It is a special TV show that manages to absorb and excite an audience to the same degree as a film shown in a cinema. By its very nature TV has to work that much harder to win you over; you are not captive, you are not within the crowd atmosphere, the film does not tower over you - you are at home and comfortable. But when it works, boy does it work. I have many TV shows that I consider to be classics, Quatermass and the Pit, Boys from the Blackstuff and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (well the first five seasons of that one) definitely stand out for me. Each one, like the very best dramas, concentrates on the characters, their situations and how they cope or don't. And being TV there is enough time in a series to really peel back the emotions and examine, in detail, nuances, if well written and acted this can lead to huge investment in the characters, you feel for and with them and revel in their stories. Tonight's feature does just that, clearly a science fiction drama, it concentrates very much on the character lead drama aspect and it fast became and continues to be one of the best dramas on TV, ever.
In the wake of Star Wars (1977) there was much interest in science fiction, many films tried to capitalise on it, Battlestar Galactica, originally pioneered for a TV show but had its pilot revamped and boosted up to a cinema release, was one. Taking the premise of the extermination of mankind by an alien race, the film and subsequent series followed the adventures of the survivors as they battle the odds to try and find a new planet on which to settle, a lost planet, called Earth. The series was pretty successful in its day, the premise was solid, even if it was a bit 'monster of the week' and tended to be dumbed down for a children's audience. Come 2004, series writer/producer Ron Moore, a huge name in the Trek franchise, decided to take another look at Galactica, seeing it ripe for a make over. Using the original series as a starting point, and utilising the main elements - Twelve colonies of humans, the Cylon slave race, the holocaust and subsequent fleeing and the search for Earth - but instead of keeping to the same ideals, chose to see it as a character drama set within the confines of this science fiction drive and this vision is what made the show. Being far more adult by contrast and exploring religious and political themes, the new Battlestar Galactica towers above its peers in unprecedented attention to detail in its story telling and story arcs - it is unparalleled compulsive viewing!
Aside from keeping the main story elements, the new series also employs pretty much all the old character names, even if the gender of said characters has altered, and it is around these characters that the stories evolve. Head of the fleet, and top of the bill is Edward James Olmos playing Admiral William Adama. Taking the lead from the Trek franchise, Adama is the steadfast paragon of right and Olmos hits it right every time. At the beginning of the series he is ripe for retirement, age clearing showing in his characterisation, but since the war he has become the yard stick by which to measure leadership. Picard was always my favourite ships captain, but where as he was always unshakeable and infallible, Adama wears his heart on his sleeve. Every decision is etched on his scarred face, he bears the weight of the survivors on his shoulders, every command made risks the extinction of the human race; he does not take it lightly. Olmos is never better when brooding with that gruff voice, and he has plenty of opportunity to do just that. But when he commands, he commands with respect and everybody listen, never afraid of the right choice, no one could have taken this role and succeeded with such gusto. Working along side him is Mary McDonnell who plays ex-school teacher Laura Roslin elevated to the position of President of the Colonies. McDonnell is an inspired choice for this most demanding of roles; the softly spoken, but cunning Roslin is anything but a pushover, able to make the hard choice she is, if anything, harder than Adama, and when push comes to shove, she'd have you out an air lock for the good of the fleet. Locking horns for a good portion of the series, these two leaders do eventually get together, in an altogether not unexpected turn of events, but with Roslin dying of cancer and Adama taking on a caring aspect the relationship is one is of unexpected results. Roslin's divine inspiration, deep religious beliefs or visions, if you will, retain a spiritualist aspect hitherto little seen in most science fiction. The creators back story encompasses deep beliefs that are the backbone of the refugee's journey through space - guiding lights in the dark if you will.
Behind these two main characters, but no less important is the enigmatic figure of Dr. Gaius Baltar played with absolute aplomb by James Callis. Baltar was the scientist who sold out the human race, albeit rather unwittingly in this new version, and has been hiding in plain sight ever since. Never has a character gone through so many twists and turns as Baltar does here. From 'mad' scientist, looking out solely for himself, to leader and president under occupation to spiritualist leader; yet all the time with that twitchy uncertain look, talking to his 'inner Six' and gaining his own divine inspiration. With more lives than a cat Baltar twists and turns his way though life and seems to make a living from being the 'devil you know'. A relative unknown at the time of his casting, at least to American audiences, Callis is now instantly recognisable, his portrayal being one of those truly great characterisations; able to split opinion on himself, love or loathe Baltar, you will never, ever forget him.
