Despite all the positive press and accolades the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica has racked up over the last few years, the new series is still a bit of a tough sell to those who harbor nothing but faint memories of its predecessor. The original ABC show was a microcosm of the excesses of the post-Star Wars sci-fi craze: hackneyed scripts, over-the-top acting, and special effects that were incredibly expensive to produce but yet didn’t manage to achieve the benchmark of excellence that George Lucas had set a few years prior.

If only ABC had known that the success of Ronald D. Moore’s new BG would have little to do with the sci-fi elements involved ... and everything to do with the drama, mythology and political intrigue contained therein. Sure, with the vast advances in computer-generated graphics, it’s become much easier to realize visions of massive outer-space battles, but the show is at its best when its cameras are simply focused on talking heads. Which lends the question: this is exactly the kind of program that could have been made 25 years ago ... so why wasn’t it?

To briefly cover the premise for those unfamiliar with the story: somewhere across the far reaches of the universe, another human civilization similar to ours exists — only this society is more technologically advanced and is primarily polytheistic (“the Lords of Kobol”) instead of monotheistic (with apologies to the Hindu community). In this world, “Cylon” robots were built by humans to serve as worker drones, but somehow became sentient and waged a long war of rebellion against their masters. After a 40-year armistice, the Cylons returned to launch a surprise attack that wiped out the human colonies and their entire military force — save the Galactica warship, which managed to escape into space along with a handful of civilian vessels.

Both series are loosely based around the battle against the Cylons and the search for the “mythical lost colony” of Earth. But for all practical purposes, those are where the similarities end, for the new Battlestar delves into all sorts of political and social issues that the original would never even think to address. A few examples:

  • What kind of provisional government would these people have? Nearly all elected officials were wiped out in the initial nuclear strikes, leaving Secretary of Education Laura Roslin as the successor to the presidency. But no one voted her into office, so what kind of loyalty would she command from the fleet? And would the military still agree to submit to civilian control, knowing that the chief executive was a former schoolteacher with no wartime experience?

  • How would the “survival first” mentality of the fleet interfere with personal liberties? Would reproductive rights still be upheld, despite the fact that the human population had been decimated and was still suffering daily casualties at the hands of the Cylons? Not surprisingly, the religious communities in the fleet are the ones most strongly opposed to abortion — and also the ones most in favor of Roslin using the sacred “Scrolls of Pythia” to guide public policy. Sound familiar? Religion is addressed quite frequently on the show, with the interesting twist being that the Cylons are the ones who believe in only one god, while the humans subscribe to a more ancient Roman-style polytheism. It’d be easy for Moore to paint the Cylons as alien to us as possible, but he doesn’t do it.

  • In a terrific utilization of a Doppleganger element, Moore’s Cylons have evolved to the point where a small number of models have infiltrated the fleet as humans — some of whom don’t even know they are Cylons until they’re programmed to strike. So naturally, paranoia quickly spreads, as it becomes difficult to tell friend from foe. And while there are never qualms about reducing robotic Cylons to hunks of scrap metal, questions are raised as to the limits of acceptable behavior with regards to humanoid Cylon prisoners — one of which was brutally raped and tortured aboard a wayward Battlestar, the Pegasus, that Galactica encountered during the show’s second season. Is it possible to rape a machine? Is it “inhumane” to deploy suicide bombers against machines in the name of resisting occupation? And how do the differing objectives of individual Cylons manifest themselves in terms of cracks in leadership on both sides?

For a show as lackluster as the original Battlestar, there was initially a surprising amount of resistance to Moore’s vision — especially when word leaked out about some of his conceptual modifications (most famously, changing the gender of hotheaded pilot Starbuck from male to female). Actor Richard Hatch, who portrayed Apollo in the original series and authored a series of related novels, made frenzied but unsuccessful pitches to Universal for the right to oversee the return of the show. While Hatch was critical of Moore, he has since changed his tune, even accepting (and shining in) the role of political prisoner-turned-politician Tom Zarek.

The thinking in prime-time television used to be that you had to sum up the story at the end of every episode and erase the collective memory of the entire cast when the final credits played. But the ability to stretch narratives is the one thing that TV can do better than any other medium. Novels have to end, movies have to end — but a television series can go on and on, hour after hour.

Of course, this requires people to pay close attention, and the new Battlestar is a show that places considerable demands upon its audience. With more than a dozen major characters sprinkled across both human and Cylon camps, and complex plot lines that often take entire seasons to resolve, BG is one of the finest examples of the resurgence in serial television storytelling. The original BG — and really, television in general — was hampered by two colossal constraints that have become non-factors over the last decade: the need to attract huge, mainstream audiences, and the lack of on-demand viewer access.

Each current BG episode on the Sci-Fi channel pulls in roughly two million viewers. While this is a respectable number for a cable station, it’s a figure that pales next to that of the original, which was considered a failure if it didn’t attract 10 times that amount (or more). With such a smaller target audience, stations don’t have worry about losing viewers with complex storylines; in contrast, with only three networks around back in the 1970s, programs had to display the ability to reign in huge crowds, and the pressure on the original BG was only magnified due to the show’s massive production costs.

Plus, science fiction was still something of a niche market to begin with, despite the worldwide success of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Selling an X-Wing assault on a Death Star was one thing, but it was quite a bit tougher to get excited about < Galactica’s Colonial Viper planes, which looked so remarkably simple to fly (just a joystick with three buttons!) that even your spatially-challenged High Hat contributor might’ve been able to pilot one. But it should also be mentioned that there was a definite problem in trying to bring space dogfights into the living rooms of the average 1978 American household. Today, lots of folks own home-theater setups that rival those of their local cinema, but back then the Galactica and her Vipers were racing across 19-inch Trinitron screens.

The Sci-Fi channel makes money via commercials, sure, but it has access to an additional source of revenue — those cable subscriber fees — and is able to get more bang for their buck by airing the same episode several times in the same week. Video sales and rentals also provide ways for a TV series to squeeze more money out of the same shows, but the prime advantage they offer is the ability to continually reel in new viewers without having to sacrifice a show’s year-long plot arcs. Can you imagine 24 being aired in the 1970s? Unless you followed Jack Bauer’s exploits from the very beginning, you’d be hopelessly lost; not only that, but deciding to watch the show would mean a cast-iron weekly time commitment as well, since one missed episode would sink the entire season.

Today, people can record shows on DVR and watch them later at their leisure, or order them via their cable company or the internet. And those who wish to bypass all the aforementioned distribution options can pick up DVDs of the entire season after its conclusion — featuring the bonus of show commentaries from Moore himself. Outside of the resulting creation of the mail-order video market, the availability of audio commentaries is the greatest auxiliary benefit of the DVD age. And Moore provides some of the best in the business, adding valuable insight on the show’s development and themes without doing the audience’s thinking for them. (And yes, his thoughts are initially available as podcasts, but they’re much easier to follow when linked to the action on screen.)

We’re in the midst of a new Golden Age for television right now — there’s currently a plethora of great series (e.g., almost everything on HBO) that actively cater to and reward intelligent audiences, while playing to strengths of the medium that films just can’t match. Who would’ve thought that science-fiction TV would ultimately be advanced more by peripheral technology developments as opposed to superior on-screen visuals?