RETROSPECULATIVE TV: “Battlestar Galactica” : What have we learned?

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And now we come to the time when we wave farewell to the original Galactica, and ponder what we’ve seen. What have we learned?

Well, we’ve learned that the critics were not wrong: It was a goofy, wildly uneven, frequently poorly-written show, particularly in the first third of its run, when the critics were paying attention.

At the same time, we’ve learned that the critics were wrong: Despite all the above, it was interesting and entertaining, and quite a bit more ambitious than any other SF series before it, including, yes, Star Trek.

We’ve learned that while BSG was undeniably a rather dumb show (Ancient Astronauts, an inability to tell the difference between a “Galaxy” and a “Solar System,” or between a “Planet” and a “Moon,” and at least five blatant ripoffs of well-known movies), it occasionally threw surprisingly smart ideas out of nowhere at you, like when Lucifer explains to Baltar that being a machine doesn’t mean you’re not alive.

We’ve learned that Battlestars are cool, and I’ve never understood why everyone seems to think that’s such a goofy name.

We’ve learned that Galactica was, in many ways, ahead of its time: sprawling ensemble cast, frequent use of minor recurring characters, lots of internal continuity, and even some mostly-accidental glimmerings of character arcs, mostly involving Starbuck. (He spurns Athena, and eventually settles in on Cassie. Likewise, Athena, who was hot and heavy for Starbuck, eventually makes peace with losing him, apparently) These were all pretty uncommon in TV SF of the period, though they’d become the standard in the next decade or two.

We’ve learned that, apart from the haircuts and the makeup, the show has aged well. Deciding to go with costumes completely unrelated to our own time, and deliberately-clunky sets gives it a somewhat timeless quality.

We’ve learned that some shows are born to die.

We’ve learned that no battle plan, nor series bible survives the first ten minutes of combat, nor network scheduling. BSG started out as the Exodus in space, centered on Moses/Adama, with his family functioning as a Star Trekian troika: Adama as an elder Kirk, Athena as McCoy, Apollo as Spock. This fell apart literally by the end of the second episode. The show was intended to be a series of TV movies, but that fell apart before it hit the air. The show was then intended to do the Trek planet-of-the-week thing, but that proved impractical almost immediately, and was ditched halfway through the series. They weren’t able to maintain the special effects.

We’ve learned that accepting your initial plan failed, and rolling with it can actually give you something far more interesting than the original plan entailed. “Planet of the Week” is dull, but Galactica’s increasing explorations of life in the fleet, its own semi-supernatural mythology, and the extended ‘Terra’ arc was all pretty interesting, and something that had never really been done before in an American show. Granted, BSG was a train wreck in progress, but it was an ambitious train wreck that fought to keep itself on the rails until the bitter end (As opposed to stupid shows like “Man From Atlantis” or the 2nd season of Space: 1999), and while it never quite found itself, it went in interesting and unpredictable ways.

We’ve learned that Apollo - either this version, or the RDM version - isn’t a very interesting character, and is a poor choice for the principle protagonist for a series. Keep that in mind, whomever reboots Galactica the next time. Supporting characters, such as Starbuck and even Boomer can easily overshadow a lead who’s not at all compelling, as Apollo wasn’t. It’s worth noting that this is not in any way the fault of Richard Hatch, nor even Jamie Bamber. Apollo is just a schlub.

We’ve learned that incorporating children into an adventure show of this sort is never a particularly good idea, since it annoys adults, slows the plot to a crawl, and bores kids. (Kids don’t want to watch kids on these kinds of shows, they want to pretend to be adventurous adults). That said, they did this whole thing about as well as they could with “Boxey,” using him mainly as a vehicle for exposition, and the occasional bit of peril. Also, it was a nice touch giving Apollo something to come home for, even if it was a bit obtrusive.

We’ve discovered that having two, two, two prominent black people in your cast allows you to sidestep charges of simply complying with quotas, *and* it allows you to depict black people as having independent characters and personalities, which is a super-huge nice touch on a ‘70s show. Tigh had a conservative, not-leadership-related subordinate personality. Boomer was more adventurous. Also: Herbert Jefferson, Jr, is a pretty compelling presence.

We’ve learned that Maren Jensen is still drop-dead gorgeous across all these years, and I still have a huge ol’ crush on her from this show. We’ve learned that Laurette Spang is, you know, kinda’ pretty and all, but it always seemed kinda’ forced when we’re told how hot and amazing she is, when she’s clearly not nearly so pretty as Athena. We have not learned, however, how she ended up leaving the show, and I doubt we ever will.

We’ve learned that you can do religion and SF together, though the results will almost invariably end up being heretical, regardless of what faith one practices.

We’ve learned that the Cylons are much more complex than most people remember: They have civilians, warriors, gold “Officer” warriors, Command-level cylons like Lucifer and Spectre, and the Imperious Leader himself. We’ve learned that they value their lives, and won’t throw them away ungrudgingly. We’ve learned that duplicity and backstabbing are considered desirable traits in the IL series, and that the most duplicitous eventually gets promoted to Imperious Leader. We’ve learned that Count Iblis, the devil, was in some way related to the destruction of the original organic Cylons, and the institution of the current system. We’ve learned that the Cylons consider humans a major threat, but don’t consider clones to be one at all. We’ve learned that Cylons are not above slave labor.

We’ve learned that Stu Phillip’s original Galactica theme is one of the best pieces of music written for TV, ever.

We’ve learned that getting locked into a one-sentence premise (“Let’s flee the Cylons and find earth!”) can be very limiting, and so you have to feel free to add to that (“Whups, we’re involved in a war between angels and devils” “Say, what’s up with this ‘Terra’ thing?”) to make your universe feel less claustrophobic. This is a lesson Ronald D. Moore would have done well to learn, but seemingly deliberately avoided.

We’ve learned that the colonials had cloning technology, which evidently made the destruction of the colonies a bit less of a case for extinction than it was in the RDM show. They had no fear of AIs.

We’ve learned that you can’t trust a network.

We’ve learned and/or strongly suspect that human life arose on Kobol, which then abandoned the planet in the midst of an ecological collapse. Using super-high technology, thirteen worlds were colonized, but this effort overstrained available cultural and technological resources, and civilization on the colonies collapsed and started over more-or-less from scratch.

We’ve learned that the Galactica was more than 500 years old, has been retrofitted many times, and may have been quite a bit slower when she was new, and that command of such a ship might well be a family thing.

We’ve learned that Character Erosion was particularly bad on the Adama family.

We’ve learned that Vipers have some kind of ability to keep a pilot alive for weeks at a time in flight. (I’m assuming some sort of “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun” H/K/L machine they plug into)

We’ve learned that no one on this show knew a darn thing about science, and couldn’t even use their own invented terms consistently.

We’ve learned that Baltar is a pretty compelling character, hampered only by having to lose every week.

We’ve learned that the producers have a thing for having young cute chicks making out with guys way too old for them (Lloyd Bridges, Patrick McNee).

We’ve learned that the miniatures used in Galactica are all still pretty schwee.

We’ve learned that the hate foisted off on this show by thirty years of people who can’t tell it apart from the thoroughly execrable “Galactica: 1980” and ten years of people who only know the RDM show is unjustified. It’s not the greatest show ever, by a longshot, but if it was so terrible then why did RDM remake it? Obviously there must have been something good in here, right? Why, then, visit so much hate on something the “New Testament Galactica” fans either knew only by reputation, or by very faulty memory?

Most importantly, and finally, we’ve discovered that the sum of the parts is sometimes greater than the whole.