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Revisiting ‘Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series’


This marks the first of a series of “Battlestar Galactica” recaps. This year is the 15th anniversary of the franchise.

Spoilers ahead.

The 2003 announcement that the 1970s space opera “Battlestar Galactica” was being “reimagined” was met with media skepticism and fan hostility. Yet the mini-series became a critical and popular hit exploring America’s post-9/11 anxieties in the best tradition of science fiction.

The saga begins during peacetime for the Twelve Colonies of Kobol, some 40 years after a lengthy war between humans and the Cylon robots they created as servants. Having reached an armistice, the Cylons vanished, never visiting the remote space station built to maintain diplomatic relations again … until now.

A colonial officer is met by two Centurion robots and a previously unknown humanoid Cylon — a stunning blonde named Six (Tricia Helfer). She kisses the officer as Cylon forces destroy the station.

The story that follows has many twists, but its main plot is simple. The Cylons carry out a catastrophic sneak attack on the colonies. The survivors assemble a rag-tag fleet, arm themselves and escape, headed for a distant planet their scriptures say is home to a 13th tribe — a place called Earth.

Beyond the action and suspense, the mini-series builds its world and tells its tale through its characters, so viewers care when hell comes to breakfast.

The Battlestar Galactica

As Hollywood types would say, the Battlestar Galactica is very much a character in this story. Galactica is essentially an aircraft carrier in space, with cramped quarters and a windowless Combat Information Center instead of a Star Trek-style bridge. It is due to be decommissioned and turned into a museum.

Adm. William Adama (Edward James Olmos) is to be similarly and unhappily retired after Galactica’s farewell ceremony. His old school preparedness renders the ship largely immune from Cylon cyberwarfare, which ultimately will make Adama commander of the fleet.

Lt. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), a hotshot Viper fighter pilot, is like a daughter to Adama. During a card game, she punches Adama’s executive officer, Col. Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan). Thrace is thrown in the brig, but is sprung for flight heroics after the Cylon attack. (Reimagining Starbuck as female bothered some, but it is a fresh take on the archetype of the cigar-chomping rogue.)

Though trusted by Adama, Col. Tigh has marital and drinking problems. After the attack, when Galactica is struck by a Cylon missile, he is forced into a life-and-death decision that clears his cobwebs, but does not vanquish his demons.

The Humans And The Cylons

The crew also includes Lt. Sharon “Boomer” Valerii (Grace Park, in another female recasting), who is in a illicit relationship with the ship’s deck chief, Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas). Boomer pilots a Raptor (akin to a space combat helicopter) with Lt. Karl “Helo” Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett).

The admiral’s son, Capt. Lee “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Bamber), lands on Galactica for the ceremony. He blames his father for his brother’s death in a Viper accident. He receives an apology of sorts during Adama’s speech decommissioning Galactica. And Starbuck later confesses to Apollo that she bears some responsibility for the family’s tragedy.

Colonial Education Secretary Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), who is reeling from a breast cancer diagnosis, also attends Galactica’s retirement ceremony. While her ship is returning to the planet Caprica, she learns not only of the Cylon attack, but also that the government has been so decimated that she — 43rd in the line of succession — must be sworn in as president.

On Caprica, celebrity genius and defense consultant Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis) discovers his lover — a copy of Six — is one of 12 new hybrid Cylon models. Six used their relationship to infiltrate colonial defense computers, causing most of the military to malfunction as the Cylon attack unfolds. She shields Baltar from a nuclear shockwave after revealing her consciousness will be uploaded to another body.

With mushroom clouds on the horizon, Baltar becomes a refugee aboard Boomer’s Raptor, which landed for repairs after a lopsided loss to Cylon raiders. Indeed, Helo surrenders his seat, believing Baltar’s intellect may be vital to human survival.

Baltar begins having mental conversations with Six, not knowing whether the cause is technological or psychological.

Roslin and Adama seek Baltar’s counsel, particularly after Adama learns of possible infiltration by humanoid Cylons. Baltar’s position allows him to cover up his role in the attack. He even cravenly frames a man named Doral (Matthew Bennett) as part of a bogus claim to have developed a method for detecting Cylons.

As battle losses mount, Adama and Roslin become the top military and civil leaders and fight over strategy. Adama, seeking to counter-attack the Cylons, plans a faster-than-light (FTL) jump to salvage munitions from the Ragnar anchorage station. Roslin orders Adama to assist in rescuing civilian ships instead. Adama does not want to take orders from a “schoolteacher.”

The crisis is deferred when Adama mistakenly believes Roslin’s ship has been destroyed. Adama proceeds to Ragnar, which is enveloped by an electromagnetic cloud that can be fatal to Cylons.

Battle It Out, Or Seek Refuge?

While Galactica collects materiel and defeats a Cylon named Leoben (Callum Keith Rennie) — Roslin assembles a convoy of 60 civilian ships, but must abandon 20 without FTL drives when a Cylon scout discovers their position. The 40 FTL ships join Galactica at Ragnar.

Adama and Roslin clash again. He still wants to fight the Cylons; she wants to seek refuge. After Starbuck reports a large enemy force is lurking outside the cloud, Adama agrees with Roslin.

Galactica attacks the Cylons, but to buy time for the rag-tag fleet to make a long-distance FTL escape. During the battle, Apollo is rescued by Starbuck.

Galactica rejoins the fleet and hosts a memorial service. Only 50,298 human souls survive. Adama inspires those assembled by claiming to know Earth’s location, one of the military’s deepest secrets.

Afterward, Roslin confronts Adama in his quarters, informing him that the prior president knew nothing about Earth’s location.

Adama confesses he invented the claim to give humanity something to live for. Roslin agrees to keep his secret, provided he recognizes her as president, while Adama retains military authority. He shakes her hand, but says only that he will take it under advisement.

Doral, stranded by Tigh at the Ragnar station, is rescued by a team of Cylons, including several Dorals, Leobens, and Sixes. In a final twist, the team is led by a copy of Boomer.

Ratings for the mini-series atypically rose over its two nights, effectively greenlighting Galactica as a series.

And why not? The allusions to Pearl Harbor (The Cylon attack “is no drill”), the assassination of President Kennedy (Roslin’s inauguration recalls President Johnson’s aboard Air Force One), and post-9/11 paranoia (from the idea of an enemy among us to the nuclear holocaust that would have ended most stories in the 20th century) are viscerally compelling. The documentary-style cinematography and suggestions that this is a sister culture add a veneer of reality drawing viewers into the story. The sex is more overt than in most sci-fi. The cast is filled with flawed characters, ripe for further exploration.

Moreover, larger questions remain. What responsibility do we have for the life — or technologies — we create? Can a Cylon have faith in a higher power? How fragile are civil-military relations at a time of emergency? When should we accept a noble lie from our leaders?

With all of this on the table, the search for Earth had to continue.