It's fair to say that the idea of rebooting Battlestar Galactica had people on edge. Some of the critique had legitimate questions: “Do we need this? Why not a new story?” And some of it was completely stupid: “Starbuck is a lady?!” Four and a half seasons, many years, and a bunch of before-its-time digital stuff later, the show is still beloved, argued over, and, most importantly, binged like crazy.
Binging comes easy, because once you’ve seen the episodes all the way through and know who the Cylons are, the series becomes brand new. And so, in anticipation of this weekend’s Battlestar Galactica marathon, and the fact that you’ll be able to watch EVERY EPISODE here starting on September 22, we put our heads together and came up with this quick list of the obvious 12 best.
One for each Cylon. Or colony. 12’s a good number here, either way.
You’re welcome to disagree with our choices in the comments section. People watch the show for different things, and that’s mostly what makes it great: it’s a show about politics, and also a family drama and space opera. And also it’s a psychological thriller. And five other things it probably is. They keep trying to make ‘em like this one. And they've only ever gotten a little bit close.
Chronologically, the 12 ...
(Technically more than one episode, but it's a show that keeps you guessing, play along.) This was when we knew what we were in for. Watching Laura Roslin sworn in as President of the Twelve Colonies, knowing how deep she was in over her heard, we're ready to follow her story. When Adama announces that he’s taking command of the fleet, we watch two things happen instantly: he keeps his cool as his son Apollo acts as intermediary to the President and then he panics when they are nearly killed in a Cylon attack. That's the moment the show confirms for you that it's more than lasers and robots. That's when it becomes the real deal.
Episode 101: "33"
Written by series creator Ron Moore, “33” had a lot riding on its shoulders. The miniseries had gone well, but would the series be as good? So there they all are, the entire fleet having made 238 consecutive jumps every 33 minutes, and once again, the exhausted crew is spooling up the faster-than-light drives. This episode also has the added benefit of Laura Roslin saying “We have to start having babies” and Baltar saying “God has nothing to do with it.” Knowing what’s coming four seasons later, these lines are deceptively prophetic.
Episode 113: "Kobol's Last Gleaming, Part Two"
Starbuck finds that pesky Arrow of Apollo at the urging of a hallucinating President. (Sidebar: is anyone else as obsessed with Mary McDonnell's pronunciation of “chamalla extract” as we are?) And then Adama and Roslin end up back at odds with each other when he demands she resign. This, somehow, even deepens their bond in the long term.
The Season 1 finale confirmed a lot of things we already knew but allowed us to watch characters come to the same conclusions: namely Boomer, who flies a Raptor into a Basestar and confirms that she is, in fact, a Cylon. Her devastation is real and terrifying, and we get to experience it with her. She heads back to the Galactica a confused and reluctant hero, and our expectations are again turned on their heads when she shoots Adama in the chest.
Episode 206: "Home. Part 1"
Starbuck has a lot going on here. She’s just returned from getting mighty cozy with Anders. She even left behind her dog tags and a promise to rescue him, but when she arrives back on the ship, Lee kisses her. From there, the episode slides to an incredibly well-staged scene between Boomer, Helo, Apollo, and Starbuck pointing guns. You feel all of the relationships here, and you watch Roslin do what she does best - use her political skills to defuse the worst situations and then use them to her advantage. Even with Tom Zarek skulking around in the background (Resquiat en pace, Richard Hatch) and Adama losing his mind over everyone’s decision-making, the episode reminds us that every member of the fleet has something to fight for.
Episode 218: "Downloaded"
This episode appears in almost every “Best of” list, and for good reason. It’s the first episode that focuses this deeply on the Cylons, introducing and vastly expanding the story of their internal struggle. Up until this point, we’d been clued in that the Cylons weren’t an enemy who were all in lock-step with each other. But here we realized they were living their own completely independent TV show that we just weren’t seeing. The spooky visions Baltar is having of Caprica-Six? Turns out she’s having visions of him, too. And then there’s Boomer, the Cylon with arguably the strongest conscience. While one version of her on Caprica wrestles with how many humans they’ve killed, another version on Galactica gives birth to Hera and is lied to by the President and Doc Cottle in one of the more heartbreaking turns the series would take.
Episode 301: "Occupation"
Nominated for an Emmy and a Writers Guild Award, the writers looked to real-world occupations (World War II and Iraq) for inspiration in writing the Season 3 premiere. The episode gives us a time jump of four months and we learn just how drained and yet hopeful an occupied people (specifically THESE occupied people) can be. An elaborate underground communication system in the camp, Roslin teaching school, and Ellen Tigh's treachery set up arcs that would pay off seasons later. The episode also boasts an incredible performance from Katee Sackhoff, who undergoes a ton of gaslighting torture in a mock-up of her old apartment.
