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Throw away your preconceptions...
on 26 September 2005
...because Battlestar Galactica is like no other show you've seen.
If you're like me and always rather sceptical of sci-fi, I know what you're thinking. You think it's all speciall effects, photon torpedos, people wearing daft spandex uniforms, hammy acting, awful plots that are resolved by the end of the episode, and poorly disguised humans in silly costumes trying to look alien.
Forget that. All of it. This is not Star Trek. It's not even close.
This is sci-fi for adults - people who want an intelligent, wide reaching plot; people who realise that in real life, issues don't get wrapped up nicely by the end of the episode. You'll need to engage your brain to get the most out of this series, but if you're willing give it that chance you'll be experiencing something that may go down in history as one of the best shows of it's genre.
The plot outline is this:
Set in the future, humanity is spread over 12 colonies - planets in close proximity. Sometime in the recent past, intelligent robots, called cylons, were designed to help the humans, and basicly do the dirty work. This 'race' of robots rebelled, and there was a war (Matrix fans please note: this plot PREDATES The Matrix by several decades, as the original version of Galactica aired in the 70's and 80's).
Eventually, the cylons left and humanity was free to recover.
Then, out of the blue, the Cylons return. If that isn't bad enough, they have managed to produce a small number of new models - who look, feel and live exactly like humans. A surprise attack is launched, nuking the colonies and wiping out the fleet of military ships that protect them - except for one - the Battlestar class ship Galactica, an old ship past it's service life and about to be retired.
There is a struggle, a brief war, but it is clear from the start that it is already lost. Galactica flees, along with a fleet of civilian ships, in search of a legendary 13th colony - called Earth. The 40,000 or so people in the fleet are all that is left of the human race, and they are being hunted down by the Cylons.
This is where Season 1 begins: with the Galactica and her civilian fleet running from the Cylons, all the time with the knowledge that there may be any number of humanoid Cylonss in the fleet itself.
I said before that this is sci-fi for adults. Well the brilliant acting and superb, arching, constantly developing plot is what makes this show the masterpeice it is.
The crew of Galactica, and those civilians who we see including the President of the colonies, are flawed characters. Gone is the squeeky clean world of Star Trek or even more recent shows like Stargate. Gone is the obvious distinction between right and wrong.
Difficult decisions need to be made, and the consequences of these decisions - or of failing to make the decisions - are often harsh, always enthralling, and have reprecussions for all future episodes. The universe is not somehow magically reset each week, in time for another heroic adventure and the crew to save the day. Often there are failures. People die, and not with clean, clinical phasers - in the Galactica universe, all that's available are conventional projectile weapons. Not only that, but you will feel a sense of loss when such events occur. The story is compelling enough to make you feel for the characters, regardless of their flaws. There are events which will make you raise an eyebrow, and there are events which in all probability shock you. I'm not going to spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that the writers behind Galactica routinely touch on subjects other sci-fi shows don't dare go near.
As for the technology side of things, the use of "future technology" and even space shots is surprisingly minimal. There is one concession to regular sci-fi, and that is that ships are able to make faster than light jumps - but only jumps, not continual faster than light travel - and the risk involved is very high.
Other than that, the show is very restrained. Space scenes, especially any battles, are few and far between. The fighters themselves appear to basicly be more primitive versions of modern fighter jets that have simply been made spaceworthy. Guns and missiles are the order of the day - no tractor beams, and no phase cannons or anything like that. Galactica itself has minimal weaponry and what it has is for defense - basicly flak cannons. The fighters are its offensive weapon.
There are no long range scanners, or magical viewports with the ability to see a car parked on a planet 3 light years away. The only method of detecting other ships is DRADIS (Detection, RAnge, DIStance), a system more familiar to us when known as RADAR. If a contact doesn't carry a transponder identifying it, the only way to see what it is is to dispatch fighters to go and look at it.
Galactica has no omnipresent computer, and no all-knowing database. There are no computer networks, and comunication is by radio or internal telephone.
All of these restrictions give you two things. Firstly, a hightened sense of realism and believability, and secondly a genuine sense of being involved in the struggle, rather than being divorced from the experience as some disembodied computer voice tracks down targets for the crew.
However, for the most part, you won't be concentrating on space or technology.
The show concentrates more on the characters and moral conflicts than it does on the setting in which these events are played out. Much of the time, it's almost more like the West Wing or 24.
It has that quality that scriptwriters dream of - a cast and a script which doesn't rely on fancy gadgets or novel settings to be compelling to the viewers.
Star Trek is an adventure series in space, which is where the attention is focused: fancy graphics and gadgets.
Battlestar Galactica is an intelligent drama which JUST HAPPENS to be in space. It would still work if it wasn't.
That's the difference, and that's what makes it a great show.