Friday, March 04, 2005

Battlestar Galactica (The Sci-Fi Series)

My tastes for science-fiction have always been fringe to moderate at best. I know way too much about Star Wars -- including terminology and the most random of character names -- but aside from a handful of Star Trek: TNG episodes, my interest in the genre is quite limited. The new Sci-Fi Network re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica, however, has shaken off the sterile, formula-driven remnants of the Star Trek franchise to emerge as one of the best secrets in television.

Not science fiction television. All of television.

The original Battlestar Galactica was just slightly before my time, but its reputation as a hokey Star Wars bandwagon-jumper with little dramatic substance is well known. The new dramatic series, spawned from the tremendously popular 2003 mini-series by the same creators and cast, is a dark, gritty exploration of characters that are far from the traditional sci-fi archetypes of good and evil.

The original Cylon infantry robot has been given a digital makeover in the new series.

In the new series, Cylons -- the race of living cyborgs intent on wiping out humanity -- were created by man as slave laborers. 40 years after a long war between man and machine which began when the Cylons rose up against their masters, the machines returned in a devastating sneak attack that destroyed the 12 colonies of humanity. Only 50,000 survived, and they banded together with the warship Galactica to flee their pursuers as they search for the mythical 13th colony -- Earth. (Cue shocking sound effect).

The re-imagining is just what it sounds like. The premise is roughly the same as the original, and most of the characters are back (if only by name), but the show is clearly informed by our current post-9/11 cultural climate. The survivors' shock over a surprise attack that shattered their self-absorbed tranquility as well as their perception of reality is almost painfully reminiscent of the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of 2001.

In yet another tie to our current global climate, a wave of paranoia sets in when the population learns that Cylons can take human form in an effort to sabotage the fleet's escape. Suspicion abounds as no one is safe from accusations of conspiracy with the enemy. If that weren't enough, the Cylons themselves frequently speak of carrying out "God's will" in their war to eliminate humanity from the universe, and claim to return to this central, omniscient intelligence upon death (which often comes in the form of suicide attack).

While the premise and overarching plot exploit our emotional ties to the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath, BSG's characters do not exist because of this situation, but rather in spite of it. They are real people who struggle with feelings of love, of fear, of anger and guilt. In some episodes it's almost easy to forget the circumstances of the drama being played out on screen. The series is a somber, dramatic character study that happens to occur in space.

Olmos plays the stoic but tortured Commander Adama, leading the last of humanity in the search for a new home.

The spectacular cast of unknowns is anchored by two famous faces, including James Edward Olmos (the strong but tortured Commander of Galactica) and Mary McDonnell (the determined but comforting Colonial President by succession). The other actors, while unrecognizable, do a tremendous job tapping into the emotional underpinning of our post-9/11 consciousness.

Battlestar Galactica surely holds the prize as the closest any science fiction has come to cinéma vérité. Shot in a documentary-style with handheld and stationary cameras, all shots can be accounted for in the universe of the show. The gritty production look is enhanced by shooting with (simulated) available light. The absence of sweeping camera movement and high-key lighting help ground the science fiction setting in a believable reality.

The irony that a drama with such a surreal setting can often seem more honest than other shows about doctors and lawyers is easy to disregard. The truth, however, is that Battlestar Galactica is no longer just for the geeky. It is, in my opinion, one of the very best dramas in an otherwise mediocre television season.

The 2003 mini-series is available on DVD now, and new episodes of the series premiere every Friday night on the Sci-Fi network.