'BATTLESTAR GALACTICA' More than special effects
The remake of the 1978 series features similarities to today's political themes.
By LYNN SMITH
LOS ANGELES TIMES
An out-of-the-blue, world-altering attack. Nuclear weapons. Suicide bombers. Tortured prisoners. Faith-based policy.
Sound all-too familiar? The post-9/11 culture, in all its scary ambiguity, gets the full treatment in -- of all places -- outer space as the surprisingly sophisticated remake of "Battlestar Galactica" begins its second season tonight on the Sci-Fi Channel.
Created in the charged and confusing months of early 2002, the show has managed to energize viewers on both sides of the political debate through its portrayals of inconsistent leaders and unresolved, high-stakes conflicts. In the process, it has also revolutionized science fiction on television, elevating a genre that is often dismissed as cheesy escapist fantasy into the ranks of the most serious prime-time dramas. Indeed, the new "Battlestar Galactica" has won over fans of the original dubious about a remake as well as television critics who like its relevant social and political themes as much as its military hardware and sexy Cylons.
According to "Galactica" co-creators Ron Moore and David Eick, the goal for the show was to create naturalistic, multidimensional characters as opposed to the squeaky clean heroes of traditional sci-fi TV. Rather than advancing any particular political agenda, Moore said, the characters act on the basis of their own deeply flawed natures.
This "Battlestar Galactica" is "designed to make you think, to make you question strongly held beliefs," he said. "Good people can make bad decisions and bad people can make good decisions. I mean, life is much more complicated than it's usually portrayed on television."
Provoking viewers to the edge of discomfort, Eick said, the show also asks, "Are you rooting for the right side?"
For those who need to catch up, the drama follows the human survivors of a nuclear holocaust as they alternately run from and attack the enemy Cylons -- man-made machines that developed the ability to pass for human. Led by spaceship Cmdr. William Adama (Edward James Olmos) and President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), the humans' hopes hang on reaching a mythical planet called ... Earth.
Different than the original
Despite a cult following and nifty special effects, the original 1978 series never rose above its simple moral lessons and spandex spacesuits. The Lorne Greene original was often called "Bonanza in Space." In contrast, the new version starring Olmos and McDonnell as deeply flawed military and civilian leaders of a band of space war survivors has been labeled "The West Wing in Space," and "24 in Space."
Not directly ripped from the headlines, the plots of the new series still hit the hot-button issues of the day: The president believes her visions fulfill an age-old religious prophesy. The Cylons slip through security with explosives under their vests. The rogue pilot is a woman who tortures prisoners. Everywhere there are shadowy characters, like populist leader Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch) -- is he a freedom fighter or a terrorist?
In the new season, one episode will examine whether a fetus should be used to save a life. In another, a journalist at a news conference challenges the president to answer another reporter's question before moving on to his own.
"If you look at the original 'Galactica,' conceived post-Watergate, it's almost as though it's saying, 'Don't trust the political leadership, trust in family.' It was the only thing you could trust," said Mark A. Altman, publisher of CFQ/Cinefantastique, a Los Angeles-based science fiction, film and TV magazine. "What you have now, as in society, is a disintegration of the nuclear family. You can't trust anyone. Anyone can be a Cylon." Since 9/11, that paranoia has increased, he said. "Anyone could be a terrorist. This show does a good job of capturing the zeitgeist in that way."
On the Internet, the show has sparked much debate between liberals and conservatives. One fan wrote on the scifi.com bulletin board, "Tom Zarek is a cowardly, self-serving toad." Another wrote, "My only regret is that I cannot vote for him." A third said Zarek reminded him of too many politicians today: sounds good, but no constructive alternatives and can't be trusted.
Many saw Cylons as stand-ins for Al-Qaida and the abuse of prisoners as metaphors for Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. "BSG is holding a mirror up to us," one fan wrote. "If putting panties on their head, piling them up in a gay pyramid or dunking them under water saves the lives of the innocent, I'm all for it," wrote in another, going beyond the show's plot.
Aware that some conservatives have criticized the show for a "blame America" attitude and some liberals suggest they're advancing a right-wing, fascistic view of the future, Moore and Eick denied the show is a direct allegory for current events. "The Cylons are not direct analogs of Al-Qaida. Laura Roslin is not a direct analog of George Bush. The Colonials are not a stand in for the U.S.," Eick said. Still, he said Roslin has made decisions that are "tough and questionable and parallel those of the current president and administration."
And in some cases, the Cylons come off as sympathetic. "As much as we find reprehensible the agenda of the real enemies out there, you can't deny they have a point of view," he said. "Our antagonists are not at all simplistic. In many ways, they are more complex than the good guys."
After watching the pilot miniseries, Bonnie Hammer, president of the NBC Universal-owned Sci-Fi Channel, told Eick and Moore that a series would work only if it were greatly different from any other sci-fi series on television.
"We needed a true breakout series," she said. "Something that lived in our world but had a level of importance and gravitas, that went beyond frolicking sci-fi."
Hammer said "Battlestar Galactica" -- averaging nearly 3 million viewers per episode -- was worthy enough not only to warrant a second season but also an extra seven episodes for a total of 20.