On Board Battlestar Galactica: “All This Happened Before”
By Stuart Mitchner
Flying mother nature’s silver seed to a new home …
—from Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”
According to producers Ronald Moore and David Eick, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) is for people who hate space operas. I’ve never been a fan of the genre, but call it what you will, there’s something to be said for an epic production that weaves one of its central mysteries around Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Although BSG ended its celebrated run in 2009, the series is no less timely today, with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 looming, the pandemic (both the human and Cylon races are stalked by viruses), the 1/6 insurrection, and an environment under siege.
Referring to “Watchtower,” Moore says, “It’s something that lives in the collective unconscious of the show, it’s a musical theme that repeats itself. It crops up in unexpected places, and people hear it, or pluck it out of the ether. It’s sort of a connection of the divine and the mortal — music is something that people literally catch out of the air…. Here is a song that transcends many different aeons and cultures … and was reinvented by one Mr. Bob Dylan.”
As it happens, Moore’s series is a reimagining of the 1978 Battlestar Galactica created by Glenn Larson. The original show, as described by Alan Sepinwall in his book The Revolution Was Televised (2012), “told the story of an Earth-like colonial civilization that suffers a devastating attack from a race of warrior robots called Cylons. The handful of survivors board a ragtag fleet of spaceships, led by the last military vessel standing, the Galactica.” Sepinwall goes on to quote Moore’s criticism of the original series, which was how “this great dark idea became this silly show.” Moore remembers “a haunting moment in the original pilot where we see the crew of Galactica reacting to the news of the death of billions during the Cylon attacks — and then how that emotion is quickly undercut by a trip to a resort planet” where its “roguish” fighter pilot Starbuck (reinvented as a roguish female in Moore’s Galactica) “can gamble and cavort with beautiful women.”
ABC canceled the series after one season. A quarter of a century later, the reimagined Battlestar was only nine weeks away from filming when September 11 changed everything, and, in Sepinwall’s words, “this escapist sci-fi adventure began to feel uncomfortably real.” The eventual result was “the unlikeliest, but best, millennial TV show inspired by 9/11.” Thus its appearance in Sepinwall’s book along with The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad, 24, and Friday Night Lights, among the 12 landmark series “that changed TV drama forever.”
Advised to write a preface to the script making it clear that this Battlestar was a departure from the original, Moore promised “nothing less than the reinvention of the science fiction television series.” There would be no more “stock characters, techno-double-talk, bumpy-headed aliens, thespian histrionics, and empty heroics.” Moore’s manifesto spoke of characters “with all the emotional complexity and contradictions present in quality dramas like The West Wing and The Sopranos…. They are not super-heroes. They are not an elite. They are everyday people caught up in an enormous cataclysm and trying to survive it as best they can.”
The manifesto was attached to copies of the script sent out to actors, including Edward James Olmos, the producers’ first choice to play Commander William Adama. Olmos later said “he would never have read a script with that name if it hadn’t started with Moore’s essay.”
A One-Man Mt. Rushmore
If you live through 80-plus hours of Battlestar Galactica, your view of the human landscape is dominated by Olmos, whose face is a planet in itself, terrain so rugged that when seen close-up it virtually overwhelms anything of secondary interest. Olmos is a one-man Mt. Rushmore (the only other face of comparable filmic magnitude in the series belongs to Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck). But then Olmos is the central character in a show that surpasses all imaginable limits of time, space, and probability, its gates open to virtually everything, including all kinds of absolute nonsense (in spite of Moore’s manifesto). All bets are off. Numbers? Who needs numbers when you’re dealing with a concept wherein the action takes place 150,000 years before the last moment of the last scene in Times Square circa 2006 with Jimi Hendrix singing and playing his purple-hazed version of “Watchtower?”
Sometimes it’s as if the fleet were an intergalactic Hollywood time capsule, the whole archive of moviedom, starring the usual suspects, shadows, cylons, replicants, heroes, and villains (again contrary to Moore’s manifesto) with a film noir bar called Joe’s complete with black marketeers, everybody’s smoking or dealing, and there’s a piano where some of the finest, dreamiest moments in the show take place. And yet, how strange that in this ecstasy of inclusivity, this totally unlimited environment, the same old censors rule over the same old issues: no serious nudity, no cussing, and instead of the word liberated by HBO and taken to the mother of all limits in Deadwood and The Sopranos, the actors on and off SyFy’s Galactica have to make do with incessantly repeated variations of the poor man’s f-word, as in “frak this,” “frak you” or “what the frak,” which can become frakking unbearable when the situation calls for something stronger.