Also? This is the first episode with fat Apollo.
Episode 304: "Exodus Part 2"
This is the episode where the Battlestar jumps into the atmosphere of New Caprica, launches everything, and jumps away while falling through the atmosphere. It’s a moment that viewers remember as such a brilliant tactical move that they paused the episode to breathe. Even though it's one of the show’s lowest rated episodes, it won a Creative Arts Emmy for Special Effects. On top of that, Kara Thrace manages to thwart her captor and is reunited with Anders while Baltar’s comeuppance comes swiftly with both humans and Cylons. Best of all, if you watch this episode knowing who the Cylons are, the resistance force is an entirely different story than it was the first time around.
Episode 309: "Unfinished Business"
The episode where everyone punches each other. Kara has sex with Anders and then goads Lee into fighting her. In flashback, the whole time, we see that Kara and Lee definitely had sex on New Caprica and then both ultimately chose different partners. Now they’re having a hard time reconciling that choice. The real heart of the episode comes when Tyrol and Adama go head to head in the boxing ring. We’d watched all of these characters bond so tightly over the past few years, but now we’re forced to remember that they still live within a military pecking order. They thought they were safe, but now they’re back on the run and will need to go back and reset their relationships if they’re going to survive. When Adama tells the crew, “I let you get too close, all of you,” it’s a gut-punch that we feel with them. It breaks our hearts and also strengthens our resolve for the survival of the fleet.
Episodes 319 & 320: "Crossroads"
Technically this counts for two episodes, but this was a two-parter that features defense lawyer Romo Lampkin ... and Laura Roslin tripping on chamalla extract. She shares a vision with Caprica-Six and Athena and they all realize they have to protect Hera. And then it turns out that Anders, Saul Tigh, Tory, and Tyrol are all Cylons. So much happens over the course of two episodes (a lot of it we sort of knew was coming), but once more the show did what it loved doing best: giving us enough information about who the characters were that we felt it along with them once the information caught up to them.
"Razor" / "The Face of the Enemy"
This is controversial. We know, because everyone we talked to about it had a vastly different opinion. Razor was the two-part flashback event that you either loved or thought, "meh." It told the story of the Pegasus finding the Galactica and starred characters we weren’t terribly invested in but who we definitely worried about almost as much as the fleet. We put Razor here because of what the series attempted to do by expanding the franchise early on.
Honorable mention also goes to the web series written by Jane Espenson and Kevin Fahey called The Face of the Enemy, which bridged Seasons 4 and 4.5 and told an in-depth story of Lt. Gaeta. This was 2009, before the idea of a web series was understood as anything more than short-form marketing videos.
Both projects also deftly handled LGBT characters, something that'd been lacking from the series up until this point. Battlestar Galactica was groundbreaking in its scope as a series, but it’s important to remember the contributions the show made to the very idea of cross-platform storytelling.
Ep 412: "Revelation"
Toward the end of the series, the best episodes became the major game-changers saved for the series' mid-season finales and premieres. "Revelation" centers on the hard truths that have plagued all of these characters. Revealing what’s true turns out to be a double-edged sword that sets the characters free and also somewhat enslaves them. Saul Tigh saves lives by confessing that he’s a Cylon, and Adama has no idea how to proceed. Lee threatens the lives of Anders and Tyrol while D’Anna nearly blows everyone up. And then, like clockwork, Kara Thrace figures out that she’s found a signal to Earth. Even the truth of that is heartbreaking: the crew arrives at the only place they’ve wanted to be since we first met them, and find only a desolate planet, radioactive and incapable of sustaining them. It’s so devastating that by the next episode, beloved characters commit suicide over it.
Episode 422: "Daybreak"
The series finale had people rushing home and turning off their phones. For fans who needed to know how this was going to end, it didn’t disappoint. This episode is what happens when you save budget for a giant firefight and do it right. This episode is taught in college courses as an excellent example of how a military force demobilizes. Mostly, this episode is a satisfying look at how a group of people come to rest at the end of a journey. Embattled by fire, Starbuck punches in the coordinates she figured out over the course of the series, and jumps the ship to Earth. Once there, the team repeats all of their catch phrases as best they can, and decide to just leave the inhabitants be.
At the end of its story, Battlestar asks questions that project back into the series we’d just seen and dares us to return to the beginning because we're curious about what we missed. All of this had happened before, and now, all of it gets to happen again.