Moving Pictures January/February 2009

Lost In Space

Is Battlestar Galactica a great television epic—or proof that there is no such thing?
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)
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James Parker provides voiceover for a hyperbolic scene from Battlestar Galactica.

In the expert view of L.Ron Hubbard, there was nothing futuristic about the genre called (flippantly, by some) “space opera.” The alien host, the spongy nebulae, the zip and twang of the photon torpedo, the bluster of the starship captain at his bridge—these, according to Hubbard, were not the idle tropes of pulp-fictioneers and drugged-up sci-fi hacks but the stuff of deepest prehistory, somber emanations from the memory of the species. It had already happened, in other words—it, or something rather like it. Humanity trickled down from beyond the stars. Billion-year colonial wars were fought and fought again. And that cold buzz of awe that we get from galactic-scale science fiction? Just the rumbling of our “implants” as they salute their origins in deep space.

Hubbard, of course, founded an extraordinarily profitable religion, incorporating the virgin science of Dianetics as well as a sprawling mythos of interplanetary invasions and implantations—Scientology! The makers of Battlestar Galactica have not demonstrated a similar ambition—no temples for them, as yet. They can lay claim, however, to a decent-sized viewing cult. The original show ran on ABC for one season in the late 1970s, with Lorne “Bonanza Greene in Aquarian robes as the Galactica’s Commander Adama. After its cancellation, various attempts at revival were made, but nothing significant panned out until the project passed into the hands of writer-producers David Eick and Ronald D. Moore in the early 2000s, at which point the great “reimagining” of Battlestar Galactica began.

Ratings for the new show, now beginning its concluding run on the Sci-Fi Channel, have wavered, but fandom and critical interest have been maintained at a heady pitch. Hailed as “the best show on TV,” “one of TV’s boldest and best dramas,” and “a fleet of red herrings flapping majestically through space” (that last one is mine), Battlestar Galactica boasts a fierce corps of geeks and a professorial secondary literature to rival that of ABC’s Lost. (I had to look up, for example, the word diegesis—n. A narrative or history—while reading Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica.)

Hubbard might have smiled upon this show’s basic premise. We—mankind, that is—come not from Earth, which is out there somewhere, but from the planet Kobol, whence we set forth long ago in our ships to found the Twelve Colonies: Caprica, Leonis, Gemenon, and the rest. All went well until the Cylons, a race of man-made androids turned hostile, descended from their glassy star-bower to wipe us out. They took us by surprise, the bastards. Copious nuking, enormous loss of life—but one military vessel, or battlestar (the Galactica), survived, along with a few charred and limping people-carriers and their inhabitants. This rump of humanity, 50,000 or so, would hereafter be hounded across the universe by the implacable Cylon horde. The survivors’ goal: to find Earth, the fabled 13th colony, and begin civilization anew.

So far, so space operatic. But here Battlestar Galactica veers sharply away. Where a proper space opera—from Star Wars to 2000’s Scientological Battle­field Earth—advertises with chilly pride its remoteness from life as we know it, the retooled Battlestar Galactica has plunged into the burning issues of the day. Suicide bombers, torture, occupation, stolen elections. Homosexuality, reproductive rights, religious fundamentalism, genocide. All of it grappled with, workshopped out—diegetically, you might say. With crater-voiced Edward James Olmos in the role of Adama, and the Galactica itself—rather gaily lit in its ’70s incarnation—now steeped in an atmosphere somewhere between that of a diving submarine and a backstreet in the Victorian East End, Moore and Eick have pushed and pushed at the hot buttons. Un­addressed as yet: steroid abuse, the slow-food movement, and the declining standard of international travel. But there’s still half a season to go.

Of course, not everybody approves of the new direction. Dirk Benedict, who in the original series played the satyric flying ace and cigar-smoker Starbuck, was appalled to discover that his character had been reconceived as a woman—an angry and outspoken woman (Katee Sackhoff) at that, smoking a goddamned cigar! It was feminism, it was the humorless temper of the times—and from his home in the great state of Montana, the old trouper issued a counterblast. “The creative artists have lost and the Suits have won,” he declared in an essay for the May 2004 issue of the magazine Dreamwatch. “Suits. Administrators. Technocrats. Metro-sexual money-men (and women) who create formulas to guarantee profit margins.” The title of the essay was “Starbuck: Lost in Castration.” (Other members of the old guard proved more tractable. Richard Hatch, the original Captain Apollo, found a new role—while preserving, remarkably, the old hairstyle—as Tom Zarek, a William Ayers–like bomb-thrower who rehabilitates himself and becomes vice president.)

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James Parker is an Atlantic correspondent.

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