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'Battlestar' goes where we are now

A terrorist attack has people on the run. A computer virus threatens to undermine the survivors. Meanwhile, enemy forces are mingling undetected among the rank and file, planning genocide in the name of their god.

Those could be today's headlines. In fact, they're some of the story lines on television's most unlikely hit, ''Battlestar Galactica," which begins its second season tomorrow night at 10 on the Sci-Fi Channel.

The cable network launched the series, a remake of the campy 1970s show, in January amid tremendous skepticism from TV critics and fans of the original. By exploring such contemporary issues as prisoner abuse and faith-based political policies, the program has won over viewers and energized its flagging genre.

In April, Time magazine named it one of the six best dramas on television.

Now the show is ranked as the highest-rated series in the Sci-Fi Channel's 13-year history. During its first season, it averaged 2.9 million viewers per episode, a solid showing on cable.

''Battlestar" follows the adventures of a group of humans who survive a nuclear attack on the 12 Colonies of Kobol by the Cylons, a robotic race that has the ability to take human form. As the survivors race through space in search of the 13th colony -- a mythical planet called Earth -- they're relentlessly pursued by an enemy that has already infiltrated their ranks.

Chillingly, the Cylons are driven by their belief that their mission is God's will. Many of the colonists believe in multiple gods.

In last May's season finale, Adama (Edward James Olmos), commander of the flagship Galactica, was shot on the bridge point-blank by Boomer, a celebrated fighter pilot who's actually a Cylon in disguise. Meanwhile, the president of the colony, Laura Roslin, is sent to the brig after deliberately interfering with a military order because of her strong religious beliefs. Now a civil war looms in the midst of a war on terrorism.

David Eick, an executive producer of the series, believes the arts in the post-9/11 era should reflect more of what's happening in the world. ''We live in more dangerous times now and a more divisive country," he says. ''The media should be emblematic of that."

Viewers apparently agree. On websites, such as www.scifi.com, message boards have erupted in commentary, ranging from theories of why the Cylons rebelled (''Maybe the Cylons were treated like slaves, made to constantly labor, and perhaps even destroyed at the earliest sign of malfunction," one fan wrote) to reaction to an intense scene last season when Starbuck, a fighter pilot, tortured a captured humanoid Cylon to determine where he hid some nuclear warheads (''I stopped blinking for awhile," a fan wrote).

Mark A. Altman, publisher of CFQ/Cinefantastique Magazine, a Los Angeles-based publication focused on science fiction in film and television, says the show's contemporary plot lines have ''injected new life into the genre."

''This show could be on FX or HBO," he says. ''The betrayals, the back stabbing are all very dark, but very true to the show's original genocidal premise. Sci-Fi in the past has always worked when it was optimistic. But at a time in history when things are so uncertain, this show has found a place."

Vivian Sobchack, a UCLA professor of film studies and author of ''Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film," says the religious questions the program is raising are ''fascinating."

''Religion in sci-fi has always been pitted against the rationality of science," she says. ''Here we have a president who's a religious fanatic. Is she a prophet? Or not. It's a strange reversal to have the Cylons believe in one God, but not the colonists. It's a question of whose side God is on."

Predictably, there are some diehard viewers who dislike the new ''Battlestar."

''I found it incredibly boring," says Chris Feehan, co-president of the Battlestar Galactica Fan Club. ''I was not pleased that they destroyed the whole notion of the Cylons being robots."

In season two, viewers will see more Cylon robots. But they'll also see President Roslin's religious fervor accelerate. ''They've talked about the Cylons being created in God's image," says Altman. ''Now there are implications that No. 6 [a Cylon having intimate relations with a human scientist] is pregnant with his baby. It treads dangerously close to a soap opera."

Altman says an endless chase around the universe would also grow tiresome.But Eick says not to worry. ''The colonists will become more focused," he promises. ''They're going to get off the defensive and stop running."

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at sryan@globe.com.

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