Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur
jducoeur

Review: Battlestar Galactica (mild spoilers for the initial miniseries) (long)

Okay, I think I finally get it. I'm an easy touch: all a series needs to get my approval, really, is good writing. But the special series -- the ones that make me go "Wow" -- have something extra. And I think that something extra is a sense of mythology.

When I heard that they were doing a remake of the series Battlestar Galactica -- well, let's just say that my first reaction was not, "About time!" The original series never especially set my world on fire; I watched some episodes, missed others, and never really cared all that much. I was a mild fan of the comic book, which was decently fun and featured good Walt Simonson art, but it wasn't exactly a favorite either.

The reviews starting coming in positively for the miniseries, well enough to convince msmemory and me that we should give it a chance. So we recorded the season, to watch when we were done with more important things. We figured that, at best, it would be a pleasant romp, along the lines of SG-1; the Sci-Fi Channel's record hadn't led us to expect there was much chance of anything better.

We were wrong.

A year ago, I was bemoaning the state of fantasy and science fiction on TV. All the good series were ending, and there was no prospect of much to replace them. The last thing I was expecting was for brilliant shows to appear out of left field. But then along came Carnivale, whose first season was sheer genius, and the second was still very good. And now comes Galactica -- which may in the long run prove to be even better.

This is a show that knows it's a remake. Hell, it revels in the fact that it's a remake. Not only does the first episode contain a raft of homages to the original series, the underlying mythology of the story is full of gentle references to the concept -- "this has all happened before" is a key phrase, that recurs again and again.

And make no mistake, this is a story about mythology, to the core of its being. On the surface, it's the same story as the original. It starts out with the evil cybernetic Cylons blowing the hell out of The Twelve Colonies of Mankind, and a ragtag fleet of some fifty thousand humans, led by the Galactica, setting out to find the lost colony of Earth. Indeed, it's quite loving to the original, keeping all the details that work for it, right down to Starbuck's cigar habit.

When you get into it, though, this is a very different story, rather more like Babylon 5 in spirit than anything else. This is a story where the Cylons have not only adopted human form, they've begun to think like humans, even imitate humans to the finest detail. Where religion underpins everything, both the human prophecies of Kobol and Earth and a downright evangelical streak to the monotheistic Cylons. With foreshadowing worthy of the best, and arc that rockets right along. This is a tale that is not only mythological in tone, it is a story about mythology -- a story of a people who are driven to explore their own culture's myths, to tease out the truths from them, and to slowly come to understand that they are living the next chapter of those myths.

The style reminds me of B5 in a hundred ways, from the CGI style to the writing, but the thing that is most reminiscent is the way it ties fine individual stories into an overall arc. They clearly made a conscious decision that, in today's market, you can't afford to spend a season merely hinting at the arc as B5 did -- this story slams the pedal to the metal from the very beginning, and never looks back. The sensation that this is a story that is going somewhere is omnipresent, and makes it far more compelling than the usual pablum.

A story is nothing without good characters, and this has that in spades. I quite appreciate that this is a story that learned the lesson of Next Gen: while it has its fair share of young and pretty stars, center stage is firmly held by the 50-something leads. Commander Adama is the icon of the old soldier, a gruff man who always knew that peace was temporary, whose desperate hatred of the Cylons oozes from every pore. And President Roslin is a startling departure from every cheap science fiction cliche: a middle-aged woman, dying of cancer, suddenly responsible for safeguarding the entire human race against both the external enemy and its own worst instincts.

And make no mistake, the battle lines are far from clear-cut here. There is no question that the Cylons start the story with a horrible act, but these are not your father's Cylons, unified in appearance and purpose. The internal divisions within the Cylons are a significant element of the story, right down to an implicit question that is key to this season, of whether the Cylons have true free will.

And the humans -- well, imagine a small city of fifty thousand people, drawn from all parts of life, many of whom didn't like each other much in the first place. Politics, both personal and governmental, are shot throughout the story. These are people clinging to a way of life that may be obsolete, and the fights about how to live in this strange new environment are constant.

On top of all of this is top-notch direction and acting throughout; the first season doesn't put a foot out of place. The chemistry between the cast is perfect, in both the loves and hatreds. The good guys are flawed just enough to constantly worry you; the bad guys are complex and far from unidimensional. Gaius Baltar is a delicious twit with a well-fed messianic streak; Tom Zarek (played by Richard Hatch, one of the stars of the original series) is President Roslin's worst nightmare, a charismatic loon with a sense of mission; and Number Six, the face of the Cylons, is beautiful, dangerous and remarkably creepy in her sincere belief that she's only doing what God intends.

So let's put it all together. I am officially out of mourning for the state of science fiction television. This is A-level work, as good as it comes, and is IMO currently the series that most deserves the science fiction community's support. Give the Sci-Fi Channel their due: their movies may be crap, but they've hit a home run this time. If this story has as strong an arc as it looks, if it continues the way the first season went, and if the network lets this story play through to its conclusion, this may prove to be one of the the all-time high points of science fiction on TV...
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