Thursday, July 12, 2012

Battlestar Galactica : "33"

Season One, Episode One
Original Airdate: January 14, 2005
Writer: Ronald D. Moore
Director: Michael Rymer
Executive Producers Ronald D. Moore, David Eick
Cast: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, James Callis, Tricia Helfer

The series premier of “Battlestar Galactica” had quite the trick to pull off. This was the beginning of a series follow-up to a 2004 miniseries, which was itself a remake of a 1978 one-season wonder that garnered big ratings but ultimately proved too expensive to maintain. It had to get new viewers up-to-date quickly and convince those who didn’t like the miniseries that it was still a viable, good show.

The original “Battlestar: Galactica” (note the colon) was basically supposed to be the television version of “Star Wars,” and was honestly quite fun. A race of robots called the Cylons have wiped out most of mankind, and the final survivors (led by the ship from the title) race into the darkness on the hunt for a planet of legend called earth. The remake retained that, and nothing else. When fans of the original saw the complete change in tone, style and…well…everything that the miniseries was, they were none too happy. It was darkness upon darkness, more akin to “Saving Private Ryan” than “Star Wars.” I remembered watching the miniseries then going on a message board (because back when I was a teenager I still went on message boards, whereas now I spend my time doing more constructive things…like blogging) and writing “Who gives a frak about whether all these assholes live or die? If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the show.”

I revisited the miniseries recently and, oddly enough, still feel like my initial reactions were pretty on-the-money. It seemed as if the creators went too far out of their way to make everything and everyone edgy, and as a result the characters were just not people you wanted to care about. But beginning with this episode, that all changed.

The series announced itself quite loudly with the opening credit sequence. Not the credits themselves, but what comes right after. We are treated to a short (just a few seconds) preview of scenes to come in the episode, small little pops of scenes and moments to get our tongues salivating. It’s as if the creators are daring you to tune out before witnessing what’s coming next.

Every 33 minutes on the dot, the Cylons discover the hidden fleet of humans, forcing them to make another jump into a different part of space, safe from the Cylons for another 33 precious minutes. As a result, no one has slept for over 120 hours. Writer Ronald D. Moore was wearing his characters down to their very core, pushing them further than they thought they could go. Simultaneously, he was (brilliantly) also wearing his wary audience down. These men and women who I had reacted so badly to in the miniseries were stripped down in front of me, pushing themselves in order to save everyone else. How can a viewer not immediately sympathize and root for them, given the circumstances?

What the premise of the episode also presents to viewers is consistent suspense. We knew that the Cylons were coming sooner rather than later, and after catching a glimpse of how run-down these people were, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to think it could come apart at the seams. Every single scene involving the crew (there was a short subplot back on their invaded home planet), even the quiet individual ones, was underlined by that exhaustion and the inevitability of the next attack.

And there are beautiful, small scenes that help to create a foundation and mythology for the show. There’s a moment where Duanna (Kandyse McClure) tries to find out if any of her family survived, and becomes almost lost and overwhelmed in the bevy of photos and candles in tribute to those lost and missing. There’s another scene between Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and Apollo (Jamie Bamber) where he tries to get her to take pills that will give her a rush of adrenaline. Though Starbuck raises her voice, the character development is subtle and wonderful, and those two-and-a-half minutes do a better job of illustrating who these two people are and what their dynamic is than anything in the original miniseries.

The episode does not give the viewer any easy payoff. It’s revealed that the Cylons are tracking the fleet through one of their ships, one that (probably) has over a thousand souls onboard. Apollo and Starbuck are forced to destroy the ship in order for the fleet to get away safely. The relentless chase might be over for the moment, but there’s no sigh of relief.

Stylistically, the series employs the dreaded “shaky-cam,” but I have to note that it is only used in scenes and sequences when it needs to be. Also, when it is, you can still tell what the frak is going on, something that woefully misguided directors don’t seem to understand while making their movies. Aside from “Saving Private Ryan,” the only two times I can honestly say I didn’t find shaky-cam distracting or felt it took away from the story was this series and “Friday Night Lights.” And that’s because both use it sparingly.

