Where no TV show has gone before

With its hot, androgynous heroine leading the remnants of humanity against evil, God-fearing robots, "Battlestar Galactica" is boldly re-creating sci-fi TV.

Published July 9, 2005 10:37PM (EDT)

It took a gay poet to persuade me to check out the new version of "Battlestar Galactica" on the SciFi Channel. The original series is nothing but a dim, cheesy memory, a haze of well-scrubbed flyboys under the beaming paternal guidance of Lorne Greene. (Surely the one foolproof way to make "Bonanza" even more boring was to put it in outer space?) But if my friend Charles -- who I'm pretty sure never sketched rocket ships in the margins of his homework as a kid -- thought the new "Battlestar Galactica" was worth a little TiVo space, I was willing to give it a shot. Two episodes and I was hooked; the second season, which begins on Friday, July 15, should be one of the rare bright spots in the summer TV schedule.

The SciFi Channel emits space operas faster than Tom Cruise gets engaged. Some of these series use the "rag-tag band of misfits" premise so beloved of American pop culture; others more or less mimic "Star Trek" by sending off a team of earnest multicultural middlemen from some indistinctly virtuous intergalactic federation on weekly missions that amount to a string of pat civics lessons. All feature stock figures, including but not limited to, the wisecracking maverick who always comes through in the end, the barely pacified (and usually quite hairy) noble savage, the goddess/nature-worshipping telepath, the pseudohuman troubled by the rumblings of genuine emotion, the tech guy, and of course freakish aliens, who, however bizarre their reproductive processes and skin textures, will, if female, be endowed with sizable breasts and skin-tight costumes.

These shows have ranged from the passable ("Farscape") to the appalling ("Lexx," a sort of R-rated "H.R. Pufnstuf"), and without a doubt each of them has its own cadre of fire-breathing hardcore fans, just as the hokey original "Battlestar Galactica" does. For someone never that thrilled by original "Star Trek" (or any of its permutations), they hold little charm. So what put the new "Battlestar Galactica" at the top of my Season Pass queue? Let me count the ways.

It began with Starbuck, the best pilot among the marines on the battlestar, which is the last remaining warship belonging to the remnants of the human race. In the series' back story, humanity has been at war with the cylons, robots that have rebelled against their makers. The cylons went into hiding, then returned with a devastating sneak attack facilitated by their recently developed ability to simulate the appearance of human beings. Only 50,000 people have survived from 12 planetary colonies, and most of them are on an assortment of civilian ships, now on the run from the cylons, with only Galactica to protect them. The battlestar's fighter pilots are crucial to the future of the species.

Starbuck is blond, cocky, insubordinate, a cigar-chomping, card-playing showoff; another stock figure, really, with roots as far back as Shakespeare's Hotspur -- if not for a clever twist. In the original series, Starbuck was played by Dirk Benedict; in the new version, it's Katee Sackhoff, a gender switch that knocks the character well out of type. Starbuck's no kick-boxing babe in stiletto heels, either. Like all the other pilots -- in fact, like all the soldiers aboard Galactica -- she wears a uniform, a flight suit over a tank top-T-shirt combo, a distinctive Galactica military outfit that makes everyone who wears it look buff; Starbuck is a tomboy.

She's also the only TV character who's ever sent me back to a fascinating book, "Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety," by Harvard professor and Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber, in search of the key to her appeal. Technically, Starbuck isn't a cross-dresser, or even a tomboy, because the society she lives in doesn't seem to subscribe to our own gender roles. Civilian women sometimes wear skirts and pumps, it's true, but the military appears to be seamlessly integrated. No one ever accuses Starbuck of being insufficiently feminine, although her friend and immediate superior, Capt. Lee "Apollo" Adama, has complained that she doesn't bathe often enough.

