March 23rd, 2009 by Mike Fulton

The series finale of Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009 version) was on TV a few nights ago.  I didn’t really watch it, because I’m still trying to catch up on previous episodes on DVD and TiVo, but I skimmed through a bit.  It looks awfully good, and I can’t wait to get caught up so I can really watch it.

So if I haven’t watched the finale yet, what am I reviewing here?  Well, really the entire Battlestar Galactica experience, I guess.  I don’t know if “review” is really the right idea but it’s close enough.

The Premise

Storywise, the basic premise of BSG is really nothing more than the bible story of the Exodus moved into space.  In the Exodus, facing annihilation, the Jews have to flee from the Egyptians and head for the Promised Land.  Insert “Cylons” for “Egyptians”, “Colonists” instead of “Jews” and “Earth” for “Promised Land” and you have BSG.  Far from original, but if you have to be “inspired” by another story it’s not a terrible choice.

The human civilization in BSG is the “Twelve Tribes of Kobol”, a collection of twelve separate planets that were colonized by the people of the planet Kobol at some point in the past.  Kobol is supposedly the birthplace of humanity, but for some reason never quite explained, it was abandoned when the twelve colonies were established.

The “movie” that launched the series begins with the Cylons and humans about to sign an armistice when the Cylons launch a sneak attack that all but wipes out all twelve colonies simultaneously.  The surviving humans rally around the last remaining Battlestar, Galactica, a sort of space aircraft carrier.  Together they leave the colonies behind in search of refuge, their hopes pinned on the idea of finding the lost thirteenth colony, Earth.

The Original Show

I realize it dates me, but I was in high school when the first version of Battlestar Galactica hit TV screens.  I watched the show and enjoyed it, but even then I had no trouble recognizing it as the network TV version of science fiction.  You know, science fiction created by network executives who had recently noticed that science fiction was popular, so they had better make some sort of “Dynasty in Space” to take advantage of that.  I was into REAL science fiction and I desperately wanted to see good science fiction on TV.  What I got was Battlestar Galactica (BSG).

The TV networks have a tendancy to look towards the familiar, but even so, why they thought Glen Larson was the go-to guy for creating their big science fiction experiment is beyond me.  The closest approach to science fiction he’d made previously was an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. You had to appreciate that they were at least making an effort, but it’s just a shame they couldn’t have gotten some actual science fiction writers involved.

When the original show first came out, there were those that claimed it was nothing more than a ripoff of Star Wars.  I suppose one could make the argument that there were a number of similar visual elements, but then again the same is going to be true for any two things that feature space combat.  But other than the visuals, there really wasn’t much in common between the two.

Original or not, the real problem with the original BSG was never the overall premise.  The problem was when they deviated from advancing the main plot.  As is often true with a TV series that has an arcing storyline, the original BSG series alternated between episodes that advanced the overall story, and episodes that mostly had nothing to do with the overall story.  As a general rule, those which advanced the overall story were pretty decent.  Unfortunately, the remaining episodes were often just plain bad, such as “The Lost Warrior” which featured a Cylon gunfighter in an old-west setting.

Aside from that, the other problem was all the stupid little goofy crap that was found in each episode.  They spent a lot of time and effort on making sure the audience knew “We’re in space here, people! See, this isn’t a regular salt shaker, it’s a SPACE salt shaker” or something like that.  I’ll admit that’s a made-up example.  I’d cite something specific, but my brain has done it’s best to block it all out. If you’ve seen the show, you know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t seen it, why are you reading this?

Still, at the time, I enjoyed the original BSG despite the many problems.  However, I’ve got to say that when I’ve caught old episodes on TV in more recent years, I’ve found it very difficult to watch.  It’s just plain hard to take seriously.  And it has nothing to do with the quality of the special effects, either.  The look and feel of the show just feels very dated.  I don’t mean “old”, either.  I mean, it looks like late 70’s television.  An episode of the original “Star Trek” looks old, but with the exception of the hair styles, it’s not really tied to the late 60’s in particular.  The original BSG, on the other hand, looks every bit as much tied to the late 70’s as an episode of Charlie’s Angels.

Galactica 1980

And then there was Galactica 1980.  Sigh…  Despite getting good ratings its first season, ABC decided to cancel BSG.  The rumor at the time was that the show was just too expensive to make, which I’m sure was a factor. Keep in mind that this was still several years before the use of computers would make special effects work orders of magnitude more affordable.

The fans kept crying for the show’s return, and ultimately ABC premiered Galactica 1980 (G1980) as a mid-season replacement. The new premise was that the Galactica had found Earth in contemporary times and discovered that its level of technology was not sufficient to aid in the war with the Cylons.  So they drop off a team of agents charged with the mission of covertly improving Earth’s technology while the Galactica leads the fleet away from Earth before it’s discovered by the Cylons.  Oh, and did I mention they also dropped off all the children from the fleet, with the idea that they’d be safer on Earth.

