Battlestar Galactica: The TV Space Saga Turns 40

BSG poster

“There are those who believe that life here began out there. Far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans, that they may have been the architects of the Great Pyramids, or the lost civilizations of Lemuria, or Atlantis. Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man, who even now fight to survive…somewhere beyond the heavens.Opening narration of Battlestar Galactica

Nowadays, it is easy to find original sci-fi shows on TV or streaming and it is hard for younger fans to imagine a TV landscape where sci-fi was virtually non-existent. So, when a sci-fi show like Battlestar Galactica premiered back in the 1970s to big fanfare, it truly was a big deal for fans back then.

When Battlestar Galactica debuted forty years ago in Sept. 1978, it generated tremendous buzz for many reasons. The most important being its cost (about $1 million per episode) and for its superficial similarity to Star Wars. In fact, 20th Century Fox sued Universal Studios (the studio behind the show) for plagiarism, though that case was dismissed. We have to remember that when a movie is a huge hit it is never long before TV shows with similar premises popped up. It’s just the way the things go. This does not mean that Battlestar Galactica was a rip-off of Star Wars. Of course, both properties featured expensive space battles, rich, bombastic scores, and took place far from Earth, but it ends there. Battlestar Galactica was a space saga about the remnants of an advanced human civilization trying to find a safe haven from their robotic enemies, the Cylons, in a convoy of spaceships led by Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) from his flagship the Galactica. The twist was that the humans sought safety in a long-lost colony world called Earth.

This was a clever twist, which spun around the sci-fi concept of survivors fleeing a doomed Earth. Actually, according to series creator, Glen A. Larson, the original concept for the show used the premise of humanity fleeing Earth in a quest to find a new world. It was called Adam’s Ark and like the show it morphed into, incorporated many aspects of Mormon theology. It is important to remember that Larson conceived of Adam’s Ark back in 1968, nearly a decade before Star Wars came along.

Battlestar Galactica captured the imaginations of many sci-fi fans who were hungering for something similar to Star Wars to at least tie them over until the inevitable Star Wars sequel came out. Others, however, were more critical over the show’s scientific inaccuracies, limited production values and scripts. Keep in mind, that though the show was expensive, it was easy to see that it tried to keep its budget in line. Hence, the overuse of stock footage, especially when it came to space battles. These same critics also decried its so-called juvenile nature and lack of vision.

BSG cast

These critics could not have been more wrong. Of course, Battlestar Galactica had its faults, but given its limitation, it was unusually imaginative and did a credible amount of world building. Most episodes added interesting lore and mystery to the world of Battlestar Galactica. This was best seen in its mid-season episodes, “War of the Gods” where the Galactica crew encountered an enigmatic being called Count Iblis (Patrick Macnee) who promises salvation. The episodes explored concepts of good vs. evil, faith, and temptation. What helped was that by this time, we had grown to care for the show’s leads. Although Adama was the leader, the show focused on his son, the heroic fighter pilot, Apollo (Richard Hatch) and his best friend, the roguish fighter pilot Starbuck (Dirk Benedict), along with many supporting characters.

Sadly, as things goes, Battlestar Galactica was canceled after one season. It garnered moderate ratings, but not enough to justify its hefty price tag. What made things worse was that the show was terminated before it could resolve its central storyline. The Galactica and its convoy never found Earth, though they had clues. A mixed blessing came about a year later when a sequel show was commissioned. In the show, Adama and the Galactica convoy finally found Earth, but Galactica 1980 was truly juvenile and lacked any of the charm of the original.

Books, comics, fan fics, etc. followed, which helped keep interest alive in the show. It never reached the heights of popularity like Star Trek or Star Wars, but the devotion was solid. There have been many attempts to bring the original show to a proper conclusion, including some by Bryan Singer and Richard Hatch. Of course, we all know of the popular reboot that came out in 2003, which is considered to be one of the finest sci-fi shows ever made. While the reboot has its justified accolades it is important to remember the original TV show that spawned it and to imagine that there is much more to that space saga that is yet untold, even now, forty years later.

“Fleeing from the Cylon tyranny, the last battlestar, Galactica, leads a ragtag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest: a shining planet known as Earth.”Commander Adama, closing narration of Battlestar Galactica

José Soto

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The Golden Age of Sci-Fi TV

In the previous post, a review of Altered Carbon, it was stated that we are living through the Golden Age of Sci-Fi TV. That may be a bit of hyperbole to some, but with all the quality science fiction TV shows out now or coming soon, it cannot be denied.

Not too long ago, sci-fi TV shows were the laughing stock of television land. Of course, there were the few classic nuggets like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, which showed the potential of high-quality science fiction tales in the TV medium. However, most sci-fi TV shows were at best pedestrian or at worst embarrassing. Galactica 1980, anyone? Most of these shows had zero budgets, which made them look cheap and amateurish. Having a high budget is critical for many sci-fi programs, but not vital. What crippled many of these shows were the lack of faith from networks and the showrunners themselves who treated their shows like children’s fare and did not take them seriously.

