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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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 But it does point toward a way that ambitious, dramatic television can remain viable, even in an era where TV dramas no longer represent a key part of common pop culture knowledge.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.