Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

Zero-Gravity Grimness

The new Battlestar Galactica has done away with bumpy-headed aliens and thespian histrionics. Jonathan Kiefer explains why it's the best "frakking" show on earth.

There’s no telling what will have gone down on Battlestar Galactica by the time you read this. Death, destruction and moral compromise are certain. The annihilation of humanity is a distinct possibility. Peace is highly unlikely. Three seasons into the biggest show in Sci Fi Channel history (and no, that isn’t saying much, but never mind), it’s safe to suggest that the future looks grim. Then again, grimness on this show is de rigueur.

And you can’t blame it. Battlestar Galactica has been forged by all manner of controversy. Trouble began before the show even premiered when executive producer and top dog Ronald D. Moore had the audacity to “reimagine” the original late-seventies series—a spacefaring epic of war between people and their sentient, overdeveloped appliances—with human refugees from devastated worlds on a quest for Earth. The old show was a kitschy diversion of deliberately Mormonish moral certitudes, with caped, feather-haired and generally infallible heroes routinely prevailing against their safely inhuman and, therefore, easily extinguishable enemies. It didn’t last long. And in view of various parties’ stalled efforts to later revive it, the show seemed to settle in pop-culture memory as the Rodney Dangerfield of science-fiction TV: an object of some affection, maybe, but no respect. At least, that is, until Moore’s new version got the green light and prompted conniptions from nostalgic, territorial fans.

Then there was the reimagining itself. Moore, a longtime writer and developer of A-list sci-fi programming, maintained Battlestar’s setting and plot but de-emphasized its genre trappings. He pledged to do away with “stock characters, techno-double-talk, bumpy-headed aliens, thespian histrionics and empty heroics” and strove instead for a kind of narrative naturalism. Liberated from stale space-opera tropes, the newer show has had free reign to confront complex and highly topical themes. By turns a military procedural, cloak-and-dagger thriller and frayed-nerve allegory on life post-9/11, it has become viscerally political—a large reason why so many people can’t stop watching. Having recently trafficked in torture and suicide bombing, Battlestar Galactica has even been accused of endorsing the Iraq insurgency.

Of course, the show still has room for cool spaceships flown by sexy pilots, but is emphatic about not trading on these attributes too heavily. Moore’s show prefers a more solemn course, exploring the dynamics of protracted military conflict between aggressively competitive ideologies. It has committed to no less serious a subject than the war-waging soul of mankind. And, to borrow a bit of the show’s own lingo, so far it has made for really frakking good TV. Lifelike complexity permeates the program’s aesthetics too. These humans may have learned to travel faster than light and fend off killer robots (called Cylons), but they still eat peanut butter and use Scotch tape. Even the space scenes are carefully recorded in a cinéma-vérité style, full of wobbly camera movement and seemingly impulsive zooms. Dogfights between human and Cylon fighters are complicated as much by Newtonian physics—the punishments of inertia in a zero-gravity vacuum—as by pilots’ tactical skills. There are no “aliens” in Battlestar’s universe, and none needed. There are, however, insubordinate, alcoholic officers; petty traitors; murderous black marketeers; corrupt politicians; religious fanatics; short-sighted, megalomaniacal militarists and a general population of everyday double-crossers with all sorts of intimacy issues. Together they indulge in a whole lot of self-destructive behaviour; over the course of three seasons, as they’ve fought for their lives, several characters have expressly wished for their own deaths.

And why not? Consider their enemy: a potentially infinite army of relentless, all-powerful, fundamentalist, warmongering androids. And humans created these Cylons to make life easier. Well, you know how these things go. Life got harder. The show began with the Cylons launching a surprise nuclear genocide against their forebears. Humanity, once spread across twelve planetary outposts—with myths circulating about a thirteenth called Earth—suddenly numbered less than fifty thousand souls. Confined to a “ragtag fugitive fleet” of spacecraft, they took to the cold void of the cosmos, living perennially on the lam from or in battle with their murderous metallic progeny. Of course, as befits Moore’s progressive-minded stance toward the genre, all this man-versus-machine stuff is just a jumping-off point. Some Cylon models, in fact, have been rendered to appear and behave as humans. Some humans, meanwhile, have found themselves able to commit terrible violence with detached, robotic efficiency and wonder if they might be Cylons. (Yes, sometimes.) And as if the situation weren’t spiritually unsettling enough, there is also the matter of strong religious differences. The people are polytheistic, but Cylons firmly acknowledge only one god. Summarizing three seasons’ worth of Battlestar’s plot is a lost cause, but it’s important to point out that it has as much to do with the conflict between civilian and military human leadership during the Cylon war as with the war itself. This was established early on with fine-tuned and highly dignified performances by Edward James Olmos as Admiral William Adama, who commands the show’s eponymous vessel—a carrier-battleship hybrid that guards the entire fleet—and Mary McDonnell as Laura Roslin. Roslin was the education secretary-cum-reluctant president who learned to govern on the job (she’d been forty-third in line for the office but everyone before her was killed). If anybody can persuade you to take ambitious science fiction seriously, it’s these two.

