Report Card: Battlestar Galactica miniseries

Read all of the Battlestar Galactica Miniseries in chronological order.

The miniseries represents the best that the reboot has to offer. Its story is contained, the characters fill their roles, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The miniseries even ends on a solid cliffhanger: Will humanity survive?

Battlestar Galactica also picked a rarely chosen theme for its run. The well-used and anachronistic technology was in direct opposition to the Star Wars Prequels being released at the time. After getting my feet wet with my previous reviews, this was an entertaining choice because of its difficulty, detail, and setting.

I was constantly reminded during the review process that this miniseries represented—and this can’t be stated strongly enough—the end of human civilization.

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The Doctor’s Office

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The doctor’s office is a stark, concrete room with a single desk framed under large windows and a tall vaulted ceiling.  Two chairs sit on a carpet in front of the desk for patients.  A couple pieces of art and personal photos line the room, but they are overwhelmed by the industrial-ness of the rest of the space.

When the doctor enters, he carries a large folder with the patient’s health information and background on paper.  He then talks with the patient directly, without help from notes or his patient’s folder.

There is no visible computer in the room.

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While not a traditional interface, this office is interesting because it lacks any traditional interactive features of a futuristic doctor’s office; things like holograms, giant computer screen walls, and robots are completely absent. Continue reading

Galactica’s Wayfinding

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The Battlestar Galactica is a twisting and interlocking series of large hallways that provide walking access to all parts of the ship.  The hallways are poorly labeled, and are almost impossible for someone without experience to navigate. Seriously, look at these images and see if you can tell where you are, or where you’re supposed to head to find…well, anything.

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Billy (a young political assistant steeped in modern technology) finds this out after losing the rest of his tour group.

The hallways lack even the most basic signage that we expect in our commercial towers and office buildings.  We see no indication of what deck a given corridor is on, what bulkhead a certain intersection is located at, or any obvious markings on doorways.

We do see small, cryptic alphanumerics near door handles:

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Based off of current day examples, the alphanumeric would mark the bulkhead the door was at, the level it was on, and which section it was in.  This would let anyone who knew the system figure out where they were on the ship. Continue reading

Bulkhead Doors

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At every major intersection, and at the entrance to each room, the Battlestar Galactica has very large pressure doors.  These doors each have a handle and a large wheel on each side.  During regular operation crewmembers open the door with the handle and close it firmly, but do not spin the wheel.  Occasionally, we see crew using the wheel as a leverage point to close the door.

 

Sealing it off

We never directly see a crewmember spin the wheel on the door after it closes.  While Chief Tyrol is acting as head of damage control, he orders all bulkheads in a section of the ship sealed off.  This order is beyond the typical door closing that we witness day-to-day.

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This implies that the door has three modes: Open, Closed, and Sealed.

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Crewmembers could use the door most of their day in an open or closed mode, where an easy pull of the handle unlatches the door and allows them to enter or leave quickly.  In an emergency, a closed door could be sealed by spinning the valve wheel on one side of the door.

 

Danger?

As with other parts of the Galactica, the doors are completely manual, and cannot be activated remotely. (Because Cylon hacking made them go network-less.) Someone has to run up to the door in an emergency and seal it off.

One worry is that, because there is a valve wheel on both sides, an untrained crewmember might panic and try to unseal the door by turning it in the wrong direction.  This would endanger the entire crew.

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The other worry is that the valve spins along a single axis (we see no evidence either way during the show), requiring the crew to know which side of the door they were on to seal it against a vacuum.  “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey” would fail in this instance, and might cause hesitation or accidental unsealing in an actual emergency.

Ideally, the doors would have wheels that spun identically on either side, so that a clockwise spin always sealed the door, and a counter-clockwise spin always unsealed it.

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Current water-tight doors have two sides, the ‘important’ side and the ‘unimportant’ side.  The important side faces towards the ‘center’ of the vessel, or the core of the larger block of the ship, and can be sealed off quickly from that side with a wheel and heavy ‘dogs’.

Weathertight doors have a handle-latch on both sides that is connected (much like a doorknob), and can seal/unseal the door from either side.

If there is a technical limitation to that mechanism (unlikely, but possible), then a large and obvious graphic on the door (a clockwise or counterclockwise arrow) could serve to remind the crew which direction of turn sealed the door.  In this case, sealing the door is the primary action to call out because it is the action done under a panic situation, and the action most easily forgotten in the heat of the moment.

Otherwise, the doors could be a danger to the crew: the crew on the ‘safe’ side could seal the door against depressurization, but crew on the ‘unsafe’ side might try to unseal it to save themselves in a panic.

Air pressure might keep the door properly closed in this instance, but it is still a risk.

 

Effective?

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We see during the damage control incident that the doors are quickly closed and sealed by the crew, even in an emergency, making the rest of the ship airtight.  This either shows that the doors are effective at their job, or the crew is very well trained for such a situation.

Like the rest of the Galactica, the technology relies on people to work.  A couple hints or minor tweaks to that technology could make the crew’s lives much easier without putting them at danger from the Cylons or the empty void of space.

