Its title may evoke goofy techno-jargon and images of prosthetics-laden extraterrestrials, but one only has to watch the feature-length miniseries that opens Ronald D Moore’s now classic 2003 reimagining of Battlestar Galactica to know that this early-2000s sci-fi epic is anything but goofy.
The 2003 series reworks the basic premise of the original 1978 TV series (and books, comics, video and board games …). In a distant solar system, humans reside on a cluster of planets known as the Twelve Colonies. The action begins with an attack by a long-dormant cyborg race known as the Cylons, and humankind is suddenly driven to near extinction.
The Cylons, we learn, were created by people to function as little more than mindless servants. As they became increasingly sentient, the cylons rebelled, and a bloody war broke out between man and machine. After years of violent battle, an armistice was agreed upon and the Cylons departed from the Twelve Colonies. The nuclear attack that begins the series marks the Cylons’ return, where it is revealed that certain Cylon models can now look, feel and act “human”. It is in this context that the Battlestar Galactica, an old warship, is enlisted to lead the remains of the human race to safety.
It’s a high-stakes premise, but early episodes of Battlestar Galactica do much to emphasise the sheer mundanity of space-bound survival. Episodes revolve around very practical questions: what does a functional government now look like? How does the fleet reckon with a water crisis? What happens to a ship’s prison population? Though not as immediately compelling as the central question of “will the human race survive?”, these early episodes very clearly establish the show’s focus. The minutia of work and politics are not superfluous window-dressing here; rather, they are the driving force of much of Battlestar Galactica’s narrative.
Realpolitik is only one aspect of what makes the series so distinctive. In the universe of Battlestar Galactica, both humans and Cylons hold religion in high esteem. Aside from the existential questions that this conceit poses (what does it mean for a Cylon to believe in God?), it also allows the show to introduce us to a rich, elegantly articulated mythology.
This mythology is a central component of the series, the future of both human and Cylon imbued with biblical importance. The show navigates these elements with an admirable sincerity, and it is exactly because the show is so reverent towards this mythology that its intertwining of myth, politics and melodrama feels so evocative. Dreams, visions, destiny. The future of the entire human race. These elements circle each other in ways that register as borderline symphonic (in no small part thanks to Bear McCreary’s consistently gorgeous score).
Despite the fact the politics and the mythology of Battlestar Galactica was what hooked me at first, I think there is a much simpler reason that I continue to return to it: the cast of characters that populates Battlestar Galactica eventually comes to feel like something of a family.
The things I cherish most upon rewatch are small ones. The knowing smile shared between two pilots upon a safe return. A warm, tender conversation between an admiral and his president. That the show makes space for these moments within its larger story is a testament to the emotional intelligence of the creative minds behind it.
Battlestar Galactica is many things. Space opera. Political drama. Dystopian fiction. But at its core, it is a melodrama – and one of the best that television has to offer.