Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot simply would not happen in 2023. This isn’t to say a Battlestar Galactica reboot wouldn’t get made today — in fact, there’s been one in the works at Universal for the past couple of years — but it simply wouldn’t look anything like what audiences were treated to when the three-hour BSG miniseries premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel in 2003.
- 10. Bastille Day (season 1, episode 3)
- 9. Flesh and Bone (season 1, episode 8)
- 8. The Oath/Blood on the Scales (season 4, episodes 13 and 14)
- 7. Daybreak (season 4, episodes 19, 20, and 21)
- 6. Unfinished Business (season 3, episode 9)
- 5. Lay Down Your Burdens (season 2, episodes 19 and 20)
- 4. Pegasus (season 2, episode 10)
- 3. Downloaded (season 2, episode 18)
- 2. 33 (season 1, episode 1)
- 1. Exodus, parts 1 and 2 (season 3, episodes 3 and 4)
We live in the age of the requel, of legacy characters and continuations of long-dormant franchises, not of reworkings and reimaginings. The entire point of modern studios’ obsession with established intellectual property is to cater to existing fan bases, to avoid risk by giving them more of what they already like. When the new BSG first aired, fans of the original hated it. Loudly. Not only did this reimagining completely throw away the continuity of the 1978 series and its spinoff, but it was a completely different kind of show, a hard and deeply political military sci-fi drama rather than a rousing space adventure.
While this might have infuriated the original audience, the new Battlestar Galactica attracted a totally fresh one, and became one of the biggest critical darlings of the 2000s. Its unflinching look at a wounded and paranoid society walking the line between democracy and military dictatorship was poignant and powerful to an audience of Americans coping with the shock of the September 11th attacks and the War on Terror that followed. The series would go on to win a Peabody Award, its cast and producers were invited to speak at the United Nations, and despite the general consensus that its later seasons declined in quality, it continues to rank on many publication’s lists of the greatest television shows all time. It’s a testament to what you can create when you refresh an old idea because you have a story you want to tell, not just a brand you want to exploit.
Picking the top 10 episodes for this list was practically impossible – this could very well have been made up entirely out of episodes from the first season, or the entire first half of season 2. Every season or midseason finale could have made the cut, and if we didn’t restrain ourselves, all four parts of season 3’s New Caprica arc would have had their own entries. This is just where we’ve landed on this particular day, and if you ask us tomorrow, it might be totally different. After all, all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again …
Major spoilers follow for the entire series.
The pilot miniseries and debut episodes of season 1 established Battlestar Galactica’s central conflict — the 12 Colonies of Kobol have been obliterated by the Cylons, their former android servants, and now the surviving 50,000 humans are wandering the galaxy in search of the mythical 13th colony, Earth. Meanwhile, the Cylons’ new ability to perfectly impersonate humans has the survivors questioning everything and everyone.
With its third episode, Bastille Day, BSG broadens the scope of the series from “humans versus Cylons” to the far more messy divisions within humanity itself. The episode introduces Tom Zarek (portrayed by original Apollo actor Richard Hatch), a convicted terrorist aboard a prison ship that happened to escape the Cylon holocaust. Zarek leads a riot aboard the prison ship, and uses this coup and his platform as a well-known political demagogue to challenge the legitimacy of the new interim government, headed by President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) and Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos). Captain Lee “Apollo” Adama (Lee Bamber) is present as a representative of the powers that be, but Lee’s own political idealism makes the matter complicated for him. After all — should the remainder of humanity be led by two people who were elected by no one?
Bastille Day checks a lot of boxes, not the least of which is adding legacy actor Hatch to the cast, one of a precious few olive branches offered to the jilted fan base. Most of all, however, Bastille Day is a terrific introduction to the new Apollo, and the personal struggles that will guide his story throughout the rest of the series. Lee Adama is a gallant hero whose absolutes of right and wrong are constantly challenged by the fleet’s increasingly dire postapocalyptic circumstances. Lee is, above all, on the side of democracy, which often puts him in direct conflict with the actual government. He is one of the show’s most consistent moral compasses (along with Karl “Helo” Agathon), and he does not always get his way.
What Bastille Day is to Lee Adama, Flesh and Bone is to Kara Thrace (The Mandalorian‘s Katee Sackhoff). It’s an episode that expands one of the lead characters beyond their basic logline and further complicates the themes and conflicts of the series. Lt. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace is introduced as the rebellious hotshot of Galactica’s air wing, a hard-drinking, hard-loving, self-loathing disaster of a woman. Her first stories centered around her guilt over the death of her fiancé, Zak Adama, her former flight student who she cleared to fly despite his insufficient skills. Starting here, however, we dig deeper, as she’s assigned by President Roslin to interrogate a captured Cylon spy, Leoben Conoy (Callum Keith Rennie), a prisoner to whom human rights laws do not apply. Through their brutal battle of wills, we start to learn about Kara’s complicated relationship with faith as the first seeds of Kara’s strange cosmic destiny are sowed.