Viper Launch Control

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The Galactica’s fighter launch catapults are each controlled by a ‘shooter’ in an armored viewing pane.  There is one ‘shooter’ for every two catapults.  To launch a Viper, he has a board with a series of large twist-handles, a status display, and a single button.  We can also see several communication devices:

  • Ear-mounted mic and speaker
  • Board mounted mic
  • Phone system in the background

These could relate to one of several lines of communication each:

  • The Viper pilot
  • Any crew inside the launch pod
  • Crew just outside the launch pod
  • CIC (for strategic status updates)
  • Other launch controllers at other stations
  • Engineering teams
  • ‘On call’ rooms for replacement operators

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Each row on the launch display appears to conform to some value coming off of the Viper or the Galactica’s magnetic catapults.  The ‘shooter’ calls off Starbuck’s launch three times due to some value he sees on his status board (fluctuating engine power right before launch).

We do not see any other data inputs.  Something like a series of cameras on a closed circuit could show him an exterior view of the entire Viper, providing additional information to the sensors.

When Starbuck is ready to launch on the fourth try, the ‘shooter’ twists the central knob and, at the same time and with the same hand, pushes down a green button.  The moment the ‘shooter’ hits the button, Starbuck’s Viper is launched into space.

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There are other twist knobs across the entire board, but these do not appear to conform directly to the act of launching the Viper, and they do not act like the central knob.  They appear instead to be switches, where turning them from one position to another locks them in place.

There is no obvious explanation for the number of twist knobs, but each one might conform to an electrical channel to the catapult, or some part of the earlier launch sequence.

Manual Everything

Nothing in the launch control interprets anything for the ‘shooter’.  He is given information, then expected to interpret it himself.  From what we see, this information is basic enough to not cause a problem and allow him to quickly make a decision.

Without networking the launch system together so that it can poll its own information and make its own decisions, there is little that can improve the status indicators. (And networking is made impossible in this show because of Cylon hackers.) The board is easily visible from the shooter chair, each row conforms directly to information coming in from the Viper, and the relate directly to the task at hand.

The most dangerous task the shooter does is actually decide to launch the Viper into space.  If either the Galactica or the Viper isn’t ready for that action, it could cause major damage to the Viper and the launch systems.

A two-step control for this is the best method, and the system now requires two distinct motions (a twist-and-hold, then a separate and distinct *click*).  This is effective at confirming that the shooter actually wants to send the Viper into space.

To improve this control, the twist and button could be moved far enough apart (reference, under “Two-Hand Controls” ) that it requires two hands to operate the control.  That way, there is no doubt that the shooter intends to activate the catapult.

If the controls are separated like that, it would take some amount of effort to make sure the two controls are visually connected across the board, either through color, or size, or layout.  Right now, that would be complicated by the similarity in the final twist control, and the other handles that do different jobs.

Changing these controls to large switches or differently shaped handles would make the catapult controls less confusing to use.

 

Colonial One

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Colonial One is a luxury passenger liner in commercial service until the war with the Cylons breaks out.  The captain and co-pilot are not military pilots, and most passengers are dignitaries or VIPs visiting the Galactica for the unveiling of it as a museum.

Compared to military cockpits and the CIC aboard the Galactica, Colonial One’s cockpit has simple controls and an unsophisticated space-borne sensor system.  Also unlike the Galactica or the Raptors, no one on Colonial One calls their space-borne sensor system the “Dradis”.  At the center of each control console is a large gimbal-based horizon indicator.

image07The sensors show a simple 2-d representation of local space, with nearby contacts indicated as white dots.  There is no differentiation between ‘enemy’ and ‘friendly’ contacts.  Likewise, the image of a Cylon missile (shown above) is the same indicator as other ships.  There is no clear explanation of what the small white dots on the background of the image are, or what the lines indicate.

When the Cylon fighters show up, the crew has some unknown way besides this screen of knowing the Cylons have just jumped into contact range, and that they have launched missiles at Colonial One.  How the crew determines this isn’t shown, but both the crew and Apollo are confident that the assessment is correct.

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When Laura Rosilyn tells the crew to send a message on a specific frequency before the missile attack, the crew uses the same keypad to send alpha-numeric signals over a radio/faster-than-light (FTL) link as to enter information into their flight computers.  The FTL link appears to connect every planet in the Colonies together in real time: we don’t get any sense of delay between the attacks happening and the entire civilization reacting to it in real time.

The largest usability concern here is Mode Switching, and making it clear whether the crew is entering information into the ship or into the radio.  Given that we see the crew interact most with the ship itself, the following procedure would make the most sense:

  1. Entering information into the ship is the primary ‘mode’
  2. An explicit command to switch over to the radio link.
  3. Crew enters the given information into the link
  4. On ‘enter’, the interface flips back over to entering information into the ship.

With a larger budget, the Dradis is a better system (at least with the improvements installed)

Other Systems

A large amount of space inside the cockpit is given over to communication controls and a receiver station.  At the receiver station, Colonial One has a small printer attached to an automatic collector that prints off broadcast messages.  The function and placement of the printer appears similar to weather printers on modern passenger jets.

