Sunday, July 17, 2005

Battlestar Galactica — Act II

For those of us who remember the original iteration of “Battlestar Galactica” back in the fall of 1978, it was a cheesy ride-along of the hype that surrounded Star Wars — the original fim — that came out in 1977. All of a sudden TV wanted in on the pie, and the creators of the show came up with studly and roguish leads, wise counselors, and cutesy cuddly kids. It was a noble effort, but it didn’t last, and after two seasons it sputtered out.

Now it’s back, and it’s taken on the edgy and gritty look that has become a part of 21st century sci-fi. The New York Times magazine profiles the new producers of the new Battlestar Galactica.

The interior of the Battlestar Galactica is a warren of shadowy, angular hallways and spare functional chambers split over two sound stages situated on the semi-industrial fringe of Vancouver, British Columbia. The Galactica is a spaceship, but it does not feel particularly space-age. The communication panels on the walls were scavenged from a Canadian destroyer; the desk lamps are from Ikea. If you have seen ”Battlestar Galactica,” which began its second season on the Sci Fi Channel on Friday, you will know that this Galactica only vaguely resembles the ship that previously bore that name, when ”Battlestar Galactica” first flew on prime time in 1978, square in the shadow of ”Star Wars.” And it certainly does not resemble the Enterprise, the ”Star Trek” vehicle that has defined the visual and thematic vocabulary of television science fiction for four decades. On the Galactica, there is no captain’s chair; there are no windows full of stars. The command center is busy and dark, protected deep within the ship the way it would be on an actual military vessel. As the actors move from room to room, hand-held cameras swoop behind them, closing in on them claustrophobically. The characters do not travel heroically from planet to planet, solving the problems of aliens. There are, in fact, no aliens at all.

To be fair, though, there are androids. As in the original show, the humans of the Galactica and its fleet are relentlessly pursued by evil robots called Cylons. But in the current version, conceived by Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, most of the evil Cylons look like people and have found God. Ruthlessly principled and deeply religious, the Cylons have been compared by fans and critics both to Al Qaeda and to the evangelical right. And the humans they are relentlessly pursuing are fallible and complex. Their shirts are not clingy or color-coded; the men of space wear neckties. They are led by Edward James Olmos as the Galactica’s commander and Mary McDonnell as the president of the humans, and their stories revolve as much around the tensions within — between the military and civil leadership of the fleet — as they do around the Cylon threat. As Eick described the show to me last month with evident, subversive pleasure, ”The bad guys are all beautiful and believe in God, and the good guys all [expletive] each other over.” Moore, who is also the show’s head writer, put it more simply: ”They are us.”

It is sometimes jarring to watch ”Battlestar Galactica,” for it is not like any science-fiction show on television today. Science fiction is a genre that, for all its imaginative expansiveness, tends also to be very conservative; its fans sometimes defend its cliches fiercely. ”Battlestar Galactica” upends sci-fi cliches. The show is jarring also because it is, after all, ”Battlestar Galactica,” which in its original incarnation was seen even within the world of science-fiction fans as something of a sincere but goofy oddity — a mere 24 cumulative hours’ worth of television that, like some bit of shrapnel from the ”Star Wars” explosion of the 70’s, lodged in our consciousness but had been largely forgotten.

How Moore and Eick came to transform that show into one of the most original and provocative programs on television is strange. What is stranger is that there was a small but very dedicated group of ”Battlestar Galactica” fans who didn’t want them to succeed.

Read on.