Flesh and Bone also challenges Kara’s prejudice toward the Cylons, which at this point is shared by much of the audience. This early in the season, few if any of the human characters would consider the human-presenting “skinjob” Cylons to be people. They’re machines, programmed by other machines to destroy, and that’s all there is to it. The Cylons, after all, just perpetrated the genocide of billions of humans. What kind of people could do such a thing? Flesh and Bone does not turn Kara into a Cylon sympathizer, but it does force her to reckon with the possibility that they are alive, capable of pain, suffering, and frailty. What does it mean, then, to torture and execute such a being? What separates us from them? This question becomes one of the keystones of the entire series.
We’ll admit that BSG gets a little lost in the weeds during its fourth season, but all of its tangled threads tie together perfectly during Gaeta’s mutiny. Felix Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani) has been a faithful officer of the fleet since the beginning, with his role steadily growing from a procedural background character in the miniseries to a key player in the events on New Caprica. But by the middle of season 4, Gaeta’s faith in Admiral Adama’s leadership has been irreparably broken, and not without good reason.
After the discovery of the bombed-out Earth, the ragtag fleet’s last hope has died, and something’s gotta give. Gaeta teams up with Vice President Tom Zarek to capture Galactica and remove President Roslin from office, and they’ve got a lot of support. Battle lines are drawn, and every last grudge or alliance comes to a head as the passengers and crew of Galactica divide into factions. Naturally, the narrative and most of our main characters are on the side of Adama and Roslin, but there are a lot of familiar faces amongst the mutineers, with almost every recurring character in the fleet getting a role in the story. This grants the two-parter a sense of scale and gravity beyond Galactica’s (several) previous uprisings.
Of course, none of this would amount to anything if it didn’t advance the stories of our major characters, and this is also a key moment in the relationship between Bill Adama and Laura Roslin, who make up the show’s best romance. At this point, the admiral and the president have been romantically tied for months, with Roslin even taking up residence in Adama’s quarters during her cancer treatments. Adama is clearly in love with her, but Roslin is more reserved in her affections. It takes thinking he’s been executed during the mutiny for her to truly accept her feelings, and when the couple is reunited, Roslin finally professes her love. “It’s about time,” says the Admiral. We think the timing is perfect.
Listen, we know not everyone is fond of the finale to Battlestar Galactica. Daybreak and the even more controversial (and fundamentally misunderstood) final hour of Lost that aired two years later each seemed to some like examples of the consequences of building a complicated mythology as you go along. Of course, decades later, we’ve learned that setting an endpoint for your TV series and sticking to your guns despite years of development can be equally disastrous (see: How I Met Your Mother or Game of Thrones). Unambiguously answering all of the audience’s questions can also be a lot less fun than giving fans something to chew on after the credits roll. (It’s been 15 years since The Sopranos cut to black, and we’re still talking about it.) Speaking for ourselves, the longer we sit on the three-part finale to Battlestar Galactica, the more we love it.
To begin with, Daybreak makes full use of its giant-sized runtime, particularly in the unified, feature film-style cut included on the DVD and Blu-ray sets. Daybreak has time to be all three of the things that BSG does best: action, intrigue, and character study. Part 1 is heavily character-driven, flashing between the titular vessel’s final days before being dismantled and key moments in the lives of its crew before the fall of the colonies. Not only does this allow us to reflect on the growth of these characters over the course of the series, but it sheds some light on who they have been from the beginning, and what has driven them throughout the story.
Part 2 is essentially nonstop space action, as Adama and company take Galactica on one final mission to save the child Hera from being dissected by Cavill (Dean Stockwell) and the rest of the Cylon loyalists, and it holds up next to some of the show’s best battles. The final third pays off the prophecies and portents that were set up since the first season, albeit with varied results. And, frankly, isn’t that a fitting way for the series to end? Trim off that goofy present-day epilogue, and we’d be 100% satisfied.
One of Galactica’s most ambitious storylines (which will receive multiple mentions on our list) is the New Caprica arc, during which new President Gaius Baltar (James Callis) decrees that the fleet of refugees should abandon the search for Earth in order to settle on another habitable planet, which they call New Caprica. The storytellers commit hard to this idea, skipping over a year of their characters’ lives and resetting most of their relationships, leaving the audience to try and fill in the gaps.
