[BSG] Jammer's Review: "Battlestar Galactica": The Miniseries
- Note: This review contains significant spoilers.
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
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
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
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.
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Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...