NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica’s Miniseries: “Part One”

The time comes when you can’t hide from the things you’ve done anymore

Air Date: 08/12/2003

Director: Michael Rymer

Writer: Ronald D. Moore, Glen A. Larson

Synopsis: 40 years after the end of the Cylon War, the Battlestar Galactica is preparing for decommissioning: when a sudden Cylon onslaught engulfs the 12 colonies, the ship and its crew find themselves in the middle of a maelstrom.

Review

Looking back at how BSG started, it can seem like an entirely different show to how it ended up, but we should not get ahead of ourselves. First episodes are very tricky things, having so much to accomplish in very little time. BSG at least has the benefit of having an elongated pilot in the form of this three hour miniseries, with the first half also neatly sub-divided, between a universe/character establishing first 45, and a more conflict-orientated second 45.

That first quarter of what is sometimes dubbed “Night One” is an excellent demonstration of how to quickly and effectively establish a setting and a whole mass of major and minor characters, alongside the not inconsiderable matter of the holocaust of humanity. There’s too many such characters to name in this hopefully concise opinion piece, but “Part One” is able to establish Edward James Olmos as an excellent Adama, an veteran who appears deeply exhausted in more ways than one; James Callis as the weedy sneak Baltar, whose propensity for self-delusion, and survival, is immediately evident as a series defining plot-point; Mary McDonnell’s Laura Roslin, who exemplifies the sort of stoic pro-active leadership that seems positively alien today; and Jamie Bamber’s Apollo, set-up as an aloof malcontent initially, but who even by the end of this “episode” is starting to win us round. To go into detail on them would turn this review into a thesis, which is not my intention, so it will suffice to say that their introductions are well-written, well-acted, and leave an immediate impression on an audience.

Of course not everything is perfect on that front. Tricia Helfer’s Six, in my opinion, is probably the worst affected by the cavalcade of other characters who all need to get their heads into frame, with the scene where she murders a baby one of the most strikingly unnecessary “Kick The Dog” moments I have ever seen on television. Six leans a bit too much towards the titillation side of things in this 90 minutes too, and will be better when she is primarily in front of us as the “Head” variety, only fleetingly glimpsed here. There are signs of a deeper character – the first spoken line of the show, “Are you alive?”, is tailor-made to kick off a few philosophical essays, and her fascination with Baltar, despite all of his cruelty, is also interesting – but I don’t think “Part One” does enough with her, given her extreme importance.

From that character perspective, “Part One” is driven by an escalating series of relationship conflicts, whether they are obvious – Starbuck and Tigh, Apollo and Adama, Tyrol and Tigh – a little more subtle – the timebomb that is Tyrol and Boomer, Doral’s subterfuge with Roslin – or more interpretive, like Baltar and Six. From the off, this is a vitally important aspect of BSG, which places its story in a fantastical universe where murderous evolved robots are nuking a solar system with an ancient Greek religious pantheon. For the show, this is mere backdrop to the really important stuff of Moore and Larson’s script. The destruction of Caprica arguably has less emotional resonance with the audience than the incredibly affecting scene between Adama and Apollo after the photo-op and, while counter-intuitive in a sense, this is how it should be.

Aside from that, “Part One” sprinkles in three main themes that are going to be at the forefront of the rest of the series. The first, summed up in Adama’s brilliant decommissioning speech, is the need for people to accept responsibility for the things that they’ve done, whether it is humanity with the Cylons, or a man who feels more than a little responsible for the death of his son in a piloting accident. From the off, this idea lodges itself and intertwines with many of the above noted relationship dramas, with an acceptance of responsibility often the first step to redemption, catharsis and growth. Secondly, there is finding of purpose in a crisis, with characters like Adama, Roslin and Tigh all moving from various kinds of malaise – most critical in Roslin’s respect, far less sympathetic in Tigh’s – and into a place where they are to project their value. Again, these are very human, very relatable stories, being told in an extraordinary setting: BSG finds the perfect mix.

More than any of that, “Part One” anchors itself and its narrative to a well-executed series of little dramas, that pop up as soon as the bombs start falling. There’s the lottery that Helo and Boomer have to manage on Caprica (how great is that “Devil on your shoulder” moment when Baltar realises he could steal the old woman’s winning number?). There’s the venting crisis on Galactica, that creates some juicy conflict between Tigh and Tyrol out of almost nothing (the “That sonofabitch” line from Aaron Douglas might be the second best line of the episode: see below for #1), there’s Doral’s efforts to undermine Roslin on Colonial One. BSG thus showcases an ability, right from the off, to give the impression that a lot is happening and that there is something for everyone to do.

