The reimagined Battlestar Galactica premiered 14 years ago. To this day, it remains one of the best sci-fi shows of all time.
Whether it be Ghostbusters, Charmed or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reboots seem to be generally frowned upon by ‘true’ fans of their original counterparts.
This despite the fact that most Western narratives are a variation of the same archetypal plot and characters, and that most of the works of media we consider ‘original’ were in fact based on even earlier properties (the 1984 Ghostbusters was inspired by the 1946 Spook Busters, and classics like Homeward Bound and Scarface were in fact remakes).
And also despite the fact that, really quite often, remakes or reboots end up being, if not better than their original counterparts, then at least different enough that they take on a life of their own and venture into unchartered and — dare I say it — original territory.
One such remake, or ‘reimagining,’ was Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, based on the 1978 series by Glen A. Larson of the same name.
The original Battlestar Galactica series certainly had a devoted cult following, but isn’t considered by many to be ‘great’ sci-fi.
It came as part of a wave of Star Trek-inspired TV series about brave men (and a few women) exploring that elusive final frontier, battling alien species symbolic of the creators’ home nations’ enemies du jour. It was low-budget, camp, and (deservedly) short-lived.
In comparison, Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica is, arguably, one of the finest pieces of sci-fi television ever made. It built on Larson’s original ideas and made the story better, grittier, and more culturally relevant.
‘BSG’: Original vs reimagining
In the original Battlestar Galactica, the humans living in the 12 Colonies were reaching the end of a thousand-year war with the warrior robot race the Cylons. But the Cylons — with the aid of traitor ‘Count’ Baltar — double-crossed them and destroyed the humans’ home.
What remained of the human race fled in a convoy of assorted space ships protected by the last surviving ‘battlestar’ from the war: the Galactica.
Led by Commander Adama (Lorne Greene), the fugitive fleet set out on a trek across space to look for a new home, following in the footsteps of the long-lost 13th tribe of humanity who were said to have settled on a mythical planet called ‘Earth.’
It was a pretty damn good idea, and one which perhaps couldn’t possibly be done justice through the medium of television in the 1980s — a time when television was still a half-dirty word, and certainly not designed for heavily serialized storytelling.
Nonetheless, the original BSG received fairly good ratings at its launch, and while it was cancelled after one season by ABC, a fan write-in campaign had it renewed for an additional 10 episodes. There were companion books, games and comics to keep the compelling story alive.
And, in 2003, a miniseries relaunching the original story with a new cast and an updated — or should I say evolved — premise. Following the success of the miniseries, the reimagining was picked up to series, its pilot premiering in the U.K. on October 18, 2004, before airing in the States the following January.
The new version pretty closely followed the same story as the original: the Cylon war was over, but the Cylons ambushed the humans, destroying the 12 Colonies (with the aid of an unwitting Gaius Baltar).
The remainder of humanity set out in a rag-tag fleet of assorted space ships to seek a new home, eventually embarking on a quest to find Earth, protected by Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos)’ Battlestar Galactica.
From the get-go, however, Ronald D. Moore’s version of this epic tale proved far more ambitious, gritty, complicated (and/or convoluted) and engaging, with some key updates fueling a narrative that more closely aligned with the values of the day and reflected the political climate of the U.S. at the time.
Contemporary political allegory
In the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons were not created by some mysterious reptilian race, but by humans. They had also upgraded themselves to look and feel like human beings, melding man and machine like a Silicon Valley fever dream.
This allowed for the conflict between the humans and the Cylons to be much more ambiguous. The Cylons wanted to wipe out their creators, who were their parents or captors depending on your point of view. The humans wanted to wipe out the Cylons in retaliation for their attack.
Whose side were we supposed to be on? Who started this destructive conflict? Did that even matter, when both sides started killing, raping and torturing each other? Those were questions of much debate both on and off screen.
While the original BSG actually did contain contemporary political allegory (like most sci-fi tends to do), the new version was far more purposeful in its efforts to reflect the social and political climate of post-9/11 America.
Moore’s writing was overtly allegorical, with Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) as the George W. Bush figure, insofar as she was a reluctant leader completely unprepared for the responsibilities thrown on her shoulders; she was a scholar contrasted against the militaristic ‘of the people’ leader Adama.
Over the course of the series, of course, these two characters would meet in the middle and switch places in a bunch of different ways, reminding the viewers that no war, no issue and no human being is ever static or simple.
(Later in the series, Gaius Baltar kind of prophetically took on a Trump-like role, manipulated into power by forces bigger than himself and screwing over his own people for his own short-sighted gain.)
