"Galactica": Not To Be Pigeonholed

Edward James Olmos in "Battlestar Galactica"
SciFi Channel
The premise comes from a cheesy series from the '70s, but the new "Battlestar Galactica" goes beyond cosmic special effects and asks some big cosmic questions. Our David Edelstein explains.

You might think sci-fi spaceship shows are the province of adolescent fat boys and yeah, I watched 'em, but you can't pigeonhole "Battlestar Galactica." Women love it, too, and they should, since two of the three most vivid characters - the President and the hotshot fighter pilot - are females with iron wills and haunting vulnerabilities.

And if the battles in space are thrilling - and they are … they're wild dogfights with a great percussive score - they're secondary to more cosmic struggles.

At the risk of sounding pretentious, "Battlestar Galactica" is an existential epic. It turns on building a viable civilization in a threatening universe, which often turns people against one another.

Yes, it's a remake on a cheesy '70s series with Lorne Greene, but what it borrows is largely the premise: Humans on a planet in a galaxy far away are virtually exterminated by an artificial race called the Cylons. Survivors take off in search of a mythical planet called Earth, led by an old warrior named Adama, played by Edward James Olmos, and the president of the surviving humans, played by Mary McDonnell.

The Cylons pursue, but they're not just walking toasters. They've created their own humans - twelve models with multiple replicas, some of whom don't know they're Cylons. They're sleeper cells that are really asleep. Who are they? What is their ultimate purpose? Nobody knows.

The permutations this creates are dizzying. Civil liberties go by the board in ways that parallel our own dilemmas. There are knotty love triangles, vicious enmities, flabbergasting visions. Some humans were forced to live under Cylon occupation, leading to trials of collaborators.

The show can be hilarious too, and the cast is a treat. Olmos is the soul of beleaguered male authority, and Katie Sackoff as Starbuck might be the most charismatic actress on TV. I know I sound like a fanboy, but you should see the Internet message boards, where obsessives pore over mythical and religious overtones.

"Battlestar Galactica" is phenomenal, but if you blunder yonder up the cable and watch the first show of the new season, you won't have a clue what's going on. So get the DVDs and catch up. Pretty soon you'll be throwing around the show's invented expletive, frak - as in "this show frakin' rocks."

For information on the series, visit the Sci-Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica" Web site.