Monday, October 29, 2007

Same Time Next Centon: A Tale of Two Battlestars

Number Six, the blonde Cylon seductress of the contemporary Battlestar Galactica, often informs a wavering Gaius Balter that in terms of cosmic events, “this has all happened before; this will all happen again.” Battlestar Galactica fans understand from interviews with re-imaginer Ronald D. Moore that her warning adheres to Moore’s overarching thesis about a cyclical galactic timeline, about history repeating itself.

However, there’s another way to read the remake. Indeed “this has all happened before”...because Moore’s Battlestar Galactica is a 21st century re-imagination of the original 1978-1979 series, and the two efforts intertwine in a complicated, multi-faceted way. The programs share many significant ingredients: characters, central situations, mythologies, settings and antagonists. Moore’s notation that series events will “happen again” may even represent a joke about the cutthroat Hollywood scene; that given the industry’s predilection for remakes, it is just a matter of time before Battlestar Galactica is remade again, depicting the same incidents a third time. Understanding that we have seen these characters before and that all this is cyclical, let's compare some of the events, characters and contexts of each Battlestar Galactica.

The Story So Far

A side-by-side survey of Battlestar Galactica 1978 and Battlestar Galactica 2003 reveals several narrative similarities worth noting. Let’s pick out these plot details and look at some points of commonality.

Firstly, both series involve the same premise: a surprise attack on the Twelve Colonies of Man in a distant solar system. In both universes, a Cylon ambush renders mankind virtually extinct, leaving a handful of survivors to board a “rag tag” fleet of spaceships in search of a quasi-mythical planet called Earth.

Following the Cylon assault, the fleet’s first order of business in both universes is identical: the procurement of much-needed supplies for a long trek across the stars. In “Saga of a Star World,” the first episode of Glen A. Larson’s series, the Galactica clears a path through the Nova of Madagon and arrives at a distant outpost called Carillon. There the Colonials acquire stores of the precious fuel, Tylium.

In Ronald D. Moore’s re-telling, the 2003 miniseries, the about-to-be-decommissioned Galactica requires supplies too, only this time it is ammo (bullets, specifically). This Galactica jumps to a distant outpost called Ragnarok Anchorage.

These destinations differ, but Carillon and Ragnarok Anchorage both tellingly cloak insidious Cylon traps. In the case of the former, it’s the Ovion feeding grounds (where fleet members are devoured), as well as a nearby Cylon base star. At Ragnarok, a Cylon fleet circles above the atmospheric disturbance while below a Cylon agent, Leoben, tangles with Commander Adama on the station. In both situations, the Cylons have planned better than the humans. After the first strike, the enemy has already plotted a second strike.

Following an escape from Cylon terrain, the Galacticas of both universes navigate to the planet Kobol (based on the Mormon “Planet of the Gods,” Kolob.) There the quest for Earth – a subplot both series share – takes shape. This is important: if you're going to have a space odyssey, it's good to have a defined destination, and that order of business arrives in both series not terribly long after the escape from the Cylon attack. Also, the existence of Earth (The Thirteenth Colony) in both series is considered shaky: a “fable.” In the original series, Baltar even calls it “a myth of half-drunken star travelers.”

In the episode “Lost Planet of the Gods,” Commander Adama searches for the path to Earth on Kobol in a subterranean, Egyptian-style pharaoh’s tomb. He translates ancient hieroglyphs before a Cylon air assault forces a hasty retreat. What he makes out however is enigmatic: a spotty record of the exodus, the departure of the Twelve Tribes, and finally, the last days of the planet and the second exodus, that of the Thirteenth Tribe.

On the new Galactica, President Roslin assigns Kara Thrace to obtain the Arrow of Apollo, an ancient artifact which unseals the tomb of Athena on Kobol and point the direction to Earth. In “Home,” a two part story, the tomb of Athena is opened on Kobol and a “map” is activated, a virtual reality affair revealing the constellations of the Twelve Colonies in Earth’s night sky. In both cases, the map serves as an incomplete and ambiguous clue, a first step to Earth, but not the last puzzle piece.

Kobol also adversely affects both versions of Commander Adama. The dignified military leader in both instances uncharacteristically resorts to physical violence on the planet surface, strangling a treacherous enemy. In “Lost Planet of the Gods,” Adama lunges for Baltar’s throat, and Apollo and Serina physically restrain him.

In “Home Part II,” Adama chokes Boomer, the Cylon who shot him in first season cliffhanger, “Kobol’s Last Gleaming Part II,” and Apollo and Starbuck hold him back.

