overthinking the idiot box

July 25, 2005

70s Sci-Fi Remakes: Everything Old Is New Again

by Andreanna Ditton

Everything old is new again. Don't think that's a bad thing.

This past television season has seen a revival of both Battlestar Galactica on SciFi, and the ninth Doctor Who on the BBC, two series that take the best of their predecessors and make the genre and the titles their own. These versions are darker, sexier and sassier than the originals, and they do what a remake, or a re-imagining, has the ability to accomplish yet very rarely does. Riffing off of the original concept, the creators expand on it, re-envisioning characters and themes with current terms and with current issues, building upon them to create something entirely new, with new weight and new momentum.

A whole new Dr. Who: One who tends to forget to shave.
Well, in the case of Doctor Who, the creators are following a long tradition set up to reinvent the character when the actor no longer wants to play him, but with Christopher Eccleston, they found a unique brand of brash, flamboyant, sexy and utterly appealing that is quite different from past doctors. He's still a Time Lord, still in charge of keeping the universe safe, still prone to indulging his curiosity, but the ninth doctor falls for the charms of a young companion, intrigued by her own matching curiosity and bravery. As he brings Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) with him, he finds his own perspective changing. It's a more intimate connection between doctor and companion than I remember from the old days of Tom Baker's wooly scarf (my primary exposure to Doctor Who), and it's one that works wonderfully. The same old threats are there — Daleks and Aliens Threatening Earth — but the doctor has a wicked new sort of joy, an overwhelming personality that hits you like a headlong rush and leaves you breathless. Writer Russell T. Davies took the old charms of the series and updated them for a modern audience. Battlestar Galactica did something a little...different.

For anyone who follows science fiction television, the story of Battlestar Galactica is well known. Piggy backing on the wake of Star Wars' success, the show debuted in 1978 to intense fan excitement and a sound critical panning. Eight months later it was both a cult classic and off the air. Two attempts at revival were met with tepid enthusiasm and quickly disappeared off the cultural radar. But the main conceit of the show stayed with a host of fans, as well as one of the original cast members: a civilization left in tatters, the survivors searching for salvation, searching for the 13th colony — Earth — that represented the last hope of those who remained. Paralleling both the Mormon religion of creator Glen Larson, and the residual cold war fears that plagued the late '70s, the story got bogged down in bad special effects, cutesy robot dogs, and the inevitability of high concept meets low budget.

I wanted the big, feathered hair and tight tan uniform with a gun on my thigh. I wanted, to steal a phrase from a good friend and superior writer, the Han Solo lifestyle.
Admittedly, I was a fan. A young fan, but a fan nonetheless. I had the record. I knew the part in the record where the blond woman in the toga died. I had a toy Viper, I had a tiny plastic robot dog and I both wanted to be Boxy and marry Apollo. And Starbuck. But mostly Apollo. I wanted the big, feathered hair and tight tan uniform with a gun on my thigh. I wanted, to steal a phrase from a good friend and superior writer, the Han Solo lifestyle. My father wanted me to watch Star Trek. We compromised.

I can't really say what the original show offered to other people. To me it was the eerie fear of the Cylons, the thrill and terror of piloting through space, shooting raiders out of the sky. It was the continuation of my Star Wars thrills made good on a weekly basis. It also represented the beginning of my own sci-fi geekery. I refuse to be ashamed.

Old vs. new.
Twenty some odd years later, the SciFi Channel announced plans to air a new miniseries based on the old series. It would star Edward James Olmos and the only thing that the uninformed fan knew was that it was going to be different. Very different. The sci-fi community, used to both mockery and disappointment, braced for the worst. Instead they got something compelling, a little longwinded, and with the potential to be boldly daring. The Cylons were human creations evolved into a genocidal race determined to wipe humans off the gene pool whiteboard and find god with a capital G. It was an apocalypse and a surviving fleet, civilians butting heads with the military and a blond, cocky girl wearing Starbuck's call sign. The mini earned decent ratings, better than decent reviews, and a slew of sci-fi/fantasy fans anticipating a new series, preparing for disappointment and vaguely hoping for something to replace other, beloved cancelled shows like Farscape and Firefly. Sure, we still had Stargate: SG-1, and Stargate: Atlantis was causing some Vulcan ears to perk up, but the latest Star Trek franchise was losing Nielsen points by the airing, and hour long drama was barely a blip on the radar, not to mention the lack of other genre programming.

