My own memories of “Battlestar Galactica” are of the blandest possible TV ripoff of “Star Wars” imaginable, with clichÃ©-riddled melodrama and pretty-boy "Love Boat" guest stars like Dirk Benedict trying to channel Harrison Ford but zeroing in instead on that whole David Hasselhoff vibe. Still, AICN grand poobah Harry Knowles and Coaxial News founder Glen Oliver swear up and down that “Galactica” was a quality filmed entertainment with laudable characters and good goals – so perhaps I misremember.
What’s still fresh in Herc’s memory is how thoroughly he enjoyed writer Ron Moore’s work on “Star Trek” generally and “Deep Space Nine” in particular – so he’ll be tuning in whenever the SciFi Channel gets around to cablecasting this new enterprise.
Here’s “Muffet” with a generally positive take on the blueprint:
Here’s “Muffet” with a generally positive take on the blueprint:
First off, let me admit some biases.
I’ve met Ron Moore. It’s not like I know the man well, he couldn’t pick me out of a line-up. But I had the chance to speak with him and found him to be a funny, down-to-earth guy. The only reason it’s germane is that for those die-hard fans who would like to write my opinion off as that of a Ron Moore devotee/lackey/cocksmoker, let me make it easy for you.
Second, I’m not a "Galactica" fan. I remember it fondly from my youth, but I can not quote lines or cite episodes. Looking back, I remember watching it because I needed something to tide me over between movies that had the combination of "Star" and "Wars" in the title. And I did go back and rent the pilot. However, the first time I read Moore’s "Galactica," it was before watching the old version. I’d heard that there were changes, but understood from the outset that this is part of the process of reinterpreting an old franchise. The important question is, are the changes are motivated for the right reasons – as I was reading the new version, nothing felt sacrilegious or arbitrary.
After watching the old pilot, I actually had MORE respect for Ron Moore.
For those of you who don’t remember, the ’78 pilot begins with the twelve colonies of Kobol declaring peace with the Cylons after thousands of years of war. Fooled by the treacherous Baltar, the entire fleet of battlestars – save Galactica, led by Commander Adama – is caught off guard by an attacking fleet of Cylon warriors, as are the home colonies. Most of the human race is wiped out, and Galactica leads a rag-tag fleet of ships in search of a mythical planet called Earth, where they can start over.
The first hour of the old pilot moves at a pretty good clip – shamelessly, yet good-naturedly derivative. From the opening credits that simultaneously crib from both "Star Wars" AND "Superman" to Rick Springfield’s ("Hey, it’s Rick Springfield!”) curiously-emotionless-Biggs-like death in the opening ten minutes. The opening assault by the Cylons – underdeveloped from a plot perspective – has some surprisingly good production values. And the resulting flight from the home planet of Caprica brings up some interesting issues, particularly a food shortage due to already simmering class tensions among the rag-tag fleet.
But this is dropped by the second hour, when things just get goofy. Galactica makes it to a dreamily luscious pleasure planet. The new Council of Twelve, already fooled once, come up with the brilliant idea of trying to declare peace with the Cylons AGAIN. Jane Seymour ("Hey, it’s Jane Seymour!") does her damnedest to remember her lines – which is a losing battle. And guess who else shows up? That’s right, two of the most annoying "let’s make this a kid-friendly show" characters ever: Boxey and his Cylon-hating robotic dog, Muffet (who was revealed to be a chimp in that very special episode of "That’s Incredible." Remember that? Of course you do.)
The only reason I’m going into so much detail about the old pilot is that the negative reviews I’ve seen on the Net seem to be taking Moore to task for not capturing the richness of the characters and mythology... of the ENTIRE SERIES. Which is ludicrous and completely unfair. First of all, you can’t compare two nights of television to a season and a half of hour-long episodes that were appointment television when you were seven. Second, Moore has obviously designed the mini-series to be an extended pilot that Sci-Fi can pick up, assuming they get "Taken"-like ratings. Once you compare the PILOTS side-by-side, Moore’s changes make a lot more sense. He’s not raping the corpse of your beloved series; he’s updating it for an audience that is much more sophisticated when it comes to television drama in general – and science fiction, specifically.
