Battlestar Galactica, a Retrospective
And a preview
20 years ago, on this day, Battlestar Galactica premiered as a miniseries on the SciFi channel. It wasn’t a new show, of course. The original series was a beloved cult classic from the late 70s-early 80s. However, this new incarnation of the series was quite interesting, and stirred SciFi to begin an entire series off this stand-alone two-part TV movie.
-Artist: Aya Sabry
However, before we get into Battlestar, I want to tell you a story. It’s probably one you’ve heard, but you probably haven’t heard the right version of it. It’s the story of Jonah and the Whale, and I have no doubt you’re probably familiar with the Sunday-school version. You know, the one where Jonah gets eaten by the whale, chills in the belly watching the game, cracking open a beer, and then getting puked out? You probably think something like that is what’s in the Jewish and Christian and Muslim tales of the man. Jolly ‘ol Jonah, getting a free boat ride. Probably didn’t even get that wet.
That version of the story is a lie, Dear Reader. It doesn’t exist. Not in Hebrew, not in the King James’ English, nor in Arabic. It’s a complete fabrication to not give kids nightmares. The real version is this: Jonah died. He didn’t only die, he died horrifically. He died with the pain of water in the lungs burning his nerve endings. He died with the pressure of the sea pushing down onto him, squishing his fragile little body into goo and bones. And while he died in the whale, drowning and getting a severe case of the bends, he prayed for God to save him both while he could speak, and from his ghost when he died. And God would not save poor Jonah…
…At least, not yet.
Oh what, you don’t believe me? You think I’m some atheist insulting holy texts? Let me read to you Jonah’s Song. It comes in the chapter after he gets eaten by the whale. The chapter every Sundy school teacher skips because it’s just pure nightmare fuel. From Jonah, Chapter 2:
I cried out - because of my great sufferings - to YHWH, and he answered. Out of the womb of the dead, Sheol, I cried for help. You heard my voice.
For you cast me into the depths, into the heart of the seas; and the currents turned around me: Your waves passing over me.
And I said, I am cast out of your eye - yet I will again look, toward your holy temple.
Surrounding me, the waters to my soul: the Abyss surrounded me, Seaweed bound my head.
To the moorings of the mountains I descended. The Earthly gates behind me forever, and yet you have brought up from the pit, my life, YHWH my God.
When my soul fainted over me, I remembered YHWH: My prayer went up to your holy temple.
Jonah died, Dear Reader. He not only died, but he went to hell. However, after his prayer both while dying and when dead, Jonah was gifted, or cursed, with the gift of a resurrection. I include the possibility that this resurrection was a curse as well as a blessing, because as Jonah said, he remembered it all. He remembered the feeling of kelp choking his neck. He remembered the fire of salt water burning his nasal cavity. He remembered the immense burning of Sheol that one can feel as they drown. All the pain, all the pressure, all the horror - he remembered it all. He would have to hold onto those memories with this gift of a new body - a new life. Resurrection sounds good and all, and it’s certainly a blessing. However, the curse of death and all the memories of dying stay. The new life might be strong, but it remembers all the hurts of the old. Jonah was stuck with those memories for the rest of his existence.
Most people don’t finish the Book of Jonah, even though it is rather short. They don’t read on to when Jonah had a relapse of his nightmarish demise in Chapter 3, and grew angry that God would give mercy to sinners while he had to die. Most people skip the part when Jonah says:
Therefore now, YHWH, take. I beseech thee, take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.
Most people don’t read where Jonah has a mental breakdown and declares:
It is better for me to die than to live…I do well to be angry, even unto death.
Jonah never recovered - at least, not from what we have in the text. Jonah carried the weight of his own death and resurrection, and it made him incredibly bitter to those God forgave without any punishment. Jonah’s resentment became a cross he carried, probably for the remainder of his days.
Battlestar Galactica originally began as the brainchild of the devote Mormon, Glen A. Larson. He had worked previously on Westerns and a bit of Buck Rodgers, and had been mentored by skilled writers and producers from Star Trek. Originally, Battlestar Galactica was pitched to financial backers as a series of TV movies, and as such managed to acquire a shocking $1 million budget per episode (That’s about $5M per episode in today’s money!), but he snuck a fast one and secretly turned it into a television series, after securing the funding. Clever bastard.
