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[BSG] Jammer's Review: "Battlestar Galactica": The Miniseries

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Note: This review contains significant spoilers. ... Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries The Cylons launch a devastating sneak attack on humanity, forcing the
    Message 1 of 1 , May 2 7:41 PM
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      Note: This review contains significant spoilers.

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      Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries

      The Cylons launch a devastating sneak attack on humanity, forcing the
      survivors of the 12 colonies of Kobol to flee their star system in a convoy
      protected by the Battlestar Galactica.

      Air dates: 12/8/2003 (Part 1) and 12/9/2003 (Part 2)
      Written by Ronald D. Moore and Christopher Eric James
      Based on a teleplay by Glen A. Larson
      Directed by Michael Rymer

      Rating out of 4: ***1/2

      Cast: Edward James Olmos (Commander William Adama), Mary McDonnell
      (President Laura Roslin), Katee Sackhoff (Lt. Kara "Starbuck" Thrace), Jamie
      Bamber (Captain Lee "Apollo" Adama), James Callis (Dr. Gaius Baltar), Tricia
      Helfer (Number Six), Grace Park (Lt. Sharon "Boomer" Valerii), Michael Hogan
      (Colonel Saul Tigh), Aaron Douglas (Chief Galen Tyrol), Tahmoh Penikett (Lt.
      Karl "Helo" Agathon), Kandyse McClure (Petty Officer Dualla), Paul Campbell
      (Billy Keikeya), Alessandro Juliani (Lt. Gaeta)

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
      -----

      The first thing you need to know is that I approach the new "Battlestar
      Galactica" with something between little and no knowledge of the original
      series. I did not watch the original series. I might have seen part of the
      pilot on VHS some 15 years ago, but most of what I know about the original
      series is from recent articles and comments that compare the new series to
      the old.

      So, if you're looking for an expert knowledgeable on the original series who
      is going to draw comparisons between the two, you're reading the wrong
      reviewer. I approach the new "Battlestar Galactica" with an awareness that,
      yes, there was an original series beloved by presumably many -- but for the
      most part that's not going to be a factor in my focus. As far as I'm
      concerned, this is a fresh sci-fi series rooted more in the events of our
      current decade than simply a remake of a series from 1978.

      That said, my one-word review for this miniseries would be "fresh." The
      story is based on the original series' premise, and indeed there's a lot of
      setup and establishing of characters here as an outline for a series
      treatment, but the look and feel of "Battlestar Galactica" are what set it
      apart from other sci-fi series like, say, "Star Trek." When "Enterprise"
      began in 2001, its creators promised a fresh, more down-to-earth take on the
      Trek franchise. It ended up being more similar to previous Treks than
      different. "Battlestar Galactica," however, feels like a much more
      modernized sci-fi series, on nearly all levels. It is essentially a
      contemporary military drama set in space, with notably flawed, complicated
      characters.

      The genre to which this belongs might best be called "military sci-fi" as
      opposed to simply "sci-fi." The backdrop is not exploration of strange new
      worlds, but a battleship at war. There are sci-fi elements, yes, but
      interestingly, this new "Galactica" goes out of its way to lower the tech
      level and make the atmosphere less futuristic, and more contemporary. Ronald
      D. Moore, the series' developer, knows that audiences are more sophisticated
      and jaded, and that a sci-fi prop is often recognized as simply that: a
      prop. By removing the typical futuristic sci-fi props and putting in simple,
      functional human objects (analog clocks, standard phone handsets, etc.), we
      find that we can concentrate on the characters and dialog instead of the
      tech. It's an interesting approach.

      I also really dig the overall production design. In the past I've poked fun
      at Canadian sci-fi productions because they look cheap (see "Andromeda"),
      but I suspect this isn't because they were Canadian but because they were
      cheap sci-fi productions that happened to be filmed in Canada (which is
      different from a *low-budget* sci-fi production). "Battlestar" is a solid
      sci-fi production, in particular with its elaborate, authentic-looking
      military CIC and Adama's earthy, lived-in quarters.

      The cinematography is much freer than traditional sci-fi, with a lot of
      hand-held and Steadicam work, lending the miniseries a more contemporary,
      documentary feel. More to the point, this is *good* hand-held and Steadicam
      work that fits the atmosphere without being distracting (which is a
      potential pitfall of hand-held). As a fan of such series as *Homicide* and
      *The Shield*, seeing this style of camerawork workably brought to sci-fi is
      refreshing. Also notable is how the in-flight space combat sequences use
      swish-pans and snap-zooms and plenty of chaotic movement, and do so
      believably. The special effects don't feel like special effects, but like
      spontaneous photography with a visceral edge.

      The setup premise: The Cylons, in what is a departure from the original
      series, were machines created by man for the purpose of labor. The Cylons,
      apparently advanced enough as artificial intelligence, staged an uprising,
      and there was a bloody war, and eventually an armistice. The Cylons left
      humanity's 12 colonies of Kobol for their own world, and there were decades
      of peace where the Cylons were simply never heard from. The miniseries
      documents how that peace is swiftly and brutally ended by a Cylon sneak
      attack as seen on the colony of Caprica.

      Prior to the assault, the Battlestar Galactica is about to be decommissioned
      and turned into a museum. Talk about a swift turn of events.

      In addition to the main thrust of the story, in which the survivors of the
      assault flee Caprica (and presumably the other 11 colonies -- a point that
      is somewhat unclear in terms of the planetary geography), there are a ton of
      establishing character relationships put into play. Among the highlights:

      Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) was on the eve of retirement before the
      Cylon assault. His estranged son Lee (Jamie Bamber) has just been assigned
      to the Galactica. The ship's XO, Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan), is an
      alcoholic who has a running feud with hotshot pilot Starbuck (Katee
      Sackhoff); in their first scene together at a group card game, she taunts
      him until he overturns the table, then she slugs him in full view of a dozen
      witnesses. He has her thrown in the brig.

