Here we are, at the beginning.
A miniseries is a weird way to start an hourlong show—it’s a deliberately irregular pace compared to what the rest of the show is going to do, and it requires an awful lot of investment from first-time viewers trying to get into the series. So it’s weirder still that it works for Battlestar Galactica. Partly that’s because the show has so much it needs to establish in the first few episodes. Partly, there’s something, too, in the tone three hours of cinema sets that an hourlong episode can’t quite provide, no matter how gripping it is. The miniseries is pure immersion, and as many fans of Battlestar came to it on Netflix or DVD, this is a show built for and on the wholehearted dedication of binge-watching.
This miniseries has its issues. David Sims, dearly departed from The A.V. Club, pronounced it “meh” to me yesterday. He’s wrong, but it’s a fair assessment. The miniseries is long, at times very slow, and given how many characters are introduced, their sudden dramatic lines (or in Commander Adama’s case, speeches) are hard to swallow. (Helo’s line to Boomer as they’re debating bringing Gaius onto the ship is a great example of the melodrama: “Sharon. Look at these clouds and tell me this isn’t the end of everything.”)
But the miniseries has an awful lot to do in its three hours, and this first half has to do the heavy lifting of introducing a whole world and then making the audience care about it. Given how difficult its job is, it succeeds admirably. Battlestar Galactica isn’t really comprehensible without the miniseries—and it’s fascinating that the show was so unafraid to establish a whole universe in a few scant minutes. It’s a type of world-building best-suited to endless franchises—the multi-book series, the film trilogy, the serialized television show. The detail is there for richness, not for third-act plot expediency.
Battlestar Galactica has to sell this world hard right from the start, and from my point of view, it does a great job. The first half-hour to 45 minutes of the miniseries, I’d argue, are the strongest; once the actual war starts, the show shifts gears, moving into a mode that it adopts for the rest of the series—the slow process of enduring a war of attrition. And the way it builds that world is with a kind of atmospheric detail that is surprising, even now, 10 years later. Syfy might not have granted Battlestar the biggest special-effects budget out there, but the show makes up for it with other props, some tangible, some not: the intercom system, the uniforms, the lighting, the rank insignia on everyone’s sleeves. The language of the show, which is a coherent, lively prop within itself—offering clues on the world’s treatment of gender, the cylons, the life of the soldiers on the Galactica, and of course, that lovely workaround “frak,” which gives the show an ability to be powerful without ever saying that other f-word. (I’d love to build a glossary of terms from this show: Just in this episode, there’s “FTL drive,” “hyper-light,” “thank the lords of Kobol,” and “frak,” and that doesn’t include terms that have been updated to serve the show’s purposes, like “action stations,” “sir,” and “toaster.”) Every show creates some kind of dialect, but Battlestar Galactica developed it consciously and wholly; from the first minute there is a fullness to the narrative that seems endless.
And the miniseries has to do that, in order to make the next part matter. Because once the world is established, and the major characters all introduced, Battlestar Galactica starts doing terrible things to them. And if the audience doesn’t care, then it’s just not that meaningful. It’s a pacing change that is almost abrupt: The episode starts with smooth tracking shots and bright walk-and-talk scenes that would make Aaron Sorkin proud, before moving to choppy, occluded shots of black space and distant, silent explosions. Light, quite literally, is extinguished from the world. And as it is, the scenes suddenly become protracted, so tension can pool in between shots.
Essentially, the miniseries is training us to feel terrified for these characters on a regular basis. Without much warning, it inserts us, the audience, into the wrong side of a war—the losing side. And not just losing, but like, totally fucked losing. The humans have no chance of getting out of this. And that realization is a slowly dawning one, for all of the characters, and for the audience too.
A lot of this process of revisiting Battlestar Galactica will be comparing what it first felt like with what it feels like now—answered questions, solved mysteries, dichotomies that are much grayer than they first appear. The word “subvert” gets thrown around a lot in criticism, but I think it’s valid here: Battlestar Galactica starts out telling an adventure story and then does almost the exact opposite of what you’d expect. By the end of the miniseries, especially, nothing feels like it should, and that is gripping, and addictive, too.
If Battlestar Galactica is a big coloring book, much of what I’ve discussed above are the lines. It’s the execution that gives the pages color, and a lot of that comes down to the performances. A lot of this episode is dedicated just to showcasing the performances of these characters, who are so wholly embedded in their roles it’s hard to believe they haven’t been playing these characters for years. Katee Sackoff’s appearance as Starbuck is visually a ball of energy in the otherwise somber ship (her blonde hair helps set that off, contrasted against Galactica’s gloomy halls). Mary McDonnell’s line deliveries, somehow both warm and dry at the same time, elevate what could be casual posturing or stereotypical maternal bossiness into the sketches of a complex, strong character. Edward James Olmos makes material that really should be cheesy into stirring, grand speeches—he somehow always makes it sound like he’s speaking straight from the heart. (I have my reservations about how well his performance ages in the series, but it’s good in this first episode.) Even the fringe cast finds a niche and works with it. The attack on Caprica happens about 45 minutes in, and it amazed me, in this rewatch, how invested I was in the characters and their welfare already. It’s that kind of panic that keeps you watching.
