In late 2003, a new and updated version of Battlestar Galactica was made as a two-part mini series. This was a controversial remake of one of the 1970s most popular television series at a time when television and cinema were flooded by pointless remakes. So how does it compare to the original Battlestar Galactica?
Glen A Larson's original 1978 Battlestar Galactica began life as a three-part mini series about the destruction of the 12 Colonies, the home planets of a race of humans who have been engaged in a war against the robotic Cylons for a thousand years. Forced to flee across the Universe, relentlessly pursued by their enemies, the one surviving warship, the Battlestar Galactica, and the other 220 mostly falling apart vessels containing the remnants of the human race, is on an impossible mission. Its only hope is to find sanctuary at the mythical long-lost planet, Earth.
Battlestar Galactica was made by Universal, one of the studios that George Lucas approached to make Star Wars and was turned down by, shortly after Star Wars had such a large, international impact. The success of the three-part series, released as a film in many parts of the world, led to an almost immediate creation of it into a full television series - the most expensive ever made.
Thus, the show's success proved to be its own weakness, as writers frantically rushed to complete scripts as the episodes were being shot. To say the series suffered as a result would be an understatement, as for every excellent episode, such as 'The Living Legend', there was a poor substitute, such as 'Fire In Space'. The series low point came in 'The Young Warriors', where a small group of children successfully destroy a platoon of the fearless Cylons by riding unicorns and reciting poetry1, thus forever ruining the image of the Cylons as fearsome warriors.
Despite this, the show proved popular - popular enough for George Lucas and 20th Century Fox to sue Universal for plagiarism. They argued that Battlestar Galactica was very reminiscent of Star Wars. It is true that they both shared a similar look, having both had special effects by John Dykstra2, yet 20th Century Fox argued that the plot itself was a carbon copy, with Apollo and Starbuck based on Luke and Han, the Cylons copies of the Stormtroopers, the dog Muffit3 being a copy of R2D24 and the Imperious Leader modelled on Darth Vader. The show's creator, Glen A Larson, argued that he had been inspired by the Bible, the story being based on Moses leading the tribes of Israel through the desert to the promised land, pursued by Egyptians, and indeed this biblical theme is very apparent, with the fighter craft themselves called Vipers, the pilots wearing helmets with Egyptian motifs, the pre-dominance of pyramids in the early episode 'The Lost Planet Of The Gods' as well as the opening blurb before the credits.
After the costly lawsuit, Battlestar Galactica was forced to hit an all-new low. Universal were allowed to continue to make Battlestar Galactica, but only if they set it on Earth. The result was Galactica 1980, recently voted third worst science-fiction series ever. In it, only Lorne Green reprised his role from the original, as Commander Adama, and the series was set 30 years after the original series. The Galactica had found Earth in the year 1980, nowhere near advanced enough to fight the Cylons, and so as a result the characters Troy5 and Dillon6 drive flying motorbikes around a bit, make friends with a female reporter called Jamie, go back in time to World War II and take some children camping. If this wasn't bad enough, the plot also featured a Milky-Bar-kid clone called Dr Zee, a boy genius, who, in the tradition of boy geniuses7 is an annoying brat who ruins the meagre credibility the show had left. Only ten episodes were made, the highlight of which was the very last, 'The Return Of Starbuck', which reminded viewers that, no matter how poor the scripts of the original series were, at least the main characters, especially Starbuck8, had charisma.
Since The Original
Since the original series, various attempts to re-make the series were proposed. Although in the late 1970s and early 1980s Glen A Larson became involved in making the similar Buck Rogers In The 25th Century9, he later proposed a re-invention of Battlestar Galactica that involved transforming Viper craft.
Richard Hatch, who played Apollo in the original series10, fought long and hard to try and create a continuing series, wisely ignoring Galactica 1980, set on Galactica's continuing voyage to find the mythical planet Earth. In 1999 he famously funded and produced a brief teaser trailer for a proposed series called Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming, which impressed those who saw it. Unfortunately, nothing came of his proposal and the trailer itself is caught up in strict copyright regulations, preventing it from being shown.
