15 March 2009

Battlestar Galactica

I've recently finished season three of Battlestar Galactica, and now I want EVERYONE I KNOW to watch it too (not the least so we can discuss!!! OMG, I'm dying to discuss). It's that good. 

You might think, "eh, it's sci-fi, I don't like sci-fi. Why should I watch it?"  Because Battlestar Galactica is one of the best television shows ever made. In any genre. And it just happens to be sci-fi.

So what's it about? Well, it's a long story, but basically this (from the opening credit sequence for season three): "Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. There are many copies. And they have a plan."

What is the plan? Nobody knows. The humans only know that the Cylons attacked, killing all but 50,000 people, and now these humans, the only ones left in the universe are trying to avoid becoming extinct.

What in the world is a Cylon? Questions, questions. Some of the Cylons (the Centurions) look like big scary seven-foot-tall armored robots with guns for hands,

Cylon Centurion


but some other Cylons actually look, act, and feel like humans.  Some of them don't know they're Cylons. This is one of the genius ideas of the show. What makes a person a human? Does it matter? It's not like a human-looking Cylon can just cut his or her arm to expose robotic wiring, or circuits, or anything like that, because not only do they resemble humans on the outside, but they look the same on the inside too.  If a Cylon and a human can have a baby together, are they really that different?

There are really only three things that distinguish the Cylons and the humans: When Cylons die, their thoughts and memories get downloaded to another copy of themselves on a Resurrection Ship. Second, the Cylons want to kill the humans (well, this is not so different, because the humans want to kill the Cylons too). And finally, the Cylons believe in one god. The humans believe in a pantheon of gods with names like Aphrodite, Zeus, Hera, Athena, and Apollo. (Yes, really.) 

While these people may be humans, they are not earthlings. These remaining 50,000 humans in the universe are running for their lives in a convoy of a fleet of starships somewhere in space. Battlestar Galactica is one of the ships in the Colonial fleet. The Colonists, as they are called, are all that is left of the Twelve Colonies (which were named Aquaria, Aerilon, Canceron, Caprica, Gemenon, Leonis, Libran, Picon, Sagittaron, Scorpia, Tauron, and Virgon -- sound familiar?) and which were all destroyed by the Cylon attacks. But the Scriptures mention a Thirteenth Colony, lost to time and memory.  No one knows where it is. They only know it is called Earth.

Is it our Earth? Why do the humans believe in a set of gods with the same names as the Greek gods of myth? Are they the same gods? Do the humans ever get to Earth? Do the Cylons ever get to Earth? When is this all taking place?

The look and feel of the show is not particularly futuristic, nor is it trying to be; the clothing that the military personnel wear would be acceptable as uniforms and fatigues in any number of navies or air forces around the world, and the civilian clothing is indistinguishable from contemporary fashion (though certainly not on the dowdy end of the contemporary scale).

  Tricia Helfer as Six

Tricia Helfer as Six 

The look of the series goes a long way toward making Battlestar Galactica unlike most other shows on television. When Galactica's pilots take off from the flight deck in their Vipers and Raptors, it feels like something you might see in real life, except that these pilots fly off into the deep black of outer space instead of the wild blue yonder.

The series is filmed with a handheld-camera style that gives it a sense of documentary realism.  Even for shots that you know in your head will require special effects, such as establishing shots of the fleet in outer space, the camera work is such that you believe in your heart that it is really happening. For example, a shot may start out with a wide angle and a slow pan, taking in a group of several ships in the fleet moving through the vacuum of space, but then all of a sudden the camera jerks over, finding one particular ship, zooming and focusing shakily as if the cameraperson suddenly found the right closeup and is trying to get a bead on it before it moves away. I'm not doing a very good job of explaining it, but trust me, it makes it look real.

Secondly, the cast itself is excellent, and the stories and characters are all great. While this is a large ensemble cast, and even the most secondary characters have their moments, I'm just going to mention a few main characters that stand out right away at the beginning.

  • Starbuck (aka Lt. Kara Thrace, played by Katee Sackhoff) is loud, brash, rash, and picks fights, and yet is utterly appealing and never a caricature or one-dimensional character. She's the fleet's best and most reckless fighter pilot.  (I haven't seen the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica series, but I know that some of the female characters in this series, such as Starbuck, were played by men in the original series, and I believe that some other female characters are new additions to the current series, making it more evenly apportioned. Original-series-purists grumble, but I think this was a great move, and I love how gender roles are not an issue in the new series.)

Starbuck with Boomer and Apollo

 Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) with Boomer (Grace Park) and Apollo (Jamie Bamber)

  • Gaius Baltar (James Callis) is a genius scientist who's verrry interested in saving his own skin.  He's not evil, per se, and he doesn't see himself as a bad figure (who does, really?) but his all-absorbing self-interest is focused on maximizing his own lifespan as much as possible (at the expense, if necessary, of whomever and whatever else). But it's not like he actively thinks about how his actions affect other people one way or another -- I would call him bumbling if he weren't so weaselly. His "I'm the victim in all this! I had no choice in my actions!" attitude explains a lot about why he does what he does, but man, what a weasel. Villainous, yet totally realistic. I know people like this.

 Tricia Helfer as Caprica Six and James Callis as Gaius Baltar

Tricia Helfer as Caprica Six and James Callis as Gaius Baltar

  • Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), the President of the Twelve Colonies, was previously Secretary of Education before the Cylons attacked. When the attack was over, it was discovered that she, at something like forty-second in the line of succession, had just become President of the Colonies. 

 Edward James Olmos as Commander (later Admiral) Adama and Mary McDonnell as  President Laura Roslyn

Edward James Olmos as Commander (later Admiral) Bill Adama and Mary McDonnell as President Laura Roslin

  • Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) and President Roslin share responsibilities for the battle fleet and the civilian fleet. He captained a battlestar which was about to be decommissioned and turned into a museum just before the Cylons attacked. The ship was decrepit, out-of-date, and named Galactica.


The final element that puts Battlestar Galactica in a class of its own is the music (by series composer Bear McCreary). I'm totally not a music person, but I'll do my best to describe it. The opening titles include several different sequences -- the music in the first intro bit which explains about the Cylons ("Cylons were created by man. They rebelled....") is orchestral and has a fast-paced, clock-ticking quality designed to put you on edge for the rest of the hour.

Below are the opening Cylon credits for both season one and season three. Both contain a very slight SPOILER, but it's nothing you don't find out almost right away.

Season one (with SPOILERS)

Season three (with SPOILERS)

Then following this short pre-credits sequence comes the first act of the show; after that, you see the actual main credits. This musical sequence here is also orchestral, but slower, spacier, and melodic, and includes wordless vocals (or rather, vocals in another language; some of it sounds English but I don't think it is). At the end of this slow, dreamy credit sequence, the music and the editing immediately segues into a very fast-paced, heart-pounding teaser sequence showing brief flash-forwards to what will happen in that particular episode, accompanied by a military/tribal drum beat that just keeps getting faster and faster, ending in a swirling crescendo of orchestral strings. It's breathtaking. I've been trying to find a good Youtube video of these so you don't have to rely on my crappy descriptions, but it's hard to find good credit sequences for seasons one through three without accidentally wandering into spoiler territory for season four, which I haven't seen yet (eeeee! I can't wait!).



(Note: all still images from the official Battlestar Galactica website at http://www.scifi.com/battlestar. Click on a picture to go to the site.)