Friday, April 04, 2008

"Battlestar Galactica" tackles terrorism like no other show (2006)

In honor of the start of its final season, a look back at the post-9/11 elements of Battlestar Galactica.

Rolling Stone
Intergalactic Terror
"Battlestar Galactica" tackles terrorism like no other show


Posted Jan 27, 2006 2:14 PM

Civilization is under attack by religious fanatics -- and the fanatics are winning. There are suicide bombers, a clueless president and prisoners who get tortured by the good guys. No, this isn't a particularly grim night on CNN: It's Battlestar Galactica, the smartest and toughest show on TV. In its second season, this remake of the 1978 camp classic has become -- no joke -- TV's most vivid depiction of the post-9/11 world and what happens to a society at war.

Improbably, all this is happening on the Sci Fi Channel, best known for reruns of Knight Rider. Battlestar has achieved the channel's best-ever ratings and reached a heady new level of critical acclaim: Time just named it the best TV show of 2005.

In the past few seasons, series television has finally opted to deal head-on with terrorism, with varying degrees of success. The one mainstream hit, 24, gleefully sacrifices relevance (or coherence) for pure adrenaline. In its fictional world, torture is a panacea, providing catharsis for an audience facing a perpetual "war on terror."

On Battlestar, these issues are more queasily ambiguous. Its futuristic tale of mass genocide of humans and persecution of survivors by the Cylons, a race of zealot androids, somehow manages to feel both realistic and oddly contemporary. "The networks are terrified of controversy," says Battlestar Galactica executive producer Ronald D. Moore. "But in sci-fi, they don't notice or care so much -- you get a free pass."

The original Battlestar Galactica aired on ABC for one season and was such a blatant rip-off of Star Wars, the network got sued. It was also a legendary cheesefest, with Lorne Greene, caped heroes and a bizarre mix of Egyptian and Mormon symbolism. At the time, it seemed as if the show's fans consisted entirely of eight-year-old kids and teenage stoners, but decades later, a small yet devoted cult clamored for a revival.

NBC Universal owned both the rights to the show and the Sci Fi Channel. When executive producers Moore and David Eick took over the project, everyone got more than they expected. "Both Ron and I were political-science majors in college," Eick says. "If you go through our libraries, you wouldn't guess we're in show business."

Moore had spent a decade working on various incarnations of Star Trek; he was hoping to tackle a political show, like The West Wing. "I was thinking, 'I've got to get out of this sci-fi ghetto,'" Moore says. But when he watched the original Battlestar in early 2002, he was struck by how evocative and painful its premise had become.

"I realized if you redo this today, people are going to bring with them memories and feelings about 9/11," Moore says. "And if you chose to embrace it, it was a chance to do an interesting science-fiction show that was also very relevant to our time."

As with the original, the new Battlestar starts with a surprise attack on humanity by the Cylons. Only 50,000 or so people survive, fleeing in a ragtag fleet protected by the Battlestar Galactica, a third-rate ship with an unpolished crew. As they escape, they try to build a new society under the strain of constant attack.

But this time around, the show resolutely avoids bumpy-headed aliens, the casino planet and other sci-fi TV cliches: There's plenty of drama to be found in paranoia, grief and politics. In the original, Cylons were large chrome robots with an oscillating red eye and not much personality. Now, the Cylons can look like any other human (or in the case of Tricia Helfer, a lot sexier). The synthetic life-forms are sleeper agents inside human society: monotheistic religious zealots, in contrast to humanity's secular polytheism. "I know God loved you more than all other living creatures, and you repaid his divine love with hate, corruption, evil," one Cylon tells his human interrogator. She responds by having him tortured.

"We don't sit around saying, 'Let's do an Abu Ghraib episode,'" says Eick. "But we're informed members of society and we watch the news -- these things seep in." Many people have drawn parallels between the Cylons and Al Qaeda, but Moore warns that they're not intended to be directly allegorical: "They have aspects of Al Qaeda, and they have aspects of the Catholic Church, and they have aspects of America."

Similarly, President Laura Roslin (played by Mary McDonnell) is not simply a stand-in for Bush, but she was an unprepared chief executive -- forty-third in the line of succession -- who has lately turned to holy scriptures to guide her through a time of war. (Note, too, the number forty-three.) On one show she says, "The interesting thing about being president is you don't have to explain yourself to anybody," a direct lift of a Bush quote in Bob Woodward's Bush at War.

The producers' political geekery leaks through in other ways: A crucial assassination scene was staged like Jack Ruby taking out Lee Harvey Oswald, and Roslin's swearing-in was framed in the same tableau as LBJ's airplane inauguration. "I can be as highfalutin as anybody about the socio-political relevance of contemporary science fiction," says Eick. "But sometimes I just want to see shit blow up."

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