About two weeks ago we borrowed the "Battlestar Galactica" DVD set from a friend of ours. I was more than suitably impressed by how well the drama of the miniseries played out, particularly from what I can recall of the original TV series.
The original series, which starred Lorne Greene as Commander Adama, Dirk Benedict as Starbuck and Richard Hatch as Apollo, came out in 1978 after George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had launched a sci-fi revolution in American culture with "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." As sci-fi series go, it wasn't all that memorable. The plot of choice usually involved either the Cylons attacking and threatening the escaping Colonials, or a Gilligan's Island type of story where the Colonials thought they had discovered Earth and ended their quest, only to find they were wrong.
Characters were generally weak and unbelievable — Baltar was a larger-than-life evil person who had betrayed the colonies to the Cylons because he wanted to rule the survivors and had struck a deal with the Cylons to that effect. Why he continued to work with the Cylons even after it was evident that they weren't going to honor their side was never really clear. Starbuck was the hormone-driven womanizer, Apollo was the family man, and Adama was the all-around in-charge guy, who acted as visionary, high priest, military leader and top political official.
And if the characters were a little unnuanced at times, some of the show's spiritualism was just downright kooky, like that bit where the crystal city starts abducting Colonial vipers and their pilots and Starbuck meets an angel who tells him that one day he'll be a god, and all that weird stuff. Like I said, an odd show.
What was better about the new series? It's hard to know where to begin.
For starters, the new Battlestar Galactica miniseries focused on the human angle of the attack on the twelve colonies. In the original series, as I recall we were treated to a tremendous space battle that began soon after the opening credits were over and we had established that Baltar had just negotiated a peace treaty between humanity and the Cylons. Because this was a three-hour miniseries, the writers took some time to introduce us to each of the major characters and what drives them, and we got to witness the slaughter of the human population of Caprica — not by spaceships flying overhead and shooting lasers at people, but from a surprise nuclear bombardment. That's a much more accessible way to depict the genocide of the entire human species, particularly since 9-11 here in the United States and the terror attack in Spain last year, when many of us are wondering when the next shoe will drop.
Secondly, the series reimagined the Cylons. During the years since the last Cylon war, the Cylons have been incommunicado with humanity, which has allowed them to alter their appearance to the point that they look completely human, down to the blood level. They’re not walking machines anymore; they're synthetic humans. More than that, while the original Cylons were a reptilian race bent on the slaughter of humanity for reasons that never were expressed, these Cylons were created by humanity and gifted with intelligence. In other words, it's humanity's own creation attempting to destroy it — a familiar theme in science fiction but still a potent one since our penchant for advancing technology still outstrips our ability to use it by light years. Additionally, the Cylons' ability to pass among humans undetected easily lends itself to fifth column paranoia.
The big thing, though, has to be the way the series creators have reimagined the characters. Adama remains the confident military leader, but while the original Adama had a sterling relationship with his son and was able to maintain a professional rapport with no signs of favoritism or resentment, the new Adama and this Apollo have been estranged for at least two years after the death of Adama's other son, Zach. Colonel Tigh, instead of being an exemplary executive officer, is past his time and a drunk. Baltar is not a traitor with ambitions of power; he's just an amoral and self-serving twit who believes himself above the common burden of matters like conscience and guilt.
The Galactica itself is rather well done too. It's not the biggest or the best battlestar in the fleet. In fact, it's a run-down, ready-to-be-retired hulk. It was scheduled to be decommissioned when the Cylons attacked, and because it's so far past its prime, the Cylons are unable to shut it down the way they did the rest of the Colonial fleet. (They had some sort of weapon that shuts down modern computers.) The result it a sci-fi setting that is at once futuristic, with space travel and aliens, and retro, with missiles, a communications system that uses phone cords, and so on.
They also go rid of some of the cornier aspects of the show, like all the blatantly mythological names like Capricorn and Gemini. The capital world is now called Caprica; Gemini is now Geminon, and so on. Fanciful names like "Apollo" and "Starbuck" are nicknames given to the hotshot pilots of Colonial vipers. Apollo's real name is Lee Adama.
As remakes go, this one is a keeper. I can't wait until I can borrow the first DVD set of the new series.