In 2004, Battlestar Galactica got possibly the greatest reboot of all time (with the possible exception of David Cronenberg’s 1987 remake of The Fly).
Originally a semi-cheesy Star Wars knockoff that hit ABC in 1978, Battlestar Galactica followed the human survivors, marooned on a fleet of starships in the wake of the destruction of their home planet by the Cylons, a human-created artificial intelligence that looked like huge bulky chrome robots with a cool-looking red dot that swayed back and forth across the eye slot. With the Cylons in pursuit, the fleet, led by the namesake battleship, humanity searches for a fabled lost colony to make its home: a planet called Earth.
This show ran for two seasons and spawned a totally forgotten, low-budget spinoff (Galactica 1980, where the fleet’s top pilots arrive on Earth and drive flying motorcycles — I remember it because I was 7 at the time and I was way into those motorcycles), and apart from its super-cool production design, which included the distinctive triangle-winged Viper fighters, the fighters’ helmets lit from the inside, and of course, the aforementioned Cylons, Battlestar Galactica was mostly remembered as a, um, semi-cheesy Star Wars knockoff.
That is until Ronald D. Moore and David Eick resurrected it on Syfy in 2004, smartly taking the original premise (human survivors on the run through space after a devastating attack) and reconsidering it through the lens of then-current events: the 9/11 attacks, the war on terror, the generalized paranoia that gripped the nation.
In the updated version, there are still a few chrome Cylons around, but they are relics from the early days of the Cylons’ original creation, when they were intended to be slaves to humanity. Instead, the Cylons look and feel like humans, and in many cases are programmed to believe that they are humans. It is soon discovered that these humanoid Cylons have infiltrated the human fleet, and soon everyone is suspicious of everyone else.
The show also imagines a much more gender-equal world, where the president is a woman (the fantastic Mary McDonnell, who gives the best performance in the show), as are two of Galactica’s top pilots, Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and Boomer (Grace Park) — both characters carried over from the old show, but who were both white guys. Starbuck takes center stage for the bulk of the series, assuming the swaggering, cigar-chomping, smack-talking alpha-pilot role that would normally go to a dude, and as played by Sackhoff, she is easily the biggest fan favorite on a show that made a way-outsized cultural impact for something airing on basic cable.
After the (admittedly, somewhat clunky) exposition-heavy two-part miniseries that sets up the history and contours of the human-Cylon conflict, the series proper opens with a fabulously tense episode that informs the general feeling of dread and desperation that pervades all the episodes to follow: We join Galactica just after completing its 237th pan-galactic lightspeed jump, with the entire crew sleep-deprived and anxious, as the Cylons have been reappearing to attack them every 33 minutes, prompting the fleet to keep jumping at the same cadence to stay a step ahead. When a ship is accidentally left behind and catches up with the fleet sometime later, it is found to have a nuclear weapon aboard, the the newly sworn-in President Roslin (McDonnell), is faced with the first of the many, many difficult moral choices that, combined with numerous fascinating plot twists, keep the show compelling through four seasons.
I confess, it has been quite a while since I have seen this thing — I watched it when it was airing back in the late aughts — but I was obsessed with it at the time, and though its somewhat clear parallels with the events of the time might seem dated at first glance, xenophopic paranoia has not exactly vanished in the years since.
All 76 episodes of Battlestar Galactica, plus the related movies Razor and The Plan, are available on-demand on Syfy.