On the Pleasures of Watching Battlestar Galactica Again

Lately Dustin and I have been watching Battlestar Galactica, him for the first time. By lately I mean “as of a week ago”, courtesy of a BBC marathon broadcast of the show. Some of my friends have questioned whether it holds up, whether it is “still good”, as it were, as much of the show’s initial suspense on a first watch-through is driven by the question of who the Cylons are, which of the cast are synthetic humans and which are not, and whether humanity will survive. On re-watching the show, a conventional take would be that the suspense is removed and the show would be dull.

What I discovered, though, was a different pleasure in the show. Spoilers to follow, so if you haven’t watched once through the first time, consider stopping here.

The original drama was about humanity suffering from a genocide, at the hands of a machine-made humanity, a silica-based life-form made to resemble humans, but with abilities that surpass them physically and mentally, the limits of being human–what are they, and at what point are you human, at what point, not? Can you come at being human from the other side, in other words—can you start out somewhere inhuman and make yourself human? This is more centrally the topic of the show once you know who the Cylons are, and what emerges is a different cadence to the dramatic irony. Boomer’s relationship with Chief, for example, Tigh and his wife Ellen’s reunion, these become more poignant rather than less, for how these are relationships between Cylons who both do and do not know who each other is, in ways conscious and unconscious, and the show’s original need to be conventionally suspenseful vanishes, replaced by another story, animated by the new dramatic irony of knowing what the rest of the crew does not. We are then watching the Cylons as characters variously lost within this human world they sought to enter, and finding each other again at the edge of catastrophe. A new plot emerges—will these new creatures, who sought to be human and then more than human, survive themselves? Can they find what it is they sought, or have they simply recreated the worst of what they hated about humanity inside themselves? The Cylon civil war, the idea that there are elders who are so lost in their dream of humanity that they’ve forgotten themselves, the robot who drinks to forget himself—if anything, the literary qualities of the show’s story increase on a second watching. I can’t wait to see how it changes the end.

The above image is from a fine recap of an episode from the original series that uses the former Expo 67 site, complete with excellent photos.

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