Recently, I Have Watched a Lot of Battlestar Galactica
Just over a year ago, whilst browsing Amazon.com, I saw a BluRay box set of Battlestar Galactica - and that’s all of the Battlestar Galactica - from the original series, through the 1980 series, the 2005 reboot all its spinnoff films and the somewhat ill-fated Caprica prequel series.
Of course, I bought it!
How could I not? I really liked the reboot in the mid-naughties, but could only see it again via a friend’s BD collection since streaming availability here in Japan has been a bit hit and miss over the years, and I’d never seen any of the other content (save for a few of the web episodes and films) and I hadn’t seen any of the Caprica prequel series.
I also don’t think I’d ever seen anything more than the odd episode of the original series - and don’t really remember it - so as a value proposition, this seemed like a pretty good deal, even without all the interviews and ‘Making of …’ bonus features.
OK, here we go. Let’s start at the beginning.
Battlestar Galactica - Original Series (1978).
This is very much the 70’s - it has that 70s look of the future, with big hair, all manmade fibre clothing and that casual mysogyny in there, which is even stranger when they’re trying to make the future look really equal with female military and all that. As is said about so many things, ‘it is a product of its time’.
From a production point of view, it doesn’t look too bad, and they were careful with the lighting to only show what was needed in a lot of shots. The Galactica looks very obviously like a model in some shots, but what you start noticing quickly is that the re-use of FX shots across the series is really, really high. Take offs, applying turbo and altering course for the Vipers are re-used over and over and over. I suspect the helmets were a single size too, so on some of the actors, especially the female pilots, they look huge and wobble about quite a bit.
Anyway, it’s easy to pick faults with cheap 70s budget Sci-fi TV, so let’s look at the stories. They’re actually not bad for the most part, mixing event-of-the-week episodes with the over-arching storyline of being chased by the Cylons, and the arch-traitor Baltar. The Cylon side are actually well done, showing minimal amounts of their culture, and focussing on how they’re all just double-crossing each other and how sinister and unpleasant many of the characters are.
The human drama plays out well, as the rag tag human outfit fend off attacks, but it is quite odd that even though the Cylons want to wipe out humanity, during quite a few episodes the Galactica and its fleet meet human settlers on various planets, solve their problem and then just move along, both seemingly unconcerned that Cylons are in pursuit.
Since the series was effectively cancelled after a single season, there are a few story threads which go nowhere - such as the creators of the Cylons, or a race in white ships who get various human characters to help them and get white versions of their uniforms into the bargain. It gives the show some mystical as well as science-based episodes, so it lends variety.
Overall, it’s a show which is part Star Wars, part Star Trek, and part producer Glen A. Larson’s attempt to get a bit of religion into Sci-Fi I suspect. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it sort of holds up if you can wave away some of the 70s sensibilities. There are some nice bits of the design in the ships too which rightly have their own place in pop culture, and it did seem to be going somewhere, but who knows where it would end. Probably not where Galactica 1980 took it I hope.
Galactica 1980 (1980)
So what do you do when your show is cancelled after ~ 24 episodes? Why you do a cheaper sequel of course! Galactica 1980 sort of continues on from the first series, but changes some of the premise. The fleet has found Earth - our Earth of the late 20th Century - and decided the level of technology wasn’t high enough to help them or defend themselves, so they’d sent some people down to start trying to accellerate development. A sub-plot has the darker members of the fleet going back in time to work with the Nazis since they thought that would be the fastest way to get the technology ready for the future. Yes, time travel is a thing in Galactica 1980.
What all of this means is that much of the series entails a few people from the Fleet (and kids from the Fleet who are super human in Earth’s gravity) wandering around on our Earth. Also, despite the opening which shows a Cylon attack on Earth, that turns out to be a ‘simulation’ and there’s actually no combat on Earth with the Cylons really. In fact the Cylons aren’t such a large part of the show as they pursue the human fleet which tries to lead them away from Earth, in case they discover and destroy it. I suppose this might have been a thread for future series?
