MR: From Kolob to Kobol (reviewing Battlestar Galactica)

August 31, 2009 | 26 comments
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beehiveToday marks the launch of The Mormon Review.  Our first article is:

James Bennett, “From Kolob to Kobol,” The Mormon Review, vol.1 no. 2 [HTML] [PDF]

Bennett offers a review of Battlestar Galactica, both the 1978 ABC series and the Sci-Fi remake that debuted in 2003.  Given the widespread following that the new series has had, we hope that Bennett’s defense of the original and his attack on its re-incarnation will spark a lively discussion here.

For more information about MR, please take a look at the prospectus by our editor-in-chief Richard Bushman (“Out of the Best Books: Introducing The Mormon Review,” The Mormon Review, vol.1 no.1 [HTML][PDF]).  In addition to reading articles through our website, you can also sign up to have The Mormon Review delivered to your inbox as a PDF.  Finally, if you have recently read a book, seen a movie, watched a TV show, or bumped up against any other bit of our culture that got your Mormon juices flowing, please consider submitting an article to MR.

26 Responses to MR: From Kolob to Kobol (reviewing Battlestar Galactica)

  1. James Bennett on August 31, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Wow. This reviewer is the most brilliant human being who has ever lived, is yet alive, or will ever live.

  2. Dan on August 31, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    The original series was hokey because it couldn’t produce a well written show. It had lame plot points. The religious points mattered not if the story was not well written. The revised series was a shame, because they had learned how to write a good story, but sadly it will be a dated story, tied to the 2002-2004 hysterical period in American history. It included torture, and was far too violent. Frankly, it was not surprising that the 2003 version’s civilization was coming to an end. They were like the Jaredites of old, still bent more on killing each other whilst their populations died around them.

  3. a random John on August 31, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    I’ve posted my thoughts on the new BSG on Kulturblog and I don’t want to go over all of that again here, but I’ll respond briefly.

    The old show had a great premise going for it, and the religious aspect gave it some immediate depth as you point out. But they managed to throw that away during the second hour of the two hour premiere when Starbuck finds a gambling planet and just can’t stop having fun. This after the destruction of civilization in the previous week. In a way this was emblematic of the entire series.

    Similarly, the effects started out great, but then they were recycled over and over again. Even as a child I knew that I was seeing the same effects sequences over and over, just arranged in a different order.

    The new show got the premise of the old show right, took that premise seriously, and ran with it. That resulted in two seasons of great television, which is much more great television than the old one ever produced.

    It failed because it didn’t live up to its promise, which was to tell a coherent science fiction story that was planned from the start. In season 3 it was clear that there was no plan and that they were just making it up as they went.

    I also tend to agree that the failure to understand the religious underpinnings of the 1978 show didn’t help the new one at all. But the real flaw was promising something (a planned story-line) that the producers couldn’t deliver. Lying to your audience is generally a bad idea.

  4. Nate Oman on August 31, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    “Lying to your audience is generally a bad idea.”

    On the other hand, JJ Abrams has made a career out of it. I’m convinced that in the end it will be shown that Rambaldi was behind everything on Lost.

    I wonder if Jim is right about the contempt that the new show had for religion. It had religious characters who were not rubes — Starbuck for example — it is just not clear how we were supposed to cash out their religiosity.

  5. iguacufalls on August 31, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    As hokey as it was, I still remember talking into a fan and pretending it made me sound like a Cylon. Good times.

  6. Kathryn Soper on August 31, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    My spine is turning red.

  7. Lon on August 31, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    Here’s the thing. I thought the 2kBSG *did* take the religion seriously. I’ve even read comments by Moore how the showed changed him on the topic of religion. Not that he is a believer now but rather more of a doubter of his former atheism.

    The show is certainly dark and will undoubtedly go down tied to the first decade of the 21st century. But I think it is a bit overly simplistic to say 70BSG is ‘pro-religion’ and 2kBSG is ‘anti-religion’.

  8. Ian Cook on August 31, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Wow, that’s quite a harsh review. While I agree that 2kbsg kind of floundered for a bit during it’s run, partly because at times there was a lack of focus, I think it was a good show.

    The original was pretty good and had some good episodes, it was still cheesy.

