Sunday, February 13, 2005

Galactica, Then And Now

I remember the original Battlestar Galactica and not without a certain fondness. It was on the whole awful but on the whole it was a good sort of awful. The whole show was full of stock characters and they were one dimensional characters at that (to be honest that is an insult to one dimensional characters everywhere). It was formulaic. Take one handsome heroic type (the Richard Hatch who didn't get naked on Survivor), mix in a lovable rogue with a heart of gold as a sidekick (Dirk Benedict who took much the same character over to The A-Team) and a great mass of patriarch (Lorne Greene of course, playing the sort of character that he had been typecast as and had come to despise). Kick in some women who act solely as love interests for the younger males (one for the steadfast hero, two for the rogue with a heart of gold) and some generic supporting characters who only exist so that the hero and the sidekick can look good. As a villain bring on a scenery chewing traitor (Lord Baltar played by John Colicos who in real life was one of Lorne Greene's closest friends) backed by a bunch of faceless minions. Mix well and top with a cute kid and dog (or in this case a robot dog). As for the writing, the less said about that the better. It was usually a set of stock plots guaranteed to get a lot of action and not draw too much attention to the one dimensional nature of the characters. You want examples? Try these: hero separated from the group forced to combat one or more of the enemy in strange circumstances and emerge victorious; rogue with heart of gold searches for his "real" father and finds someone who says he is but then reveals he isn't except of course he is but doesn't feel worthy of his son; hero or rogue gets accused of murder he didn't commit and has to rely on his best friend to help him escape custody and find the real killer; etcetera etcetera. As for special effects, well let's just say that they blew most of the effects budget in the three hour pilot movie and reused every bit of spaceship footage and explosion footage (and even footage of the Cylons in their spaceships) that they could. When needed they even cut in footage from other Universal productions. In one episode I recall them using firefighting scenes from The Towering Inferno. It was a typical product of Universal Television in the 1970s, memorable but mostly for the wrong reasons.

The less said about Galactica 1980 the better. Let's just say "invisible flying motorcycles" and "super-scouts" and leave it at that. Oh yeah, it starred Kent McCord. That should tell you everything you need to know.

You can understand from that diatribe that I was looking toward the revival of Battlestar Galactica but not necessarily because I was overly fond of the original. My theory was that they couldn't possibly make anything worse and I wanted to see how much better it could be. The answer is a lot better starting with the theme music. The original Battlestar Galactica theme by Stuart Phillips and Glenn Larson was symphonic and heroic, as fitted the times but not necessarily the subject matter, while the melancholic new theme music reinforces the notion that this is the story of a people defeated and on the run. The casting is far tighter since one of the problems the original series suffered from was cast bloat - too many characters with very little to do - and the result has been to develop other characters and give them more depth. Making Starbuck into a woman while retaining the rogue with a heart of gold aspect, has eliminated the need for romantic entanglement for the two lead characters, even if that aspect is never developed. Adama as interpreted by Edward James Olmos is far less patriarch and much more a military leader, while his chief aide, Colonel Tigh, actually has a character (a troubled one), which couldn't be said for the corresponding character in the original series. The heroic characters are given a more "warts and all" characterization; they aren't perfect, they have flaws and more importantly they have conflicts. Indeed the show is is far more oriented to the characters rather than the action.

As for the villains, the basic run of Cylons are character-free automatons, as they should be. They aren't being commanded (badly) by a human traitor like the original Lord Baltar and indeed we know nothing of why they do what they do. Instead of being the robotic creations of a lizard-like species (a fiction dictated by the network or the studio during one of the periods when TV violence was under attack - shooting a robot is not as "violent" as shooting a living creature) the Cylons were originally created as a robotic workforce for humanity which rebelled, warred against their creators then disappeared to their own worlds until evolution allowed them to return to destroy humanity. The villains are more than adequately represented by the various "Cylon moles" - Cylons who look like humans and may not even know what they are - who have motives most of which we can't fathom. There is a interesting exchange between two of the Cylons in human form: "We are Humanity's children. They are our parents in a sense." "True, but parents have to die eventually. It's the only way children come into their own." For the most part, so far at least, the Cylons are like Winston Churchill's description of the Soviet Union: "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma".

Which brings us to perhaps the most interesting creation in the new series: Dr. Gaius Baltar. Instead of being a conventional traitor willingly selling out humanity for personal gain as in the original series, the Baltar on the current show is an inadvertent traitor, seduced - literally - by the Cylons. Baltar has survived the Cylon attack through a combination of circumstances, but he's been left emotionally unstable. He's torn between guilt over what he's done and fear of being discovered leaving self-preservation as his one overriding priority. His instability is exacerbated by a presence that only he can see, his Cylon lover, known as Number 6. We, and Baltar, don't know what she is. Is she merely an expression of Baltar's psyche, or is she a Cylon projection into his mind which is guiding him. For that matter is Baltar a human or is he a Cylon who doesn't know that he's a Cylon - something that's not entirely impossible given that Baltar survived the shockwave from a nuclear blast that destroyed his home and killed one of the bodies of his Cylon lover - and the vision of Number 6 is merely his way of interpretation of the instructions that are being sent to him. Whatever the reality, it causes Baltar to seem to the viewer to be almost schizophrenic with major swings in mood and attitude. In a solid cast, James Callis's performance as Baltar stands out.

Battlestar Galactica is one of those rarities, a old show that has not only been successfully revived but has been significantly improved in the revival. Well worth the effort to find and see.

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