The Long and Winding Road to BSG Fandom
|My road to Battlestar Galactica fandom had many twists and turns along the way but it was helped along by a few mysterious signs and portents. For instance, if I hadn’t gotten hooked on Farscape, I never would have been watching the Sci-Fi channel in the first place when I first heard about the “new” Battlestar Galactica.
After Farscape’s premature end, I very much doubted that any other show would ever be able to fill the gaping void it had left in my life. I do enjoy the Stargate shows, but they don’t really keep me on the edge of my seat the way Farscape did. I certainly didn’t think much of the promos for the “new” Battlestar Galactica when they first aired. My beloved Farscape had been new, bold, novel and daring. So why would I be interested in a remake of some musty old Star-Wars-wannabe show from the seventies that I had never even seen as a child?
When I attended ComiCon International (San Diego) in 2003, I wasn’t there for the Stargate panels or the Battlestar Galactica panels – I was there for the Fascape panel, period. It was easily the highlight of my entire trip (and I have the autographs to prove it!). I did attend the Stargate panel on behalf of my roommate, Mark, who happens to be an over-the-top Stargate fanatic if ever there was. I even managed to snap a decent shot of Don Davis (General Hammond) and Amanda Tapping (Samantha Carter) signing autographs just for my roommate to drool over.
The only reason I went anywhere near the Battlestar Galactica panels was that I was on a mission (from God, obviously) to get another friend of mine a Richard Hatch autograph. I didn’t really know who Richard Hatch was (he played “Apollo” in the original series) until I attended a panel he had all to himself just to plug his idea for a “continuation” of the original Battlestar Galactica show. He even had a nice little trailer cobbled together for what he called “Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming.”
I knew instinctively that if there was any mileage left in the BSG franchise, that Richard Hatch’s vision of what it might become was PRECISELY what my friend was hoping for in a remake of the show. So with Richard Hatch’s autograph in hand (mission accomplished!), I still felt obligated to attend the “other” BSG panel which was meant to pimp the up-and-coming “re-imagined” Battlestar Galactica. I knew that if this new-fangled remake deviated from the original show in any significant way that my friend (whom I’ll call “Kevin,” since that’s his name) would be sorely disappointed.
The 2003 Official Battlestar Galactica panel (hosted by the Sci-Fi Channel) featured Jamie Bamber, Katee Sackoff, Tricia Helfer, Ronald Moore and David Eick. After viewing an extended trailer for the new series and after listening to RDM talk for about ten minutes, I knew immediately that I was going to have to let my friend Kevin down gently. RDM wasn’t just going to make significant alterations to the mythology of the show (Starbuck was now a woman!), he was attempting to reinvent the show from the ground up. He would endeavor to pay homage to the original series where he could, but made it perfectly clear that the Cylons were going to be completely reinvented and that the new BSG would be a much darker, adult-oriented show than the original seventies hit.
I honestly didn’t care one way or the other. It did occur to me that any show with a lovely lady like Tricia Helfer in one of the starring roles couldn’t be all bad. On the other hand, Jamie Bamber seemed to have a bit of a Cockney accent and I knew that WASN’T going to fly with any die-hard American fans of the original series. Still, Moore’s new take on the Cylons did show some initiative…and Farscape’s future was still in limbo at the time…so I figured I might as well give the BSG miniseries a chance when it premiered. Where was the harm? But first I had some homework to do…
One Step at a Time...
I was a Battlestar Galactica neophyte. I had never seen the show when it originally aired. But my friend Kevin had. Not only was Kevin now the proud owner of a brand-spanking-new Richard Hatch autograph, but he also just so happened to have the complete boxed set of the original BSG series on DVD. Imagine that! (Coincidence? I think not.)