Basically, Moore has taken the first forty minutes of the original pilot and completely fleshed it out. Rather than being at war with the Cylons for millennia, mankind created them. The robots turned against mankind, war ensued and man sent the old chrome robots (who make a cameo appearance early in the first night) packing. Fifty years pass, the Cylons aren’t heard from, and everyone assumes they can relax. Galactica, which was built in a purposefully low-tech way to keep the machines from hacking the network, is the first of the fleet to be decommissioned. And that’s the backstory under which we meet our old friends, Adama, Apollo, Starbuck, Boomer and Galactica’s XO, Colonel Tigh.
Only they’re not the types we remember when we last saw them. Adama is wearied – not necessarily from battle, but from the sacrifices his family has made in the name of service to the military. Zac’s already dead, and Apollo holds dead-ol’-Da’ responsible for pushing his little brother into the cockpit before he was ready. Compounding the family crisis is the fact that Starbuck – yes, now a woman – was dating Zac and gave him a passing flight grade... and harbors guilt over his death, as a result. Tigh has a drinking problem courtesy of his ex-wife, and some leadership problems in general. And Boomer – also, a woman – is not only a smart, resourceful pilot herself, she harbors a deep secret… and not just the fact that she’s sleeping with her her deck officer.
But Moore achieves a deeper scope on the old mythology by vaguely fashioning this futuristic society on our own – just enough to make it accessible. And he accomplishes something that most science fiction doesn’t these days. When the mini-series is good, it’s very very good – I found myself comparing it not to "Star Trek" or "Star Wars," or even to the original series. Rather, it reminded me of the old "Twilight Zone," where they raise a "what if" question and take it to its extreme.
In this case, the "what if" question is, "If there were a sneak attack, and you lost EVERYTHING, how would you REALLY respond?" Which is why the change of design in the backstories – away from microns and parsecs and the vaguely Egyptian-influenced production values combined with Glen A. Larson’s Mormon values – to a more recognizable society is a welcome, welcome change.
Yes, there’s interstellar transport, but there’s also basic cable talk shows (where we first meet Baltar, now a brilliant computer scientist who is unwittingly responsible for the Cylon attack). There are museum tours of the soon-to-be retired battleship. There’s a Secretary of Education, Laura Roslin, who has just been diagnosed with cancer – a disease that side of the universe is no closer to curing than this one is. In short, it’s about people, who are happily ignorant, people who have forgotten or dismissed the threat that they faced half a century ago and got on with their lives.
And it’s against this rich backdrop that all hell breaks loose.
In the old pilot, you got one scene on the home planet, where we see the Cylon ships superimposed over a few buildings, firing down on them, as well as one scene of the aftermath – where Apollo and Adama revisit the old homestead. In Moore’s mini-series, the ENTIRE second hour of the first night is devoted to the Cylon attack: what they’re doing, how they do it. It’s wonderfully paced and, best of all, internally consistent. You understand exactly why mankind has let their guard down. You understand exactly why the Cylons can exploit that in order to turn the colonies to thermonuclear dust – which you also get to see. No, not in the "Day After" or "Pearl Harbor" sense, it’s better than both combined. Because it’s not about the bloodlust of seeing bombs go off, it’s about human decisions in the moment. The destruction of mankind is appropriately chilling, but it’s in the aftermath where things get truly interesting.
In the old pilot, there were a few "Boy, I can’t believe the Cylons killed everyone" and "Do you think we’ll get to go home again?" conversations. At one point, Starbuck seems to have been killed and a few women on the bridge shed tears for him. But in the mini-series, there’s TRUE loss, TRUE consequences. While Moore doesn’t overplay his hand and have everyone moping around the bridge, there’s a sense of gravity that affects the proceedings for the rest of two nights – a real "Oh my God, what do we DO" subtext. As a result, the resourcefulness the characters find on the second night is that much more interesting. Because it’s how you or I might react. Not how Lorne Green would – where he’s basically responding to the Cylons with the same look on his face as when the Indians threatened the Ponderosa.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the characters of Laura Roslin and Adama, basically representing two sides of the leadership coin. With the entire presidential cabinet gone, Roslin is forty-second in line for ascension, and finds herself the newly designated president of what’s left of mankind. Like others who have greatness thrust upon her, she rises to the circumstances in a way that is both grounded AND heroic. She responds to the threat with cool (but not superhuman) logic – and sees the situation from a very different perspective than Adama, who’s ready to fight what he KNOWS is a losing battle.
