A Very Special Episode: Battlestar Galactica, "33"
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Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
There are those who believe that the original Battlestar Galactica was little more than a cheap copy of Star Wars: one TV network’s cynical attempt to cash in on the late-’70s mania for all things spacey. But while the show’s creator, Glen A. Larson, did have a reputation in the industry for generating knock-offs, it wasn’t Star Wars he was copying with Battlestar Galactica; it was Star Trek, and specifically Gene Roddenberry’s oft-repeated contention that his little space adventure was just “Wagon Train to the stars.” Larson built out from that concept, adding a theological foundation and a historical framework. Though Larson has rarely addressed the subject of Battlestar Galactica’s religious origins except in the vaguest terms—in a 1979 interview with Fantastic Films, he quotes The Gospel Of John regarding the possibility of life on other planets—it’s widely believed that Larson used the show to normalize certain aspects of his Mormon faith, from eternal marriage to a 12-member ruling body. Even one of the core premises of the series, that Earth has a secret past that will be revealed when its scattered interstellar tribes return home, smacks of buried golden plates and Jesus’ visit to America and all that Gnostic jazz.
In other words: Even if Larson’s habit of “larceny” (as Harlan Ellison once reportedly dubbed it) led him to start developing a Star Trek copy in the late ’60s, and even if the success of Star Wars led ABC to green-light Larson’s Battlestar Galactica series, the show still had its own personality and idiosyncrasies. God knows it could be stiff and goofy. (What was up with that robot dog?) And yes, the fashions, effects, and acting styles all look dated now. But there was a real heart and brain behind the original series’ saga of a dwindling band of humans journeying toward the safe haven of Earth, pursued by the killer robots they created.
That goes double for the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, which could’ve easily been a brainless bit of brand-extension by the Sci-Fi Channel. (Slap a familiar title and some well-remembered characters onto a generic space-opera, then shrug all the way to the bank.) In lieu of that, executive producer Ronald D. Moore—a veteran, award-winning sci-fi TV writer—took his command seriously, and with the added support of producing partner David Eick and their team of talented writers, the new Battlestar Galactica developed as a technologically advanced replica, with recognizably human skin.
The new Battlestar Galactica model launched in December of 2003, with a two-night, three-hour miniseries that averaged more than 4 million viewers—a blockbuster in basic-cable terms. The miniseries follows the rough outline of Larson’s original BSG pilot: Just when humans are convinced they no longer have anything to fear from their rebellious robot progeny the Cylons, they’re devastated by a Cylon attack, leaving only a fleet of commercial, private, and military spaceships to ferry what’s left of the 12 Colonies on a journey into uncharted space, toward a mythical “13th Colony” known as Earth. But the tone of the new Battlestar is very different. The war-movie archetypes and stilted high-fantasy trappings of Larson’s script have given way to something with more sophistication and urgency, driven by a pounding score and more natural-sounding conversations, and graced by the occasional lyrical lull.
The revamped Battlestar Galactica announces the seriousness of its intentions with its riveting opening scene, in which an emissary of mankind is taken by surprise when the Cylons show up unexpectedly for a meeting they’ve been blowing off for 40 years. The Cylons are led by a robot in human form, later identified as model “Number Six” (played by Tricia Helfer). Number Six leans in and speaks the first lines of dialogue in the series, asking the question that will come to dominate BSG: “Are you alive?… Prove it.”
From there, the miniseries establishes an unusually gritty reality for a science-fiction TV show. Yes, there are sleek flying machines in the air, but the cities they orbit look more or less like regular, Earth-like cities, where ordinary people receive cancer diagnoses or have steamy sex. Meanwhile, up in space, sons bear bitter grudges against their fathers, while grizzled old executive officers take nips from a secret flask—not filled with some kind of intoxicating space-juice, but with ordinary alcohol. There are old wounds, bigotry, and a pervasive sense of shame and anger that these man-made machines have proven so fatally efficient. In comic-book terms, the entire feel of the re-imagined BSG is as different from its source material as The Fantastic Four was from World’s Finest (or, more accurately, as Watchmen was from The Fantastic Four).
