The Magazine

'Battlestar' Rules

In the wasteland of TV drama, an intergalactic tour de force.

Apr 6, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 28 • By ELI LEHRER
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When it premiered to high ratings in 1978, the producers of Battlestar Galactica promised their show would bring feature-film standards to network television. It didn't. Although it offered state-of-the art special effects, cute kids, furry space pets, an over-the-top score from the London Symphony Orchestra, and a then-unheard-of budget that topped a million dollars an episode, the show featured predictable plots, pseudo-philosophical ramblings that drew heavily on Mormon theology, pedestrian writing, and endless reuse of the same stock footage.

Viewers quickly lost interest, and the show died a largely unlamented death after one season.

In 2004, a new show, also called Battlestar Galactica, materialized on the SciFi Channel. This program, which borrows the title and some elements of its premise from its 1978 forebear, never made any bold promises. And despite good reviews and a cast that included Edward James Olmos (Miami Vice, Stand and Deliver) and Mary McDonnell (E.R., Dances with Wolves), it never attracted a mass audience. As it wraps up its fourth and final season, Galactica's ratings remain about a third of those for NBC's hidden-camera show, Howie Did It. Indeed, the new Galactica may well succeed in creating a new form of television where the original version and many other shows failed: Through its creative production strategy, complex plot, and wholehearted embrace of the Internet, Galactica could well signal the creation of a template for producing ambitious, quality drama in a fragmented television landscape.

And it is a good show by any standard. This new Galactica tells the story of a group of refugees, self-described "Colonial" humans, fleeing 12 home worlds following a nuclear holocaust carried out by human-created creatures called Cylons. The humans, about 50,000 of them to start, live in a ragtag space defended by a space aircraft carrier--
a "Battlestar"--called Galactica, and for most of the series, engage in an off-again/on-again search for a mythical home planet called Earth. Cylons, they find, pulled off a massive sneak attack, in part, because they managed to create robots that look and feel as if--and sometimes even believe--they are human. The penultimate run of new episodes ended with finding Earth (maybe, or maybe not, our Earth) as a nuclear wasteland. Around the same time humans find that some of their leaders--characters that viewers have known since the early episodes--are themselves Cylons. The humans then form an alliance with a group of renegade Cylons.

While it avoids "modulate-the-phase-shift-dialators" technobabble and silly-looking space aliens, the show still possesses a high geek factor. It is, after all, a story of an aircraft carrier in space. But despite the fundamentally geeky premise, the new Galactica is deadly serious: As befits the nuclear holocaust that began the series, Galactica is relentlessly dark, has a cast made up almost entirely of morally ambiguous characters (the only morally upright character killed herself at the beginning of the current run of episodes), and often asks intriguing questions. At various times, plot arcs have provided sympathetic explorations of terrorists' motivations, questioned the value of democracy in times of crisis, raised intriguing questions about the nature of human identity, and critiqued organized religion.

The show is smart enough to expect viewers to recognize allusions to the Nuremberg war crime tribunals, follow a truly labyrinthine plot, and accept sympathetic characters whose views don't match the orthodoxy of the Hollywood left. (McDonnell's character, Colonial president Laura Roslin, speaks forcefully against legal abortion at a key moment in the story.) The show's producers almost certainly aren't either pro-terrorist or pro-life, but their willingness to ask the questions suggests their willingness to take on difficult issues.

Galactica, furthermore, has told a story with a beginning, middle, and end. As befits any well-told story, bad things often happen to good people: At least a half-dozen significant sympathetic characters have died violent deaths. Of course, Galactica isn't the first prime-time show with a continuing plot arc; it isn't even the first prime-time drama where the producer mapped out many important plot elements in advance. But it is longer and more complex than almost any other prime-time serial.