I can honestly say that BSG: The Original Series was pretty darn impressive – IN 1979! Otherwise time has not been particularly kind to TOS. I liked the original concept for the Cylons the way they were described (by Richard Hatch, no less!) in the first BSG movie. In a very brief scene aboard a truck (a newfangled truck OF THE FUTURE!), Apollo explains to his son, Boxey, that the Cylons were war machines which had outlived their usefulness but still continued to follow their original programming even after the race which had created them was long dead. Cool idea! - though not executed particularly well. The shiny metallic design of the Cylons worked just fine. The poor guys who had to dress up in the heavy Cylon costumes obviously had a rough time of it. It always looked like Boxey could outrun them in a fair fight. Plus the Cylons wore half-skirts and it looked like the Imperious Leader was wearing a huge brillo pad on his head. But wait! – it gets worse…
Not to put too fine a point on it, but…Baltar sucked. You have to give props to John Colicos for wringing noteworthy performances out of the nearly one-dimensional character he was expected to play. But honestly, Baltar’s motivations never made any sense whatsoever. Even purely self-serving individuals want more than just raw power, they want to exercise their power over other people. By and large, most power-mad folks don’t fantasize about making themselves dizzy atop poorly lit daises, lording their authority over…a bunch of mindless robots. I mean, come on, where’s the challenge in that? Baltar’s presence in any given episode seriously compromised my ability to suspend my disbelief - even more so than his clunky Cylon pals.
Now, I’ll be the first person to argue that the Cylon-heavy episodes were actually the better ones of the original series, but who are we trying to kid? - the Cylons were little more than stock baddies. Even the mobility-challenged Daleks of Dr. Who fame had more personality. And yes, it really was that bad. Still, if I had seen the series when it originally aired, no doubt I’d find myself in Kevin’s shoes, clinging to the fond memories of a once-groundbreaking show that now seems shockingly lame in retrospect. (Hey, I can admit that I was once a HUGE Knight Rider fan. I know of whence I speak.)
So going into the premiere of the newly “re-imagined” BSG miniseries, my expectations weren’t particularly high. I didn’t mind that Starbuuck a now a woman. I didn’t mind that Boomer was both a woman and a Cylon (the only thing better than having Grace Park on your show is having multiple copies of Grace Park on your show). And much to my relief, not only did Baltar NOT suck, he was actually one of the most interesting characters portrayed. It wasn’t until I re-watched the miniseries months later that I realized Baltar was totally bluffing his way through the whole “Cylon Detection” shtick - which made the revelation of Doral’s true identity near the end all the more curious. However, I wasn’t too impressed with the Six-in-Baltar’s head trick. Farscape had already played up the whole “neural clone / chip in the head” angle. Again, it wasn’t until much later in the series when they started exploring the ambiguity of whether or not Baltar really did have a chip in his head that I began to take interest in that particular subplot.
My biggest problem with the miniseries was that the ending was merely a springboard for a continuation of the show. It left me feeling very…UNSATISFIED! Having seen the entire FOUR HOUR premiere I had loaned to him on tape, my friend Matt asked (not, I think, unreasonably), “When can I borrow the second half?” Now, I enjoy a good cliff hanger as much as the next guy (Farscape had them in spades) but the ending of any well told story should have at least SOME closure. Based on the miniseries alone, I wasn’t willing to recommend BSG to friends and family just yet. The miniseries was really just a big tease. I wasn’t going to encourage other people to watch it unless I could guarantee that the eventual show would meet expectations.
So when I attended ComiCon again in 2004, the real reason I was there (surprise, surprise!) was to attend the panel for Farscape: Peacekeeper Wars. At that point in my life I was still smarting from the whole premature Fasrcape cancellation fiasco. My faith in the ability of Sci-Fi Channel execs to figure out what the hell they were doing was at an all time low (and hasn’t really improved much since). Sure, I still attended the Stargate panels to keep my roommate up-to-speed on the latest Stargate: Atlantis news, but all I really cared about was whether or not Farscape would ever get a proper send-off (and boy, did it ever!). I attended the BSG panel that year more out of morbid curiosity than anything else. Would RDM and crew actually finish what they started? How many episodes would there be in the new season and would they be any good?
