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.