Battlestar Galactica #33: Miniseries, Night 1

"The Cylon War is long over, yet we must not forget the reasons why so many sacrificed so much in the cause of freedom. The cost of wearing the uniform can be high, but... sometimes it's too high."
SO SAY WE ALL: After 40 years of peace with their creations, the Cylons, the peoples of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol find themselves victims of a genocidal attack.

Though the reimagined Battlestar Galactica takes its cues from the original in terms of premise and basic character concepts, it makes many changes, which are mostly for the good. Showrunner Ronald D. Moore, of Deep Space Nine fame (note the Trek injokes in the miniseries, like the numbers 47 and 1701 cropping up), is a known improviser, and with only the vaguest game plan, somehow weaves a rich genre tapestry, asking questions he knows he'll have to answer later. It's the reverse of JMS' approach on Babylon 5, and makes for exciting television. I preface with this because it explains a lot of the changes, including that of the show's tone. If it's going to start with the near-genocide of the human race, then yeah, it's gonna be a great deal darker a journey than the original show was willing or able to make (and yet, look at the original pilot movie again, it's darker than you remember). Making the decision not to gloss over the opening genocide means it needs to strive for more realism and grit, and so we have bullets and nukes instead of lasers - it's incredible how much more visceral and PHYSICAL is all feels as a result - the possibility of hyperlight jumps, which make more sense than the original show's slow crawl still bringing it to other systems, and a much more efficient Viper-launching system. The more fanciful names being call signs, etc. was not a necessary measure, but it's fine.

To help with the realism - and the tension - the show is shot like a documentary, with a shaky cam looking for the emotion and the action as if it hadn't read the script. Carrying this over to the effects shots was a brilliant move and really sets the show apart from any other space opera. How shocking, in the prologue, to see a piece of debris physically HIT the camera! How cool that ships move along three axes and can turn on a dime! It can get a bit dark and dingy, I admit. Ship models generally evoke the original show's, but aren't quite the same. Older Vipers are still spotlighted (the use of museum pieces adds to the desperation) and the new Cylon fighters ARE Cylons, which is amazing. There's really no reason for a machine race to put three guys in a fighter when their robot brains could just be built into the chassis. They'll lose a lot fewer guys this way. The base stars actually have a strange star shape. Moving into the interiors, Galactica looks huge and yet has some cramped, darkened spaces that play well with the drama. The famous "cut corners" on every sheet of paper make their first appearance and are repeated on everything from dog tags to corridor and door shapes. The Tiko drums accompany the action quite well, and though it's not yet clear from "Night 1", the show's multi-ethnic music will become a highlight of the series. I have every season's soundtrack and love listening to them still. It even becomes a plot point later. Fans of the old fanfare should be tickled to hear it as the Colonial anthem here.

But if it's to be good, it needs engaging characters. Thankfully, that's not a problem. Edward James Olmos is perfect as the tired, battle-weary Commander Adama, hit hard by his youngest son's death two years before. Indeed, Zak's death destroyed the Adama family, leading to the Adamas' divorce and Lee/Apollo's estrangement. Closed off, his apology for his part in his son's death is made in public during a speech. We'd call it a subtweet today. His XO, Colonel Tigh is even more broken, an alcoholic who gets into fights with subalterns and burns pictures of his wife. These are officers who are as ready for retirement as their ship is, museum pieces who make unlikely heroes for what's left of humanity. Katee Sackhoff has immediate star power as Starbuck, successfully including Dirk Benedict's original charm and insolence in a performance that's at once emotional and restrained, and liking Adama as we immediately do makes him the jerk in the relationship. Whether she was always on the edge or became more self-destructive when Zak, her lover, died, is not yet clear. As before, Apollo is the less interesting of the two pilots. His anger seems childish to me, and Jamie Bamber has a generic television handsomeness that's not his fault, but fails to draw me in. He was always the harder sell. Tyrol the chief engineer is in a secret relationship with a reimagined Boomer, inappropriate because of their ranks. Helo makes a good impression by giving away his seat away to someone he thinks can better help humanity. Gaeta, Dualla, Billy, they're all here from the start. And then there's Laura Roslin, the Secretary of Education, 43rd in line for the presidency, who ascends to leadership because, well, there's no one else. Mary McDonnell is brilliant in the role. Though she doesn't consider herself a politician, she IS a leader. When the PR guy tries to undermine her, her demeanor and methodology get Lee's instant respect. On the original series, Adama was the principal decision maker and the politicians were almost always in his way. Roslin will play a much bigger role. It's her destiny, all the more remarkable for having to deal with this on the heels of a cancer diagnosis. I absolutely LOVE the shot of her taking the oath surrounded by people, all of them looking crushed. Unlikely heroes are the order of the day.

