The first thing you need to know is that I approach the new Battlestar Galactica with something between little and no knowledge of the original series. I did not watch the original series. I might have seen part of the pilot on VHS some 15 years ago, but most of what I know about the original series is from recent articles and comments that compare the new series to the old.
So, if you're looking for an expert knowledgeable on the original series who is going to draw comparisons between the two, you're reading the wrong reviewer. I approach the new Battlestar Galactica with an awareness that, yes, there was an original series beloved by presumably many — but for the most part that's not going to be a factor in my focus. As far as I'm concerned, this is a fresh sci-fi series rooted more in the events of our current decade than simply a remake of a series from 1978.
That said, my one-word review for this miniseries would be "fresh." The story is based on the original series' premise, and indeed there's a lot of setup and establishing of characters here as an outline for a series treatment, but the look and feel of Battlestar Galactica are what set it apart from other sci-fi series like, say, Star Trek. When Enterprise began in 2001, its creators promised a fresh, more down-to-earth take on the Trek franchise. It ended up being more similar to previous Treks than different. Battlestar Galactica, however, feels like a much more modernized sci-fi series, on nearly all levels. It is essentially a contemporary military drama set in space, with notably flawed, complicated characters.
The genre to which this belongs might best be called "military sci-fi" as opposed to simply "sci-fi." The backdrop is not exploration of strange new worlds, but a battleship at war. There are sci-fi elements, yes, but interestingly, this new Galactica goes out of its way to lower the tech level and make the atmosphere less futuristic, and more contemporary. Ronald D. Moore, the series' developer, knows that audiences are more sophisticated and jaded, and that a sci-fi prop is often recognized as simply that: a prop. By removing the typical futuristic sci-fi props and putting in simple, functional human objects (analog clocks, standard phone handsets, etc.), we find that we can concentrate on the characters and dialog instead of the tech. It's an interesting approach.
I also really dig the overall production design. In the past I've poked fun at Canadian sci-fi productions because they look cheap (see Andromeda), but I suspect this isn't because they were Canadian but because they were cheap sci-fi productions that happened to be filmed in Canada (which is different from a low-budget sci-fi production). Battlestar is a solid sci-fi production, in particular with its elaborate, authentic-looking military CIC and Adama's earthy, lived-in quarters.
The cinematography is much freer than traditional sci-fi, with a lot of hand-held and Steadicam work, lending the miniseries a more contemporary, documentary feel. More to the point, this is good hand-held and Steadicam work that fits the atmosphere without being distracting (which is a potential pitfall of hand-held). As a fan of such series as Homicide and The Shield, seeing this style of camerawork workably brought to sci-fi is refreshing. Also notable is how the in-flight space combat sequences use swish-pans and snap-zooms and plenty of chaotic movement, and do so believably. The special effects don't feel like special effects, but like spontaneous photography with a visceral edge.
The setup premise: The Cylons, in what is a departure from the original series, were machines created by man for the purpose of labor. The Cylons, apparently advanced enough as artificial intelligence, staged an uprising, and there was a bloody war, and eventually an armistice. The Cylons left humanity's 12 colonies of Kobol for their own world, and there were decades of peace where the Cylons were simply never heard from. The miniseries documents how that peace is swiftly and brutally ended by a Cylon sneak attack as seen on the colony of Caprica.
Prior to the assault, the Battlestar Galactica is about to be decommissioned and turned into a museum. Talk about a swift turn of events.
In addition to the main thrust of the story, in which the survivors of the assault flee Caprica (and presumably the other 11 colonies — a point that is somewhat unclear in terms of the planetary geography), there are a ton of establishing character relationships put into play. Among the highlights:
Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) was on the eve of retirement before the Cylon assault. His estranged son Lee (Jamie Bamber) has just been assigned to the Galactica. The ship's XO, Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan), is an alcoholic who has a running feud with hotshot pilot Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff); in their first scene together at a group card game, she taunts him until he overturns the table, then she slugs him in full view of a dozen witnesses. He has her thrown in the brig.
The secretary of education, Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), has just, as in today, been diagnosed with breast cancer. She's in-flight between worlds when the Cylons attack Caprica and wipe out most of the government. She inherits the presidency and is sworn in during a powerfully depicted scene that is borrowed directly from U.S. history.
Roslin comes into conflict with Adama in the course of the storyline when she advocates taking the surviving civilian population in a convoy and retreating without looking back. Adama, a military man, plans to launch a counterstrike. Roslin rightly calls it a futile cause: "The war's over. We lost." It's the first of what promises to be many battles of ideology between the head of the military and the head of the civilian government. The performances here are effective in their understatement; Olmos has a wonderfully effective, quiet gravitas, and McDonnell is good at evoking careful observation and introspection.