The tensions between the humans and Cylons and the use of religion as a point of conflict mirrored the heightened tensions between Christians and Muslims in the United States following 9/11, and BSG challenged bigoted ‘us vs them’ mindsets by changing the point of view throughout the series, forcing us to constantly reexamine which side (and which individuals) we were most sympathetic towards, and why.
The show touched on religious extremism, terrorism, the ethics of torture, abortion, and even drew a clear parallel between the Israel/Palestine conflict in season 3 and the Cylon occupation of New Caprica.
More than reflect these issues, BSG also sought to offer potential solutions for peace that could be applied to reality, which had such a big impact that the UN invited the cast and crew to speak on religious clashes and international relations.
And Battlestar Galactica is still relevant today, in the Trump era, looking at corrupt leadership and extreme ideological division, fear tactics and the ever-present class struggles.
Having the Cylons not only appear human but act human — and most significantly think of themselves as human — raised the stakes in every possible way, interweaving the humans and the machines and allowing the series to raise still-pressing questions about AI consciousness and the morality of the tech industry.
Thought-provoking, if not perfect, feminism
One obvious change from the original to the reboot was in the gender balance of its cast: two previously male characters had been recast as women (and, believe it or not, the world didn’t explode as a result!), with Boomer (Herberg Jefferson Jr.) now played by Grace Park, and Katee Sackhoff taking over the iconic role of Starbuck (Dirk Benedict).
Significantly, neither of these characters was ‘softened’ as a result of this shake-up. Starbuck famously retained the rough-and-tumble, cigar-smoking rebelry of her namesake, and while one of Park’s characters Sharon would take on a very archetypal ‘mother’ role, the original Boomer remained physically powerful and guided by more than a love story.
This was not, as some have claimed, a gender-blind world, but rather, as io9’s Annalee Newitz puts it, “a world both women and men can be commanders, fighter pilots, presidents — and both men and women can be sex objects, suffer from emotional overload, fear the physical wrath of the opposite sex, and gain power via subterfuge and manipulation.”
There are long-standing debates about whether or not BSG was feminist; there are compelling arguments both for and against that should be tackled more in-depth than this article has room for.
Nonetheless it was a clear way in which the 1980s version of BSG benefited from being remade in the 2000s; I daresay the next iteration might bring us even further forward in terms of both gender and race.
Even though it has been 14 years since BSG premiered, the show still looks remarkably contemporary, in large part thanks to its ‘realistic’ set design.
When the story starts, the Galactica is the last working battlestar of the first Cylon war, and is on the brink of being turned into a museum. Its interior is gritty and dirty by design, and its technology intentionally looks analog and outdated.
This, in a neat nod to nostalgia, turns out to be what saves the humans from the Cylons — and it also saves the show from looking dated.
Because the show isn’t trying to seem ultra-modern, it also ages better, because the image of what is essentially an old junk car (except it’s a space ship) is a timeless one. Everything ages and falls apart eventually, and rust and dirt is a universal look.
The camera already shakes and zooms wildly like a hand-held documentary, so the increasingly aged, grainy quality of the film only adds to the sense of gritty realism the crew was originally going for.
Battlestar Galactica does, of course, have its issues. The show was far from perfect as far as race and gender were concerned, and the plot grew perhaps too convoluted for its own good by the end.
However, there is no question that it is the reimagining, not the original, that will go down in history as the ‘better’ version of this story, at least until the next one inevitably comes along.
But the reimagined version couldn’t have existed without the original; the remaking process was a big part of its success, much like the humanoid Cylons could not have invented themselves without their metal-and-wire ancestors.
The original BSG introduced us to Cylons, the 12 Colonies, Adama, Baltar, Starbuck, and the idea of Earthlings as one branch of humanity originating from somewhere else. The reimagining would be nothing without its predecessor and, arguably, the 1978 version would be a distant memory without the 2004 one.
Thinking of remakes or reboots as threats to originality is understandable but, in my opinion, a losing battle. We have been re-telling stories since stories were invented, updating and changing them as cultures and storytelling mediums have dictated. Stories are not static, frozen things but living and breathing and evolving alongside the people who tell and consume them.
Sometimes they are eroded and the magic gets lost along the way. Sometimes they evolve, and improve, and wipe out all memory of the ones that came before. Sometimes a new artist simply wants to play in the sandbox of someone who came before, and that’s okay too.
And the Battlestar Galactica story isn’t over yet. Right now, a new version of BSG is in development — it has been for many years — with Francis Lawrence and Lisa Joy working on a big screen adaptation.
Will it be as good as Ronald D. Moore’s? Will it be better? We don’t know. It doesn’t matter. The reimagining will still be there, just as the original is still here, and hopefully, we’ll give the new one a chance, too.
All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.