The narrative similarities hardly end with these incidents. The final episode of the original Battlestar Galactica, “The Hand of God” features the Colonials tiring of their long retreat from the Cylons and opting to launch a surprise attack against an unsuspecting base ship. The traitorous Baltar provides critical knowledge of the Cylon spacecraft so that Apollo and Starback can successfully destroy it.

In the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, the episode identically titled “Hand of God” also sees the Colonials retaliating, punching the Cylon “bully” in the nose by destroying a supply depot on a desolate planet. Cementing the connection to the earlier series, it is Baltar whose expertise is required for the raid. Is this fact just coincidence? No - not at all. It's all happened before, and here we see it happening again.

Both versions of Battlestar Galactica also feature adventures in which our stalwart crew(s) encounter another surviving Battlestar, the Pegasus. In the original version (“Living Legend”), Cain is a charismatic Patton-type commander; in the re-imagination (“Pegasus”), Caine is a psychotic, murderous female admiral who acts like she might have worked for Blackwater. In both stories, the Galactica and Pegasus teams clash, then eventually join-up to take out Cylon forces. In the 1970s version, the target is a Cylon base on the planet Gamorray; in the post-9/11 re-do, it’s a Cylon “resurrection ship.” Both attacks are successful.

Another similarity in storytelling involves “missing pilot” stories, episodes wherein a viper pilot is feared lost after crash landing on a planet. Search parties look for the missing hero until a last minute rescue. On the original Battlestar Galactica, Captain Apollo was stranded for a time on a “frontier” planet with a Cylon enforcer named Red Eye.

In “The Young Lords,” it was Starbuck who found himself trapped on a swamp-covered world of unicorns and forests. There he aided teenagers in their organized resistance against a Cylon garrison.

In the revamped series, Kara fights for survival on an inhospitable world following a crash in ‘You Can’t Go Home Again.” And in “The Farm,” she is stranded on Caprica with navigator Helo. Together, they join the resistance forces led by ex-Buccaneer Simon Anders.

Other events from the adventures of the original rag-tag fleet resonate across the new series. In both universes, convicted criminals are deployed for a difficult mission in an extreme environment (an ice-world). In the classic series, “Gun on Ice Planet Zero” sees hardened thugs launching a mission to destroy a Cylon pulsar cannon. In the re-imagination, Tom Zarek’s ship of prisoners, the Astral Queen, is needed to work subterranean ice into water during a water shortage (“Bastille Day.”)

Also, the training of new “raw” recruits (called nuggets on the new series) crops up in both ventures. Starbuck trains shuttle pilots and (gasp!) women including Athena and Serina to fly vipers during “Lost Planet of the Gods” while his successor trains raw recruits in “Act of Contrition.” Notably, both Starbucks offer the same guidance to the rookies: “stick to your leader.”

The second season episode of Sci-Fi Channel’s Galactica, “Valley of Darkness,” shares elements with the original series installment “Fire in Space.” In both cases, a Cylon ship crashes into one of Galactica’s hangar bays, setting off a series of disasters. In the earlier show, a fire rages out of control aboard; in the latter, a Cylon attack party aims to depressurize the ship. In both stories, Adama lays incapacitated in a surgical theater while Colonel Tigh takes the bridge (or CIC, as the case may be).

It is conventional wisdom that that the two series are quite different, but just look here at all the common ground in terms of the overall story. It is not the text itself that is so different from show to show. As Roger Ebert often writes about movies, it isn't what a movie is about, it is "how" it is about it that's important. The differences in Galacticas fall under the same category, if you think about it. We begin to see differences more clearly when we examine the characters populating each show.

The Face in the Mirror

Characters in different Battlestar Galactica incarnations often share name and rank, but differ in substantial fashion. First an issue of nomenclature: in the original series, characters boasted one name: Apollo, Starbuck, Baltar, or Athena. The new series more closely resembles Earth-style names with familiar-sounding monikers like Laura Roslin and Saul Tigh. The mythological names such as “Apollo” are retained but converted to pilot call-signs, much like “Maverick” in the 1986 film Top Gun.

A man named Adama commands Galactica in both versions of the Larson-based material, but is truly a different man depending on incarnation. In both worlds, he is the father-figure of the fleet and the biological father of Zac (or Zak) and Apollo. The most important difference between leaders is that Lorne Greene’s character serves the religious, political and military commander of the fleet, rather like Pat Robertson holding the posts of U.S. President and commander of the U.S.S. Nimitz simultaneously. The first Adama also believes with all his heart that the planet Earth is real and that the legends handed down from the Book of the Word are true.

