Monday, November 20

Steering a New Course

Source: Entertainment Weekly

"Galactica" exec producers David Eick and Ronald Moore detail for EW's Jeff Jensen how they transformed a '70s TV footnote into a rich sci-fi powerhouse

Are you watching Sci Fi's Battlestar Galactica?

Sure you are. But I wasn't.

That is, not until last June, when I found myself confronted by a group of enlightened EW colleagues one afternoon while I was trying to write a nutty Lost theory about Desmond, Charles Dickens, and some pseudo-scientific business I found during my frequent trolls of Wikipedia. Anyway, these friends - these dear and precious friends - conducted what amounted to a geek intervention. They said: "You claim to be this sci-fi/fantasy/comic book fanboy - but are you watching Battlestar Galactica, the best frakkin' show on television?"

At the time, I had no reference for the show besides its famously cheesalicious late seventies incarnation, starring that old guy from Bonanza, that funny guy from The A-Team, and all those chrome-plated robots with their ping-ponging crimson eyes and Atari-era videogame voices ("BY. YOUR. COMMAND.") And so I said: "Frakkin'? What the fudge are you talking about?"

That was all they needed to hear. I was immediately put in a car and whisked away to a remote location with nothing else but a jug of milk, a box of Cocoa Pebbles, and DVDs of every episode of Battlestar Galactica. When the weekend was over, I felt like Paul on the road to Damascus, but without the icky scales falling from eyes. I had been born again. Frakkin' good news, indeed!

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating the details. But that's pretty much my Battlestar Galactica testimony. My reward for becoming a true believer was being given the chance to write EW's recent cover story about the show, in advance of the premiere episode of the third season. I thoroughly enjoyed my immersion into the Galacticaverse, and I've been utterly riveted by the new season, which has found provocative and heartbreaking ways to create an allegory for the moral quagmire that has become America's War on Terror. (I'm totally getting my phone tapped for that one, aren't I?)

If you are still as lame as I once was, I encourage you to give Battlestar a ride. If you do, you'll find it to be one of the most challenging, provocative, and timely tales being told in our pop culture. If that sounds like I'm saying the show isn't always fun - well, yeah, you're right. But it's always riveting, and I dare say it might even be important. To better understand why, I bring you Part One of a conversation with the creative masterminds behind Battlestar's revamp, executive producers David Eick and Ronald Moore, a conversation that I think will also be of interest to hard-core fans. I'll bring you more of the interview next week, and in coming weeks, I'll introduce you more formally to the cast of the show. Until then: Keep on frakkin'!

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I'm betting you've told this story many, many times, but since I'm new to Battlestar Galactica and many of our readers are, too, I'd love to know how this project came to you and what your interest was in restarting and revamping this world.
RONALD MOORE: I had done a lot of years at Star Trek, including 10 years at Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. I was moving on and doing other things when I got a call from David, whom I had met when I was consulting on a show called Good Vs. Evil. David called me, I think, in like February 2002...

DAVID EICK: No, it was actually December of 2001.

RM: Was it December?

DE: It was really on the heels of 9/11.

RM: Yeah! It was in that winter. He called and said that [Sci-Fi] was looking for somebody with a new take on Battlestar Galactica. The previous version that Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto had been trying to do for Fox had fallen through, and so they were back at square one. I said, "I'm not sure if I want to do another space opera..." I knew the original show, but hadn't seen it since - well, literally since it had been on the air in '78. So I said, "Let me think about it over the weekend." I went and found a copy of the original series pilot and watched it again. Like David said, this was all in the aftermath of 9/11, and so here I am, watching this show that opens with this genocidal attack by the Cylons, which wipes out an entire human civilization in a stroke. And then the heroes of the show are the survivors of that attack who escape into space, where they are forever pursued by their enemies... I just felt that if you really took that premise seriously, and you really played that in a sort of emotionally true way, it would have a really strong and incredibly powerful relevance in today's climate. I thought, "Well, this is a really interesting opportunity." Moreover, I had been thinking about some things in science fiction that I wanted to do differently. Like I said, I did Star Trek for so long, there were things that I was just getting tired of. I wanted to reinvent the way you did stories in science fiction. I wanted to lose things like space hair and space costumes and... just make it more real. Break down the barriers between the audience and the drama and really hook into who the characters were and make it more about a drama that happens to be set in space. So I called David back on Monday and said, "Let's try to make this happen."