The show would be framed as a kind of “War in Heaven”, only with lasers instead of divine swords. The story, centered on the fall of a space-fairing human civilization, was quite gripping for an era that feared a looming nuclear apocalypse in real life. However, Battlestar Galactica was an unapologetic knock-off of Star Wars - going so far as to add the word “Star” to the original name “Galactica”. There is a rumor that George Lucas happened to have been storing his equipment near the recording area and the production team simple …er… “Borrowed” it. As a result, the original Battlestar Galactica has the production quality of Star Wars - because it was literally filmed and produced on the same equipment. The result was, unsurprisingly, a rather high quality show - granted, it had a shockingly high budget anyway.
He envisioned the series as a way to project his Mormonism into this blossoming field of television sci fi, featuring Mormon lore such as Kobol (the planet where God lived) and a human civilization led by a council of twelve, just as the Mormon Church is. The show opens with the ending moments of a war between Humanity and a machine race called Cylons, with the humans losing. The Cylons found a human turncoat, Baltar, who helped them sabotage humanity’s defenses and open the way to the Cylon Fleet, with a handful of new human-looking robots to help in this grand subversion. The Cylon fleet storms in and nukes humanity’s twelve worlds, with the only survivors of the massacre being the Battlestar Galactica itself, a sister Battlestar called Pegasus, and a ragtag fleet of refugees fleeing the doomed worlds. Their mission: Find a legendary 13th tribe of humans who might be able to help them rebuild and win the war: Earth.
The results are something half feeling it belongs in the 1960s, and half feeling like proper 1980’s science fiction. Here’s a few snippets to show what I mean:
Battlestar Galactica would only run for 3 years, but create enough of a cultural impact that when it was cancelled, it triggered protests and even one fan’s suicide. Show actors and producers would push for a TNG-like spinoff through the 1980s, but to no avail. It wouldn’t be until 2003 when the SciFi channel decided to give it a shot, with a 2-part Television movie that re-imagined the series with shiny new graphics and themes.
Something New, Something Old.
Are you alive?
Do you deserve to be?
Those were the two opening questions within the first 20 minutes of the 2003 reimagined Battlestar Galactica.
At the time, not many people were asking these sorts of questions - except perhaps the survivor’s guilt from 9/11. In 2003, the War on Terror had expanded into Iraq, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers were on their way to Mars, and Elon Musk was attempting to purchase old Soviet ICBMs for private space operations - he was still some years off from founding SpaceX. The era of the Cold War, and the happy feelings of its end, were a kind of setting sun - history had proven not to be over at all. We weren’t sure what sun was rising.
It’s only recently these questions have begun to be asked by the general population in a serious manner, regarding ourselves, our culture, and our premier status as both Global Superpower and Police. This is a big motivator for me to write this. It’s an opportune time to re-evaluate these questions now that they are being asked in a serious way. BSG took these two questions quite seriously nonetheless. It had only been two years since 9/11, and the producers chose to premier their shiny new show about surviving an existential war against a group with an incompatible belief system on December 8th, one day after the Pearl Harbor anniversary. The reason was obvious: There had been a year-long propaganda push to associate 9/11 with Pearl Harbor, and BSG could get a boost off that association.
It was into this world that the experimental two-part TV movie of a re-imagined Battlestar Galactica was let loose. It featured the same names and places as its 1978 counterpart, but things were spun for new times: Starbuck and Boomer were women, now, and Apollo was something more than a friend of Starbuck’s. Colonel Tigh was an old white Ahab now, with no more whales to hunt (I’m also fairly sure this is one of only a handful of cases where a white guy replaced a black guy).
Instead of opening at the end of a war, the colonies were instead in a time of peace, with the Cylon War a thing long forgotten. The ship and viper spaceplanes from the series were now museum pieces remembering a war a generation ago. It was all a clever ploy, and if you grew up in this time, you felt very much at home: War was a thing of the past, or at least you’d still remember how that felt three years prior.
In a wink to the 9/11 attacks, we experience the “Second” Cylon War’s opening - and close - through the eyes of ordinary people hearing radio chatter and news broadcasts. The opening shots, and the chosen perspectives to show it, purposefully conceal most of the holocaust going on, and you’re left as a viewer to focus more on the survivors than the dead. Let me just say, it’s one of the best apocalypses ever put to film:
We’re first introduced to the Crew of the Battlestar Galactica, and many of the faces we’ll see throughout the series, in a marvelous three-minute continuous shot sandwhiched between an eventful CGI flyby of the ship, and a cut to the hanger bay:
We’re shown the famous Galactica old fans remember, but it’s now a museum just as the old show props are in real life. It’s a great way to bridge new and old fans. The antiquated technology from the original series is scattered about, soon to become what’s left of human technology and civilization. You’re drawn in immediately but made to feel at home. This is a re-imagining, but we’re not that far departed from where the series began.