In the new series, Adama’s religious beliefs have been transferred to a new character, the President of the Colonies, Laura Roslin. The new Adama is not a man of faith nor a political leader who sits on the Quorum of Twelve. Instead, his duties are restricted to military functions. Like his namesake on the original series, this William "Husker" Adama came up through the ranks and is a former viper pilot.

Adama’s right-hand man in both incarnations is Colonel Tigh. Both men share a long history in the military alongside Adama but the first Tigh is a black man who doesn’t share Saul Tigh’s primary vice: alcoholism. Nor is the original Tigh married. What the two Colonel Tighs do share is a reputation as a hard-nosed officer and enforcer of wayward pilots. We also now know the "new" Tigh is a Cylon sleeper, which also differentiates him from his predecessor.

In the earlier Battlestar Galactica. Boomer and Starbuck - both male – served as viper pilots, and their characters have countenanced dramatic change in the re-vamp. The original Boomer was a black man, not an Asian female, and was raised on Caprica. Sharon “Boomer” Valerii by way of comparison, was raised on Sagitarron and is actually a Cylon sleeper agent.

Kara Thrace adopts many characteristics of Dirk Benedict’s Lt. Starbuck yet is also quite different. She boasts a fondness for card games (Pyramid, specifically), regularly chomps a cigar, is sexually promiscuous (counting Baltar, Zak, and Simon Anders among her conquests), and most importantly, one hell of a viper pilot. The original Starbuck, an orphan, was a fun-loving scoundrel, a rogue, whereas the new Starbuck is angrier and meaner, a product, perhaps, of her abusive childhood. Kara is confrontational and disrespectful, particularly to Colonel Tigh, whereas the original Starbuck was easy-going and charming.

Baltar is a very different man in each version of this material. In the original, Adama states that he possesses “the tongue of an angel” and the “soul of a serpent.” The original Baltar commands his own battlestar and sits on the Council of the Twelve, but it is he who engineers the destruction of the Colonies with his Cylon allies. His goal is to subjugate the survivors of the massacre under his command, a plan which never materializes. Later, Baltar commands a base star in the Cylon Empire and pursues the Galactica through the stars.

Gaius Baltar is a different animal. One of the most brilliant minds on Caprica, Baltar is a scientist and advisor to President Adar. His crime is not the betrayal of the human race, but rather permitting a personal relationship with a woman (a Cylon agent), to cloud his judgment. He allows her access to Caprica’s Defense Main Frame, which paves the way for Cylon nuclear bombardment. An important distinction: the re-imagined Baltar never intended to collude with the Cylons or harm humanity. Instead, he is left trying to cover-up his complicity in the attack, knowing he will be executed as a traitor if discovered.

Of all the main characters, perhaps it is Captain Apollo who has changed least from one version of this space saga to the next. In both universes, Apollo is a man of integrity. He is an accomplished pilot, a respected officer, a son of Adama and a thoughtful, heroic man. In the original, Apollo faces many personal tragedies (including the deaths of a brother and wife), and broaches fatherhood by adopting Boxey.

Lee “Apollo” Adama has lost his brother, Zak, a death which estranges him from his father as the mini-series begins. This breach is repaired in time but re-asserted when Lee takes Roslin’s side during a military coup in “Kobol’s Last Gleaming.” The original Apollo never sided against his father publicly, not even when the evil Count Iblis became a popular figure in the fleet or Cain arrived with the Pegasus.

It is the Cylons who have changed the most on Battlestar Galactica. In the original series, a race of lizard-people called Cylons long ago constructed humanoid robot servants. Eventually, the Lizard people became extinct, but their malevolent machines lived on. The Cylon Centurions on the series appear mechanical in nature, including Lucifer’s IL series, but the Imperious Leader retains a more lizard-like appearance.

On the re-imagination, Centurions survive in more advanced mechanical form. However, a new Cylon breed also exists: Twelve humanoid models that function as sleeper agents inside human communities; very much like the Terminators in James Cameron's 1984 Schwarzenegger film. They are sometimes referred to as "skin jobs," which is how human-appearing and acting replicants were verbally denigrated in Ridley Scott's 1982 film, Blade Runner. However, the real difference in the Cylon races involves genesis. In Moore’s version, man played Frankenstein and created the Cylons. They are not the product of an alien culture, but man’s own children, grown-up and resentful.

Supporting characters from the original Battlestar Galactica appear in the remake occasionally, particularly Boxey and Jolly. Some, however, including the “socialator” Cassiopiea, viper pilot Sheba, and the mechanical drone Muffit, remain M.I.A.

Ronald Moore introduced in 2003 a whole raft of new dramatis personae, including President Laura Roslin, Number Six, Chief Tyrol, bridge officers Dualla and Gaeta, Tom Zarek, and Billy.