Having reintroduced Battlestar Galactica with the miniseries, Moore and company then had to reintroduce their reintroduction nearly a year later, when the first episode of the regular series aired. (This was October of 2004 in the UK; January of 2005 in the U.S.) Yet “33” doesn’t make much of an effort to catch viewers up on the story so far, outside of a brief “previously on” and the opening credits, which themselves give a pretty fair sense of what’s special about this show, from the genuine threat of the seemingly omnipresent Cylons to the haggard faces of the humans they’re trying to hound to extinction.
Instead, “33” reveals what Battlestar Galactica is really about, which has only a little to do with “the story so far,” and much more to do with the characters, the dilemmas they’re facing, and the further-reaching implications of those dilemmas. (Also dramatic intensity. Right from the start, this show was big on dramatic intensity.) When “33” begins, the respective crews of the Galactica and the other ships in the fleet have been living on almost no sleep for over five days, because every time they do a faster-than-light jump to a new location, the Cylons follow, around 33 minutes later. At the end of the miniseries, Galactica’s commander, William Adama (Edward James Olmos) had given a speech to rally the troops, lying through his teeth that he knows where Earth is, and that he’s going to lead everyone there. But that mission isn’t the subject of this episode. “33” is about raw survival, and what that takes. It’s “Are you alive?” redux.
Even more unexpected: The main character of “33” isn’t Commander Adama, or his standoffish fighter-pilot son Lee (Jamie Bamber), or the cancer-ridden President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), or Galactica’s drunken, bitterly divorced XO Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), or even loose-cannon lieutenant Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff). No, “33” opens with the ticking of a clock, and the face of Gaius Baltar (James Callis), the scientist who inadvertently facilitated the Cylons’ massacre of humanity when he gave Number Six access to the Colonies’ defense computers in exchange for technology that—as it turned out—the Cylons could then easily disable. Baltar also betrayed his own kind for some admittedly hot sex, and throughout “33” we see Baltar in his own head, conversing with the seductive Number Six that may be surgically implanted in his brain, or may just be in his imagination. He argues with her about whether or not there’s one God, or many gods, or nothingness—and whether any of the above holds the key to Baltar’s destiny.
It’s Baltar’s guilt that steers the plot of “33,” as President Roslin gets a message from a ship called the Olympic Carrier stating that a Dr. Amarak wants to see her, possibly to expose Baltar as a traitor. Baltar and his inner Number Six get this news in a scene that reveals some of this show’s wit, as Baltar seamlessly carries on simultaneous conversations with the president, her top aide, and Number Six.
Then the fleet executes another Cylon-escaping jump, while the Olympic Carrier lags behind. Just a coincidence? Or did Baltar’s Number Six alert the Cylons that there could be trouble, and have them intercept the Olympic? Whatever the reason, the every-33-minute Cylon pursuit stops when the Olympic disappears. And when the carrier just as unexpectedly returns, so do the Cylons. Still worried about his own skin, Baltar suggests that the Olympic Carrier is itself a Cylon trap, and when the Galactica crew’s scanners reveal that the ship contains a nuclear weapon, Adama asks Roslin to give the order to destroy the Olympic. The president hesitates, not wanting to kill the more than 1,000 humans who may (or may not) still be on board, especially since barely 50,000 humans total are accounted for in the entire universe. But once Number Six gets Baltar to repent his sins and accept that God is in charge, Roslin serendipitously (?) gives the kill order, which Starbuck reluctantly executes by the side of an ice-cold Lee Adama.
There’s other business in “33.” On the ravaged colonial planet of Caprica, stranded officer Karl “Helo” Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett) is fleeing from Cylons when he’s captured and questioned by yet another Number Six, and then freed by someone who appears to be his old flying partner Sharon “Boomer” Valerii (Grace Park), but is actually the Cylons’ Number Eight humanoid model. And on Galactica, the relationships between some characters remain in flux, as they question each other’s sleep-deprived judgments and continue to let old disagreements push them away from each other.
