Embarrassingly, before 2021 I had never watched a single episode of Battlestar Galactica. I had never watched the 1970’s show that was cancelled, and I had never considered watching the 2003 remake, regardless of my love for science fiction. That was until I watched The Office (US) and met Dwight Kurt Schrute III. throughout the series it was mentioned of his love for the show, and in the final season he sat painting a model of Galactica in his office. Running out of ideas to watch I thought I would jump into Battlestar Galactica to see what the appeal was, how it held up to the likes of Star Trek, Firefly and the likes of Babylon 5 and also how well it holds up 18 years since it’s miniseries launch.
This review contains spoilers
The miniseries for Battlestar Galactica sets an incredibly strong basis for the subsequent series. We are introduced to the idea of the Cylons as well as a back story to the previous human/Cylon war that ended in an armistice. The threat level is immediately set to high as we see the murder of the human who is allocated to meeting the Cylons every year. The miniseries took me by surprise as it was not very “sci-fi” at all to begin with. We are given some insight into Doctor Gaius Baltar and his female love-interest who is clearly a Cylon in sheeps clothing (human clothing actually).
The Cylons that are seen in the 1970’s variant of Battlestar Galactica were men in chrome armoured suits but now we learn that these beings have the ability to mimic human form. Most of the miniseries is around the initial obtaining of the 12 planets defense codes, of which Gaius Baltar has a hand in. Baltar doesn’t fully understand the impact he has caused until the 12 colonies of Kobol are wiped out by an invasion force of Cylons, forcing what little of humanity has left to evacuate each of their planets.
The plot line is brutal and fully shows the inhumane side of these Cylon creatures – even to the point of snapping a human babies neck to see how much weight/pressure it can actually take. One of the first parts of writing that made me take note to the brilliance of the science fiction element that came about was the ship Battlestar Galactica itself. Being an older ship of the fleet (complete with gift shop and tours) it has no networked computers. A small coincidence occurs within this element of the story as the Cylons now have the ability to send computer viruses to networked computers, and this is how they managed to wipe out most of the fleet. Battlestar Galactica however is able to survive the initial onslaught and they take the remaining 50,000 humans in the fleet with them as they now begin their search for a mythical planet named Earth.
So how does a miniseries that has literally started with the eradication and near-extinction of the human race gain any more traction that this? With one of the most tense episodes I had seen in science fiction history until this point is how. The episode 33 was the first episode of the network-ordered first season of the new TV series of Battlestar Galactica. As a viewer we are thrown into the middle of a new situation the fleet have themselves in whereby the Cylons are attacking every 33 minutes, hence the title. Every 33 minutes Battlestar Galactica has to send out its squadrons of Vipers to protect the fleet while they spool up their FTL (Faster than Light) drives to jump to a new “safe” set of coordinates. They reset the clock each time and as it hits 33 minutes once more the Cylon fleet appear. The crew go more than 100 hours without sleep and we start to immediately see their human side and how they are trying to cope with this tension. Against all odds they still remain at their posts and fight with every last breath. The symbolism here is either deep or coincidental, but as an atheist I still believed it was showing a link to Biblical texts. Jesus Christ was crucified at the age of 33 and the name Elohim is mentioned 33 times in the book of Genesis. Elohim is a reference to a single deity which is a prominent part of the story that gains traction as the series progresses.
It soon comes to pass that the Cylons are able to track one of the civilian vessels in the fleet – this is not your normal science fiction show where ships have “long-range sensors”. Whether or not the vessel has Cylons on board, or a tracking device, the crew of Battlestar Galactica are unable to tell. But we are met with the horrendous task of the new President of the Colonies giving the order to shoot it down, including the people on board. Emotions are high, a conflict of feelings are felt by all involved, as well as the viewer as we see them take out a proportion of what is left of the human race to stop any further attacks. This episode sets a very high bar for what is to come over the next four seasons and also sets a precedence of what is to be expected. This is not Star Trek where actions seldom follow into the subsequent episodes and human life is based on a futuristic utopian perspective. This is not Star Wars whereby secret and coincidental exhaust vents are miraculously placed to help people fight against unfathomable odds. This is not a show that has any deus ex machina that will jump out and end crises at the last second before life is lost. This is the start of Battlestar Galactica, a show above all others.
The iconic characters
Throughout the show we follow Commander (later General) Adama and how he has to look after the fleet from a military standpoint. His son, Captain Lee Adama is one of the best Viper jocks in the fleet, and we witness the ups and downs of their relationship and how they deal with some distressing history regarding Lee’s brother who died all too early. The President of the Colonies, Laura Roslin, was made President as she was the last and highest ranked politician left after the attempted genocide by the Cylons. We see her struggle to keep control and set examples for the rest of the fleet. We also see her battle a personal illness of cancer throughout the four seasons as she tries to keep the strength to keep up the battle both politically and physically.
One of the most interesting characters is Doctor Gaius Batlar who has managed to escape Caprica amid the destruction. He battles with the visions of his former Cylon lover who appears to manipulate his every move. We spend most of the four seasons wondering if he is a Cylon, if he is merely insane and why he can see this manifestation. He struggles personally with the fact that he has caused the destruction of his race and tries his hardest to do the best for both sides – as a form of self preservation.
