The BSG Problem

Well, it’s taken me six years, but I think I’ve finally decided why the reboot of Battlestar Galactica was perhaps the worst thing to happen to sci-fi.

It’s a show that started out with so much promise – a tight storyline, endearing characters, a fresh, new take on an old, dead horse of a story, some exciting twists and turns. That first season was just so wonderful, so gripping. It ends with one of my top ten favorite cliffhangers. Even writing about it wants to make me want to blow the weekend with a marathon.

The second season managed to keep some of that crucial momentum going. We were all invested, so we were fine with a longer season and a few abysmal episodes like the infamous “Black Market.” Season two continued to challenge the status quo of the original series by reimagining Commander Cain (and carrying through with the original’s implied evildoing). We got a Cylon POV episode that was hyped beyond belief and turned out to be weird and off-putting. We ended with another mind-blowing cliffhanger.

The third season started powerful and strong and ended up a confusing mess. Marked by high points and low points, it was a rocky season, but it’s notable as the season that sort of put the show on trial. Lee Adama’s courtroom speech gave us a sense, after the critics and the fans were starting to wonder if the show had fallen off the rails, that there was a larger purpose to everything. That we should hold on and have faith in the bigger picture. This was enforced with a between-seasons movie that flashed back to Commander Cain’s origin story.

Then came the final season, and everything went wrong, wrong, wrong. The show dramatically fell apart in a way that I still find confounding. The whole thing felt like the writing equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall. It took a (wholly unwatchable) wrap-up movie to sort of explain what the fuck was happening, though that movie turned out to be almost an act of defiance against the cold and angry reception of the finale in the hearts of so many betrayed fans. What began with great promise ended with great disappointment and even added insult to that injury.

But why? Yes, I know it happens all the time in TV land, but Battlestar Galactica has held a special place in my heart since I was five years old, and I wanted to know why the reboot ruined it. I know the original got fucked up because it cost too much, but that’s a mundane reason for the demise of a TV show. That makes sense. The reboot had room to breathe and, instead, it held its breath until it died.

My six years of thinking vaguely about this as I stared into the sun has led me to conclude that there were three key problems that led the reboot down the wrong path and crippled the writers’ room.

1) Baltar had no motivations

In the original, Count Baltar is basically Grima Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings. An advisor to the President of the Colonies who is secretly working for Mankind’s greatest enemy, the Cylons. Baltar convinces the President to gather the entire Colonial military far from their bases on the pretense that the Cylons, through Baltar, have sued for peace. After a 1000 year war with the deadly machines, this peace offer is suspect, but everyone’s pretty tired of generations of combat and the wholesale slaughter of all non-machine lifeforms (yes, there were multiple alien races in the original, but all had long been exterminated by the time the story starts, including the lizard-like creators of the Cylons).

The trap springs and the fleet of battlestars are destroyed, except for the Galactica. Meanwhile, the Twelve Colonies are invaded and Mankind is all but destroyed, except for a small fleet of 220 rag-tag ships that hurry to the Galactica and set out on their perilous quest for far-away Earth.

Baltar is then charged to hunt down the Galactica and her fleet and deliver the final, fatal blow that will destroy the human race once and for all.

Baltar’s only hint of motivation is that he wanted to be king of Caprica, the most prosperous of the Twelve Colonies. Apparently having been promised this by the Imperious Leader of the Cylons, he doesn’t seem too bothered by the fact that Caprica is destroyed. In fact, there’s a long scene where he stands on a mountaintop and gleefully gloats as Caprica City burns in the valley beneath him. He even churlishly reminds his Cylon guards of their duty – ‘to destroy the lifeform known as Man’ – when the guards tell him that they’ve shown mercy to human prisoners. Yes, that’s right, the murderous robot Cylons are being kind to prisoners and Baltar calls them on it and threatens them.

In the TV version of the three hour pilot episode (Baltar is ultimately executed by the Cylons in the movie version, and there’s more outrage that the Cylons didn’t stick to their side of the bargain and make him king of the world), Baltar seems more pleased to simply serve the Cylons. His reward is casually mentioned and dismissed and he just wants to schmooze with the Imperious Leader. Presumably to save his life, but removing much of his angry dialogue from the movie version leaves TV audiences wondering WTF.

For the series, when Baltar begins his pursuit of the Galactica, he’s portrayed as a madman. The show hangs a lampshade on this as almost all of Baltar’s scenes are really told through the POV of his wise-cracking robot sidekick Lucifer. Lucifer is doubtful of every plan, has private asides with Cylon officers about Baltar’s instability, and almost seems secretly pleased every time Baltar fails in one of his increasingly daft plans to destroy the Galactica.

On his base ship, Baltar is shown stalking through hallways and control rooms, sulking in a featureless, darkened throne room, and occasionally ranting wildly. He’s long gone. More interesting are the scenes outside the ship. In “Lost Planet of the Gods,” Baltar seems to want to make amends. But Adama’s mistrust and Lucifer’s (perhaps intentional) error in timing an assault leave him trapped and angry and vowing revenge.