This show had so many things wrong with it I don’t even know where to start.  Undoubtedly, one of the mandates from ABC for this show was that it be cheaper to produce than the original BSG.  Moving the show from space to Earth in contemporary times meant saving a lot of money on sets, locations, and costumes.  Allegedly the original cast members were asked to return, but many were already involved in other projects.  So they ended up recasting most of the show.

Unfortunately, the original audience had been tuning in every week to watch a giant space epic.  Move everything to mundane everyday Earth, take away the original setting and most of the audience’s favorite characters and still expect people to watch? Sometimes I’m surprised TV executives have the brainpower to tie their shoes in the morning.  Then again, they probably have “people” for that.

After the ratings dropped steadily over first few episodes, the execs at ABC and Universal must have realized that “Galactica 1980” was not what people wanted, so they changed the title sequence to say “Battlestar Galactica” again.  Of course, this didn’t make a difference as anybody with half a brain (meaning everybody but TV executives) could tell that this wasn’t the show they wanted.

One question I always wanted to ask was, if the guys they dropped off were supposed to be helping Earth’s technological advancement, why did they select a couple of Viper pilots?  Why not a couple of engineers?  Or given that they were dropping off the kids too, why not a science teacher?   Certainly there had to be better options than taking people off the combat pilot roster?

Perhaps the biggest problem with this show was the whole “Professor Zee” thing.  This character was a young boy who is presented as some sort of mutant super genius that has taken up the role of the Galactica’s intellectual and spiritual leader, not to mention being a super-scientist who invents new gadgets on demand as required by that week’s plot.  Remember the earlier comparison to the story of the Exodus?  G1980’s final episode continues the biblical parallels by casting Zee in what amounts to the role of Christ.  This episode reveals the fate of the Starbuck and shows us that Zee was the child of a pregnant woman whom mysteriously appears from another dimension (or so she claims), seeks out Starbuck’s help, then later gives birth, after which she launches the infant towards Galactica in a small spaceship.

Ultimately, the show was cancelled after just 10 episodes, and it had alienated the fans so much that there was little noise from them at the time about bringing it back.

Reboot

When I heard that a new version of BSG was in the works a few years back, I was intrigued.  What direction would the show take?  Obviously, this was an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the original, but there’s no absolute agreement among fans on which things are mistakes and which things are an integral part of the show’s appeal

Well, it turned out that the new producers had a far more draconian definition of “stupid goofy crap” than me, and a determination to strip the original premise down to the bone.  The first controversy was how they were changing some of the characters around.  Starbuck and Boomer were going to be women instead of men.  Other characters like Cassiopeia, Athena, and Boxey would either be gone altogether or shown briefly and then forgotten.  Perhaps most controversally, the Cylons would have human form, at least some of them, and would be infiltrating the human population.  It was soon clear that the new BSG was going to be dirty, gritty, and much different from the shiny, glossy original.

After the show launched, it also launched unique twists on other aspects of the original.  For example, Commander Adama isn’t so universally recognized as the leader.  There is a new President of the Twelve Colonies, a member of the former president’s cabinet who is elevated from being something like 37th in the line of succession as Secretary of Education.  Another big difference is that the conflict between the Cylons and the Humans ultimately reveals itself to be more of a question of monotheism versus polytheism than of man against machine.

It wasn’t something that we knew right away, but another thing about the reboot that was different from the original show was that the show never featured episodes which failed to significantly advance the overall plot.  There was never any “Special Holiday Episode” that could be extracted from the rest without harming the continuity.  This was different not only from the original BSG, but also different from virtually any other show with an arcing storyline.

There’s an endless number of topics about the reboot that I could go on about, but one thing I keep coming back to is this: every time there’s a press conference or something like that, it seems like there are 40 or 50 reporters in the room.  For a population of 40,000 people?  That seems like quite a lot.  Oh, sure, many of them are probably just bloggers who got a press pass, but still…

The Cylons

The bad guys… in the original show they were robots created by an “evil” repilian race to battle humanity.  Never mind that we never saw these evil repilians (as far as I recall anyway…), the robots were sufficient bad guys.  Especially when joined by the much more truly evil original version of Baltar and his buddy Lucifer, a non-Centurian style of Cylon that would appear to be the “commander” model or something like that.

In the new series, it’s harder to pin them down.  The robotic Cylons here were originally created by humans several decades earlier, but apparently at some point they developed an independent intelligence and rebelled.  A big war ensued but ultimately there was an armistice of sorts.