  9. John A. Tvedtnes on August 31, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    A friend has frequently told me, “He that tooteth not his own horn shall not be tooted.” With that in mind, may I recommend my article “The Theology of ‘Battlestar Galactica’,” in Benjamin Urrutia (ed.), Latter day Science Fiction 2 (Ludlow, MA: Parables, 1985).

  10. Blain on August 31, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    I liked both series. I was 12 in 1978, and I saw BSG the movie in a theater (there were a few dozen of us). Space ships, robots, and Jane Seymour, even a chimp in a dog suit — what was there not to love?

    TNS was good also, and the grittiness of it worked better for me now than TOS would have. But the pulling-it-out-of-the-butt part got old over time, and I was ready to be done, and the darkness got too full of itself sometimes, to the point that they had to turn things toward the light or there wouldn’t be anybody left to kill. The ending was stupid, period.

    I found the Mormon aspects of TNS to be interesting. If I wasn’t sleepy, I might have remembered what I noticed back at the time, but I am, and I don’t. Sorry.

  11. Rick on August 31, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    I think the review was unduly harsh on the new series. The author complains about “nihilistic gloom,” and how there should have been more “heroic optimism.” So let me get this straight. Society has been just been destroyed, and the author wants not a realistic psychological portrait, but sunshine and rainbows and daggets?

    To me, the brilliant parts of the new series were not the ones where they let the underlying mythology show through. They were the ones that explored society and individuals under extreme duress.

  12. Vader on August 31, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Some months back, I was home sick and watching more television that is my wont. They had on an episode of the original series, and I found to my surprise that it did not make me sicker; it was actually a lot better than I remembered it.

    It was followed by an episode of Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century. This one was as bad as I remembered it. Or maybe even worse.

    I watched maybe a couple episodes of the new series, concluded that the Cylons had been transformed into evangelical Christians while remaining villains, and didn’t bother again.

  13. Dan on August 31, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    Vader,

    I too watched Buck Rodgers recently and found it the silliest thing I’ve ever seen, and I remember thinking well of it as a young teenager. I loved the premise, but maybe in my teenage mind, I dismissed the bad parts (most of the show essentially) and totally forgot about them.

  14. Kent Larsen on August 31, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    I agree that this review was overly harsh of the new series. I watched the whole series and enjoyed it a lot. I agree that given the destruction of their society, the grittiness of the new series seemed very true. And while the religious and mormon-culture aspects were diminished, they were certainly NOT gone.

    I also watched the old series as a teenager and enjoyed it very much. I was NOT embarrassed by the Mormon references in it. Perhaps it is the fact that I aged, but I enjoyed the new series much more.

    There are some specific areas where Bennett’s review is clearly wrong. He makes claims about the popularity of each of the series, without saying anything about the significantly different environments the two series operated in. The old series was still in the era of broadcast TV, while the new series competed within an ever growing cable environment. I’m not sure that simply comparing the show’s popularity at their start to their finish (as Bennett kind of does in the review) quite works.

    In addition, Bennett does fail to take any notice of the critical response to the series. While I’m no expert, the critical reviews seemed much more positive about the new series than what I remember (long time ago, I know) of the old series. Subjective, I know — but I would be more persuaded if Bennett addressed the critical reviews.

    Some of the criticisms of the new series in Bennett’s review are certainly correct. But overall this review feels out-of-balance, as if Bennett started from the premise that the new series was bad and found anything and everything that supported that view to the exclusion of anything positive that might be said. It feels to me like the view of the old series is likewise skewed.

  15. clark on August 31, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    Nate: (4) On the other hand, JJ Abrams has made a career out of it. I’m convinced that in the end it will be shown that Rambaldi was behind everything on Lost.

    Alias jumped the shark the end of its second season. It was like Twin Peaks. Once the central tension was gone what was left to do? Rather than come up with something clever to match the writers do little bits without direction. So it tanked. (Although the third season still is better than it deserved to be)

    Lost, despite a few misfires in season 3, has been consistently well written. Each season better than the one before. And, I believe, relatively little interaction with Abrams who has been busy with his film career.

    BSG on the other hand was amazing the first while (miniseries + seasons 1-2) The first four episodes of season 3 suggested quite a turn with some interesting plays on things tied to contemporary political events. What was so interesting were that things were murky. It wasn’t the “Bush bad” meme that some portrayed. It was satisfyingly complex.