The universe creation is great here, in the subtle nods to religion, in the inherent strangeness of the humanoid Cylons, in the reverent tones that the Cylon War is spoken of, not unlike how some speak of the Second World War. It’s there in the wonderfully constructed CIC that eschews the Star Trek bridge for something that has the air of a science-fiction command centre while retaining the idea that we are looking at something we can relate to. It’s present in the uniforms, in the props, in something as basic as how paper has the corners clipped off. “Part One” is part military drama/part apocalypse movie, and is able to showcase an alien society that is all too familiar, yet different enough that it can still attract our interest. For one thing, we’ve seen this kind of story before, but rarely from the side that so comprehensively loses.

Given that it is a 90 minute feature of its own, it is somewhat surprising that it is so action-light, with only a few minutes of dogfights and other traditional daring do (the best action scene is probably Helo and Boomer’s escape from two missiles). The effects are dated, holding up in some instances (the actual space battles, the looks at Caprica from a distance) and not so much in others (the basestars, some of the up-close shots of ships and fighters).

It all ends on a traditional cliff-hanger, though not really: the solution that Apollo finds for the problem of what to do if Colonial One is attacked is lampshaded obviously enough earlier in “Part One”. I still enjoyed it though, because there was a certain daringness to it in plot terms. It would have been easy to have your endpoint be Galactica getting hit with that missile, but instead Rymor, Moore and Larson choose a more emotional moment, that ties directly into the relationship drama already established. BSG is better for that.

D as in Dog, dash four five six, dash three four five, dash A as in Apple

Notes

-“The Cylons were created by man” is a brilliant beginning, establishing both a vital part of the universe and the series’ own desire to mark itself out from what it was a “re-imagining” of.

-The Armistice Station opening was an interesting choice, but at least allows for a very memorable introduction to Six. Ryan Robbins is the heavily made-up officer, who would appear on the show later, sans make-up, as Charlie Connor.

-The opening shot establishes well the space-travel aesthetic, with air-jets for subtle maneuvering.

-Gotta love that title-scene zoom in on the distant Galactica, while Bear McCreary’s score does its percussion work.

-In a walk around scene worthy of Serenity or The West Wing, we follow Adama through the hallways of Galactica, and get introduced rapidly to several characters and key relationships: Starbuck (gets on well with Adama, no great respect for the chain of command; Tigh (a drunk, and a grumpy one at that); Gaeta (a respectful, prim officer who adores Adama); Doral (an annoying tour guide) and some of the deck crew (down and dirty, but good people). The respect shown to Adama in this scene serves its purpose as both a demonstration of the esteem in which he is held, and as comedy for how it is repeated.

-Love that poker scene. We don’t know why Tigh and Thrace dislike each other, but we certainly know they dislike each other.

-Roslin receives her diagnosis in a cavernous Doctor’s office on Caprica, which was a location I always thought was very cleverly presented. It’s so big and impersonal, not all appropriate for the news that is delivered, and tells us something intrinsic about Colonial society.

BSG space travel takes its cues from commercial flight on the real earth in a lot of ways, and I think that it does a good job of grounding the audience early on.

-The way that people onboard Colonial One react to what’s happening on the colonies has obvious nods to 9/11, and it wouldn’t be the last time that the “War on Terror” was a base for the series’ invention.

-Yeah, that baby scene. Talk about a swing and a miss. Just patently unnecessary. Helfer, when asked, has said the character is performing a mercy killing ahead of the nuclear attack, but I just don’t see the worth of the scene regardless.

-The glowing spine during sex was a very strange addition, that as far as I remember was totally dropped as a plot point very quickly, without explanation. Just as well, seemed rather silly.

-I love, love, love the Lee Adama/Tyrol conversation when Apollo first boards the Galactica. Lee’s obvious disdain without saying a word, Tyrol’s initial enthusiasm turning to annoyance, the emphasis on “Commander” in “Commander Adama’s orders”, it’s a great exchange that accomplishes a lot without spelling anything out. Aaron Douglas apparently was permitted to improvise a fair bit on set, and repaid that trust.

-Who needs glowing spines when you can have a sexy argument instead? The Tyrol/Boomer conversation that leads to a hook-up is a little trite in some ways, but with hindsight flags some of the problems coming down the line.

-I’ve always liked how the problem with the Adama father and son is nodded towards subtly a few times before Apollo spells it out bluntly. The picture Adama gets early on, the Starbuck/Apollo conversation, the stiffness in the photo-op. Long before Apollo accuses his father of killing his brother, you’re left with no doubts that the two are estranged for a very serious reason.

-Bamber dyed his hair and Olmos wore contacts of a blue colour to make it appear more like they were father and son. A minor thing in a sense, but something that does a lot of hard work in terms of immersion.