Curious to know more about Edward James Olmos, I checked out the 2013 Television Academy Foundation interview with him on YouTube and discovered that at age 13 this Mexican American kid from a divided family was a catcher in the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system, leaving two years later to sing lead in a rock band eventually known as the Pacific Ocean (“because it was the biggest thing on the West Coast”), which released an album called Purgatory in 1968. Having just listened to Eddie James’s passionate renditions of “Sixteen Tons,” “Road to Hell,” and “I Can’t Stand It,” recorded almost four decades before Gallactica, I have a clearer understanding of the actor’s take-it-to-the-limit approach to playing Adama. In the same interview, after praising the script, Olmos admits going beyond the writers’ idealized concept of the character. For the scene when he found that his oldest friend was an unwitting tool of the enemy Cylons, the writers suggested that he express the shock by, in effect, “having a drink.” Olmos told them “Oh yeah, you have no have idea where this is going.” Pretty soon Olmos’s Adama is “drinking all the time, taking pills all the time, trying to hold on to my sanity,” verging on total self-destruction (“a slobbering wreck”) and then “coming back” when it counted.
One of the most visible advances on the 1978 Galactica was the change in Starbuck’s gender that gives us ace fighter pilot Kara Thrace, a life force played to the hilt by Katee Sackhoff, who, besides owning one of the two great, made-to-be-filmed faces in the series, becomes, in Ronald Moore’s words, “whatever you want her to be. It’s easy to put that label on her: Angel, or Messenger of God, or whatever. Kara Thrace died and was resurrected and came back and took the people to their final end. That was her role, her destiny on the show.”
Another of the saving graces of the series, Kara Thrace is much feistier, jauntier, cockier, in-your-face charming and maddening than Moore’s rhetoric suggests. Interviewed on syfy.com, Sackhoff says of her character: “I always loved her. I loved her as somebody who wore their heart on their sleeve and didn’t see it as a weakness. She was incredibly strong, and very real, and she kind of helped me grow up, in a sense. I was 21 when I started playing her, so she really did take me into adulthood.”
Yet another saving grace of the reimagined Galactica came on board because, as Sepinwall puts it, Moore wanted “to give Adama a legitimate counterpart among the civilians.” So he created Secretary of Education Laura Roslin, “the highest-ranking member of the government to survive the Cylon attack,” who is sworn in as president “in a scene designed to evoke the famous image of Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One in the hours after the JFK assassination.” As played by Mary McDonnell, she reminded me at first of a shanghaied spaceship version of Diane Keaton’s spaced-out la-di-da Annie Hall. Like her co-star and eventual lover Bill Adama, she takes the character to some “dark places” in the later seasons.
On his blogspot about the “Hub” episode, Sepinwall writes: “What superlatives are left to describe the work of Mary McDonnell? How can I praise this performance week after week, season after season, and capture how much better it keeps getting without sounding like a sycophantic broken record?” Sepinwall refers to the scene where Laura tends to the wounded erotomaniacal genius Gaius Baltar, who, “with the benefit of some groovy drugs, decides to finally confess to Laura what she’s long believed: that he played a major role in the Cylon genocide of humanity.”
The Baltar Enigma
Undoubtedly the most bizarre character arc in all Galactica is the one followed by James Callis as Gaius Baltar, who was so repellent, so hapless, so painfully uncharismatic in the prefatory (and probably necessary) miniseries (2003) that my wife and I seriously considered skipping the main event. How could we endure the company of this self-pitying sap, this sexual basket case for four seasons of our lives? Surely it would never be possible to take seriously this mad genius sex slave of the gorgeous Playboy fantasy embodied by Cylon Six, later Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer). Surely, you tell yourself, a human liability of cosmic proportions could never achieve embattled mock-heroic stature, all the while wondering whether the writers know what to do with someone who pivots from Jeremy Irons-as-Humbert Humbert to a handsomer version of a dangerously all-powerful egomaniac not unlike the recently departed president, all this in the course of a series that ends with an immortal sunglassed Baltar and his tall, lovely, undying Six moving among the crowds of 21st-century Manhattan. Then consider his last words, the last words of the entire epic: “Silly me, silly silly me.” Now cut to a view of Times Square and an MSNBC Advances in Robotics display window where robots dance and gyrate as Jimi Hendrix sings “All Along the Watchtower.”
Battlestar Galactica can be streamed on Peacock and is in the DVD collection of the Princeton Public Library, which also has a copy of Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution was Televised. Interviews from the post-finale Q and A, and elsewhere, are available online.