Top 10 TV shows: #9 Battlestar Galactica
I want you to open up your memory repository today. I want you to think back to three specific days in your life, two you'll immediately remember and a third you'll grasp in a general sense.
I want you to remember your life and your emotional state on September 10, 2001.
Next I want you to try and recall your psychological condition on September 12, 2001.
Finally, I want you to consider how you felt in December of 2003 and more importantly on October 18, 2004.
As you ponder these thoughts, pay particular attention to how you felt about the Muslim world, the role of religion and spirituality in the universe, the war on terror, and the federal and state governments.
No folks, number nine isn't the Best of CSPAN. Instead, it's the definitive space odyssey for our time, but first, a quick explanation.
Science fiction is an odd bird to be sure, because it has a stigma attached to it just as big as the "watch me" sign for those who love pocket protectors and Isaac Asimov. But there's a secret about the genre that escapes the masses that think it's all lasers and phasers and aliens and weird languages. What science fiction is in most cases is a reliance on science and mathematical principles to make political and social arguments. Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was a well-known far leftist, nearly a socialist, who used his property and creativity to push for redistribution of wealth and an anti-religious opinion. We all know what L. Ron Hubbard did through his written words.
Here's the thing. When you think about it, it absolutely makes sense. Science fiction is almost always going to push environmental issues for obvious reasons and also social class concerns due to the multiple races found in nearly every product emanating from the genre. Explorative science generally appeals to the left, so in turn, very few sci-fi offerings are apolitical or asocial, and only an incredibly select few are in any way conservative in approach.
That brings us to Ronald D. Moore, who describes himself in numerous interviews as a former Catholic who now leans agnostic. His career started on Star Trek: The Next Generation and then progressed through various other Trek spinoffs. In 2003, he helmed the reboot of the 1978 series Battlestar Galactica. It began with a four broadcast hour miniseries and returned on BBC television in October of 2004 and in North America in early 2005.
Battlestar Galactica, a Peabody and Hugo award winner, a multi-time Emmy nominee, and an entrant on TIME Magazine's Best 100 TV Shows of All-Time list, is Number Nine, and honestly it could on any given day rise higher.
NUMBER NINE: BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (2004-2009)
BSG tells the story of humans, comprised on multiple planets collectively referred to as the Twelve Colonies of Kobol, who allowed technology to grow and expand to a level that allowed them to create a cybernetic race known as Cylons. Long story short, the Cylons evolve, become self-aware, rebel, and then engage humanity in a war. All of that history takes place over 40 years prior to the timeline start of Battlestar Galactica.
As the miniseries begins, the Cylons attack the humans with the assistance of a human pawn that unwittingly gives key information after sexual and sensual manipulation, leading to the attack. This man, Gaius Baltar, plays an enormous, though uneven role in the series throughout the four seasons to come. The new second assault, a nuclear attack, leaves humanity at approximately 50,000 remaining members. It's genocide of more than a billion people at the hands of the Cylon race and it's that event that brings into focus the clear allegory to September 11, 2001.
The attacks on New York and Washington D.C. changed everything. The reason I didn't ask you to think about 9/11 directly is because mentioning the days surrounding it brings those feelings back into clear focus. On 9/11, very few people in America felt much of anything. I remember waking up, thinking I was late for class, later realizing my roommate had turned off my alarm clock to let me sleep in once the second plane hit the World Trade Center. As I groggily stumbled into the living room, I smelled breakfast food. Then my eyes found the television...and everything changed.
9/11 wasn't a feeling. We were all in stunned silence and somewhat muted brain function. No one was sure what was coming next and maybe more importantly where it was coming from and where it might be aimed. On that day, however, we weren't asking the questions. We wanted the answers but on September 11, 2001, the people of the United States spent time with their loved ones and thanked someone, be it their god or otherwise, for their own comforts, families, friends, and mere existence. We also forgot about the petty disagreements and became one singular nation. We were all in it together. We had to be. Someone had done the unthinkable on our soil.
In BSG, humanity faces a nuclear attack that nearly wipes them out and the reaction is similar though greatly intensified.