Once the colonists set back out into space, everyone has been forever changed by their time on the planet, and we still don’t know everything that happened to them there. Weeks later, fans finally got a peek into the missing year via the episode Unfinished Business, which intersperses flashbacks into the present-day story of a boxing event aboard the Battlestar.
The episode contains some big reveals, most notably that Lee and Kara finally slept together on New Caprica, after which Kara immediately flipped out and proposed marriage to boyfriend Sam Anders (Michael Trucco) the very next morning. But, beyond that bombshell, the flashbacks in Unfinished Business also offer us a look at our characters in a totally different context from the show’s usual nonstop stress. We see them dig their toes into the dirt of their new land and get to know them on a whole new level. What are they like when they don’t have lives to protect? What will they do with their own?
Regardless of how you feel about the way the series ended, there’s no denying that the Battlestar Galactica writer’s room absolutely excelled at cliffhangers. Each season ends with a twist that totally upends the status quo in a way the audience couldn’t have predicted. Any of the show’s three season-ending two-parters could have made this list. Kobol’s Last Gleaming has Boomer’s shocking betrayal, Crossroads has Lee’s incredible monologue at Baltar’s trial and that sick Cylon reveal via Bob Dylan cover, but reflecting on the series as a whole, nothing rocked the world of BSG quite like Gaius Baltar’s unexpected election as president of the Colonies and the groundbreaking time skip that followed. In the final 15 minutes of Lay Down Your Burdens Part 2, Battlestar Galactica essentially became an entirely new show, and even after the subsequent New Caprica arc came to an end, it never quite returned to the way it was. As much as the destruction of the 12 colonies, the occupation of New Caprica became the defining trauma for our characters.
But this only accounts for a fraction of the excitement of this two-parter. Beyond the discovery of a potential new home and the drama around the election, there’s also Kara’s mission to rescue Sam Anders and the rest of his resistance from Caprica. There’s Chief Tyrol’s (Aaron Douglas) emotional crisis, and Baltar’s ill-fated affair with the traumatized Six (Tricia Helfer), who was recovered from the Battlestar Pegasus. The drama comes in a variety of intense flavors, all culminating in a literal nuclear bang.
Moore and the rest of the creators behind the reimagined Battlestar Galactica were very selective about what elements or storylines to adapt from the 1970s original, but one of their most effective storylines is inspired directly by a classic 1970s BSG two-parter The Living Legend. There, the ragtag fleet led by Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) is surprised to encounter a second surviving Battlestar, the Pegasus, led by war hero Commander Cain (Lloyd Bridges), and they team up to take the fight to the Cylons.
The 2005 version, naturally, would put as dark a twist on this idea as possible. Just as before, the struggling human survivors are overjoyed to add a second, even more powerful Battlestar to their fleet, but this Pegasus is not commanded by a benevolent, albeit cocky counterpart to Galactica’s Adama. The reimagined Cain (Michelle Forbes) is an admiral, one who has no interest in indulging Adama and Roslin’s efforts to balance military and civilian concerns. To her, the civilian fleet is a resource at the disposal of the war effort, not vice versa, and she has learned none of the show’s lessons about mercy or compassion.
Pegasus pits Adama and the crew of Galactica against a dark mirror of themselves, a picture of what they might have become if not for the influence of idealists like Lee Adama or stubborn civilian leaders like Laura Roslin. Admiral Cain is a terrifying and complicated villain who is more than a match for Adama, and the battle lines between them are not drawn as evenly as one might think, with Kara Thrace caught in the middle. The conflict between the crews grows quickly, building to a thrilling midseason cliffhanger that left fans on pins and needles for four months. Bonus points, also, for the sleek and modern-looking production design of the Pegasus sets, in contrast to the deliberately old and busted Galactica, and for one of composer Bear McCreary’s most pulse-pounding scores.
The “villain episode” is a time-honored way to shake up the format of a television show, recontextualizing an ongoing narrative from the perspective of the antagonists. In Downloaded, we step away from the titular Battlestar and catch up with two characters who we watched die, but know didn’t stay dead. One is the version of Number Six who seduced Gaius Baltar all the way back in the pilot miniseries, and whose image has continued to appear to him since her body was obliterated in the destruction of Caprica.
The other is Boomer (Grace Park), the version of Raptor pilot Sharon Valerii who was programmed to assassinate William Adama and then killed while in custody. Each of their minds was downloaded into a new body and welcomed back into Cylon society as heroes, but neither of them feels like a hero. Boomer is still trying to make sense of the false memories that were implanted in her for her mission, and Six is being literally haunted by the ghost of Gaius Baltar, who she believes to be dead. Downloaded finds these two Cylon celebrities meeting for the first time, an event that high-ranking Cylon D’Anna Biers (Lucy Lawless) knows will have serious ramifications for their society.
