Written by Denis Faye
Anyone with basic cable knows about the SCI FI Channel, but do you ever watch it? Until recently, answering "yes" probably meant you still lived with your mom, wouldn't compete in a marathon unless the words Twilight Zone preceded it and didn't look twice at a woman unless she was packing a laser cannon or had pointy ears.
But the newly re-imagined Battlestar Galactica might actually change that. The kitsch 1978 Glen A. Larson space opera about a rag-tag group of interstellar travelers on the run from evil robotic Cylons has been stripped down and rebuilt into an edgy drama, rife with sociopolitical commentary, sex, and violence. This new approach has been such a hit that, according to SCI FI, viewers tuned in last season at a rate of three million per episode. In case you missed the first season, NBC will air key season one episodes this weekend, prepping audiences for the July 15 season two premiere on SCI FI.
One of main creative forces behind the series is showrunner Ron Moore. The science fiction television veteran, who cut his teeth on Star Trek: The Next Generation, then moved to various other Star Trek series, as well as Roswell and HBO's Carnivàle, has always had a thing for the dark and twisted side of humanity, so when he and writer David Eick were offered the show, he happily grabbed established characters like Apollo, Starbuck and Commander Adama and twisted away.
While talking with the WGAw about his hit show, Moore's cell phone connection dropped out three times and he was forced to finish the interview on a landline. The irony wasn't lost on Moore, who pointed out that just like in real life, a science fiction writer should never depend on technology. To tell a good story, a writer should depend on character.
How'd you manage to make a hip science fiction show?
When David and I went in to pitch the show initially, we felt very strongly that we wanted to take a different approach to how sci-fi was done on television and we wanted to go documentary style in terms of how it looked. We wanted the characterizations to be a little bit more grounded. We just wanted the whole vibe of the piece not to be like what's typically done in space operas. So we focused in on making the characters more believable, more dysfunctional and ambiguous than typical science fiction characters. We started from a different place than most of these shows do.
So that ended up giving it a more general appeal?
I think so. I felt very strongly from the beginning that one of the problems with getting a wider appeal to science fiction was that audiences were set back by things as simple as the spandex outfits and the funky looking space hair and the overly-done production design where you spend a lot of time deciding, "What do doors look like?" and "What does a chair look like in this world?" There are so many fantastical elements that a general audience just goes, "I've got to figure out all these things. I've got to learn this language. It's just so sci-fi geeky… argh! I'll watch something about real people."
Our approach was to start with it being about real people and then all the science fiction elements would be a backdrop. It's really about character and people. The show is a drama first and foremost so, if people give us a chance and turn the show on, they'll discover it's a drama like any other. Then they'll be willing to go with you when you introduce the fantastical elements of the show.
©2004 Sci-Fi Channel
Jamie Bamber and Katee Sackhoff in Battlestar Galactica.
What's appealing about writing science fiction that you can't do in a more reality-based series?
You have a much broader canvas to paint on. You can really play a bigger game of "what if" with your characters and situations. You're not tied to a contemporary reality where your audience knows all the ins and outs. In science fiction, you create the world and the world runs the way you say it's going to run, so you have greater flexibility to come up with situations.
And you can get away with a lot of things you can't touch in contemporary-reality shows. A lot of the issues we deal with in Galactica -- like liberty and freedom, the war on terrorism, torture of prisoners, religion and faith -- these are very charged, hot button issues [when presented] in a drama where you're calling them all by their proper names. The networks all kind of pull back and you have to present things in a balanced way or people get upset. But if you're in Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica and you're talking about the Klingons or Cylons, you're taking about things cloaked in metaphor. You're talking about thematic ideas so you can just explore and not get bogged down.
How did you go about completely reworking the show while still respecting the original vision? For example, how did you go about turning Starbuck into an entirely new character (and gender), yet keep her similar enough to the original to not disappoint fans?
