Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Was in a really bad mood yesterday, until I came home and discovered that my cable company had, unbeknownst to me, suddenly started carrying SciFi Channel. Just in time for the new Battlestar Galactica miniseries!

The remake was a pleasant surprise. I remember having a very odd conversation with a passel of security guards at the Baltimore Convention Center last August, while waiting for someone at the security entrance, about the plans for the Battlestar Galactica remake. Cynical old bastard that I am, I insisted that it couldn't be any good. The guards were impressed by the casting of James Edward Olmos as Adama.

The original was a mess - poorly plotted, illogical, kitschy in that way that only Seventies TV could be. It was, by my current standards, utterly dopy. But to a kid, it was coolness incarnate. Those solemn horns, the launching vipers, the "by-your-leave" Cylons - it's an inextricable part of my childhood, and probably the childhood of anyone growing up in the late Seventies. The scripts were just dripping with neoconservative bitterness - with the conviction that all detentes were corrupt traps, that the lamb might lie down with the lion, but only the lion was getting back up again. It had a great, late-Seventies multiracial cast. The military uniforms were great - dark blue staff, khaki fighter-pilot, with those meaty, cape-like brown flight jackets with the heavy buckles. The design of the rest of the show was disco-awful, but the military designs were something else... I remember the show running much longer than it actually did., Despite the spectacular destruction of Pittsburgh's Civic Arena in the opening credits, the sequel-series Battlestar Galactica 1980 was utterly worthless rubbish, with none of the charm and little of the cast of the original. I suppose the terrible sequel and the massive problems of the original had primed me to expect a monstrosity of bad taste in the remake.

Boy, was I surprised. I shouldn't have been. After all, its time has come round again. Battlestar Galactica is a story for warlike times. The interrupted peace, the losing battle - the original Battlestar Galactica was at the same time a retelling of the Pearl Harbor attack and a bitter, cynical prediction of the cost of treating with evil.

The new version has dropped the detente storyline. The Cylons don't indulge in treacherous negotiation, they just infiltrate, compromising the Colonial society and attacking from nowhere. The post-9/11 parallels are unstated but unmistakable. The first warning of war is multiple thermonuclear detonations on the Colonial homeworlds. The surviving politicians, enroute from nowhere to where ever, scramble to make sense of the disaster while circling in the figurative skies. There's no let-up, and disaster follows disaster in the second hour of the miniseries. It's absolutely brilliant.

The new Colonies haven't changed in their essentials, but the kitschiness of the original have largely been discarded. Commander Adama still has a fighter-pilot son who goes by "Apollo", but it's his callsign, not his name, which is Lee Adama - a bitter young man, thoroughly alienated from his father over the training-accident death of his brother. "Starbuck" is the callsign of a ferocious, butch blonde pilot who spends half the first installment in the brig for slugging Colonel Tigh in a poker game. The Galactica is literally a museum-piece, going through the rituals of decommission and cruising towards its new destiny as a monument and tourist attraction. They've already installed the museum-shops in the port flight-decks.

I had feared that this nonsense about a female-Terminator-type Cylon and Baltar would be horrible. It turned out to be - not. "Six" is honestly creepy - curious, sensual, questioning, and oddly religious. Gaius Baltar is an unintentional traitor - he thinks he's exploiting a shadowy subcontractor in exchange for access for industrial espionage, aimed at gaining the inside track on future military contracts. The scene where he's told of his treachery is priceless, ending in the shockwave of a nuclear strike on the distant capital.

The show's feeling overall is a peculiar blend of The Day After, By Dawn's Early Light, and the special effects of Whedon's Firefly. The music is largely subdued and vaguely exotic-tribal, heavy on pipes and drums. The only time the famous trumpet cadences sound is during a brief Viper-squadron flyby during the decommission ceremonies, like the distant echo of faded glories. Adama gives a raw, pained, rueful speech at those ceremonies, totally inappropriate for the occasion. Clearly thinking of his complicity in the death of his one son, and the alienation of the other, he muses that the Cylons are Colonial creations, their Frankenstein's sin, and that forgetting one's sins doesn't make one innocent - only ignorant. He's talking about a war as old to them as the war against the Nazis are to us, but it's staged as a delphic oracle. It's given just before the karmic burden descends.

Oh, I am so happy about this new Galactica. Suprise gifts are always the most cherished.

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