But that’s all groundwork for the rest of Battlestar Galactica’s first season, and to some extent the three that followed. (Though it’s tricky to talk about later BSG seasons in context of the first; more on that in a moment.) What matters in “33” is how tightly and effectively the episode builds the world of the show. “33” does this via its style: the low light, the handheld cameras, and the way the actors realistically play exhaustion. (Olmos reportedly stayed up late for weeks before the shoot, and consulted a doctor on the symptoms of sleep-deprivation, which director Michael Rymer then assigned to different actors so as to cover the spectrum of tiredness without too much repetition.) The episode also builds BSG’s world via its special effects and sound design, which emphasize the graceful movements of the Viper fighters and the muted sounds of outer space, even during a shootout. And the episode captures the small, human details of life aboard the Galactica, from the taped-up iconic photo of Caprica’s destruction that the fighter pilots touch before a mission, to the ship’s makeshift memorial to Caprica, which very purposefully resembles the thrown-together tributes in New York City after 9/11.
Most importantly, “33” makes the stakes of this fight clear. Next to Baltar, the main character of this episode is the big clock on the wall, ticking its way to another attack, and to further loss of life, which President Roslin then solemnly records on the dry-erase board she uses to keep the current population-count. (Another of those small, human details.) Even the cocky Starbuck loses her usual smirk when she realizes what blowing up the Olympic Carrier means. It means the humans are doing the Cylons’ work for them, squandering one of the most important resources they have left: warm bodies. It’s survival through the inelegant art of annihilation.
Battlestar Galactica recognizes—somewhat perversely—that if this is a show about what makes us human, then that must necessarily include what Baltar describes as the “limits to the human body, the human mind.” We are weak. We make mistakes. Plus, we die, which makes even the venal idiots among us at least semi-precious. “33” ends on a note of hope, as a baby is born, allowing Roslin to update her whiteboard in a positive direction. The episode also leaves open the question of whether the Olympic Carrier was manned, or if it was actually part of a Cylon plot. But while the destruction of the Olympic does slow the relentless Cylon pursuit, it doesn’t put an end to the Cylons’ plans to kill all humans, nor does it cure Roslin’s cancer, nor make Tigh any less of a souse, nor prevent that infernal clock on the wall from tick-tick-ticking away.
So is “33” optimistic or pessimistic? According to various podcasts, interviews, and DVD commentaries, Moore and Eick originally wanted the episode to be much bleaker. They wanted it to be clearer that there were humans on the Olympic Carrier, but Sci-Fi Channel balked. The network asked, too, for a more upbeat ending, which Moore provided by writing in the scene where Roslin hears about the new birth—sacrificing his artistic integrity a little to keep this project afloat. Later, once Battlestar Galactica built an audience and became a defining hit for Sci-Fi, Moore and Eick felt emboldened to use their show to explore weightier subject matter. Their “heroes” often behaved reprehensibly, while the Cylons—with their devout theology, fascination with human feelings, and desire to procreate—were frequently more sympathetic. Battlestar Galactica tried hard to maintain that ambiguity throughout the run of the series, never making it easy for the viewer to come down definitively on one side of an issue or another. Galactica’s rallying cry may have been “So say we all!”—itself ironically Cylon-like—but Moore and his staff seemed to relish fostering disagreement.
At that they succeeded, in that Battlestar Galactica was never less than controversial. Early in the run, Dirk Benedict, who played Starbuck in the original series, wrote an angry screed about what he called the “unimagined” BSG, saying:
A television show based on hope, spiritual faith, and family is unimagined and regurgitated as a show of despair, sexual violence and family dysfunction. To better reflect the times of ambiguous morality in which we live, one would assume. A show in which the aliens (Cylons) are justified in their desire to destroy our civilization. One would assume. Indeed, let us not say who are the good guys and who are the bad. That is being “judgmental.” And that kind of (simplistic) thinking went out with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne and, well, the original Battlestar Galactica. In the bleak and miserable “re-imagined” world of Battlestar Galactica, things are never that simple. Maybe the Cylons are not evil and alien but in fact enlightened and evolved? Let us not judge them so harshly. Maybe it is they who deserve to live and Adama and his human ilk who deserves to die? And what a way to go! For the re-imagined terrorists (Cylons) are not mechanical robots void of soul or sexuality, but rather humanoid six-foot-tall former lingerie models who f**k you to death.
