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.

7 thoughts on “Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series”

  1. Ahh, finally, someone who agrees with me about Firefly. There were some points where it could have been good, but I still don’t understand why there was an uproar over it getting cancelled. (I suppose I should say that I’ve never watched Buffy or Angel, although the first season of Buffy is in the Netflix queue currently, so I don’t subscribe to the Whedon-as-god thing that seems somewhat prevalent in certain quarters.)

    I got into BSG somewhat late too (watched the miniseries just after the third season had started, IIRC), and have enjoyed it. There are a handful of episodes that feel like filler, but for the most part, they’ve done a good job of keeping the show moving in an interesting direction.

  2. I can understand why fans were upset about Firefly being cancelled, even though I didn’t like it: The network really screwed the show by scrambling the episodes’ broadcast order, and I think it was cancelled after only a handful of episodes had been broadcast. The same sort of thing happened to Crusade, the sequel to Babylon 5 (plus in that case the network meddled in the production of the show, and it showed).

    I never watched Buffy or Angel either. In those cases by the time I realized they were getting good reviews, I had spent the last year or two catching up on several other series (notably Homicide: Life on the Street) and I didn’t feel up to catching up on yet more series. I had sort-of hoped that Firefly would be my entry into Joss Whedon’s series, but obviously it didn’t happen.

    I don’t have such high expectations for TV series that I want every episode to be brilliant; it’s remarkable when any series can have an extended run where no episode “feels like filler”. Episodic TV – indeed any creative series – is hard to produce and maintain a consistently high (or even good) quality. But I do expect more good episodes than bad in a series I watch, and hopefully a few of those episodes will be truly great. (I also prefer series with an ongoing storyline which are actually going somewhere, rather than just making it up as they go along. But that’s really another issue.)

  3. My feeling about Firefly has always been that it seems like he wanted to make a Western-with-fantasy-elements, and was told it wouldn’t sell, so he made a Western-sf mishmash instead because it would sell. (Serenity seemed much less Western-y and consequently I liked it a little better, but not much.) That shows because there’s no way that most of the economics, history or science of the backstory makes sense in an SF context – but it does in a Western context. (The frontier had resources, but little production and manpower, and the heart of civilization had the production, manpower, and authority, but it took a while to get information from one end to the other; yet the frontier isn’t separated in time/culture/distance by that much from the rest. In almost any SF setting – unless one goes to great lengths to explain it – the ability to travel between the stars in any real-time implies a whole host of other technologies which tend to destroy those conditions.)

    Anyway, I watched a bit of Firefly and all I could think of was Space: Above and Beyond, which was a Vietnam-fighter-pilot series in sf-clothing (the creators came out and said that’s what it was; they couldn’t sell a war series, but they could sell an sf show).

  4. I’m surprised, Michael, that you wouldn’t be more excited about Firefly considering that Ben Edlund was one of its writers- his episode “Jaynestown” is pretty priceless. I too thought of Space: Above and Beyond when I watched it, but Space was a much more military, Starship Troopers kind of idea, and as much as I liked it at the time, BSG is covering a lot of the same ground much better now. BSG is far and away the best SF I have seen on TV or anywhere in quite a long time.

    My partner Mare is the biggest Whedon fan I know, so I have been indoctrinated into the ‘verse pretty thoroughly, and it’s interesting to see how many of Joss’ writers have gone on to play key roles in shows like 24, BSG, Lost, etc.

    I do recommend you check out the first three seasons of Buffy.. Season 3 is probably one of the best TV runs I have ever seen (it’s the one that features the Buffy/Faith/Angel triangle and a brilliant turn by the guy who is the town’s mayor). The series is pretty spotty after that but does have some great individual episodes here and there.

    With Angel I would only recommend seasons 1 and 5. It gets pretty painful leading up to 5 but that last season is kind of hilarious.

    As you may know, all three of those Joss series have been revived as comics, to various degrees of success. The Buffy one is a vast improvement over how the show was going by the end, I think. The others are probably of interest to hardcore fans only. Like a lot of licensed comics, I guess.

  5. “Jaynesville” was actually one of the Firefly episodes I saw. A lot of people seemed to have liked it, but it seemed only a little less bad than the other episodes I saw. (I was never a big fan of Edlund’s The Tick. I mean, it was okay, but not significantly better than any dozen other bits of superhero satire I’ve read. “Jaynesville” might be the only other thing Edlund’s written that I’ve seen.)

    My big problem with Firefly was that all the characters were unlikeable. Well, except for the doctor, who was a nice guy stuck with all these pricks on the ship, and River, who gets a pass because she was clearly not all there. But everyone else was a complete waste of protein. I also completely did not buy his universe, and the faux-western stuff bugged the hell out of me. So there just wasn’t much there for me to like. It seemed like a bad misfire from its very conception.

    I don’t know whether I’ll ever go back and watch Buffy or Angel. I’m not much of a fan of fantasy to start with, and certainly Firefly doesn’t help my enthusiasm on that score. But maybe someday.

    I think I watched a few episodes of Space: Above and Beyond back in the day, and found it to be pretty generic, and I only ever think about it when Subrata compares it to Firefly. 🙂

  6. Of course, the most logical comparison with Firefly is Blake’s 7, since Firefly is basically a remake of it (with the notable exception that Avon is much much smarter than Jayne, and everyone is a bit more of a bastard on B7; and the Western elements of course). Some of the lines in Firefly are verbatim from B7.

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