Few TV shows have spoken to the unrelenting chaos of the still-young 21st century as well as Battlestar Galactica, which aired on Syfy from 2003 to 2009.
A remake of the critically panned 1978 series — itself a poorly disguised attempt to rip off Star Wars and make into a TV show — the new Battlestar Galactica took most of the good ideas from its predecessor (humanity on the run from murderous robots, a complicated mythology built around some combination of the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 signs of the zodiac, and a search for a long-missing Earth) and updated them for a newer, more terrifying world.
The 2000s Battlestar series is a post-9/11 show in the way that so many great genre shows of that era were (see also: Lost), but its underlying story about a humanity terrified of its own extinction by all manner of threats has resonated consistently since it debuted. Very early in the Trump era, for example, New Republic writer Matt Ford compared the news cycle to the tremendous early Battlestar episode in which the robotic Cylons attack the human fleet every 33 minutes with relentless efficiency.
Battlestar Galactica is bedeviled by complaints that its later seasons weren’t as good as the early ones, or that its series finale was bad, or any number of things, but I disagree with all of those complaints. The series’ weird blend of apocalypticism, science fiction, and spirituality has grown only more resonant in the years since it aired — and if there was ever a time to marathon the show, it’s right now.
How fortunate, then, that the show’s entire four-season run, as well as the pilot miniseries and two spinoff movies (neither of which are necessary to understand the full story, but both of which are enjoyable), is available again for the first time in ages on Syfy.com. (The episodes are free to stream, though they contain ads.)
Battlestar Galactica balanced complicated sci-fi storytelling with smaller standalone tales about life among the humans running for their lives
Battlestar Galactica aired during one of my favorite periods for genre TV. (It and Lost launched within a year of each other.) The storytelling complexity of these shows ramped up considerably, with deeper and more intricate mythologies for fans to obsess over. But because they still had to make lots of episodes (20 per season, in Battlestar’s case), they had to blend the larger sweep of their overarching stories with smaller ones about the characters and their adventures.
Consequently, these shows were more all over the place, quality-wise, compared with a show like Game of Thrones (at its best). But when they ended, even if they disappointed fans, it meant that it was possible to fondly remember stories that had nothing to do with the overall arc, something Game of Thrones didn’t really have going for it when it ended in disappointing fashion just last year.
Consider the episode I mentioned above, the one where the Cylons attacked every 33 minutes. It is, in essence, a re-pilot — a season premiere meant to catch up new viewers by introducing a show’s premise the way a pilot typically would, but without boring viewers who’ve watched to that point. Because Battlestar had launched in late 2003 with a four-hour miniseries that told the story of how humanity came to be on the run from the Cylons, the season one premiere didn’t need to belabor that point in another episode.
Instead, the writers came up with the ingenious idea of a Cylon attack arriving every 33 minutes, creating a bunch of frazzled, sleep-deprived humans on the run from an enemy who could exploit their every weakness and frailty. It’s an episode that’s stuck with me (and a lot of people) ever since it aired in 2005.
Battlestar Galactica’s showrunner was Ronald D. Moore, a longtime Star Trek veteran who had soured on that universe’s antiseptic gleam. Moore wanted to talk about human frailty and the political strife of the world; with Battlestar, he helmed what is perhaps the best TV show ever made about the tenuous nature of our democracy.
The series’ main characters hailed from the military (Edward James Olmos’s Admiral William Adama) and the government (Mary McDonnell’s President Laura Roslin, elevated to the highest office when everybody else in the Cabinet died). Their relationship, at once fraught and friendly, provided much of the series’ gravitas. But Moore also saw in their relationship a way to talk about how difficult it is to preserve human rights in times of trial. The series told sci-fi stories that mirrored debates Americans had at the time regarding torture and other human rights abuses during the George W. Bush administration. But the larger question of how we protect and maintain what’s human about us in the face of so much horror and death is broadly applicable to humanity in general.
The Cylons were an enemy that posed an existential threat to humans, but rather than the obviously robotic robots of the original series, they had evolved into humanlike androids who could live among us and carry out acts of war. They seemed just like us, but maybe weren’t us. Unless they were? Battlestar explored the fuzzy line between humans and Cylons with greater boldness as it went on, in ways that sometimes frustrated fans but that I ate up. (It turns out I have a robust appetite for mystical hoo-ha in my science fiction stories.)
And beyond all of these sociopolitical themes, the show was gloriously silly sci-fi. The story of the hunt for Earth had enough juice to drive much of Battlestar’s run, and it combined some of the greatest space battles ever created for television with an eerie mysticism that fueled the show’s more serialized plotting. Some fans would tell you the end of this story was disappointing. I’m not one of them, but I mention it just so you’re prepared.
Yet even if you hate the show’s series finale, it’s well worth embarking on the journey. Battlestar Galactica is one of my favorite TV shows ever made, one of those series I could conceivably write thousands of words about without breaking a sweat. (I haven’t mentioned the groundbreaking direction, for instance. Or composer Bear McCreary’s glorious score, the best ever written for television. Or Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck. Or …) Suffice it to say that if you’re looking for a quarantine marathon that leans into your anxiety, Syfy may have just given you the perfect gift.