'Battlestar Galactica': A close look at the near-perfect pilot episode, 10 years later
- TV Show
10 years ago today, the pilot episode of Battlestar Galactica aired on the Sci-Fi channel—back before the Sci-Fi channel forgot how to spell its own name. The episode was called “33.” It wouldn’t be quite fair to call it the best pilot episode in the history of dramatic television; the show technically started 13 months earlier, with a two-part miniseries that introduced the universe of Battlestar Galactica, then basically destroyed that entire universe.
So you could argue that all the hard work was done before the writers started season one. They already had a dynamite cast; the characters had already been introduced; the show’s basic Haskell-Wexler-meets-Star-Trek aesthetic was defined. Then again, you could also argue that “33” had a higher degree of difficulty than most pilots. In one hour of television, the show had to move onwards from the miniseries—but it also had to functionally reintroduce the show’s sprawling cast and elaborate mythology to viewers who might have missed that miniseries, in the long-ago days before streaming video.
Also worth pointing out: Most TV pilots aren’t called Battlestar Galactica, a High Nerd title that felt designed to chase away unadventurous audiences. The show had to figure out a way to please the knives-out fanbase of the original late-’70s Battlestar Galactica—a fascinating and unusual and endearingly flawed one-season cheesebomb that left a bigger cultural footprint than shows that lasted 10 times as long. The new Battlestar Galactica was airing on a cable network that got no respect. The genre of space TV shows was trending downwards; the last and worst Star Trek series was just finishing up an undistinguished run on UPN, a network that was also about to finish up its undistinguished run.
And all of this is ignoring the significant ambitions of the new Battlestar Galactica—ambitions that the miniseries had hinted at, but which would only become clear as the show progressed. Showrunner Ronald D. Moore wanted to make a show that honored its source material—he would always say that the original Battlestar started out as a much darker space fantasy, before network meddling converted it into a goofier Trek Wars mishmash. He also wanted to make a new kind of space show. Moore had worked on three Star Trek series, and you can almost read Battlestar Galactica as a compilation of Things You Can’t Do On Star Trek. (Sex? Booze? Ships that don’t self-repair between episodes? Check, check, check.)
Battlestar Galactica would be a political show and a military show, a philosophical treatise on the question of God and a pulpy genre show with spacefights and skimpily-dressed blondes. It would be a show that brought a sense of realism to an unreal genre: Characters wearing mid-2000s clothes, using recognizably non-future-y technology. But you hesitate to overstate a word like “realism.” This was also a show with dream sequences and a key character who was either an angel, a hallucination, or a villainous holographic projection embedded in another character’s frontal lobe. It would be a show that was recognizably about America…yet it was shot in Canada, with a polyglot cast playing pantheistic characters. (The first season originally aired in Britain, months ahead of the American debut.)
Somehow this is all there in “33.” The episode starts with a series of shots that aren’t immediately linked together: A man, sleeping; a clock, ticking; the same man, somewhere else, somewhen else; ships fired out into the dead of space; a man in one of those ships; more clocks, ticking; another man, looking very grim indeed.
And right about now is when a very attractive blonde woman appears—in that other place and other time, somewhere bright and sunny and wealthy-looking—and says “God has a plan for you, Gaius. He has a plan for everything and everyone.”
I first experienced Galactica on a roommate’s first-season DVD. I hadn’t watched the miniseries; this all felt beyond abstract. But even if you watched the miniseries, it’s not immediately clear what’s happening here. This would be a common Battlestar Galactica opening: Thrown into the deep end, in medias res. And it was a microcosm of the show’s greater narrative strategy. The broad strokes of Battlestar Galactica were taken straight from the original series—last humans in the universe on the run from a nasty race of human-hunting robots. But the show loved complicating our understanding of the characters, constantly reorienting our basic understanding of the good-and-evil layout.
And this opening is also an example of how the show loved to shuttle between the cosmic and the microcosmic. We overhear some dialogue and figure out that nobody has slept in a very long time. The Galactica and the remaining ships that comprise humanity keep on using their Faster-Than-Light jump to get away from the Cylons—but every 33 minutes, the Cylons reappear. How are they tracking the humans?
