I do not watch television. Not just because here everything is broadcast in German (even Hollywood and Hindi films are dubbed into it) but due to a habit borne out of the way my parents regulated me and my brother’s TV viewing habits. For academic reasons they never allowed cable TV so I was never part of the MTV, Friends (and other such popular TV series) phenomena. I grew up on good old DD and DD Metro. It is only recently, through the persistent recommendations of a lab colleague, that I’ve gotten around to viewing complete seasons of a few American TV series. Great TV shows like 24, Scrubs, House M.D. and Dexter have changed my perception on how TV shows can deal with serious issues in often convincing as well as entertaining ways. But more than all these series the one TV series that has impressed and even surprised me is the 2004 reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. Three seasons of the show have been broadcast so far on Sci Fi Channel in the US and Sky One in the United Kingdom and Ireland. A fourth and final season is slated to begin in April 2008.
Battlestar Galactica started originally as a TV series with a huge Stars Wars hangover in 1978 and became a cult hit. The 2004 reimagining is a complete reboot of the original series with significant changes to the storyline. The basic storyline as mentioned on Wikipedia is as follows:
Battlestar Galactica chronicles the journey of the last surviving humans from the Twelve Colonies of Man after their nuclear annihilation by the Cylons. The survivors are led by President Laura Roslin and Commander William Adama in a ragtag fleet of ships with the Battlestar Galactica, a powerful but out-dated warship at its head. Pursued by Cylons intent on wiping out the remnants of the human race, the survivors travel across the galaxy looking for the fabled and long-lost thirteenth colony: Earth.
To elaborate, the Cylons were a form of AI created by man who later rebelled against their creators. After the First Cylon War and a subsequent armistice agreement the Cylons leave humanity to disappear into space. They reappear 40 years later and launch a sneak nuclear attack on the human colonies nearly wiping out humanity. About 50,000 human survivors manage to escape with the Battlestar Galactica and try to survive in the long and arduous journey in search of a mythical Earth as a new home for humanity.
Like all great science fiction the series gives greater importance to the human element and drama than the gee whiz bang of technology and special effects. That doesn’t mean the special effects are bad or insignificant. On the contrary, the first thing that strikes one on viewing the TV series is the sheer quality of the special effects, they are eye popping to put it simply. But they form only one aspect of the storyline like the acting and production design. First, the production design. It is rooted in contemporary 21st century design elements. The world of the future is not all that dissimilar to the world around us now. This might seem a minor point but is important in the context of viewing as we can relate more to the story. Unlike the alienation experienced while viewing science fiction shows where the technology is so advanced and improbable as to seem magical the technology in Battlestar Galactica is not all that difficult to envision as something that is possible in the near future. The attention paid to production design gives the TV series an authenticity and high quality that is sometimes not found even in mainstream Hollywood sci fi.
Coming to the acting, it is uniformly excellent but particular mention must be made of a few actors. Edward James Olmos who plays Commander Adama brings the right amount of reserve, resolve and respect to his role. Mary McDonnell (you might remember her from her Oscar nominated role in Dances With The Wolves) plays her role as President Laura Roslin with equal parts vulnerability and steely determination. James Callis as Dr. Gaius Baltar has the most complex as well as unsympathetic part among the major roles but in spite of this gets right into the skin of his character as a weak but brilliant scientist who will go to any length to save his skin. Tricia Helfer as Sigma Six, Katee Sackhoff as Lt. Thrace and Michael Hogan as Col. Tigh bring to their characters the right amount of sexiness, feistiness and gruffness respectively.
But it is the moral and religious issues that the series deals with and the contemporary resonance they have that sets the show apart from the majority of TV series and typical science fiction. The humans and cylons have fundamental differences in their views towards god and religion. The cylons believe in a one true god similar to the Abrahamic religions while humans believe in a polytheistic pantheon similar to Greco-Roman religions. The cylons are bent on wiping out humanity as they believe humans to be flawed creations abandoned by god. Apart from this the series also deals with critical issues such as democracy and free elections, genocide, suicide bombers, labor rights, racism, loyalty, human failings and of course love and war. You can draw innumerable parallels to the occupation in Iraq, war on terror, religious fundamentalism and terrorism throughout the series giving it an eerie resonance to the world around us.
Even if you are not big on sci-fi do not miss out on the first three seasons of one of the all time best television shows. The series has garnered considerable critical praise from the mainstream American press and also won the Hugo, Peabody, Emmy and Saturn awards. As Rolling Stone magazine rightly said, “(it is) the smartest and toughest show on TV”.