Wednesday, December 03, 2003

WARNING - MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW: if you don’t want to know the details of the new Battlestar Galactica before you watch it, don’t read this until later.

A few days ago, I saw an ad in the Framingham Tab. It was advertising a “sneak preview” of the new Battlestar Galactica mini-series, which is to air on the Sci-Fi channel. I was a fan of the original BSG, which premiered in the late ‘70’s, although I always thought the show had huge flaws. The primary problem, for me, was that the human colonials were so easily duped by the Cylons. The colonies not only sent their primary line of defense (the 12 Battlestars) off to a “peace conference”, but left their home planets undefended, to the extent that there were apparently little or no planetary defenses to stop the Cylons from wiping out most of humanity. Although I liked the basic premise of the mighty Galactica leading the “ragtag fugitive fleet” to find sanctuary on Earth, I always had a problem with how they got into that situation.

I had been following the remake of BSG mostly through the BSG Web site on an some online discussion groups. The more rabid fans of the original series have been completely up in arms about the remake. The executive producer of the show, Ron Moore (who worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and , briefly, Voyager) decided to recast and rework the original show rather than making a sequel starring the surviving members original cast. The fans had, instead, been supporting an effort by Richard Hatch, who played Apollo in the original series, to do a sequel series and find out what happened after the first and only season of the original show (We’ll ignore the horror that was Galactica 1980, OK? Well, except for the Starbuck episode). Fans were also up in arms about the fact that Starbuck, one of the primary characters in the first BSG, was being played by a woman.

Mostly because of my aforementioned reservations about the original BSG, I was going into seeing the remake with an open mind. If it was good, that was great. I’d enjoy it and hope it got made into an ongoing series. If it stunk, too bad but I wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it.

So, I mentioned the screening to A. After a bit of schedule juggling, she said I should go and that I needed a night out. So, in the brutal cold of December 2 I ventured out to Jordan’s Furniture in Natick to watch the show on Jordan’s IMAX screen. I was joined there by my friend Dave and, after a quick bite at Kelly’s, we went to see the show.

We weren’t exactly greeted by a huge crowd. The only publicity I had seen for the screening had been the ad in the Tab. Nothing in the Globe, the MetroWest Daily News or on So, I’d guess that about 40-50 people showed up and took their seats in the theater. The requisite BSG tchochkes were distributed - key chains, a plastic ice cube that lights up in water and pictures of the cast. We also got free popcorn and soda, which has got to be at least a $10 value at any movie theater.

So the show started. The basic plot is very recognizable to anyone who watched the original show. The Cylons stage a surprise attack on the 12 human colonies, wiping out much of humanity in the process. The Galactica is one of the few surviving human warships. No doubt in the second episode, the fleet will be assembled and the Galactica will lead them in search of Earth.

That’s where the similarities end. Much of the motivation and personality of the characters is completely altered from the original series. The primary difference is the Cylons. The ‘70s version was created by some mysterious race, also called Cylons, who were eventually wiped out by their own technology. The mechanical Cylons take a dislike to any biological species and embark on a long war with humanity. The original show’s confict was very simple: the Cylons were the “bad guys” just becuase they were bad. The humans were the “good guys” because they fought the bad Cylons.

The new series changes all of that. The Cylons were sentient androids originally built by humanity, presumably to do the menial, tedious and dangerous work that humans didn’t want to do. Apparently, the Cylons were built without Asimov’s three laws of robotics, because they eventually rebelled against their human masters, resulting in a costly war 40 years before the events in the show. The humans eventually beat back the Cylons, where they haven’t been heard from since.

This is so much more interesting than the original premise. Humanity built mechanical slaves to serve them, and the slaves rebelled. Humans play god by creating a race of sentient beings, and their arrogance comes back to bite them. The premise is so much more powerful than robots created by a mysterious, extinct race.

Most of the main characters are more interesting as well. Adama, played by Edward James Olmos, is a grizzled veteran of the colonial military. He’s not the patriarchal wise man Lorne Greene’s Adama was. He’s just a military man, doing his job.

One thing I like is that the characters have “real” names now. The familiar names from the original BSG are now the fighter pilots call names. Apollo is now Lee Adama. Starbuck is Kara Thrace.

Apollo has been morphed into the angry young man of the show. He holds Adama responsible for the death of his brother, Zac. In the oriiginal series, Zac was killed in the initial Cylon attack. This time, Zac was killed in some kind of training accident. Apollo holds Adama responsible for pushing Zac into the military, something he wasn’t suited for. There’s a nice scene where Apollo confronts Adama about that which I really enjoyed.

Starbuck, other than her gender, seems to have changed least of all. She’s still arrogant, still a gambler, still a top notch fighter pilot. There wasn’t quite enough of her in the episode to get a really good handle on her, but in general I liked what I saw.

The one character I thought suffered in comparison to the original series was Baltar. The original, played by one of my favorite TV “bad guy” actors, John Colicos, just oozed evil. He was rotten to the core, craved power, and didn’t care who he had to walk over to get it.

The new Baltar, played by James Gallus, is the leading computer scientist of his time. Instead of power, he falls victim to man’s other great weakness, sex. A female, human shaped Cylon (Number Six - I guess Seven was already taken!) seduces him and then cons him with a story to get into the colonial defense mainframe. This gives the Cylons what they need to stage the attack.

This Baltar gets really whiney when he discovers that Six is a Cylon, and that he’s responsible for the ensuing destruction. He really reminded me of Dr. Bashir from Deep Space Nine, both physically and with his condescending attitude (although Baltar is much worse about it than Bashir ever was.) Alexander Siddig could have easily played the part.

Incidentally, there are both human shaped Cylons and more traditional robotic Cylons, complete with the sweeping red eye. They basically look like an upgraded version of the original Cylons.

As far as the ship itself, the Galactica retains the basic shape of the original, but has a much tougher, utilitarian look. It needs to be tough - it takes a direct hit from a Cylon nuclear missile, which leads to a difficult decision for Col. Tigh. I have to admit, though, when someone mentioned that the hull plating had deflected the blast, I started to wonder if it was polarized...

All in all, I thought the new Galactica was a significant improvement over the original. The story was made both more compelling and made more sense, while still maintaining the original premise. The characters, with one notable exception, are as good or better than their ‘70s counterparts.

So, leave your preconceptions at the door when you watch the mini-series. If you do, I think you’ll enjoy it.


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