Greatest TV Pilots: Battlestar Galactica’s “33” sets the tone for a bleak, relentless journey

Screenshot from 33, the pilot for Battlestar Galactica

Cast photo, Battlestar Galactica season 1
Battlestar Galactica
(2003), “33”
Written by Ronald D. Moore
Directed by Michael Rymer
Aired January 14th, 2005 on Sci-Fi

Remakes and reboots have become reliable staples of the Hollywood blockbuster genre for decades, but TV has had far less success recycling older series, with recent attempt like Knight Rider and Charlie’s Angels among the more notable failures. When word came out that Star Trek Deep Space 9 alum Ronald D. Moore was reimagining the Star Wars-inspired ‘70s sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica, reactions were mixed from both fans and detractors of the original. Moore’s first outing was a miniseries telling the backstory of the series, showing the Twelve Colonies’ fall to the Cylon attack and the coming together of the ragtag fleet, led by President Laura Roslin and Commander William Adama, but when BSG was picked up to be a continuing series, Moore took a very different approach.

“33” picks up an unspecified amount of time after the end of the miniseries and throws the audience in the middle of a crisis. The fleet is on the run, with the Cylons following them in relentless pursuit, somehow finding them 33 minutes after each jump to deep space. The military and civilian leaders have been pushed to the brink and the ships are starting to fall apart. They’re on their fifth day without sleep and are quickly approaching the point when their bodies and minds must break down. As Dr. Gaius Baltar says, “Everyone has their limit”.

Nicki Clyne as Cally in "33", the pilot of Battlestar Galactica

The decision to begin the series in this way is a bold one. From a purely aesthetic point of view, it takes the show’s very attractive cast and makes them look absolutely terrible. They’re pale, bloodshot, and exhausted. Any viewers who tuned in to see pretty people in shiny spaceships having wacky adventures can immediately tune back out- this is not the show for them. “33” sets up immense stakes and a tense, stressful tone that has the potential to scare away less committed viewers. Moore and Rymer knew the kind of show they wanted to make and they did not compromise.

Whereas the miniseries features a lot of spectacle, “33” focuses in on the performances. Grizzled, weary determination drips from Edward James Olmos and Michael Hogan and beleaguered grace from Mary McDonnell. James Callis has the showiest role as the constantly hallucinating (or is he?) Baltar and Callis brings much-needed, twitchy hilarity to the otherwise dour episode. Moore is judicious in his use of Baltar, letting him bring humor or dread as needed and then slip to the background before he becomes a distraction.

Screenshot from 33, the pilot to Battlestar Galactica

Though the episode is very actor-centric, Moore and Rymer also know the power of a strong visual and use two in particular to striking effect. Conceived in the aftermath of 9/11, BSG has several very powerful references to that attack over the course of the series and one of them is the photo of the Unknown Soldier we see in the pilot, a simple black and white print of a man, fallen to his knees and staring at the burning skyline of a major city. As the pilots file out to return to their vipers, each in turn touches the photo, a remembrance of their communal loss. The second visual is the slow pan from Lt. Dualla as she goes to add a photo of her family to the board dedicated for those hoping to find their loved ones among the survivors, a board that has grown to completely cover both sides of a hallway, an impromptu shrine to everyone the crew has lost.

“33” is an intense episode, with the ever present ticking of the many clocks a reminder of the certainty of the fleet’s doom. The handheld style brings immediacy and the scoring subtly works to maintain that pressure. Fortunately, at the end of the episode, we’re offered a brief respite, with the news of a birth on one of the ships and the rare opportunity for Roslin to raise the white board tally of the fleet’s population. Battlestar Galactica’s exploration of humanity under the direst of circumstances is bleak, hard, and grueling, but at its center lies a thin strand of hope, the hope that ends the miniseries and “33” as well. The look of overwhelming joy in Roslin’s smile, following such a painful day, is wonderful and the perfect note to go out on. BSG would reach tremendous highs and offer fans discussions of morality and the human condition found all too rarely in television, but “33” remains one of its absolute best episodes, a perfect mission statement for the series to come.

Kate Kulzick

This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.


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