When Baltar is captured, he’s thrown onto a prison barge and we see him only two more times in the series – once when he tries to escape, failing miserably, and again as a brief dues ex machina in the final episode of the first series where he provides some key info to enable a daring raid on a Cylon baseship.

When Baltar, imprisoned, is confronted by Count Iblis – AKA the Devil – it does appear to dawn on him that he’s been duped. It’s very vaguely implied that Iblis may have had a hand in Baltar’s actions. That Baltar really was insane or under some dark spiritual influence. That, in fact, he had no motivations for what he had done.

In the 2004 reboot, Baltar is a scientist seduced by a tall ropy blonde, and fame and fortune, and pussy. He’s regretful of his role in the downfall of Humanity, but he’s haunted by visions and convinced that he’s been trapped by the Cylons to act as their agent. The show bends over backwards to try and explain this character and humanize him. Baltar’s a villain, but he’s not treated like a villain. Sometimes he’s comic relief, sometimes he’s poor dumb Baltar stuck in whatever mad cycle his hallucination (who turns out to be an angel-servant of some unknown god) has him acting out. He spends half the series in a state of deep, debilitating depression, actually. An almost textbook case of bi-polar disorder.

Consequently, the undoing of the Human race in the remake doesn’t have a central evil figure at its heart. The show tries to retcon this at the very end by making Dean Stockwell the mastermind behind the second Cylon War, but it seems to fall flat. Even though OG Baltar makes no sense outside of “he was insane,” the audience at least had a villain we could properly latch on to. The remake went too far down the gritty sci-fi path and labored to illustrate that we are all our own villains. That’s fine if you’re telling a long, subtle story like in Breaking Bad, but this is till just Battlestar Galactica. You can put lipstick on the pig and try to tell a bigger, better story, but if you choose to remain within the basic theme – human refugees fleeing an overwhelming evil — you have some narrative responsibilities which you cannot escape. I appreciate the attempt to turn the trope on its ear, but that only works if you do actually carefully plan your story out. The remake’s attempt to turn the trope on its ear in the final season is equivalent to turning a fully laden dinner table upside down and then proudly telling your shocked guests that you “did something different!”

2) The Cylons don’t actually care about the Galactica

In the original, with the destruction of the Twelve Colonies, the Cylons are happy. They have a big empire to run. It takes the Galactica almost a year just to reach the edge of that empire. In fact, they don’t really escape it until they go through a void between galaxies. On multiple occasions, both Baltar and the Cylons say that one battlestar escaping is no big deal, and the 220 ships it protects are full of starving refugees. “What ships? How far can they go? What can they do?”

The Cylons lay a trap for the Galactica and her fleet, kill even more people, and it really is pretty much the end of the human race. Yes, the Galactica escapes with her fleet, and they even manage to kill the Imperious Leader in the process, but their cause is hopeless. It’ll take several generations to get to Earth, and the Cylons probably don’t even know about the quest. Baltar knows, but he dismisses it as an insane quest. A pipe dream. He never mentions it again. The realities of the situation are addressed early on – the fleet doesn’t have enough fuel or food to make the journey. Several episodes are devoted to this issue, though it isn’t explored in any real detail. There’s no way the Galactica can defend the fleet against even a minor attack from one baseship. A whole episode is given over to the ship being crippled after an attack and the desperate efforts to just get it limping along again. Though, again, the condition of the Galactica isn’t explored as deeply as it is in the remake. (In fact, the Galactica is said to be over 500 years old!)

So Baltar bargains for his life by telling the new Imperious Leader that he’s the only one who can hunt down the Galactica because he knows Adama and he knows how he thinks. The Imperious Leader is like, ho hum, okay, and he puts Baltar in nominal command (Lucifer calls many of the shots in the series) of three base ships.

And that’s it. Baltar’s command is limited. The Cylons seem to wash their hands of the mission. When Commander Cain destroys two baseships, Baltar’s command is not reinforced. When the Galactica crosses the void between galaxies, the Cylons don’t bother pursuing. The show even shrugs them off. In another galaxy, the Galactica encounters the technologically advanced Terrans (not the Terrans). Terra and her colonies are locked in a civil war – West vs. East – and the show introduces new Big Bads in the form of the Eastern Alliance – stereotypical space Nazis. In essence, the show conducts a mid-season soft reboot. Dialogue even talks about how the Cylons have given up their pursuit.

For six episodes, the Cylons are gone. We see them once during Baltar’s failed jailbreak, but it’s the Centurions that were captured along with him who have since been completely dismantled. The final episode of the series feels like a weird throw-away and is largely out of continuity – a raid on a Cylon baseship. It’s a ret-con episode trying to distance the show from the frankly ill-advised Terran-Eastern Alliance political struggle digression.

After the pilot, we never hear from the Imperious Leader again. When we meet Cylons manning the empire’s frontier, they don’t seem particularly involved (or even aware) of Baltar’s Ahab-style pursuit. They’re more worried about keeping their frontier posts running. For the larger Cylon empire, the pursuit of the Galactica is just a little blip on their radar. If that. Besides the confusing final episode, the Cylons very clearly abandon their pursuit once the Galactica is past their borders.

