This reimagining of the 1978 series was developed by Ronald D. Moore. A frequent writer for Star Trek TV shows and films from 1988-1999, Moore’s version of Battlestar Galactica should be understood as in many ways a reaction against Star Trek. Instead of a happy crew that usually got along well, the crew of Moore’s Galactica would hurt and even kill one another. Instead of interstellar explorers, they would be soldiers. Given this, Moore gave the show a much darker tone, but he also took pains to infuse the show with a realism that he felt Star Trek often lacked. This also applied to technology and physics. In particular, his series bible complained about the Voyager seeming to have an inexhaustible number of shuttlecraft, despite being lost in space for years on end. In contrast, Moore’s Battlestar Galactica would underline the desperation and scarce resources facing his characters. To help give the series a more gritty, documentary feeling, the camera would shake, even in scenes composed entirely within the computer. With the Star Trek franchise in decline, the success of Moore’s Battlestar Galactica would help change TV science fiction, undermining many of the tropes Star Trek had unconsciously employed and shifting the genre further towards realism.
The new Battlestar Galactica debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel in December 2003 as a two-part mini-series (which each part running two hours, with ads). The mini-series began with a Cylon surprise attack, representing the destruction of almost all of humanity. Of particular interest are Cylons masquerading as humans, although there appears to be a limited number of such models. Although often confusing and oddly-paced, the mini-series combined a gritty, post-apocalyptic premise with politics, some mysticism, and a little sex appeal. The mini-series was a ratings success, and Sci-Fi placed an order for 13 episodes.
The first season debuted in October 2004. It begins with some excellent episodes (which are better than the initial mini-series) that focus on the difficult logistics (and the resulting difficult decisions) humanity’s survivors faced, including the constant threat of Cylon attack. That level of quality, however, diminishes as the season continues, although the scheming, often conflicted Gaius Baltar establishes himself as by far the most interesting character.
The two-part first-season finale began a lengthy storyline, featuring some characters’ return to the ruined main planet of Caprica. Although this aspect of the storyline was creatively successful (including the idea of “farming” humans and much Cylon manipulation of the characters), the storyline is bogged down by mystical elements. To be sure, these elements were a part of the series from the start, and the sociological exploration of the religious impulse (especially as a response to the unknown) and of religious conflict is one of the show’s strengths. But the show is at its worst when it seems to take place in a universe in which such mysticism is true, or in which prophecies are accurate without a logical or scientific explanation. This severely undermines the show’s hard-bitten, realistic tone, which was part of the show’s conception and for which it is rightly credited.
After the conclusion of this storyline, season two contained several memorable episodes. “Pegasus,” the mid-season finale, began by undermining the show’s entire premise and is the single best episode in the show’s entire run. It is best understood as an episode in which the cast encounters their opposites, not unlike the classic Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” — except that here, the cast’s choices are more seriously questioned and the series is left upside-down. This plot was resolved in following two-part episode, “Resurrection Ship,” which isn’t as good but is still quite fun. Another highlight is “Downloaded,” which brilliantly focused entirely on the Cylons, especially the Six who had encountered Gaius Baltar in the mini-series, and greatly expanded viewers’ understanding of their culture. While less creatively successful, ”Final Cut” focused on a journalist and revealed another human-looking Cylon. On the other hand, “Scar,” while portraying the difficult life of Viper pilots, is probably the worst episode in the entire series. It retroactively states that the pilots have long feuded with a single, rage-filled Cylon ship named Scar and is filled with melodramatic declarations about getting him.
The second season concluded with another memorable two-part episode, “Lay Down Your Burdens,” in which the Cylons (following “Downloaded”) declare that they were wrong to decimate humanity. The story introduces another human-looking Cylon — Cavil, played by Dean Stockwell. Gaius Baltar wins the presidency (which viewers have likely wanted to see for some time), and orders everyone to settle an inhabitable planet, dubbed New Caprica. The conclusion jumps forward a year, in which many changes have occurred. The Cylons reappear and occupy New Caprica.
This storyline would continue through the first four episodes of the third season, as well as the series’s first web series, “The Resistance,” which takes place between the two seasons. It’s hard not to wish that this storyline were not longer, especially given the much longer length of the inferior one that opened the second season. But the Sci-Fi Channel felt that the series’s many continuing plots were alienating to new viewers and ordered the show to become more episodic — a decision it repented after this season. However, the third season feels lessened as a result, especially when the continuing plot threads are much more interesting than the central drama at hand.
The third season pivots around “The Eye of Jupiter” / “Rapture,” aired (in 2006-2007) before and after a brief winter break. These episodes reveal that there are only five additional human-looking Cylon models, whose appearance is unknown even to the Cylons. Gaius Baltar is returned to the human fleet, having spent the episodes since the New Caprica storyline with the Cylons. These five would soon become known as the “Final Five.”
After several more episodes, the third season concludes with the two-part “Crossroads.” Baltar, having become a political and spiritual guru while imprisoned, is put on trial and acquitted for his actions on New Caprica. Simultaneously, four of the Final Five, hearing a cover version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” converge on one another and discover that they are Cylons. It’s all thoroughly entertaining, and the music effectively adds to the drama — although why these characters would know this song, associated with our world, is not explained. Also, Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, having previously been killed, inexplicably returns and promises to show the fleet the way to Earth. While fun, the episode suffers from a feeling that the show’s writers are making things up as they go along (which is true in the sense that the identities of the Final Five weren’t planned all along).
