When good TV goes bad: how Battlestar Galactica became a holy mess

It was season three, when its quasi-religious leanings went into overdrive, that did for the 21st-century version of the cult sci-fi drama

Sci-fi in the 1970s was rambunctiously silly. Star Wars gave us space warriors with furry dog-faced alien sidekicks, while Doctor Who centred on a jelly-baby-munching time traveller with a penchant for scarves the length of The Great Wall of China. Less well remembered, but no less nutty, was 1978’s Battlestar Galactica, in which the last remnants of humanity flee through space from the evil Cylons, a race of shiny space-robot villains who all have voices like T-Pain.

The show lasted just two seasons before space-pilots Starbuck and Apollo were pensioned off to a retirement home for Luke Skywalker lookalikes. For decades, hardcore acolytes petitioned for a revival and few expected much when the Ronald D Moore-led reboot finally arrived in 2003. How to update a show whose worst excesses included a furry robot dog played by an actual chimp for a generation coping with the grim reality of George W Bush’s “war on terror”?

The answer, as every futuristic show from Humans to Westworld has since learned, was to go down the sexy robots route. Arnold Schwarzenegger may have been pretty badass in Terminator, but Moore seemed to know instinctively that the new machine apocalypse should be led by 6ft, blond ultra-vixen cyborgs given to cooing sweet nothings into mankind’s ear. Unlike their giant tin-can predecessors, these new Cylons were never quite sure whether they wanted to destroy humanity or take us on a really weird date. And with the enemy now wearing a human face, the show was able to explore fiercely contemporary corners of the post-9/11 landscape. As Mary McDonnell’s President Laura Roslin led the galactic fleet through the cosmos, we were treated to intelligent debate over the pros and cons of democracy, of bloody revenge versus the rule of law, even whether the concept of human rights should be extended to sexy space robots.

This new Battlestar Galactica first began to take a wrong turn as early as the second season, when Jamie Bamber’s Lee Adama (the new Apollo) swapped blasting Cylon spaceships and having fighty sex with Katee Sackhoff’s Kara Thrace (the new, female, Starbuck) for a fat-suit and a desk job. The election of James Callis’s serial Cylon shagger Gaius Baltar to president of the fleet was another “what the frak?” moment, especially combined with the decision to maroon our intrepid space travellers on the tedious planet of New Caprica for what seemed like aeons.

But Galactica really lost the plot during the finale of season three, in which four of the “final five” Cylons were drawn out of their respective hidey holes by a sitar version of All Along the Watchtower, and Starbuck returned from the dead as an angel with a map to Earth. From there on in, the show’s quasi-religious leanings went into overdrive, leading quickly to the preposterous sight of Baltar starting his own cult and performing Jesus-like miracles, while Roslin tumbled ever deeper into narcotic-inspired visions of humanity’s salvation. Moore and his team might have successfully updated Battlestar Galactica for the 21st century, but an audience can only take so many holy revelations before it longs for a return to the simple joys of cool space battles and robot sexy time.


Ben Child

The GuardianTramp

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