In the reimagined series, though, the Cylons are obsessed with the Galactica. As long as the humans survive, they imagine, then they will come back and seek revenge. This is patently insane because only about 50,000 humans survive. What can they do against a force that has just conquered the known galaxy? Further, the Cylons have sleeper agents throughout the fleet – agents who successfully blow up ships, kill thousands of people, sabotage key resources, nearly assassinate the only person providing a driving force for humanity’s survival, and lead Humanity into enslavement and further destruction. Also, the Cylons know exactly where the fleet is and where they’re going.

So what’s the worry? The reimagined Cylons have more power over the Galactica’s fleet than in the original. And yet their entire population is geared towards the destruction (Imprisonment? Experimentation? Gang rape?) of the human race. This is further complicated by having the Cylons be human creations – the children of Man. So there’s the whole “the son must kill the father” thing going on except, presumably, with an infinite number of Cylons who possess overwhelming strength, knowledge, and technology vs. what is still just a rag-tag fleet of refugees. So it all seems a bit silly. It’s like trying to kill a fly with a pulse rifle from Aliens.
In making the survivors so important, the reimagined show quickly paints itself into a corner. The scripts devolve into psycho-spiritual nonsense. The pursuit of god and meaning of life bullshit. The Cylons even waffle in their own resolve and claim to have abandoned the Twelve Colonies. They become more about finding the secrets to their own existence, and doing so, somehow, through the Galactica’s fleet…or…something. After a while, no one seems to know what they want or why. We may not have been able to fully comprehend Baltar’s motivations in the original, but his story was tried and true – he was after his whale and largely, and ultimately, alone in that quest.

3) The new BSG hated black people

This may seem unrelated to the above narrative problems, but I think the reimagined series lack of diversity did, indeed, harm the narrative. The simplistic good vs. evil mentality of the original series meant it was important to see unity in the Galactica’s fleet. Among the survivors, there was a feeling that theirs was an egalitarian society. There are two black leads in the main titles. A daring move for a sci-fi show in the late 70s when diversity wasn’t really on the agenda unless you were Gene Roddenberry. Adama’s second in command, Colonel Tigh, was a strong, forceful, capable leader in his own right. He commanded respect, he was obeyed without question, and he was Adama’s only real confidante. On the flight team was Boomer, a calm, collected voice of reason that helped balance the Starbuck-Apollo duo. As a fighter pilot, he was second only to our two stars in his ability and cunning.

The reimagined series turned these characters upside down. Tigh became an irrational drunkard, and Boomer’s character turned out to be a conflicted Cylon sleeper agent. That’s fine, because it played with the rules of the original’s characters (like making the womanizing Starbuck a woman). But what wasn’t fine is that these two strong black characters got white-washed. Tigh became an old white guy and Boomer became a hot Asian chick. In fact, every major and secondary role in the imagined series is white-washed. The two people of color are a mixed race Latino and a mixed race black woman. The latter’s mix erring more on the side of white than black. Even still, she’s portrayed as a wide-eyed innocent and, by the third season, as a depressed victimized housefrau who blows her head off. The only black character of any significance that we do see is the Cylon’s version of Dr. Mengele, who is subservient to the white Cylons. Other black characters of note are almost entirely comprised of people like the child-raping black market leader, prisoners, or generic redshirts. Though any redshirt that got a death scene that involved them taking their helmet off was white and pretty.

Now, there is one exception. Elosha, the spiritual advisor to Laura Roslin, the president. She gets a prominent role in season one, but it’s a weak role. It’s largely to move Roslin’s narrative along and spout religious drivel about Earth, which shifts from Adama’s clever ruse in the miniseries to Laura Roslin’s spiritual quest in season one. We don’t ever learn anything about Elosha, and she never strays from her purely expository role. Consequently, she reaches the end of her usefulness to the writers and, early in season two, the writers’ room commits the greatest sin against black people in sci-fi – Elosha becomes a glorified redshirt and suffers a pointless and violent death. Roslin reacts appropriately but, within moments, everyone continues on their journey and leaves Elosha’s remains to be eaten by the animals. Farewell to that brief and awkward moment of diversity where the only person of color on the side of good is the equivalent of an old magical black man.

Losing the diversity of the original series seriously impacted the story. It further added to the general unlikeability of the survivors. These fractured, greedy, half-crazy, often solipsistic people seemed to not have a society worth saving. This removed me, as a viewer, from the slow slog of death and despair. I stopped caring. What should have been a gritty military sci-fi adventure turned into Tales of Gentrification from the White Sphere. The Cylon POV episode, and other Caprica-bound episodes, show the Cylons cleaning up city park and installing pedestrian zones and probably establishing Chipotle franchises. The “final five” Cylons come from a fine suburban community on Earth 1. The Cylon baseships look like upper crust hair salons and Baltar floats around the hallways in terrycloth robes and silk underwear.

The reimagined series gave us a new era of gritty sci-fi, and it showed us that we could bring back our childhood sci-fi favorites. But it also stands as a cautionary tale of what should not be done when we do reimagine these shows of yesteryear.