With its new show Ascension, Syfy hopes to return us to its Battlestar Galactica glory days. But let's hope Syfy doesn't forget the most important lesson from BSG's success: Sometimes a simple idea carries the most weight. BSG dropped the loudest, most reverberating space mic ever, and a lot of its power came from one simple whiteboard.
The rebooted Battlestar Galactica hit us all by surprise. Everything about it was fantastic, from the spaceship dogfights, to the Cylon espionage, to the heated negotiating. But despite all the space action and dramatics, I can still trace my love for this series back to one, singular plot device: President Laura Roslin's whiteboard from "33." A laughably old fashioned object in a world of spaceships and self aware robots, but the coupling of outdated tech with space adventure was also part of the charm of this series.
The episode "33" picks up in the middle of a 130-hour chase between the Cylons and the fleet of space-exiled humans that survived the Cylon attack on Caprica. Unable to stand and fight the Cylon attackers, the humans have no other option but to jump the fleet across the Universe. And with every jump it takes the Cylons only 33 minutes to catch up. That's just a small amount of rest before another fight and another massive fleet FTL jump. Meanwhile Roslin is desperately trying to assess the damage — so she turns to the common office white board. On it is the number 50,298, that's the sum total of every last living member of the human race.
By presenting the physical number of every last human in the universe, Moore and company drew a visible line for the viewers. This is it. This is all that's left. This raises the stakes tremendously and allows people to wrap their head around the vanishingly small number of survivors. The bombastic space theatrics mean more when you realize that you're losing not extras, but humanity's hope of survival.
As the flight from the Cylons continues Roslin is forced to revisit this board. The number dips to 49,998, then 49,317, and finally (after the loss of the Olympic Carrier) the number is lowered again to 47,972. Even writing this is dull, but watching Roslin begrudgingly wipe out life after life, it just works. And it continues to work — the whiteboard becomes an ever present reminder of the stakes the fleet is up against. This is it, there's nothing left for them if they let this number fall too low. The whiteboard stays up all the way into Gaius Baltar's ascension, then it gets replaced with a portrait of the new leader.
Personally, I'm not sure if any post apocalyptic or survivor series (since BSG) has been able to recapture the simple weightiness of the whiteboard. We've seen spaceships blast Earth to bits, but I've yet to witness a series where there the stakes were this clear and this important. It shows that sometimes the simplest devices hold the most power, and the importance of clear stakes.