Battlestar Galactica Revisited: The 2003 Mini-Series
Ronald D Moore's re imagining of the 1970's sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica set a gold standard, both for sci-fi and TV reboots. The darker, grittier re imagining, that saw a fleet of human ships fleeing the dreaded Cylons in search of Earth, won a whole host of awards and critical acclaims over its seven-year run. With the series looking to go through another quasi-reboot under show runner Michael Lesslie, we look back at the first reboot that defined the early days of twenty-first century television, beginning with the 2003 mini-series that started it all...
Battlestar Galactica came at a period of transition for sci-fi television. The long-running Star Trek franchise that had been a juggernaut in the 90s, was nearing its end (Star Trek: Enterprise was bravely attending to shake things up with a season long arc during its third year but would face cancellation after the fourth). Popular sci-fi shows like Babylon 5, Sliders, Earth: Final Conflict, Farscape and Firefly had all come and gone, The X-Files had died a slow death and only Stargate SG1, in many ways a natural successor to Star Trek, with mix its episodic and on-going story lines, was going strong. You could argue that the 90s 'golden age of sci-fi' had come and gone.
The show's creator Ronald D Moore had made his mark on the Star Trek franchise as a producer and writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Moore was the man who developed the Klingons for the new era, who helped script the Borg's big-screen debut in Star Trek: First Contact and who had been a driving force in the darker, war-torn stories of Deep Space Nine. In many ways, his work on the Star Trek franchise gave him the building blocks for his work on the gritty, darker re imagining of the 1970s Battlestar Galactica, which brought rich characterisation, war-torn drama and sweeping narrative arcs. Without the more conservative trappings of the Star Trek franchise, Moore was able to let loose with one of the most compelling TV shows of the early twentieth century. When it was good, Battlestar Galactica was prestige television. Not just as a sci-fi show, but TV drama in general.
Revisiting the mini-series that kick started the show, it is astounding to see how much of what made Battlestar Galactica such great television is established from the start. In the space of three hours, it establishes life in the colonies before the Cylon attack, defines the relationship between Baltar and Six, forges the complicated dynamic between Apollo and his father, Apollo and Starbuck and Starbuck and Tigh. It sets up the friendship between Boomer and Helo, the secret romance between Boomer and Tyrol, gives Roslin cancer, makes her president, sets up a conflict with Adama and sees them forge a tempestuous working relationship as they seek to guide humanity to safety. The world and character building hits it out of the park from the start. And that isn't even counting the attack itself, the final battle against the Cylons and the mysteries of which humans might be Cylons. It's easy to forget just how much is set up in that opening mini-series.
If there's any fault with the mini series, it's the sheer amount going on almost becomes an exhausting slog by the end. The pace is undeniably slow at times, something that would be rectified by the shorter 45-minute episodes in the seasons to follow. There is undeniably a dark, heavy atmosphere over the series from the start; certainly there are moments of humour, but the levity is slim, given the subject matter. It is certainly a story best watched in the two ninety-minute episode format it was originally broadcast in, though the cliff-hanger of the 'destruction of Colonial One' isn't much of a cliff-hanger, given that such an event would kill off two key characters - Roslin and Apollo - so soon.
Still, it is hard to pick faults when the rich storytelling and compelling performances are so good. Edward James Olmos brings so much gravitas to the weary Commander William Adama, a man who has lived and breathed military life and is ready for a retirement that never comes. Despite his hard nosed approach to both his son Apollo and Roslin, Olmos imbues Adama with a real humility. What he does, he does for the good of everyone, even if others might not agree with his actions. His parental love for Starbuck and his deep respect for Tigh shine through from the start and there is electricity with Mary McDonnell's President Laura Roslin, that will develop into one of the most complex and heartfelt relationships in the show's run.
McDonnell really is a tour de force as well. She gives Roslin great strength without ever coming across as aggressive. With a look or a soft spoken word, she commands the scene. The cancer diagnosis cuts deep, because you immediately get the sense that she is the right woman to lead humanity; her actions have purpose, she isn't afraid to speak her mind against Adama and she feels the consequence of every hard choice she makes, The cancer diagnosis isn't fair and you really feel that as you follow her journey.
