Thursday, April 23, 2015

Battlestar Galactica: Its Successes, Failures And Lessons For The Future Of Sci-fi On The Small Screen (Part One)

Ronald D. Moore's dark and complex re-imagining of a cult 1970's TV show recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. I take a look at back in two parts at both its successes and failures, and what it lessons it has for the future of the science fiction genre on the small screen. (Part Two will be posted in the next few days) 

Though it had relatively modest (but never in danger of being fatal) ratings, Battlestar Galatica was an amazing critical hit without precedent in the oft neglected space opera sci-fi genre; once called the "Best Show on Television" by TV Guide. It also developed a strong and still devoted fan base. On its recent ten year anniversary many entertainment news outlets scrambled to eulogize the show in glittering terms, while holding it up as example to all sci-fi and genre television. BSG had undeniably high production values, a unique and gritty aesthetic, expertly portrayed characters and a willingness to use sci-fi to tackle issues of morality, religion and politics. But the show had definite structural problems beyond its controversial ending, which grew during its run and increasingly weighed down and nearly crippled its main narrative. BSG was in many ways science fiction's most spectacular success on television and its most spectacular failure. There is much to be learned from what it got right and where and how it went off the rails.

Science Fiction Television "Re-imagined"

Battlestar Galactica premiered in 2004, a time when television sci-fi, especially space opera, was entering a period of terminal decline. The last decade and a half had seen an unexpected revival and mass proliferation of the genre. Star Trek had returned to the small screen in 1987 with The Next Generation, a risky venture with a new crew of largely unknown actors. It was a curious sort of show, philosophical, dry, often pedantic but inexplicably addictive. It was a smash hit that few expected including Paramount executives who didn't even bother trying to find the backing of a major network, instead they sold the series in first run syndication. TNG's runaway success, bringing in as many as 14 million viewers per episode, led to four feature films and three television spin-offs. However, Paramount in a drive to keep a constant Star Trek presence on its fledgling new TV network UPN, began to overexpose the franchise and exhaust it creatively. After the mostly excellent Deep Space Nine, came two lackluster iterations, Voyager and Enterprise, which along with the decline of the TNG films, put Star Trek in an early grave. Enterprise limped along under the constant threat of cancellation until it was put out of its misery in 2005.

The other titan of TV sci-fi, which was also partially made possible by the success of TNG, the Stargate Franchise, was facing the same problems of overexposure and a decline in quality. SG1, once highly entertaining in its own brisk and lighthearted style, had gone on too long, exhausting its premise, main story line and even its principle star and producer Richard Dean Anderson, who left the show in its eighth season. In 2004 it spawned its own lackluster and much less successful spin-off, Stargate: Atlantis.

Sci-fi seemed like it was spent; a cash cow that had been milked dry and was no longer capable of innovation or grappling with weighty issues as it had at its height in the 90's. What was left was little more than a shell of some "gee wiz!" technology, plodding procedural drama and generic action. When BSG first launched very few people expected much of it. The name was associated with a 70's TV show filled to the brim with cheese (it featured an interminably precocious child and his robot dog as main characters), kept alive by a cult following praying for the success of a long shot revival campaign led by series star Richard Hatch. These fans were not happy with Moore's idea of "reimagining" BSG, which amounted to a hard reboot, and the general public was losing interest in sci-fi brands with much stronger pedigrees and wider name recognition.

But, Moore recognized the potential at the core of BSG's premise, before it devolved into a poor copy of Star Trek style planet of the week plots. A group of advanced human colonies in deep space are reduced to a few thousand survivors in a genocidal attack by a race of machines. They are forced to flee for their lives in a rag-tag refugee fleet, protected by the Galactica their last remaining warship, in the vain hope of reaching a now nearly mythical planet called Earth. Here was humanity in a pressure cooker, where the rules and structure of its society were totally upended. It was a chance to use sci-fi as a lens through which to examine the best and worst of the human condition. Moore had worked on three iterations of Star Trek and two of its feature films, but he had long chaffed under the restrictions of its often too rose tinted portrayal of the future and the burdens of its many well worn tropes. This was his chance to break out and bring realism, serious drama and philosophical complexity back to sci-fi. It was also fertile ground for the sort of long form serialized storytelling that was just beginning to permeate television in mid 2000's, in the wake of groundbreaking premium cable shows such as the Sopranos and the The Wire.

"It's the character's, stupid!"

The production team followed Moore's famous declaration closely. BSG, right out of the gate was a tightly constructed human drama constantly asking in words of Commander Adama "Why are we as a people worth saving?" A talented cast took us through the complexities of faith, politics and personal struggle at the end of world. There were no rubber faced aliens or spacial anomalies defeated with technobabble. Just 50,000 people crammed onto ships being relentlessly chased by the murderous race of machines they had created. The show had high production values and a gritty realism in all things. The Galactica gets increasingly battered throughout the series's run and uncomfortably overcrowded as ships in the fleet are destroyed and their occupants evacuated. Fighters are cannibalized for parts on a greasy hanger deck. People go hungry, thirsty and endure all sorts of privations (though there always seems to be more than enough boos to go around). Our heroes question the futility of the fight for survival and whether their own lives are even worth continuing; they also commit their share of questionable and even downright deplorable acts. The human and Cylon antagonists are painted in interesting shades of gray, as some work both for and against humanity at different times.

The narrative of the show is often anchored by Dr. Giaus Baltar who provides an outsider's prospective. A brilliant scientist, but weak, frivolous and self obsessed, he is manipulated into giving away access to the colonies' defense network by the humanoid Cylon and ultimate femme fatale know as "Six".  He survives the fall of the colonies and continues to be manipulated by a vision of Six which only he can see, but nonetheless provides him with information outside of his own frame of reference. She constantly encourages his own selfishness and petty egotism, moving him towards an ever greater position of power and influence within the fleet. But Baltar is rarely intentionally evil, James Callis plays the part with remarkable humor and pathos, and one can imagine that without the influence of Six, he could have been an asset to the fleet instead of nearly leading to its destruction.

Another staple of the series is the evolving relationship between Commander Adama, who is a grizzled veteran and the highest ranking surviving military officer, and President Roslin, who was the secretary of education before the attack and inherited the presidency because she was the last surviving cabinet member.  Their relationship evolves from mutual mistrust and conflict, to a grudging respect, friendship and eventually romance. Adama is also initially at odds with his estranged son and fighter pilot Lee, and their relationship goes through several upheavals.

The spotlight was always on its characters and their evolving relationships amidst danger, struggle and calamity. While this was BSG's main strength, the tunnel vision focus on inter-personal drama could also at times be a debilitating weakness.

To be Continued in Part Two... 

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I am a 20-something sci-fi fan and aspiring writer working towards a graduate degree in political science. Feel free to contact me via email.