But it may be the villains who most fascinate. In the original series, the Cylons were, for the most part, cool-looking robot stormtroopers with slim personalities, ordered about by broad, mustache-twirling villains. The chrome robots are still around, either as museum displays or new CG models (they don't look quite right yet), but the show realizes it needs more than that to sustain its story. Meet the new humanish Cylons. Their face, early on, is Number Six, a red hot infiltrator with an angular face and perfect looks. She seems to be exploring human existence and matters of the flesh, or else how do we explain the opening prologue where she sexually assaults the human ambassador? Her need for Baltar to love her ("Just kidding!"). And that scene where she kills a baby... This is where Tricia Helfer's performance goes well beyond the obvious. Does she kill the baby to save it from nuclear Armageddon? As a chilling science experiment? By accident? Her face as she walks away speaks to some kind of regret, not for the single babe, but all of humanity. The Cylons in this timeline weren't built by never-seen aliens long ago, they are the "children of humanity", a slave race that rebelled and emancipated itself. It's personal. 40 years later, they've grown, evolved, found God. This is Battlestar Galactica if they lost the war we saw in the original series and came back bigger and badder. Six is a bit loose with the information, but I can't fault the myth building. There are 12 models, they are monotheistic, they can transmit their minds into another body when they die... It's all very intriguing. Gaius Baltar, in this reality, is a much more complex character than dear old John Colicos was able to give us. He's not black-hearted so much as weak and venal, which are more subtle paths to evil. All his betrayals stem from self interest. He gives Six access to the Colonial defense mainframe for sex and code, and thinks only of himself as the world ends. And yet, though he thinks about stealing a woman's seat, he doesn't. Of course, it may just be that he's afraid of being caught. That's Baltar. And he'll be on the ship where he can get into more trouble. This is gonna be good.

CAPRICANADA: The show is filmed, like many sci-fi series, in and around Vancouver, British Columbia. We might as well take note of where BSG goes Canadian. Baltar has a very nice house in Horseshoe Bay. Caprica's market was filmed at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby (campuses often look like weird cities, don't they?). Lots of Canadian actors also make up the regular cast, including Tricia Helfer (Six), Michael Hogan (Tigh), Paul Campbell (Billy), Aaron Douglas (Tyrol), Alessandro Juliani (Gaeta), Kandyse McClure (Dualla), and Tahmoh Penikett (Helo; we haven't heard the last of him).

ALL THIS HAS HAPPENED BEFORE AND IT WILL HAPPEN AGAIN: Obviously, the destruction of the Colonies happened in the original timeline. The pilot also showed Starbuck munching on a cigar while winning at cards, and a shuttle (here a raptor) managing to get a few people off the planet before it is completely destroyed. No Serina, but a kid with a mushroom cut called Boxey (Night 2 reveals the name) makes it out at that time. When the Galactica is nuked, it creates circumstances explored in an entire OS episode, Fire in the Sky. Jolly exists in this universe and appears as a pilot's voice during the Galactican vipers' first meeting with the enemy; in this timeline, he doesn't make it back to the ship. Cylons with human appearances were first introduced in Galactica 1980. They weren't nearly as sexy.

HUMAN DEATH TOLL: No number has yet been thrown around, but venting flaming compartments costs Tyrol's crew 85 people, including a comedy engineer we got to know. That's really nothing in comparison to losing the fleet (including 30 Battlestars) and most of the Colonies.

VERSIONS: Shown over two nights on SyFy, the DVD combines all the material as a single 3-hour movie. Also aired as one movie on NBC, that version was butchered to make room for commercials.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Has a lot to set up, but does it remarkably well, fearlessly taking the franchise into the 21st Century.


Devin said...

Very nice review. For some reason I never made the connection between Adama's speech and an attempt to apologize for Zak's death. It makes perfect sense, but I kind of just took it that Adama was getting old and thinking about humanity in general.

Two notes: Richard Gibbs scored the miniseries, not Bear McCreary. But I think McCreary worked for him at the time, so he might have had a hand in this too. Gibbs would also do one Season 1 episode but the rest of the series was McCreary.

Also, the original NBC airing was cut down considerably to fit into a three-hour block with commercials. So at the time it was the only place to watch it in HD, but there were a ton of missing scenes. Thankfully, Universal HD would air the minieries not long after as a complete movie and start showing the first season shortly after the original SciFi channel airings.

Siskoid said...

The way Apollo reacts to the speech, and the fact that Adama goes off-script after his talk with him, are the evidence I was going on.

Thanks for the score info, I'll tweak the text a little bit to reflect that. Same for the butchered NBC version.


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