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Barbarians at the Gate: Why the Frack Haven't I Been Watching "Battlestar Galactica" Until Now?

Longtime readers of this blog may recall my exuberance and excitement when I finally caved to the pressure of a certain coworker and ordered Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series from Netflix about two months ago.

I was shocked by how quickly and easily I was sucked into the story of the Galactica and her crew after the near genocide of the human race by their robotic former slaves, the Cylons. The 2003 mini-series, which kickstarted the Battlestar Galactica relaunch (as re-envisioned for the 21st century by exec producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick), was gripping, thrilling, and action-packed. I was instantly hooked and hungry for more BSG, eagerly gobbling up the subsequent discs as they arrived from Netflix. And fortunately, thanks to an Emmy screener box set (which included Seasons 2.0 and 2.5, the latter of which is currently unavailable on DVD), I managed to finally catch up on rest of the series.

I was blown away. The mini-series couldn't have prepared me for what was in store for the actual series of Battlestar Galactica, an ambitious, layered drama that is unflinchingly political. As much about shoot 'em up sci-fi action as it is about the politics of war and survival in the face of a, well, faceless enemy, Battlestar Galactica offers the best metaphor for life in post-9/11 America that I've seen on television. I certainly can't think of another show--much less one lumped in the oft-denigrated sci-fi genre--that has managed to tackle issues ranging from fixed presidential elections to terrorist attacks to the abuse of POWs/enemy combatants to the dangers of martial law to abortion rights, all in the guise of a space opera.

It helps that the series' characters are so well-drawn and so deeply flawed, from XO Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), a belligerent drunk who is nonetheless completely loyal to his commanding officer, Admiral Adama, yet also so easily manipulated by his shrewish wife Ellen (Kate Vernon), to Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), whose bluster and tough-girl armor conceals the vulnerable heart of a scared and scarred abuse survivor. Starbuck's incessant criticism of Tigh only rings more and more true the harder she keeps hitting the bottle herself. Wild, uncontrollable, and risk-driven, she's a brilliant tactician, but a walking disaster. Her polar opposite is Lee "Apollo" Adama (Jamie Bamber), the Admiral's son; Lee is cool, collected, and level-headed but a near-death experience (one of several it seems) leaves him shaken and questioning the purpose of their mission. If Lee stops believing, who among them will continue the good fight? Military leader William Adama (a regal Edward James Olmos) is constantly torn between the twin responsibilites of family and duty; having lost one son to death, can he lose another? Meanwhile, cancer-stricken Colony President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) is forced to become the very thing she's been fighting against in order to survive, both physically and philosophically. While Roslin has proven that she has the chops to lead this ragtag group of survivors--she's cunning and savvy while also managing to retain her inherent belief in the goodness of mankind--she's turned somewhat cold and Machiavellian of late. Especially as she's become increasingly attuned to the dangers of her elected Vice President, Gaius Baltar (James Callis), the oily former scientist who brought their very civilization down around their heads.

Baltar himself is a man of such conflicting desires, aided in his mad quest for power by the Cylon Number Six (Tricia Helfer), an enemy operative that he had fallen in love with before the attack who sacrificed herself to save him. In some unknown fashion, Number Six exists inside his head, only visible to Baltar himself, and she manipulates him like a devil sitting on his shoulder, whispering evil thoughts into his ear about God's will (the Cylons curiously believe in the notion of a monotheistic God, in opposition to the humans' pantheon), sleeper agents, nuclear warheads, or a host of other plots and schemes that she urges Baltar to unleash on the unsuspecting crew of Galactica. (In a truly mind-boggling twist, Season 2.5 showed us what had happened to the Number Six model who had saved Baltar back on Caprica... and she seems to have a Baltar insider her head. Curiouser and curiouser...)

One of the issues that the recent season often addresses is the philosophical implications of war. When you're fighting monsters, it's often easy to become one yourself and this viewpoint is directly addressed when the Galactica encounters another Battlestar from their fleet, the Pegasus, and their military leader, Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes), a ruthless tyrant who has completely lost any trace of her humanity. If Adama represents Martin Luther King in this struggle, then Cain is Malcolm X; her viewpoint is that the ends justify the means and she is not above using any means necessary to win the war. Even if that means conscripting civilians, murdering the families of those objectors, stripping the civilian fleet's ships for personnel, parts, and metal, and looking the other way when her violent crew savagely beats and systematically rapes a Cylon agent (another Number Six unit) who is discovered among the crew.

