Review: Battlestar Galactica

Why My Opinion Might Matter To You

Glen A. Larson and Ronald D. Moore’s 2004-2009 version of Battlestar Galactica was some of the best science fiction I’ve encountered on a screen so far.

If you knew how important science fiction is to me, and how much of it I’ve watched in search of that elusive perfect combination of “science” and “fiction”, you would be more impressed by that statement than I imagine you to be. Believability is the most important factor in my critical judgment of the quality of science fiction, especially that which is made for the screen. Whether the screen belongs to a movie theater, my television, or my gaming device, I can only grant a fully attentive glance to a story which grabs my mind and my heart from its first few frames and leaves me wanting more when the credits roll. If at any point in the storytelling I am distracted by inferior sound, music, visuals, acting, plot, or pacing, then what began as a fully attentive glance degrades into less and less until some mental rubicon is crossed, and I leave that story behind, never to have a positive thought of it again.

Battlestar Galactica in its original form was what I, as my pre-teen and teenage self, considered really lame sci-fi. But since in the late 1970s and early ‘80s there was so much less science fiction in the screen canon available, it was a TV show that I did watch, but only very seldom. Enough to recognize the references to it appreciatively on the first Universal Studios tram tours I was fortunate to experience as a young sci-fi devotee. Enough also to recognize that Glen Larson was capitalizing on Star Wars fandom by creating Battlestar Galactica in 1978, and to appreciate his faithfulness to fans of that early version of it (bringing Richard Hatch into the new series, for example). Unfortunately, those early bad impressions of the Battlestar Galactica story kept me away from it when it reappeared in the Syfy Network’s new version. As a fan of the NBC sitcom The Office, I even let that fictional world inform my opinion of it, as the show’s characters mocked Dwight Schrute’s geeky fanboy love of it. So when I finally decided to try it out when it appeared on Netflix’s instant viewing list, you can see why I approached it with very low expectations.

It turns out, Dwight was right!

I’ve been making science fiction movies all my life, up to my present age of 46 years. None that you have seen, and only a few that were ever realized as viewable films. Most of the science fiction movies I’ve made never made it out of my imagination and onto the page, or the screen. Before you dismiss me as delusional, allow me to explain.

Like many in the golden first years after Star Wars exploded into our imaginations, my nerdy friends and I filmed backyard Super-8 epics and physically scratched animated laser gun bolts onto the tiny celluloid frames with an Exacto knife, and spliced them together and overdubbed sound to them with a passionate zeal we wanted so badly to turn into careers rivaling our science fiction movie heroes’: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, etc. When video killed celluloid in the home movie market, it made backyard epics much more difficult to create, until home computing technology caught up with smart-phones and digital video cameras. Now Youtube is the oasis of every geeky teen sci-fi nerd with Hollywood hopes. Meanwhile, I grew out of such dreams, and my life moved on.

However, my early passion for sci-fi never stopped turning everything I read in the genre into a mental motion picture. Everyone has an imagination, of course. But some who used to imagine themselves as career filmmakers, and the few who have succeeded in living that charmed life, have imaginations which seldom read or view a good story without simultaneously approaching it as a potential screenplay. Locations are scouted, casting is completed, pacing and lighting are planned, special effects and makeup and costumes are crafted, camera angles painstakingly chosen, music composed, and marketing strategies dreamed up. All in the fantasyland of a filmmaker’s imagination. Because of my early dreams of being the next Steven Spielberg, I am blessed (cursed?) with a filmmaker’s imagination.

My Review of Battlestar Galactica

It’s such a treat when great science fiction like Battlestar Galactica comes along and revives your dreams of finding perfectly executed sci-fi storytelling. And it’s a curse, since you can’t unlearn all the behind-the-scenes know-how once you’ve got it, and tried using it to make your own movie magic. After knowing how it’s done, the imaginary veil which allows audiences to suspend their disbelief is more threadbare, reducing how easily and deeply any subsequent science fiction movie, or TV series, or game is able to catch and hold us.

Moreover, this is the era of the Great Attention Deficit. Due to a perfect storm of increasingly fast-paced lifestyles, ever-evolving shiny new techno devices, and constant media infiltration into our consciousness, the ability of modern human beings to give their undivided attention to anything long enough to experience a deep appreciation of it is, I fear, receding into a history few care about anymore.

