Science fiction has long been stereotyped as a hardware-obsessed, techno-jargon laden refuge for computer nerds and outcasts. Especially on television, which lacks the geek chic afforded by big-screen Hollywood budgets, the genre’s reputation for hokey dialog and cardboard-and-wire effects have saturated it with a distinct odor of disrespectability. It is somewhat ironic, then, to see the Sci-Fi Channel, a network which often seems devoted to the pulpy and lowbrow, serve up Battlestar Galactica, a show about spaceships and killer robots that is also arguably the most potent, dramatically vibrant series on television. An unflinching examination of how the military, government, family, and religion interact in the fragile ecosystem of society, it as morally and intellectually serious as it is thrilling.
Based on the terminally cheesy late 1970s show of the same name, Battlestar Galactica is the creation of Ronald D. Moore, a former Star Trek scribe best known for his revitalizing work on Deep Space 9. The dark, gritty texture he applied to that show is even more evident on Galactica. Currently in the middle of its second season, the show follows a space fleet containing the last survivors of the human race as they flee a decimated home world in search of the mythical planet Earth. Driven into space by the Cylons, a robotic race of human creation, the survivors fend off attacks from within and without while struggling to create a working, ordered society from the ashes of a destroyed civilization. Problematically, the Cylons, once standard issue mechanical goons, have developed models that pass indistinguishably for human, meaning that enemy sleeper agents strike from within the fleet. Despite its fairly standard science-fiction premise (intelligent robots have an awfully bad habit of turning on their human creators), the show is a stirring portrait of human survival in the wake of tragedy, where even the most mundane challenges come loaded with the threat of species-wide extinction.
Thus, the show navigates a galactic debris field of challenges both paramount and petty, the most central of which is building a stable civilization while under constant siege. Because there doesn’t seem to be an anarcho-capitalist contingent aboard the fleet, one of the first decisions made is to set up a democratic government. This proves difficult for the military-minded pragmatist Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos), who must contend with the political machinations of the bureaucracy. The civilian government is led by President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), a former secretary of Education thrust into the presidency after the initial Cylon attack. Adama initially dismisses her as a “schoolteacher,” and her sweet-natured warmth clashes with Adama’s dead-eyed certainty. It is an interplanetary sparring match between government and military leadership with the fate of the human race at stake.
These high-stakes political jousts play out in a kaleidoscopic array of institutional power struggles. Family conflicts with military and duty, most prominently between Adama and his son Lee (Jamie Bamber), who is also captain of the fighter fleet and military advisor to Roslin. When known human terrorist Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch, star of the original Galactica series)–who has popular support as a “freedom fighter”–runs for political office, it acts as a stress test on the viability of democracy. Roslin’s conversion to the humans’ polytheistic religion sparks debate over the role a political leader’s faith should play in his decision-making. Even the press occasionally plays a role in the proceedings. Amidst a plethora of sci-fi trappings, the show delivers a lesson in societal geology, watching the sedimentary strongholds of power settle in the aftermath of cataclysmic upheaval.
The show’s treatment of religion is particularly notable, especially considering its technology-driven milieu. Science fiction often takes a dim view of anything that drags the specter of spirituality into its carefully constructed fortress of machines and microchips, but this show has the smarts to recognize that, for good and for ill, religion is a deeply ingrained force in human society.
In what is probably the show’s most misinterpreted move, even the Cylons are believers–monotheists who claim their acts are motivated by a desire to do “God’s will.” Some have claimed that the God-fearing, suicide-bombing machines are directly analogous to either Islamic terrorists or fundamentalist Christians, but such claims are simplistic and reductive. While there are undoubtedly parallels, the Cylon’s religious zeal seems designed more to highlight the guiding power that belief exerts on societal momentum than as a direct stab at any current religious sect.
Battlestar Galactica plays like a fantastic B-movie crossed with a social-studies lesson, and while all this social-structure diagramming may sound wonky or academic, it is packs the power of a gut punch on screen. For that, much credit is due to the immensely compelling cast of characters. From the quixotic, possibly insane Dr. Balthar, to the insouciant tomboy pilot Starbuck, and the iron-girded, recovering alcoholic second in command, Colonel Tigh, the fleet is populated with quirky, spirited, and deeply flawed individuals, a floating clutter of neurosis and psychic baggage.
But that angst-ridden clutter is all that remains of the human race, and their unity, despite any conflicts they have, is integral to their survival. Little surprise, then, that the show presents fear, distrust, and self-hatred as insidious and corrosive. The anxious fear that spreads when it becomes known that Cylons appear human is nearly as destructive to the fleet’s social fabric as is the threat of physical attack.
Moore packages his show in low-budget finesse, drenching his grainy, high-contrast images in rusty golds and browns. The Cassavetes-inspired handheld camera work, long a cop-show staple, mirrors the jury-rigged uncertainty of the premise. Battle scenes spark with choked-breath, documentary rawness. Unlike the clean, delicately modernist appearance of Star Trek and its many dirt-free progeny, Galactica’s look is designed to invoke the rough-hewn, battle-ready grit and grime of a Navy submarine.
All of this adds up to what can only be referred to as realism. Despite the geeky presence of ribbed leather jumpsuits and space fighters, the dimly lit, metallic corridors of the Galactica house a poignant, human reality that belies its fantastic setting. A shining, distant star in the outer reaches of niche cable, Battlestar Galactica burns with a combustive mixture of political turmoil and human drama that is as achingly real and relevant as anything on television.