The ambition itself sets a tone, of course. Whether you take the Cylons as stand-ins for al Qaeda terrorists or power-mad American evangelical conservatives or European fascists or whatever else depends less on your own political predisposition than on which episode of which season you happen to have seen most recently. It seems like a point of pride that Battlestar’s online forums ding constantly with fans telling each other they’ve missed the point. But however confused the categories get, everyone agrees there is an “us” and a “them”: the humans flee, the Cylons pursue. The humans search for Earth and wear themselves and their scarce resources down in the effort. In the second season, the humans find a new homeworld. Then the Cylons show up and conquer that too. Under the circumstances, not surprisingly, emotional relationships tend toward the promiscuous and interfere with military imperatives. Military imperatives interfere with life and the pursuit of happiness. Security is always at risk, stakes always drastically high. Even the most fiercely principled of characters, as they’re forced to assume unexpected responsibilities, become radicalized and violate their principles. Nobody’s shoulder seems to go without a chip for too long.

As a sort of strobe light in this low-lying moral fog, James Callis plays Gaius Baltar—a conscience-racked human who early on betrayed his species, and has since assumed the presidency under Cylon occupation—displaying by turns arrogant contempt and snivelling servility. He typifies the mercurial overall mood, and is appealingly untrustworthy in the same way that Jamie Bamber’s Apollo—William Adama’s son and the show’s closest thing to a standard heartthrob—is trustworthy.

Anyway, all of this raw humanness is easy to appreciate, and it keeps the characters highly engaging, if hard to fathom. Meanwhile, even minor figures are shown to be greatly, almost randomly, influential on the course of fate. Is that optimistic and affirming or just really unsettling? And with such issues to think about, does anybody really still care that the “Starbuck” in this version of the show is a woman? (No doubt actor Dirk Benedict does, as history already seems to have judged his tomcat take on the role to be inferior to Katee Sackhoff’s more nuanced tomboy.) For all its reimagined parallels to our messy political world, critics have described Battlestar Galactica—with both admiration and contempt—as “The West Wing in space.” But few have commented on the show’s restraint in avoiding West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin’s heavy-handedness and self-congratulation. In fact, Battlestar has become so complex, so unruly and so inherently contentious, that even its creators don’t seem to know where it’s going at times. (Moore’s DVD and podcast commentaries admit as much.) Clearly, this uncertainty makes for winning television. The haze of the story’s allusiveness—Is that a Mormon creation myth or a pagan astrological one?—comes off like an atmospheric effect, an enrichment. There’s a tacit agreement to neither unduly flatter nor insult the audience’s world-weary intelligence.

Which isn’t to say that the show denies the desires of its loyal, fantasy-inclined demographic: for instance, Lucy Lawless (star of the nineties lesbian-geek cult classic Xena: Warrior Princess) appears in a recurring role in season two, only to turn out to be a Cylon. It’s truly impressive how nimbly Battlestar taps its genre roots without ever getting tangled up in them.

Battlestar Galactica wants to know what humanity really is—not just by discerning what trick of consciousness separates man from machine, but by discerning what separates body from spirit, and civilization from barbarity. It upholds the hallowed science-fiction tradition of elaborate social commentary, but prunes the tradition’s tendencies toward idealism and didacticism. It’s a mindset well suited to twenty-first-century life on Earth. Whether Moore’s reimagining has erred too far in the direction of nihilism is, of course, subject to debate. Battlestar Galactica isn’t the kind of show where you file away favourite episodes to watch again and again—it is best appreciated as a cumulative experience, in a rush of forward motion. Irreconcilable conflict is this show’s lifeblood. It may still seem regressive and escapist to face our world’s problems from a comfortable remove of several thousand light years, but Moore’s way of doing it has been a giant leap forward. There’s no going back to what science fiction used to be.