The capacity of sci-fi to shine a light on our everyday lives and make us think is truly amazing. The best sci-fi shows/books/comics always ask fundamental human questions and the most common theme is the question of “What truly makes us human?”
Battlestar Galactica (the new series: 2003-2009) in this regard has been a revelation for me. I never paid any attention to the show when it actually ran on various networks in India but when I craved a well-written sci-fi show; I decided to give it a whirl. That decision paid off.
Of course, it’s a remake. What isn’t these days? The original TV series started in 1978 looks hilariously dated and just the robot designs are enough to put off a seasoned sci-fi nerd. The concept is great though: Humanity has been living on the 12 colonies named after our constellations (Caprica, Picon, Virgon, Tauron etc). The machines they created, called the Cylons, rebelled and wiped out most of humanity. A ragged fleet of ships carrying the last vestiges of humanity escapes, protected by the only war ship remaining- The Battlestar Galactica. The fleet is on the run with the Cylons in pursuit and they are heading for a fabled 13th colony they call Earth. To me that sounded like a seriously compelling plot.
The 2003 remake kept the concept intact, shed most of the camp-factor and added layer upon layer of mystery and intrigue. The Cylons evolve from looking like clunky metallic robots to completely human from almost every perspective one tries to investigate. In the middle of being on the run for their lives, the humans must find a way to accept their new situation and form a functioning society. It meshes aspects of sci-fi, political thriller, action and tension filled drama.
What hooked me at first were the characters. Especially the Cylons. Their curiosity and their strange way of looking at life was fascinating. They have their own religion, social structure, mythology and a deeply pragmatic reason for wanting the humans dead. They quickly fade from absolute villains to complex characters within the first season. What’s even more interesting is that even though there are only a few “models” in which all members of one model look exactly the same, each individual Cylon may have a completely different personality. You really want to root for them at quite a few points. Often, the humans seem no better or worse than those machines. Strangely enough, the story is clearly from the human perspective and yet still manages to sell the Cylons as almost or fully human.
The atmosphere the show creates is immersive, epic and mysterious. Think of the first season of Lost and all the questions you had while watching it. This show gave me a similar feeling and piled on the tension in every episode. The show doesn’t ever let up its intensity and the answers that come are almost satisfying. The music certainly helps a lot with this. The composer Bear McCreary worked with many ethnic, tribal instruments. Instead of synthy or spacey textures and the show borrows heavily from world music. In fact, the opening title theme is a version of the Hindu Gayatri Mantra. This makes for very layered musical textures and this adds to the grounded reality of the show.
As an aside; can I just take a moment to applaud the showrunners/writers to come up with a very PG13 method of cursing on TV? The word ‘Frak’ is a masterstroke. I know this really isn’t a selling point here, but once you watch the show, imagining the show without all the expletives makes you feel empty. Or maybe just slightly disappointed. To see a particularly gruff, aged colonel, refer to the enemy as “Frakking Cylons” is both hilarious and strangely realistic.
Speaking of realism, don’t watch the show for the special effects (which were seriously good for the time), or the setting in space or for any particularly sci-fi element, if that doesn’t hook you. Watch it because it’s one of the few shows that tackled the reality of terrorism and life in the post 9/11 world. Watch it because it is an allegory for serious issues in society and this show handled those issues with elegance and humanity. Suicide bombings, prisoner torture, and the constant fear of being wiped out; the show is a gritty and multi-faceted point of view for such themes. It never gets preachy or tells you what to think. It just makes you want to think. That is a hallmark of the best kind of sci-fi.
I hope I sold Battlestar Galactica enough, for all those of you who haven’t yet experienced it. You should definitely take my word for it. It’s a frakking amazing show.
Scribe: Siddharth Talwar
Captain's Log: Siddharth Talwar is a full time music making software, when he isn't dreaming of electric sheep.