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January 2014

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Who would've thought the best drama on TV would be a remake of a campy, late 70s sci-fi disaster? Hey, I didn't - when I first heard of the BSG miniseries I vowed to never, ever watch it. This is from the channel that brought us such memorable made-for-TV movies as "Mansquito," and managed to completely misuse Bruce Campbell's talents in the depressingly bad "Alien Apocalypse" - an intentionally cheesy flick that somehow failed on every possible level.

But here we are. The new BSG is a re-envisioning of the basic concepts behind the late 70s failure, but it would be a horrible mistake to think of this as a true remake. Some of the names are the same, some of the style can be seen in costume and set design, and the basic premise - that a ragtag fleet of humans is desperately forging on after their entire civilization is destroyed by the Cylons - is in tact. At its core, though, this is a very different type of series aimed for a very different type of viewer, and it's probably the most "grown up" sci-fi I've ever seen on TV.

Picture, if you will, a group of characters who have just had everything they know destroyed by an enemy they created (in this BSG, the Cylons were made by man, became self-aware, rebelled, yadda yadda). You have the aging commander, pulled back into the service right as he was about to retire. You have the gritty officer fighting a not-so-well hidden drinking problem and a fear of command. And, of course, you have the Cylon who doesn't know she's a Cylon - for, you see, these Cylons can look, feel, and act just like humans.

There is a rather large cast of major players in BSG, and an even larger cast of side characters who we get to know at least enough to have a feeling of where they're coming from.

The fun thing about BSG for the viewer is that these characters all interact in delightful ways. The new President - an unassuming Secretary of Education thrust into the position as the President and the cabinet died - deals with the stress of her role remarkably well, and begins playing politics with the best of them, only to subsequently receive drug-induced religious visions that twist her actions to defy logic. The by-the-books squad leader suddenly follows his instincts at the most unlikely time. The hotshot pilot breaks under the stress and lets some of her crippling emotional pain show through. The inadvertantly traiterous scientist manages to somehow remain sympathetic as he's driven mad by the Cylons - even though we know he caused the downfall of man, on some level we still *want* him to get away with it all and redeem himself.

What you have is a bunch of characters who, while being mostly archetypical, are pushed into such difficult decisions and face such enormous stress that they end up showing some underlying depth beyond what we expect.

BSG is basically a study in how all of these characters deal with sequences of no-win scenarios. Every encounter with the Cylons could result in the end of the human race, and there is never a clearcut decision. Do you destroy that passenger ship that you suspect has been compromised and is carrying a Cylon nuke before it gets to the fleet? Do you abandon a personal friend who is stranded on a hostile planet and suspected dead, or do you wait for her despite knowing it's the wrong military decision and that you could be dooming your entire civilization?

It's this sort of gut-wrenching drama that makes BSG so different from most sci-fi. It's not moralistic and preachy (Star Trek: TNG), it's not silly and lighthearted alien blasting (Stargate SG:1), and it's not an epic struggle of good versus evil (Star Wars). What you have are likely characters in an unlikely situation, and more than any other sci-fi show I've seen this is a show about people. And while the Cylons are surely the bad guys, underneath everything they do is a motivation that we can't quite understand, but we have a sense that *something* is there - that the Cylons aren't just killing us for sport, that there's some grand purpose to everything they do.

The show that seems closest to BSG in my estimation is Babylon 5, but I think BSG works better on a more basic level. Even though B5 involved relatively complex people facing complex decisions, some of them were still wearing foam rubber costumes and globbing on a ton of makeup - stuff that's just really hard for a fan of dramas, but not necessarily of sci-fi, to take seriously. B5 was also more meticulous and lacked the urgency of BSG - in BSG *everything* happens so very quickly, and people are forced to respond with decisions that could doom or save everybody in the blink of an eye.

If you can suspend even a little disbelief and look past the space ships and robots, what you'll see in BSG is an impressive study of character interaction in situations where there can be no *right* action, only *some* action. I feel fairly safe in saying that BSG is the best show on TV right now, and I highly recommend it to anybody.

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