Who did this to us? In their case, they had the answer. Why did the Cylons try and succeed in annihilating us? Once the questions subside, the situation moves to thoughts of true unadulterated vengeance, a sense of paranoia, and finally a deep renewed hatred toward the Cylons. The rest of the human race, outside of a few stragglers and revolutionaries, end up on various vessels traveling through space led by one military warship. This behemoth is the equivalent of the world's largest aircraft carrier if it also included the Pentagon. The vessel is known as Galactica and the class of ship is officially titled Battlestar.
Commander William Adama, played to brutal and devastating perfection by the great Edward James Olmos, is in charge of Galactica. In many ways, because of the need for defense against constant aerial attacks and also because of the offensive maneuvers of the military against the Cylons, he is the most powerful human remaining in the universe. The show tells the story of this perceived last remaining Battlestar and its role in protecting the few remaining members of the human race.
If you're unfamiliar with the show, you're reading thinking something to the effect of, "Yeah John Connor, terminator, rinse repeat, Robert Patrick, have you seen this boy, etc." However, one particular set of circumstances completely changes the show and is what makes it special.
In addition to the fully mechanized Centurion model Cylons, which look as you'd expect, there are 12 other models. Those models look and act exactly like human beings. Not only do they look and act that way, many of them have no clue they're actually one of many copies of a Cylon model. Until activated, they exist as humans, including several that work on Galactica and in the civilian government. In short, there are Cylon sleeper agents, some completely oblivious to the fact, in key positions within the 50,000 remaining human beings. When activated or when they learn who they are, how do they react? It's a fascinating construct, even if not entirely original.
Here's an answer from the first revealed Cylon on the Galactica crew, when asked about humanity and the causes of the attack and the vitriol.
It’s what you said at the ceremony before the attack when Galactica was being decommissioned. You gave a speech that sounded like it wasn’t the one you prepared. You said that humanity was a flawed creation and that people still kill one another…petty jealousy and greed. You said that humanity never asked itself why it deserved to survive.
Maybe you don’t. (Cylon to Adama, S2E12)
These sleeper agents, their pre and post motives, and the constant questions you'll ask yourself as to who the next Cylon reveal will be is one of many reasons the show lasted four long seasons. Truthfully, without Battlestar Galactica, Sci-Fi as a cable network may never have mattered to anyone outside the hardest core fans.
The basic struggle centers on human vs. Cylon, which would make for a good show, but what makes Galactica a great show is a much deeper concern. These machines, these Cylons, all definitely act and react in the same manner. That only makes sense, right? They're mindless robots.
"False" and inherent faith or absence thereof is what drives the show. Cylons continue to evolve, develop feelings for the humans, question everything in their world, but because they're Cylons, they're the enemy. This ideal begins to change later in the series, but where 9/11 comes right back to the forefront is in the comparison of the Cylon to the way many Americans legitimately felt and still feel about certain members of society following the tragedy. As the Cylons change their paradigms, do the humans follow suit at the same rate? It's another question that provides hours of drama and plenty to think about for the viewer once the flat screen powers down for the evening.
Cylons are imprisoned, killed, and constantly profiled without true cause, even when displaying the most human of characteristics. Implications of gang rape, humiliation, physical abuse, and degradation of the worst possible kind permeate the screen. If you're not thinking to yourself a hellish variation on Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, you're not thinking nearly hard enough. Past that, the treatment and the continued paranoia begin to point to the reasons for the attack and the potential factors behind the new conflict and the growing lack of compassion itself that also represents some sentiment in post-9/11 America:
Let me tell you something. I've had to watch a lot of kids be put into body bags. Sometimes terrible things have to be done. Inevitably, each and every one of us will have to face a moment where we have to commit that horrible sin...and if we flinch in that moment, if we hesitate for one second, if we let our conscience get in the way, you know what happens? There are more kids in those body bags. (Kane to Thrace, S2E12)
I think you're being naive. Did it ever occur to you that the Admiralty set you up to provoke a war they wanted? It's naive to think that horrible things we can't understand have simple explanations, because simple explanations make us feel like we have control and we don't. We know why the Cylons attacked us and it wasn't any one thing, oh my gods. We did a thousand things good and bad every day for 40 years to pave the way for these attacks. (President Roslin to Adama, S3E8)
Here's the best possible compliment I can pay to BSG. It's as much about space as The Wire or Breaking Bad is about drugs or Game of Thrones is about sword fighting. Space, interstellar combat, and the advanced technology exist simply to set an unfamiliar scene to tell a familiar story. That said, Moore and his crew treat it with the utmost respect because, simply put, they love science fiction. At times, particularly in the final season, the sci-fi overwhelms a bit more than I'd like, though in the end it all does make sense.
