In my view the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (Executive Produced by Ron Moore) is the best TV series ever made. Ostensibly a science-fiction series, it managed to also become a remarkable commentary on the modern world, to the extent that members of the cast and crew were asked to participate in discussions at the UN recently.
Epic in scope an ambition, it started out as the story of the survivors of the genocide of humanity at the hands of their own creations, the Cylons, but became something far grander and better. The series is devoid of conventional heroes and villains, it’s characters reflecting various shades of grey, and the tone is as dark as pitch. It features a remarkable cast, from whom one can particularly call out Eddie Olmos as Bill Adama, the fleet’s military leader – a tired man whose career is in the process of ending in failure when he and his elderly, outdated warship (the Galactica) are called upon to become the last hope of humanity, and Mary McDonnell as the cancer-stricken Education Secretary Laura Roslin, who finds herself elevated to President with the murder of the rest of the civilian government. Beset by visions, Roslin becomes convinced that the Gods are showing her the way to salvation.
Starting with a mini-series and running for four seasons, BSG maintained a remarkable level of consistency in it’s quality, and if the fourth season wobbled slightly at times the show’s finale was a triumph – a sublime pulling together of myriad threads which managed to give a sense of hope to the ending of this darkest of shows.
A greater contrast to the dark, epic grandeur of Battlestar Galactica it would be harder to find. Anarchic, funny, often profoundly moving, and featuring Muppets in leading roles, the Australian sci-fi series Farscape is an often overlooked but utterly glorious confection. At times startlingly pervy, the show, created by Rockne S O’Bannon, told the story of a human astronaut (Ben Browder as Commander John Crichton) who finds himself hurled through a wormhole into the company of a group of misfit criminals on the run from the brutal Peacekeepers aboard a living vessel controlled by the wise, gentle Pilot. Cancelled suddenly at the end of it’s fourth season, a write-in campaign by fans stimulated the production of a 2-part miniseries which enabled a satisfactory ending to the adventures.
Genre favourites Browder and Claudia Black as rogue Peacekeeper Officer Aeryn Sun bring real chemistry to the tentative and genuinely touching romance between the harsh, stiff soldier for a quasi-fascist regime and the wisecracking, irreverant human astronaut driven half mad by the trauma of what is happening to him, while the group of Australian character actors who populate the rest of the cast (many of them graduates of Neighbours or Home and Away) create a memorable ensemble of nymphomaniacs, living plants, creatures that can melt metal by screaming and all manner of other weirdos.
Firefly is one of the great missed opportunities of US TV in the last decade. A fantastically cast, beautifully realised and splendidly plotted production by Buffy creator Joss Whedon, the show lasted only 11 episodes (out of 14 filmed) before being cancelled in mid-run. Set in a universe deliberately evocative of the cowboy era of Earth, the show tells the story of Captain Mal Reynolds, an ex-soldier on the losing side in a war, who operates a small commercial spacecraft on the edge of the law. Accompanied by his loyal crew and with a priest, a high class courtesan and a mysterious doctor and his sister on the run from the authorities, Firefly had Whedon’s trademark witty dialogue and exploration of the fallibility of humanity.
Hamstrung by the first episodes being shown out of order, the show never recovered, and was cancelled without all the episodes being shown. It rapidly developed a cult following however, and came back for the theatrical movie Serenity which tied up the story. Firefly is also notable for featuring the world’s most lovely actress, Canadian Jewel Staite 😉
Last but not least comes a series of an earlier vintage than the other three. Babylon 5 was the brainchild of Producer J M Straczynski, whose creative genius is imprinted on every aspect of the show. B5 was the first multi-season production to carry an arc story across the whole of it’s run, telling the story of the titular space station and the epic deeds of it’s inhabitants both human and alien. The aliens were genuinely alien (rather than Star Trek style people with rubber foreheads) and were brought to life by a remarkable cast including Andreas Katsulas portraying the redeemed Narn G’Kar, and the extraordinary Croatian actress Mira Furlan, who brings tenderness and an edge of steel born in the tragic (and at that time recent) history of her homeland to her role as the Minbari warrior-priestess Delenn.
The characters of Babylon 5 each went on their individual journeys. Some made it – others didn’t. At times B5 was as dark as BSG, or as light and anarchic as Farscape, and although it now feels a little dated and probably went on a season too long it remains a landmark in television history.