Fiction Reviews

Battlestar Galactica

(2006) Jeffrey A. Carver, Gollancz, 6.99, pbk, 352pp. ISBN 978-0-575-07965-6


Battlestar Galactica is a novelisation of Sci-Fi Channel's 2003 mini-series revival (now (2007) in its third season) of the iconic but short-lived 1970s science-fiction series.

However, rather than continuing the original series as many long-term Galactica fans had hoped, Sci-Fi took the radical decision to "re-imagine" it, taking the basic premise and set of characters of the original and re-building them from the ground up.

Thus, while the premise is still that of the original -- survivors of the near extermination of the human race by the robotic Cylons fleeing in search of the legendary planet Earth -- the new Galactica has a much darker and very modern perspective. In the new version the Cylons were originally created by the humans. The Cylons rebelled and, after a long absence, return to ruthlessly destroy the Twelve Colonies of Man in a sudden, devastating surprise attack, leaving the Galactica as the sole surviving warship left to protect a handful of survivors.

Furthermore, the Cylons have also evolved so that some of them now look human so the human survivors have a devastated society facing an enemy of their own creation they cannot always identify and do not fully understand. The modern day parallels with Post-9/11 America are there and hard to ignore, right down to the disputes between civil and military leaders as they try to balance the need to preserve some semblance of normal life and liberties with the need for security.

The main characters too, while having broadly the same traits as the originals, are an altogether much more complex, flawed and, arguably, more realistic and believable bunch. For instance, Starbuck is still a hotshot fighter pilot but he is now a she and those traits that make her such a dangerous, unpredictable pilot mean she is also wild and sometimes undisciplined, hence occasionally has problems with authority. Similarly, while Apollo's relationship with his father Commander Adama is still a key story thread, their new relationship is altogether more strained and dysfunctional.

Other changes included redefining key names like Apollo, Starbuck and Boomer to be pilot callsigns rather than actual character names (thus Apollo is actually Lee Adama and Starbuck Kara Thrace) and changing the genders of some of the characters too, with Starbuck's redefinition as a woman being the most controversial although, arguably, Boomer's is more transformation is more radical, changing gender and race!

The tone of the new series is thus much grimmer, downbeat and, to me anyway, rather more realistic and generally satisfying than the light-hearted space opera of the original.

Needless to say, this decision to re-launch a radically different new version rather than continue the original series upset quite a few original series' fans who had been campaigning for a revival ever since it was cancelled. I will say up front, that despite some initial misgivings, especially around the whole idea of 're-imagining' after the likes of Planet of the Apes, I rapidly became an ardent fan of the new series and was thus rather interested to see what this novelisation would be like.

I must also admit that it's been a long time since I read a tie-in novelisation. I used to read film and TV tie-ins avidly in the days before sell-through videos, DVDs and downloads as a means of revisiting the stories when I wanted. Now though, I feel that a novelisation needs to provide more than just a verbal description of what is seen on screen. A good one should be able to provide something beyond that, perhaps additional insights into characters or scenes or details that didn't make it into the final version (deleted or not even written), taking the original script and expanding on it to make the book a compelling work in its own right.

On that basis, I found this novelisation to be a bit of a let-down.

The book follows the key events of the mini-series, covering the Cylon surprise attack, aided by a highly effective computer virus, the Galactica's survival of the onslaught, the gathering of survivors and flight from the Cylons in search of Earth, focusing especially on the relationships Galactica's Commander, William Adama; his estranged fighter pilot son Lee (Apollo); Kara Thrace (Starbuck), another fighter pilot; Laura Roslin who finds herself elevated from Secretary of Education to President by virtue of outliving the other 42 ahead of her in the line of succession and Dr Gaius Baltar, guilty of unwitting complicity in the near extermination of humanity, as they try to establish what to do in the wake of the Cylon attack.

It is an adequate, faithful translation, following the mini-series very closely, but does not provide much that viewing the mini-series would not. It portrays the mini-series' events accurately and generally captures their feel and tone but does not particularly add to them. Readers looking for, effectively, an extended edition of the mini-series will be disappointed.

There are a few exceptions: some expansion is required because sometimes what works on screen may not on page - something which might slip past on screen without explanation may get noted in text by a reader. A key example is the female Cylon who has been involved in a relationship a key character for two years prior to the attack as a means of infiltrating the Twelve Colonies. On screen, she is never explicitly named but it is harder to get away with that plausibly in text so she is given the name Natasi. In general though, the novelisation reads like an expanded transcript.

The descriptions of the characters and their motivations also feels consistent with the mini-series but, again, there is not really any additional insights into the characters. There are also some oddities though: for example, certain descriptions are repeated, for example, we are told several times that Lee Adama's callsign is Apollo (the last instance being some 287 pages in) and Sharon Valerii's is Boomer. One particularly jarring set of descriptions is of Boomer, who, having been described as a "strikingly attractive, petite brunette with Oriental features" is then later described again as a "beautiful young woman with epicanthic folds at the corners of her shining dark eyes"! At times it almost feels like the book was written to be serialised, with descriptions repeated to refresh a returning reader's memory.

To be fair, the author of a TV tie-in and, in particular, of a novelisation, faces a lot of restrictions in what he can or can not do with the novelisation. Unlike original novels, he has to follow an established story and set of characters and so is restricted in terms of what he can do to expand on the plot and characters, especially if he is to avoid contradicting any future plans for the programme and particularly if he is not privy to those plans.

The biggest problem that Jeffrey Carver faced when writing this book would seem to have been the time he was given to write this novelisation: in an interview he mentions that he had only two and a half months to complete it and, yet, he has also said he actually had one major advantage over other authors writing similar novelisations: he had a DVD of the actual programme to work with rather than just a script, which is apparently more usual, but which ended up being very different from the final broadcast product. Doubtless, with more time, the author could have added more detail and depth to the plot and characters.

Thus, a lot of the problems with the novelisation are not necessarily the fault of the author but seem more generic to the way that tie-in novelisations are produced.

Ultimately, though, while these considerations to a large extent explain why the novelisation is unsatisfying, they still do not alter the fact that it is nonetheless unsatisfying. This book is a pretty faithful translation of the mini-series but seems to fall flat, reading like a copy of the script with expanded descriptive passages between lines of dialogue. It does not really provide much extra beyond a Cylon's assumed name. If I need a recap of the mini-series story, I would be more inclined to simply re-watch the DVD.

Kin-Ming Looi

Concat' Editorial Note: The original series' Battlestar Galactica novelization was published in Great Britain in 1978 by Futura and written by Glen A. Larson and Robert Thurston. This novelization featured an 8-page gloss art paper centrepiece that had 13 colour pictures either of the series or artwork relating to the storyboard. Glen Larson was also the original series' Executive Producer and was responsible for bringing a number of what potentially might have been good SF series to the screen but in such a way that they ended up being sci fi. Famously there was a court case between the makers of the original Battlestar and those of Star Wars but that is another story...

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