Whenever a science fiction TV show that showed promise debuted, TV networks living by the ratings dogma were too quick to cancel them. The television graveyard of stillborn TV shows is littered with diamonds-in-the-rough like the original Battlestar Galactica, Alien Nation, and Space: Above and Beyond. It was an anomaly to see a genuinely good sci-fi TV show thrive in the competitive television landscape.

alien nationEven with the Sci-Fi Channel (now known as Syfy), high-quality science fiction TV shows could barely be found. Think about that, a cable network supposedly dedicated to this genre had a spotty record for airing good, original sci-fi television. Yes, the channel did air re-runs of past classics, but when it came to original programming, Syfy usually failed. In short, the genre was not respected by studios and the general public.

Thankfully, all that has changed. It didn’t happen overnight and it was a series of baby steps, but now science fiction is a viable and respected genre in television. This turnaround came with the success of the Star Trek spinoffs. Then in the 1990s, The X-Files, the paranormal thriller about aliens and other ghoulies became a bonafide hit and a cultural phenomenon. Other shows in the 1990s and the 2000s made their impact like Babylon 5, Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica reboot, Farscape, Doctor Who (which came back after being cancelled in the 1980s), Fringe and Lost (which won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series).Battlestar-Galactica-2003-Cast-PictureToday, there are more and more science fiction TV shows competing for our attention and ratings. There are still the goofy TV shows and guilty pleasures but it has gotten to the point that we can pick and choose what to watch as the threshold for quality has increased tenfold. Just look at what is coming out next month: The Expanse (in its third season), the critically acclaimed Westworld, a new version of Lost in Space that looks stunning, and The Handmaid’s Tale. The latter show also won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, and as much as we complain about science fiction films not ever winning an Oscar for Best Picture (though The Shape of Water can be arguably science fiction), it is refreshing to see the genre recognized for excellence. What has brought about this reverence has been the stellar quality of the scripts, production design, directing, FX and acting.Handmaid's TaleThe success and acclaim for Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale, among others, shows how respected science fiction has become on TV. These TV shows like The Handmaid’s Tale are resonating with viewers who can relate to the themes and characters that shine through the fantastical trappings. This is why we fans are living through a Golden Age of Sci-Fi TV , let’s hope it lasts for a long time.

Lewis T. Grove

 

Syfy’s Brave New Worlds Of The Expanse

expanse poster

The latest TV show on the Syfy channel, The Expanse, is that channel’s most ambitious and intriguing series since their re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. Easily one of the best TV shows ever done from Syfy, The Expanse has been described as a Game of Thrones in outer space. It’s an easy hook to bring in viewers, and one that doesn’t do the TV show justice.

expanse cast

Based on a series of books by James S.A. Corey, The Expanse takes place in the 23rd century where humanity has colonized Mars and the asteroid belt, as well as the moons of the outer planets. A fragile state of cold war exists between Earth, Mars and the colonists living in the Belt, with Earth and Mars being the two superpowers that rely on the resources mined from the Belt. Those living on the Belt, principally on the dwarf planet Ceres, are called Belters and live a hardscrabble existence. Looked down upon by the rest of humanity, these Belters disdain non-Belters and are on the verge of open rebellion. A group called  the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) has emerged and become a major thorn for Earth and Mars, which considers them to be a terrorist organization.

The Expanse has three peripherally linked storylines; miller investigatesone takes place on Ceres and details the investigation by a gumshoe-like detective called Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane), who dresses the part and has a combover from hell. He gets an assignment to track this missing rich girl from Earth called Julie Mao (Florence Faivre). During his investigations which take him into the seediest corners of the station, Miller begins uncovering a huge conspiracy that threatens to upset the balance of power in the solar system.

expanse EVA

At the same time, The Expanse chronicles the odyssey of James Holden (Steven Strait), the first officer on the Canterbury, an ice freighter on its way back to Ceres. After answering a bogus distress call from a ship that was the last known location of Julie Mao, the Canterbury is destroyed by an unknown party. Only Holden and a handful of his crew manage to escape in a shuttle. As they struggle to make it back to Ceres, they witness first hand elements of the same conspiracy that threatens to ignite a war.

Meanwhile, on Earth, United Nations diplomat Chrisjen Avasarala (Shoreh Aghdashloo), suspicious of the OPA, becomes aware of the machinations to foment a war between her world and Mars, and tries to uncover the truth before it’s too late.

expanse earth

The Expanse has so many nice touches in its depictions of what life in the 23rd century might be like. It’s very commendable that the showrunners often go out of their way to depict environments with low to zero gravity, people griping about paying for air, how much of a paradise Earth seems nyc future(the future skyline of New York City was simply stunning) compared to the cramped, squalid neo ghettoes of Ceres, the strange mishmash dialect of the Belters, and so on. The meticulous production values are worthy of awards and envelop viewers into an imaginative, all-encompassing future that’s reminiscent of sci-fi classics like Blade Runner.