“Battlestar Galactica” was never shy about bringing up big questions, and here Baltar (James Callis) and Six (Tricia Helfer) have several conversations (probably one too many) about God. They talk about His existence, His intervention and His motives. Upon first glance, it might seem too on the nose, but if you put yourself in that situation, I doubt you’d have the time for subtlety in discussion.

Watching the episode again, I was struck by how many characters were there at the beginning…it almost feels like the television equivalent of a Robert Altman movie at times. And I was also struck by how many they had the balls to kill off by the end of the show’s run. Here was a show where they could legitimately kill off any character (except Starbuck, apparently, who gets to float away on a breeze) at any point, making every moment…every episode…count that much more. Shows like “24” made a point of killing off its main characters (except Kim Bauer) so you never grew very attached to anyone but Jack and Chloe, but “Battlestar Galactica” made sure you loved them and understood them before breaking your heart. Its characters became people beginning with “33,” and from this episode I was with them all the way to Earth and beyond.

“33” is available on Hulu (for free, thankfully), on the first season DVD and Blu-Ray of “Battlestar Galactica,” and on iTunes.


  1. Your main point seems to be that good character development makes for good drama. Really? You state the obvious as if your revealing secrets of the universe.

    I'd also like to address the conceit that this show "has the balls to kill of its characters...".

    You mention it in your review-- it merely echos and re-enforces what's been said many times in the past. Hell, even Ronald Moore mentions in numerous times in podcasts, patting himself on the back for being so bold and original. It's all hogwash.
    Smoke and mirrors.

    "Battlestar" has the "Star Trek" equivalent of red shirts-- minor or third tier characters who get killed off from time to time. Socinnous and Elosha come to mind.

    But really, how many of the main cast of "Battlestar" died, never to return?

    Admiral Adama? no. President Roslyn? Well, she dies at the very end of the series finale, so that really doesn't count. Lee Adama? no. Starbuck? no-- she dies but comes back as an (cough) Angel. Anders? nope. Chief Tyrol? nope. Helo? Boomer? Saul Tigh? Ellen Tigh?

    No you might argue that Billy, Dee, Gaeta, Cally, and Tom Zarek all were killed off. True enough. But let's look at this more closely.

    With the exception of Billy, all those just listed were killed off mid way through the last season-- when the show runners knew the series was not coming back.

    In Billy's case, the actor who played him asked to leave the show so they killed his character off. There's was nothing bold or daring in any of this.

    The plain fact is that the show was neither bold or daring or even very original when it came to killing off main characters. They were either brought back through some established convention (Cylon resurrection technology) or through some standard mystical cop out-- Starbuck the (unexplained) Friendly Angel.

  2. Thank you for the response.

    My point in terms of character development was that, in my humble opinion, the series excelled at it whereas the miniseries fell short.

    And in terms of killing off the supporting characters, there's a world of difference between the barely-there characters from the "Star Trek" universe and those from "Battlestar Galactica." Just because a character wasn't part of the main seven cast members does not mean that their storyline and death does not deeply affect us.

    And so what if the characters were killed off midway through the final season? Does that make their deaths any less meaningful? I don't think so. Instead, I think it drives home the fact that the happy endings that may or may not be coming won't be there for everyone, and characters we've grown to know and love aren't going to make it.

    You mention the Starbuck resurrection, and like many fans I think that her death and return was a bit of a "jump the shark" moment for the show (I think it's safe to say the show had a creative slump in the latter half of the third season), but her return was the exception, not the rule. In the other cases, just because the actor returns does not mean her death doesn't hold meaning. I still cringed and felt a lot for Boomer when she was murdered at the beginning of season two, and for the copy of Six who was tortured and eventually set off the nuke.

    In any case, thanks for reading and here's hoping you enjoy some of my other articles.