Lost In Space

Is Battlestar Galactica a great television epic—or proof that there is no such thing?

By James Parker
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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.)

Moore, a veteran of the Star Trek franchise (he worked on The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager), has used the term naturalistic science fiction to describe his approach to Battlestar Galactica. The vibe is grim. The camera wobbles. The sound track is heavy on loping percussion and chilly pokes of piano. Is the dialogue finely wrought? It is, for the most part, not. It is stunted, sleep-deprived, 21st-century: “I can’t live like this!” “I worked my ass off defending this fleet!” Frak, the show’s patented profanity, gets plenty of use: “Frak you!” “Frakkin’ A!” “Talk to me, you motherfrakker!!” The characters announce themselves not as heroic starmen but as pissed-off human beings—the hulking Helo (Tahmoh Penikett), with his gum-shield frown, husband to a Cylon wife, father to a hybrid child; or Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan), Adama’s executive officer, boozing and snarling like a rogue priest. Incest thickens the air: attractions and enmities abound, and there’s always some sinewy scuffle or mating dance happening below decks. The battlestar churns on, pathologically spawning its subplots. Loyalties shift; marriages break up; roles are redefined; crew members who considered themselves more or less human make the nasty discovery that they are Cylons.

This last story line demands some explanation. The Cylons in the original Battlestar Galactica were not man-made—they were just violent robots from outer space. It was Moore and Eick who gave the Cylons a human provenance and, what’s more, the power to re-create themselves in human form: there are still plenty of violent robots, but 12 exquisitely bioengineered humanoid models now lead the Cylon race—battery-farmed people, with personalities, indistinguishable from the real thing. They bleed, they feel. Pure nectar to the sci-fi buff, who loves to whir his wings in these realms of ontological vexation: Who is real, after all? And what does it mean to exist? And is it nice to have sex with a machine?

Former model Tricia Helfer plays Cylon Number Six—a glittering and sibilant entity in high heels. She spends a good deal of time snaking around inside the mind of the treacherous human Gaius Baltar (James Callis), making suggestions; Baltar has trouble working out whether she is an implanted Cylon chip or simply his subconscious frakking with him. In a further twist, the Cylons of the new breed are devout monotheists, full of inflated talk about “God’s plan,” while the benighted humans mutter prayers to the Twelve Lords of Kobol. The Cylon position vis-à-vis the meaning of life is complicated by the fact that they have no experience of death: should a Cylon’s mortal frame by some mischance perish, it simply “downloads” its essence to another body and wakes up full-grown, naked and gasping, in a birthing pool of cybernetic sludge.

Whither “naturalism” in all this? Can one be realistic about the religious intuitions of robots? Post–Battlestar Galactica, a certain sort of space opera will no longer be possible: the sexless pomp of Star Trek: The Next Generation has been laid low by the frakking and the wobble-cam. But the interesting thing about the show as it space-hops toward its conclusion is that, for all its proclaimed engagement with post-9/11 discourse, it is actually getting freakier and more far-out by the minute. Visions are driving the plot: through seizures and weird gnostic prompts, Earth has been located, but somebody appears to have gotten there first and set off some rather large bombs. And who, for frak’s sake, is the 12th and final Cylon? Eight, Nine, Ten, and Eleven have all revealed themselves, tormented into self-awareness by a frazzled psychic broadcast of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (clearly an error in transmission here—it should have been Queen’s “We Are the Champions”). But Twelve goes incognito.

It could be Adama. It could be God. It could be Ronald D. Moore. Why not? The point is that Battlestar Galactica is presenting all the symptoms of an extended-run high-concept TV series in its decadent phase. An oracular mood, an obsession with identity, a sensation of multiplying meanings—it’s the paranoid style in American TV writing. A casual viewer parachuted into the final chapters of this show would be as clueless as if he’d joined David Lynch’s Twin Peaks in the second season or J.J. Abrams’s Lost in the third. They start strong, these projects, on power chords of auteurist entitlement—they grip the mind, at first. Dispensed from the obligation to deliver a crisp narrative arc and a prescribed dosage of thrills with each installment, today’s TV hit-maker is riding his own wild license across the ranges of space.

But now he’s way out there, Daddy-O. Can he ever come back?

In their latter, breakdown stages, these shows become the culture’s homage to vertigo—to the suspicion that we live in a universe of surfaces, pointlessly arranged, whose invitations to depth or transcendence are all red herrings, shaggy dogs, wild goose chases, and decoy ducks. For Battlestar Galactica, the hunt is almost over. The finale looms; annihilation snickers outside the air lock. Time to find out whether that Snark is really a Boojum or not. What if, in the last reveal, it were to be disclosed that the human-Cylon showdown already took place, aeons ago, before our beetling progress toward the stars had even begun? That the Cylons are our ancestors, with their wires coiled in our DNA? Behold: he approaches, striding blindingly out of a golden haze: the 12th Cylon. See his smile. Feel his heat. He has the face (surely you’ve guessed it by now) of L.Ron Hubbard.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/01/lost-in-space/307219/