One of the story's central relationships is established leading up to the attack. Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis), a brilliant scientific mind, is having a sexual affair with a tall, lithesome blonde (Tricia Helfer). Baltar is a womanizer and a boundless egocentric. When caught with another woman, he launches into a pathetically transparent series of excuses ("It's not you, it's me"), but the blonde has actually been using him. She's an evolved Cylon, the sixth of 12 models that perfectly mimic humans (Six of Twelve? Seven of Nine? Sexy blondes? Coincidence?), and had coerced Baltar into granting her access to the defense mainframe, which allowed her to deactivate crucial defenses permitting the surprise Cylon attack and nuclear bombardment.
What's great about Baltar is the multifaceted nature of his culpability. On the one hand, he did willingly compromise security, which unwittingly permitted the attack. On the other hand, we get the sense that many people would've been capable of his weakness. The brilliance of Baltar's character is that he's an utterly self-serving comic villain and at the same time a victim of appalling circumstances beyond his knowledge or control. "Scoundrel" might be a good word for him. Even as the bombs are falling and humanity is on the verge of being destroyed, he wants to call his lawyer and protect himself. James Callis, often very funny (and who has an uncanny resemblance in both look and accent to DS9's Alexander Siddig), plays his scenes at a frenzied level of guilty desperation: He didn't intend to be the instrument that wiped out humanity, but he nevertheless now hopes he can get away with it.
Baltar ends up with a trip to Galactica when Boomer (Grace Park) and Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) land their Raptor on Caprica (with the disturbing sight of mushroom clouds on the horizon) and evacuate a handful of survivors. In one of several scenes that is straightforward in its depiction and yet agonizing in its concept (an even darker scene involves Roslin being forced to leave ships behind to be slaughtered by the Cylons), we watch as numbers are drawn for a crowd of survivors to take the few seats available on the Raptor. Helo gives up his seat for Baltar, in a selfless act that he thinks is best for humanity. Ah, the irony — the selfish traitor ends up with a free pass on account of someone else's selflessness.
Later, Baltar begins having hallucinated conversations (and hilariously humiliating would-be sexual encounters) with Number Six, who has apparently been burned into his subconscious. It's an intriguing internal conflict: Here's a man driven insane by his own guilt, and yet still obsessed with the memories of all the great sex. It's a brilliant plot device, because it allows Baltar to have entire discussions with the Cylons (in his head) that for us shed light on their existence, while at the same time revealing Baltar as the self-serving sap he is. It's deliciously pathetic.
The attack on Caprica itself, and the immediate aftermath, strike me as a little arid. There is a strange non-reaction on the part of the characters in learning that the Cylons have attacked. My feeling is that this should've been depicted with more overt fear or grief or shock (like, say, the looks of pedestrians' faces in New York on 9/11) rather than simply blank stares, a near-silent soundtrack, and Adama's cold announcement that "as of this moment, we are at war." Perhaps it was a matter of confusion and insufficient information; later, there are scenes of convincing power when the Colonial One pilot's hand shakes as it holds a message reporting the destruction of virtually the entire government, or the way Roslin's voice quivers as she realizes the gravity of the situation.
A lot of these feelings seem to grow out of a post-9/11 mindset. After being accustomed to peace for such a long time, with a military in idle mode, these people are suddenly launched into responding to disaster. Also in the vein of current fears is the idea that the "Cylons look like us," something Adama encounters first-hand at a munitions facility. It's a story point ripe for development along the lines of terrorist paranoia. Just ask Baltar. And the reporter who is put off the ship — secretly and with no trial — for being a suspected Cylon agent. Is it the right move? In this case, it happens to be, but it raises interesting questions.
There's plenty more going on in this miniseries (drama, relationships, action, conflict, observant military details), which viewed on DVD plays uninterrupted as a three-hour sci-fi movie, setting up storylines for a dozen characters in addition to resolving the plot at hand, involving the Galactica and the human convoy attempting to escape the Cylon's pursuing base star. All of this is, essentially, a setup for a series as opposed to a real conclusion, but it still plays terrifically as a stand-alone (both as sci-fi and as drama) with an across-the-board solid ensemble of actors. I'm out of time, so I'll leave it at that.
Oh, yeah — and Boomer is a Cylon, and she doesn't even know it. Now there's a teaser for season one.
Next episode: 33