The new series has attempted at times to appear faithful to the vehicle designs of the original. Several ship designs in “new” rag-tag fleet, including the Astral Queen derive almost entirely from the source material. The Galactica herself maintains - in very broad terms - the same outline: roughly crocodilian, but with markedly different surface detail and markings. A modification of the vessel for the new series involves the hangers, which can now be retracted during a “jump” to light-speed.

Vipers are similar to their predecessors, but Cylon Raiders and base ships have undergone a dramatic face lift. In the original series, three Cylon Centurions worked in “communist” unison to fly a raider. In today’s remake, the raider (which resembles the Dark Knight's batwing) is a living machine, a Cylon pet requiring no pilots. The new series resurrects the colonial shuttle design nd is seen in such episodes as “Kobol’s Last Gleaming” and “Home,” while also introducing a new design: the Raptor.

If one considers “music” as an important character on a TV series, one could note that the majestic Battlestar Galactica fanfare by Stu Phillips and Glen A. Larson has been brought out of mothballs for the new series, particularly for the mini-series and the second season episode “Final Cut.”

Strange Bedfellows

Where Battlestar Galacticas most controversially and dramatically differ is in the arena of political persuasion. The original series was crafted during an unpopular Presidency, Democrat Jimmy Carter’s, in a time of war, specifically The Cold War with the Soviet Union. Powerful forces in the opposition party, the Republicans, criticized the President for engaging in defeatist negotiations with the enemy. Treaties like SALT II were dismissed as “giving away the nuclear store” and weakening America. As a response, the Republican Party adopted as its platform the notion of “Peace through Strength,” meaning that diplomacy could only be carried out with military force backing it up.

In the original series, civilian leaders proposed unilateral disarmament with the Cylons (“The Saga of the Star World”), fell under the sway of a charismatic Devil, Iblis, (“War of the Gods”), and attempted to negotiate a peace with the untrustworthy Eastern Alliance (“Baltar’s Escape.”) Political leaders were seen as well-meaning fools while the military was lauded as heroic. In “Baltar’s Escape” it was revealed that the fleet had been living under martial law since the Colonies’ destruction…and it was viewed as a good thing! In “Experiment in Terra,” Apollo stood before the government of an imperiled world fighting the “Eastern Alliance” (Eastern Bloc?) and told the members of the administration that the opposite of peace is not war, but slavery, echoing Ronald Reagan's 1964 speech in support of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

Ronald D. Moore’s remake airs during another unpopular presidency, that of Republican George W. Bush, and during a time of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. It adopts the terrorist attacks on America of September 11, 2001 as its central metaphor (rather than the original's Cold War context) and, much like its predecessor, espouses the philosophies of those in opposition to the Administration. In this case, the show offers a leftist, moral-relativist stance on hot-button issues.

The traditional, moral absolutes of the original Battlestar Galactica have given way to a sense of moral equivalency. Cylons are often treated with sympathy by the new series. Viewers see that “the enemy” possesses a competing religious faith for instance; that Cylons were wronged by the Colonials (treated as slaves), and that they have emotions just like any human being would. Even after a Sharon model attempts to assassinate Adama in “Kobol’s Last Gleaming,” Starbuck fights for another Sharon’s “rights” because she helped her escape from occupied Caprica.

Another way to look at this: the original Battlestar Galactica was about certainty – about the concrete belief that for democracy to survive it must remain strong (militarily, economically and spiritually) and “stay the course.” By contrast, the new Battlestar Galactica is about uncertainty, about a fear that we don’t know who our enemies are. That, in dangerous times, civil liberties will be jeopardized (as they are when Tigh declares martial law) or that controversial techniques to fight enemies (including congressional-style investigations) can be turned into witch-hunts against lawful citizens (“Litmus.’) A military out of control leads to torture in “Flesh and Blood” and rape in “Pegasus,” just like at Iraq’s prison, Abu-Ghraib.

Pop Culture Influences:

In his 1968 treatise, Chariots of the Gods, Swiss author Erich Von Daniken proposed the notion that ancient astronauts traveled to our planet and were regarded by our ancestors as Gods because of their advanced technology in the realms of construction, flight, and medicine. He pointed to the Egyptian Pyramids, the statues of Eastern Island and Paleolithic cave paintings (which depicted men in what might have been space helmets) as evidence of extra-terrestrial hands in early human affairs.

