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Why isn't this robot more popular?

'Battlestar Galactica’ returns with as much allure as ever.

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

Originally published on January, 21, 2007

In every way possible, “Battlestar Galactica” is the little space opera that could. Tonight at 9 p.m., the Sci-Fi Channel's “Battlestar Galactica” returns for the second half of its third season, boldly going where no science fiction show has gone before.

Back in 2003, when NBC aired the four-hour miniseries that rebooted the ’70s B-grade cult show, it seemed like something of a lark, a big budget in-joke for sci-fi geeks. Everyone I know who watched it had the same thought: “I love it, but who else is possibly going to watch this thing, let alone like it as much as I do? Who else is going to get this?”

A lot of folks, as it turned out, but not as many as might be necessary to keep it alive over the long term. The show's first season was a ratings smash for the Sci-Fi Channel, until then known mostly for reruns, and gained a strong British following.

Four years, three seasons and two battlestars later, the ongoing “Galactica” series is one of the most critically acclaimed dramas of our young century, praised for its complicated allegories and rich characters. Many critics and fans think it’s the best sci-fi show that’s ever aired.

Even newbies know the basics: The robotic Cylon race — whom its human creators have not seen in 40 years — launches a surprise attack on humans of the Twelve Colonies, nuking all 12 planets. Fewer than 50,000 or so humans remain, a “ragtag fugitive fleet,” as the old show put it, led by Admiral Bill Adama (eternally taciturn Edward James Olmos), commander of an aging battlestar called Galactica, towards a mythical 13th colony called Earth. Meanwhile, 12 models of Cylons who look like humans — as opposed to the toaster-esque infantry — have infiltrated (and reproduced with!) the refugees.

There's plenty of action, great-looking actors and controversy to spare.

Yet ratings hover at or below 2.0, or 2.2 million households, which is a little rough even by basic cable standards.

While many cable shows debut in the summer or midseason so as to avoid the rush of network premieres, Season 3 of “Galactica” premiered in October, up against baseball and dramas that had already bowed in September. It scored a mere 1.8, which dropped to a 1.6 for the next week.

In fairness, niche cable channels such as Sci-Fi and FX are available to far fewer homes than broadcast network programming, and not all cable channels carry Sci-Fi on basic service. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted, many fans download the show from iTunes or record it on DVRs to watch later. And like “The Sopranos” and “Deadwood,” many fans don’t bother watching the show during the season and wait for the DVDs.

Perhaps in an effort to give it a fresh start, “Galactica” returns this evening on a new night — moving from Friday to Sunday — and sports a new lead-in, switching from the anemic “Doctor Who” to the fresh “The Dresden Files.”

But, as the Associated Press noted on Wednesday, contracts with the show’s actors expire in February and the Sci-Fi Channel has declined to comment on the possibility of a Season 4, though “Galactica” producer Ronald D. Moore has said Season 3, which recently completed shooting, ends on a cliffhanger.

So why can’t “Galactica” pull better numbers while its hardcore fanbase gets still more fanatical? It has engaged viewers by both ignoring certain sci-fi tropes and wholeheartedly embracing others. But perhaps those very elements which led to its critical success are the reasons for its struggle to find a mass audience.

Ignoring the rules

The original "Star Trek" also suffered from low ratings, but we know what happened to that franchise.

Moore was a key writer and producer at “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” so he knows traditional TV sci-fi from the phasers to the warp drive. The world of “Star Trek” was known for its civilized Federation of Planets and professional vibe, all antiseptic surfaces and jumpsuit uniforms. The officers of Starfleet rarely broke a sweat, let alone snapped at (or slept with) one another. The camera work was steady as Captain Picard's leadership. Stories were usually wrapped in one episode, never more than two.

In short, “Star Trek” was a procedural not unlike “Law and Order,” comfort food for the nerdy soul. Every week, you knew the Enterprise would (more or less) triumph and the status quo would remain unchanged.

For three seasons, “Galactica” has ignored all of these rules. It looks grungy and naturalistic, its vibe exhausted and grim, its camera work shaky and handheld. The ships are old and broken in, the equipment faulty and erratic. Everything comes with a visible weight and feel to it. They even have their own combustive swear word, with “frak” standing in for a popular English expletive.

Characters fight and make up, sleep together and fall apart. A love quadrangle between Lee “Apollo” Adama (Brit-hunk Jamie Bamber), Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (fan-favorite tomboy Katee Sackhoff) and their respective spouses has become a major plot point. The civilian President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) and Adama have gone from enemies to allies to grudging partners in keeping the human race going.

