Battlestar Galactica
directed by Michael Rymer
(Universal, 2003)

I remember the Battlestar Galactica of youth, when the polished special effects of the post-Star Wars era came to the small screen, offering a new alternative to the original Star Trek and Space 1999 television series. While often over-acted and repetitive, and tarred with a terrible final season as Galactica 1980, I loved it; images from the first explosive episode remain with me to this day.

Twenty-five years later, Battlestar Galactica returned with a stylish new look and revamped story. The made-for-cable series, which managed to outshine the more mainstream Star Trek: Voyager in ratings, made its initial splash in this mini-series that set a new tone for the series that followed.

The original series began with a peace conference to end a 1,000-year war between humans and the mechanical Cylons. Betrayed by their foes, the human forces (and civilian populations on 12 planets) are devastated, but a single battlestar-class spaceship, Galactica, managed to escape the destruction and, with numerous ships holding the final remains of their race, set off for the fabled 12th colony, Earth. Adventure ensued, coupled with occasional servings of cheese, corn and a really stupid mechanical dog.

The 2003 version begins 40 years after the Cylon War ended. In this reality, the Cylons were a mechanical race created by the humans who, after a failed rebellion, vanished into the far reaches of space. Battlestar Galactica, one of the few surviving warships from that conflict, is due to be retired and recreated as a living museum for future generations. But, just as Cmdr. Adama (Edward James Olmos) prepares to hand over the keys and fade into obscurity, the Cylons launch a new, highly successful assault on all 12 colonies.

The destruction, vividly presented in a series of chaotic sequences, is fairly complete. Again, the Galactica is the sole survivor of an aging fleet, and again, the pilot episode ends with the warship and its herd setting out for Earth.

But there are differences. Superficially, they are obvious: The handsome, devilish Starbuck is now a spunky female pilot (Katee Sackhoff), as is fellow pilot Boomer (Grace Park). Apollo (Jamie Bamber) is still Adama's son, but they are now at odds with each other. The Cylons, once the equivalent of metallic stormtroopers, now sometimes appear in human form and are almost impossible to detect among humans. While the colonial government was largely wiped out, a new president -- formerly Secretary of Education Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) takes charge of civil leadership and proves a political bugbear in Adama's side. And the character Baltar, who in the original series was a human leader who betrayed his people for safe passage among the Cylons, is now a scientist (James Callis) who inadvertently gave a sexy Cylon (Tricia Helfer) entry into colonial defense systems, ensuring humanity's defeat. He now works with the Galactica crew, but he's haunted by a Cylon phantom (still Helfer) and his loyalties may be more selfishly directed.

The more subtle differences, however, are what make the new Battlestar Galactica work so well. The pilot episode, also released in theaters and now available as a stand-alone DVD, has a grimmer, more realistic approach to sudden, cataclysmic war. Hard choices are made as people -- civilians and soldiers alike -- are deemed beyond reach in the conflict and are left to die. Director Michael Rymer doesn't flinch from showing the cost of those choices; in one case, we hear the voices of survivors radioing for help up to the moment the Cylon warheads strike, while in another, we watch death approaching over the shoulder of an oblivious young girl at play. We see nobility -- a wounded combat officer abandons his seat on a military flight to make room for one civilian among many -- and sacrifice. Death in this new Galactica is never sterile nor distant. And each death hurts the characters who survive.

I have not yet seen the series that followed this excellent introduction, but I'm eager to do so now. With a strong concept, a daring execution and a talented cast, Battlestar Galactica is poised to be a science-fiction classic ... again.

by Tom Knapp
17 June 2006

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