When this re-imagining of an older SF tv series from the late ‘70s aired, it set an interesting model for serialized shows in the genre and it brought a definite change from its unapologetically cheesy predecessor’s standards: from the very miniseries that introduced setting and characters, it asserted its dramatic tone and the overall darkness that would become its trademark.
I remember that at the time of my first viewing I was enthralled by this grimdark vision of the future and I followed the evolution of the story with great interest, but as the seasons rolled on some of that “magic” was lost and the last season left me thoroughly baffled, if not disappointed. Still, many times I encountered viewers’ comments that defined the new Battlestar Galactica series as one of the best contemporary genre products, so I often wondered if I had not missed something along the way…
When the entire series became available on Amazon Prime I decided to refresh my memory and – more important – to see if the possibility of watching more than one episode per week, as was the case when I first saw the series, would alter my perspective of the overall story, and on this subject I can confirm that even a limited binge-watching of two or three episodes per viewing does change substantially the perception of the story-arc and of the characters’ evolution.
The miniseries, with a runtime equal to that of four average TV episodes, introduces a human spacefaring civilization distributed over 12 planets, or colonies: in the past they had created laborer automatons – the Cylons – that had at some point rebelled and started a bloody war that ultimately ended in an uneasy truce. Long decades of peace brought humans to the decision of dismantling their military, not knowing that the Cylons were preparing a brutal, multi-point attack on the colony worlds with the intention of obliterating their creators. On the day of the assault, a small number of ships, led by the only surviving Battlestar – the space equivalent of a contemporary aircraft carrier – flee from the Cylon attackers in search of shelter for what remains of the human race, less than 50 thousand individuals.
The drama of the hunted survivors, packed on ships that are often obsolete and where the more sophisticated tech must be kept inoperative to avoid hacking by the Cylons, is compounded by the discovery that there is a new breed of automatons besides the mechanical models they know of: these new Cylons look completely human and an unknown number of them has infiltrated the fleeing masses, adding suspicion and paranoia to the terror for the sudden attack and the constant threat of total obliteration.
The introductory miniseries does indeed start with a bang, and it takes the pressure to almost unbearable levels, the strain of the situation underscored by the amazing soundtrack from Richard Gibbs, where the main title “Are You Alive?” (linked below) is an obsessive presence from beginning to end and never fails to signal that something momentous is going to happen. At the same time the story lays down some of the topics that will become its leading themes: humanity became complacent in its conviction of having mastered the universe, unable to learn the lesson that the hubris of becoming creators themselves would turn against them, just as their “children” had done in the past, and now they are facing total annihilation while still seeming unable to lay down their pettiness and spoiled-child attitude, even when facing the end of the world as they knew it. On the other hand, we see the humanlike Cylons willing to turn against their former “parents” but at the same time trying to understand what it means to be human, organic, vulnerable, and building their own religious credo as a form of rationale for their actions. It becomes practically impossible for the viewer to side with either contender, because they are both flawed and both deserving of survival, right and wrong at the same time and at some point one could say they are two sides of the same coin – but in perpetual conflict with each other.
Where the core concept of the series is very intriguing, the main characters peopling it are quite fascinating – more for their flaws than for their qualities – but I will leave their detailed examination for my review of the following seasons: here I prefer to focus on the background of the story that’s so very different from what other space opera shows have accustomed us to. Forget the high-tech sets of Star Trek’s starship Enterprise and its brethren, Galactica and the other ships in the refugee fleet all share the look of well-used vessels past their prime while, for example, the need to keep even existing technology safe from the Cylons’ cyber attacks forces officers to renounce more modern systems in favor of the outdated, safer ones: for example people communicate through what look like old telephone handsets, which adds an interesting old-fashioned note to the overall appearance. The darkened, seedy corridors, the metal bulkhead doors reminiscent of submarine design, the constantly patched fighters, all contribute to the appearance of an utilitarian vessel rather than that of a glamorous spaceship, and reinforce the sensation of precariousness that is the leitmotif of this story of constant strife for survival.
And it’s clear that the authors wanted viewers to concentrate on this rather than on visual eye-candy: well, they have my attention, indeed…