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Battlestar Galactica: Season I

All of this has happened before… and will happen again.

With that line articulated by the Cylon Leoben Conroy in the episode Flesh and Bone, the producers and writers lay their cards on the table. Time is cyclical. Maybe for the grand design of human history, but most definitely for storytelling. Battlestar Galactica is possibly the most wonderfully dense and layoured piece of popular culture which I have had the joy of savouring since first cracking open Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It’s magical, it’s mystical, and it’s wonderful. How Ronald D. Moore turned a kitsch footnote in television science fiction history into this, I will never know. I am just thankful.

battlestar

Time's Arrow is cyclical...

Alright, I’ll be honest. There are times (especially in the middle of the first season) when the series looks to falter. When it seems unsure of how concrete an allegory to form, or whether to meditate upon the universal nature of its themes and hope for some resonance. I am of course speaking of Litmus, with it’s thinly-veiled jabs at the culture of paranoia which defined McCarthy-ism and even post-9/11 government thinking. The episode lays on its themes pretty heavy and (with it’s reliance on court examination and military procedures) seems relatively blunt next to the subtle exploration of humanity that we see throughout the season.

The thing is, after Litmus, the series is just on a long string of fantastic episodes which really hammer everything home. The early episodes – especially the fantastic series ‘pilot’ 33 – set up the universe and set in motion events which will echo throughout the run, but it’s the latter half of the season which takes the concepts articulated in earlier episodes and just run with them.

“Are you alive?” echoes throughout the season. We may rightly ask it of crashed Cylon raiders (like the one which Starbuck finds in You Can’t Go Home Again), but equally the Cylons may ask that of us (as Six does in the miniseries). Boomer may assure us that the raiders themselves are more like animals, but aren’t some of our own fighters (given “pet” names like Apollo and Hotdog and launched at our opponents). The series experiences a creepy moment of symmetry when Boomer steps out into a Cylon basestar to find it bleeding and pulsating, rich with tissue and membraine. It is easy to dehumanise (pardon the pun) the enemy, to feel the blinding rage which Starbuck feels when she finds out that the Sharon on Caprica is pregnant – if we don’t think of them as alive, they’re easier to kill.

Or maybe we feel more alive. The Six on Caprica is goaded that she longs to feel the pure love that only humanity is capable of. But we don’t really see any of that from the human characters in the show. Every relationship is strained – nothing is unconditional. Even the internal Adama family dynamic is shaken throught the series, ending with the younger Adama in chains and admonished by his father and commanding officer. Arguably the only individual on the show who displays unconditional love for another (or at least has demonstrated it at this point) is the Sharon on Caprica, staying with Halo even after he shoots her and guiding him away from the trap that the Cylons have set for him – even though the two could live in a Cylon-created paradise safe from harm, she forces him to forsake that for real knowledge and truth (like Adam and Eve).

The Cylons are in many ways more alive – at least metaphysically speaking – than us. Leoben can take the torture which Starbuck dishes out because he knows than his immortal soul will be spared. We can only assume that a similar logic underpins the suicide bombing by the Doral model and the willing sacrifice by the Sharon models aboard the doomed basestar. Why fear death when you know that your soul lives on? However, Leoben himself has doubts that his own soul may have ventured too far to be saved, to be resurrected. Sometimes our souls get lost or led astray. Sometimes we can stray from the righteous past and get lost in the void of space.

The series theme of cyclic history could arguably be based around the pattern of human history (no matter what the circumstances, we’ll always be the same flawed beings, as Saul Tigh in particular exemplifies with his demon drink and his relationship with his wife) or the show’s internal history (man against machine violence is suggested to be a recurring pattern – not just in the sense that this is the “Second” Cylon War), but I think it also reflects on the cyclic nature of storytelling. The show takes any number of plot points and ideas from all manner of ancient religious stories – the exodus of the twelve tribes, the chosen child, the betrayer, the union – and weaves them into one.

The show isn’t ambiguous about using such themes as story points, but it does draw attention to how often we encounter the same stories and patterns in tales heard down throughout history. We’ve all heard this story before – even if we don’t explicitly recognise it, or the players are different. The series takes great pleasure in weaving “the hand of god” throughout proceedings. It is more like the hand of the writer, tying up loose ends and connecting everything. If something occurs which defies reason but must happen to move the story on (Baltar guessing about the Cylon facilities in The Hand of God or Boomer being unable to launch the nuke in Kobol’s Last Gleaming), it is seen as the will of God playing out – subtly influencing affairs. In the same way that the storytellers or writers engage with their own stories or universes.