    The problem Moore faced was it had to go somewhere and he had no idea where. He’d written himself into a corner plus what made things so interesting before – realistic and believable takes on real issues sort of disappeared. We had soap opera antics of Starbuck and Apollo that were annoying. Further the whole Cylon civil war was hard to take. And the last season. Wow. Don’t get me started. What destroyed BSG was a lack of imagination. That Moore ended up going back to the Glen Larsen trough to end it just showed how poorly he’d ended up. It became on par with the style of writing of Heroes. Characters moved to make a plot point appear whether it felt authentic or made sense.

  16. SNeilsen on August 31, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    Sacrilege.
    While the original show was fracked, BSG was the the best frakkin’ show on TV.
    Michelle Forbes would have eaten Lloyd Bridges for lunch. Katie Sackoff is Starbuck.
    The acting and complexity of the characters blow the original fluff right into a black hole just like the Colony.
    Episodes of the original were recycled into the Indiana Jones ripoff–Tales of the Gold Monkey.
    The original was junior sunday school. BSG took it’s religion seriously and with depth.
    What do you think of Gaius Baltar as a prophet? Weak things made strong. (and he didn’t get shot of the brigs window or blown out the airlock by an angry militia.)

  17. hank on August 31, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    Count me as one of those who enjoyed the old BSG and anxiously awaited the new one, only to find it disappointing. I barely made it through season 1, and didn’t come close to making it through season 2. I just found myself not caring about the characters or whether they lived or died. I felt no attachment to them, so I turned them off. Occassionally, however, I go back and watch some of the original series. I still find myself, thirty years later, caring about those characters. I also enjoyed the Mormon references and found that they added to the depth of the show. These references also sparked conversation (albeit not very deep ones) among my non-member friends who knew I was LDS. It actually (in their eyes) helped legitimize the Church in some small way.

    My understanding is that ABC cancelled the original primarily due to cost factors and not ratings. I view the disaster that was Galactica 1980 as a cheap attempt on ABC’s part to recreate the magic of the original, but it failed miserably.

  18. Stephen M (Ethesis) on September 1, 2009 at 7:50 am

    Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century was a bad show and the money from it was put to evil uses.

    Man.

    I knew a kid (a math major at UCLA, we were all kids then) whose dad wrote for BSG and who hid it from his friends from embarrassment.

    Still, the entire thing was interesting, wish I’d had the drive to watch more than 2-3 shows between the two series.

    The sad thing was that The Dresden Files actually had a larger audience share, was cheaper to film and got canceled while BSG 2 kept going on.

  19. Nate Oman on September 1, 2009 at 8:47 am

    There was an exchange on this article over at the Mormon Apologetics board in case anyone is interested. FYI.

  20. Jettboy on September 1, 2009 at 9:15 am

    I have to agree with everyone who said they liked the characters of the first one, but not the second one. On the other hand, I also agree that the first one had serious depth of story problems compared to the second one at least up until the second half of the 3rd season. Soon as the main characters started dropping like flies in a narcissistic nihilism my interest was gone. Let them kill themselves, I felt, but I’m not going to watch the suicide. Realism and depth is fine, but I like a little positive entertainment along the way.

  21. Blain on September 1, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    17 — Space Scouts (shudder)

  22. Trevor on September 1, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    Having watched the original series as a grade-schooler, I thought it was nifty and I appreciated the Mormon references even at that tender age. I also enjoyed the grittiness of BSG2, and I had high hopes at first that the series would go somewhere.

    My hopes seriously flagged in the midst of season three, but I held on to the bitter end. And boy was it bitter, or, rather, completely stupid. I don’t care how far your technology has gotten out of hand; I would say the chances of a technologically advanced people voluntarily becoming tribal Luddites is less than zero. Stupid.

    In spite of its major flaws and dismal moods, however, BSG2 actually did, at times, wrestle with issues of religion in an interesting way. I don’t think its development of these themes ultimately satisfied, but I don’t agree with the reviewer that its treatment of the topic was little more than a cynical sneer cast back at the original show.

  23. Andy Myers on September 2, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    I think it sort of begs the question: if Bennett found the rebooted series so bad from the very beginning, why did he spend almost 60 hours (much more if he watched the broadcasts with commercials) watching the entire series? Why subject himself to so much sour nihilism?

    Or did he (and this is my hunch) tune out part way through and base his criticism on wikipedia summaries and water-cooler conversations? If so, the article is misleading and an example of criticism of the worst kind.

