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.

Battlestar Galactica and its creator/producer, Ron Moore, have also heartily embraced the view-on-demand Internet world. Its episodes rank among the most popular on the download site hulu.com, and its producers have offered more than 20 brief Internet/Video on-demand-only "webisodes" that advance the story and add depth during hiatuses. Moore has kept a semiregular blog about the show, answers email from fans, and provides audio podcasts giving background and details on the show. Although only the podcasts appear to have originated with Galactica--even the webisodes have had a few previous runs--Battlestar has been the first show to embrace all of them at once.

The show's production system, furthermore, breaks new ground: It's reasonably cheap, but doesn't show it. There's little expensive location shooting, and most of it takes place in Canadian parks and forests. Everything else takes place on sound stages and in computer graphics (almost all dark-colored so that they look reasonably realistic without the latest computer technology) that substitute for most exteriors. Documentary-style, cinéma vérité camera work and clever editing often serve to cover space battles and other events with little more than a few lines of dialogue. And while Olmos and McDonnell are talented, moderately well-known actors, neither had found a lead film role or steady television series in the decade before Galactica premiered. The rest of the cast consists of talented unknowns. In short, the show works well on the cheap.

Of course, the Galactica formula doesn't guarantee success or make the show good; that's still a matter of writing and acting. But it does point toward a way that ambitious, dramatic television can remain viable, even in an era where TV dramas no longer represent a key part of common pop culture knowledge. The four major networks have essentially given up on the idea of doing anything with hour-long drama. Only four such dramas on the spring schedule fall clearly outside the formulas of police and medical procedurals. (Top-rated CBS has dramas oriented towards police work, and number-two Fox has only two shows--one almost certainly headed for cancellation, the other with law-enforcement elements--that break the police/medical formulas.)

This isn't to say that network drama is bad. A few shows that arguably fall into the genre (Fox's 24) defy genre conventions. Others, like Fox's House and NBC's Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, feature good writing and acting. Even decidedly second-rate shows (CBS's Cold Case) offer production and narrative values better than just about anything that ran on television two decades ago. But creatively, network television drama appears to have reached a dead end.

Battlestar Galactica, by contrast, is a good show that proves television can change and adapt.

Eli Lehrer is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.