When I happened upon a few episodes of the show a few years ago, I was perplexed by the imagery of the “Opera House of the Gods” which emerges in the finale here. Temple of the Gods or Church of the Gods seems more appropriate. But this isn’t real life. This is drama. Drama belongs in an Opera House. This is, afterall, a space opera, as you may recall. The drama is set to an inaudible music – as Six reminds Baltar. It’s no small coincidence that when she is speaking of God’s music a powerhouse score by Bear McCreary is playing in the background. The characters must in someways be aware of the impact of their creators upon them. “All of this has happened before” could be a sly reference to the original series upon which the saga is ‘based’ (loosest possible terms).

But maybe I am reading too much into the post-modern aspects of the production. The show works equally well as an examination of religion or a society on the cusp of its own extinction. As Ronald D. moore points out, it is interesting to see humanity attached to classical notions of the gods and for Cylons (the villains) worshipping what arguably resembles the Judeo-Christian God. We are asked to sympathise with laura Rosalin’s fanaticism (for that is what it is) in a way that most shows would either be too cautious or too stupid to do in a modern or dignified manner. There’s been a lot said about how the show provides an interesting mirror on the War on Terror (to the point where the stars of the show hosted a panel at the UN). I think that to focus on the show in such narrow terms does it a disservice.

Yes, it does seem timely coming as it does, but I think it is more than simply a blunt analysis of our current circumstance. Religion has always been a divisive factor, as has the role of the military and the fear of annihilation by our own hands. I’d argue that when the show stops exploring the more general aspects of human existence and starts attempting to directly mirror current affairs is when it starts to risk collapsing under its own weight. The themes and ideas suggested within the story are timeless (it takes its core themes from the exodus, for crying out loud). It’s amazing that the show was able to get made, it’s so rich with symbolism and meaning.

All-in-all, pretty incredible.

The technical aspects of the production are generally as impressive. The show has great directors (the deft hand of star Edward James Olmos on Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down warrants particular attention) and an impressive score (Bear McCreary finally shows us what he’s worth after some small missteps during the miniseries). The shows looks impressive, be it the sundrenched apocalypse on the cities of Caprica or the CGI work in the space battles. There’s a lot of love here. It is worth mentioning that the transfer isn’t quite what it should be for a high definition release. There’s the same one camera good/other camera bad stuff that I noted on the original miniseries. And while I like the focus work in the outer space sequences, the grain seems to be far too dominent to be considered the subtle effect the creators no doubt intended.

The acting is near perfect. In particular the two leads – Olmos and Connell – are fantastic as parents of the still-embryonic new human race. James Callis and Tricia Helfer deserve particular mention as the two most complex characters in the equation – particularly Helfer, who is given a hell of a lot of heavy lifting to do dramatically, even though she doesn’t have a long filmography behind her.

Callis continues to impress as Baltar. Arguably the series’ biggest departure (rather than addition) to the canon of the original show, Baltar is no longer a mad cackling count, but a paranoid and unwilling dupe. Still a traitor to humanity, he is haunted by it. Perhaps not by the consequences of his actions (he’s too self-involved to really care), but by the prospect of being found out. Baltar is a traitor, but he isalso a saviour. He is the herald of the child, like a version of John The Baptist. Or is he Moses? We see him lie among the reeds and God’s will moves through his hands. He betrayed humanity, much as Moses betrayed the court of the Pharoah. He communicates with angels (and – though he does not speak to a burning bush – he has an encounter in a burning Raptor). Callis plays the character well, making him arrogant and narcissitic, but equally sympathetic. His role in the series is arguably much bigger than even he can believe – there’s a reason we open the entire show focused on his eye.

All in all, a pretty fantastic collection which finishes much stronger thn it starts. Though the early episodes set up things to come and the middle is weighed down by one hell of a clunker, the final five (ironically enough) episodes are nothing short of astounding. If you missed this show on television (and it’s quite possible you did), it’s well worth getting the collection so you can sit down and enjoy it at your own leisurely pace.

Interested in Battlestar Galactica? Check out our complete archive of reviews and discussions of the relaunched show:

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