Even fans of the new series are often split on what they enjoy. There are some who really only love the first season: when the episodes were more like individual units of story instead of a drawn-out, serialized epic; when the character motivations were clearer; and when there were more of those glimmers of hope that Sci-Fi insisted on for “33.” As implied a few paragraphs back, the overarching story of Battlestar Galactica gets so dark and tangled eventually that the above descriptions of the characters and plot in “33” aren’t 100-percent accurate. It’s not just that some of the humans in this story will later turn out to be Cylons—sleeper agents like Boomer, in some cases—but that the writers didn’t know at the time what they were going to end up doing with these people or their story. Moore didn’t write “33” with the ultimate fate of everyone in mind. In these early episodes, he’s still establishing the basics: the contentious but respectful relationship between Adama and Roslin (later to blossom into romance), the oft-gruff camaraderie between the pilots, and the way the humanoid Cylons first take advantage of the humans’ ignorance of them and then exploit their suspicions once the secret’s out.
In the seasons to come, Moore would explore the history of the Cylons, adding more to their story than just the simple “human-created robots that rebelled against their masters” origin; and he’d add to the backstory of his main human characters, compounding the misery of their life-or-death situation. By season four, Battlestar Galactica would become an impressionistic meditation on the laws of entropy, the natural cycles of destruction, and the very present possibility of divine intervention, in episodes at times shot and scripted like miniature art films. The model wasn’t Gene Roddenberry any longer, or George Lucas, or even Glen A. Larson. It was more Wong Kar-Wai.
The fans’ ardor cooled considerably the longer the series ran on. Maybe Battlestar Galactica became too pretentious, or too complicated, or too committed to gravely exploring the spiritual aspects of life (up to and including acknowledging the existence of God, which tends to irritate those who like more “science” in their science fiction). At any given point in the series’ run, even devoted viewers were watching for dozens of individualized reasons—one of which likely would’ve been “perfunctorily waiting to see how it all ends.” Not everyone hates what BSG became, though. Just as Larson made his Galactica a personal statement, so did Moore, and for some it remained exciting to watch him and his writers wrestle with these big ideas week after week, even if that meant they sometimes lost track of the characters and plot.
Anyway, there’s another, more practical explanation as to why the new Battlestar Galactica lost a lot of its buzz by the end of its run. The original series ran just 24 episodes, plus 10 more from the ill-conceived Galactica 1980. The Sci-Fi Channel series ran 75 episodes, plus bonus webisodes, movies, and the 18 episodes of the sporadically excellent (and frequently muddled) prequel series Caprica. After its first season, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica was regarded as a smart, scrappy little sci-fi show; after the second, with its more intricate storytelling and stunning twist ending, BSG was being hailed as the uncompromising conscience of TV’s new golden age. But then the hours of programming continued to pile up, and it became harder for even diehard fans to avow that everything bearing the BSG label was stellar. The show lost some of its specialness with each iteration—and even with each new episode.
Since the cancellation of Caprica, there have been talks about further prequels, sequels, and re-imaginings. Last year, the channel now known as SyFy produced an entire movie called Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, telling the story of a young William Adama during the original Cylon Wars. Originally conceived for the web, Blood & Chrome evolved into a pilot for a potential new BSG TV series, which as of last month was still under consideration. Ron Moore’s not involved with this project, but David Eick is, along with stalwart Battlestar Galactica/Caprica writer Michael Taylor.
Perhaps this team will make Battlestar Galactica into something fresh and new. Or perhaps the show will have to die completely before it can be properly resurrected (or properly appreciated). After all, these kinds of ideas do have a habit of coming back, over and over, like clockwork. Once they’re born, they proliferate, and take on a life of their own. Why, other versions of Battlestar Galactica may be awaiting us even now, far away, amongst the stars… somewhere beyond the heavens.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Too Close For Comfort, “For Every Man There’s Two Women”