Transfer Orbit Roundup: the creeping dread of Battlestar Galactica's miniseries
The week of March 8th
This week has been pretty quiet, SF/F-wise: it seems like the news about the royal family, the anniversary of COVID-19, and the passage of the latest stimulus bill has sucked most of the oxygen out of the room. Instead, I’ve got some thoughts on a thing that I recently watched: the pilot miniseries for SCI FI’s Battlestar Galactica.
My introduction to the series came in the summer of 2003, when the network’s magazine devoted a cover story to it, showing off what promised to be an exciting new take on the genre. I was immediately hooked by its realism and serious storytelling when I watched both episodes, and followed the series closely over the course of its run. (Enough of a fan that I actually stood up a blog about the show — which holy shit, is actually still floating around the internet. No, I won’t tell you where to find it.)
If you’re not familiar with the series, here’s a quick rundown: Moore’s show is a remake is a reimagining of the original 1978 show for ABC, about a collection of human colonies that were attacked by an alien race known as the Cylons, and forced to seek out a long-lost home world, Earth. The show’s become a cult classic, and while there were efforts to continue the franchise, nothing stuck until NBC opted to simply remake the show, bringing on David Eick and Moore to produce a miniseries.
Rather than to continue the original series, Eick and Moore opted to take the central concept of that original show, strip away anything that didn’t work, and modernize it with a realistic hard/military SF spin. The series hit right in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, and it shows: it’s a grim take on how humanity would cope with a catastrophic attack, and eventually serves as some direct commentary about the then-ongoing war in Iraq, questioning the ethics of torture, loyalty, extremism, and so forth. If you want a good rundown on the creation of the show and its successors, I’d recommend checking out Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross’s tome So Say We All: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Battlestar Galactica.
I’ve watched the entire series through at least one other time since it aired (I’ve seen season 1 more times than I can count), but it’s been a few years, and after sprinting through Babylon 5 on HBO Max (I’ll be writing more about that later), I needed to sink into another series, and settled on giving Galactica a rewatch.
It holds up exceptionally well, but one of the things I didn’t pick up on when I first watched it was how well creator Ronald D. Moore and director Michael Rymer accomplished one thing: building a slow boil of suspense as humanity is annihilated.
A slow sense of dread
The miniseries opens with a bit of an info dump: twelve human colonies deep in space created an advanced artificial intelligence that became known as The Cylons, who eventually rose up and fought against their makers. The Cylons and humans eventually fought to an armistice, after which the robots vanished from sight. The colonial military established a neutral station and sent an officer each year to try and maintain relations, but for 40 years, the Cylons didn’t reciprocate.
We know right off the bat that the Cylons don’t have good intentions to humanity: as the series opens, a human-looking woman, Six, arrives on the station and approaches the officer. She asks if he’s human, kisses him, and as the camera pulls back, we watch the Cylons destroy the station with a missile strike. In just five minutes, Moore, Rymer, and Eick set up the stakes and what we can expect to happen in the next couple of hours.
From there, they set the pot to boil. Rymer does a neat, one-take shot that introduces us to the main characters and introduces us to more backstory: starting with Starbuck, we’re handed off to successive characters (with a literal tour guide at one point!), getting a good sense of who they are and the state of the world. We learn that as the war’s been over for decades, the Galactica — a crucial ship in that war — is being converted into a museum. It’s slow, deliberate introduction that does a lot of heavy lifting to show off the world, the ship and the various relationships between the main characters.
Moore and Eick’s key motivation for the series was to depict the genre differently. Moore worked for a decade on three Star Trek shows, and felt constrained by Paramount’s fairly rigid attitudes towards character development and the long-term emotional stakes that he felt weren’t present in such an episodic franchise. “We all felt it was important early on to lay down a marker and say ‘we are different. This is a different show,” Moore recounted in the commentary track for the miniseries.
That’s a critical element to why this miniseries is so effective: by introducing us to the (notably flawed) characters and how they all interacted, we as the audience are more deeply invested in them. We see that they’ve got bonds with one another: they’re friends, competitors, colleagues, lovers, and antagonists. By contrast, most science fiction shows, like the aforementioned Star Treks — but also shows like Farscape and Stargate SG-1 — dump their viewers right into the action, forcing them to learn the show’s rules on the fly.