When the series aired in the UK, the slow burn of the buzz could be heard all the way over the Atlantic. "It's good," we heard, noting the surprise in the voices and chatrooms. "It's really, really good, and I'm hooked," they said. The new incarnation of Battlestar Galactica is dark, it's political, it's messy and it's in space. The last, surprisingly, seems to be bothering people less than one would expect. In fact, aside from the hotly debated decision to make Starbuck a girl, the show is universally receiving raves from critics and fans alike. The strains of "best show on television" ring forth from a variety of publicity sources, and from journalists who suddenly seem smitten with sci-fi. Well, actually, that's not true. They seem smitten with the show, and full of a snide wonder that they're hooked on something speculative, something set in space, justifying their adoration by declaring the show "West Wing in Space", or science fiction without the sci-fi.

While these monikers make my skin crawl, make me want to scream at them and say open your bloody minds and actually watch some of this science fiction you claim to disdain, part of me gets it. It's much easier to parse human experience when you're dealing with the lofty concepts of genocide and apocalypse, layered in between father and son conflict, military and civilian life, sex and blood and death and cocky pilots playing poker and yearning for each other. So we've got a crazy scientist who helped end the human race, Cylons who are sexual and human and a purely terrifying threat, and the idea that anyone among us could be one of them. No one is safe. I can argue with utter conviction that other shows have done already done this. Farscape offered an incredibly rich depth and breadth of character and conflict, of story arc and sex appeal and raw, beautiful angst. It made me cry more often than The West Wing, even if space did make noise. Babylon 5 set the bar for continuity and epic scope. But some people are just uncomfortable around aliens.

Battlestar Galactica was revived because nostalgia brings in a hefty market share, despite the myriad failures of other movie or TV retreads. A recent New York Times article ("Ron Moore's Deep Space Journey," John Hodgman, July 17, 2005, Sunday New York Times Magazine) chronicles the journey that original Galactica star Richard Hatch and producer Ron Moore embarked upon to bring this revised vision to the screen, and while I can quibble with the "new kind of science fiction" label, I do find the fact that we are watching this show right now to be interesting.

Reality TV still roams the airwaves, but serial drama is making a definite comeback as people relinquish the idea that "Reality" bears any resemblance to reality and long for characters and storylines that intrigue as opposed to titillating like cheap chocolate and softcore porn. The success of the new Battlestar Galactica seems to have as much to do with timing as it does with quality.

Yes, it's a great show, stark and beautiful, dramatic, tense, exciting and well paced. It's also sometimes quite dour, too dark for many viewers, too pertinent to the lingering threats of terrorism and paranoia, to the thought of madness and betrayal and sleeper cells hidden in plain sight. Other great shows have failed before and will fail again, but the combination of timing and insight and the SciFi channel's clever, pervasive promotions have flown this Battlestar to the top of the critical darlings list. And yes, I am a fan. I love that Starbuck is a girl, I love that top tier actors like Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell are giving both the show and the genre a credence that it lacked previously — which is not to say that science fiction actors aren't top notch, but you can't tell me that Claudia Black or Sarah Michelle Gellar or any of the other genre actors haven't gotten shafted over and over again by the main awards ceremonies due to the fact that their TV work often included interacting with bumpy forehead varietals.

We live in a state of perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop, and with BSG, we have on our screens the worst possible scenario — a coordinated, contained effort by a known enemy that manages to infiltrate our borders without our knowledge, fooling us into seeing what we think we're seeing in order to destroy us. The betrayers succeed. It's a cultural nightmare made good.
As they say, however, it's all about time. Time flies, time bandits, rosemary and...oh wait, that's another show. We are living in a time of rampant fear, watching a war unfold that was supposed to be over two years ago but still shows no signs of abating. We get to the airport three hours early and we don't object to cavity searches or dirty feet or flight delays in the name of security. We live in a state of perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop, and with BSG, we have on our screens the worst possible scenario — a coordinated, contained effort by a known enemy that manages to infiltrate our borders without our knowledge, fooling us into seeing what we think we're seeing in order to destroy us. The betrayers succeed. It's a cultural nightmare made good. Those who survive are left to rebuild our society, to seek out our salvation, relearning our faith, reestablishing our values, stripping ourselves down to the barest, basest elements in order to keep society afloat, or in this case, adrift. The show appeals to a slew of dark instincts — most notably destruction and revenge — as well as to our political nature. Tom Zarek, a former terrorist played by the original series' Captain Apollo, Richard Hatch, stages a coup and a protest early in Season 1 when the Colonial Fleet and the newly established government want to use prisoners as a free workforce. Zarek's protest is heard by the new Captain Apollo (Jamie Bamber), who then finds that this former anti-hero is willing to shed blood in order to prove a point. His idealistic notions dashed, our brave captain must come to terms with Zarek's growing influence and the sway he holds over a segment of the population who feel that the new government is less democratic than fascist.