Once the second night settles into dealing with these decisions, things really start to rock. Galactica must re-arm itself quickly, taking a quick mini-voyage to a military depot, while trying to keep the Cylons off their trail. Starbuck and the rest of the pilots have to figure out a way to outsmart the machines, who seem to have routed their entire defense network. Meanwhile, Apollo ends up teaming up with Roslin – where they make agonizing decisions about the future of mankind. It’s triage on an almost genocidal level, and Moore twists every clichÃ© in on itself. Think Roslin will go back to rescue the adorable little blonde haired girl she bonded with earlier in the mini-series? Think again.
This is coming across much more serious than it is: there’s no shortage of kick-ass action here. Plenty of ship-to-ship battles, described from a multi-angle perspective that comes across like a strange fusion of John Woo with the act outs of "24" (where you’re seeing everything – and everyone – simultaneously). There’s humor, too – and, unexpectedly, morality. Not from mankind, but from the Cylons, who seem to have picked up religion along the way.
What was the Cylon motivation in the old series? Just… destruction, as I remember it. These Cylons – led (so far) by the beautiful, well-spoken and non-metallic Number Six – are some of the most better-developed villains in a long, long time. The idea of robots turning against man is nothing new; the idea that they would be smart enough to develop their sense of morality has been covered in literature. But has it ever been done in TV or movies? Okay, Rutger Hauer in "Blade Runner," maybe Data in "Next Gen" – though his issue was more a fascination with humans, not a moral code that guided him to say "yes, it’s okay to wipe out mankind." It’s almost as if, from the old Cylons to the Terminator to the Borg, robots have been stuck in perpetual Frankenstein mode: marching slowly and mumbling, "Must… kill… humans." Fortunately, Moore isn’t content to have his bad guys be that stupid.
Yes, there are problems: the opening scene has a character acting pretty stupid with the Cylons. There’s a goofy scene involving Starbuck, Tigh and a drunken poker game that turns into a near-barroom brawl. Unlike some negative reviews, I didn’t have a problem with the insubordination (isn’t the entire canon of military literature and movies about insubordination in one form or another?) as much as the clichÃ©. "Hot Shots" made fun of a scene like this, "Starship Troopers" played it straight – "Galactica" unfortunately adds nothing new.
The script is mostly free of using techno-babble to get out of its crises – but the glaring exception is a doozy: the cliffhanger that connects Nights One and Two. Still, one deus ex machina out of over two hundred pages isn’t a bad batting average.
Sadly, Boxey IS still around, though his role is severely curtailed.
Probably the biggest problem is that the stakes get murky after a while – there’s one too many act outs of a Cylon fighter or Cylon missile zooming toward the defenseless Galactica. There’s a big hubbub about the ship jumping to light speed, but it’s not clear what exactly that means. They talk about it, they do it, and there you go. As opposed to, say, "Empire Strikes Back" where half of the dramatic tension in the movie is based on the Millennium Falcon’s inability to jump to light speed.
And even though there are a hundred shout-outs, references and affectionate remembrances to the old series (including the old Viper – awwwww, yeah!), not a single Cylon says "By your command." Well, frak you, Ron Moore, frak you.
Still, these are quibbles over an expansive, fascinating story. I suppose fans who have carried the torch for "Galactica"’s re-emergence for twenty-plus years will be mortified. Just like X-Men fans decried the change of costumes between the comics and the movie. Just like Tolkien fans obsess over minutiae in Peter Jackson’s films. At the end of the day, Ron Moore had to breathe new life in a near-dead franchise. I thought he did a good job, exploring interesting territory within an old story – without making the audience feel stupid in the exchange.
CALL ME MUFFET (alas, also not in the mini-series, but you should watch it anyway)