Again, the trailer shown at the ComiCon panel was top notch, ending with a surprising shot of Richard Hatch claiming that today was the “dawn of a new era.” Seeing Richard Hatch involved with the new BSG was a bit of a shocker considering how much time and effort he had poured into doing his own “continuation” of the show. Hatch was already on record (at the previous year’s ComiCon, no less!) saying that he thought a “re-imagining” of the BSG universe was completely unwarranted and ill advised. But Hatch had a whole panel to himself beforehand to explain why he was willing to do a guest-starring role on The New Series. So walking away from my ComiCon 2004 experience, I still wasn’t all that impressed with the BSG miniseries, but if RDM was able to win over a crotchety Richard Hatch, maybe the upcoming first season of the new BSG wouldn’t be all that bad…
Still, I had my reservations…..
Reservations Along the Path…
Farscape was at it's core a “fish out of water” story. Take a modern day human astronaut, hurl him across the galaxy though a wormhole and see how he fends for himself. The “re-imagined” BSG took a similar tack, but on a grander scale: Take a modern day equivalent of an American civilization and put it through the ringer of a worst case scenario - nuclear holocaust, alien invasion, rebelling AI, the whole nine yards –how would such a society fend for itself? But instead of simply setting the story in earth’s future, why set it in a different star system under the guise of a “same-but-different” civilization? Fine, so you want to transplant an entire human civilization to a different part of our galaxy, but you still have to explain how it got there. Especially if the civilization you wish to portray virtually parallels modern day America, whatever explanation you come up with, it had better be a pretty darn good one!
The milieu of the new BSG was clearly more of a “parallel universe” scenario than a futuristic sci-fi setting. This creates certain problems in the credibility department. Setting in your story in a parallel universe would be challenging enough, but setting your story in a universe where two nearly identical cultures have evolved light years apart from each other would be flat out ludicrous (no matter what the Trekkie Tossers say!). As more and more similarities crop up between BSG’s fictional civilization and our own, the less credible the entire premise for the show becomes!
Clearly we are meant to understand that the planet Earth exists (or did, or will) in the same galaxy that we find our BSG characters in. In the original BSG, Lorne Greene’s Rag-Tag-Fleet sought refuge from the Cylon threat (and here the word “threat” is used most generously) in the hopes that the planet Earth would ultimately prove to be a safe harbor. Thus one could reasonably infer that the adventures of Starbuck and Apollo took place in a distant star system and that the Colonial civilization in which they lived was really an offshoot (or a derivative) of previous Earth-bound civilizations (namely Greek and Egyptian). Which was fine, but the newly “re-imagined” BSG scenario was so similar to modern day American culture and adhered so closely to modern-day political conceits that to say that it “strained credibility” would be a HUGE understatement. “Frakking unbelievable!” would be a more accurate assessment.
Later on in the first season of the new series, we are told that a central tenant of Colonial scripture is that “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” Which does help explain how you can have characters on a Sci-Fi show playing out their predestined roles in what essentially amounts to a Greek tragedy and yet still have cool things like spaceships, “modernized” co-ed armed forces and a government bureaucracy which vaguely resembles our own. But quoting Peter Pan will only get you so far. After a while the parallelisms just become a bit silly. For instance: if the Colonials are familiar with all the same animals and foods that we find common (chicken pie, apples, lollypops, horses, dogs, goats, etc.), then either all of these items were originally imported from Earth (still vaguely plausible), or they were exported to Earth from a variety of other worlds in Earth’s distant past (much less plausible). Okay, so there are electric toasters in the BSG universe, but why chrome? Why not plastic or ceramic? Okay, so they have cars and jeeps in the BSG universe, but with Canadian-style license plates to boot?
