Adama: "What do you hear?"
Kara: "Nothing but the rain."
This new "reimagining" of the old series is simply fabulous.
Many producers of space operas make the same mistake: they throw together sci-fi elements, special effects, and good-looking but inexperienced actors, and they forget the most important element: a compelling story. Frankly, this was what I expected. I was dead wrong.
The new Battlestar Galactica is using the basic premise of the original television show of the same name, but this time, they're dead serious about it. They are squeezing all the drama they can out of this dark story, and there's quite a lot of drama to be had. We're also sure pretty early that this is an adult show: in the first twenty minutes, there was fairly explicit sex scene and the cold-blooded murder of a baby. And then, of course, there was the genocide of the human race on the twelve colonies. Not a light-hearted romp, to be sure.
The score is mournful and gorgeous. And the special effects work: the battle scenes in space are remarkably immediate and powerful. Cold and scary, they're marked by distorted, mechanized voices, explosions, and battle drums during the dogfights (I particularly like the battle drums). Colors bleed out; faces are pale blue, cool and inhuman. I was impressed.
And boy, did they get some damned good actors.
I noticed that nearly all of our main characters work as conflicting and/or romantic couples. It's like the animal pairs in the Noah and the Ark story, which of course was also about the end of the world.
Let's start with our power pair, Commander William Adama and President Laura Roslin.
Whoever thought of casting veteran character actor Edward James Olmos in the key role of Adama, commander of the Galactica and leader of the fleet, should get a raise. Olmos is an outstanding actor, and perfect for the part. His presence elevates this production. And he gives complexity and warts to a character that could be straight vanilla in the hands of a lesser actor.
Mary McDonnell, another strong actor, plays the secretary of education dying of cancer who unexpectedly finds herself president of what's left of the colonies. President Roslin creates an essential balance for Olmos' character, and having a civilian president keeps Adama from becoming a dictator, benevolent or not.
The basic conflict of Adama's concentration on fighting the war, and Roslin's on rescue operations, survival, and having babies, is the essential, classic male/female division. They both have to make the tough decisions here; in parallel scenes, Adama leaves the fight to go to Ragnar Station, while Roslin must decide to leave twenty ships behind to be destroyed by the Cylons. Roslin does not make the wrong decisions. Neither does Adama. It said a lot about Adama that he realized in the end that she was right, and immediately acted upon it before it was too late. "This war is over. We lost."
Then there are our cute young romantic leads, Captain Lee Adama, aka Apollo, and Lieutenant Kara Thrace, a.k.a. Starbuck. There's a combative, romantic spark between Kara and Lee, and there are strong couple vibes.
Everyone's favorite character in the original series was Starbuck, the cocky, cigar-smoking, poker-playing ace fighter pilot. I was surprised when they decided to cast a woman as Starbuck; it takes quite an actress to pull off a masculine character like that and retain any semblance of femininity. Well, they did it. Katee Sackhoff is wonderfully charismatic and manages to steal every scene she is in simply because she's so good.
Right off the bat, they gave us a poker game and a fist fight as she outright assaulted "a superior asshole," Colonel Tigh. And they also set up some serious future conflict when Kara confessed to Lee that his late brother Zak shouldn't have passed flight, and that she passed him because she was involved with him.
I didn't warm to Jamie Bamber as Lee right away, but as I write this at the beginning of season two, I have to say that he has really grown on me. And I was always impressed with Bamber's acting skills; he more than holds his own here in several strong scenes with Olmos, including the wonderful set-up scene between the two of them where they were forced to feign a normal relationship for the camera. (It was interesting that they pretty much did the same with Gaius Baltar: he was different, on camera and off.)
Our villains, or possible villains, or perhaps the face of our villains, are Gaius Baltar and Number Six.
They gave us an excellent introduction to Gaius Baltar (James Callis), the self-important genius impatiently waiting for his interview, but then relentlessly kissing the broadcaster's ass as soon as the camera was turned on him. James Callis is charming and funny, and he makes it hard to hate Gaius, even though he has inadvertently caused the end of the world. Sure, he's a traitor, but it doesn't appear that he did it intentionally. We can guess that the Cylons would have subverted someone else if it hadn't worked with him.
