The remake of Battlestar Galactica on the Sci-Fi Channel (soon to begin its third season) has prompted a few rather weak attempts to draw parallels between the show and current events or find a political or religious statement in the new version of the amazingly campy cult series of 1978 (which understandably became more popular only after it left the air), such as this brief plug in Time for BSG as the best show of 2005 (which is true–take that for whatever it’s worth).

When I first heard of the idea of the remake, I laughed. Why would anyone want to remake a show that was, in my estimation, as exciting as Star Wars: Episode I and even less imaginative? Then a funny thing happened the night before I was to leave with my parents for Texas: I caught the tail end of a BSG marathon and, once I found my bearings in the storyline, became captivated, much to my own surprise.

There are a number of significant changes to the story and many of the characters from the original version (which can only have been an improvement). Some of them (such as making the pilot Starbuck into a woman) are as silly as they were unwelcome to fans to the old show, while the injection of a sort of theological controversy and seriousness into what would normally be yet another guns-in-space production has made the story much more engaging. The two major differences are what make the new BSG an interesting sci-fi series and a far more compelling drama than any of the shlock on offer on the major networks. The major differences are these: the Cylons are artificially intelligent lifeforms created by man that have returned to wreak vengeance/judgement/havoc on humanity and have begun to imitate humans to the point of developing their own religion, believing that they have been elected to replace mankind in the created order; second, the human, modernised followers of old polytheistic cults find themselves confronted by these militant monotheists who believe that they are delivering God’s retribution upon sinful man.

What is remarkable about the series is that, intentionally or not, the writers have managed to make the Cylons’ excessively deterministic theology (”all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again”–an idea they share with the humans) so much more credible and interesting, as well as a major factor in moving the plot forward, than much of the worn-down quasi-Olympian cult of the Colonists that it is hard not to have a sneaky sympathy with the Cylons. In the world Ron Moore has created, the Cylons appear to represent at once the most fundamental evil and the more enlightened civilisation, if you will, which may be the most intriguingly subversive idea in the entire story: if there is in this fictional universe a Cycle of Time in which things recur eternally without variation, moral culpability and freedom of the will are completely irrelevant and the genocidal horrors of the Cylons need no justification–they flow ineluctably from a mechanical God. The entire show, if it has a “message,” is a display of the moral horror of a universe in which Hegelian or gnostic fantasies about history, inevitability and progress are true. Theologically speaking, of course, the Cylons’ beliefs are so much of a gibberish of Vedanta, Christianity and Islam that it would be next to impossible to see in the Cylons a symbol for any particular religious group or religious groups in general.

For what it’s worth, the old BSG was blatantly, overtly political in a way that the new show cannot even pretend to be. The original pilot was a screaming indictment of 1970s detente and a forecast of disaster for fools who would make deals with totalitarians (in those days, the robotic Cylons were supposed to be a hostile alien race ruled by the redundantly named Imperious Leader). If the warning of the old show was an unabashed denunciation of “appeasement” and its consequences, the new one is not so clumsy or what I might call ’sci-fi preachy’.