Tuned In: 'Battlestar Galactica' echoes today's political issues

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So I have this friend (let's call him Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman), and for the longest time he ignored my pleas in print that he was missing the best show on TV if he didn't tune in to Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica." Finally, and perhaps not even at my urging, he did. And now he's hooked and thinks it's the best thing since his beloved "The Wire."

Carole Segal
On "Battlestar Galactica," Sharon Valerii (Grace Park), left, a Cylon, receives her commission as a Colonial officer from Adm. Adama (Edward James Olmos), right, while Karl "Helo" Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett), center, looks on. The Sci Fi Channel show's new season premieres tonight.
Click photo for larger image.

All this is to say, if you appreciate deep, quality dramas -- and if you can stomach a dark story -- it's not too late to take up the "Galactica" habit. Tonight at 7, Sci Fi Channel offers the perfect catch-up, "Battlestar Galactica: The Story So Far," which compresses the mini-series and first two seasons of the re-activated series into a speedy one-hour summation, narrated by Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), education secretary-turned-president-turned-spiritual leader-turned captive.

And why should you watch the Peabody Award-winning "Galactica"? Despite its name and pedigree, this is not some kiddie sci-fi show full of humanoid aliens created by gluing prosthetics to actors' faces. And it's not a lighthearted romp through the galaxy, a la "Stargate." Rather, "Battlestar Galactica" is one of the most politically relevant and necessarily bleak series on television today. That's especially true in tonight's two-hour season premiere (9-11 p.m.).

After running from the Cylons -- evolved robots created by man that rebelled against their maker -- the humans (called Colonials) settled on recently discovered planet New Caprica. One year later, the Cylons found them. The Colonial fleet, led by Adm. Adama (Edward James Olmos), escaped into space lest it be destroyed by the Cylons, but Adama is plotting a rescue mission while son Lee (Jamie Bamber) stuffs his ever-fattening face with food.

On New Caprica, Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), Anders (Michael Trucco) and Tigh (Michael Hogan) lead an increasingly deadly resistance against the Cylon occupation, while pilot Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) is held against her will by the Cylons. (For a better understanding of some of the characters in the resistance movement, watch the "Galactica" webisodes at www.scifi.com before tonight's premiere.)

The Cylons themselves are divided on how to handle the rebellion. Some favor a more aggressive approach to "the insurgency." This is where "Galactica" gets really interesting, using terminology that Americans have heard during the war in Iraq, but assigning it to different players. In the "Galactica" battle, it's the humans, ostensibly the good guys, who are insurgents, embarking on suicide bombings.

"I think we've got to clearly identify that possibility within ourselves, given the circumstances, for us to understand what's going on," McDonnell said in a teleconference with reporters this week. "The only way to solve it is to come to some kind of understanding with it."

Meanwhile, the Cylons round up and detain humans indefinitely without filing any charges. Eventually, Cylon hardliners win out and take matters a step further, plotting the mass murder of detainees.

Future episodes deal with the mounting threat the insurgency poses and the lengths to which some Colonials will go to mete out justice to traitors and those they judge to be Cylon conspirators. It's heavy stuff, and "Galactica" shows no signs of lightening up during the occupation story that runs through the rest of the month.

"It's sort of like when we're seeing war footage from Iraq [and someone asks], 'Can we please show a birthday party to alleviate some of the tension?'" said a touchy executive producer David Eick when asked if there was any chance the bleak clouds would part, even just a little. (I suspect he gets the same question from Sci Fi Channel executives on a routine basis.) "This is a war show, and as long as we want to be true to that, there will remain an element of ongoing stress and tension informing these peoples' lives."

Eick said the series will move more toward the Cylon point of view in the first half of season three, showing a more sympathetic side to the antagonists as well as their immaturity on an evolutionary scale. The Cylons and humans also will find themselves "in a race for a common goal."

As for the early insurgency plot, Eick said it's an opportunity to explore the adage that "one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist.

"It all depends on what your frame of reference is and what side of the ledger you're on," Eick said. "I think we also relate to these actions in a different way, because, ironically, that's the way this country was born, so what does it mean to be an insurgent?"

The ability to ask such questions was in the mind of "Galactica's" creators from the outset.

"All the people involved were of a mind that the world didn't need another space opera," Eick said. Instead of trying to out-do "Star Trek," producers went back to the origins of science-fiction, taking their cues from the novels of Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. "Those were all about the allegorical and socio-political commentary, which we felt had been lost in contemporary science fiction. It wasn't so much about us coming up with a new idea as going back to an old one, using science-fiction as a smokescreen to discuss and invest in issues of the day."

Channel surfing

Fox's "24" will have a two-night, four-hour premiere Jan. 14 and 15. A trailer for the new season will go online Oct. 24 at www.24trailer.com. ... "Dexter" gave Showtime its best original drama premiere ratings since "The L Word" in 2004. ... The ratings curse on sports-themed scripted shows continues: Despite glowing reviews, "Friday Night Lights" bombed in its initial outing on NBC, drawing a little more than 7 million viewers. ... Comedy Central has renewed "Reno 911!" for a fifth season to air next summer. The remaining seven episodes of season four will air next year. ... CBS has given full-season orders to "The Unit" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine." ... After baseball, Fox will relocate "Vanished" to 8 p.m. Friday (ensuring it will vanish), replacing it with "Justice" at 9 p.m. Monday. "House" shifts back to 9 p.m. Tuesday on Oct. 31. ... The CW will move "7th Heaven" and "Runaway" to Sunday (8 to 10 p.m.) starting Oct. 15, replacing them with its "Everybody Hates Chris"-anchored comedy block on Monday starting next week. ... CBS's low-rated "The Class" will swap time periods with "How I Met Your Mother" beginning Monday. "Mother" will air at 8 p.m. with "Class" at 8:30 p.m. ... Sci Fi Channel has renewed "Eureka" for a second season. ... NBC's low-rated freshman drama "Kidnapped" will wrap its story after just 13 episodes.

'Scrubs' walk-on role raffled

Cribs for Kids, a nonprofit organization that works to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome by providing cribs and safe-sleep education to low-income families in Allegheny County, will again raffle off a walk-on role on NBC's "Scrubs," which will return sometime later this season.

The prize also includes air fare for two to Los Angeles, five-day luxury hotel accommodations and $1,000 in spending money.

Raffle tickets cost $5 (two chances to win per ticket) and can be purchased by calling 412-322-5680. Details at www.sids-pa.org. The winner will be announced at a "Scrubs" Star Happy Hour Party Oct. 20, 5 to 8 p.m. at Margarita Mamas in Station Square. Party tickets are $20 in advance; $25 at the door.

Sean Crowell, a Dormont native, is a key grip on "Scrubs"; his mother is SIDS of Pennsylvania board member Noreen Crowell.


This week's TV Q&A responds to questions about "Dancing With the Stars," "Crossing Jordan" and reporter live shots. Read it online at www.post-gazette.com/tv.

TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.


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