Despite being upset about what he has caused, Gaius is completely self-centered; he's not going to commit suicide in a fit of overwhelming guilt, like many probably would. Number Six even intimates early on that Baltar always knew she was a machine. Interesting thought. Did he defy her at the end here? I think he did. After all, he had to have been the one to tell Adama in that anonymous note about there being twelve Cylon models. (Or maybe not; it's hard to tell with this show.)
His invisible girlfriend, Number Six (Tricia Helfer), is fascinating. Utterly creepy, she also has a curious child-like innocence, like a cobra. She strongly resembles movie icon Marilyn Monroe, who was also sweetly innocent and deeply sexual at the same time. Number Six is outright disturbing, and it's not just that she can kill a baby without compunction. (Having Six kill a baby so early in the story was a clear signal that this show would NOT pull any punches.)
Finally, there is Sharon Valerii, aka Boomer (Grace Park) who is sort of in a class by herself. She is the resident undercover Cylon, and a mystery, like the rest of the Cylons. There were lots of interesting bits at first to throw us off the scent: she's having a rip-roaring, forbidden affair with a noncom, Chief Tyrol (yes, that gives us another couple); she was very upset about the Cylon attack and almost paralyzed with fear. There was only one hint about her toaster nature that I caught: both of her parents supposedly died when she was little.
The supporting cast is very good. There's the very gruff and attractive Chief Tyrol, and his tomboyish assistant, Cally; the President's cute young assistant, Billy, and Adama's cute young assistant, Dee, who have a (what else?) cute meet in the marvelous unisex bathroom. There's the competent Lieutenant Gaeta, about whom we learn little. (Could he be Cylon number five?)
And there's Colonel Saul Tigh, the alcoholic XO, who bounces from competence to incompetence; he should not be XO, and probably wouldn't have been if they'd actually had an active military before the attack. He had to make a hard decision here -- sacrifice eighty-five people because of the damage to the ship -- which immediately gave us a different view of him. I don't like the character, but I do like the actor. Creating that strong and dislikeable a character isn't easy to do.
The Cylons remind me strongly of the replicants in my all-time favorite sci-fi movie, "Blade Runner." We need to have the Cylons right smack in the middle of the story to make it work, and even though Sharon will clearly be an important character in the series, the face of the Cylons is actually Number Six, who both began and ended the miniseries ("By your command"). The red eye of the original series Cylons is now an amazing red dress that is practically a character in itself, and interestingly enough, a glowing red spinal column. (What's with that?)
I of course thought Aaron Doral was just a human being that Baltar was sacrificing needlessly, and it was a shock in the end when he turned out to be a Cylon, after all. There never was a Cylon "detector," so how did Gaius figure it out? He must have sensed it or something, because Number Six not only didn't tell him, she lied to him (saying she hadn't seen Doral at the meetings). I don't think Gaius knew he was right, but he was. Hmmm.
The "consciousness transfer" concept makes the Cylon presence on the Galactica a real danger. How can they run far enough away when they have at least one Cylon on the ship, and who knows how many others?
The level of destruction on the colonies is unthinkable, and pretty much impossible to portray. The only way to help the audience internalize it was to make it personal, and that's just what they did here. Mushroom clouds behind people on Caprica, which was the only world we saw. Sharon and Helo doing a life and death lottery, symbolic of what happened to everyone on the twelve worlds. The eighty-five who died in the fire on Galactica, whose bodies were vented out into space, hit us harder than the seven million who died in Caprica City. And little Cammy on the botanical station was symbolic of the twenty ships and thousands of people the fleet had to leave behind in order to survive.
There's an antiquated feel to the Galactica itself that is intentional. (She was being decommissioned in the opening scenes, after all.) Adama's paranoia about networking and the Galactica's old-fashioned systems were what saved 50,000 lives, and that was no accident; it's a major theme of the series. They're saying something basic about how technology makes us less human, as well as vulnerable.