Up until this point in the series, the Cylons had been presented as single-mindedly dedicated to the destruction of humanity and, with exception of the copy of Sharon Valerii who would later be called Athena, each of the known Cylon models was so internally consistent that they might as well be a single character occupying multiple bodies. Downloaded establishes that Cylons, despite being made from a limited number of molds, are still individuals, and that individuality presents a threat to the Cylons’ agenda. This episode is also the turning point at which Battlestar Galactica evolves from being a story about the humans versus the Cylons to being a story about the humans and the Cylons, as each faction faces internal conflicts and establishes alliances that would once have seemed unthinkable. It’s a quantum leap forward for the series, one that would set up its single largest status quo shift, just two episodes later.
After the strong ratings for the pilot miniseries in 2003, the new Battlestar Galactica debuted its first full season just one year later, beginning with one of the most riveting hours in sci-fi television history. The episode titled 33 picks up shortly after the miniseries left off, with the Colonial fleet desperately fleeing from the Cylon forces that are looking to wipe out the last remnants of humanity. Each time the fleet executes a faster-than-light jump, the Cylons follow behind them 33 minutes later, like clockwork. There’s no relief in sight, and the crew of Galactica has been run completely ragged. The pressure and anxiety felt by every pilot, politician, and civilian is absolutely palpable. Terrible decisions must be made to ensure the survival of humanity that will haunt the characters for the rest of the series. The episode sets the tone of the first season perfectly, digging its hooks deep into an audience who, for the years that followed, wouldn’t dare make other plans on a Friday night.
For viewers who missed the miniseries, 33 was like no space opera they’d ever seen. Its documentary-style photography, naturalistic performances, and moody, percussive score flew in the face of the precedents set on Star Trek or Babylon 5. The episode is a master class at establishing characters and conflicts, using the intense pressure of a scenario to push its heroes to their limit, yet also laying out a track to explore them further in the future. Some fans might say that no single episode of BSG ever topped 33, and technically, we agree. Which is why, for No. 1on our list, we had to cheat just a little …
If you’ve been reading this list from the beginning, then you probably saw this coming. We’ve talked about the buildup to the New Caprica arc and about its aftermath, so now let’s dig into the story itself. The Colonial fleet, exhausted from their months on the run from the Cylons, elect to abandon the search for Earth and settle on a habitable, but not terribly hospitable planet they call New Caprica. One year later, most of our characters have started new lives on the surface, and while it’s far from paradise, at least they aren’t living under the constant threat of extinction. The relative peace is broken when the Cylons catch up to them and, instead of nuking the planet from orbit, land on the surface and take over the colony, turning Baltar’s elected government into a hollow proxy for their own rule.
The following four episodes (Occupation, Precipice, and Exodus, Parts 1 and 2) are the story of life under Cylon occupation, of the desperate and brutal human resistance, and the rescue effort by the Battlestars Galactica and Pegasus. Battlestar Galactica has always been a heavy, nuanced look at war, government, faith, and prejudice, but the New Caprica scenario specifically places the protagonists of the series — characters who the audience has learned to relate to and sympathize with — in the position of leading a violent insurgency against an occupying force.
In other words, the heroes are terrorists now, taking any opportunity to hit the invaders where it hurts, even at the cost of innocent lives. It’s ugly, bloody business, and while it strains our ability to connect with them, it also contextualizes the actions of the people with whom America was currently (and sort of still is) at war. Why do people strap bombs to their chests? Can any armed occupation, no matter how well-intentioned, win over the support of the people it rules? Who, if anyone, benefits from this?
The entire New Caprica arc is top-tier, but since crowning all four episodes as our champion would be too much of a stretch, we’ll celebrate its concluding chapters, and if you insist that we declare a single winner, we’ll pick Exodus, Part 2. The final hour of this epic opens with one of Galactica’s most heartbreaking moments, as Colonel Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan) executes his wife, Ellen (Kate Vernon), for collaborating with Cylon forces. The emotional stakes remain that high for the entire episode, alongside some of the most thrilling action of the series. The Adama Maneuver — in which Galactica performs a faster-than-light-drive jump into New Caprica’s atmosphere and launches its fighter wing while plummeting to the surface below — remains the raddest thing any television show has done with a spaceship, period.
Finally, even though this arc ends with the fleet resuming its search for Earth, the status quo of Battlestar Galactica is nevertheless changed forever. There’s BSG before New Caprica, and there’s BSG after, and while most fans would agree that the stories that followed are nowhere as good, Exodus is an undeniable high point for the series, and for sci-fi television in general.