WARNING: This article contains spoilers for “Battlestar Galactica.”
“So say we all!” Ronald D. Moore’s exciting reinterpretation of “Battlestar Galactica” remains one of science fiction’s most dramatically charged and thematically relevant TV series of the past decade. Conceived as a bold re-imagining by “Star Trek: The Next Generation” alum Ron Moore, the rebooted “BSG” series deepened everything that made the original ’70s show a beloved cult classic with a deeply humanist survival story. Aside from being an extraordinary sci-fi story that asked hard-hitting questions (like what does it mean to be human?), BSG also tackled political themes, religion, philosophy and government structure in such a fearless and powerful way that it became essential viewing for genre and non-genre fans alike.
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With an ongoing comics franchise in full swing, “Battlestar Galactica” has always managed to remain in the public consciousness with its timeless storytelling. With its memorable characters, stunning storytelling and brave humanist story, here are our picks for the 15 best episodes of the series.
15. THE MINISERIES
Technically not part of the four-season series, the miniseries nonetheless feels like the true pilot of the show. Comprising three hours of television broken up over two parts, the miniseries tells the general story of how all the characters came aboard the Battlestar Galactica and where they were in their lives before the takeover of Caprica by the Cylons.
Moore’s miniseries effectively introduces several changes to the original BSG (Starbuck is now a woman and played in a commanding performance by Katee Sackhoff) while still presenting its core themes (humanity’s enemies are the self-aware Cylons) the same. The miniseries does a great job of setting up the story, characters, the conflict (especially the great Gaius Baltar/Number Six dynamic), but most importantly, it gives us a glimpse into humanity’s life on Caprica. The miniseries manages to be both emotionally powerful and deliver on an incredibly promising scope that it beautifully sets up for the future (thanks to Moore and series regular director Michael Rymer).
14. MAELSTROM (Season 3, Episode 17)
“Maelstrom” is a game-changing and emotionally powerful hour of television that remains one of the quintessential Kara Thrace episodes. In the episode, Kara is still feeling unstable from the events of New Caprica, but it is after talking to Leoben (Callum Keith Rennie) that she experiences a life changing event. Written by Bradley Thompson and David Weedle, the episode does a great job of focusing entirely on Kara and her inner struggle with the past.
Without giving too much away, “Maelstrom” is an incredibly powerful episode and one that explores wonderful themes like regret, forgiveness and family relationships through a great story arc for Kara. Sackhoff always puts in great performances as Starbuck, but this episode feels like the one where she just leaves it all on the line. Determination, vulnerability and humanity are all emotions that Kara perfectly embodies in this episode and Sackhoff just knocks it out of the park in a performance that she submitted to be in consideration for the Emmys (and should’ve been nominated for).
13. FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (Season 2, Episode 9)
There’s a lot to love in this early Season 2 episode that finds the Galactica crew distrusting Sharon (Grace Park), the newly revealed Cylon. After getting news that the Cylons have attacked the ship by implanting a deadly virus into it, it is up to a skeptical Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) to trust Sharon in order to prevent a full scale attack.
“Flight” is less concerned with moving forward story-wise and more with one of the show’s main themes, which is trust. Paranoia, after Sharon is revealed to be a Cylon, is at a fever pitch among the crew and tension spreads like the virus that the Cylons use to attack the ship. However, even though it’s an episode filled with suspense and the suspicion of someone the crew doesn’t trust; there’s also a great subplot with Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) trying to inspire the crew. “Galactica,” the show, was often able to beautifully incorporate inspirational moments within their dark story lines and Tyrol’s spaceship is one of them with a lovely speech done at the end by President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell). One of the best things about “Galactica” is that its inspirational elements never feel sentimental; they just feel completely earned and wonderfully honest.
12. HOME (Season 2, Episodes 6-7)
Another classic set of episodes that center on relationships and character moments; this incredible two-parter is all about one of BSG’s most fascinating themes: the clash of ideas. By traveling to Kobol, after Starbuck returns with the famed Arrow of Apollo, the survivors are able to learn the location to Earth and move closer to their new destination.
One of the most satisfying elements of “Battlestar Galactica” has always been the excellent character dynamics. “Home” is an exceptional two-part episode that utilizes the difference of opinions between Adama and Roslin (in a time when they wouldn’t necessarily see eye to eye) to great effect. “Home” shows how far people would go when they have a similar goal in mind (the safety of the human race, essentially) but how they go about it is what makes the episodes so special; the clash of ideologies, the response from the different followers, and ultimately the resolution. It doesn’t hurt that Olmos and McDonnell leave it all on the screen when playing Adama and Roslin.
11. KOBOL’S LAST GLEAMING (Season 1, Episodes 12-13)
Season finales are hard to pull off; you want to both leave certain stuff unresolved and have the season seem self-contained. Thankfully, the Season 1 finale leaves it all on the field and walks away with two explosive episodes. Everything from the discovery of Kobol, the birthplace of humanity, to a military coup orchestrated by Adama to a massive cliffhanger; there’s a lot happening in the Season 1 finale.