New to the Galactica remake are 12 models of Cylon that look exactly like humans, of which we've seen four, including manipulative blond sexpot Number Six, played by the beautiful and very intimidating Tricia Helfer, and Sharon "Boomer" Valeri. Yes, that Boomer. She doesn't know she's a Cylon, although the audience does. These models have been manufactured ad infinitum, and when one dies, the consciousness is uploaded into another body, creating an endless army of human skinned toasters. The original version of Six, who persuaded the duplicitous, brilliant, and sex-crazed Doctor Baltar (James Callas) to help her gain access to a military mainframe which helped end the world, has become part of Baltar's consciousness. We don't know if she's real or a figment or a split of his personality due to guilt, but Six has a power that many of the fully fleshed members of the crew lack.

Traitors among us, traitors in our midst and in our minds, and the appeal of people fighting a losing battle is impossible to ignore. The colonial fleet made up of the human citizens who are left are just that...left. But for now, on a desperate and misguided search for Earth, they are surviving in the face of overwhelming odds. This is the pioneering, never give up spirit that we want to see, along with the inevitable human foibles that don't go away in the face of apocalypse — love, jealousy, greed, ambition and base fear.

Mythology weaves through the visual text — Greek and Latin, ancient and cyberized — creating one of the most interesting assessments of religion and mysticism and faith that I've seen explored. At the heart is Laura Roslin, former Secretary of Education and currently president of the free society, being the only successor to survive the Cylon attacks. Dying of cancer, Roslin seems to be the main figure of an ancient prophecy that predicts that a leader will bring her people to the 13th colony. The signs all fit, and between the hallucination causing medication that Roslin takes, and the events that are unfolding around her, the truth of the prophecy seems like a reasonable assumption to make. However, the legitimately outrageous notion of a leader being guided by her faith and not by reason is one that is touched on in a way that is thought-provoking without being so outrageous that it doesn't bear thinking about. It also gives rise to the question of what role should faith play in decisions that affect an entire society.

Katee Sackhoff as Kara Thrace/Starbuck/The heart of the show.
Roslin represents the democratic process and as such carries her own cache. On the other hand, Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) leads the Colonial Fleet. He's a kind man, compassionate and strong, the "Old Man", dedicated father to his pilots and his crew, and distant paternal figure to his own son Lee. However, he's endlessly frustrated with the limitations put on his command and on his ability to keep the fleet and the armada of civilian ships safe as a result of the authority held by the civilian government. The conflicts between Roslin and Adama remain some of the most interesting that the series offers, behind only Roslin and Lee Adama's growing connection and the residual fallout from Kara Thrace (Starbuck)'s engagement to Zak Adama, Lee's brother, and the role she played in his death. Starbuck is the Commander's hotshot, both deus ex machina, and fully-fleshed fighter pilot bad ass. She is in some ways the heart of the series. Brash, impetuous, fucked up and immature, she's an ideal and a wide smile, a girl learning and a woman struggling with what she wants and why she wants it, learning to control her temper, harness her gifts and find some restitution here at the end of the world.

So yeah, the show has a number of engaging elements, resonates with current events and the new brand of super girl, and with viewers tired of watching sheened, plastic people play games to hook up or get their apartment redone. It doesn't hurt that the SciFi channel is putting all of their resources into marketing the show. Billboards in major areas of Los Angeles, new and innovative web strategies such as podcasting and putting the first episode up for download represent the channels commitment to the show's success, persuading viewers that they don't have to fear another abrupt cancellation of a favored series, and showing mainstream audiences that they've got something to be proud of.

Hitting on real life fears and questions, offering up speculation, drama, and alien free space, the show is breathing new life into a 20 year old concept, and showing other people how you really handle a remake.

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 9.