The Old Starbuck Hates the New Battlestar Galactica

Dirk Benedict has written a scathing indictment of the new series that kinda sorta misses the point.
Dirk Benedict as Starbuck

When the re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica was first announced, one of its most famous and vocal opponents was Richard Hatch, who had played Captain Apollo in the original Battlestar Galactica series. Hatch had campaigned for a sequel to the original series entitled The Second Coming, even going so far as to produce a trailer that he showed at various sci-fi conventions in an attempt to drum up support for the project.

Eventually, though, Hatch came around to support the reimagined version, and even accepted a role in the new series, playing a political revolutionary and terrorist named Tom Zarek. It was an interesting turn of events, and Hatch’s involvement not only provided a tangible connection to the past, but also paved the way for some the new series’ more interesting plotlines.

However, not all of the Battlestar Galactica alumni have been so gracious and accommodating, as it were. Dirk Benedict, aka the original Starbuck, wrote a pretty scathing indictment of the new series back in 2004 which was re-posted at Big Hollywood in January of this year (and was also re-posted on his official website in 2006).

Witness the “re-imagined” “Battlestar Galactica,” bleak, miserable, despairing, angry and confused. Which is to say, it reflects in microcosm the complete change in the politics and morality of today’s world, as opposed to the world of yesterday. The world of Lorne Greene (Adama), Fred Astaire (Starbuck’s Poppa) and Dirk Benedict (Starbuck). I would guess Lorne is glad he’s in that Big Bonanza in the sky and well out of it. Starbuck, alas, has not been so lucky. He’s not been left to pass quietly into that trivial world of cancelled TV characters.

“Re-imagining,” they call it. “Un-imagining” is more accurate. To take what once was and twist it into what never was intended. So that a television show based on hope, spiritual faith and family is un-imagined and regurgitated as a show of despair, sexual violence and family dysfunction. To better reflect the times of ambiguous morality in which we live, one would assume. A show in which the aliens (Cylons) are justified in their desire to destroy human civilization, one would assume. Indeed, let us not say who the good guys are and who the bad are. That is being “judgmental,” taking sides, and that kind of (simplistic) thinking went out with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and Kathryn Hepburn and John Wayne and, well, the original “Battlestar Galactica.“

In the bleak and miserable “re-imagined” world of “Battlestar Galactica,” things are never that simple. Maybe the Cylons are not evil and alien but in fact enlightened and evolved? Let us not judge them so harshly. Maybe it is they who deserve to live and Adama and his human ilk who deserve to die? And what a way to go! For the re-imagined terrorists (Cylons) are not mechanical robots void of soul, of sexuality, but rather humanoid six foot tall former lingerie models who f**k you to death… In the spirit of such soft-core, sci-fi porn I think a more re-imaginative title would have been “F**cked by A Cylon.” (Apologies to “Touched by an Angel.”)

And what lies behind Benedict’s critique? What is so amiss about the new series? In a word, “feminism”.

One thing is certain. In the new un-imagined, re-imagined world of “Battlestar Galactica” everything is female driven. The male characters, from Adama on down, are confused, weak and wracked with indecision, while the female characters are decisive, bold, angry as hell, puffing cigars (gasp!) and not about to take it any more.

Now, Benedict’s column isn’t entirely off-point. In its last third or so, he levels some equally scathing critiques at the “business as usual” attitude that permeates much of film and TV. Or as he puts it:

…movies and television shows are not made to enlighten or even entertain, but simply to make money. They will tell you it is (still) about story and character, but all it is really about is efficiency. About the Formula. Because Harvard Business School Technocrats run Hollywood and what Technocrats know is what must be removed from all business is Risk. And I tell you, life, real life, is all about risk. I tell you that without risk you have no creativity, no art.

I couldn’t agree more, but seriously, criticizing the movie and television industries for being cultural, intellectual, and spiritual wastelands is the critical equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Everyone knows it, but that’s not the sad thing. The sad thing is that few folks are trying to change it, are trying to present an alternative.

And in my opinion, some of those folks include those behind the new Battlestar Galactica series. As might be obvious by now — if you’ve spent any time reading Opus in the last year or so, that is — where Benedict finds a TV show that is “bleak, miserable, despairing, angry and confused,” I find something that is risky, enlightening, and challenging.

Now, at one time, I would’ve agreed with Benedict wholeheartedly. I hated the reimagined version when I first saw it and was instantly put off by all of the negativity and bleakess. It was only after my wife saw the mini-series and liked it that I gave it a second chance.

