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TELEVISION REVIEW

Moral dilemmas pulled into 'Battlestar' galaxy

I find myself proselytizing more for "Battlestar Galactica" than any other show, with good reason. Yes, the series, which launches its third season tomorrow , has been wildly successful for the Sci Fi Channel. But given how far it surpasses nearly everything else on TV, I'm hoping a mainstream audience will follow.

That it hasn't could reflect a fear that the show's plotlines are too complex ( in truth, "Battlestar" is easier to follow than "Lost"). It could be the lingering memory of the campy 1970s series, even though this new incarnation is completely -- almost shockingly -- dark. It could be a fear that if you're not a science fiction nut , the show won't speak to you.

But the secret to "Battlestar ," as one of my colleagues keeps saying, is not to think of it as science fiction. This is a show about religion, politics, parent-child relationships, and the moral dilemmas of insurgency. Consider it a workplace drama where the business is armed resistance.

And see it as a sharp and pointed exploration of modern times. Yes, TV today is filled with post-9/11 reflections, but most come as wish-fulfillment: unassailable heroes, embodied by the likes of Kiefer Sutherland and Dennis Haysbert, conquering black-hearted enemies. These shows can make you cheer if you need escape, but they won't make you think.

"Battlestar," in contrast, aims to unsettle us. The enemy here is a race of machines called Cylons who were created by humans, then rebelled. They are driven by religious fundamentalism, obsessed with reproduction, and exceedingly hard to kill. For the last two seasons, they tried to destroy humankind. Now, they're aiming for peaceful coexistence, even if they have to use deadly force to make it happen.

That was how last spring's season finale acknowledged a looming problem -- that the series' endless-chase story line threatened to feel repetitive -- and dispensed with it brilliantly. Suddenly, the action skipped a year into the future, when humans had returned to mundane life on a barely hospitable planet. The Cylons returned in force and took over the government, hoping that the humans would warm to their good will. The ground rules had changed; this was suddenly a story about occupation.

Tomorrow's two-hour season premiere begins four months later, as a resistance movement simmers on the ground. The humans' military ships, which had fled from the planet when the Cylons appeared, are plotting to rescue the people they left behind. Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos) is wrestling with his guilt.

I'm hesitant to reveal too much more, because the twists and surprises are worth their while. Suffice it to say that this show, unlike far too many serials, doesn't forget its past. The characters -- in particular, Gaius Baltar (the devilishly smarmy James Callis ) and Ellen Tigh (Kate Vernon ) -- are impeccably true to themselves and their flaws. Apollo (Jamie Bamber) has gotten convincingly fat and convincingly soft. The story line involving Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff ), held captive by a Cylon bent on winning her love, rings least true, but I'm willing to give it time.

These first two hours are stocked with references to the war on terror: suicide bombings, unexplained detentions, torture (and official denial of its existence), the question of whether benevolent occupation is truly possible. A scene of a nighttime raid is shot in grainy-green night vision that conjures war footage from Iraq. But while the elements are there, ``Battlestar" is less an allegory about current events than a rumination on how we might view things if tables were turned.

The production values, as usual, are cinematic. The acting is strong -- particularly from Olmos, who practically mutters his lines, taking dialogue that threatens to be trite and managing to make it sound profound. When one character asks how he knows he can trust her, Olmos responds, ``I don't. That's what trust is."

In context, it's perfect. And perfectly relevant, too.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com

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