Fortunately, the show also makes the effort to develop the storyline. Watching The Expanse is a lot like peeling an onion. At its core, is a mystery, and we the viewers are forced to figure it out along with the main characters. During the scenes at Ceres, again echoing Blade Runner, we’re presented with a future noir atmosphere that is colder than the space outside the fragile habitats that is hard to look away from. It may be cliché but it’s still effective. The Expanse - Season 1Then the plight of the former Canterbury crew as they witness realistic space battles and life in outer space evoke the grounded grittiness of the Battlestar Galactica reboot only it’s less cluttered with the former show’s ponderousness about lofty themes. At the same time, we’re plunged into this completely immersive and realistically rendered future. The result is a gratifying and involving viewing experience.

The characters are mostly interesting, though some could use more development. They’re all well played with exceptions given to Thomas Jane whose portrayal of Miller would fit perfectly in a Mickey Spillane story and Shoreh Aghdashloo’s dignified performance. However, her scenes often get the short shift in many episodes and many times feel superfluous. For that matter, aside from seeing militaristic Martian crew, we have little to go on how Mars is like except for some spoken descriptions. The red planet and more of Earth are definitely worth exploring in greater detail in future episodes.

naming ship

Showing some wise patience, Syfy has already renewed The Expanse for a second season. Personally, I haven’t read the books this show is based on (something that will be rectified soon), but I hope that the answers to the core mystery will pay off well. In the meantime, I eagerly look forward to the next episode of one of the best sci-fi shows in recent memory.

Lewis T. Grove

New Battlestar Web Show Has Blood & Guts

The new web-based show Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome was actually a two-hour pilot commissioned by the Syfy channel for a possible TV series. Sadly, the network decided not to greenlight the show and one has to wonder why because this pilot truly captures the feel of the late Battlestar Galactica.

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome is a prequel to the remake ofBattlestar Galactica but a sequel of sorts to Caprica. It takes place during the oft-mentioned Cylon War that was fought between humanity and the cybernetic Cylons that they created in the Caprica show.

The main character is a young William “Husker” Adama (Luke Pasqualino), an idealistic, eager rookie pilot who is out to win the ten-year war against the Cylons. Seeing Adama as a hotshot, brash pilot is a startling contrast to the grizzled commander we’ve seen in the Battlestar Galactica remake. This presentation is very novel. We’ve could’ve been given a similar Adama who while still young would have many of the older Adama’s traits. But the character is refreshingly shown as being an idealist who by the time he’s commander of the Galactica has grown weary.

After a brief intro that shows various colonial cities across the Twelve Colonies under Cylon attack, Adama is shown excelling at a simulator viper fighter program. Later he’s assigned to the Battlestar Galactica; at this time, the ship isn’t an aging relic but considered one of the best ships in the colonial fleet. Expecting to be given a top-of-the line viper, Adama is disappointed that instead he’s tasked to pilot a rundown, workhorse raptor ship with cynical co-pilot Coker Fasjovik (Ben Cotton). It’s from Coker that we see the older Adama’s characteristics; bitter and disgruntled about the year, Coker is a short-timer who just wants to coast through his remaining few weeks left of service. Naturally, we get a strong feeling that he won’t live long enough to complete his tour but Coker is a likeable character nonetheless. And of course, the two butt heads over their natural differences. Still they have a mutual, grudging admiration for each other.

They are given a mission to transport Dr. Beka Kelly (Lili Bordan), formerly a Graystone Industries employee, who has vital information about the Cylons, to a rendezvous point with a colonial ship. Upon arriving, they discover the ship has  been destroyed by Cylons. After destroying some Cylon raiders (styled after the old raiders seen in the original show), they proceed to a set of coordinates and encounter a fleet of supposedly lost and destroyed colonial ships. Once they drop off Kelly, Adama volunteers himself and Coker to transport Kelly to her objective; to meet up with a contingent of marines on a frozen moon deep in Cylon territory.

Blood & Chrome is an exciting and thrilling joy to watch that is engaging and well produced. Each ten-minute segment ends in a nail-biting cliffhanger that leaves one wanting to find out what happens next. True, there are many of the standard war plot devices and characters (the routine mission that goes wildly wrong, grizzled vets, gung ho recruits, etc.) in this web show but they work well. The presentation has a gritty feel that feels exactly like the remake.  It also has some nods to Caprica and serves as a solid bridge between the two shows. The special effects and production design are simply superb and top notch.. This isn’t a cheap, digital knock-off. It looks just like it could fit in as a companion piece to the remake. It’s truly amazing considering that Blood & Chrome was actually filmed using digital sets.

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome is so good that one doesn’t mind watching this on a computer or mobile device as opposed to the comfort of a couch and TV. But for those that can wait for traditional viewing methods, the pilot will air complete on Syfy in February and be released on DVD, Blu-ray and download in the same month. Hopefully the reaction to this pilot will be strong enough for the commissioning of at least more web episodes or maybe even a series.

Waldermann Rivera