The Universal Appeal of 'Battlestar Galactica' A revived, retooled Battlestar Galactica is a hit TV show on the Sci-Fi channel. But it's popular with an audience that goes beyond traditional borders of the science fiction audience.
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The Universal Appeal of 'Battlestar Galactica'

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The Universal Appeal of 'Battlestar Galactica'

The Universal Appeal of 'Battlestar Galactica'

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I'm going to name a television show and I predict you're going to think of campy plastic spaceships and tin can robots. Okay, ready? Here we go: Battlestar Galactica. Yes, half my friends have that reaction too, especially when they hear that it's on cable's Sci-Fi Channel, home of some of TV's most cheeseball fantasy shows. To name one: Beastmaster.

But the new updated Battlestar Galactica is not only not cheesy, it takes on some of the most complex ethical issues of our time. Still, don't take my word for it. WEEKEND EDITION's entertainment critic Elvis Mitchell joins us from NPR's studios in New York.

Elvis, hello.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Why, you just made me hungry for a cheese ball, talking about...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Elvis, okay, I confess, I love this show. It's dark. It's like film noir, almost. The characters are complex and the storylines are relevant, of all things. Critical reviews also back me up, don't they?

MITCHELL: Yes, nice to have the critics turn around and be right every once in a while. I think what's great about the show, though, there tend to be two kinds of sci-fi shows: you have the Star Trek model or the Star Wars model. The Star Wars model is the model where basically it's big epic adventure. And the old Battlestar Galactica tried to capture that, but the writers imagination wasn't up to it, just because they didn't - they weren't as adept at stealing as George Lucas was.

And then on Star Trek, you basically have a C-Span of the future, where people sat around and talked about their problems.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MITCHELL: And every once in a while, somebody will say, Captain, there's something on the screen.


MITCHELL: Now, this current one is like neither, actually. It does sort of take that realistic step. Because what is I think at the heart of all great science fiction is paranoia, this fear that there's a force out there or forces out there, that are smarter than we are, that are greater than we are, that are shrewder than we are, and that the human race is going to come to its end. And this current season has basically sort of taken that paranoia and ramped it up a bit by making this whole tableau feel like Iraq. And suddenly the humans are no longer the superior force but the invaded force.

SEABROOK: The story right now has the humans versus the robot Cylons. But it actually has a lot to do with insurgency and occupational forces. This is not calm, nice science fiction. For instance, let me play you a clip from a recent episode. This is where we have the former president of the humans, who is now an insurgent leader, talking to this sort of puppet president of the humans who is working with the robot Cylons. And she's in jail and he is visiting her there.

(Soundbite of Battlestar Galactica)

Mr. JAMES CALLIS (Actor): (As Dr. Gaius Baltar) Look me in the eye and tell me that you approve of sending young men and women into crowded places with explosives strapped to their chests. I'm waiting for you to look me in the eye and tell me that you approve. Thirty-three people killed, and their only crime was putting on a police uniform trying to bring some order to the chaos out there.

Ms. MARY MCDONNELL (Actress): (As Laura Roslin) By arresting innocent people in the dead of night, detaining them indefinitely without charge, torturing them...

Mr. CALLIS: (As Gaius Baltar) Wait a minute.

Ms. MCDONNELL: (As Laura Roslin) ...for information!

Mr. CALLIS: (As Gaius Baltar) Nobody's been tortured.

Ms. MCDONNELL: (As Laura Roslin) Tell that to Colonel Tigh.

SEABROOK: Sounds familiar, doesn't it, Elvis?

MITCHELL: So horrifyingly familiar. And the sort of panic you can see in Mary McDonnell's eyes as she's sort of faced with these facts, these things that she's been doing, adds an extra layer of drama, I think, to the show.

SEABROOK: This is the first time I have ever seen anybody on an American news network or in a drama like this try and show its viewers suicide bombings from the point of view of the suicide bombers.

MITCHELL: And that's what this show is really adept at doing, is turning the tables. In the first season we found that one of the characters we really liked, Sharon, one of the ace fighter pilots turned out to be one of the Cylons who had infiltrated the humans. That was a great moment. And it basically told us fairly early on that nothing was as it seemed and we had to pay attention to it.

And I think that maybe that moment, to me, made this show more interesting than some of the other basic cable shows, like Nip Tuck or The Shield, which was kind of about this sort of free floating nihilism. These people are fighting for freedom. There's a fight for liberty here, and by sort of changing the points of view and forcing the characters to change their points view, we get a chance to see what it's like when they're the victors, to when they're the defeated and have to figure a way out of the mess they've gotten themselves into.

SEABROOK: It's also won a Peabody this year. Do you have any idea, any teasers for this season?

MITCHELL: I know a bit. But I think people should tune into it. And I really recommend that people get those early shows.


MITCHELL: Because unlike the serialized shows that are on now a days, when you kind of get an entry point, you have to pay attention to this show. The assumption is that this audience is intelligent. In fact, there are some things that are perpetually left dangling.

I think there's still a stigma attached to science fiction, because so many people do think that these shows fall into one of these two models. And Battlestar Galactica is just so much more than that.

SEABROOK: Well, there you have it, WEEKEND EDITION breaking the stigma.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Elvis Mitchell, WEEKEND EDITION's entertainment critic and host of The Treatment on KCRW.

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