There is a lot of religious symbolism and talk about God... mostly by the Cylons. Number Six said she wanted Baltar's soul. Adama said of the Cylons, "We decided to play God, create life." There were references to the number forty (forty days and nights). And twelve colonies reminded me of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. Coincidentally, there are twelve Cylon models as well. One for each colony?
The action ended with a speech by Adama intended to rally the survivors, and his lie about Earth, the thirteenth tribe that left Kobol long ago. They left us with so many possibilities. Think of the stories they could do, the numerous opportunities for human drama.
I love this show. It has style. They took a lot of risks here, and I think they all paid off.
Bits and pieces:
-- Number Six's name is probably a tribute to the main character in the classic sci-fi series, "The Prisoner." Number Six won in the end against the establishment, by the way. What was Number Six's real name when she was Gaius' girlfriend on Caprica? I've noticed that he never calls her anything.
-- Interesting that Kara Thrace is called Starbuck, but Lee Adama is usually called Lee. That's fine with me, since I think "Apollo" sounds a lot more pretentious than "Starbuck."
-- Callum Keith Rennie, another excellent actor, played Leoben the Cylon. Let's hope we see more of him later.
-- There are twelve Cylons, we are told. We only know what four of them look like. And we know that they're more sensitive to radiation than humans are. The "old Cylons" look a lot scarier as inhuman CGI than as guys in aluminum suits. Baltar called the old Cylons "walking chrome toasters."
-- The Cylons have a home planet. I wonder where it is.
-- Unisex bathrooms. Fun.
-- Like "frell" on "Farscape," this show found it necessary to invent its own obscene word, "frak." It's close enough to what it is intended to replace to make it work. I wish the censorship on television wouldn't make this sort of silliness necessary.
-- "So say we all" appears to be BSG for "Amen."
-- Little feminist note here: I find so many strong female characters in a sci-fi show absolutely delightful. (There's often a dearth of them.)
-- Lee's mother is (or was) alive and getting married to someone other than Daddy Adama. Zak Adama's funeral was two years ago.
-- The brief scene where Laura Roslin took the oath of office on Colonial One looked a lot like photos of Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One after the Kennedy assassination. I'm sure that was intentional.
-- Caprica, Sagittarian, Geminon, Picon, Arilon, Tauron... why doesn't "Caprica" end in an "n"? They never did tell us. Are all twelve colonies in the same solar system?
-- There were originally 120 battlestars in the fleet. 30 were lost in the opening battle. There are twelve that are associated with each planet of the twelve colonies: Galactica is Caprica's.
-- Lots of things have six sides: dog tags, paper, playing cards, picture frames. And there's mention of a Pyramid game.
-- I almost wish they hadn't gone with the six-sided crap and the twelve Zodiac-named worlds, because to me, they add a hint of childishness. They did tone it down, though. I noticed we didn't get as much of the mythology names here; I seem to remember a lot of them in the original.
-- The fanfare on the flight deck during the decommission ceremony was the theme music from the original series.
-- Faster-than-light appears to make people physically miserable. (Cally: "I hate this part.")
-- The character of the boy Boxey was introduced briefly; I seem to remember him from the old series. Hard to forget hair like that.
-- Cubits are used as money. Another Biblical reference.
-- Helo remained on Caprica. There was something ironic about him giving up his seat to the man whose treason caused the apocalypse.
Chief: "It's a gift shop now."
Starbuck: "Frak me."
Adama: "We're in the middle of a war, and you're taking orders from a schoolteacher?"
Roslin: "I'm sure I wouldn't remember me either."
Adama (re: Starbuck): "She's better than I am, and twice as good as you."
Starbuck: "It's good to be wrong."
Apollo: "Well, you should be used to it by now."
Adama: "This war is over. We lost."
If Galactica can continue with the level of quality they showed in this miniseries, it may turn into a science fiction classic. And believe me, I don't say that lightly.
Four out of four stars,
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