Lost got when it deserved to receive just as much and even more.
The miniseries began the story on a high note the year before, but it was the 2004 series proper premiere, “33,” that really showed what creator Ronald D. Moore (he of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and currently Outlander) and his crew were capable of. While the original Galactica show from Glen A. Larson (who recently passed away on November 14. RIP) was mostly content with aping Star Wars, Moore took the basic premise of Larson’s creation and reimagined it with severely flawed characters and gritty realism, as well as a heavy helping of social commentary. “33” finds its characters exhausted and on the run from the Cylons, a race of robots that rebelled against the humans and nuked their home planet Caprica in the miniseries, leaving only the Galactica ship to stand against the relentless threat.
With episodes such as this and many others, the writers were willing to push this band of soldiers to the edge of their abilities and unafraid to take them to many psychologically uncomfortable places. Well-loved characters like Starbuck and General Adama delved into morally murky waters while generally unlikable ones such as Colonel Tigh and Gaius Baltar pulled off heroic feats. Sympathies were ever evolving and sometimes it only took an episode or two to change your opinion on a character, and never was this more apparent than in Gaius Baltar, arguably the most fascinating character in a show full of them (and some not so, like Helo and Anders). His slippery ways make the role an incredibly difficult one to get a read on, and although Katee Sackhoff and Edward James Olmos are more frequently lauded for their performances, it’s James Callis’ work that stands out as the most multi-layered in the grand scheme of things.
It helps that Baltar is often at the root of many of the show’s big storylines such as the nuclear holocaust that begins the story, as well as New Caprica and the ensuing trial. On top of the gripping storytelling that fused action with character development, Moore and his writers continued the science fiction tradition of rooting these stories in an allegory that reflects the state of our world. More than any other show on television in the last decade, Galactica is a work of entertainment that is as much based in science fiction as it is in post-9/11 America. With the planet Caprica standing in place for the World Trade Center, the show dives headlong into the xenophobia towards Cylons as well as the fear of sleeper agents. The enemy could be one of our closest friends and we wouldn’t know it until it was too late. Teasing out the hidden Cylon identities meant that the underlying tension of the show rarely subsided as we waited for the next one to “snap” and see the repercussions ripple throughout the story.
This didn’t shield the show and its creators from criticism over the direction of their vision. Among the more common points made by detractors was that the writers were essentially making it all up as they went along (what show isn’t?) and that certain developments weren’t well thought out in regards to prior events. Never did this argument become more prolific than with the three-part finale “Daybreak,” which remains among the more controversial and debated television finales to this day. There’s no middle ground when it came to audience reactions; either it was brilliant and altered how we view the series or it was a lousy copout that made the series look worse in retrospect.
IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE SHOW YET THEN DO SO AT THE FASTEST NOTICE BECAUSE MAJOR SPOILERS ARE TO FOLLOW
As someone who didn’t get to watch the show during its original broadcast and instead caught up with it on Netflix years later, I fall decidedly into the former camp. Viewing the show (or any show for that matter) through streaming is a decidedly different experience than spacing it out over weeks and years. Many ideas/themes that a show explores can become highlighted by back-to-back viewing, and one angle that caught my attention while watching Battlestar was the religious component woven into the plot and character ideologies. Over the course of its four seasons, Battlestar proved to be one of the few times where I encountered science fiction and religious themes coalescing together in harmony. The end game reveal that God really exists and has been nudging the pieces along rubbed many the wrong way, but for myself it actually strengthened the overall intent of the show.
Religion doesn’t often mesh well with science fiction because of its more fantastical qualities that go against scientific fact. But Battlestar Galactica never passed itself off as “hard” science fiction. In spite of its emphasis on realism (relatively speaking, given the killer robots), the show had always been more concerned with how an idea feels rather than how it works. To draw a comparison to Star Wars, the Force was much more mysterious and thought provoking as an energy force “that binds the galaxy together” rather than as midichlorians in the blood stream. Incurring divine intervention to bring our heroes to (our) Earth ultimately allowed Moore and his writers to make their most biting comment on humanity their last.
Both the humans and Cylons are inherently doomed races. The show’s propulsive yet grim tone sets this straight, where both sides rarely catch a clean break, usually because of their own faults. But the higher God of this universe, finding a messenger in Starbuck, finds forgiveness and gives (mostly) everyone a second chance to find peace on the new Earth. The story then takes an unexpected leap forward into the present time, revealing that this entire story took place hundreds of thousands of years ago. The concluding newsreel footage of real world robotic advancements makes the ultimate sobering point: humanity is doomed to repeat the past even as it seemingly moves forward. Fittingly, the last characters we see are the angelic forms of Caprica Six and Baltar, the two people who set the Galactica crew’s story in motion.
The wonders of this finale are in its ability to merge all of these threads together in a way that emphasizes their impact on each other. It manages to give the characters that we’ve grown deeply attached to through pain and heartbreak a well-deserved happy ending while still reflecting the darkness of our modern society. And it also manages to make that pointedly dark commentary through the combination of science fiction and religious themes that interwove and pushed against each other for four seasons and a miniseries. Whether Moore planned this conclusion from the beginning or not is irrelevant. Despite some hazy plot points, few shows were as thrilling, provocative, and compulsively watchable from moment to moment as Battlestar Galactica was. So say we all, ten years later.