After five days, the humans have no idea. And they are tired. Everyone in the cast looks wiped, unshaven and pale. Extra credit to Katee Sackhoff, the endlessly expressive actress who played bruised-tough soul-of-the-show Starbuck. You watch this moment, and you try to remember if Sulu ever looked tired:
So it’s a high-stakes setup, with a literal ticking-clock. But “33” has the patience to note tiny details. After the first jump, the Galactica crew takes a breather. Commander Bill Adama and his second-in-command, Saul Tigh, have a brief moment in the Commander’s room. Adama shaves; Tigh notices what appears to be ramen, and only asks if he can have some after he takes his first bite:
Battlestar Galactica was a cheap show. If you ignore the digital effects in “33,” you notice how the pilot basically takes place in three sets, a corridor, and a cockpit. But the show made that cheapness into a virtue and an aesthetic choice. Here’s the heroic Captain Apollo, addressing his team of badass pilots, standing in front of a whiteboard and speaking into a microphone that would’ve been too cheap for your high school AV club.
Speaking of whiteboards, here’s one of the first indelible images from a show that was full of them: President Laura Roslin, deleting a few hundred souls from the population of the human race:
A whiteboard! “33” is full of moments like that: The dissonance of banal office supplies onboard a spaceship. Another indelible image from the pilot: The photos of missing family members pasted along the walls of a Galactica corridor.
At the time, this all vibed very 9/11—and if you watched Battlestar Galactica while it was airing, it will always be hard to separate the show from that milieu. (Later seasons would continually recast the protagonists as terrorists, insurgents, and religious fundamentalists; a common subplot would see one character declare himself the head of a military authoritarian regime.) But if you just watch “33” now, 10 years away from context, you can maybe appreciate it in the vacuum of pure storytelling.
“33” keeps cutting back to one of the show’s central arcs: Egomaniacal superscientist Gaius Baltar and the blonde, human-esque Cylon who tortures his daydreams. The Cylon—she never quite got a name, although fans called her “Head Six;” I would explain, but this post is already trending SubReddity—seems blissfully unconcerned with the whole “all of humanity keeps getting attacked by murderous robots” plotline. She asks Baltar if he wants children. She talks to him about God. “There is no God!” declares Baltar.
‘Round and ’round they go. Another great thing about “33” is the fleetfooted way it establishes the show’s central relationships. There’s Baltar and Six, constantly shifting from secret allies to playful enemies to gonzo lovers…
…and there’s Apollo and Starbuck, who go from screaming at each other to laughing in the span of a couple seconds—a fine premonitory summation of one of the more twisted will-they-or-won’t-theys ever…
…and of course there’s Commander Adama and President Roslin. The two chief authority figures on the show don’t actually have a scene together in the pilot. Adama’s on the Galactica, inside the CIC, which stands for “Combat Information Center” and which looks like the bridge of a Soviet submarine converted into an off-track betting parlor. Roslin’s on Colonial One, with her whiteboard.
But Adama and Roslin share a phone conversation, shot by frequent BSG director Michael Rymer with intimate close-ups on the whispering actors:
They’re talking serious business. There’s the bare hint of an old fashioned jurisdictional measuring contest. Roslin asks how much longer the fleet has to stay on alert. “Until I’m satisfied they’re not gonna return,” Adama says, gruff. “It’s a military decision,” he continues, gruffer.
But at one point, there’s a long pause. They breathe. “Are you there?” asks Roslin. He is there. Even if you haven’t seen a single episode of what came after, you watch “33” and you know he always will be. (Look closer at those screenshots. The phones have cords.)
The climax of “33” weaves all these plot threads together with expert precision. There’s a scientist who needs to give President Roslin important information about a traitor in their midst. Is he going to name Baltar? That scientist is on a ship called the Olympic Carrier…which disappears during one of the jumps. Does it disappear because God loves Baltar? It reappears after a long delay…then, 33 minutes later, the Cylons follow. Is God punishing Baltar for his lack of faith?
Is all this God stuff too much for you? (It was, for some fans—the wonderful-but-extremely-strange final season of BSG goes Full Spirituality, and some people never forgave it for that.) “33” always grounds the heavy stuff in genuine drama. When the Olympic Carrier reappears, Baltar advises the President to cut off radio contact. What happens if they don’t? “They’ll send another computer virus and blow us all up!” When Baltar says that, he sounds like a crazy person, an alarmist, a paranoiac. But what if he’s right?
Adama agrees with him—and we fall right down the rabbithole of Battlestar Galactica‘s security-state allegory. Maybe the Cylons are tracking the Olympic Carrier; in that case, the ship must be destroyed. But Roslin identifies another problem: “What if they’re tracking one of the passengers?” There are 1345 people onboard the Carrier. Is one of them a Cylon agent? Or could it be that the Cylons are tracking someone onboard…and that person doesn’t even know it? How do you test for that? Especially when you only have 33 minutes at a time? Especially when no one in the universe has slept more than a few minutes in five days?