It seems like very few people think anymore, or even have the ability to think, which in itself has been a (prophetic, apparently) theme of some great apocalyptic science fiction. I count myself as a victim of the attention deficit culture in which I choose to participate, guilty of allowing myself to become easily bored and easily distracted. Which probably explains my rambling writing style. And also which makes it all the more important to me when any story is able to catch and hold my attention.

Annoyingly, Hollywood seizes many well-executed science-fiction books, short stories, or graphic novels, and reduces them to the worst drivel imaginable. The acting, particularly, has suffered in the genre, because rarely (maybe, never?) is great acting found in a person who has not at some point honed their craft on a live stage. As a novice drama teacher, I saw that stage acting allows acting skills to be improved much more rapidly than any of the modes requiring a larger talent pool, such as screen or radio acting. When it’s a live stage presentation, there are no retakes, no breaks, no stopping. That relentless nature of stage acting radically improves the many skills demanded of those artists (actors) whom we often dismissively brush aside when they fail to please us.

Acting is an extremely difficult art form to do well, and that is why so few manage to ever support themselves financially only by their acting. Every new project is a risk, especially in the movie industry, the most expensive of any art form which humanity has yet invented, and one which until very recently found itself inextricably bound to the whims of the studio system, in which non-creative business people, who only see potential movie ideas in terms of their profitability, determine whether a story would be told. More to the point: up to now, anyway, the stage cannot provide a believable presentation of science fiction storytelling. It is a genre which is most effective on the modern visual screen technology which often appears in the background of hard science fiction stories.

So-called “legitimate” cinema guilds, critics, and fans rarely allow science fiction into their exclusive and well-guarded circles, and frankly any kind of exhaustive sampling of representative works of sci-fi for the screen proves it to be a genre requiring a level of expertise by all involved far exceeding that which can produce, for good screen comedies, dramas, or the other, simpler genres. But only recently has sci-fi, or its cousin horror, earned the attention of those who take it upon themselves to award movies and the many people required to create cinematically expressed stori
es with artistic merit. And even then, sci-fi, horror, and their derivatives remain much more popular with the general public than with “The Academy.”

Because actors rightly crave legitimacy and avoid the sci-fi and horror genres due to their inherent career riskiness, and because the stage offers no science fiction acting experiences, that critical factor of believability– so much in the hands of the cast of players who allow themselves to take the risk of being associated with movie project– more often than not is lacking in science fiction acted on the screen.

There is a lot of very bad science fiction, regardless of how many fans it tends to acquire. This is my opinion, but I insist that I have standards made higher as a fan on a lifelong search for believable science fiction storytelling, and as someone who has tried making it, albeit long ago, and as nothing more than an immature amateur. Nevertheless, the ratio in the sci-fi movie genre of bad to good is much more toward the bad, a ratio arguably much worse than that found in other genres. Drama, for example, the original genre of acted storytelling, or comedy, or musical, or romance, (or even the non-fiction modes, which document the true stories of the human experience with varying degrees of opinion bias)– all of which aren’t as challenging, or expensive or as risky, to create.

With the type of sci-fi that first appears to audiences on the screen instead of in print (Star Trek, for example), remakes are far less risky, since advancing technology and increasingly sophisticated audiences make for what can be very satisfying upgrades of beloved old sci-fi universes. This is what I understand has occurred with Battlestar Galactica, although I must repeat here that I was no fan of the early series, beyond the few episodes I watched, and the few fan-written analyses of it I happened across in the magazines published for the backyard celluloid movie makers of my boyhood years. I was also no fan of the series while in its original run, from 2004 to 2009. Even now, I have not plunged into any of the current fan websites or even discussed it with anyone outside my immediate family.

In fact, just an hour ago I completed viewing all 76 episodes on Netflix. As the story arc reached its final acts, I began contemplating this review. As this is written so long after the series came and went, I won’t attempt any kind of fanboy analysis of the story or the visuals and sound. All of that is doubtless available through a simple Google search, and probably written from fuller background experiences by writers other than myself.

But I will offer this simple suggestion to you if you are a fan of science fiction like me. Do yourself a favor, set aside the time to give Battlestar Galactica’s pilot show and first few episodes your attention. My prediction is that you will be caught up with the incredibly high quality of the production as I was, and pleasantly surprised many times all the way to the series finale. And in case you wonder later, my absolute favorite character of so very many brought to life by a world-class cast, was Dr. Gaius Baltar, played to perfection by James Callis.

Thank you, to the many talented people who lovingly executed every aspect of this Battlestar Galactica, a series which never failed to surprise and inspire me, and earned my undivided attention by its believability.