Galactica, Frac Yeah!

Season 3 (.0) of Battlestar Galactica launches tonight on Sci-Fi, at 8/9 pm CDT/EDT. Those of you who watch the show already know what’s happening and why you need to watch. Let me enlighten the rest of you.

As I mentioned in my rundown of my top picks for the past year’s TV, this is the best show on American television. I don’t toss around such praise lightly, as I’m probably too defensive about my tastes (i.e., usually too readily to admit other’s critiques and/or nitpicking). I don’t mean “best,” as in “well, it’s better than most of the crap that’s on,” or “it’s not so bad.” No, I mean “best” as in you really need to watch it. As in, this is a milestone not only in its immediate genre (SF), but in television narrative as a whole.

What is it like? OK, you know those moments in The Sopranos, or The Wire, or Six Feet Under, or Deadwood, or Homicide, that made you go “whoa!”? That is, those moments that suddenly jolted you out of the standard TV comfort zone into somewhere genuinely moving and/or disturbing? BG thrives on such moments. Moreover, they’re always character-driven and context-driven, i.e., coming from the complex layers and relationships of our regulars, and, far more than anything else on TV today, the contradictory fabric of our contemporary culture.

Moral ambiguity is this series’ virtual raison d’etre. There are no easy answers. Nobody, including, amazingly, the genocidal “villains” of the premise, the AI-derived Cylons, is portrayed in pure hues of black or white. The radical question the show posits is direct and chilling: is it enough to survive by any means necessary, or must you be worthy of survival? Every character on the show is streaked with deep shades of gray as they navigate their ways around that question.

As much as I love Star Trek, in most of its incarnations (peaking with the still underrated Deep Space Nine, on which BG creator Ron Moore served as a writer-producer for many seasons), BG is richer. It’s messier. It’s uglier. It has precious few moments of pure triumph. It boots TV SF out of its self-imposed ghetto of zap-pow good guys vs. bad guys (as well as, in much latter day Trek, banal, feckless navel-gazing), and into the harsher, far more compelling, light of political and psychological drama. It didn’t win this year’s Peabody Award for nothin’, folks.

For the unitiated, there’s a recap special available on the show’s official website and elsewhere. I have to admit that the recap itself is a bit of a hodge-podge of moments, glossing over lots of important stuff (e.g., the entire Pegasus/Cain saga from last season), but it’ll get you up to speed. The short version of the recap is this: somewhere far out in our galaxy, humanity has been virtually wiped out by a race of AIs, the Cylons, who were created by humans decades before. Only 50,000 humans survive, and have fled into deep space in a “rag-tag” fleet led by the remaining military ship, the Galactica. At the end of the second season, through various political machinations, the fleet has settled on a harsh, though livable, planet they’ve dubbed New Caprica. A year passes (much of which we’ll learn about this season, a la DC’s 52) without any Cylon intrusion. And then the Cylons return, rapidly taking over New Caprica, and what’s left of humanity. Human insurgents (for what else could they be?) begin plotting a guerilla war against the Cylons. And that’s where we are when Season 3 starts tonight.

Lastly, yes, the title of the series is a bit crap (or “rubbish,” as my friends in the UK would say, when they’re not saying “crap”). It’s what they inherited from the original 70s series, and it alone probably keeps a lot of the (ahem) “cool” crowd away (but y’all have no problem with The OC, do ya? Hypocrites, the lot of ya.). But it’s also one of its nice ironies. To paraphrase co-EP David Eick, how cool is it that the most audacious, most politically-aware, most uncompromising drama on TV is called…Battlestar Galactica?

Tip o’ the hat to Trey Parker and Matt Stone for this post’s title.

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