Space balls

While politicians spent a campaign season avoiding the big issues, TV's bravest series has been facing them in thrilling fashion.

Topics: Battlestar Galactica, Television,

Space balls

For the past month, while the national political conversation has concerned itself with racy military thrillers and antique racial slurs, the real issues — the big, soul-scraping ones — have been wrestled with in the wasteland of Friday night basic cable programming, on a channel otherwise devoted to no-budget thrillers about killer centipedes.

Surely you’ve heard by now (because we’ve certainly repeated it often enough) that “Battlestar Galactica,” the new remake of the cheesy ’70s series, is the most thrilling and trenchant dramatic series on TV at the moment (except, of course, for “The Wire”). Maybe you still haven’t given it a shot because you just can’t believe a show set on a spaceship could possibly engage you when you can watch the simpering narcissists of “Grey’s Anatomy” instead — in which case, you are an idiot. But if you’ve simply not yet gotten around to it, hurry: Rent the DVDs of Seasons 1 and 2 (they’re short), and then hasten over to iTunes to catch up on the first handful of episodes for Season 3 because this one is not just about other planets; it’s about our own.

The first season of “Battlestar” seemed daring merely for having the remnants of the human race persecuted by a genocidal, sanctimonious and devious enemy, the Cylons, who were not above sending suicide bombers onto the humans’ ships. The series’ troubled fighter pilot heroine, Starbuck, showed her darkest side when she was put in charge of interrogating a Cylon captive and tortured him without a tinge of conscience. (The Cylons, a kind of robot created by robots that were originally created by humans, are nearly indistinguishable from human beings, even under close scrutiny. The humans’ position is that they’re “toasters,” and homicidal ones at that, but it’s not always possible to maintain this position, as the story of the Cylon Sharon has demonstrated.)

At the end of Season 2, however, the show’s creators executed a daredevil twist by scooping most of the characters (along with the remaining human population) off their ships and onto a dreary colony on a planet they called New Caprica. At the very end of the season finale, an overwhelming Cylon force descended, marching through the muddy streets of the tent city, and announced that they were taking over. Instead of trying to exterminate humanity, they were going to try to reform it. And the chosen method of reform would be a little thing we call occupation.



The two opening hours of Season 3 were, it must be said, unrelentingly grim. The humans, shivering in damp bulky sweaters and fingerless gloves, had mounted an insurrection. Gaius Baltar, the self-serving scientist and secret Cylon collaborator whom they had rashly elected president, was running a Vichy-like government that had become hopelessly implicated in the Cylon’s brutal crackdowns on the rebels. Colonel Tigh, the former executive officer of Galactica, a leader of the resistance, lost his eye while being detained and interrogated, like many others, without charge or due process.

Some colonists, whether out of a misguided attempt to ameliorate the situation or out of bald self-interest, had signed on with the human police force that the Cylons set up to maintain order. They had to keep their identities secret, however, because the insurrection regarded them as collaborators. The Cylons just couldn’t understand why the humans wouldn’t behave. The humans just wanted the Cylons to go away.

The parallels to current events are obvious, but “Battlestar Galactica” has always kept more than one historical touchstone in play. The early scenes, when Secretary of Education Laura Roslin was sworn in as president because everyone above her in the civilian line of command had been massacred, cited the swearing in of LBJ after the Kennedy assassination. The scene of the shiny, terrifying Cylon centurions (a servant class of robots that actually look like robots) marching down the main road of New Caprica while the devastated colonists looked on was the Nazis marching into Paris.

The really audacious stroke of this season was showing us a story about a suicide bomber from the point of view of the bomber and his comrades — no, it was more than that, because the cause of this terrorist was unquestioningly our own. We sympathize with the insurgents wholeheartedly. So when Colonel Tigh, a blood ‘n’ guts military man if there ever was one, insists that suicide bombing is the only way to end the occupation, the show leaves the question of whether he’s right up to us. Is it worth it?

The humans in “Battlestar” don’t have an overarching religious fanaticism to persuade them that it is. (The Cylons are the messianic monotheists.) So when Baltar confronts former President Roslin in her jail cell about the morality of the suicide bombing, and demands that she look him in the eye and tell him it’s the right thing to do, she can’t. Every time you start to get all starry-eyed and latch onto Roslin as the second coming of Josiah Bartlet, the show reminds you that it’s a whole lot tougher — on its characters and its viewers — than “The West Wing” was. “Battlestar Galactica” may be set in outer space, with robots, in the far distant past, but it reminds us every week that the other TV shows are the fantasies. “This,” as Roslin tells her stricken assistant in a recent episode, “this is life.”

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>