    I understand that there’s some sort of demented pleasure in sitting through something awful and brewing a fantastic polemic. But Bennett’s comments reflect only a superficial familiarity with the show. But, even deeper, he fails to justify how his own preferences for heroism and straightforward morality invalidates Moore’s more complicated and ambigous take.

  24. James Bennett on September 2, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    I watched the whole show, Andy. I reviewed every episode, too, both on my own blog at stallioncornell.com and on the SciFi.com Galactica bulletin board.

    Why? Well, you have a good question. I was very interested in the Galactica revival when Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer were involved back around 2001, and I was actually quite excited to see what Moore’s take on the thing would be. I got very involved in online discussions and started reviewing the thing when it came out, and I just couldn’t stop. I had several conversations with Ron and Teri Moore, both of whom were very kind to me, despite the fact that I hated the vast majority of their series. (The guy who played Chief Tyrol also engaged me in one discussion, and while he was fairly polite, he was convinced I was nuts.)

    That’s not to say I hated the whole thing. The opening episode – 33 – and The Hand of God from Season 1 were both outstanding, as was Exodus: Part II in Season 3. I quite enjoyed Kobol’s Last Gleaming, too. The Pegasus episodes were the most repugnant of the lot, and most of Season 4 wasn’t offensive as much as it was meandering and pointless.

    I plead guilty to relishing the demented pleasure of crafting vicious polemics, but you can’t rightfully accuse me of having only a superficial familiarity with the show.

  25. Raymond Takashi Swenson on September 2, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    The Bennett review did not address what I thought was the most salient aspect of the religious element in BSG II: The humanoid Cylons and their monotheistic religion and sense of fulfilling a religious mission, contrasted with the very real and really effective polytheism of the humans, who have visions and revelations and even get resurrected.

    This transformation of the Cylons emphasized the fact that the Cylon war was really a slave rebellion, a race war in which the former slaves threaten to become the masters, with race mixing a recurring theme.

    While producers and writers with a greater devotion to religion could have made a different meditation on the theme, there is no question that the supernatural was a very real part of the BSG II universe, something that otherwise only comes out in shows like Medium and Ghost Whisperer, which don’t seem to have any recognizable Plan driving things. At least in BSG II, religion has real world consequences, and people are rewarded for their religious faithfulness.

    While I did not love the unrelenting darkness of the human heart offered by BSG II, the production values and the acting were a definite cut above the usual flip (Stargate SG-1) or overly self-important (Star Trek: TNG) depictions in TV Sci-Fi. The contrasting use of low-tech telephones and hand weapons (no stun setting for machine guns!), the lack of teleportation, and the ordinary suit-and-tie demeanor of the civilians put the emphasis on the human relationships rather than technology that would let people avoid the classic conflicts.

    I agree the series resolution could have been more clever, more thought-provoking, less a new earth pulled out of a hat. but we have seen with BSG and with the new Star Trek movie that old, even beloved stories can be resurrected as alternate timelines, letting us play them out in alternate universes. Let the critics offer their own story outlines for how to resolve the series in a more satisfying fashion. Indeed, there must be someone who could offer a home on the Internet where such could be posted and discussed and elaborated upon.

    Finally, BSG I and II demonstrate that, in contrast to ordinary entertainment media, science fiction and fantasy offer a venue where aspects of the Mormon world view can be offered to the public at large and get around their normal slam-door-in-the- face resistance to Mormon missionaries. Orson Scott Card did it big time with his Folk of the Fringe and his Call of Earth series, as well as the Tales of Alvin Maker. One way of putting Mormonism into the mainstream could be to use an analog of Mormonism in a fantasy/SF context, the way C.S. Lewis does for Christianity in Narnia.

  26. Andy Myers on September 2, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    James: Ah, now your position makes more sense. It just didn’t seem right that you’d watch the whole series to write a single article, but I can understand an ongoing hobby of reviewing “bad” television weekly (even if I wouldn’t last long if I tried it myself).

    My comments were intended more to express my bafflement than to accuse you, and I’m sorry if it came across that way. My erroneous hunch came from what I saw to be generalizations rather than concrete text examples in your articles. From skimming your blog I see that you’ve summarized arguments you’ve gone into with more detail elsewhere. That’s fair. Thanks for responding.