There is still room for growth in the other core cast of characters. Katee Sackhoff breaks ground as the female reinterpretation of Starbuck and like many others, Batttlestar Galactica really took her career forward. But apart from being a wise-cracking, cool pilot, there's not much more to her yet, even though Sackhoff brings plenty of charm to the role. Similarly, Jamie Bamber is a strong presence as Apollo, but there's plenty more to come from him than being the star-studded captain and estranged son of the commander.
Grace Park is likeable as Lieutenant Sharon 'Boomer' Valeri but will get plenty more to do following the cliff-hanger at the end of the mini series. I'm not sure the big reveal lands quite as well as later ones, but maybe that's because we haven't got to know her more fully yet. It helps that between her romance with Tyrol, her semi-maternal connection to orphan Boxy and her heroics getting refugees off Caprica, she is distinctly un-Cylon in every respect. Juxtaposing the less endearing performances of humans-revealed as Cylons Leoben Conoy (Callum Keith Rennie) and Aaron Doral (Matthew Bennett), the idea of Boomer as a secret sleeper agent is unthinkable and will become one of the most tragic story lines in early Battlestar Galactica.
This is even more apparent when compared to Tricia Helfer's Six. She is the very embodiment of the sexy, ruthless female fatale; ensnaring Gaius Baltar to obtain access to the colonies' defence network, she uses sex and manipulation to lead the way for the genocide to come. Helfer, in her first significant acting role, is a strong, commanding mouthpiece for the Cylons - having human copies is one of Moore's finest storytelling devices, allowing the audience to explore the enemy's motivations over the course of the series. Six is the figurehead, dangerous and alluring and often disturbing: the collected manner in which age snaps the baby's neck is so cold, it is completely unexpected. It is the sort of thing Moore could never have got away with on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Having her return as a device in Baltar's head is another masterstroke. The twisted relationship is another one of Battlestar Galactica's cornerstones. James Callis and Helfer have terrific chemistry and watching the cat and mouse game unfold - Baltar wracked with guilt over his complicit role in the genocide makes for some genuinely darkly comic moments. There are moments you genuinely feel sorry him. Neither character quite plays as you would expect either. It would have been obvious for Baltar to take the old woman's ticket to get off Caprica, but his selfishness only goes so far...yet. Six helping Baltar uncover the Cylon mole is another intriguing turn of events. Her motivations remain murky at best.
There really isn't a dudd performance in the cast. Aaron Douglas' Chief Galen Tyrol, Tahmoh Penikett's Captain Karl 'Helo' Agathon, Alessandro Juliani's Lieutenant Felix Gaeta, Kandyse McClure's Officer Anastasia Dualla, Ty Olsson's Captain Aaron Kelly and Paul Campbell's Billy Keikeya are all engaging, believable characters in their own right, some of which will be developed further as the series progresses. Most notable is Michael Hogan as Colonel Saul Tigh. He is already something of a wild card; the hints of alcoholism threatening to undermine his position. That sense of anger at the world will develop further, making him one of the most fascinating characters in the show's run.
There are also plenty of loving nods to the original series on which it is based. The images of old 1970s Cylons and the classic theme tune playing over the ceremony on Galactica's hanger bay are wonderful. Connor Widows' Boxey is a nice nod to the Noah Hathaway's version from the original, even if this new version of Battlestar Galactica isn't really the place for kid-based storytelling. Even though though this is a darker, grittier re imagining of the 70s sci-fi series, it isn't embarrassed by it, realising instead the rich potential the storytelling brings. Is it any wonder we are looking at another quasi reboot to come?
The Battlestar Galactica mini-series represented a change in sci-fi television for the twenty-first Century. It recognised that television had changed and the episodic nature of Star Trek wasn't always the attraction it had been. The staggering performances, the compelling narrative with its nail-biting twists and turns and rich world building are all here in the opening min-series, setting the stage for some terrific television to come.
Join us each Friday as we continue our look back at this iconic series...