Review: Battlestar Galactica 3.1-3.2

Battlestar Galactica

In the US: SciFi, Fridays, 9/8c

In the UK:
Sky One later in the year/start of next year.

Characters re-cast: 0

Major characters gotten rid of: 1-3, but I started to lose count

Major new characters: 0

Format change percentage: 90%

Pies eaten: All of them

The Battlestar Galactica of the late 70s/early 80s was a simple affair. Loosely based on the Book of Mormon, it featured a bunch of humans living on “the 12 colonies” who create a race of robots, the cylons, to do their bidding. The robots turn, there’s a war, and almost all the humans are killed. The survivors huddle together in a few ships guarded by the last “battlestar”, a kind of spaceship version of an aircraft carrier, and this “ragtag armada”, as it was called in the opening narration, heads off to look for the 13th colony, Earth.

Each week, the cylons would catch up with them, there’d be a fight and the armada would escape, typically then finding some kind of Old West-styled planet or casino that had a disco. Formulaic but fun.

SciFi’s remake of Battlestar Galactica has been running for three seasons now and has continually shifted upwards the quality bar for science fiction on television. The cheesiness has gone, replaced instead with the bleakness of a group of 40,000 people on the run from an unrelenting enemy that used nuclear weapons to destroy 16 billion of their friends, families and neighbours and seems to want to do the same to them.

The producers haven’t been afraid to tinker with the format either. The new cylons create human-looking, biological versions of themselves that believe in a single God, while those pesky humans continue to worship Athena and Apollo. A second battlestar, the Pegasus, turns out to have survived, making the entire name of the show slightly redundant; and at the end of the second season, the armada finds a planet capable of supporting life, so decides to stop running and settle down. Then, for a last format tinker, the producers posed the question, “What if the cylons caught up with the fleet while their guards were down?” and left us waiting all summer for the answer.

That turned out to be “You’d get Nazi-occupied France crossed with the modern-day Middle East”. Rather than destroying all the humans, the cylons decide it’s their duty to shepherd their human charges towards God’s truth. They come in, help the humans to improve their electricity supply and housing, and form a joint government with the humans that’s still ostensibly under the aegis of the elected president. Meanwhile, the half-staffed, hopelessly overwhelmed battlestars have run away, tails between their legs, to sit and wait for the day they can get their acts together and fight back.

The parallels to the Vichy government, the Free French and the withdrawal from Dunkirk by the British alternate between obvious and subtle, but life for the humans under cylon occupation also has certain overlaps with Palestine and Iraq: the humans fail to welcome the invaders with open arms, not exactly embracing the prospect of creating their own police force to keep an eye on themselves, and their “insurgents” have latched on to suicide bombing with alacrity; the cylons use “tough” interrogation methods to get the truth out of their wayward charges, who really should be more grateful they’re getting the benefits of cylon technology and philosophy.

For anyone coming to BSG anew, don’t be expecting a double-episode of good will triumph over evil. For one thing, who’s good and who’s evil is never exactly clear, with humans and cylons both a pleasing mix of motivations. There’s no quick fix by the end of the second episode, and no one saves the day. Inevitably, the humans will escape at some point, although probably, knowing BSG, not without an extreme number of casualties, so it’s also not an especially representative entry point for anyone joining for the first time. All the same, you’ll get a reasonable idea of the tone of the show by the end of these episodes.

Regular viewers: prepare to be shocked, mainly by just how much weight Lee Adama has put on (okay, it’s a body suit plus the occasional body double, so expect him to lose it all again later in the season), but also by Tigh’s between-season injuries. But at least a few characters are going to bite the dust during these episodes, including (by the looks of it) some quite major ones. Take deep breaths and remind yourself that war has casualties. There are a few character revelations as well, including at least one marriage as well as a death or two between seasons (if you’ve not been watching the “Webisodes”, these will be news to you).

Don’t, however, be expecting shiny space battles, etc, until at least episode three; as per usual, the producers are working at the natural pace of the story, rather than forcing everything to tie up neatly with a bow in the first hour. I did, I must confess, feel a little cheated by this since you typically expect an opening episode to be a big-budget, all guns firing extravaganza, but I’m willing to extend them the benefit of my patience.

A good start to this season’s narrative, but I’m not sure an entire season of Occupied New Caprica instead of Battlestar Galactica is going to be quite my cup of tea; here’s hoping the format change doesn’t last too long.