I wonder if this very flattering New Yorker review will finally make it safe for people to start praising the revamped Battlestar Galactica without fear of being dismissed as nerds or propellerheads? Public support has been quietly building for two years now, with both the lefties at Salon and the sticky-fingered keyboardists of National Review Online calling it one of the best shows on TV. Having just worked my way through the first DVD set — the initial mini-series plus the first season on the Sci-Fi Channel — I have to say I agree: It’s a damned good show.
I speak as one who remembers the original 1978 cheesefest quite well. It goes without saying that the show was a slavish Star Wars knockoff, with only a fleeting trace of originality — the idea that the characters were searching for the mythic cradle of their race, Planet Earth. On a Sunday night, out on the mudflats of Livingston College when the campus pub was closed and a tedious campus bus ride required to reach even the fourth-rate city New Brunswick was at the time, an hour of hooting at Dirk Benedict and whistling at Maren Jensen seemed like an acceptable alternative to studying. But as a worthwile show in its own right — oy, it was yet another demonstration of why people who’ve never read anything from the genre should be legally barred from ever writing SF. I remember hearing once that Isaac Asimov had written a treatment for a proposed episode, but it was strictly a beau geste on his part — the writers and producers were more comfortable with the standard Hollywood approach to science fiction, which consisted of taking cliches from Westerns and war movies and dressing them up in funny outfits.
The new version benefits from a number of subsequent developments. The Star Wars films are now part of the pop culture fossil record, and the tropes of the genre are now as familiar as those of doctor, lawyer and police shows. Hill Street Blues and a quarter-century of ambitious TV shows have given the public a taste for long-form narratives that take several episodes to resolve; this can only benefit SF, which thrives on carefully detailed settings. It also allows for convincingly knotty storylines and ingenious plot twists, as well as an overall gloomy tone perfect for the subject matter. We are, after all, talking about the last few hundred thousand survivors of a genocidal attack, forced to seek refuge in a small fleet of ships, pursued by an enemy that needs no rest. In the 1978 edition, the crew of the Galactica acted like college kids on a road trip to Vegas; in the 2006 version, they are caught up in the horror of their situation.
Yet after all this time, science fiction remains the most stubbornly down-market genre America has produced. Hardly anybody who writes or acts in science fiction wants to admit it. Check out this profile of Katee Sackhoff, the actress playing Starbuck (who has, I have to say, an intriguing strain of genuine craziness in her performance). Sackhoff tells her interviewer, “It’s not really science fiction.” Which inspires me to yell: Girl, you’re in a SPACESHIP shooting RAYGUNS at a bunch of KILLER ROBOTS. Are we supposed to think you’re doing STRINDBERG? Like, you’re really playing in THE CHERRY ORCHARD, only everybody has NUCLEAR WEAPONS?
I am sorry to have to break the news to you, girl, but you’re a hot young actress in a science fiction series that happens to be the best television show around. Come to grips with it, girl. Deal with it. Hell, the Seventies are coming back at me, one TV show and record album at a time, and I can deal with it. I even like it!