The New Series
|Edward James Olmos||Commander William Adama|
|Mary McDonnell||Laura Roslin|
|Katee Sackhoff||Lieutenant Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace|
|Jamie Bamber||Captain Lee 'Apollo' Adama|
|James Callis||Dr Gaius Baltar|
|Tricia Helfer||Number 6|
|Callum Keith Rennie||Leoben Conoy|
|Grace Park||Lt. Sharon 'Boomer' Valerii|
|Michael Hogan||Colonel Paul Tigh|
|Matthew Bennett||Aaron Doral|
|Paul Campbell||Billy Keikeya|
|Aaron Douglas||Chief Petty Officer Tyrol|
So, how does the new mini-series live up to the old? In the new mini-series the plot has been changed slightly. The fact that the series does not stick rigidly to the original can be seen from the very start, with the opening statement 'The Cylons were created by Man', a flat contradiction with the original series. That the Cylons are now robots created by mankind and not a neighbouring reptilian race also known as Cylons takes perhaps a more clichéd Frankenstein's monster angle, but one that does not damage the mini-series. The Cylons have also been updated to appear more dark and menacing, but somehow less classy and distinctive.Unfortunately more is seen of Cylons in their human form than the promising robotic war machines.
The plot of the new Battlestar Galactica mini-series has the Battlestar Galactica, instead of being the state-of-the-art warship that it was in the original series, as an obsolete, 50-year old vessel about to be down-graded to a museum piece. This is an idea unique in filmed American Science-Fiction, and one that should be applauded11. In it, the more advanced spacecraft are destroyed by a computer virus which the out-of-date Galactica is too old fashioned to be affected by, something that gives the story a strong David-and-Goliath feel, and leads to a charming scene in which the fighter-craft are unable to launch because the launch bay has been converted into a gift-shop. Having said that, the special effects of the Galactica has it looking like a shiny, new, hi-tech spacecraft, which detracts from the point being made, even though the telephones have wires and none of the doors open automatically.
Indeed, the special effects are one of the drawbacks of the series. Although very well done for the most part, the battle-scenes are over-ambitious. The original Battlestar Galactica series had slow, graceful model shots in which it was easy to see what was going on, even though the shots cost so much that only a few were ever made, to the extent that they used the same Cylon ship explosion sequence twice in the series' opening credits. Although the scenes are not repeated in the new Battlestar Galactica, the battle sequences are done with such speed that if you blink, you've missed what's happened, making it hard to follow exactly what has gone on. Having said that, the Viper craft have kept their classic, original design, even if in the original series there was no notice saying 'Caution, Do Not Stand In Front Of Cannons' on the Vipers just in front of the fighters' guns. Whether this is intended as an indication of the intelligence level either of the characters or of the audience remains to be seen...
There are good sequences and ideas, particularly as you get to see more of the ground crew who repair and rebuild the Viper craft - an aspect almost completely ignored in the original series. This makes the series much more realistic, although the plethora of characters does make it harder to work out who is who at first.
The new mini-series does come across as a mish-mash of familiar and re-used science-fiction ideas12, which is not surprising considering it is a remake, but ones that are, on the whole, well done. The main Cylon enemy has a beautiful human female form and is known as Number Six13, played by Tricia Helfer. Although Number Six's character came at a time when the enemy in every science fiction film was a beautiful woman14, her performance is without doubt one of the highlights of the series. She has a fascinating relationship with Baltar that does not fail to keep your attention, and in one particularly effective sequence she cradles a newborn baby and then snaps its neck. This shows that the new mini-series is steering clear of Galactica 1980's family-friendly farce.
There are, despite all of its triumphs, two major weaknesses in the new series: the characterisation, and the 'America in Space' syndrome. These threaten to lose all the ground gained from the critics who predicted that the mini-series could not rival the original series.
The major flaw in characterisation is one which was predicted by the critics from the start, and unfortunately, the critics have been proved right. The mini-series suffers from having several superfluous characters, although many of them may well have their chance to develop in the actual series that the mini-series has been the pilot for. Many of the characters have been given personality problems for no apparent reason other than to pad out the episodes, or an attempt to make the series seem cleverer than it is. Thus Colonel Tigh is portrayed as a drunk estranged from his wife, Commander Adama and his son, Apollo, have not been on speaking terms since the death of Zac, Adama's son and Apollo's brother15.
