Almost all television shows, from ER to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reach a point at which they cease to revolve around their concepts and begin to focus with great import on the tortured souls of their characters. There is an argument to be made that Ronald D. Moore's re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica reached this point more quickly than almost any other science fiction show in history.
The trend appeared as early as the premiere episode of Battlestar Galactica's first season, which followed on from the effects-laden gee-whiz space opera of a widely lauded SciFi Channel miniseries. Entitled "33," it examined in tense detail how constant retreat from a relentless foe would affect a crew of flawed individuals. This is no Star Trek: there is no one on this crew without a serious character flaw, be it alcoholism or poor judgement.
Season 2's first episode, "Scattered," throws us right back into the plot as it was left at the end of Season 1. Bill Adama, commander of Galactica, has been shot several times in the stomach by Cylon assassin and Galactica crewmember Sharon "Boomer" Valerii; several characters are stranded on the jungle world of Kobol; and pilot Kara "Starbuck" Thrace has been reunited with stranded infantryman Karl "Helo" Agathon on the devastated human colony of Caprica. The compressed sense of time continues throughout the season's first four episodes: at most, they cover a few days' action between them, a tiny amount of time usually covered in a single instalment of a more conventional series.
As much as these hours are therefore packed with the kind of taut plotting one is used to seeing from a more event-oriented show like 24, Battlestar Galactica does not shy away from issues. Its very premise—that of a fanatical and implacable enemy able to infiltrate society and leave no trace of doing so—is tailored to our times, but we are never hit over the head with the theme. Rather, the show looks at the moral, political, emotional, and religious difficulties that can be encountered in such an era. In these four episodes, foremost among the quandaries is the question of what makes one human. Several of the characters have fallen in love with Cylons (both knowingly and unknowingly), and two are allegedly the fathers-to-be of Cylon-human hybrids. (There is a question to be asked of the show concerning its choice to invariably depict the seduction of male humans by evil seductress robots, but that's a contentious point for another essay.) Both Starbuck and the usually affable Chief Tyrol point out that machines can't feel, that software is incapable of love; but the viewer cannot deny the strength of emotion the human characters experience for their synthetic paramours. In episode four, "Resistance," strong parallels are drawn between the Cylons and the humans, making it impossible to believe in the cast-iron demonisation of the Cylons as glorified "toasters."
For their part, the Cylons hold as the principal defining quality of humanity its will to destructiveness. Number Six, the beautiful female Cylon who is both real and a figment of Vice President Baltar's shredded imagination, holds that the politician is "a man" only when he murders someone. Yet what we see of humanity in these episodes is more optimistic: it exhibits a desire and drive to maintain the communities humans instinctively build (the purpose of Galactica's fleet, and the driving principle of both the humans stranded on Kobol and the resistance Starbuck and Helo encounter on Caprica). Nevertheless, to do so the military believes it must declare martial law and dissolve human democracy, whilst President Roslin begins to exploit religious dogma (and even fundamentalism) in order to shore up her power base. The Cylons argue that they murdered humans on a massive scale because their creators taught them well; those creators use the Cylons as an excuse to take extreme positions. The lines between the two thus become progressively more blurred in virtually every way.
Much of this complex action revolves around the difficulties faced by the new commander. Adama's second-in-command, Saul Tigh, is a henpecked alcoholic with no interest in command. He is painfully aware of his own flaws, even as he indulges them, and actor Michael Hogan gets some of the best scenes and lines in these first few episodes of the season. He is not alone in turning in a superb performance: Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck, James Callis as unhinged traitor Gaius Baltar, and Aaron Douglas, playing Chief Tyrol, all put in similarly assured work. But the most startling thing about Battlestar Galactica is that it is a true ensemble show—no single episode can be said to concentrate on any one character—and that the entire cast is equal to the job.
This is fortunate, because Battlestar Galactica feels in these episodes most akin to a science fiction soap opera. The show has been accused of being military pornography, and in some of the Kobol scenes—particularly those which put the Chief through a moral and emotional wringer of frankly cruel dimensions—there is certainly something of this Boy's Own fetishism. But in truth the show shares more with character-based serial dramas than it does Commando books—focussing on character work and progression of the wider arc, the individual plots of the episodes are often quite thin: losing and then finding the fleet (via defeating a Cylon computer virus at the last minute), for example, or Galactica being boarded by Cylons (the crew defeating their plan at the last minute).
The episodes do not fail to grip, however, and this is principally because watching them is a little like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Each scene seems to bring another calamity, and as late as the final moments of the fourth episode, "Resistance," yet another thing goes wrong. In part, this is because Tigh is so inadequate a commander. In part, it is because the other characters, too, have their conflicting agendas: President Roslin attempting to break out of prison and overturn the military coup seen at the end of season one; Balthar, responsible for the Cylon destruction of Caprica, fumbling towards his own twisted version of redemption and significance; Adama's pilot son, Apollo, torn between allegiance to the military and allegiance to democracy. Moore has populated his show with a cast of characters that engage the viewer more than the average SG-1/Event Horizon/Starship Troopers military cutout, and is confident enough in this strength to hold off on reintroducing most of the first season's hanging plot threads until halfway through episode three.
Indeed, it is confidence that most characterises this show. Though fast, it is never easy or simple, and the second season looks likely to be even darker and more challenging than the first. It also seems, however, that the show will be returning with some emphasis to its weakest element: the prophecy which turns Galactica's travails into a retread of the story of the 13 tribes of Israel, with Roslin as a more approachable and humane Moses. In so thoroughly updating the original show, it is curious that Moore would choose to keep so heavy-handed and hokey an heirloom as this. In other areas, his examination of religion, via the polytheism of the humans and the fervent monotheism of the Cylons, is subtle and interesting; but the prophecy remains rather too forced and redolent of cyclical historiography to be so far anything but an annoying plot contrivance.
Similarly, the Cylons sometimes appear to make little sense: having killed one of the Chief's men on Kobol, they let the survivors go without a peep; having previously been seen using agents only to sabotage Galactica, in the second episode they attempt to destroy it outright. Ultimately, though, the show remains in its early days (that first season was a mere 13 episodes in length) and with everything else going on—the show juggles a dizzying array of plots and characters in these four episodes, and does so with considerable skill—it's worth giving Moore and his team a little time to improve upon and explain these niggles. Because, frankly, it's the characters, stupid.
Dan Hartland is a freelance creative thinker figuring out what to think. A writer and musician of the inverted commas variety, he splits his time equally between these two things and procrastination. He comes to science fiction from outside the genre, and is a little too happy to remain a gadfly.
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