But more than anything else, Battlestar Galactica is about the nuances of power and control that exist in every culture. It's about the role of law in society and how military tribunals can be manipulated or criticized. It's about the belief that some people "inherit" occupations and as a result, certain classes will always be on the low rung of the totem pole. It's about the dichotomy in the relationship between the civilian government and the military complex. It's about irrational lasting prejudice. It's about complex politics, law, social issues, racism, sexism, prejudice, class warfare, the environment, dangerous polarization, and at times it's also about space combat.
Romo Lampkin (played by Michael Sheppard, which is a major plus as he's one of those actors that stands with a guy like Zeljko Ivanek as guys who never drove a series but always improve them) serves as a defense attorney in the third season and in a conversation with William Adama's son, Lee, he says this about William's father, who helped write much of the law code of the colonies:
Joe Adama cared about one thing, understanding why people do what they do. Why we cheat our friends. Why we reward our enemies. Why we go to war...sacrificing our lives for lost causes. Why we build machines in the hope of correcting our flaws and our shortcomings. Why we forgive, defying logic and the laws of nature with one stupid little act of compassion.
We're flawed. All of us. I wanted to know why, so I did what he did. I spend my life with the fallen, the corrupt, and the damaged.
Without question, one of the key themes of the show is religion. Moore has said its inclusion and cloudy usage was intentionally ambiguous as to feelings on one religion or another or the lack thereof, presenting multiple belief structures. Moore isn't saying a specific religion is right or wrong. Moore is saying religion is an incredibly powerful entity. Another allegory to the generation of American conflict with the Middle East is in the difference in the Judeo-Christian philosophy of the western world and the Islamic influence and rise of splinter sects in Asia. Unsurprisingly, the humans believe in a book of scripture that points to the gods and goddesses spoken of in Greek mythology. Cylons believe in one true god, in defined fate, and also that every occurrence is part of a recurring cycle. Of course, not everyone believes the same thing, which mimics life. One Cylon, revealed late in the show, in a flashback, reveals this about his own ideals in the final season:
Perfection. That's what it's about. When you can feel the perfection of creation, the beauty of physics...you know the wonder of mathematics. The elation of action and reaction and that is the kind of perfection I want to be connected to.
The overarching theme revealed in the show's final episodes revolves around a four pronged hope structure, first declared by Gaius Baltar: Grace, Unity, Life, Love.
Grace is generally seen as a tenet of most religions and is granted by that religion's deity. Unity is the hope for a world where freedom exists but a community sticks together. In 2014, the split between the political extremes is at a perilous level. Unity would take those extremes and pull them closer together through agreement on as many issues as possible. Life is the right to survive and also the freedoms spelled out through the writings of physiocrats like Locke and later the Founding Fathers. Love is the desire of every being...to love, to be loved, to be cared for, to have something that drives success and inspiration, and of course the prurient interests and procreation.
See the opening miniseries and the first season as the direct response to 9/11 on a much more globally terrifying scale. Here's where your thoughts on 9/12/01 count. Take all of that anger, that confusion, that rage, that fear, and that unity and put it in space with a reality of everyone gone outside of 50,000 survivors. No one has a home except the ships in the Colonial Fleet or Galactica. The goal of the show from the beginning past the destruction of the Cylons is a search for "Earth," a new potential habitat for the refugees and their leaders.
View the second and third seasons as the years after the search and "discovery" of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Iraq war. As the third season progresses, advance your own thinking to how you felt about our government, our military operations, the Patriot Act, religion, and the war on terror four years post-9/11.