Von Daniken’s speculation about ancient astronauts in human prehistory, though dismissed by scientists, proved vastly popular to a wide readership in the 1970s, and Daniken penned sequels including Gods from Outer Space (1971), Gold of the Gods (1973), Miracles of the Gods (1975), and In Search of Ancient Gods (1976). Glen Larson credited Chariots of the Gods as a key inspiration for Battlestar Galactica. Taking into account this popular theory about the origin of man, Larson seeded his space opera with names and references related to early Earth cultures and mythology. Colonial gamblers thus played a card game called “Pyramid,” and the Viper pilots wore helmets with a distinctly Egyptian flair. Characters were named for Greek gods, including Apollo and Athena.

The name “Adama” was derived from the Old Testament name for the first man to inhabit the Garden of Eden, Adam. In Hebrew, “Adam” also means Earth. Adama’s grand mission also relates to early human mythology. He is the cosmic version of Moses, who led his people out of Egypt circa 1250 B.C. in the Great Exodus. In Battlestar Galactica, Adama does not split the red sea, but leads his people through the red-colored Nova of Madagon.

The name “Baltar” comes from Baal, the ancient Canaanite god of darkness. The name Lucifer – Baltar’s servant – is a name from Christian mythology for the Devil, and “Cylon” – a creature with one eye – alludes to the mythical creature called a Cyclops, who also had a single orb.

These references tie extra-terrestrial characters on Battlestar Galactica to early Christian mythology and Greek myth on Earth, and in conjunction with the opening narration (which states “life here began out there”), reinforce the then-in-vogue belief that ancient astronauts had visited Earth; and that “brothers of man,” might still exist in other parts of the galaxy.

Battlestar Galactica premiered in autumn of 1978, a little over a year after George Lucas’s Star Wars took the world by storm and became the highest-grossing film of all time. John Dykstra, Star Wars special effects maestro, jumped ship to join Galactica, so clearly Star Wars remains a powerful pop culture influence on the series.

By contrast, the new Battlestar Galactica was forged in an epoch of TV and cinematic “re-imaginations” including Godzilla (1998), Lost in Space (1998), The Wild, Wild West (1999), Planet of the Apes (2001) and Smallville (2001 - ). Much as original Battlestar leap-frogged off the success of Star Wars and the newfound popularity of outer space adventures, Moore’s Galactica exploits a pop culture trend that sees nostalgic genre favorites re-booted for a new generation; offering a product with easy and instant brand name identification.

The new Battlestar Galactica also adopts the herky-jerky, hand-held camera techniques of Fox’s “War of Terror” action series 24 to grant the re-imagination a new sense of visual immediacy. As for its dazzling scenes of space combat, Battlestar Galactica builds on the visual effects breakthroughs established by Joss Whedon’s late lamented Firefly (2002), which was the first TV series to incorporate shaky zooms and pans into the space adventure format.

Pick Your Poison: Popular or Acclaimed?

Now the 64,000 dollar question. Which Battlestar Galactica is more successful? That depends entirely on one’s definition of success. The original was inarguably more popular with audiences, drawing sixty-five million viewers to the tube the night it premiered on ABC, September 17, 1978. It was the sixth-highest rated new show of the 1978-1979 season, as well as the highest-rated science fiction TV series of all time until The X-Files premiered in 1993. And when Battlestar Galactica was re-cut and released theatrically, in Sensurround, its surpassed the international box office grosses of mega-hits Grease and Jaws II in Japan, Canada and Great Britain.

Inarguably, the original Battlestar Galactica passed the “test of time.” A one season TV series from 1978 proved so popular and enduring with rabid fans that it survived a quarter-century to become the subject of the 2003 remake. Unsuccessful TV shows don’t get re-imagined; that’s a Hollywood edict.

New Battlestar Galactica has never earned a tenth of the ratings success its predecessor enjoyed, but by contrast has survived longer: airing for four seasons on the Sci-Fi Channel Network. Finally, Ronald Moore’s new Galactica by far and away is the victor in terms of critical acclaim. It has won Emmy Awards, a Peabody, and is a regular staple on critics’ annual “Best Shows on TV” lists. Recently, Time Magazine listed the series as one of the one hundred best in the history of the medium.

Similar stories, different characters, opposite political leanings, different cultural contexts. Which Galactica suits you best?


  1. John -

    That essay is basically the second edition of your book! And for free, on a blog?? You're nuts!

  2. 24 is a "War of Terror" show. Who are you . . . Borat?
    "America, we support your war of terror!" hahahaha

    An interesting tie-in to Kobol/Kolob is that Kolob is only mentioned in the book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price. The Book of Abraham was said to have been translated by Joseph Smith from Egyptian papyri. As you are well aware, BSG implies strongly that the Egyptian civilization was a product of the early colonists to Earth. The Egyptian design motif is one of many things I think the new series should have kept.