Other key figures are of course Kara Thrace who goes by the Viper call-sign Starbuck. Her path throughout the series becomes complicated, questionable and sometimes a mysterious arch that keeps you questioning more and more. Chief Tyrol, Boomer, Helo and more characters all have incredibly strong parts to play as the story progresses and they all keep you hooked to the plot and wanting more.
Of course there are the Cylons too. There are 12 models of Cylon who, when they die, are brought back to life in a new, and identical body, in a resurrection hub. We spend so many hours wondering who the undisclosed models of Cylon are, who is possibly a traitor and we start to build up the lore of their civilization too. The Cylons are as much human as the humans and this builds an interesting layer on the standard fight against machines storyline.
A strange mix of realities
The only one item that made me question the show was somewhere within season two. I had fully enjoyed the premise of the show until it became heavily religious for a few concurrent episodes. The reasoning was not explained, and this bewildered me somewhat but I continued watching. If you have not watched the show before, please push on past these episodes as they actually become key to the entire premise of things to come.
The show originally follows a prophecy that is written in one of the ancient texts. Myth has it that there were actually 13 tribes and one of those tribes left the other 12 to find another planet named Earth. The planet is part of the religion believed in by many on Caprica, whilst others consider it to be completely mythological. And this is the path that Battlestar Galactica starts to take. Commander Adama gives people hope by saying he knows the location of planet Earth even though he does not believe in it himself and just wants to boost moral. While the president starts to hallucinate on her cancer medication and truly believes that she is the one to lead them to the correct planet.
The show starts to show battles for military power, political power and underlying elements to human society like black markets and the controlling of drug rings, prostitution and other illegal acts. The show starts to bring out the good in each character but also the bad, and terrible. We are treated to a show which highlights the bad decisions in human nature and how we have to take the good and bad with all societies. This is one of the grounding mechanisms of the show and it truly resembles modern society in a manner that makes it feel familiar. Other aspects of life we have had to deal with in our real lives come in the form of terrorism, suicide bombings, psychological manipulation, sleeper agents, insurgents, military coups, religious wars and disagreements and more. The realism of the show fully defines what we as a viewer try to escape, but also what we cannot escape.
There is a slight restbite in the show whereby a planet is found and subsequently colonised by the fleet. This is shortlived as the Cylons soon appear and occupy the planet, keeping everyone in camps similar to those witnessed throughout history. Tension also builds as Admiral Adama is forced to remove Galactica and the remaining fleet in orbit from the situation for four months in order to regroup and strategise a plan of rescue.
“There must be some kind of way outta here“
As the show progresses we see Gaius Baltar move through several roles on the ship. From developing a fake Cylon detector, to being President of the Colonies, to being a Cylon prisoner to being the leader of a new cult. Baltar soon assumes the role of what could only be described as Jesus Christ or a mix of Jesus and Joseph Smith (the man who created the Mormon faith). Certain acts that he performs such as feeding of the 5000, The Cleansing of the Temple, the healing of children are too similar to the stories of Jesus Christ to be ignored. Other similarities to Joseph Smith pop up too, such as his harem of women who worship him as some sort of deity. Baltar has one of the most complicated paths in the show and ends up trying to convince people that there are not multiple gods, but one god (yes even this sounds familiar).
Kara Thrace also takes an unusual path, being killed and resurrected (much like the ability of the Cylons), finding her own dead body on a version of Earth that is found in season four and being branded the Harbinger of Death. Her path is complicated, interesting and leaves you wanting more.
All these storys lead us to the eventual discovery of Earth, which has been destroyed 2000 years prior. The race of people who landed, the 13th tribe were in fact Cylons and it starts to open up more doors as to what the frak is going on. Throw in a mix of Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower at this point for added confusion and mysticism that keeps you clicking “view next episode”. Season four sets out the final journey of our crew and the fleet as they look for a new home, and we see some amazing twists and turns in the story that I will not outline in this review.
“Grab your gun and bring in the cat“
I cannot possible summarise the full 70+ episodes into one review. The plot of Battlestar Galactica takes us through so many emotional rollercoasters. It is a show that no one is safe – anyone can die. We see aspects of humanity that we are all familiar with, plots that are so deep and complex that their finales are a gasping-sound of awe. I personally have not gasped and swore as much at a television as I have done over the last month.
There are plots I have left intact such as who the final five Cylons are, and where are they in the fleet, where do the fleet finally settle (if they do), why are the Cylons replicating themselves to appear human when they are also simultaneously trying to wipe them out, what happens to a computer mind so sophisticated as a Cylon when it is given human emotion and so much more. The characters within the show, the lore and the mixing of science fiction with what we understand about ourselves, about religion, politics and Earth’s history are all key concepts to making this show work. So yes, Battlestar Galactica fully works as a show in todays society and I challenge anyone to find a better, richer experience than the four seasons offered to us in this phenomenally written passage of human time. Battlestar Galactica is a pinnacle of writing and acting, “so say we all.”
Score – 10/10
Battlestar Galactica can be watched on BBC iPlayer in the UK here