The Serial Beyond the Serial: Battlestar Galactica

A serial narrative is a story broken up across time, delivered in pieces rather than as a whole. Battlestar Galactica, the television series launched in 2004, is typical of a serial narrative: it has an overall narrative arc which stretches across four seasons, but, as is common for serials, especially in film and television, each episode has its own beginning, middle and end, so in effect we have many smaller stories making up a larger narrative. But these do not make up the entire tale of the Battlestar Galactica, not by a long shot. The recent TV series is itself an episode in a series of series, which extends into film, books, comics, games and webisodes, the whole of which is part of still larger traditions of science fiction, genre and religion. In fact, it is almost impossible to establish the limits of the story Battlestar Galactica, a serial within a series of series.

The executive producer of the original series Battlestar Galactica, Glen A. Larson came up with the basic idea for the series, which he called Adam’s Ark, in the late 1960s (Adam, the first man, is Admiral Adama, the first to survive), but Larson was not able to produce the series until after the phenomenal success of Star Wars. The original series looks a great deal like Star Wars in terms of design (compare the viper spaceships of Battlestar with the x-wing fighters of Star Wars), so it might be said that Battlestar Galactica is a serial continuation of the Star Wars story20th Century Fox actually sued the producers of the television show, claiming that 34 distinct ideas were copied from the film. Universal promptly counter-sued by claiming that Star Wars had borrowed ideas from the 1972 film Silent Running (especially the cute, squat R2D2-esque robots) and the film serial from the 1940s Buck Rogers. Naturally, both suits were dropped in 1980 as being “without merit” (Wikipedia). The producers of Battlestar Galactica, who never intended to win the suit, had proven their point that both movies borrow a great deal from a larger tradition of science fiction. After all, who owns the conventions of a particular genre?

In fact, it could be said that both Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica were serial continuations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. Although Shelley’s novel is often considered Gothic horror, Shelley grounded its central events in science rather than in the supernatural, which is what makes it arguably the first science fiction novel. Shelley established the most familiar plot line in science fiction: a creature, created through science, rebels against its maker. This story has been reproduced thousands and thousands of times in tales such as in Karel Capek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots (which gave the world the word “robot,” from the Czech word meaning serf), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, The Terminator, The Matrix, and of course Battlestar Galactica (Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia). (The debate about whether or not to allow genetic engineering arises from another science fiction convention established by Shelley: the playing with the forces of creation, dabbling in powers beyond the scope of humanity. In a sense the debate itself is merely a serial continuation of Shelley’s masterpiece.)

This story of the creation turning against its creator is a religious one, as humans deal with free agency and their ability, almost compulsion, to betray their beliefs. With the rise of modern science, we have begun to fear that they we are challenging God with our new powers, maybe with a mind to replace him. The story also plays on Oedipal fears of the son murdering and supplanting the father (in this case humans are both the son that challenges the father, or challenges God and the father that is threatened by the son, the creations of science). The story is an description of class warfare as well, as the name “robot” suggests, the serfs turning against their masters. Finally, the story represent the evolutionary fear that another creature will replace us as the dominant species as well.

If the creature or robot rebelling against its maker comprises about a third of all science fiction stories, another quarter would be about some other species replacing us, evolving on earth (on their own or because of human experiments of exposure to pollution) or arriving from space. When Galileo removed humans from the center of the universe and Darwin argued that our dominance of this planet has been merely a moment in terms of the life of the planet, our top position in the food chain became highly precarious. Many other science fiction novels and movies are about some natural or man-made disaster wiping us all out. Scientists say there have been not one, but six major extinctions on the planet. The fear of replacement or extinction was a story-line developed by Mary Shelley. We could say then that Battlestar Galactica is merely one episode within a much larger narrative of science fiction that shares a common concern about the fate of humanity.

Battlestar Galactica also fits within a larger “Future History” that many science fiction stories share, especially those with origins in John Wood Campbell, Jr.’s magazine Astounding Science Fiction, which established hard science fiction, science fiction that was more firmly grounded in science than the pulp magazines of the 40’s. These stories, written by Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov among others, describe a period of interstellar colonization, followed by retraction and loss of contact. The homeworld may be forgotten entirely or become legend. (Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia). Ursula K. Le Guin’s Story The Left Hand of Darkness also refers to this period of reestablishment of contacts between Earth and its human colonies after a long period of silence. Similarly, the colonies of Battlestar Galactica have lost contact with their home world, which has receded into myth, and they attempt to rediscover their home world.

Battlestar draws on many other genres as well, such as the quest narrative, but I will limit myself to indicating what is beyond the scope of this short paper. Suffice it to say, that science fiction conventions are often conventions borrowed and developed from other genres, so in effect science fiction itself is part of a larger narrative that spans various genres and time periods.

