Bittersweet Galactica

A look at the TV Series ‘Battlestar Galactica’ Developed by Ronald D Moore and starring Edward James Olmos.

It’s tough being a human sometimes. The world we’ve created for ourselves is a complicated and stressful one and it requires years and years and years of extensive training to even get us halfway prepared for it.

In fact, for roughly fifteen years, we have information poured into us by an education system to help us with all the man-made constructs we’ve created to try and make life either better or easier… or both.

It’s enough to send some people a bit mental. As everything gets more complicated and involved, so we need greater and greater escape mechanisms. Whether it’s religion, board games or writing ridiculous faux-philosophy for a tiny little website that only eight people read, we all have ways of putting the world at arm’s length and taking solace in something that makes us feel a little happier.

Something that a significant majority of us in the developed world can relate to, is putting the world to one side to watch the big rectangle for a few hours in the evenings to let other – usually fictional – people do the hard work of figuring the world out so we don’t have to, and instead, we live vicariously through their documented experiences.

Some like the thrill of the scare, others like action, a small handful of us enjoy science-fiction. But whatever your genre, one thing binds us all together and keeps us watching; the story. Often, we just observe the story, but sometimes, if the show is really good, we get sucked in and – as close as we can with a two-dimensional presentation – could almost be in there with the characters; feeling what they feel, hurting with them when it gets tough, and laughing with them when it goes well.

Other times, when watching TV, we know it’s just utter bollocks and we just want it to end. Which is why, when my closest friend thrust a blu-ray boxset of the Battlestar Galactica (remake) at me, I smiled politely, said “Cheers, I’ll check it out,” and then drove home, shelved it has a high as possible with no intention of checking it out and got on with life whilst wondering how long one can politely hold a loaned box set he has no intention of ever viewing.

The 70’s were probably great if you were actually living in the decade and of an age where you could take advantage of it. But for many of us who look back with a modern eye, it appears to be a troubled time of drugs, flares and shonky TV.

Hmmm… when you think about it, we really haven’t come a long way in fifty years, have we? But for arguments sake, lets think about 70’s sci-fi for a moment. ‘Buck Rogers’, ‘Space 1999’, ‘Battlestar Galactica’, all series that I could quite happily do without. They stunk of cheese, they looked cheap. They seemed to exist solely to make 70’s sci-fi movies look better.

And if the source material was held in such low regard by this writer, he certainly wasn’t going to take a bloody remake of one seriously, was he? Of course not! Pah! Don’t be absurd.

But then one evening, I was in the mood for something new to watch and for reasons I still can’t quite explain, I found myself reaching to the top shelf of my media wall and pulling out the first disc of the new ‘Battlestar’ series.

We know how I feel about rehashed, remade, reimagined stuff. My recent explorations into the  bile-filled chasm that is the series ‘Ratched’ ought to tell you all you need to know about churning up old material instead of doing something original, so let’s be honest… My expectations going into ‘Battlestar’ were astronomically low.

No really… Phenomenally low! Like, rock bottom.

And as the episodes unfolded, and the series began to take shape, so I shook my head, rolled my eyes, sighed and tutted. All the things that were either cliché, unsurprising or irritating.

Like the cocky, ballsy fighter-jock who smokes, drinks and mouths off at her superiors; because we gotta have a rebel.

Like the alcoholic but duty-bound first officer; because we gotta set up a military man with flaws we can pick apart later on to fill a few episodes if the writers go on strike.

Like the hideous hand-held camera work that could have been filmed by someone being pushed down a flight of stairs. Even the CG segments have had the same shake and zoom effect applied to them which is not only jarring, but sometimes headache inducing.

Things were not going well for the remake. I was lightly impressed with the overall tone of the show, how it had shaken off the 70’s cheese and now had a harder feel to it, but it wasn’t doing anything that any of my old favourites hadn’t already done and I remained indifferent to it.

If anything, I’d say about it that it’s like a pizza wheel; all edge with no point.

But, like an idiot, I kept watching. And before long, the shaky camera began to become part of the show. The characters who had initially seemed shallow and cliché became deeper and three-dimensional. The show was becoming a visceral and living thing, growing, changing, developing. The same, but different. And I was sucked in to it. Without realising it was happening, I had been consumed by this ‘thing’ and it was taking me places I hadn’t thought of.