Still, Starbuck (whose real name is Kara Thrace; Starbuck and Apollo are pilot call names), is a tomboy by the standards of our world, and we all know what happens to a tomboy in pop culture. She tries to be one of the guys while harboring a secret, unrequited crush on her best guy friend, but the guy doesn't even see her as a girl until she has the sense to put on a dress, lipstick and a suitably demure manner at the big dance, whereupon he is wowed. Well, you can scratch that scenario. Late in the first season, Starbuck did put on a dress for a party, and Apollo was duly wowed, but he was already in love with her before that, and she wound up in bed with another man anyway, and then that guy fell for her, too. This is one tomboy who never has trouble getting laid.

What makes Starbuck so hot? Sometimes a girl dressed like a boy is sexier than any boy or girl in the "proper" outfit can be. According to Garber, this type of figure -- she calls it "the changeling boy," a theatrical staple from the Renaissance to "Peter Pan" -- is like a mirage, someone who hovers impossibly between genders. No one can possess Cesario, the boy that Shakespeare's Viola disguises herself as in "Twelfth Night," because Cesario doesn't really exist. Considering how most people feel about what they can't have, it's no surprise that Cesario is irresistible. Sackhoff's Starbuck has some of the same allure, which is why she looks so much better swaggering around in her T-shirt than she does in a dress.

The show's creators like to fool around with Starbuck's androgynous glamour. Last season, when she crash-landed on a barren planet and had to hot-wire a cylon raider to get back to Galactica, it turned out that the enemy's ships are as much animal as they are machine. Starbuck crawled inside to find a gooey cavity lined with weird tissues, sinews and organs, all of which she was able to sort out and operate, Boy Scout-style, by keeping in mind the principle that "every flying machine has four basic controls: power, pitch, yaw and roll." When she got the raider back to Galactica, she told Apollo that the plane was a "she"; then in the next episode, she starting calling it a "he." At any rate, she's the only one who can fly it.

Starbuck does have her problems, but so does everyone else on this show, which brings us to another strength of the new "Battlestar Galactica," the sort of thing that makes viewers want to stick around after being drawn in by the flashy and new. This is a character-based drama, not something you often see on a spaceship. In a way, once you get past the trappings (which aren't very high-tech to begin with -- Galactica is an outdated model that escaped the cylon's crippling computer virus because it wasn't networked), the series has more in common with "The West Wing" than it does with "Star Trek." Granted, trying to lead a small group of fugitive survivors on a flight across the universe differs a bit from running a stable terrestrial superpower, but as Machiavelli would probably point out if he were still around, the dilemmas of power are surprisingly consistent.

The remnants of humanity are led by two individuals: Cmdr. William Adama, captain of the Galactica (and father of Apollo) and President Laura Roslin, the former secretary of education and 30-somethingth in line for the presidency before the cylons attacked and killed everyone ahead of her. Edward James Olmos' Adama is in most ways your basic fictional military hero, what we imagine we want our leaders to be in the dream world of American popular entertainment: a tough, decisive straight-shooter, the proverbial man who does what has to be done. But, as tradition dictates, Adama's emotions are never entirely submerged and are sometimes allowed to overwhelm his judgment ("This time it's personal!") because, as in our real lives, we want to be shown that our leaders are both better than us and the same as us.

Roslin is something else, something you rarely see on television, a consummate politician who is nevertheless treated sympathetically. As played by Mary McDonnell (the performance is similar to another great McDonnell role, the mother in "Donnie Darko"), she is a woman whose composure almost never ruffles, whose strength lies her ability to dissemble expertly and act expediently when necessary. In the first season, when a vice presidential election was forced by a dangerous political opponent, she switched her backing from the more qualified candidate (who was also a good friend) to the weak and inexperienced but more popular Dr. Gaius Baltar. She knew this was one battle she couldn't afford to lose.

