Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series

Talk about late to the party: Last night we finally watched the DVD of the Battlestar Galactica mini-series that’s been sitting on my shelf since my Dad gave it to me a couple of Christmases ago. It’s one of the few TV series that I’m sorry I missed out on; the reason I did is that Comcast in my city doesn’t include Sci Fi among its stations unless you pay extra for digital cable, which I’ve refused to do just to get one station. So, no BSG on television for me.

I have heard the many good things people have said about the series, but it was hard to get up the motivation to start watching several seasons of television on DVD. And the last two well-regarded SF shows I watched – Heroes and Firefly – were both pretty bad. (Heroes was a decent idea weighed down by boring writing. Firefly was just drek.) So my enthusiasm for BSG was muted. Plus one of the creators of BSG is Ronald D. Moore, who was a writer and producer on the 90s Star Trek series, which were also drek.

Despite all of this, we thoroughly enjoyed the mini-series, finding it well-written, well-acted and well-produced. Which makes me even sorrier that I’ve been missing out on it after all this time!

I was impressed that the creators were able to take the original series’ premise and trappings (character names, planet names, visual appearance of the Cylons) and craft a completely series – even grim – story out of it so that some of the silliness of the names actually seem like artifacts of humanity’s golden age which we’re watching come to an end over just a couple of days.

The construction of the characters is downright scientific: I think all of the major characters either tells a big lie during the story, or is hiding one from before the beginning. All of them are deeply flawed in some critical ways. I think the perfect example of character construction is Gaius Boltar: The “traitor” in the original series, in this series he’s used by a Cylon agent to help bring down humanity. We also know he’s going to be the Cylon’s link to humanity if he manages to escape, yet he does the honest thing when he has a chance to get away by letting someone else go in his place – and then is able to go anyway through the selflessness of another character. The series unflinchingly forces characters to confront their flaws, and different characters have different degrees of success in doing so.

It took me a while to decide whether I liked the acting on the show, and eventually I decided it was actually very good acting. I think I found it difficult to judge because the writing is very subtle and there are few emotional outbursts, and thus few opportunities for actors to really chew the scenery. I think Education Secretary Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) was the litmus test for me: I kept wondering, “Is she doing a good job, or is she just sort of sleepwalking through the role?” Roslin is a very even-tempered character placed in a very difficult position, but I think McDonnell does a fine job of holding the character steady but having her inner turmoil show itself in small ways at key moments. The rest of the cast is equally good, and Edward James Olmos as Commander Adama is excellent in anchoring the series as the man at the center of the firestorm.

The production work was interesting, too. The space battles have a visual look similar to those in Babylon 5 (not really a surprise since B5 blazed the trail for special effects in space opera used today), but the low-key music (often no more than a simple rhythm) and frenetic editing make the battles seem less like a ballet (a style pioneered by Star Wars and rarely deviated from in SF film since) and more like a period of complete chaos in which everyone feels happy to get out alive. The sets and lighting are dark and foreboding. The music is portentious – what there is of it. I would have appreciated some slightly more melodic music, but I can see what they’re going for here; it’s so sparse that many scenes occur without any musical support, which is unusual in adventure television.

So overall, good stuff. Naturally I promptly went out and bought the first season on DVD. This series seems to be further support for the notion that there are no bad ideas, only bad writers. What the world (or at least television) really needs are more good writers.