President Laura Roslin
The President, too, has a problem in that she is slowly dying of cancer. Although this will probably have a greater bearing on a developed television series, in the mini series it comes across as a time filler. Although it is a refreshing idea that, unlike the Star Trek Universe where every disease from the common cold to headaches16 has been cured, in the future of Battlestar Galactica, life is not sterile and safe, but diseases like cancer can still claim lives, it does come across as more of an episode of a hospital drama or soap opera than a science-fiction story. Especially considering that the President's role is the most superfluous of all.
The President was formerly the Secretary for Education on a tour of the Galactica, shortly to become a museum. As Secretary for Education, we have no reason to believe that she is incapable of typing, dictation, cutting ribbons to declare former-Battlestars-now-museums open and the various other duties her position implies. However, she does not come across as a suitably convincing President, and it seems as if she was placed there merely so the show would not be considered sexist by not having a woman in a strong role. Had she been granted Presidential status after being elected by the survivors then her position would have some meaning. However, she has become President merely because everyone else in the Government is dead, a fact that does not state why she is suited to be President. It all seems a little arbitrary, and we are left wondering that had she also died, but, say, the President's milkman survived, would he have become President in her place?
Her existence in Battlestar Galactica inevitably weakens Commander Adama's position.
Where in the original series, Adama was the man with the vision who everyone relied on and was the undisputed leader, in this Battlestar Galactica his role is severely diminished by the President who constantly challenges his authority, reducing the ability of viewers to feel that this is a character they can rally round and identify with. However, the actor manages to portray Adama well, even if not given the chance to come out from Lorne Green's shadow.
Interestingly, Jamie Bamber, the actor who plays Apollo, has had his blond hair dyed dark, whilst Edward James Olmos, who plays Adama, wears blue contact lenses in order for them to more closely resemble each other, and thereby emphasise the fact they are father and son. Unfortunately, this does not hide the fact that Apollo talks with an English accent, whereas Adama is clearly American.
When interviewed about his role as Apollo in the series, Jamie Bamber said,
'When I first heard they were doing Battlestar Galactica again, it was a real cringing, buttock-clenching time. I thought "It won't work!" But it's very different this time. They've used a powerful scenario which I don't think I took onboard as a kid.'
On his character, he has said,
'Hero's not a term that really applies to this version of Apollo. He is an individual who finds himself in a situation and does his best to get through it.'
The most criticised decision by the people behind the new Battlestar Galactica series was Starbuck's controversial sex-change. In the original, Starbuck was a charming, womanising, gambling rogue who was really all heart, deep down. For the new series, his character became a female, something which went against everything that Dirk Benedict's classic character had stood for. It is easy to see why the character of Starbuck was rewritten as a woman, as it would have been almost impossible for any man to get out of Dirk Benedict's shadow and make the part his own.
This was not inevitably doomed to failure17, yet in this case it fails. This is mainly because although what superficially made up the character of Starbuck has been transferred into the new version, played by Katee Sackhoff, namely the gambling, smoking cigars18 and ability to fly Viper craft very well, the core character has been lost. Where the original Starbuck had an honest respect for his commanding officers, but was not afraid to tease them occasionally, the new Starbuck goes out of her way to provoke Colonel Tigh and then assaults him in a fight she provoked. The original Starbuck was a charismatic good-guy who, when faced with two right paths and a wrong one, would always follow the right path that would prove most enjoyable. The new Starbuck, in contrast, comes across as little more than a female thug.
Katee Sackhoff, when asked how her character compares to Dirk Benedict's portrayal of Starbuck, has said,
'My ass fits right in his seat! Going into the project, I'd never seen the original. I think, in reality, it worked out to my benefit. Had I seen all of them, I think I would've been constantly second-guessing and going "Okay, well I'm going to do it this way!'
Not all of the new series character reinvention is such a failure. The character of Baltar in the original series, played by John Colicos, was a wonderfully over-the-top villain, the greatest in televised science-fiction since Roger Delgado's portrayal of the Master, who had willingly betrayed the human race in order to achieve power. In the new series his character is more thought-out, a genius friend of President Adar19 who is used by the Cylons in order to infiltrate the Colonies' defence systems. As Baltar descends slowly into madness, tormented by an implant the Cylons have inserted into his brain20, yet struggling to aid the human race, the scenes in which he feature prove unforgettable.
