Richard finally gets around to watching the opening to the greatest sci-fi show ever made (no frakkin’ arguments). What does it mean to be human?
The opening pilot of Battlestar Galactica is, on the surface, another typical intro to a science fiction television series. It seems to feature all the usual tropes and characters, such as an old war hero and ship commander close to retirement, a brash and cocky space fighter pilot who knows she’s the best and is determined to prove it to everyone, and her by-the-book flight commander who is also the son of the ship’s commander, feeling as though he’s permanently living in the shadow of his father. Whilst Ronald D. Moore’s BSG does have these and other clichés on full display, they still feel welcome, as the writers use the conventions to explore time-honoured themes such as old vs. new, the consequences of one’s actions, technology vs. humanity, and hope overcoming despair.
I will be approaching this review a little differently, as I will be delving into the themes of the 2003 miniseries and explaining why I think they work and why the characters blend into them perfectly. If you’ve never seen the show (or the 70’s original), here’s a great fan-made trailer that sums it all up without spoiling anything:
Old vs. new
The theme of old vs. new is explored both literally and figuratively. Its explored literally when the Cylons first attack the twelve colonies of Kobol and the Colonial fleet finds that their weapons and defence systems are disabled. This is due to a virus programme developed by the Cylons, and thus the majority of the Colonial fleet are destroyed easily by the enemy. The only ship in the fleet that remains is the fifty-year-old Battlestar Galactica which, under strict orders from Commander William Adama (played by Blade Runner‘s Edward James Olmos), operates mostly on old technology and doesn’t rely on automation to function. This makes it immune to the Cylon’s virus and gives the crewmembers of the Galactica a fighting chance to survive. When the ship goes into combat with its archaic weapons and defences – as well as their old, retro-fitted “Viper” squadrons – the Cylons are unable to use their trick. This means the Galactica is able to hold its own and protect the convoy of refugee ships that escaped the attack on the colonies. Thus, the old technology of the Galactica triumphs over the new technology of the Cylons.
The theme is also explored figuratively when the new President of the Twelve Colonies, Laura Roslin (Mary McDonell), talks to Adama about what they should do next. Adama wants to take his ship into battle and fight the Cylons, leaving the civilian ships to fend for themselves. But Roslin knows that would be a pointless tactical decision, as there are only fifty-thousand humans left and they need the Galactica’s protection to survive. Bill’s old way of thinking makes him want to strike back at the enemy as soon as possible, as he believes they are at war, but Roslin knows the war is over and there is no point in continuing to fight. The only thing they can do now is get as far away as they possibly can from the Cylons, whilst ensuring the very survival of the human race. Adama initially doesn’t see the big picture, but eventually comes around to Roslin’s new way of thinking. Therefore, the old way of thinking about solutions to a problem comes together with the new, reaching a good compromise for everyone.
The consequences of one’s actions
The colonists originally created the Cylon race to make their lives easier. Essentially, the humans had created life and, depending on how you interpret this, they also played God. What they didn’t think would happen, though, is that the Cylons would become self-aware and would advance to a higher level of intelligence than the colonist’s could possibly fathom. And their creations rebelled against their masters and the Cylon War started, which ended with an armistice between the two sides. Commander Adama was one of the men who fought in the war and he knows the heavy price that both the colonists and Cylons paid in their so-called causes, and their beliefs that they were fighting a good fight. Adama also experienced a personal cost when his son, a fighter pilot named Zak, was killed in a tragic accident.
His other son, Captain Lee Adama (Jamie Bamber), spends the next few years blaming his father for what happened. He felt that he had pressured him and his brother into becoming pilots, and that Zak did it to impress his father. But Lee feels that Zak should have never joined the military and didn’t belong in the cockpit of a Viper, and that maybe his brother’s death was his fault, too, as he couldn’t talk him out of joining the service. In either case, the theme of consequence is felt primarily by the old Commander and Lee at the loss of Zak, and because of what the humans did during the Cylon War. It’s all more or less explained in a brilliant speech from Adama Sr.:
“The Cylon War is long over, yet we must not forget the reasons why so many sacrificed so much in the cause of freedom. The cost of wearing the uniform can be high, but… sometimes it’s too high. You know, when we fought the Cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question “Why?” Why are we as a people worth saving? We still commit murder because of greed and spite, jealousy, and we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we’ve done, like we did with the Cylons. We decided to play God, create life. And when that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn’t our fault, not really. You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore.”
This speech also fits into this theme, as whilst Adama is making it, the Cylons were preparing to attack the colonies.
Technology vs. humanity
This one might seem quite obvious, given the fact that the basic premise of BSG is literally humans vs. machines, but I feel as though a large theme of the miniseries is just that, and I think it will also be a thread that will run concurrently throughout the series as the show progresses. Despite the advances in technology the colonists made such as interstellar travel, people like Adama still need to make very human decisions to decide the fate of the remaining colonists. During a scene where the Galactica is under attack, it takes heavy battery and Adama orders damage control teams to douse the fires and puts his Executive Officer, Colonel Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), in charge of the teams. But the fire is raging out of control and could cost the entire ship if a decision isn’t made soon. The entire crew is in danger, but there’s still over one-hundred crewmembers fighting the blaze and trying to save the ship. Tigh orders that all emergency bulkheads be sealed and the damaged compartments be emergency-vented to instantly stop the fire. His order is obeyed but it kills all the crewmembers who were trapped inside. Technology saved the ship, but at the cost of valuable human lives. This, I feel, exemplifies the theme of humanity vs. technology to its fullest.
Hope overcoming despair
After the colonies are destroyed, the majority of the human race wiped out, and the remaining fifty-thousand refugees left stranded in deep, uncharted space, everyone thinks the end is nigh and there’s no point going on. What is there left to fight for? The Cylons have won the war and the colonists have nothing left. But the Commander manages to rally the survivors around with an inspiring speech at a funeral service for some of the dead:
“Are they the lucky ones? That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? We’re a long way from home. We’ve jumped way beyond the Red Line into uncharted space. Limited supplies. Limited fuel. No allies. And now, no hope! Maybe it would have been better for us to have died quickly back on the colonies with our families instead of dying out here slowly in the emptiness of dark space. Where shall we go? What shall we do? ‘Life here began out there.’ Those are the first words of the sacred scrolls. And they were told to us by the Lords of Kobol many countless centuries ago. And they made it perfectly clear that we are not alone in this universe. There’s a 13th colony of humankind. I know where it is! Earth – the most guarded secret we have. The location was only known by the senior commanders of the fleet, and we dared not share it with the public. Not while there was a Cylon threat upon us. For now, we have a refuge to go to. A refuge that the Cylons know nothing about! It won’t be an easy journey. It will be long and arduous. But I promise you one thing. On the memory of those lying here before you, we shall find it. And Earth will become our new home.”
Don’t think I need to say too much about that one, but you can see how Adama helps his frightened and demoralised crewmembers and the refugees overcome their despair at the loss of these homeworlds, their families and, essentially, their entire lives. But he gives them something to fight for and hope is probably the most precious thing they all have at this very moment. And that’s what Adama gives them. Despair turns to hope and the survivors decide to fight on.
Overall, I feel as though this miniseries was the perfect introduction to the characters and story of Battlestar Galactica. It might seem obvious in its writing and execution at first, but there is a lot of subtext underneath, exploring different themes and taking full advantage of the concepts it sets out to introduce like any good science fiction story should. I was very much impressed by the two-part, three-hour miniseries, and I know it will continue to explore more themes as the crew of the Galactica and the remnants of the human race go on their journey for salvation and a new world. It is one of the best opening pilots I have ever seen for a television series.