The fourth season has to finish the science fiction story, reveal the Cylons, fight the final battle, take humanity to its final position and portray whether a true hegemon will emerge or if something different might take shape. Simultaneously, the Cylons split into two groups, one that believes in potential human alliance and cooperation and a second that believes in the equivalent of a Caliphate punishable by death and extinction. Again, does any of this sound familiar in our world?
The October 2004 and early 2005 thoughts, take those personal opinions I asked you for earlier and as you watch the series, see if they jibe with those of Ronald Moore's storytelling. I have no idea what Moore thought about the war on terror, on profiling, or on many issues. I have an idea but to his credit, he doesn't beat me to death with it. What I do know is that he had something to say, but wanted it opaque enough that the viewer could pull what he or she wanted from the series.
The cast is strong. Olmos, Mary McDonnell, a young talented Katee Sackhoff and her cohort in crime Jamie Bamber, James Callis and Tricia Helfer (who are truly special) joined at the hip as Gaius and Caprica, Grace Park, Michael Trucco, Michael Hogan, Kandyse McClure, Aaron Douglas...and so many others.
One of the more miraculous feats of BSG, for better or worse, is that not one single character is 100% benevolent or malevolent. At some point, there are shades of grey within everyone. I found myself loathing Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) and sometimes tearing up after one of her stirring monologues or her health battle. Adama is rock solid, but can be stubborn and make rash decisions. Lee Adama and Kara Thrace are at times total protagonists and at other times pure eye-rolling studies in imperfection. Every character on the show has this duality of existence. In the end, I found myself understanding the representations as a believable mirror on actual human existence.
In one of BSG's final episodes, Kara Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) tries to recall the melody to a song her composer father taught her before deserting her family when she was a young child. She says this of the song:
There's this one song he taught me. It made me feel happy and sad all at the same time.
A man in her life, also a piano composer (as far as you know) replies with this simple phrase.
The best ones do.
If you take all of Ron Moore's work, the incredible work of the cast, the impeccable music (which truly is magnificent), some of the best cinematography ever seen on the small screen, the stylized and real violence, the misery, the tension, the minor fictional victories and the utter brilliance of the four season BSG opera, it's this last brief exchange that sticks out the most.
It doesn't explain the story. It explains how you feel when you watch the story. That's why you should watch it immediately if you haven't, relive it if you have, and revel in its world. It's also why Number Nine is probably too low. BSG has everything you could possibly desire. It is truly riveting television.
The ending was polarizing because it took a fairly direct political and social stand. Where Moore goes most right though is using difficult issues, for example the development of a union and collective bargaining strategies and revealing pros and cons for each side. In almost every instance, while the comparison to reality can be inconsistent or simplified, it's never a complete straw man argument. It's possible the final two minutes could be seen that way, but that's not absolute.
It's also impossible to overstate Galactica's importance as a series to the success and development of other science fiction staples. The show transcended sci-fi and its stars found their way onto magazine covers across the world. It became a water cooler show and encouraged debate and discussion. Mysteries abounded in similar fashion to Fringe and flashbacks played a pivotal role in a way not seen in many shows other than Lost. I'm not sure the former would have ever been developed had it not been for BSG, or if it did, it wouldn't have looked the same. Sci-Fi, now SyFy, may never have seen Haven or Warehouse 13 or Alphas or Stargate Atlantis or all these shows that directly crib from portions of Moore's re-creation. BSG made history. It will forever rank as one of the finest high-end cult classics of modern times. It's not out of bounds at all, more accurately, you aren't outkicking your coverage if you consider it art. Visually, audibly, and literally, that's exactly what it is.
I could write far longer on the show but not without spoiling so many of its secrets and treasures. As a result, I left many specifics very...well...not specific. You'll thank me for it if you decide to join Adama, Roslin, Apollo, Starbuck, the rest of the crew of Galactica, and the Cylons in their story.
The entire run, including the opening miniseries and the 150 minute finale, are available on NETFLIX. You want your summer binge watch? Head directly to BSG. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. It's a ride you can't take anywhere else and it's not to be missed.
To call Battlestar Galactica great science fiction is both entirely appropriate and an enormous disservice. Just like its world, its characters, its setting, and its unwavering grit, BSG is an ideal study in layered storytelling, vivid imagination, and open interpretation.
In short...it's FRAKIN' (not a typo) amazing.
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