Hollywood sure loves its reboots these days. That’s not to say that reboots can’t be fresh and original. Case in point: the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. I was hooked starting from the miniseries, but amusingly not because of the music. I just loved the gritty drama and the hard-hitting darkness of the show. It was such a stark contrast from the other one (while maintaining the same plot and similar themes) that I was fascinated.
But the score was merely decent. It wasn’t anything to rave about. It changed hands from Richard Gibbs to Bear McCreary between the pilot and season 1, and really the only thing about the score you could say was it was non-traditional for a space opera. Instead of full orchestras a la Star Trek, there were vast arrays of percussion sounds and not much in the way of melody (usually).
And then, Kobol’s Last Gleaming happened. That’s the two-parter that ended the first season. It started off with a very compelling montage, interestingly scored with elegant, flowing strings in the form of a Passacaglia. Specifically, it was underscoring a montage of a boxing match (itself a very symbolic, recurring thing in this show), one character contemplating killing another, and someone having sex. Very action-oriented things that I found were made MUCH more powerful with a contrasting elegance and fluidity in the score.
This became a yearly ritual: one of these strings-only pieces with a repetitive, flowing ostinato underscoring some sort of montage, and it never got old. It also becomes a pseudo-theme for the opera house, also introduced in the last episode of season 1 as foreshadowing.
The other thing that happened in that two parter was an absolutely stunning solo boy soprano singing one of the first (and one of my favorite) major themes of the show, the Roslin/Religious theme:
It was at this point that I knew that the score was about to become one of my favorites.
Getting back to the Religious theme, it’s one of my favorites because it always manages to conjure a sense of prophecy and reverence. It does eventually evolve into the Roslin theme, but only because the gods and the book of Pythia become such a huge part of her identity.
The score only got better from there. More character themes were introduced, orchestration got bigger (but no less grounded in world instruments and interesting percussion!) and action cues became impossibly epic.
I did feel that around the halfway point of season 3, the quality of the script writing started to fluctuate a lot more. Fortunately, the score did not slip at all and continued to improve with each episode – as did the cinematography and directing. The music became part of the very fabric of the story. Many composers create themes and motifs for their scores, but not all of them develop them and have them grow and evolve with the characters. The soundtracks are a journey in and of themselves. By the time season 4 came around, I was watching almost entirely because I just wanted to hear the score (and of course, get some answers to the show’s mysteries). Quite the turn around, eh?
The Roslin and Adama theme is one of the best love themes I’ve ever heard because it’s not too sappy. It’s not overbearing. It’s not even that romantic. It feels more like a subdued hint of deeper feelings that gets to surface in between crisis, which is exactly what it should have been. The restraint, to me, makes it more profound.
Of course, it builds into a more romantic theme later (the composer saves the B section for those moments), but this really is my favorite form of it.
There is the wonderful Adama Family Theme, usually reserved for either tender moments between father and son or ceremonial/celebratory occasions.
Another favorite of mine is the Starbuck Destiny theme. This one is so eerie and anticipatory that I get chills every time it crops up. It does so from the beginning of season 3 on. Her destiny arc may have been a bit of a letdown, but the music underscoring it was anything but. Or maybe I am just too damn fond of the Erhu.
Amusingly, this theme was built on minor thirds, which used to represent Leoben. That’s how the theme started out: Richard Gibbs used it in the pilot over scenes between Leoben and Adama, then Bear took it and used it to represent the strange relationship he and Kara have over the course of the show. But since Leoben is fascinated by the idea of prophecy and destiny, naturally this shifted to become Kara’s Destiny Theme due to her increasing importance in that regard (and Leoben’s fascination with that aspect of her).
One theme that I wish there was more of on the soundtracks was Lee’s theme. But I can see why it doesn’t usually make an appearance…it’s usually a very brief character moment and there isn’t much to it. All the same, I love the hell out of it.
Another theme I wish there was more of is Saul Tigh’s theme, first heard in a menacing brass fanfare that manages to capture his flaws quite well (not often you hear brass in BSG):
I’m not going to get too much more into the rest of the themes for two reasons. One, even revealing the nature of certain themes would turn into massive spoilers. That’s how amazing and even groundbreaking this score is: the music is inextricably linked not just with the drama, but with the story itself! In fact, one of the themes becomes not only source music that characters can hear, but also becomes an actual plot point in the later seasons. That’s as far as I’ll go.
The second reason is simply that Bear has extensive blog posts for EVERY EPISODE starting at season 3. They’re archived and difficult to navigate at times, but the insights into his creative process are astounding.
But I will get into a couple of my favorite moments in the score. One of them I already mentioned in a previous post, but it bears repeating. I can’t elaborate on the plotlines leading up to it, but sufficed to say Adama ends up saving a lot of people with Saul’s help. Adama tells Colonel Tigh that he brought everyone home, to which the other replies, “not all of them.” It’s a truly bittersweet scene that is scored perfectly, incorporating Tigh’s pain and providing some great contrast with the praise Adama receives from his crew immediately after those lines as they hoist him up in celebration.
There are many amazing moments with Baltar, and this is one of them. He treats a cylon prisoner kindly after she has been abused, and the score underneath is very emotional with a blues undertone.
Another favorite moment is when Adama, smack in the middle of a boxing match (told you, recurring theme :P), allows the guilt he has for letting his crew get too close and paying the price in lives to surface. This brings me to my interpretation that all of the boxing in this show is symbolic of the disconnect that is sometimes necessary between one’s humanity and one’s duty. At any rate, he goads his chief mechanic to beat him bloody. Underscoring it? The Roslin/Adama theme. Why? Because she is his love interest and is also President of the Colonies. Instead of her being a subordinate, she represents a conflict of interest…but the end result is the same: a necessity to keep her at arm’s length. What an ingenious use of a pre-established theme.
I love all of the nods to the original show as well. For example, the Colonial Anthem in this show is actually the main theme from the old Battlestar Galactica show. It also crops up in the score whenever we are looking at the older cylon models or flashbacks to the first Cylon War.
Pretty much all of my other favorite moments are spoilers. And besides, I probably don’t have enough room on a single post to list them all. So I’ll just move on to the conclusion now.
This score is incredible, and it encompasses nearly every style imaginable. The result is a synthesis the likes of which you have never heard. It is never out of place or jarring. In fact, the orchestration is masterful. Thundering Taiko drums amplify your racing heart rate during action scenes,
yet never seem to overpower delicate string/ethnic instruments or vocals.
Solo piano adds beauty and simultaneously a feeling of isolation,
Middle-eastern melodies accompany moments of panic,
Opera and chamber music is used as comic relief,
Indian Sitar blends with rock…
You can find Gaelic influence, Electronica, all kinds of East Asia sounds, modern minimalism…the list goes on and on. Even reflecting on it now and having diversified my palate, I must say that the only television soundtrack that has even come close to surpassing this one is Batman: The Animated Series scored by Shirley Walker. This is an example of a flawless modern score…not just because it takes creative risks or because this music stands on its own quite well, but also because it perfectly understands, services and elevates the material that it is coupled with. It will be some time before someone comes along and makes one even as good, McCreary included. But I wait with baited breath.