All in all then it became a fairly normal 80s series, where each week these visitors help some normal people with their problems, they try to get better info, spread a bit of religion and environmental warnings, and move to the next story.
Generally, it’s not great - the Nazi episodes are at least odd enough to be interesting, and the two new leads aren’t bad - they’re not from the original series as this is set almost a generation later. Setting it on Earth was clearly meant to stretch the budget, and many of the VFX are worse than the first series, as are the sets, and yet more re-use of space ship FX from the first series too in case you missed those shots of Vipers turning.
One of the most annoying points is a new character called ‘Doctor Zee’, a child prodigy who makes all the decisions, leaving the Adama character spending most of his time looking like a bit of an idiot. I don’t know why, but some of this felt like the old ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’ show.
It’s worth watching once I suppose … and then time to move on.
Battlestar Galactica Reboot (Mini and Full Series) (2004)
OK, on to the newer stuff. With only minor spoilers.
This reboot took the form of a mini-series followed by ‘4.5’ series. The premise is a little different - humans made Cylons as servants, there was a rebellion, a war and the Cylons left to follow their own destiny, and the mini series opens 50 years later, with a full scale nuclear attack and invasion by new and improved Cylons.
The show feels much tighter, it doesn’t have that 70s flamboyance, and this Galactica feels more like the Alien/Aliens universe - they use phones, there no shields or lasers, it’s just kinetic weapons and thick armour. The one concession is the FTL Faster Than Light drive, which was needed as a plot device to add suspence.
Oh yes, and some Cylons can now look human.
There’s a pile of lore around all this, and it’s fun to go through it all as the show unfurls, but it mainly becomes a cat and mouse game between the much stronger Cylons and the human fleet. Through the series we learn more about the Cylon agenda, their eventual civil war, their different theology of a single god vs. the human pantheon of classical Greek sounding deities and the way all of this is seen as part of a repeating cycle - all this has happened before, and will happen again.
It’s got a lot of things going on. Aside from great action episodes, showing off the excellent space VFX, they also have some social commentary episodes, such as one which addresses abortion in a time when we’re running out of humans (a point driven home with a population count at the beginning of each episode!). Another deals with what to do with criminals, a black market, shortages, social mobility, and even the need for a press corps. Part of one season also has some of the humans living under Cylon rule on a pretty miserable planet, and how they get out of it, and the repercussions of collaboration. Deep stuff for an action sci-fi show. Without spoiling too much, the planet rescue with the Galactica is awesome.
The acting is very decent - a good collection of solid character actors, with true standouts by Edward James Olmos as Adama, Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck, James Callis as Baltar and Tricia Helfer as number 6. The production looks decent too by keeping it low tech they can get away with everything being grey, generic rooms etc., and careful use of planet shots, even of the human homeworlds mean the overall feel is that it had a higher budget than it probably did.
The Baltar character and Caprica 6, who was his girlfriend before the attack, also become hallucinations of the the other after the attack and actually direct their ideas and actions, and it’s left in the air for much of the series as to the whether they really ’exist’ or if the characters are driving themselves insane from their actions resulting in the deaths of billions of people.
One FX point - the centurions (normal robot soldier Cylons) do look a bit naff in this series. They’re mostly CG, and for some reason are poorly composited in and their walk cycles just don’t look right. They do improve as the seasons go on, and there were clearly a few physical ones for close-ups, but those CG ones just don’t quite work in some scenes.
That aside, the SFX - both audio and video - are generally excellent, especially in space and the ships gunfire and haven’t ages too badly at all.
You can tell it was feeding off events in the real world too, and it mostly works, especially commentary on the then current Iraq occupation, and the morality of suicide bombing by a subjugated populace. It also led to a fairly famous quote coming out of one episode:
Adama: There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.
As you can likely tell, I liked the show. Hey, that’s why I bought the BD set and I regularly take in an episode.
Some people soured on the ending; I didn’t find it too bad given what it leads you thorough over the seasons, especially on the spiritual belief side, and they do throw in a couple of bits which you weren’t expecting both for characters and plot points, so I don’t have many complaints about it.