The fourth season began with the two-part “Razor,” aired earlier than the rest of the season and designed for sale as a movie. To accommodate this request, the two-part episode had to stand alone, not follow the third-season finale. ”Razor” takes place late in the second season, as Lee Adama adapts to being in command of the Pegasus. Interspersed are two sets of flashbacks: the first showing events on the Pegasus, prior to its appearance in “Pegasus,” and the second showing William Adama’s actions during the final days of the First Cylon War. (This second set of flashbacks, in expanded form, became the show’s second web series, entitled “Razor Flashbacks.”) Moore said he chose the Pegasus because of its popularity, and the two flashbacks definitely provide much of the two-part episode’s memorable moments. Unfortunately, because the two-part episode is best watched in sequence with the second season, its quality may be seen as augmenting that one, rather than adding to the fourth’s.
In the rest of the fourth and final season, the show’s metaphysics, which had clashed with its gritty realism almost from the beginning, become much more of a problem. Kara Thrace’s resurrection isn’t explained — she doesn’t remember her death, but she soon seems mystically able to find the way to Earth by following her gut, through seemingly random jumps through space. The acquitted Gaius Baltar becomes a monotheistic religious leader, which is a fascinating context in which to watch him, although his healing powers and religious beliefs seem to be true. Instead of examining the sociological implications of religion, bravely making the show’s humans polytheistic, the show now seems to endorse a monotheistic point of view, then using it as an excuse for plot.
To be fair, that’s not all the fourth season does. Its depiction of Baltar adrift in this new context is fascinating on its own terms, even if the truth of this new context sends the show careening off the rails. Watching the four members of the Final Five struggle with this revelation is also suitable dramatic fuel. A tenuous alliance with some Cylons develops. In the mid-season finale, the fleet does arrive at Earth (albeit through Starbuck’s silly mysticism) — only to find the colony already devastated by nuclear war. The following episode, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” in which Saul Tigh struggles with memories of a life on this devastated Earth and the final member of the Final Five is revealed, is a strong suit. Afterwards, there’s a mutiny on board the Galactica, as the crew continues to deal with the disappointment of Earth. (A third web series, entitled “The Face of the Enemy,” premiered during the mid-season break but takes place after the following episode, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” helping to set up the mutiny plot.)
It’s here (with “No Exit”) that the final arc really begins, as Ellen Tigh returns the Galactica, which is falling apart. The Cylon named Boomer kidnaps Hera, the first child of a human and a Cylon, and returns to Cavil, leader of the “bad” Cylons. This sets up the rather disappointing final few episodes, which focus on the humans and the “good” Cylons rescuing Hera and defeating Cavil, who’s now positioned as the real bad guy behind everything — in a series that thrived on moral ambiguity.
At the very end, the crew settles on another newly-discovered habitable planet, found again through the deux ex machina of Starbuck’s mystical intuition. Spontaneously, the decision is made to abandon technology and settle there. Humans already live on the planet, which is revealed to be our own Earth, 150,000 years in the past. Are the similarities between our own culture and those of the show caused by the presence of these survivors, who interbreed with Earth’s humans? No, such cultural traits (e.g. the names of gods) would not persist for 150,000 years. Really, though, it all doesn’t matter, because all of this has been orchestrated by a divine being — the same one who resurrected Starbuck and was responsible for the “hallucinations” that Gaius Baltar experienced from the beginning. There’s cleverness and fun here, to be sure. But if the show begins in hard reality with a whiff of mysticism or metaphysics, it ends in mystical metaphysics with only a whiff of hard reality.
In October 2009, seven months after the series ended, Battlestar Galactica: The Plan was released for sale. The movie (about the length of two episodes) retells the events of the first two seasons from the Cylons’ point of view, revealing how Cavil coordinated the various human-looking Cylons on Galactica. This supports Cavil turning out to be the show’s main bad guy, but the movie is rather brilliant in how it weaves in and out of those old episodes, retroactively binding them into an ordered narrative.
In 2010, a prequel series entitled Caprica was launched, taking place 58 years before the Battlestar Galactica mini-series and starring William Adama as a boy. The series focused on the development of the Cylons by Graystone Industries. It also addresses virtual reality. The show is most successful, however, when exploring the alienation a human mind might feel in an android body, or that the loved ones of that human mind might feel towards its new form.
Unfortunately, the show seems to veer away from this original focus, diminishing in quality as it progresses (especially after the mid-season break). Fans of Battlestar Galactica weren’t entirely satisfied, since the show was so different — and deliberately so, since Moore and his collaborators didn’t want to repeat themselves. SyFy cancelled the show after one season, dumping the last five episodes to premiere instead on the network Space.
The final episode ends with clips of scenes set in the future, hinting at how the series might have continued and gotten closer to the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica. Sadly, it’s the most interesting part of the episode.
A second prequel, set 10 years into the First Cylon War (between Caprica and Battlestar Galactica) was announced in 2010. Originally, Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome was supposed to be a two-hour pilot for a new series, but it was released as a web series instead, finally appearing in late 2012.