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Galactica Revisited

One of my most prized possessions when I was younger was a giant-size comic book adaptation of Battlestar Galactica. I loved that comic book. I loved that show. I remember the Christmas my friends got their dangerous Vipers with real shooting plastic missles. I wanted one of those so badly. I remember wanting to grow up to be Starbuck -- with his courage in the face of danger, I'm sure he would've bought the missile-firing Viper instead of the crippled replacement version.

So now along comes the reimagined Battlestar Galactica on Sci Fi 25 years later. Time has changed our crew: Starbuck and Boomer are chicks, Col. Tigh's a honky, Adama is Lt. Castillo, and Apollo is really, really stuck up. Time has also changed TV standards: Now we have multiple uses of the word "asshole," near-nudity, simulated sex with a robot, and infanticide. But some things haven't changed: The Cylons are still the bad guys, they still have that one roving red eye, Baltar is still a traitor, the Galactica looks about the same, and some old Vipers, curiously similar to the ones from the original series, are pulled out of mothballs so I can recall that long-ago Christmas and write Santa a nasty letter. Boxey even has the same stupid Prince Valiant haircut.

The resulting miniseries is far better than it has any right to be. It is, in fact, too good to really qualify as good. Most of what made the original worth watching, back when I was seven, was the sense of goofy fun. The original was a random hodgepodge, from the Ancient Egyptian-inspired pilot helmets to Adama's Al Sharpton-in-space medallion. The new version, however, is extremely frowny. The original was Jenna Elfman goofy. The new Galactica is Cate Blanchett goofy.

That this works even a little bit is due to the presence of Mr. Serious Actor Edward James Olmos. If you need someone whose very expression simply says, "Who farted? Dammit, this is serious!", good ole E.J. is your man. I'm convinced that if he ever smiles, his whole face will fall off. Mary McDonnell, beloved of sci-fi movie geeks for her work in "Donnie Darko," is a close second in the "Take this script with a grain of uranium" contest. She gives scenes far more weight than they deserve throughout the miniseries' first installment.

The rest of the cast struggles manfully -- and, in Starbuck and Boomer's cases, womanfully -- to lift their super-heavy scenes of death and grief and pain, but the whole thing never really gets off the ground. Starbuck works better as a woman than you might expect but has lost some essential joy; Dirk Benedict played Starbuck as a devil-may-care playboy with a wink and a smile, but Katee Sackhoff takes her similar character off into ball-busting bitch territory with a short side-trip through self-destructive. Boomer as a woman is even less of a change than Starbuck's gender reassignment, since the original character wasn't much more than a sidekick anyway. At least homeboy Herb Jefferson Jr. gave the impression of being a military man, where Grace Park just seems a little too limp.

Baltar is given a lift here, along with being youthened; he's manipulated into becoming a traitor, although he shows a little too much aptitude for it. At least he has the decency to be slightly horrified when he finds out he's responsible for the deaths of almost the entire human race.

Maybe that's what's bringing the whole show low. The near-extinction of humanity is a huge downer. Maybe I'm remembering the fun episodes of the old series instead of the original TV-movie, which admittedly did kill the bulk of the human race, albeit in less gory mushroom-cloud detail.

Or maybe the whole show, genocide and all, is pretty hokey, and the only thing that can liven up the proceedings is a little camp. I mean, we're talking about a science fiction show made by people who know enough to know that there's no sound in space, but who still think we need some sound to punch up the space battles, so they use muted sounds in space. How seriously can we take this? About the only dim glimpses of fun in the entire first part of the miniseries were the passing references to the original show: An old-school Cylon in a museum (right next to the gift shop!); the original theme music used as soundtrack for a Blue Angels-in-orbit-style Viper revue; and yeah, Boxey's Prince Valiant.

I did enjoy the "reimagined" Galactica in a vaguely nostalgic way. But it falls into the same trap as so many other sci-fi extravaganzas in the brave new world of digital effects: Now that we can make everything look as pretty as a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, we forget to include the little things, like good screenwriting. And fun. Shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek and the original Battlestar Galactica may have looked cheap, but they played like a million bucks. The new Battlestar Galactica looks like a million bucks -- maybe 15 million adjusting for inflation -- but plays like a lead nickel.


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