-“Part One” doesn’t do much when it comes to the colonial religion, with what religious commentary it wants to give handed to the monotheism of Six. It’s God before gods in plot terms, right from the start.

-Adama and Roslin’s first interaction on-screen is an argument. It’s a long road from here to “Daybreak”, but this moment fits the relationship nicely.

-That boardroom scene between Apollo and Adama is hard-hitting to say the least. When Bamber lets loose it’s the first signs of how good an actor he is: his “You killed him” is the best delivered line of the episode. The script for the scene was apparently Bamber’s audition, so it makes sense that it was well-thought out.

-I realise now that Apollo must think that Adama passed Zak in terms of his flight training at this point: that bubble will be burst in “Part Two”.

-In terms of good lines, I do want to give a little love to Six’s “Humanity’s children are returning home. Today” which, given it comes as a nuke goes off, is a fairly definitive break-point.

-The orbiting shot of Caprica engulfed in nuclear mushroom clouds is really great, and it’s no surprise that the show features it prominently in its subsequent opening titles.

-The picture of Tigh’s wife is not, of course, that of the actress who would end up playing her. Makes you wonder just how much of certain narratives was properly planned out in advance, considering where Ellen Tigh ended up: (the answer is “not much”).

-A good few WW2 moments all over “Part One”, and weirdly a grammatical error made by Olmos when he announces the Cylon attack only makes it more realistic: “We have just received word of a Cylon attack against our home worlds is underway”.

-Roslin the schoolteacher is out in full force when asked who put her in charge. “That’s a good question. The answer is no one”. Sounds bad, but she then lays the verbal slapdown by reminding everyone that she is the leading government official present.

-Love that shot of the Cylon Raiders coming out of the sun, a great, memorable introduction, and another tie-in to WW2 era stuff.

-Roslin, when hearing about the reality of what’s happening on Caprica, contemplates the impossible, asking if surrender has been thought of. When the news comes back that they already offered, and heard nothing, it makes the situation seem extremely doom-laden.

-In contemplating how she ended up where she is, as she waits for the Presidential Sword of Damocles to fall, Roslin ponders that she was unable to say no to President Adar. I wonder if the romance between the two was planned, even at that moment.

-The inauguration of Roslin has obvious allusions to the inauguration of LBJ after JFK’s assassination.

-Something I have always found a bit distracting: how Colonial One’s hanger bay is clearly just a car park. What kind of spaceship has a concrete floor?

Overall Verdict: BSG starts off well, hooking in the audience, head and heart, with some brilliantly written drama, to a back-drop that you can’t take your eyes off of: more people would watch the “Part Two” than “Part One”. The groundwork is laid here, and the second half of the miniseries has every opportunity to make an impression.

Next time, onto the Ragnar Anchorage.

To read more entries in this series, click here to go the index.

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19 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica’s Miniseries: “Part One”

  1. Pingback: NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. WorldbyStorm says:

    “Something I have always found a bit distracting: how Colonial One’s hanger bay is clearly just a car park. What kind of spaceship has a concrete floor?”

    I’ve a thing about using real world locations for SF films – the ST reboot films showed ‘Engineering’ on the Enterprise using some sort of chemical production plant for the interior which was okayish. But only just – I much preferred the old ST:OS quite abstracted backdrops with the processes hidden away behind flat panels. And okay the new one is more realistic, in a way, but the older one was more science fictional.

    At a stretch you could make a case a spaceship that didn’t have to land on a planet might use concrete or something similar for some surfaces.

    • NFB says:

      If I may put on my poindexter bottle glasses for a moment, Colonial One does land on a planet in the New Caprica based episodes. But of course I see your point, shows have to live within their means. I think BSG generally does quite a good job with its interiors, so its more noticeable when something like this pops up on screen.

      • WorldbyStorm says:

        That makes it worse! The weight, the weight, though handwaving presumably they had drives that were powerful enough etc… 🙂

        Yeah, I always liked the look of the show, though as you say maddeningly inconsistent with the CGI. Sometimes the Cylons looked great, sometimes absolutely terrible. That said, as a long time fan of Babylon 5 my CGI and indeed set design standards were low to begin with.

      • NFB says:

        Yes, future reviews will be talking about some of the CGI weaknesses! There’s a huge contrast between Seasons one and two in things like the Centurions.

      • WorldbyStorm says:

        Well that’s quite a task you’ve taken on, though more or less than the LOTR! Hmmm… which reminds me, can you drop us a line re that other project!

      • NFB says:

        I’m hoping I can complete this one too. I have a good few in the bank already, just finished “The Farm” which I think a lot more of post-repeal.

        Yes, will do.

  3. WorldbyStorm says:

    yeah, some of those episodes really hit home at this distance in time.

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