Gaius Baltar (James Callis) is one of the most complicated villains on TV, a man constantly torn between a massive ego, a dogged instinct for self-preservation and an inability to tell the two apart. Also, he's been having an affair with a Cylon, the willowy Number Six (model Tricia Helfer, who has done an amazing job playing several different versions of the character). And might be a Cylon himself. These folks actually evolve in a novelistic way, which is almost unheard of for sci-fi.

In addition, ever since Sept. 11, 2001, our nation experienced something of an apocalyptic mood, and entertainment has reflected as much. Even the nuke that went off Monday on “24” carried a bleak air of inevitability.

Moore has admitted the “Galactica” miniseries was a post-9/11 riff, a look at society's response to a traumatic attack. After all, the Cylons are fanatical monotheists convinced the secular/polytheistic humans have strayed from the one true God. Topics addressed in the show included prisoner torture, the ethics of abortion during a population crisis and the very nature of what makes us human.

But the show has been willing to flip the script more than once. At the end of the second season, the action jumped ahead one year, itself a bold move.

A new human settlement struggled to survive on a new world, a fetid, unpleasant place with too little medicine, hope and resources. The humans are a war-torn people displaced, their civilization slowly rebuilding. The civilian government, led by Baltar, was a corrupt joke and easily capitulated to Cylons, who quickly took it over. Now the humans are an occupied nation, dominated by a Cylon military convinced it will show them the one true way. The Cylons swear it's for the humans’ own good. As long as the humans offer no resistance, everyone will be just fine. Where the humans see war, the Cylons swear it means peace.

Heck, at the opening of the third season, members of the human resistance are even called “insurgents.” Cylons, originally stand-ins for Muslim extremists, now resemble American forces, while the humans, emphatically pluralistic Westerners at first, now bear a striking similarity to Iraqi civilians.

"Galactica" did nothing less than flip its own central allegory and survived.

"Star Trek" this ain't.

A Crimson hue?

As pop music critic Robert Christgau wrote recently in Rolling Stone, “We're in a prog moment.”

He was referring to a revival of the tropes of progressive rock, citing acts such as the indie rock harpist/composer Joanna Newsom, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and pomp rock stars My Chemical Romance. Prog rock is characterized by elaborate compositions, hairpin musical turns and overarching concepts. Songs are long, narrative in nature and detailed in execution.

I submit we're in a prog moment for TV as well. While dramedies such as “Grey's Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives” and procedurals such as “CSI” are popular, from “24” to “Lost” to “Heroes” to “The Shield,” plenty of hour-long dramas — thanks to complex backstories and plotting — demand careful, repeated viewing and season-long commitment.

“Galactica” feels even more prog, which, in music, has shared a long relationship with sci-fi and fantasy. Bastrop-based fantasy author Michael Moorcock formerly penned lyrics for Britprog titans Hawkwind. The movie “Children of Men” — which shares with “Galactica” an end-times feel — even makes explicit reference to prog rock, with King Crimson on the soundtrack and a background in one shot that looks like the cover to Pink Floyd's “Animals.”

The “Galactica” mythology is complicated, layered and an increasingly large part of the program. After all, the premise of the original show and the reboot is, as the narrator intoned on the old show, “Life here began out there, far across the universe!” The Cylon monotheists are as curious about their past as the human polytheists, and both races are trying to find the lost planet Earth and the salvation they're sure it holds.

In the finale to the first half of Season 3, the humans and the Cylons find themselves competing over a temple crucial to both of their theologies. The humans are convinced it will show them the way to Earth; the Cylons, who want the same thing, also think it will reveal “the final five,” the five human-looking Cylons whose existence has been hidden from the other seven human-looking models. With Baltar and the human-looking Cylon D'Anna/Number 3 (Lucy Lawless) both convinced they are their race's Chosen One. It's dippy and weird and a whole lot of fun. And boy, is it prog.

So where does the show go from here? Positioned as the sci-fi program for people who don't like sci-fi, and sporting a universe that jumps from gritty to space-god flaky, “Galactica” finds itself, as always, in a unique position in the TV landscape. Moore has already admitted that Season 3 finale, which concludes in the spring, contains a plot twist as radical as the rethink that closed Season 2, with the show’s direction, purpose and trajectory changed utterly, with no guarantee of a Season 4.

Sci-Fi Channel: Please don't nuke our endlessly fascinating colony.