      The secretary of education, Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), has just, as in
      today, been diagnosed with breast cancer. She's in-flight between worlds
      when the Cylons attack Caprica and wipe out most of the government. She
      inherits the presidency and is sworn in during a powerfully depicted scene
      that is borrowed directly from U.S. history.

      Roslin comes into conflict with Adama in the course of the storyline when
      she advocates taking the surviving civilian population in a convoy and
      retreating without looking back. Adama, a military man, plans to launch a
      counterstrike. Roslin rightly calls it a futile cause: "The war's over. We
      lost." It's the first of what promises to be many battles of ideology
      between the head of the military and the head of the civilian government.
      The performances here are effective in their understatement; Olmos has a
      wonderfully effective, quiet gravitas, and McDonnell is good at evoking
      careful observation and introspection.

      One of the story's central relationships is established leading up to the
      attack. Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis), a brilliant scientific mind, is
      having a sexual affair with a tall, lithesome blonde (Tricia Helfer). Baltar
      is a womanizer and a boundless egocentric. When caught with another woman,
      he launches into a pathetically transparent series of excuses ("It's not
      you, it's me"), but the blonde has actually been using *him*. She's an
      evolved Cylon, the sixth of 12 models that perfectly mimic humans (Six of
      Twelve? Seven of Nine? Sexy blondes? Coincidence?), and had coerced Baltar
      into granting her access to the defense mainframe, which allowed her to
      deactivate crucial defenses permitting the surprise Cylon attack and nuclear
      bombardment.

      What's great about Baltar is the multifaceted nature of his culpability. On
      the one hand, he did willingly compromise security, which unwittingly
      permitted the attack. On the other hand, we get the sense that many people
      would've been capable of his weakness. The brilliance of Baltar's character
      is that he's an utterly self-serving comic villain and at the same time a
      victim of appalling circumstances beyond his knowledge or control.
      "Scoundrel" might be a good word for him. Even as the bombs are falling and
      humanity is on the verge of being destroyed, he wants to call his lawyer and
      protect himself. James Callis, often very funny (and who has an uncanny
      resemblance in both look and accent to DS9's Alexander Siddig), plays his
      scenes at a frenzied level of guilty desperation: He didn't intend to be the
      instrument that wiped out humanity, but he nevertheless now hopes he can get
      away with it.

      Baltar ends up with a trip to Galactica when Boomer (Grace Park) and Helo
      (Tahmoh Penikett) land their Raptor on Caprica (with the disturbing sight of
      mushroom clouds on the horizon) and evacuate a handful of survivors. In one
      of several scenes that is straightforward in its depiction and yet agonizing
      in its concept (an even darker scene involves Roslin being forced to leave
      ships behind to be slaughtered by the Cylons), we watch as numbers are drawn
      for a crowd of survivors to take the few seats available on the Raptor. Helo
      gives up his seat for Baltar, in a selfless act that he thinks is best for
      humanity. Ah, the irony -- the selfish traitor ends up with a free pass on
      account of someone else's selflessness.

      Later, Baltar begins having hallucinated conversations (and hilariously
      humiliating would-be sexual encounters) with Number Six, who has apparently
      been burned into his subconscious. It's an intriguing internal conflict:
      Here's a man driven insane by his own guilt, and yet still obsessed with the
      memories of all the great sex. It's a brilliant plot device, because it
      allows Baltar to have entire discussions with the Cylons (in his head) that
      for us shed light on their existence, while at the same time revealing
      Baltar as the self-serving sap he is. It's deliciously pathetic.

      The attack on Caprica itself, and the immediate aftermath, strike me as a
      little arid. There is a strange non-reaction on the part of the characters
      in learning that the Cylons have attacked. My feeling is that this should've
      been depicted with more overt fear or grief or shock (like, say, the looks
      of pedestrians' faces in New York on 9/11) rather than simply blank stares,
      a near-silent soundtrack, and Adama's cold announcement that "as of this
      moment, we are at war." Perhaps it was a matter of confusion and
      insufficient information; later, there are scenes of convincing power when
      the Colonial One pilot's hand shakes as it holds a message reporting the
      destruction of virtually the entire government, or the way Roslin's voice
      quivers as she realizes the gravity of the situation.

      A lot of these feelings seem to grow out of a post-9/11 mindset. After being
      accustomed to peace for such a long time, with a military in idle mode,
      these people are suddenly launched into responding to disaster. Also in the
      vein of current fears is the idea that the "Cylons look like us," something
      Adama encounters first-hand at a munitions facility. It's a story point ripe
      for development along the lines of terrorist paranoia. Just ask Baltar. And
      the reporter who is put off the ship -- secretly and with no trial -- for
      being a suspected Cylon agent. Is it the right move? In this case, it
      happens to be, but it raises interesting questions.

      There's plenty more going on in this miniseries (drama, relationships,
      action, conflict, observant military details), which viewed on DVD plays
      uninterrupted as a three-hour sci-fi movie, setting up storylines for a
      dozen characters in addition to resolving the plot at hand, involving the
      Galactica and the human convoy attempting to escape the Cylon's pursuing
      base star. All of this is, essentially, a setup for a series as opposed to a
      real conclusion, but it still plays terrifically as a stand-alone (both as
      sci-fi and as drama) with an across-the-board solid ensemble of actors. I'm
      out of time, so I'll leave it at that.

      Oh, yeah -- and Boomer is a Cylon, and she doesn't even know it. Now there's
      a teaser for season one.

      -----
      Copyright 2005, Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

      Star Trek: Hypertext - http://www.st-hypertext.com/
      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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