“Kobol’s Last Gleaming” is big. And I don’t mean big in scale but big in ideas and revelations. One of the big moments of the show is President’s Roslin’s revelation about the scriptures (it’s interesting to see the shift from this nonreligious point of view to something a little bit more spiritual). The sequence, anchored by McDonnell’s performance and a haunting musical piece by Bear McCreary, is one of the best moments of the entire first season and one that sums up a lot of the threads that the season had been building up to.
10. DAYBREAK (Season 4, Episodes 21-22)
“Daybreak” is operatic, big and profoundly emotional; it also happens to be one of the most polarizing episodes of the series by virtue of it being the final episode. With Galactica being stripped down to the max, the final stand of humanity against the Cylons begins, as the remaining crew tries to find its way to Earth.
Everything about that made “BSG” great is in this final episode, including Moore’s deep humanism. Just look at the relationship between Adama and Roslin in this episode (plus Olmos and McDonnell are truly transcendent in these episodes): yeah, there are several threads that aren’t answered, but Moore’s decision to focus on character instead of plot is part of the reason of why this is a highly satisfying series finale. The finale beautifully caps off a tale of survival and decides to center on what does it mean to be human? How can humanity rise from the ashes to create something new? “Daybreak” is a set of episodes that feel monumental in its themes — the scope in the episode is humanity itself — and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so moving.
9. SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION (Season 4, Episode 13)
On their desperate search for Earth, the Galactica fleet believes they have found it only to be surprised by the outcome that it’s an uninhabitable planet. With a show that is all about survival, there’s bound to be episodes where humanity is tested and “Sometimes a great notion” is one of those episodes. Rarely do you see the fleet completely beaten down by the promise of hope, but episode 13 fully illustrates that.
According to co-writer Bradley Thompson, he wanted to explore the idea of characters reaching their breaking point. It’s a theme that certainly is in “BSG’s” initial episodes, but this one takes center stage as several of our main characters are all tested, and what one does to overcome that adversity becomes the driving force behind the story. It’s a powerful dramatic force that you see echo throughout the show from Season 1 all the way up to the final episode; the need to overcome adversity. How do we learn to not give up on our hopes and dreams after pilings of misfortune? It’s another great showcase for what “BSG” can do with just dramatic storytelling.
8. CROSSROADS (Season 3, Episodes 19-20)
Written by Michael Taylor and Mark Verheiden, “Crossroads” does an excellent job of actually setting up the final season of “BSG” with an episode filled with major turning points, including a glimpse at the final five Cylon models.
The main crux of the episodes deal with the trial of Gaius Baltar (James Callis) and the dreams of President Roslin, foreshadowing a major reveal. Dreams are no stranger to “BSG,” but the importance of the episode is that Roslin’s visions are actually shared by Sharon and Number Six (Tricia Helfer) – a detail that causes some uncertainty within Roslin, herself. Another major revelation is the stunning reveal of the final five Cylons – which taps into BSG’s recurring theme of self-awareness and realizing that you’re not human, but rather a machine. However, the episodes outdo themselves by incorporating a haunting cover of the song “All along the watchtower” into the reveal, which adds tremendous dramatic impact.
7. SCAR (Season 2, Episode 15)
Written by David Weedle and Bradley Thompson, “Scar” is another great self-contained episode that further develops Starbuck as a character. The title of the episode refers to the rogue Cylon Raider that torments both Starbuck and Kat (Luciana Carro) during the episode.
The theme of rivalry is at the center of the episode as Kat and Starbuck have a competition over who can destroy the notorious Raider, which they’ve named Scar due to the scar-like damage it has previously taken. Like all great episodes of “BSG,” “Scar” works on a metaphorical level as a whole. Starbuck, suffering from her complicated feelings towards Sam (Michael Trucco), engages in a near-fatal game with Scar. There’s something simple about “Scar,” but at its core, it’s a great showcase for Starbuck as this very determined character who sets her eye on what she wants to accomplish, regardless of the danger. A lot of “BSG” has great dogfighting sequences and “Scar” is definitely a contender for one of the best: it’s tense, exciting and character driven.
6. OCCUPATION (Season 3, Episode 1)
After the game-changing Season 2 finale (more on that later), Season 3 opens with a decidedly different tone than previous seasons. “Occupation” doesn’t hide the fact that it’s a bleak time for our “BSG” characters, as the Cylons have humanity in their grasp, but a ray of hope shines when a resistance movement starts planning to overthrow the occupation.
Nominated for an Emmy for Best Writing for Ronald Moore, “Occupation” shows “BSG” at the top of its game. One of the big things about the show is that aside from being a science fiction show, it’s also a war story, and this episode illustrates the aftermath of war. There are a lot of real-life parallels to real wars in “Occupation,” but the episode mainly deals with power struggles and power dynamics within the one in charge. It also happens to be a tense hour of television that illustrates how complicated it is to launch a resistance attack on your captors.