Several months ago I tossed off a crack about Tricia Helfer’s acting skills in a review of a new drama she was in, Killer Women. A lot of people reached out to me to tell me that I was wrong, which is fair. I underestimated her. I’ve had a lot of trouble caring about Six and Gaius’ love connection, and I’m not sure why. Rewatching, though, I found myself asking a lot of questions about who Six is, and why she does what she does. We see two different copies of her in this episode—and then the hallucination of her, in Gaius’ head, who will end up becoming quite the fixture. With all of them, Helfer has a delicate anxiety that weighs on her, even as it lends her grace. She’s actively tortured by what she’s doing, even though she’s also convinced that it’s God’s plan. Insofar that this show has a single villain, Six is the closest we come—she’s the first and most ubiquitous representative of the cylons, both beautiful and terrible.
It brings me to the opening scene of Battlestar Galactica, which is one of the more indelible images of the series, I think—the one where Six walks into the space station, flanked by toasters, and says to the man waiting there: “Are you alive?” What does “alive” even mean to her, I wonder? She is genuinely fascinated with life’s fragility, its creation and destruction. She’s genuinely fascinated with human frailty, too—Gaius’ selfishness fascinates her, even as it pains her. And to her, life is a whole different thing than it is for humans. It’s a continuum that transcends a mere body; and yet, what a body. I’m not trying to be gratuitous with that—her body is so much of her character, in that, she is beautiful and carefully well-dressed and physically making love to Gaius and making out with an anonymous space station official. Gaius says: “You’re a cylon.” She responds: “I’m a woman.”
There are many copies of Six. Each one has a body that is a weapon. That is striking. In many ways that moment with Six walking into the space station is the image of the series—a complex computer wearing a red dress entering a scene knowing that she is going to win, and choosing to engage with human life before discarding it. (With her tongue. But still.)
Above all what the miniseries does is remind humanity of its own flaws. In this case, the flaws became sentient and came back and nuked their parents, and maybe we’re not there just yet. But so much of the fundamental guts of this series strikes at the basic question of what it means to be the most powerful species on a fragile planet, whether we like it or not. Sure, the people we see didn’t do anything themselves—instead they all inherited a shitty situation. But, now what? Do they deserve saving, as Adama asks? Do we? It’s a strikingly reasonable question—and one that Six is bringing to us in one hand, while wielding vengeance in the other.
So say we all:
- Original airdate: 12/8/2003
- If I had to point to a specific way this first episode falls short, it’s that it introduces a few conflicts that are totally boring with a few that feel entirely vital, but it doesn’t seem to know which is which. (This is the problem the show has forever, so, yeah.) For example, Lee’s conflict with his father and Starbuck over Zak bores me to tears—it seems to exist purely so Adama can make that portentous speech where he says: “The day comes when you can’t hide from the things you’ve done anymore.” It’s a great line—and follows the quote I used above as the sub-headline of the review, to point to the idea of humanity’s reckoning with its works. But inter-Adama drama is a lot less interesting than the show thinks it is.
- I never thought this before, but the narrative of a warrior class being prepared for an ancient threat that everyone else has dismissed is really similar to Anne McCaffery’s The Dragonriders Of Pern series.
- “War… with the cylons?” “This better be for real.”
- Adama speech count: 2. One at the decommission ceremony; one over the intercom.
- Everything Laura Rosslin says is perfect, but I particularly loved her response to the question, “Wait, who put you in charge?” “Well, that’s a good question. The answer is ‘no one.’” It has a faint uptick to it, like she’s asking a question, but she is totally not. That’s the schoolmarm with complete command of her classroom talking.
- Rosslin’s call sign: D-456-345-A
- This is the list of characters in this episode, by appearance. It interested me to see that cylons are two of the three first people we get to know:
- Commander Adama
- The Chief
- (Lee, in a photograph)
- Laura Roslin
- I have always been fond of the useful explanation for why everything in the battlestars is so retro—corded phones and no Internet. “We were so frightened by our enemies that we literally looked backwards for protection.”
- Have you spent hours trying to rationalize why everything in the world of BSG has cut corners? I have!
- I am forever rooting for The Chief and Boomer together, which means I am forever unhappy. But this scene of theirs at the beginning is so cute: “The gimble is broken.” “Shut up, sir.”
- The shot of the bodies of the Chief’s men being expelled into hard vacuum hurts every time. It’s well done. Which leads to a real question: Why does Adama trust Tighe? He is a sloppy mess in this first episode.
- Office of the XO: Here’s how the logistics of this season’s coverage will play out. I’ll do each half of the miniseries in one review, and then take two episodes a week for the rest of the series. I think I’m going to try to do both halves of season one’s finale “Kobol’s Last Gleaming” in the same review, though, so there might be one review with three episodes jammed together, or one week with just one episode. If you have any suggestions or requests, let me know.
- Favorite character time: Yeah, why not? We’re going to be here a while. My choice is always Kara Thrace, though whenever I see either The Chief or Laura Rosslin on-screen, my love is sorely tested. Anyone out there for Gaius, who is my least favorite?