Seeing as how it appears that Benedict’s article is substantially the same now as it was several years ago, I can only assume that Benedict’s assessment of the new series has remained unchanged throughout the years. Which adds to the sense that most of Benedict’s comments stem, not from any critical evaluation of the show, but rather, from a case of nostalgia for the “good ol days” (back “when men were men, women were women and sometimes a cigar was just a good smoke,” as he puts it). Which creates a rather myopic view of a show that is far more complex than he seems willing to give it credit for.

When he complains that the new series’ male characters, such as Adama, are weak and confused (i.e., unmanly), I wonder what he’d think had he seen the evolution and development of the character. True, the new Adama is no Lorne Greene, but I can think of few characters in recent television history who display as much integrity and honor as Adama.

And then there’s Helo, who has been consistently noble throughout the series, whether defending the fleet or fighting against the hatred and discrimination shown his Cylon wife. Let’s not forget Anders, who fights hard to save his marriage, even as he struggles with the darker, more unsuspected sides of his character. And don’t get me started on Tigh, who started out the series as a mean drunk (and was fairly close to Benedict’s criticisms), but has become progressively more interesting, complex, and even admirable within the last few episodes.

As for the new series’ female characters, I find Benedict’s criticism rather lacking there as well. Laura Roslin has certainly had her defining moments as President of the fleet, but she’s also displayed horrible lapses in judgment and been party to criminal deeds and terrible abuses of justice. Not surprisingly, Benedict has an especial amount of vitriol for the new Starbuck, who is — horror of horrors! — a cigar-chomping lady rather than a cigar-chomping dude. Sure, the new Starbuck may be angry as hell and a helluva smoker, but she’s hardly presented as a heroic figure. She’s among the the most confused, indecisive, and pitiable characters on the show, and her anger and boldness are merely masks behind which she hides the doubt and fear at the heart of her character.

I’ve found that one of the new series’ greatest strength is the extent to which it portrays its characters as flawed — even the Cylons. Indeed, no show on television seems as intent on revealing and investigating — and to be sure, at times revelling in — the brokenness and fallenness of its characters.

Benedict hates this moral ambiguity and wants to be able to call the good guys “good” and the bad guys “bad”. And there’s certainly an appeal to that. We all want obvious, clearcut heroes that we can admire and be inspired by, and we want clearcut villains so we know who to fight — we want to see things in black and white. But the truth is that the world we live in is, in fact, a morally complex place, and that’s only become more obvious within recent years. We live in a broken and fallen world, and nothing is as broken and fallen as humanity. And to that extent, Battlestar Galactica is as honest and truthful as any show I’ve seen.

Battlestar Galactica is undoubtedly bleak, and at times, the writers do seem to take a sadistic pleasure in heaping as much misfortune on the characters as possible. But let’s not forget that it’s a show in which the central premise is that the whole of humanity has been reduced to a ragtag fleet of 50,000 survivors drifting through the galaxy trying to find a new home while being pursued by machines bent on their annihilation. If that’s not bleak, if that’s not a cause for despair, then I don’t know what is — and I daresay that the new series is far truer to the setting than the original series. But I won’t go so far as to say that it is hopeless or nihilistic — and neither does it display any falsehoods about the nature of humanity, both the good and the bad.

One scene in particular stands out in my mind. In the episode “Crossroads, Part II,” the final episode of season 3, Dr. Baltar is on trial for treason, having been charged with assisting in the destruction of humanity. Through various events, Lee Adama — Adama’s son — is now serving as one of Baltar’s defense attornies. Called to the stand, Lee gives an impassioned speech in which he directly confronts the broken situation in which humanity’s remnant’s find themselves and realizes that only one thing can save them.

Lee contends that it is only through forgiveness — by showing grace and mercy to even the worst of offenders — that humanity can be saved, can be redeemed. For, as he explains with great detail, mentioning one great transgression committed by himself and others after another, everyone is guilty.

In his criticism, Benedict complains that the new Battlestar Galactica is no longer a show “based on hope, spiritual faith and family,” but rather “a show of despair, sexual violence and family dysfunction”. But in that moment with Lee Adama, and other smaller ones like it, I see threads of hope within the new Battlestar Galactica. But it is not a false and easy hope; it is not a hope rooted in a glossed over, halcyonic vision of the world and human nature (or a nostalgia for the “good ol’ days”).

It is hope that remains, even when confronted by the worst in us, and strengthened by the realization that we need eachother to survive, that the only things that will truly see us through are grace and forgiveness. And while there is certainly plenty of despair, sexual violence, and family dysfunction within the new series, such things are never presented as laudatory and praiseworthy, but rather as the trials and tribulations of survival, and hopefully, something to overcome when Galactica finally arrives at her destination — wherever that may be.

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