The way I approached her was similar to the way I approached the series overall. I said, "Okay, what is Battlestar Galactica?" What are the elements that make it what it is? Starbuck and Apollo are at the center of the old show and they would be strong components of this show as well, but this [new] show is a bit more of an ensemble piece than the original, but still, a central element is this relationship between these two lead fighter pilots, Apollo, the son of the commander and Starbuck, his sidekick. And Starbuck is the rogue, devil-may-care, cigar smoker, the ladies man, the pilot who does things by his own rules and he's the best pilot in the fleet. So that's the schematic of it -- what do you do with it? Literally, the first weekend I was thinking about the project and whether to do it or not, one of the very first thoughts I had was, "What if you make Starbuck a woman?"
As soon as I had that epiphany, the whole dynamic of who that character was changed. The relationship with Apollo would be very different. The whole piece pivoted and I realized that just by making that character a woman, you could take a lot of those same attributes of that character, but when applied to a woman, they just come out differently.
The dynamic of the friendship with Apollo changes. There's a sexual tension, an undercurrent of emotion. And it's an atypical relationship to play on camera. How many times have we seen the straight arrow pilot or cop or whatever and his buddy who's wilder than he is and the two go out and fight crime or beat up the bad guys every week? You've seen that over and over, but you haven't really seen it when the sidekick is a woman with all the same attributes.
It was important to me to keep the idea of what Starbuck was in the mythos of the show, which was the wild card, the one who was more dangerous that the rest of them, but I wanted her, in addition to being a woman, to be complicated. I mean, who is a rogue pilot? Why do they operate by their own rules? What does a wild card mean in the military? You start delving into that character and you start seeing this is a pretty screwed up character with a lot of issues.
On the other side, what makes science fiction difficult for a writer?
©2004 Sci-Fi Channel
Tricia Helfer in Battlestar Galactica.
I find that writers who are new to the genre get wrapped up in the trappings of it. They get lost in trying to make it all about technology and fantastical ideas and they lose touch with the drama of it. Writers have to be able to just treat it like plot material that you have to use. The writers that can see past those trappings and hang on to the characters and the actual story are the ones that succeed.
So you've created a show that Joe Average will watch. How do you keep the science fiction fans happy?
It is a balance. The show is Battlestar Galactica, so there's always a certain action adventure component that I think will keep the hardcore science fiction element happy. There's the Cylons and it's a spacefaring society. It's definitely rooted in a science fiction universe and there are enough of the trappings of that world to satisfy the desires of a hardcore audience. But it's more decorative than substance.
The substance is in the characters and I think that's important for even the hardcore sci-fi fans. They loved Star Trek the original series not because of all the whiz-bang things about the Enterprise or the groovy technology of the 1960s. They really responded to the original series because they loved Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. At the heart of that show were three very strong, very interesting men that audiences identified with.
The Battlestar Galactica Web site is fairly comprehensive, with its audio commentaries and blogs, etc. Does this affect your role as a writer?
It makes more work. One more master to serve. It's interesting because the science fiction audience really gravitates towards Internet material. They just eat it up. It's really ready-made for them. The great thing as a writer, I find, is that it gives you an immediate outlet to get feedback from your audience. As a TV writer, I don't have the advantage of being able to go to a theater, sit in the back and watch an audience respond to my play or to my film. Granted, the Internet's a very narrow piece of the audience, but it is a piece of the audience. These are people who care enough about a television show that they go on the Internet and talk about it. It's a very specific kind of person that's that in tune and loves your show that much, which cuts them out from the general audience. But they are the people who are paying the most attention and picking up details that most people miss, so it's a really interesting tool to get feedback on your shows from people who are really thinking about it.
Do you think the creative process is different when you're writing for that niche audience instead of a wider audience?
No, because I don't tend to write for that audience. I tend to write for the wider audience. Actually, I take that back. I don't write for them, I write the show for myself. I really just write each episode for what I want it to be, what I think is interesting or funny or charged or provocative. I write the show I'd want to watch and hope that there's an audience that comes with it.