Inasmuch as the series is about skirmishes with the Cylons in the darkness of deep space, it's also about the difficult decisions that we are all called to make in times of war. Adama has to contend with a group of Cylon-sympathizers who want the fleet to surrender to their enemies and who aren't above using violence to achieve their goal of peaceful coexistence with the very beings who decimated their race. President Roslin must battle with the religious right who want her to outlaw abortion, which had until then been legal under colony law. (It doesn't help that the Cylon prisoner on board Galactica--a.k.a. Sharon Valerii (Grace Park)--is about to give birth to some human/Cylon hybrid.) Forced to decide whether to continue to fight for a woman's right to choose as she had her entire career, or bow to political pressure, Roslin ultimately does go against her own beliefs and outlaws the practice, if only because they need to reproduce in order to keep the human race alive. It's a calculated error that leaves the door open for the traitorous Baltar to make his own bid for the presidency. It's a move that will open up a Pandora's Box of intergalactic proportions and ultimately unleash a host of new (and deadlier) problems for the survivors to tackle. Will the last remnants of humanity buckle under the coming onslaught? Or will the fleet hold onto that one last object left in Pandora's Box: hope?

It's going to be an excruciatingly long wait until the third season of Battlestar Galactica starts this fall (the third season premiere is tentatively scheduled for 24 September). I'm now a convert, a New Caprican versed in the scriptures, a loyal follower of Galactica. And if the Lords of Kobol are listening, they'll make the time between now and this fall go by quickly... because I am itching to see how Apollo and Starbuck, Adama and Roslin, Baltar and Number Six, and all the others, get out of this mess. So say we all.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: The King of Queens/How I Met Your Mother (CBS); 7th Heaven (WB); Wife Swap (ABC); Hell's Kitchen (FOX; 8-10 pm); One on One/All of Us (UPN)

9 pm: Two and a Half Men/The New Adventures of Old Christine (CBS); Dateline (NBC; 9-11 pm); 7th Heaven (WB); Supernanny (ABC); Girlfriends/Half & Half (UPN)

10 pm: CSI: Miami (CBS); How to Get the Guy (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8-10 pm: Hell's Kitchen.

For those of you suffering from Top Chef withdrawal (or those of you who wished Top Chef had a sadistic, ex-soccer player for a head chef), here's your TV methodone. On tonight's two-hour premiere, English chef Gordon Ramsay meets the twelve hopeful chefs who need to impress him in order to earn a gig as an executive chef (Gordon usually laughs at executive chefs!) at an exclusive restaurant in Las Vegas. This season, it's Apprentice-style with the men versus the women. And fortunately there's no sign of Top Chef's Stephen...

10 pm: Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on the Travel Channel.

In this week's installment ("Korea") of my Travel Channel favorite, Tony's back in the Far East. Seoul, Korea, to be precise, where he'll sample a local delicacy of live baby octopi. Hey Tony, do me a favor and show The Amazing Race's Chip and Reichen how it's done.

11 pm: Lovespring International on Lifetime.

It's the second episode of the hilarious improvised comedy, Lovespring International. On tonight's episode ("Lydia's Perfect Man"), Lovespring employee Lydia (Wendi McLendon-Covey) meets her perfect match, who just happens to be a new client (guest star Eric McCormack, who executive produces the series). Um, hate to break it to you, Lydia, but I wouldn't get too attached to him if I were you...

Comments

Anonymous said…
I also came to "Battlestar" late in the game and have to say that it's now one of my favorite shows of all time. BSG has replaced the hole in my heart that was left when they yanked Joss Whedon's brilliant "Firefly" from the air. The shows share many similar themes and even resemble each other in the way they are shot. Ultimately, both shows are unique but they prove that Sci-Fi is not a genre to be sneezed at.
Anonymous said…
So say we all!
Anonymous said…
So let me get this straight - the future of humanity is hanging on freaking abortion rights? And you say this show is actually good?
Unknown said…
i came in late to BSG as well. although i have no love for the mini-series(i still haven't seen the whole thing) i absolutely adore the regular series.

don't forget that the sci fi channel offers up commentary of each episode on it's aired night. http://www.scifi.com/battlestar/downloads/podcast/

the new doctor who series does the same.

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