Wednesday, March 25, 2009

God Is In The Details

At the end of January 2004 Sky Movies held an exclusive preview screening of the new Battlestar Galactica miniseries. It had played in America a month earlier and wouldn’t appear on UK screens for a couple weeks or so. I was glad to have snagged an invite though puzzled, when I arrived, to discover the relatively tiny theater they had hired was less than a tenth full.

Maybe it was because it was early on a Friday afternoon and most of the invitees had already planned a long weekend out of town. Maybe it was because, given the legacy of the show, nobody was really that interested. The reviews from America had been good but this was, after all, the re-imagining of one of the mindless space opera shoot ‘em ups that had been spat out in the wake of Star Wars for audiences who liked that sort of thing.

It had been a long time since I had seen any episodes of the original but, as memory served, the best word that summed them up was daft: and that was being kind. Once I borrowed the DVD boxset of the 1978 Glen Larson-produced series and watched it in full, that opinion was upgraded to godawful. Granted, a ropey television show that was twenty-five years old and aimed at the youth market probably wasn’t going to stand the test of time particularly well, but I was utterly astonished to find that it was riddled with the worst clichés imaginable.

Strangely enough, when I sat and watched the preview on that January afternoon five years ago I was certainly intrigued but oddly unmoved. Of course in the end that came down to the fact that Sky, being a big tease, only screened the first half of the miniseries. When I eventually saw the whole thing it all made sense; perfectly. When the preview tape of 33, the first episode of the new series arrived at the door months later, I was absolutely astonished by how they had taken the bare bones of the original story, stripped away all the rhubarb and replaced it with a level of intelligence rarely seen in this genre.

Instead of the kind of escapist flash-bang fantasy filled with the strange monsters and aliens that immature fanboys are guaranteed to blindly lap up, this was science fiction as a skewed reflection of current society. As the dwindling human survivors of the holocaust fought an escalating war on terror, Battlestar Galactica became an utterly remarkable commentary on what it takes to survive in the face of conflict. More importantly, amongst the themes of terrorism, human rights and reconciliation, was a deep-rooted treatise on theology, pitting the single god doctrine of the Cylons against the polytheistic belief system of the human colonists that made for a truly astonishing drama.

Last night on Sky One, after four years exploring these issues, the series reached journey’s end with the final two hours of Daybreak. As exciting and emotional and thought provoking as every episode that had come before, the finale typically divided viewers in the US who had seen it four days earlier. Finally reading a lot of the reasoned and emotional internet posts from numerous television critics and the multitude of pro and con comments their words elicited, it would have been interesting to know the ages of those commenting. Reading between the lines it appeared that older viewers liked how the series was resolved while the youngsters (or the incredibly stupid) felt short-changed.

Not surprisingly, one of the main criticisms was that not every plot thread of the show was tied up in a neat and tidy bow. But how could a drama with religion at the very heart of its story come up with a pat solution to their liking? Surely all belief systems have no easy to read, squared-away answers and are instead open to everyone’s interpretation. Also some of the kids who left comments asking what planet the crew ended up on seriously need to get hold of an atlas and bone up on basic geography before they start making inroads into religion.

As for me, I had faith in the show and it paid off beautifully. In turn laughing, crying and peppering the air with single expletives, during both the action sequences and quieter character moments, by the end I was a boggle-eyed emotional wreck, especially seeing every character get the ending they justly deserved. There’s a lot to say about the show but it’s best summed up by William Adama’s word as the ship prepares to go “around the Horn” one more time:

“Just so there’ll be no misunderstandings later, Galactica’s seen a lot of history, gone through a lot of battles. This will be her last. She will not fail us if we do not fail her. If we succeed in our mission, Galactica will bring us home. If we don’t, it doesn’t matter anyway.”

Not for one second did it fail. And that’s what mattered.


At 11:17 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

So. Say. We. All.

At 12:59 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

I remember seeing the Larson series (Gawd! The first time around!) and thinking that it was a clear allegory, but almost certainly an unconscious one; the Cylon air attacks on human civilians so closely resembled news footage of the strafing and napalming of Vietnamese villages that it was impossible not to make the association on some level. But I doubt for one minute that it crossed the minds of the makers or target audience that Americans = the Cylons.

I see I've been tagged. Damn! Now I have to think of stuff.

At 3:34 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


No finer way to sum it up.


Oh, I would have loved to have sat in on a meeting back then if someone had explained the show in those terms and watched all the Universal executives foaming at the mouth moments before their heads exploded. Looking back on it that makes perfect sense although, as you say, it obviously wasn’t what they had in mind.

The original could have been half-decent. Like everyone else I saw the cut down “movie” when it was released over here sometime in 1978. Even then, when I was just in my teens, I sat there thinking, why didn’t they do this, why didn’t they do that?! Why are we seeing the same SFX shot again and again and again.

If I hadn’t started reading from a very early age and nearly always had a book in my hands every since, I could have ignored the story and just been in awe of the whiz-bangs. Then again, when I did see later episodes I probably would have said to myself, hold on, this is just a version of The Guns of Navarone or Shane or whatever other source material storylines were “cribbed” from.

At 11:48 pm, Blogger qrter said...

I disliked the ending. To me it felt like saying: it was God that done it, afterall!

The show was constantly full of ambiguity about the question how much of faith was actually responsible for anything that happened, I thought that was very interesting - the last show blew all the ambiguity away with an airy-fairy story not about faith but there being a larger force at work etc. It felt like a giant cop-out - "look, we made all of this stuff up on the go, we haven't planned this out very well, here you go, there's an unseen, holy force at work, we'll even give you a pair of angels".

This is all besides the terrible, beyond clunky gearchanges in the last few episodes - kill the baby, QUICKLY! No wait, let's SAVE THAT ONE! Did we say something about the ship feeling the strain? GET THE SOUND DEPARTMENT ON THAT! Oh shit, we forgot all about Head Six for most of the season (and don't even mention Head Baltar!) etc.

I don't think it has to do with age (I'm 31, btw), maybe it has to do with being stupid but to me it all seemed like writers flailing to retake control of some huge, tentacled beast (<- talking of writers losing control..).

At 4:30 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Yeah, faith and religion were ongoing themes in the drama but come the finale they seriously nailed their colours to the mast, dispelling any earlier ambiguities. But having started watching the show again from the miniseries onwards – trying to get in one or two episodes every evening – I was astonished to discover that the seeds of various religious elements that lead to the resolution, were dropped into little beats far, far earlier than I remembered. Before the midpoint of season three, Head Caprica Six tells Baltar that she’s an angel from God in a way that suggests she isn’t simply messing with him.

While Moore and Eick obviously had a handle on where the narrative was ultimately heading, I think one thing the show had going against it was the SciFi Channel’s boneheaded decision to split the final year in two with a six month gap inbetween. I found there were loads of things I had forgotten and had to quickly check back. What I meant by the young and/or stupid was, based on their comments, they hadn’t taken any of this into account before, concentrating instead on the whiz-bang.

As for “writers losing control...” Having picked up a couple of rumours here and there of late, obviously you mean--


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