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by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & Battlestar Galactica & r & & r & (Fridays, 10pm, Sci-Fi) & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hree years ago, the Cylons, a race of androids, completely destroyed the colonies of Kobol and most of the people who resided there. The survivors formed a ragtag caravan looking for the mythical earth. The Battlestar Galactica is their only defensive ship.





In an era of bad TV, a crappy network has somehow remade a dumb disco-era space opera into a probing, subversive mirror on democracy, war, religion and power. It's been a relentlessly thrilling, thought-provoking three seasons. There's speculation, though, that in turning from war and occupation to flight and salvation, Season Four won't offer the critical lens on our times that previous seasons had.





I'm not worried at all. Rather than abandoning social critique, the writers have poised themselves to go deeper into root causes, moving from questions of occupation and sovereignty that touch on our entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan to questions of ideology and belief that underpin not only America's terse relationship with the Arab world but, to some degree, basically every conflict in the history of humanity.





Besides, there's always been a highly spiritual element to Battlestar. The Cylons have their god. The humans have many, each faction and culture worshipping the series' Romanesque pantheon a little differently. The human president is an occasional day-tripper, hallucinating on cancer medication and believing herself the key to humanity's salvation. Opening Season Four, scoundrel, genocidist and comic relief Gaius Baltar finds himself the messiah of a cult of women. Even the self-destructive agnostic fighter jockey, Kira Thrace, is a possible clairvoyant savior of humanity.





As the series gears up for its conclusion, it's actually downshifting, becoming more contemplative, agonizing over how there can be faith without tests of that faith and thus how real prophets can exist without fake ones. How humans, tortured beasts that we are, can have certainty in anything without uncertainty about most everything else.





The writers, in their love of drama, have had the audacity to suggest one of these prophets is real -- one who would lead humanity to salvation and many who would drag them to hell. The writers, too, though, in their love of the science fiction's inclusivity, have built in enough feints that every one these half-mad gropers at god's hems --including a messianic Cylon or two -- might be holding a piece of the truth, and thus that salvation will ultimately hinge on cooperation and unity.





The series has excellent special effects; its space battles are unequalled in the history of television. What makes Battlestar Galactica the best science-fiction television ever are those increasingly long stretches of time when not a shot is fired.





TiVo-Worthy





Lost


The strike was supposed to shorten the flagging series, leaving only five episodes left in the season, which starts back up next Thursday, but now producers are in talks with ABC to give them a sixth episode, leaving the episode count only two short of the original season. Fans will doubtless rejoice, but I really can't get excited about it. Sorry guys ... (ABC, returns April 24, 10 pm)





The Paper


Another MTV reality/documentary thing, this time centering on a high school newspaper, surely the network's least engaging topic since Real World/Road Rules Challenge 4. Week Two: management discusses buyouts of its senior reporters. Joking. Or am I? (MTV, Mondays, 10:30 pm)





DEA


Though set in Detroit, a town whose inner city is nearly as bedraggled as Baltimore, this drug-war show is produced by Al Roker (?!) and airs on Spike, so don't expect it to become your Wire replacement. (Spike, Wednesdays, 11 pm)

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