Monday, September 8, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Season 1

Frequent readers know we don't talk much about television here, reason being we don't have cable or satellite TV, don't want it, and have better things to do, thank you very much. So of course, you've all watched this already, but it's new to me.

This show is yet another example of my movie prophecy skills. I was in graduate school in Toronto, walking down Bloor Street one night, thinking to myself that somebody ought to remake Battlestar Galactica--when I looked up and saw an ad for the remake on one of the big, obnoxious screen advertisements they have in big cities. That may not be exactly how it happened, but it's close.

I barely remember anything about the original series, except that I loved it and that I was too young to differentiate its humans-against-robots plot from the plots of Star Wars and Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. I thought all of those were about humans fighting evil robots who wanted to assimilate or annihilate them (and I guess I got two out of three). And it's probably fitting that I couldn't tell Battlestar Galactica from Star Wars, since the one was riding the coattails of the other.

Campy in the extreme, yes, but even though I can't remember a dang thing about the show except roving red robot eyes, lots of blaster fights, and childhood awe, I know, I sincerely believe in my heart, that the original Galactica was très awesome. Photo stills from the series confirm that belief--I mean, look at that costume design! Jacket snaps that big should be illegal!

Obviously, we can't have the old series back, no matter how much we want it: the seventies are over. Disco is dead, man. But that doesn't mean the old show doesn't have something worth repeating; I certainly think it does, particularly the incredible idea of a mobile, space-borne refugee camp containing the entire remnant of the human race, trying to escape an inexhaustible army of merciless robots. That is such a cool concept, the remake was inevitable.

Previously I was underwhelmed by the remake, partly because I discovered it in the middle of the first season and missed several episodes because of my schooling. Now that I've had the chance to watch the entire first season straight through, my opinion has flip-flopped like an American politician's after the latest poll. I think I like it.

First, let's acknowledge, as I already said, that the original show is what it is and shall not be--probably should not be--repeated. So a new show is going to have to be a twenty-first century kind of show, no matter how much nostalgia and anger this will inevitably create. If we really pine for the original show, we should probably just watch that: after all, it's still there and it's on DVD, even. So rather than compare the new show with the old (which I can't clearly remember anyway, but that part of the Universal Studios ride is awesome), I will simply talk about the new show by itself.

Here's what's cool:
  1. James Callis chewing every bit of scenery as Dr. Baltar. The original character was played by the...oh wait, I said I wouldn't do this. Ah, forget it--the original character was played by John Colicos. Since Colicos could chew scenery simply by being in the scenery, imitating him is impossible,* so Callis does the right thing by bouncing off the walls in his own inimitably sweaty, flustered manner. Great stuff, and he has such good material to work with.
  2. All the production design. Good sets, good costumes, good special effects, good casting, good writing, good pretty much everything. Universal Studios knows how to put on a high-quality television show. I didn't even know the production values for TV could be this high. I miss the goofy costumes of the original, of course, but since I have to give them up, I'll gladly take what the new series has to offer in their place.
  3. Contrary to the opinions of many fans of the original, Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck. Sure, I miss Dirk Benedict as much as anybody, but Sackhoff is a fine replacement, effectively conveying that devil-may-care, tough-girl pilot attitude. Besides, look at it this way: the womanizer Starbuck being reincarnated as a woman is cosmic justice.
  4. Edward James Olmos as Adama. He's no Lorne Greene, but who is? This guy has such incredible screen presence, he could be in the background doing nothing while five hundred other characters are in the foreground, and he would still appear to be the most important thing in the picture. He could loan heavy helpings of screen presence to every other actor in the show and still have enough left over to be totally awesome. When I'm watching this, I honestly believe he's the war-hardened veteran battleship commander. I mean, dang, he's good.
  5. This show almost has three casts. We've got the bridge crew, the fighter pilots and hangar bay crew, and the politicians, and they're all in tension with each other. This should be a no-brainer, but I can't think of another show that does it (not that I watch much TV), and it creates such great tension. Look at the way Star Trek always sends the captain down with the away team. See the difference?

And here's what's lame:

  1. A severe lack of Boxley. Where are all the cute kids? Boxley shows up as a troubled boy who follows Starbuck around and lights her stogies for her--that's cool. But then he disappears, and that's lame.
  2. The sex scenes. Honestly. Is that just to annoy the FCC, or what? I've been away from television so long, I didn't even know they could do that on television. And is there some sort of requirement that there be one or two sex scenes an episode? Since the show hinges on the creation of a human-Cylon hybrid, the creation of said hybrid could have had more impact if there weren't something like thirty frackin' sex scenes before the important one. To see the correct way to depict an important conception, go watch The Terminator again: just one sex scene. One.** But on the plus side, since I'm watching this on DVD with no commercials, the sex scenes give ample opportunity to head for the kitchen to get another beer.
  3. Tricia Helfer as Cylon Number Six, apparently stuck permanently in Evil Temptress Mode. At first, she was kind of interesting, but then she got annoying. Fortunately, James Callis's Baltar can play off her even though she's lame. I notice that in the show no man can resist her, but I keep waiting for someone she's trying to seduce to say, "Sorry, I find aggressive, angular bleached blondes to be decidedly unattractive."
  4. War-on-Terror references. The Cylons have more ships, more manpower, and better weapons, and they've already won the war. So what do they do? Suicide bombs, obviously. Relevance--blech.
  5. An extremely popular president tries to gain my sympathies with breast cancer. Arrrgghhh!!! I thought I was watching Battlestar Galactica, not frackin' West Wing Meets ER in a Very Special Episode. At least the president gets moderately tolerable after she stops being Miss Perfect and starts power-tripping.
  6. The flying refugee camp has a democratic government that is both functional and popular. Whoa, my suspension of disbelief is taking a serious hit here, and it only gets worse when they decide to film this episode in a botanical garden.
  7. Shouldn't someone be suffering cabin fever by now?
  8. The lengthy introduction. Unlike the rest of the show, this appears to have been written by a first-grader. So the Cylons "have a Plan," do they? Well, I should hope so, or else a screenwriter is slacking off on the job. Now why is plan capitalized?
  9. Whose dumb idea was it to show scenes from the current episode during the opening credits?
  10. Computer-generated Cylons. Pretty good CGI, admittedly, but they still look fake. The original chrome suits were way cooler.
  11. The word frack. This is an artifact from the original series, the one thing that should have been eliminated immediately. Instead, the characters drop frack-bombs in every other sentence. The f-word generally makes dialogue sound stupid; changing it to frack makes it sound silly as well as stupid. In the old show, silly was okay, but the new show is trying to be serious. It's hard to take a thing seriously when the characters are shouting, "Oh, frack me!" Apparently, the screenwriters can't imagine serious dialogue without f-bombs. They're wrong.
  12. Lots and lots of handheld camera-work. What the frack?

*My defective memory actually places Robert Vaughn in this role, so maybe the original Baltar isn't as cool as I think he was.

**Okay, I admit it, I forgot one, but that was one of those dumb slasher-style fornicators-getting-horribly-killed scenes, so it doesn't count.
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