Throughout this miniseries we follow three main group of survivors: The Galactica, the Capricans, and the Civilian Refugees - with all three converging at a meetup point before they fly away to somewhere - anywhere - beyond the fallen Colonies.
The miniseries ends similarly to the 1978 premier episode: A speech by Adama to find Earth. Along with its fancy graphics and clever philosophical musings, it hooked the audience and won its slot into a regular television program.
Battlestar is first and foremost a drama before it is a science fiction story. There’s no clear protagonist, but the characters do seem to follow a trope of virtue and vice - the show having never departed that far from the original Mormon religious themes of the original series, which was a refreshing perspective for the era of the New Atheists.
Interestingly, the humans typically show vices, while the Cylons typically show virtues, but the show explores how either can lead a man to glory, or ruin. Baltar’s lust often leads him to loneliness, and Starbuck’s wrath leads to self destruction. However, Six’s love often leads to weakness in times that demand strength, and Cavil’s intelligence often leads him to nihilism. This actually draws from the Greek understanding that the gods have virtues, and the titans have vices, but both are subject to glory or ruin for their perfections.
Remember Jonah and the Whale? The Cylons and Humans differ not only in virtues and vices, but also in unique abilities. The Cylons are “Machines”, and so they can actually download to a new body when they die, while Humans just die. This initially looks like a pretty solid deal for the Cylons, but as the series goes on it starts to reveal why this can become a negative. No matter how many times you die, you can’t erase the memories of torture, of pain, or rape or violence. The Cylons are born innocent, but they have no way to regain it once it’s lost. They have to bare their sins, forever. The Humans get to go to heaven, or hell. But at least it is a final end to their experiences.
This topic begs us to rethink the technology enthusiasts today who seek eternity. How sure are they they will want that after a thousand years of sin, and no way to pay for it?
This is initially shown as the human civilization being older, and burdensome with sin while the Cylon civilization is young and innocent and not yet “fallen”, but as the series goes on the the Cylons get older and wiser, and more cynical, they begin to reflect on their own civilization with worry, and for some outright contempt.
There have been other series which explored this concept, such as Blade Runner where no replicant is ever younger than 3 years old, so they simply haven’t had enough years to develop a conscious or reflect on themselves. But given enough time, they do. And like a child soldier suddenly realizing what they’ve done, the replicants can enter an intense guilt - one which BSG explores with the Cylons.
No Cylon in the series is older than, perhaps, 15 years. They are all teenagers or children, at least mentally thinking. By the time the show ends, they’re entering their twenties and have piled up a large quantity of regrets. After the loss of Resurrection from human interference, some Cylons chose suicide, for they can finally escape their pains. It’s an unexpected reflection on just why we humans need death and resurrection - we need away to leave behind the old Adam.
Throughout the series, both the Humans and Cylons are show to have civilizations with deep flaws that lead them to get stuck in their ways and in need of a new perspective on how to get through them, while simultaneously showing the refusal to view the other’s perspective could offer those solutions. Such that in the rare instance where a Cyclon and Human do bond and form a connection, they are often the power couples of the series - perhaps a reflection on the Greek concept of balancing the traits humans got from gods, and from titans, to create a well-rounded person - or rather, family. This was a clever way to extract something from the pagan influences alongside the pseudo-christian ones - of course, the show suffers from that classic early 2000s trope of confusing agape with eros.
One of my favorite moments in the series is when it’s decided trying to carry on the government from the human colonies in this new context makes no sense. Every ship has various mixtures of humans from different colonies. It’s decided to instead construct a government where representatives come from the ships themselves, rather than the worlds they came from. I can’t help but consider this to be a more practical form of government.
Consider, for a moment, if instead of a Congress where representatives come from various states, they instead heralded from the boats a population came to America on. Imagine if there was a Mayflower congressperson, or a Jamaica Packetcongressperson, or a Santa Maria representative. Wouldn’t that force a different dynamic? The Mayflower representative would always represent New England’s English exiles population, regardless of how many or few there were. The Jamaica Packet representative would always represent an African American perspective. By tying the representatives to the ships they came over on, you force the genesis of a culture of those folks who share narrative, rather than arbitrary land in these United States. It would be, so to speak, replacement-proof.
Battlestar’s unique exploration on what it means to create a practical government offers a host of new conversations that still speak to us today.
This 20th anniversary of the premiere, take a weekend to re-watch the entire series, if you can. It’s a worth-while refresher for the world we live in.