The best way to watch Battlestar Galactica is to stop halfway through
Syfy is airing a full-series marathon of 2004's Battlestar Galactica starting Monday, but the best way to watch the acclaimed reboot is to stop at nearly the exact midpoint of the show.
For the show's first two-and-a-half seasons, BSG is spectacular and groundbreaking entertainment. The show opened with a perfect four-minute hook (below). This was from what's called the show's "miniseries," but it was really a multi-hour backdoor pilot for the rest of the series. We learn humanity had a war with a robot race called the Cylons, a truce was called, and now nobody has seen a Cylon in decades. Then one abruptly shows up — and "she" looks and acts nothing like what we expect.
We're quickly introduced to the crew of the Galactica as it grapples with survival in the aftermath of an apocalypse. Arrogant pilot Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) — which arguably launched, to considerable uproar at the time, the trend of casting women in roles previously held by male actors. Steely Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos). Drunken executive officer Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan). The moral yet cancer-struck President Roslin (Mary McDonnell). The selfish and brilliant Baltar (James Callis).
The drama was accompanied by a score by Bear McCreary that still stands as one of the best created for a TV series. The first official episode, "33," is what Star Wars: The Last Jedi was going for with the whole "Resistance being tracked through light speed by the First Order armada" chase, only in BSG it actually made sense, and the suspense never let up.
What came next was a gravity-defying run of episodes that frequently served as an allegory for the post-9/11 world and the war on terror. Sure, there were occasional duds (the notorious "Black Market"). But time and time again, showrunner Ronald D. Moore took bold chances that somehow worked. There was a riveting arc where the Galactica encounters another ship, the Pegasus, led by Admiral Helena Cain (Michelle Forbes), who outranked Adama, and the Battlestar crew wrestled with whether to follow Cain's increasingly tyrannical and reckless orders. (Note McCreary's score in this sequence, punching miles above the weight class of basic cable.)
Another peak is when the show made an abrupt one-year time jump. At the time, the jump was one of the most shocking moves I had ever seen in a TV series (BSG was once again making a move that would become a widely adopted storytelling trend years later). Again, a massive risk that paid off. The jump took the drama into new directions that were every bit as compelling as the episodes that led up to it. Here's the time-jump scene.
The run of greatness climaxed early in season 3 when the Battlestar crew is enslaved by the Cylons on New Caprica. Here the show's war-on-terror analogy came to a head, only now putting viewers on the side of a group suffering under the thumb of a technologically superior occupying force. The episodes "Exodus" Part I and II concluded with spectacular action and heartbreaking twists.
And that's right where you arguably should end your watch. You will want more after "Exodus." Who wouldn't? BSG was fantastic. And there's nothing wrong with watching the rest. There are some fine moments along the way. But I would contend that the optimal viewing experience of BSG is to stop with "Exodus, Part II" after 39 episodes (including the miniseries). It's not an ideal ending. Much is left unresolved. But it wraps a long succession of narrative and feels like a more satisfying outcome than you get with the remaining 36 episodes.
If you venture further, at first things are okay. After all the intense drama on New Caprica, one expected a bit of wheel-spinning in the episodes immediately following.
Then the missteps began (spoilers ahead).
There was Starbuck's death and mystical resurrection.
The jarring decision to use "All Along the Watchtower" as a recurring beacon.
The increasing number of dull meeting scenes among the Cylon command team (it seemed like an effort to humanize the Cylon "other," but as a group, they just weren't interesting).
And then there was the move that arguably broke the narrative: The season 3 finale was originally going to focus solely on Baltar's trial. But the trial didn't feel like enough, Moore has said. The story felt like it needed something else. So the decision was made to make five longtime human characters secret Cylons. "I had a nagging sense that it wasn't big enough," Moore explained. "And I literally made it up in the [writers'] room, I said, 'What if four of our characters walk from different parts of the ship, end up in a room and say, Oh my God, we're Cylons? And we leave one for next season.' And everyone said 'Oh my God,' and they were scared, and because they were scared, I knew I was right."
But entirely reworking well-established characters halfway through a show isn't the same as doing a story twist or a time jump. Every previous scene with the newly revealed Cylons was scripted, performed, and shot with the intention they were on Team Human, so it felt less shocking than incongruent with the first half of the show. For one character, in particular, Saul Tigh, perhaps the show's best example of broken humanity, the retcon felt utterly wrong. In the case of another, Aaron Douglas' Tyrol, the move created plot holes. It was a bold decision by a drama whose success had been partly due to its bold decisions, but this time it felt more like a wrecking ball.
Here's the reveal of four of the five. As Tory (Rekha Sharma) put it, "Please tell me this isn't happening."
Season 4 struggled for coherence as the show attempted to make the Final Five Cylon reveal part of a logical and compelling story. Yet the show slipped from what was once a grounded-feeling narrative into one that relied on religious mysticism — not necessarily because such fantasy made the show better, but because it was the only way to explain its irrevocable plot moves.
All that said, the much-derided three-part finale, "Daybreak," has some excellent moments, particularly on an emotional level. There are moving scenes in the last hour, particularly between Baltar and Six (Tricia Helfer), Adama and Roslin, and Apollo (Jamie Bamber) and Starbuck. (Baltar's final line, "You know, I know about farming," is a wonderful example of an understated line carrying so much meaning.)
In some ways, BSG was the victim of a TV model that still thought successful shows should have as many episodes as possible per season in order to maximize ad revenue. The show came along when networks were still figuring out how to pull off intensely serialized dramas in the wake of ABC's Lost and HBO's The Sopranos. The first BSG season was only 13 episodes, and the result was perfect. The second and third seasons were 20 episodes each, and the fourth was 21 episodes — way too many per season for this kind of story. If BSG were launched today, executives would keep the show's commitment lower to keep the story train from running off the tracks. That the show managed to maintain its quality so deep into its run is rather astonishing, and there still hasn't been a space drama launched since (including The Expanse) that's managed to surpass BSG ... not its first 39 episodes, anyway.