It’s at this moment that the Olympic Carrier stops responding to radio contact. And it’s at this moment that the pilots circling the Carrier get some very disturbing readings: radiation. The Olympic Carrier is carrying nukes.
The camera cuts to an extreme long shot. The fleet in the distance, the Carrier moving forward. Purposefully or coincidentally, it resembles a gigantic missile, moving towards what’s left of humanity with the dull, horrific purpose of a shark fin in a Jaws movie.
The show frames its lead characters in moments of crisis—but it’s important to remember that the crisis is purely psychological. Will Baltar accept the Cylons’ God? Will President Roslin give the go-ahead to fire upon the Carrier? (One of the pilots flies by the Carrier and claims they can’t see anyone onboard, but they’re just looking through a few windows of a ship the size of a skyscraper.)
We’re back to that impressionistic opening at the climactic moment. Baltar and Six debate the cosmic; Roslin and Adama make sweeping decisions to save the human race; Apollo and Starbuck have their guns pointed straight at the Carrier. We move inexorably from macro to micro, from a President in the midst of an internal dorm-room debate—maybe everyone on the Carrier is dead! maybe they aren’t dead! needs of the many! needs of the few! known knowns! unknown unknowns!—to a thumb on a control stick, one millimeter away from the red button of death.
And then, another great image: Apollo fires. And for a few seconds, the camera lingers on his face, and we see the light from cannonfire reflecting in his visor.
The Carrier is destroyed. The fleet escapes. 24 hours later, the Cylons haven’t followed them. The President’s aide tells her, “At least you know you made the right choice.” Roslin responds by repeating “the right choice,” like it’s a phrase she’s never heard before and won’t ever get to say again.
The destruction of the Olympic Carrier was Battlestar Galactica‘s breaking-all-the-rules moment. You can see an earlier, lamer version of the show, where the drama would have been derived from how the characters figure out how to beat the Cylons—where Captain Apollo and his crack team of badasses manage to save the Carrier. “33” announces that Battlestar Galactica is not that kind of show.
We never see inside the Cylon ships. There are no cuts to a nefarious enemy captain, shaking his evil robo-fist at the heroic humans. For that matter, we never see inside the Olympic Carrier. Did the Cylons take over the ship and kill the passengers? Or were the passengers onboard—meaning our chief protagonists killed a thousand innocent people before the end of the series premiere? The Olympic Carrier incident was explicitly referenced later in the show, as an example of the lunatic moral relativism underlying the characters’ (generally futile) attempts to construct a genuine society out of the ruins of civilization.
There’s so much more to appreciate in “33.” The show had a gift for witty, layered dialogue. Baltar carries on simultaneous conversations with the woman in his head and with the people around him. At one point, someone points out that one pilot, Boomer, doesn’t even look tired. “She’s a Cylon!” jokes Starbuck. (She is.)
If the pilot has an off-note, it’s the occasional cuts back to the show’s only initial terrestrial subplot: Stranded pilot Helo back on Caprica, running through a rainy forest and barely staying ahead of the evil robotic Cylons. Battlestar Galactica‘s space battles still look lo-fi impressive—the jingly-jangly faux-camera, the distant-rumble sound effects—but the extremely animated Cylon Centurions feel a bit jarring to 2015 eyes.
Still, this strand has its pleasures—like the vision of an exploded Centurion, a death machine transformed into a pitiful torso with a shiny helmet.
But again, the show’s low budget isn’t just part of its charm. The budget’s right at the core of what made Battlestar Galactica so great, and so much better than pretty much any other genre show that followed in its wake. (Which is something I’ll be addressing in a piece later this week.) Hell, Ronald D. Moore recently stated that one of the central, brilliant twists of the series—the idea that Cylons look just like humans—came entirely from the fact that the budget couldn’t support cool-looking robots.
And maybe that’s why so many of “33”‘s moments are quiet. There’s a visual motif that the show would repeat often: The moment that the Galactica jumps to light speed just in the nick of time, and the moment afterwards when enemy missile trails fly through the ship’s absence into the endlessness of outer space.
And there’s the final grace note of “33,” when Roslin gets the first bit of good news in an epoch. The population of humanity has changed again; a baby was born, somewhere in the fleet. Break out the dry-erase marker; change “47,972” to “47, 973.”
That’s Battlestar Galactica: the cosmic-pulp odyssey that never forgot how much one life mattered. That’s “33”: one of the great episodes of TV history,
60 40-ish minutes of outer-space battle and outer-limits emotion and high-tension geopoliticking and desperate times calling for desperate measures. And the closest thing we get to a triumph of the human spirit is a number on a whiteboard, counting up rather than down.