From there, various story elements come together: President Roslin both learns about her cancer diagnosis and heads out to Galactica for its decommissioning ceremony. We meet Six again, and get a sense of the danger when she kills an infant in a public park. We meet technology genius Giaus Baltar (and his relationship with Six), Lee Adama as he arrives on the Galactica (and his difficult relationship with his father), and it’s not until about 40 minutes in when we start to see the Cylon plot about to kick off as Six tells Baltar that she’s been able to use him to get past the colonial defenses and that humanity is about to be destroyed.
Think about any post-apocalyptic film you might have seen: you usually have a brief, initial introduction fo all the principle characters, and we jump right into the world-ending apocalypse with some sort of big, VFX-laden scene that shows off the destruction in gory, pornographic detail that galvanizes the characters into action.
Rather, Baltar learns, and aided by Richard Gibbs’ tense, haunting score, the tension begins to increase just a bit. But they hold off on kicking off the attack just then: they leave Baltar slack jawed at the revelation, and cuts back to Galactica during its decommissioning ceremony.
From there, the edges of the apocalypse begin to creep in: Baltar is watching television as scattered reports begin to arrive (one news reporter is abruptly cut off as a blast overcomes his position), and eventually sees a blast over the horizon, before cutting to a shot of Caprica’s skies, loaded with nuclear mushroom clouds.
It’s not until 45 minutes into the miniseries until Adama and the ship is first alerted that an attack is underway, and even then, it’s not until an hour before we finally get to the first real CGI-laden space battle (even then, it’s a very different thing from what we’ve seen on in television or film), and we learn that there are other battles elsewhere: the entire Colonial fleet is being decimated off-screen.
There’s a practical reason for this: Moore, Eick, and Ryman note in the commentary that their original cut of the miniseries would have included more than 600 CGI shots, and that they were budgeted for around 150, and compromised to around 300. Each explosion in a space dogfight that you see is literally money getting blown to bits. Thus, we get the battle in bits and pieces, cutting between the fighter pilots and their counterparts on the bridge.
But in also pulling out some of those CGI sequences, Rymer explained in So Say We All:
“So I tried to delete this dogfight sequence, and it suddenly made the whole act feel more realistic, because we were staying with the politics and the circumstances of real people dealing with a real scenario. Suddenly, the Buck Rogers part of it was removed, and it was just something much more real and grownup.”
Let’s stop here a moment and think about how we in the real world learn of these sorts of world-altering moments. Unless we’re extremely unfortunate, we’re not usually privy to those devastating moments.
My original memory of the Oklahoma City Bombing was over a short period of time: first as a radio report, then television reports. The September 11th attacks trickled in slowly, first as a potential accident on one tower, then another, and then another. The first reports of COVID-19 came in one by one, first as isolated stories about a mysterious flu in China, which slowly made its way out across the world, first to Asia and Europe, then to the United States, where it jumped from state to state. It was a slow-moving disaster that was simultaneously bad and forgettable, until it wasn’t.
Rewatching the series in this moment, as we’ve hit the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, hit particularly hard, because the two of them played out in much the same way: COVID wasn’t really a thing on our radar until it was, and our reactions to it wasn’t just in the mounting death toll: it was in the faces of our family members over FaceTime and Zoom Calls, our masked neighbors that we saw on the street or in the grocery store, or through the pictures we saw of the protests and violence that followed.
Battlestar Galactica’s held up over the last couple of years for a lot of reasons: its focus on its characters, its sense of realism, and its tense plotting (for the first half of the series, admittedly.) It’s a masterclass in showing how restraint can be an incredibly powerful storytelling tool that drives one’s action home.
But what I didn’t expect while rewatching was how well it telegraphs that sense of unease and dismay that I felt as the pandemic rolled over us a year ago, and it’s well worth examining again to understand the moment we’re in and how we process it.
I finished Eliot Peper’s Veil, and enjoyed it. I first came across his books by way of Ramez Naam, who recommended his novel Cumulus to me years ago. I’ll have more to say about Veil in a couple of weeks, but I’ve always appreciated Peper’s ability to tell a compelling, relevant story, in this case, about climate change.
On the to-read list. Need to whittle this down before I add on any new ones. On the list:
Bring the War Home by Kathleen Belew
We Could Be Heroes by Mike Chen
Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon by James Hibberd
Four Lost Cities by Annalee Newitz
True Believer by Abraham Riesman
Star Wars: Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule
Of those, I’m going to work on powering through Light of the Jedi, because it’s been a while, and I’m pretty close to finishing it.
After that, I’ve got a bunch I want to get to: Machinehood by S.B. Divya Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, Persephone Station by Stina Leicht, A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine, The Effort by Claire Holroyde, and a couple of others. And, because I can’t help myself, I just picked up 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, and an intriguing-looking history of conservation by Michelle Nijhuis, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction. (Here are the two pieces about the book from the Audubon Society and Outside Magazine which got me interested in it.)