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The cockpit is very utilitarian, and the controls look well used.  These are robust systems and look like they have been in place for a while.  Despite the luxury associated with the passenger compartment, the crew have been granted no special luxuries or obvious assisting equipment to make their job more comfortable.

If we look at a current (or, up until very recently current) pattern: the Space Shuttle has a very similar layout.  It is intended to also enter the atmosphere, which Colonial One is shown with the equipment to do, and maintains a 2.5D movement concept.  Given that it’s a commercial ship with direct paths to follow, Colonial One does not need the complicated controls – that are shown to be very difficult to master – that are present on ships like the Viper.

Overall, a solid pattern

In-universe, this ship was not designed for combat, and is woefully unprepared for it when it arrives.  The sensor system and the controls appear specialized for the job of ferrying high-paying customers from one planet to another through friendly space.  Other ships also have the same level of manual controls and physical switches in the cockpit, though it is impossible to tell whether this is because Colonial One was built in the same era as the Galactica, or whether the builders wanted extra reliability in the controls than ‘modern’ electronics provided.

As long as the pilots are as well trained as current-day commercial pilots, the banks of controls would provide solid spatial grouping and muscle memory.  There might be some room to shrink the number of controls or group them better, but we lack the context to dig into that particular issue.

One minor fix would be the possibility of mode errors for the keypad.  It is not obvious when the crew changes from “I want to enter information into Colonial One to change operating parameters” and “I want to send a message to someone else”.  A clear way to indicate that the keyboard is sending information to the ship, compared to sending information to the radio system, would clear up the possibility of a mode-switch error.  Common options could be:

  • A large switch close by that changed the color of the lights
  • A bi-directional light with labels on which mode it’s in
  • or distinct separation between the Pilot’s keyboard and the Co-pilot’s keyboard

Of the three, a clear distinction between pilot’s keyboard and co-pilot’s keyboard would be the most secure; provided that there was a switch in case of emergency.

The Colonial One copies many interface patterns from modern airliners.  Since the airline industry has one of the best and most sophisticated UI design in practice right now, there are very few obvious recommendations to make, and credit should be given for how realistic it looks.

Viper Controls

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The Viper is the primary space fighter of the Colonial Fleet.  It comes in several varieties, from the Mark II (shown above), to the Mark VII (the latest version).  Each is made for a single pilot, and the controls allow the pilot to navigate short distances in space to dogfight with enemy fighters.

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Mark II Viper Cockpit

The Mark II Viper is an analog machine with a very simple Dradis, physical gauges, and paper flight plans.  It is a very old system.  The Dradis sits in the center console with the largest screen real-estate.  A smaller needle gauge under the Dradis shows fuel levels, and a standard joystick/foot pedal system provides control over the Viper’s flight systems.

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Mark VII Viper Cockpit

The Viper Mk VII is a mostly digital cockpit with a similar Dradis console in the middle (but with a larger screen and more screen-based controls and information).  All other displays are digital screens.  A few physical buttons are scattered around the top and bottom of the interface.  Some controls are pushed down, but none are readable.  Groups of buttons are titled with text like “COMMS CIPHER” and “MASTER SYS A”.

Eight buttons around the Dradis console are labeled with complex icons instead of text.

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When the Mk VII Vipers encounter Cylons for the first time, the Cylons use a back-door computer virus to completely shut down the Viper’s systems.  The screens fuzz out in the same manner as when Apollo gets caught in an EMP burst.

The Viper Mk VII is then completely uncontrollable, and the pilot’s’ joystick-based controls cease to function.

Overall, the Viper Mk II is set up similarly to a WWII P-52 Mustang or early production F-15 Eagle, while the Viper Mk VII is similar to a modern-day F-16 Falcon or F-22 Raptor .

 

Usability Concerns

The Viper is a single seat starfighter, and appears to excel in that role.  The pilots focus on their ship, and the Raptor pilots following them focus on the big picture.  But other items, including color choice, font choice, and location are an issue.

Otherwise, Items appear a little small, and it requires a lot of training to know what to look for on the dashboards. Also, the black lines radiating from the large grouper labels appear to go nowhere and provide no extra context or grouping.  Additionally, the controls (outside of the throttle and joystick) require quite a bit of reach from the seat.

Given that the pilots are accelerating at 9+ gs, reaching a critical control in the middle of a fight could be difficult.  Hopefully, the designers of the Vipers made sure that ‘fighting’ controls are all within arms reach of the seat, and that the controls requiring more effort are secondary tasks.

Similarly, all-caps text is the hardest to read at a glance, and should be avoided for interfaces like the Viper that require quick targeting and actions in the middle of combat.  The other text is very small, and it would be worth doing a deeper evaluation in the cockpit itself to determine if the font size is too small to read from the seat.

If anyone reading this blog has an accurate Viper cockpit prop, we’d be happy to review it! 

Fighter pilots in the Battlestar Galactica universe have quick reflexes, excellent vision, and stellar training.  They should be allowed to use all of those abilities for besting Cylons in a dogfight, instead of being forced to spend time deciphering their Viper’s interface.