Unfortunately, the similarities don’t end there. Chrome toasters and intergalactic car tags are just the tip of the iceberg! The “re-imagined” Colonials are also perfectly familiar with:
Sound like any civilizations you already know? And seriously, what are the odds that an ancient Greco-Roman civilization isolated in another part of the galaxy would develop such exact parallels to modern day America? The sheer amount of parallelism alone strains credibility! Books, card games, dancing – OK, sure, I’ll buy that. But movies AND jazz AND talk shows? No. Frakking. Way.
Unless, of course, the new BSG actually takes place in our prehistoric past. Or in our VERY far-flung future. Or unless you believe that history really does repeat itself (silly fatalists, tricks are for kids!). Believe it or not, there ARE ways around the parallelism overdose, but they might not be resolved until Galactica actually finds Earth (presuming it makes it that far).
But this was another huge reservation I had about the show. I didn’t want the entire show to revolve around “Finding Earth.” ST: Voyager had already gone down that road and it was a ridiculously single-minded, monotonous, unwavering path (or at least it was if you put Janeway in charge). It was like giving your show a built in shelf life – Best Viewed Before We Reach Earth. Even BSG: TOS had a “Galactica 1980” tucked away in its tawdry past, proof positive that Finding Earth was never really all it was cracked up to be. And I STILL have my reservations on how Finding Earth that will play out in the new series.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Long story short: I approached the first episodes of BSG: Season One with, shall we say… “cautious optimism.” And I was pleasantly surprised! The scripts were tight, the special effects top notch, and the drama was definitely milked for all it was worth. I warmed up to Boomer and her struggle to face the reality of her Cylon heritage (and did I mention that Grace Park is easy on the eyes? Not that there’s anything wrong with that). I warmed up to Apollo when he reminded Roslin and Adama that democracy was an institution worth holding onto – even in the worst of times. It drove me nuts from week to week waiting to find out what would happen to Helo, stranded on Caprica and being sucker-punched by stunningly attractive Cylon agents. I was intrigued, and so I left the TV tuned to the Sci-Fi Channel after the Stargate shows were over, but I don’t think I was quite prepared to call myself a “fan” of the new BSG just yet.
And then it happened. I saw “Six Degrees of Separation,” the first “Baltar-centric” episode of the season. More specifically, it was the intensity of James Callis’s performance as Baltar as he cried out to God from the destitution of his prison cell that genuinely moved me. Baltar’s prayer didn’t come across as phony or contrived or staged, but rather as the plea of a tortured soul who happened to be caught on film. As a person of faith myself, I found it shockingly refreshing to see a character undergo a religious experience on television where the filmmakers didn’t attempt to belittle or besmirch the emotional gravity of the experience itself. It was in that very moment that I knew for certain that I was hooked. From that day forward I wanted to find out what happened to Baltar next, to see whether his newfound faith would actually take root or whether his devotion would eventually fade. Much to my own astonishment, I CARED about Baltar.
Now, Gaius Baltar is not what I could consider to be a “likable” character. He’s certainly not the sort of character anyone would voluntarily emulate or look up to as a role model. After all, he’s partially responsible for the destruction of his entire civilization, which is not the sort of psychological burden most mere mortals have to bear. But quite honestly, despite all the snazzy special effects and dizzying plot twists, the real reason I keep tuning into BSG week after week is to see if Baltar’s life can ever be truly be redeemed, whether or not any good that he does in his life will ever make up for all the bad. I think that’s a struggle we all face as human beings, and the main reason why I continue to care about Baltar’s fate.
[OFF TOPIC] The main reason I initially fell I love with the Xena character was because of her “Apostle Paul” issues, trying to reverse the mistakes of her past and all that. But I digress. [/OFF TOPIC]
And there you have it. That’s how I became a Battlestar Galactica fan. My involvement with various online fan forums and the prolific production of BSG fan art would come later. But rest assured that Baltar isn’t the only reason I’m hooked on BSG. I still haven’t mentioned just how well RDM “re-imagined” the Cylons!
P.S. Trekkie Tossers, if you’re reading this:
Joel "Mr. Hook" Hoekstra a.k.a. Son of Joxer - Aug 19, 2006