And then there are the humanoid Cylons.  We’re never quite sure exactly what the difference between them and actual humans is supposed to be.  They are able to breed with humans under the right circumstances, so their DNA must be pretty much the same.  Then again they also have special features like the ability to transfer their consciousness to a newly cloned body, and at least some of them have what look like glowing LEDs embedded in their spine.  Apparently the humanoid Cylons played some role in the original war, but it’s unclear if they merely were secret alies of the robots or the guiding force behind them.  (At least, it’s unclear to me… as I said I’ve got some episodes to catch up on.)

Ultimately, the really important difference seems to be that the Cylons are monotheistic, worshipping “God”, while the humans are generally polytheistic and worship the twelve gods of Kobol.  Keeping track of all the details behind the whole Cylon thing is really non-trivial, and also crucial to understanding what’s going on.  This is one show where you’ve really got to pay attention.

Who Designed These Things Anyway?

Here’s one thing I never understood about the original series… if you’re going to design what amounts to an infantry combat robot, aka the Cylon Centurian, why would you make it bright and shiny enough to reflect any light source for a mile?  Don’t real combat troops wear camoflauge gear specifically to avoid being noticed?  One might make the argument that the shiny armor was designed to reflect away any incoming laser fire, but did anybody ever see that happen?  Typically all one of our human heroes had to do was shoot a Centurian once, and it was down.

And for that matter, why should a robotic infantry combat unit have a humanoid form at all?   If the basic combat capability of a Centurian is your goal, something like a basketball-sized globe with sensors and gun ports would get the job done.  Assuming you can’t make it fly, then just add legs like a spider and you’ve got something much smaller and more manuverable than a Centurian.  Of course, the real answer is because in the original series, they needed a man inside the suit in order to make it mobile at all.  But with the reboot using CGI for most of its special effects, including a Centurian design that cannot be a guy in a suit, why stay with the humanoid design?

The new BSG does address this issue to a degree.  Not completely… Centurians are still more or less humanoid in form, for example.  But they do take a step in the right direction with their space fighters.  Instead of a regular ship with a crew cabin that must be manned by Centurians, the modern BSG raider is essentially another form of robot that requires no crew to fly it.

Kobol, Earth & The Twelve Surviving Colonies

Something about BSG, the reboot, has bugged me since the first few episodes.  Let me walk you though it…

Earth is often referred to as being the missing thirteenth colony of Kobol, but in a mythical fashion as though the colonization is far enough in the past that nobody is quite sure if there was really a thirteenth colony or not.

The colonization is something that most likely took place over a period of many decades, not all at once.  There’s never any exact timeline mentioned, but this must have happened a long time ago.  Long enough ago that in modern times it’s referred to as a single event, much like we now refer to “the Hundred Years War” as though it took place all at once.  It must have been a REALLY long time ago if they don’t even have sufficient surviving electronic records of the event to be sure if Earth was really another colony or have an idea of where it was located. You’d think that having twelve planets in your civilization would offer great opportunities for offsite backups of your data, but I guess not.

The peoples of the Twelve Colonies originally arrived via spaceships from Kobol.  One presumes that establishing successful colonies on a dozen planets would require a level of technology somewhat more advanced than what we currently have in the real world. So let’s say that these people had, at a minimum, mid-to-late 21st century level technology.

In BSG’s contemporary time, we rarely see any technology that would be significantly beyond our own current level.  It’s obviously not static, as the creation of the Cylon Centurian robots is something that’s happened just a few decades earlier.  But it’s also only a tiny increment beyond what would have been the minimum requirement for establishing the colonies in the first place.

So if BSG’s humans colonized these planets hundreds, more likely thousands, of years earlier, here’s my question: why hasn’t their technology advanced any further since the colonies were created? Sure, it’s established that the Galactica itself is designed to use non-networked, low-tech in many places as a safeguard against Cylon-created computer viruses or other electronic attacks, but this isn’t something that applies to the overall civilization.

Look how much our own technology has advanced in the last 4 decades.  A modern cellphone fits in your pocket and has more computing power than a 1960’s mainframe that filled a room.  How much more advanced will things be another 40 or 50 years from now?  So why does it appear that technological advancement basically stopped once the Twelve Colonies were established?

There’s a new series coming soon, “Caprica”, which takes place in the years leading up to the first Cylon war.  It promises to fill in a lot of the missing details in BSG’s backstory.  Maybe it will address this question.

The Finale

I’m not really going to discuss the individual plot points of the reboot or get into the details of the series finale.  First because it’s too soon and some people haven’t seen it yet.  Also because I haven’t actually watched it from start to finish yet, myself.  Perhaps I’ll come back with another blog about it later.

But from what I did see, let’s just say that while the finale did wrap up a lot of things, it also left a few things open to interpretation.  But that’s OK… the last thing you’d expect from a gritty, dirty show like this would be a nice tidy ribbon tying up the whole thing at the end.

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