I used to hold ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ in high regard for telling incredibly human stories in clever and interesting ways. Equally, I held ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ in as high regard for its ability to be a little darker about the human condition and to tell stories that didn’t always end with the ship sailing off into a sunset with everyone happy and well to live another day.

But ‘Battlestar’ has taken the ability to tell human stories in a dark and gritty manner and make them feel even more real, and even more poignant. Perhaps the world of ‘Trek’ is simply too high-tech and life too convenient. It can be hard to relate to.

‘Battlestar’ has an entirely different approach. Sets and props that make each scene have a familiarity to them. An engineer can be working on a fighter in the hangar bay and behind him, there’s an old trolley with an eight-inch CRT display on top of it. Then next to that, there’s a big flat-panel display streaming lines of diagnostic code and it’s all connected together with yards of messy cabling.

It’s all relatable tech. And despite being a little incongruous, it feels like a makeshift, cobbled together workshop, like that dodgy little place that once MOT’d a car for you that you’d never go back to again.

And once you give them a chance, every single character is more believable and more prone to the human condition than any I’ve seen in ‘Trek’. You’d never catch Picard staggering through the halls of the Enterprise, half drunk and bottle in hand while his crew brawled around him. But Admiral Adama does. There’s a brutal undertone to the whole series; one of ‘what the hell do we do now?’.

Each time you think someone is about to cut a break, something comes up to keep the feeling of despair and hopelessness alive. It’s not as pervasive as in the film ‘All is Lost’ where Robert Redford has a pretty ropey few days in the middle of the ocean on a small yacht, but it’s just enough to keep the show pressing on in desperate need of some good news.

And it’s delivered in perfect doses to keep us the viewer desperate to go along for the ride as well in the hopes that we can eventually rejoice with them, if/when it ever actually happens. Not once, does it become so overwhelming that you can’t face going on any more.

The music is courtesy of the very talented Bear McCreary. Up until just recently, for about fifteen years, there didn’t seem to be a single film that didn’t have Michael Fassbender in it. Well, for the past fifteen years, it’s getting increasingly hard to find a TV show that hasn’t benefitted from McCreary’s musical mind.

He’s been responsible for some very good music in very good shows, great music in mediocre shows, and awesome music in absolute dross! Some programmes have actually felt better because of his score. Here, he gives a terrific blend of soft new-age and pounding military drums. He gives us a score that never intrudes or interrupts, but enhances each scene it sits in without taking your focus off the important stuff.

We even get a pretty unique reworking of the old Dylan classic ‘All Along the Watchtower’ which also becomes an interesting plot device late in the series. I’ll let you discover how it does that for yourself.

While predominantly about the remnants of the human race trying to find a new home after sentient cyborgs destroyed their home planet, the show tackles a number of subjects like faith, self-identity and prejudice.

I think, now more than ever, with our lives in turmoil because of Covid, these are subjects that are worthy of being explored. We all look to someone or something for answers, God or scientists… We ponder upon who we are and how we behave when our freedom is limited… We all could do with a little more patience and respect for each other.

By seeing good, relatable characters beat these hurdles, it’s a great way for us to be a little reflective about ourselves and to remember that we too could aspire to beat our petty hate and our destructive, combative natures.

The series finale, a fitting end to a magnificent show, leaves you with a lump in the back of your throat. You’re saying farewell to a group of people who you’ve lived with for a long time. Even the ship itself, by the time you realise you’re seeing it for the last time, you feel as if you’re saying your final goodbyes to dear old friend.

‘Battlestar’ has seen something of a resurgence in popularity lately as the BBC recently acquired the rights to make it available via their iPlayer service. I was already halfway through the Blu-Ray boxset when this happened so I kept going with the discs, but with the BBC hosting it, it means that it is readily available to anyone with either a smart TV, a computer, tablet or modern phone.

And this is a very good thing. For this isn’t just good sci-fi, it’s terrific television.

Sure, some of the CGI is a little bit poor, and there are moments where it feels like the writers were just making stuff up on the spot as ideas came to them. But if you can watch most of the dross on TV these days and be entertained by it with some suspension of disbelief, so you’ll be just fine with ‘Battlestar’.

Trust me and try it.

A reason why you should watch it: It takes all the things that make good shows good, and makes them part of something great. Also, the production company logo after each episode changes each time and they are hilarious; dark, but brilliant.

 A reason why you shouldn’t watch it: Because handheld camera headaches weren’t cool back in the Jason Bourne films, and it still isn’t cool for show that runs for eighty-odd hours!!!

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