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Battlestar Galactica – The Miniseries

I recently picked up Battlestar Galactica on bluray, the complete series boxset, including every episode and special. I’d wandered in and out of the series over the years (mainly due to the fact that I was at college during its run) and when this package was released I decided that it might well be worth my time to pick up the whole kit and kaboodle on watch it through from beginning to end. So, for the first time, I watched the 2003 miniseries which had served as launching pad for the series. While I’m not entirely happy with the bluray itself, I am very satisfied with the programme.

Guess who's coming to dinner?

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

There are people who will tell you that Battlestar Galactica isn’t science fiction, that it’s too good for that name (these are more than likely those who say that The Road equally isn’t science fiction because it was written by Cormac McCarthy). This is a lie. Battlestar Galactica is science fiction. It’s science fiction at its best.

It’s any number of things. It’s a post-apocalyptic drama in the style of the British new wave of science fiction in the 1960s, it’s an examination of religion as a basis for genocide, it’s a look at how societies respond under threat from foes who could be anyone, it’s a biblical reinterpretation, it’s a saga, it’s a fable, it’s a richly-constructed character drama, or a cynical deconstruction of society. It’s all these and much, much more.

It’s hard to believe that this show originated in that camptastic effort of the 1970s. Rather than mercilessly aping its predecessor, the team of writers (headed by the ever-excellent Ronald D. Moore) use it as a springboard. If humanity were wiped out, what burden would that place on survivors? Does humanity even deserve to survive? That’s a theme that echoes through the show – and it’s a brave question to ask. All of the characters are flawed, none are the epitome of humanity’s compassion or virtue. They are faced with any number of complex ethical decisions – who do they save, who do they leave behind?

The miniseries launches itself headlong into these issues – it makes its points clear. Survival may not be pleasant, humanity may need to do horrible things to endure and to last. And the series doesn’t shy from showing the consequences of these actions. There’s no false hope behind any of the sacrifices, and – even when those in charge offer that false reassurance – the audience always knows that it is a lie. Lots of people have dies, and lots of survivors have let them die.

A large amount of the action in this four-hour miniseries takes place at a disused arms depot named the Ragnor Anchorage. How appropriate that it echoes Ragnarok, the Norse storm at the end of the world (the station even sits in the eye of a storm). How much more appropriate that it echoes through Wagner’s Ring Cycle, ending in The Twilight of the Gods. This may not be the twilight of the gods, but perhaps the twilight of man. And it certainly is the end of the world.

The miniseries is at once hotly topic and utterly timeless. The Cylons kill because their god compels them to. It is equally faith that motivates the colonial fleet. Rather than the chrome toasters all of us recall from the original series, the most common form that the Cylons take is that of normal human beings – the blonde bombshell form of Tricia Helfer, for example – meaning that they could be your friends or your neighbours, seeking to kill you in the name of their faith. It’s a universal theme, but one that seems particularly relevent in the current climate.

There are dozens upon dozens of ideas packed on into the miniseries, most of which would be expanded upon (and added to) during the show’s run. The most obvious is the exploration of humanity’s potential, how it acts when threatened. The new show makes several sweeping changes to the mythos (the redesigned Cylons, the genders of various characters), but the biggest change is the character of Gaius Baltar. In the original, he was a raving egomaniac who betrayed humanity to the attacking creations, cackling and chewing scenery as he did. Here he’s still a traitor, but an unwilling one. He is haunted more by fear of discover than by guilt, but he is still haunted. As the miniseries goes on, he receives strange visions and insights (possibly from the Cylons, but possibly from his own subconscious), but he is constantly driven by his will to survive. James Callis steals every scene he’s in as a traitor who is all too human, too flawed.

The miniseries is helped tremendously by a fantastic cast. In particular the Oscar-nominated leads – Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell – are sensational, helping audience accept the spectacle with which they are presented. Virtually every other actor gives a command performance, but Jamie Bamber stands out as Apollo, the son caught between his father’s military training and the civilian administration; Callum Keith Rennie as a strange arms dealer on a forgotten space station; and the aforementioned Callis and Hefler.

The other aspect of the show which makes it so easy to embrace is the design. Nothing is extra-shiny space-age, with the producers and set designers obviously having decided on a minimalist presentation of a space-faring culture. There are no transporters, phones still look like phones and mothers still push prams. There are a few minor things to remind the viewer they aren’t watching a regular drama – check out Baltar’s fish swimming in his jugs or the fact that every piece of paper has the corners cut off. It lets the viewer know that this isn’t their world, but doesn’t labour the point. The sets aboard the Galactica could just as easily be an undergorund bunker (they are too spacious to be a ship or submarine) and the interior of Colonial One reminds the viewer of the inside of a plane (with the swearing-in of Laura Rosalin clearly meant to recall the accension of Lyndon B. Johnston).

