Because "Battlestar" is one of Those Shows, the kind that have conventions and multiple pages in Wikipedia, the kind that viewers watch and rewatch, parsing character and discussing themes as if it were "Finnegans Wake" or "Absalom, Absalom!" It is to the Sci Fi Channel what "The Sopranos" is to HBO, a show that defied all expectations and became that rarest of beasts: a big, fat hit with a cult following. A cult following that has waited more than a year for this, the final season, to begin, with only the two-hour prequel movie "Razor" to sustain them. The term "highly anticipated" doesn't begin to do it justice.
In other words, any detail I might mention about the first episode -- and Sci Fi sent only the one, which should tell you something right there -- will be taken as a spoiler. And within moments of this review appearing on the Web, my e-mail box will collapse under its own weight, taking perhaps the entire Los Angeles Times system with it, and frankly, my nerves can't handle death threats right now.
For those who have never watched "Battlestar" (and yet are still reading this review) here's a brief recap: After the murderous Cylons (very sophisticated robots who rebelled against their human creators) have destroyed the 12 colonies, the few survivors took refuge on a fleet headed by the Galactica. Led by Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos) and President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), they are seeking the legendary lost colony, Earth, while battling attacks from Cylons without and the possibility of humanoid Cylons within.
It is a truly great show, with all the mythic and religious resonance of an epic supported by the ever-deepening characters of an ensemble drama. Plus really great space battles and that steamy blue-gray science-fiction mood lighting. Part of the draw is its inherent scrappiness -- it would have been so easy for "Battlestar" to fail (which it did, actually, in an earlier incarnation on ABC). But creator Ronald Moore has consistently managed to overlay the standard sci-fi anxiety of technology-run-amok with more precise and current concerns -- with topics such as torture and abortion, "Battlestar" takes Newsweek-like issues and injects them with Bradburyian fantasy.
But it's the characters who foster the devotion, and a more likable cast is hard to imagine. A year before the creators of "Lost" realized the potential of having men and women on equal sweaty footing in a familial quest for survival, "Battlestar" was giving us a commander with an angry son (Lee "Apollo" Adama, played by Jamie Bamber), a female president and Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), the feistiest Viper pilot in whatever universe the Galactica is traversing.
Much has been made of the writing, but I would like to put in a word for the acting. As with fantasy and, to a certain extent, comedy, the importance of acting in good science fiction is often overlooked, which is strange because creating empathetic and compelling characters in an alien world is the ultimate actorly challenge. It isn't easy to anchor action that revolves around robots and space-jumping with genuine humanity, but the Galactica team does it. As the gravelly voiced, gravelly souled Adama, Olmos has not cracked a smile in three seasons (I really think there should be a special Emmy for this), yet still he manages to convey humanity and hope.
So as far as a non-spoiling review of tonight's premiere goes, suffice it to say, if you are a fan, you certainly will remain a fan, and if you aren't yet, it isn't too late! (Just go to Wikipedia if you want to catch up, or Salon has an excellent primer.) The premiere picks up moments where the finale left off. Starbuck has indeed seemingly returned from the dead, though her memory of events does not match the time frame or what we and the rest of the Galactica crew saw. She says she has been to Earth; everyone has doubts. The crew members who discovered they were actually four of the mysterious Final Five Cylons -- Chief Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), Col. Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), Tory Foster (Rekha Sharma) and Samuel Anders (Michael Trucco) -- continue to live in fear that they were planted on the Galactica to do it harm.
President Roslin still has cancer and the odious former president, Gaius Baltar (James Callis), finds some friends and continues his conversations with the imaginary (?) No. 6.
The first episode ends on a cliffhanger, so presumably there will be many more questions before there are answers. Which is, of course, the very definition of science fiction. But of what actually happens, I will say no more. You'll have to watch it yourself. And you should.
Even if, as is said on the Galactica, all of this has happened before and will happen again, you should catch it this time around.