Amazon and Libraries. Most publishers work with libraries to provide their books to the public, save for one big one: Amazon. The site serves not only as a sales platform, but as a publisher through its Kindle devices and through Audible, its audiobook company, which dominates a lot of the market there (it’s one reason why Libro.fm exists). One big problem is that if there’s an exclusive, it’s exclusive to Audible, and it isn’t made available to the wider reading public through our nation’s libraries. That means books like Andy Weir’s The Martian or Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime is inaccessible to a big part of the reading public who depend on libraries.
Exploring reality. Yi-Ling Liu has a fantastic profile of science fiction author Chen Qiufan (author of Waste Tide) and his life, and how he’s approached the change .
Faking reality. I’ve been watching this latest season of Apple’s For All Mankind, and in it, they’ve moved the timeline up to the 1980s. There was an interesting bit with John Lennon on the television, and we’ve seen Ronald Reagan a couple of times. The Ringer takes a look into the show’s efforts to build a plausible alternate reality, which includes some minor changes like Lennon surviving and Reagan getting elected earlier. Along the way, they’ve used some archival footage fo everything from the space shuttle landing to archival footage, and in a couple of instances, have deep-faked some footage of characters when they appear.
Indigenous speculations. Erika T. Wurth takes note of the recent explosion in speculative fiction written by Native authors (Daniel H. Wilson, Rebecca Roanhorse, and Stephen Graham Jones are just three recent examples), and talks about how they and others are reinventing Native literature by imagining speculative futures.
“Realism is wonderful for the purpose of humanizing peoples that have otherwise been mystified or fully removed from popular culture. It allows us to pull back the cool curtains that a police procedural (in crime literature) or a space opera (in speculative literature) might provide to reveal what’s very human: the bare bones of our flawed actions and their terrible and wonderful consequences, our flourishing and decorative prose, the failure or success of the structure in our stories.”
Mass Effect’s Cosplayers. Over on Cosplay Central, I wrote about an interesting tidbit I found in an interview with the developers of Mass Effect: Andromeda: they’d scaled back some of their more ambitious alien designs in favor of making it easier for cosplayers to build. While writing Cosplay: A History, I found that that’s not usually the way it goes: film/TV productions are focused on building costumes that’ll withstand the rigors of production, and fans just aren’t on their minds during that process.
Natural horrors. Literary Hub has an essay from Eugene Thacker about Algernon Blackwood’s influential novella “The Willows” and the author’s relationship with nature, and how it translated in to that particular story. “In certain passages he seems entranced by a kind of deep time, one of the indifference of the slowly swaying trees along the shore, of still waters and the stoppage of time, of landscapes shaping themselves according to an impersonal logic that evades even the shrewdest naturalist.”
“But what gives scenes like this their ambiance of otherworldliness is not that there are menacing monsters in the night, but rather that the entire environment—the mountains, sky, river, trees—are somehow alive, and alive in an impersonal but sublime way that far exceeds the taxonomies of the naturalist or the theories of the biologist.”
Northern Gothic. Another Literary Hub piece caught my eye this week as well, in which W.S. Winslow tries to define the edges of a Northern Gothic subgenre, and takes an enlightening route through American literary history and its fascination with the macabre, particularly in this Northeastern corner of the country.
Finally, I want to signal-boost a couple of newsletters that I’ve been reading recently that I think you might enjoy:
Astrolabe by Aidan Moher. Aidan’s the guy behind the Hugo Award-winning blog A Dribble of Ink, and he’s been writing some interesting things about the creative process, most recently, a fascinating interview with Less Than Jake guitarist Chris DeMakes.
Midnight Quatermass by Mike Sizemore. Mike is a writer who I found years ago when he released a sizzler reel for a potential sci-fi heist series called Slingers, which I wish had been made. He also wrote a story for War Stories, and it sounds like he might be releasing some additional fiction through this newsletter.
The Science of Fiction by Maddie Stone. Maddie and I used to work together at io9 and Gizmodo, and she’s since struck out on her own, launching her own newsletter, which looks at the intersection of science and science fiction.
As always, thanks for reading. Let me know what’s on your TBR pile, and what’s caught your interest this week.
Thanks for the shout out, Andrew! I'm very familiar with Maddie Stone's newsletter—it's great!—but Midnight Quatermass is new to me. Subbed!
Very cool. I recently rewatched the whole series for the first time.