It’s a minor thing, but I really appreciated that the show accepts that there is no relative up or down in space. Ships are constructed with three tops, for example (if that makes sense) , or the skylight on one ship faces the port capin of another. It’s a nice little effect that all-too-often gets ignored in fiction (as does the notion that thrust is what drives ships, not a steady fuel burn – note the way the fighters move).

Unfortunately the CGI in the miniseries doesn’t really hold up. It looks fake. Admittedly things would get better in the coming years, but it’s quite a jarring start. The effects aren’t terrible, but they do remind the viewer of something seen on a late-night made-for-television movie. I wasn’t too impressed with the High Definition transfer. Watching footage of interior scenes, I can’t help but feel that the scenes were shot using multiple cameras, only one of which was equipt for high definition – the other is noticeably speckled and grainy.

It’s a shame about these two factors, because I really enjoyed the direction of the show. Scenes were shot well, tension was efficiently produced and the exterior effects shots have a lovely person touch missing in most effects-driven works. The exterior cameras will track objects, or take a moment to focus, or shake or maybe even interact with their environment. It’s almost a shame that the decision was made to include the traditional space-bound sound effects (as sound can’t travel in vacuum), given how faithful the miniseries is in other ares, but the deathly shriek of the Cylon attack ships is so chilling that I can forgive it that.

I did notice the background music was (just a tad) melodramatic, but I don’t remember it being noticeable when I watched the show. In fairness, it’s mostly appropriate (with the beating of the war drums), but it did overwhelm the events occurring on screen from time totime.

All in all, a fantastically constructed miniseries, well worth my time (and yours too). Its strong premise and fantastic acting and writing help overcome a few minor technical complaints (which the show fixes itself in the long-run). As far as science-fiction goes, televised science-fiction hasn’t been this good in quite some time.

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

15 Responses

  1. Grace Park and Tricia Helfer are currently promoting the heck out of the new Battlestar Galactica The Plan. Even better, these Battlestar babes did a sexy Maxim photo shoot. Go Galactica Go!

  2. I bought and sat down to watch BSG Season 1 last week and quickly learned that the miniseries should have been my first port of call. I’m now awaiting the boxset instead. In the meantime, I have discovered a Richard Hatch cruise:


    There’s a Star Trek cruise too, but I’m more drawn to the many disturbing qualities of the Richard Hatch cruise 🙂

    • That’s a little weird, isn’t it? He has been on TV in a starring role in… quite some time.

      Yep, I think they should package the miniseries with the first season, as it is effectively a pilot. But where there’s money to be made…

  3. It’s almost as unsettling as the Cosplay Cruise.


    For the moment, I’ll just be borrowing the boxset.

  4. I watched most of the miniseries on my laptop last night.

    Oh my God.

    It’s more addictive than Carnivale!

    • It is, isn’t it? And the actual show is even better.

      • Yep, I’ve heard that it’s get even better as time goes on. Over the past year I’ve studied the show way too much. I’m trying to forget everything I read and watch it like a freshfaced geek. On the other hand, it’s kind of nice watching it so far and recognising bits and pieces as I go along. Can’t wait for Season 1.

      • Yep, 33 Minutes (the opening episode) is one of the best hours of television ever made. It’s just so simple, so effective and so brilliantly constructed.

  5. Oh, and does the m0vie blog have any posts on Carnivale? Especially Brother Justin?
    I can’t seem to track down any.

    • I don’t I’m afraid. I seem to remember that coming out around the time that Deadwood started, and I had to pick one to follow (I think it was my Leaving Cert year). I have to admit that I lost Deadwood too (planning on picking up the blu-ray, though). Is Carnivale good, then?

      • I loved it. For a start, I just loved the whole atmosphere of it. I even loved the advertising around it! :

        If you’re thinking of watching it and are looking for a spoiler-free clip, “Samson’s Monologue” is probably the most spoiler-free. I really like the promo for Season 2, but I wouldn’t recommend looking at it until after you would finish watching the show.

        TG4 often manage to sneak in cancelled shows like Carnivale and Freaks & Geeks.

      • I’ll keep an eye out for that, thanks.

  6. I hate to quibble, but it would help the audience to “accept”, not “except”.

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