So Say We All

Battlestar is back! The noughties reboot of Battlestar Galactica is getting a fresh showing on BBC2 and iPlayer, having originally been screened on SyFy channel. I’m sitting out a 7-day isolation away from home so on Saturday night I decided for old times’ sake to watch the first 20 minutes of the pilot episode on BBC2 before switching over to the news. Suddenly it was an hour and a half later and the news had been forsaken. I have the box set, I have the four soundtrack albums and I even have an autographed photo of shuttle pilot ‘Racetrack’ somewhere but I enjoyed every minute.

Humanity creates a synthetic servant race called Cylons, who violently revolt before ultimately leaving to find a planet of their own. 40 years later they return with a plan to annihilate their creators and less than 50,000 people survive the pilot episode to flee across the galaxy.

Beyond that, it’s not really a science fiction show. The technology is recognisable, with only a couple of space opera gimmicks such as hyperspace travel nailed on. Galactica is a relic of the first Cylon war being turned into a museum, and cannily the script has a reporter explaining how antiquated all the equipment is – thereby saving the set building teams loads of money. I did enjoy the scene where the ‘do not touch’ signs are crushed underfoot as the old MkII Viper fighters are dragged off display and around the gift shop ready to launch into the unexpected battle.

There are no aliens and space is mostly just space other than a couple of planets looking rather like western Canada. It is not set at a specific date in the future. Galactica is essentially an aircraft carrier from Top Gun on which West Wing meets Homeland meets Wagon Train.  A feeling of reality is lent by the antique equipment failing and breaking and being coaxed back into life by a team of overworked engineers in greasy overalls, and by liberal use of the bespoke expletive ‘frak!’ As with the classics of science fiction it echoes the concerns of today, or rather the edgy uncertain world of the post-Gulf War noughties where the line between right and wrong is blurred.

Most of the stars were unknowns from US, British or Canadian TV, headlined by the love interest from Dances With Wolves (Mary McDonnell) and the creepy cop from Blade Runner (Edward James Olmos). The budget was so tight the makers had to limit the use of guest stars as prominent as Lucy Lawless, once Xena: Warrior Princess. The ensemble cast populates the ramshackle fleet of spacecraft, their continual bickering, micro politics, changing alliances, religious conversion and slowburn affairs being acted out against the imminent destruction of humanity. Even the supporting cast get character arcs, although often ending in disillusionment or sudden death. This is war, and the casualty rate is high.

The Cylons are the implacable enemy but are not comic-book evil. Unlike the ‘chrome toasters’ of the original 1970s series, some now look exactly like humans. This may appear at first to be an economic way of saving on the effects budget but it results in the show’s distinctive tone. The ability of ‘skinjobs’ to be reborn immediately after death makes for a continually unsettling device, as does the realisation there can be multiple copies of each of the 12 models. We’re not always sure which version of a model we’re seeing, whether this is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ character or whether it knows it’s a Cylon at all. Cylon model Six is the most prominent, a six-foot blonde baby-killing seductress with an unshakable belief in the one true God. The humans by contrast have a fuzzy Greek-style pagan religion of many deities, and a belief in a distant and possibly mythical Earth where the race was born and where they might find a new home.

As with many TV shows that can be cancelled on a studio whim, the writers have to an extent make things up as they go along, but the reveals rarely feel contrived and make internal sense. The writers pile in a multitude of themes amid the space dogfights, and create a dark, downbeat tone around the heroics. The pilot episode manages to channel Pearl Harbour and 9/11 whilst its most effective scene is based on the impromptu swearing in of LBJ after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Amid a constant air of paranoia we see mutiny, revolt, suicide bombers, a religious cult and the struggle to maintain democratic process in a crisis rather than slide into dictatorship. The question of what it is to be human underpins the story, especially in series 3 and 4 where the origins of both races come into doubt.

BSG escaped early cancellation and came to a conclusion at the end of series 4, which pleased me if not all the fans. A writers’ strike put the whole US TV industry in peril in 2007 so the makers created a ‘final’ and very bleak episode as the mid-season break in case they were unable to complete season 4. Watch until that point and you’ll go ‘ooh’. A series of internet shorts filled the voids between seasons and the TV movie Razor fits in the middle of the series. A retrospective TV film The Plan was largely a clip show threading together what the Cylons were up to behind the scenes and explaining various hanging threads but is not dramatically satisfying and is more of a fan piece.

Oh, and the music by Bear McCreary is fantastic, I often play it in the background as I’m editing. If you have 70-odd hours to spare, check out BSG on BBC iPlayer or hunt it down in the dark reaches of the TV schedules. On Day 3 of isolation, I’m quietly wishing now I’d brought the box set with me. It’s a great show – ‘so say we all!’

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