Making the decision to "take the 'opera' out of space opera"

DE: And for me, not coming at it as someone who had worked inside the genre like Ron had, there was certainly an awareness that the genre had atrophied, that sci-fi television had a certain cookie-cutter approach. Things like there being a bridge on which a captain would sit in a chair and look at the horizon, and that spaceships all basically behaved like they do in George Lucas land, where they bank against an imaginary gravitational force and fly around like airplanes, and where explosions are big and bright and loud.

RM: When we approached it, one of the things that we said was, "Let's take the opera out of space opera." Let's go for a really more naturalistic. We kept referencing shows like NYPD Blue or Hill Street Blues or ER, shows that were set in places that treated those spaces as real places - that weren't afraid of fluorescent lights and bad lighting and nappy looking walls and...

DE: Letting the actors fall into shadow...

RM: Yeah.

So to be clear, from the start, you really had no strong personal connection to the original show. Taking this job wasn't about nostalgia or anything like that.

RM: Yeah, that's true. I mean, when it was on in '78, I was in junior high, and on the heels of Star Wars, I think everybody in America, or at least everyone of my age, was really jazzed by the idea that there was going to be a big, splashy sci-fi series on TV, because there hadn't really been one on network television of any real note since the original Star Trek series. So I certainly lined up and watched it religiously. But even at the time, there were things about it that I didn't click into. You know, it's easy to take shots at the old show. It really is, because there's a lot of glaring things that you can really make fun of. But I think the central problem that sank the show was that ultimately, there was this contradictory impulse. They wanted to make this really dark show on the one hand that was all about a genocide and about survival, about running away from your enemies and hoping against hope that you can find a place called Earth. And that was pulled in the opposite direction by the sort of network television credo of the time, which was to make it fun. To make it escapism. So if you watch those shows, they go from the complete and utter genocide of the human race and the destruction of 12 colonies of billions of people, and [then] they go to "the casino planet" for fun and games. That, in essence, was the problem. I mean, they just were never able to square that circle.

DE: And they may not have been allowed to.

Deciding how much of the original show to keep - and ignore

RM: Right. I don't think ABC could've possibly really supported them if they had really tried to be true to the premise of what that show was. And as a result, it became this thing that couldn't take itself seriously, and therefore, you couldn't take it seriously. But at the heart of it, there were these interesting ideas, and we've embraced many of them. Design elements, like the Vipers on the original show, are very, very similar to the Vipers we use today. The Galactica herself is very similar. A lot of the background mythology is borrowed from the original show. When we set out to remake Battlestar Galactica, we really did want to remake it. We wanted to really make this a different telling of the same story -

DE: - that just happened to be called Battlestar Galactica.

RM: Yeah.

DE: By the way, either out of kismet or just by laziness, I've never seen the original pilot episode.


DE: Yeah.

RM: I'm going to make him sit down and watch it someday.

DE: I remember Ron and I were in the middle of one of the early development meetings, which is to say, we were drinking scotch at Pinot Hollywood. It was the day/meeting that we first talked about the Cylons looking like human beings. We agreed to go home for the weekend and watch the original pilot movie/miniseries before making the decision. Now, Ron had already seen the miniseries. So I would be watching it for the first time, with the idea we'd come back on Monday prepared to address some specifics. And I just didn't watch it. I tried. I'm not trying to be derisive or critical, it's just... It's very much of its time and it's much more difficult for me to see through a lot of those period elements to the root of all the things Ron was able to very adroitly cull from it. And so when we regrouped, Ron became the resident expert of the things that you needed from the original Galactica, and I, by default, because I didn't do my homework, became the one who was/is always advocating, "This has to make sense." Because I didn't have any context.

RM: I remember the writing staff and I sitting down together and watching some episodes. And periodically, we like to drop in elements from the series because it inspired an idea, or as an act of homage. There was an episode that was inspired by a story from the original series in which the Galactica found another Battlestar named Pegasus. That and the pilot are really the only two stories per se that we went back and revisited the original. There are also bits and pieces of backstory and mythology that we've borrowed from. But here's a funny story: The guys at [FX company] Zoic, who do a lot of our visual effects work, contain in their ranks various and sundry fans of the original series, although they won't raise their hand and say so. They think they'll get in trouble or something. There are even a few people at Zoic who have gone on bulletin boards and say things like: "They're destroying it! Every day, I go to work and I am destroying that which is Battlestar Galactica!" You know those shots in our show where you see the entire ragtag civilian fleet of spaceships trailing the Galactica? Some of Zoic guys have, like, re-created them lovingly from the original designs of the original show. There's at least a half dozen of them in our fleet. If you know the old show, in some of our establishing shots, you'll see replicas of those exact ships drifting by.

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