The Viper Pilots
The other problem with the characters is that the Viper pilots come across as unconvincing. In the original series, it was easy to believe that Apollo, Starbuck, Boomer, Jolly, Sheba and Bojay were pilots and warriors. In the new series, the cast look far too young, and look more like the group of teenagers you would expect to see bumped off one-by-one in a horror film21 than the experienced, battle-hardened warriors that are the last hope of mankind they are portrayed as. This is a criticism that director Michael Rymer has answered, saying,
'We were in production all through the Iraq war. That had an enormous impact on how we made our choices, right down to casting. I cast a very fresh-faced young woman to play a soldier and there was some argument that she just didn't look like she would be in the military. So I said, "Look at Jessica Lynch. You couldn't get any younger or fresher-faced than that."'
Although Michael Rymer has a point, you cannot help but feel that surely extremely ugly male soldiers fighting in Iraq outnumbered the young, glamorous female supermodels, a fact that is not portrayed in the new mini-series of Battlestar Galactica.
America In Space
The other major problem with the show is that it is far too much 'America in Space'. In the original series, the premise was that the humans from the 12 Colonies were 'the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans'. This was subtly emphasised throughout the show, and the characters themselves had suitably distinct names, such as Apollo and Starbuck. In this series, the differences from our world are removed, and there are no references to Egypt or pyramids. This decision was very deliberate. Director Michael Rymer said,
'The movie Stargate dealt with the Chariots Of The Gods mythology more plausibly.'
Even the characters' names are changed, with the familiar names, such as 'Apollo', now merely the pilots' nicknames and call-signs. Thus, Apollo and Boomer are really Lee and Sharon. At a time when every hospital drama, cop show and soap opera have characters called Lee and Sharon, Battlestar Galactica does too, thus destroying some of the magic that separated it from the standard humdrum viewing television has to offer.
Executive Producer Ron Moore, when interviewed about the decision to Americanise the show, has said,
'It's a bit of a risk and definitely not what you would traditionally do, but I think it works. I'm sick of space clothes. You get into the same discussions with the costume designer: "What do buttons look like?" "Well, they probably look like buttons"... This property is saying that these are brother worlds to Earth, so let's embrace the connection and make it a parallel development.'
Unfortunately, the show comes across as being parallel to America rather than parallel to Earth, with American values and customs on display, rather than ones shared by Earth as a whole. Thus, the characters names, such as Lee, are common American names. The military uniforms would not look out of place on American aircraft carriers, and have none of the distinctive style from the original series. The 'enemy could be anyone' angle is specifically targeted at a paranoid America which since the 11 September, 2001 feels afraid that, as anyone can be a terrorist - anyone can be a Cylon. It does overplay this, although there is a good sequence in which a man suspected of being a Cylon is left behind to die before it is known whether he is or is not, in fact, a Cylon.
The worst excess of the 'America in Space' approach of the Battlestar Galactica mini-series is in the character of the President. Gone is the original series leadership of the human race from the Council of the Twelve, and it is replaced by a more American style of government. Indeed, in a very sickening scene, when the Secretary for Education discovers that she is the last important surviving politician, she automatically swears herself in as President and declares the ship in which she is travelling to be 'Colonial One'.
In conclusion, although flawed, the new mini-series has paved the way for a promising new series of Battlestar Galactica. Although it lacks the drama, and the characters lack the charisma, of the original series' opening episodes, it does show promise that it will not descend to the level of Galactica 1980.
There are major flaws, but for every unnecessary character, such as the President, whose existence merely weakens Adama's character and gives a target for the mini-series unwelcome 'America in Space' syndrome to focus on, there are excellent characters, such as Baltar. The fact that proper Cylons are only glimpsed, but not seen, in the mini-series heightens the expectation to see them in action, as Ron Moore explains,
'In this version of Galactica, you've got the possibility that there are Cylons among them, which provides a sort of terrorist theme we can play which adds jeopardy. That also allows us to keep the external Cylons at bay so that they don't keep coming in and almost killing us, but then we escape. The more you do that, the more it pulls the teeth from the Cylons. You want the Cylons to be really scary. The more you defeat them, the less scary they get.'
Although not in the same league as the original, the mini-series is thought-out and intelligent. It attempts a darker spin on the tale, and is aimed less at children, but more at those who grew up with the original series. It has unnecessary sex scenes, it has heightened tragedy. An example of this is a powerful scene in which a young girl is left behind to her death.
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