Next we come to the main viper pilots, Captain Lee 'Apollo' Adama and Captain Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace played respectively by Jamie Bamber and Katee Sackhoff. Both characters are taken direct from the original series, but both have gone through a number of changes. Apollo's journey is one of a young man trying to step from the shadow of his father, no small task; he too has plenty on his plate from lawyer to Battlestar commander to political career, but all the time that devotion to his comrades, to his people but rarely to himself. So wrapped up in trying to emulate his father's greatness he often ends up butting heads with those he loves. Having to settle in love, he nevertheless makes the best of whatever hand is dealt to him, yet when the chips are down, he can be counted on. Starbuck, on the other hand, has had more than just a sex change from the original series; she is a headstrong natural pilot, with a drive and determination that often flies in the face of authority - but more than that, as the seasons progress the spirituality that lead her to follow the path laid out by Roslin grows to fever pitch when, like the prodigal, her destiny follows life, death and resurrection for herself and the human race itself. This spiritual journey is one of the backbones of the series whole and when played against the all too real love that she and Apollo share brings home the humanity of the story, which is what the series is really all about.
There are plenty of other notable characters, Colonel Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), Chief Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer), Lt. Sharon 'Boomer'/'Athena' Valerii (Grace Park), the list goes on and on, too many to mention by name. And it is a testament to the shows greatness that it invests so much time in all its characters - each and everyone is given screen time, a back story, a story arc of themselves and each one has a part to play in the whole story - nothing is left to chance, never are there loose ends - these are real characters with real lives and watching the drama of their lives unfold against insurmountable odds is how a science fiction show out grew its peers. Indeed Moore's original treatment, written for the networks and unwittingly sent to each actor, laid out exactly this idea - and it is how everything fell into place.
The miniseries charted the Cylon uprising, the deconstruction of the Colonial fleet, the destruction of the twelve planets and the subsequent hiding and running of the rag tag bunch of human survivors. This pretty much followed the original plot points of the 1978 series albeit with far more investment in the characters. The ground work for the rest of the seasons was firmly laid out, right from direction to style, to lighting to music - you need look no further that the miniseries to see where it all began. Ok, so the budget was less and it was shot on film, but directing style and over all look and sound of the show, was right there. From the gritty, dirty look of the Battlestar, to the over saturated colouring to the boosted contrast; nothing had looked quite like this. Bear McCreary was there right at the beginning scoring the show with his very distinctive take. It is wonderful to listen to his maturing over the seasons culminating in the finale with music cues that are utterly absorbing, yet all the roots were right there at the beginning. The miniseries had the near unheard of fortune to gain greater ratings on the second part, and on the back of its success the first season was commissioned and the rest history.
I don't propose to go through a blow by blow account of the next four seasons and the TV special Razor, also included, simply because if you've seen the show, then you know how it is and if you haven't then part of the joy of watching is to see how the story develops, how the characters deal with their plight and how the journey unfolds, my words cant possibly do that justice and would only serve to spoil, thus if you are coming new to this show I really cant recommend it enough. It towers above its peers in the strength of its story writing. It is a testament to the writers that story arcs and conclusions are conceived on a near show by show basis and not years in advance as some other shows are. Ok, it is not all sunshine and roses, the odd slower episode does creep through, but when the bar is so high, even these episodes outshine anything up against it. The series has a beginning, middle and an end - an extremely satisfying end I might add. Some of the twists and turns do take a little getting used to, but with such serendipitous writing nothing is left open to discuss. Even those questions that might be left hanging are being addresses in a brand new TV special: The Plan. It is the attention to detail in both characterisation and story telling ideas that is this shows greatest strength. In focussing on the fiction this has become one of the all-time great science shows - science fiction in the truest sense of the expression.
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