There was a lot of other stuff going on around the main series too - a two part spinnoff called ‘Razor’ which tells the story of the Pegasus before it meets the Galactica, and its commander, Caine, who basically went all out for war, whereas Adama realised it was better to cut and run. Caine’s ruthless approach to the Cylons and her crew is a good foil to the main series, along with her treatment of a captured number 6. It also spends more time looking at that initial strike against the humans, when the Pegasus was in dry dock - it makes for a fantastic battle scene.
Another story is told in ‘Blood and Chrome, which is a prequel, set in the First Cylon War and featuring a young Bill Adama, and his experience with the Cylons whilst trapped on a planet with them. It was released as websodes, but is presented here together as a whole film. It’s fairly low budget and a bit clunky at times, but on the whole it works quite well.
Finally is another longer episode called ‘The Plan’ which is different again as it’s set during the normal series and features some of the events, but is told from the Cylons point of view, and those hidden in the fleet and planning subversive activities. It also looks at events on the Caprica surface between the resistance, and Cylons hiding amongst them. It’s another interesting perspective.
Finally we get to ‘Caprica’ and it’s an odd one.
It’s set before the first Cylon war when AI and the mechanical Cylons are just being created and VR is all the rage. It’s odd because it’s two shows in one - a young adult coming of age drama playing in virtual worlds with no restraint, and then the adult world, developing robots (which surprise, surprise, look like Cylon Centurions), political intrigue and ethnic gangs, one member of which is Bill Adama’s father.
The young adult part is potentially interesting, when the consciousness of a deceased teenager gets placed in a robot Cylon, with the backstory of conspiracy, social status and secret groups. There’s a kind of parallel to the adult storyline, which focusses more on ethnic groups, law, ethics and justice.
Production-wise the show looks very good - good set design, decent CG, a mix of dress sense from the 1940s to 21st century and a very different look to the rebooted BSG, but in the same universe.
Acting is very good too - plenty of actors you’ve seen before like Eric Stoltz and Esai Morales as the main protagonists, with support from Sasha Roiz as the aggressive uncle and also Alessandra Torresani as the daughter of the Greystone empire.
Yes, it sounds odd, but its real issue is that it can’t decide which of these two it wants to be and the two don’t gel very well. Somehow a school of rich kids being unhappy with being rich doesn’t match the street thug violence from the adult storyline, or the impact of terrorism and violence in society.
That’s likely why it got cancelled after the single season.
Personally, I think they were both good ideas, but the adult characters are more interesting, and perhaps fading out the young adult storylines, and making it align more with the main BSG reboot would have been better.
It’s a shame this got cancelled as further seasons might have been able to fix the issues and tell quite an interesting story. We shall never know.
So that’s all the Galacticas, and it took me quite a while to get through them all (and probably as long to write it all up). They’re all products of their times to an extent, but I still liked the re-imagining from the naughties the most, even the spin-offs.
It just works well as a story and collection of characters; certainly some bits have plot holes, and some things seem to happen for no reason, but on the whole the series has a good story arc and it has an ending - yes, a real ending. Sure, some people didn’t like it, and indeed, I didn’t think I would, but given the journey, it just kind of works in my humble opinion.
For the others, the original Galactica is fun, with an interesting universe, albeit somewhat inconsistant - as an example, the humans are being chased by the Cylons and yet they pass human settled planets and then just keep going? The 1980 show is just a completely different beast and could really have been a different universe and is the weakest of all the Galacticas, but has that 1980s American daytime show feel.
Caprica, despite its somewhat split personality/story line I think could’ve worked with a second season for sure. There was enough to go at, even though it had the 2010s YA feel to it.
Anyway, as a whole, that massive box set was great for watching so many generations (and hours) of differing takes on sci-fi, all supposedly based around a consistant concept. Obviously it was great value for money, and I’ve already re-watched a few episodes of each, it’s a set you can dip into whenever you want. I’d definitely recommend anyone pick it up, or if you have the opportunity to watch any or all of them, then take the time and give them a watch.