Saturday, March 21, 2009

Golden Oldie: Mannes Reviews Battlestar Galactica Debut in NRO

A long time ago...National Review Online published a review I wrote of the debut of Battlestar Galactica.

With the series finally ending (I'll write my thoughts on that later when I've had more time to process it) I thought posting the old review would be timely.

December 15, 2003, 8:27 a.m.
Battlestar Galactica returns.

By Aaron Mannes
Growing up there was a science-fiction trinity — Star Trek, Star Wars, and the shortest side of the triangle: Battlestar Galactica.

Star Trek was a well-established subculture when I began watching the reruns with my father. It was science fiction for the robust, confident liberalism of JFK: of "New Frontiers" and "bear any burden, pay any price." Star Wars, on the other hand, was the first really big thing in my life — a giant clash of good vs. evil. It was Ronald Reagan science fiction, and it was no accident that it became a cultural landmark when American confidence was at a nadir just before Reagan. Watching it as a boy I identified, of course, with Luke Skywalker. Now I realize I would have been in the Rebellion Communications Department — issuing press releases about the dangers of the Empire possessing WPD (Weapons of Planetary Destruction) and trying to place op-eds in Galactic Review Online arguing that Grand Moff Tarkin was not an Imperial moderate who could balance Vader's extremism.

Since then Star Trek has made numerous returns — some good, some less so. Star Wars came back, but without the power of the original.

Now, the weakest of the three, Battlestar Galactica, has returned on the >Scifi channel. The writing lacked the depth of Star Trek, the special effects lagged behind Star Wars', the characters were weak clich├ęs, and it was often sappy. But it still had an epic quality. The 12 Colonies foolishly signed a peace treaty with the robot Cylons. But the treaty was only a cover for a giant sneak attack. The Colonials were forced from their homes, their civilization shattered. A few, with the will to carry on, gathered the survivors and began searching for a mystical home world (a legendary 13th Colony known as Earth) while beset by merciless, specicidal enemies. This material resonated — it was science fiction for Herzl, for Ben Gurion, for Moses! This was Jewish science fiction. (For me, this association was strengthened because in the original Battlestar Galactica opener, after the destruction and the Galactica's escape, a provisional council was formed and its sleazy appeasing leader always merged in my head with Edward G. Robinson leading the licentious festivities around the Golden Calf in The Ten Commandments.)

The original was a space opera filled with larger-than-life (albeit thinly sketched) supermen constantly plucking victory from the jaws of defeat. In the new version the characters are human, fallible, and uncertain. Lorne Greene's silver-haired Commander Adama was regal — whereas Edward James Olmos shows his age.

The change from space opera to "realism" (a bizarre way to describe science fiction) makes the mechanics of civilization's destruction far more effective. We see leaders deciding to condemn thousands in order to save tens of thousands. On the other hand, the battle scenes are confusing and dull, which may be more realistic, but does not make for great viewing. (This is probably the unintentional result of a limited special-effects budget.)

Imbuing the characters with depth and humanity requires that the series spend time developing them. But there is too much of a good thing — the premiere, including commercials, was over four-hours long. There is a dizzying array of rivalries, love interests, and emotional rifts — some interesting, some easily jettisoned.

Political correctness also changes the new version. Some changes are obligatory and cosmetic; the old Battlestar Galactica's womanizing Starbuck is now a woman. Other changes are more interesting. In the original the Cylons were vicious robots that hated humanity — period. In the new version the Cylons were created by humanity, and their animus against humanity takes on religious overtones (some can also pass as humans). Humanity, on the other hand, feels guiltily responsible for the Cylons.

It isn't Shakespeare, it isn't even Star Trek, but the central themes of Battlestar Galactica — of the fragility of civilization and of the consequences of its demise — still come through in the new version. It is a message worth hearing, again and again, now and in every time.

— Aaron Mannes, who watches too much TV, is the author of Profiles in Terror: The Reference Guide to Middle East Terrorist Organizations and Affiliated Groups.

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