Battlestar Galactica is also a serial continuation of religious stories, namely Mormon theology. The original producer, Glen A. Larson, was a Mormon. I remember my Mormon father sitting all ten children down in front of the TV to watch Battlestar Galactica, proudly pointing out the parallels to Mormonism. First, the colonies are twelve, representing the twelve tribes of Israel (which Mormonism appropriates in odd ways, most notably by suggesting the ten lost tribes found their way to the Americas, wrote the Book of Mormon and became native Americans). Secondly, the characters of the series sometimes speak of Kobol, the legendary home world of the human race. In Mormonism, Kolob is the star closest to the place where God dwells. (Yes, Mormonism is rather science-fictiony, since it locates its theology within modern conceptions of space.) Also the legislative branch of the government is called the Quorum of the Twelve, or sometimes just “the council,” exactly as in the Mormonism. Certain websites offer other parallels, such as the one listed below, but these are the parallels my father pointed out or that I have caught myself. We might say then that Battlestar Galactica is a serial continuation of The Book of Mormon.

Battlestar is part of a series of series. It was initially imagined as three made-for-TV movies. The first aired on 17 September 1978, but was interrupted about an hour into the program by the announcement of the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Accords. Reality had invaded the science fiction serial. (Interestingly enough, a moment of hope for peace in the Middle East interrupts a tale about genocide.) After the newsbroadcast, the film resumed. Phenomenally successful, a TV series was launched, instead of two more films. The series only lasted one season because of falling ratings, but it was soon clear after the cancellation that it had developed a cult following. A sequel series was launched, Galactica 1980, about the colonial fleet arriving at contemporary earth, but the series was low-budget and unpopular, canceled after ten episodes. Two feature films were released made up from episodes of the two original series: Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack and Conquest of the Earth respectively. In association with the new series, there have been two other made-for-TV films besides the opening miniseries: Razor and The Plan. There have also been webisodes (short films released online), comic books, books and games. Now a spin-off called Caprica is doing well, set about fifty years before the events of the 2004 series (Wikipedia).

There is one episode of the Battlestar Galactica story I left out. In 1998, Richard Hatch, who played captain Apollo in the original, made a trailer to promote his ideas for a new series, a demonstration video with some of the original cast members, Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming. Although it was warmly received at science fiction conventions, it did not develop into a second series. When the series did return to television in 2004, it was not as a continuation of the old story as Hatch hoped, but as a re-imagining of the series. At first, Richard Hatch was bitterly opposed to the new series. In an interview with Sci-Fi Pulse, he expressed resentment. “I had, over the past several years, bonded deeply with the original characters and story . . . writing the novels and the comic books and really campaigning to bring back the show. . . . It was a very deep and profound struggle for me to let go and realize that I was not the creator of the series and it didn’t belong to me. . . .  I’ve finally come to terms with and accepted that” (quoted on Wikipedia). He eventually accepted a small role in the series and resolved himself to the changes of the new series. If an actor could not control the way the story developed, what about the original creator of the series? Glen A. Larson is in negotiation with Universal to produce a feature film, based not on the new series, but on the older series, as he attempts to reclaim his story.

In certain ways, the new series is a reinvention of the original story, as mentioned above; however, there are teasing details that indicate it might be a sequel instead, certain references to the old series. For example, the older models of raiders, the ones with a mohawk-like ridge on their foreheads and the red light which goes back and forth across the eye screen, look exactly like those in the previous series. The red light itself has been replicated in the cylon spaceships of the new series. Also, the vipers are very similar to those in the original series and their lauching tunnels identical. These “antiques” are reemployed during the cylon attack when the newer models have been immobilized by the cylon’s attack on the network systems. Even the design of Galactica itself is rather 70s and the pre-computer equipment, for example telephones with cords, also indicate a pre-digital world. In all of these cases, the new series allows the viewer to imagine an earlier period when cylons and vipers and battleships looked like they did in the old series. In this sense, the new series could be understood as taking place chronologically about forty years after the first, a sequel.

On the other hand, the series is definitely not a sequel, because many of the characters are reintroduced, like Admiral Amada. Starbuck is also brought back, although he becomes a woman. And of course, the central events, the destruction of the twelve colonies and the fleet do not fit into a sequel; they are a retelling of the same events. So, the new series is at once a reinvention and a continuation of the original.

In short, the serial narrative Battlestar Galactica is both a sequel and a reimagining of the original, both of series are part of a much larger narrative that includes another series, various films, webisodes, books, comics and games, all of which fits within traditions of science fiction, especially the convention of the creature rebelling against its maker, as well operating within other genres as well, and including religious discourse. The limits of the story extend far beyond any individual piece of the story. Why, frak me, even this short paper is a part of the serial!

Works Cited
Clute, John. Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. London: Dorling Kindersley, 1995.

Otto, Bill. “Observations on the Correlation Between Battlestar Galactica and the LDS Church.” 31 July 2040. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.

Wikipedia contributors. “Battlestar galactica.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 29 Nov. 2007. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.

Wikipedia contributors. “Battlestar Galactica (1978 TV series).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 14 Apr. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.

Wikipedia contributors. “Battlestar Galactica (2004 TV series).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 Apr. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2010.

(Uh oh, I am quoting Wikipedia in an academic paper, but for popular culture, it is definitely the best resource. Some facts were double-checked through citations, Netflix and other websites, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that Wikipedia supplied me with many of the facts I needed for my analysis.)

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