Both Adama and Roslin are "good," but they aren't always right, and "Battlestar Galactica" is exceptionally comfortable with allowing some of their decisions rest in the gray regions between the right and wrong. When Apollo was ordered to destroy a civilian ship that had probably been infiltrated by cylons, he was haunted by the possibility that he'd killed innocent human beings. He tried to talk to his father about it, but Adama told him to suck it up and stop dwelling on it: "A man takes responsibility for his actions, right or wrong." Roslin, detecting Apollo's distress, told him that, on the contrary, a good leader should remember and learn from his mistakes, even if he must show perfect confidence about his past decisions in public. She keeps the name of the destroyed ship written on a piece of paper in her pocket.

Apollo, the Prince Hal of "Battlestar Galactica," wavers between these two models of leadership, civilian and military, and in general he's veered toward Roslin. But late last season, after Roslin's credibility had been carefully built up, the president suddenly seemed to go off the rails. She's dying of breast cancer, taking a strange, hallucinogenic herbal remedy and now believes in an ancient prophecy supposedly foretelling that a leader like herself will guide the people to a fabled promised land: Earth. (Yes, these folks are meant to be our ancestors, not our descendants.) Roslin defied the skeptical Adama by sending Starbuck off on a risky prophecy-related mission. This precipitated a military coup.

Roslin's visions have been so prescient it's hard not to think there might be something to the prophecy after all, but Adama's rebellion is perfectly understandable, too. Faith in "Battlestar Galactica" is as fraught as it is in real life. The cylons are monotheists who talk about "God's love" and the salvation that awaits those who repent of their sins, even as they proceed to brutally exterminate those they consider to be "corrupt." The human beings are pagans who worship a pantheon of gods with the names of ancient Greek deities. The prophecy Roslin believes she's fulfilling, of a leader who takes her people to the promised land but doesn't make it there herself, echoes the Old Testament, while the prophecy's emphasis on an eternal cycle in which "all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again," has intimations of Eastern religions.

It's so easy for a series dabbling in such matters to go even further overboard than Roslin and get lost in the byways of metaphysics and mythology. It's also easy for a drama so interested in realpolitik dilemmas to degenerate into too much talk. "Battlestar Galactica" is exquisitely balanced. The woo-woo philosophizing is evened out by the gritty, workaday sets and the documentary feeling of the hand-held camera work. The palace intriguing gets a regular jolt, courtesy of action and suspense sequences that are believably immediate and intense.

The season 2 premiere has Adama in critical condition after an assassination attempt by sleeper agent (another interesting character, fatally conflicted in her loyalties). His second-in-command, Col. Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), has to take over -- a scary prospect since Tigh, although not untalented as a tactician, tends to wobble in a pinch and furthermore has a drinking problem. While in charge of Galactica, Tigh attempts a risky maneuver Adama would never condone. Meanwhile the occasional flashback shows us why Tigh is so dependent on Adama and fears nothing more than having to go on without him. It's just another example of how "Battlestar Galactica" proves itself a little braver and more grown-up than the standard genre fare; in this case, the faithful sidekick could be more liability than asset.

There are deft citations of real-world events in the series: Roslin's swearing-in ceremony harks back to the presidential oath taken by LBJ after the Kennedy assassination; the unfathomable loss suffered by Galactica's crew is represented by a wall of loved-one photos reminiscent of the ones that sprang up after Sept. 11; the camaraderie of the pilots, who have made a ritual, before flying out, of pressing their palms to a photo of a soldier taken on one of their blasted home planets, recalls the solidarity of the firefighters of New York. None of this is belabored; all of it strikes home.

Season 2 should tell us more about what's left on the 12 colonies, explore the ever-widening rift between the military and civilian leaders in the fleet, and perhaps most intriguing, shed a little light on what, exactly, the cylons are up to. They have a plan, the shows opening credits keep telling us. Or, rather, their god has a plan, as Number 6, the seductive, praying-mantis of a cylon whose voice and image have been implanted in Dr. Baltar's brain keeps telling him. These androids are true believers possessed of superior technology, something you don't have to be a beleaguered Galactica passenger to fear. I'm guessing we'll discover the cylons and the human beings aren't as different as the colonists would like to believe, but only a summer of Friday night appointment viewing will tell.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Battlestar Galactica Star Trek