5. EXODUS (Season 3, Episodes 3-4)
The thrilling conclusion to the Cylons occupying humanity story arc; this two-parter offers one of the most technically impressive action set pieces of the show – the rescue from New Caprica.
As the leaders of the resistance mount an attack on their Cylons oppressors, Adama plans, from space while still on the Galactica, a rescue mission with two different crews. Religion is one of the main themes of “BSG” and this episode’s title obviously alludes to the Book of the Bible, but “Exodus” is also about the importance of resilience in a time of desperate measures – never giving up, no matter what. One of the main highlights of this episode is seeing Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan) become the leader of the resistance and watching him try to battle the Cylons using his years of military experience. Filled with superb action sequences and the emotional heft usually reserved for a series finale, “Exodus” is a highly satisfying conclusion to one of “BSG’s” best storylines and a grand showcase for Colonel Tigh, as well as Bear McCreary’s uncompromising, yet rousing, musical score.
4. REVELATIONS (Season 4, Episode 12)
As its title would indicate, this episode is actually filled with major revelations. President Lee Adama is forced to negotiate with the Cylons in exchange for several hostages, including former President Roslin. If that weren’t enough, William Adama discovers some life-changing information about one of his crew mates and Kara stumbles upon a signal that could lead the crew to Earth.
“Revelations” served as a mid-season finale before the final set of episodes and it packs a lot of reveals that would change the series. Aside from being a really great exploration of “BSG’s” political ideologies (like the difficult hostage situation that President Adama is forced to deal with), “Revelations” also packs an emotional punch with the major information that William Adama discovers about Tigh. The episode further illustrates several of the themes that the show tackles while also incorporating distrust, fear of the other and so much more. Olmos and Hogan are absolutely riveting to watch during that reveal and showcase how emotional their friendship is, but also how fragile a simple bit of news can alter someone’s perception of their friend.
3. 33 (Season 1, Episode 1)
The official pilot of “BSG” still feels like a groundbreaking hour of television that manages to feel fresh and exciting every time you watch it. After escaping the destruction of Caprica, the Battlestar Galactica is chased across the galaxy by Cylon forces; their only hope is to perform a hyper speed-like jump every 33 minutes.
The amazing aspect of “33” is how incredibly suspenseful director Michael Rymer and writer Ronald Moore make the entire episode feel. There isn’t a lot of exploration of some of the show’s themes, but the focus is strictly on survival and also the incredible physical exhaustion that the crew develops throughout the episode. It’s an exciting pilot that includes “BSG’s” iconic fight sequences, but it also has great lead performances from Olmos and McDonnell, who are just two sides of how leaders would react to prevent a full-scale attack with the Cylons. Aesthetically, tonally and technically, “33” serves as the perfect introduction to this reinterpretation of “Battlestar Galactica.”
2. PEGASUS (Season 2, Episode 10)
“Pegasus” marks an important turning point in the series as it introduces the Battlestar Pegasus and Admiral Helena Cain (played in a commanding performance by Michelle Forbes). The episode mainly follows how the arrival of the Pegasus and its crew affects the Galactica.
Tension and lack of trust are two of the main ingredients for “Pegasus” and why it’s such a classic episode of the series. Michelle Forbes completely owning every single frame that she’s in as the imposing Admiral Cain is incredible to watch – you get the feeling that Adama respects her so much as an authority figure throughout this episode. However, another noteworthy aspect of “Pegasus” is the darker elements, like the torture scenes against a Cylon prisoner. This episode also tackles how important it is to retain one’s humanity; the crew of the “Pegasus” does unspeakable things because of their lack of humanity in exchange for complete discipline. With a great McCreary score and an exploration of torture, discipline and order, “Pegasus” remains one of the best, and most gripping, hours of “BSG.”
1. LAY DOWN YOUR BURDENS (Season 2, Episodes 19-20)
With all the weight of a series finale and the dramatic twist of a true game-changer, “Lay down your burdens” is everything that you’d want from a great “BSG” story. Starbuck is assigned to lead a mission to Caprica in order to help the Resistance, while political shifts are for the remaining crew of the Galactica. That’s only the tip of the iceberg for this incredible two-parter that also includes a time jump and one of the most mind blowing cliffhangers in TV history.
At the forefront of “Lay down your burdens” lies a powerful political story that deals with the ramifications of running for president and the implications of power. It’s definitely a heady, and relevant, topic that “BSG” is comfortable in exploring; not only through the election process between Roslin and Baltar, but also the aftermath as well. Callis and McDonnell shine in this episode as the two people competing to see who’s the one trying to lead humanity. Timely, smart and incredibly relevant, “Lay down your burdens” is not only essential “BSG,” but essential TV in general.
Which episodes of “Battlestar Galactica” do you feel were the best? Let us know in the comments!