Thursday, December 14

Rocket Man


Now that Battlestar Galactica has won over gay sci-fi fans with its gender-blind universe, will the cult hit put gays in space? Jamie Bamber, one of the show’s stars, is ready.

Tight yellow tunic, broad chest, and a slightly manic, hungry look in his eye: There’s little argument that Star Trek’s Captain Kirk cut a dashing figure, at least by the TV standards of 1966. Yet despite Kirk’s legendary status as the most capable ladies’ man in space, adept at wooing and bedding both human and alien females, Battlestar Galactica’s resident sexpot, Jamie Bamber (Lee “Apollo” Adama), has already seen more bedspring action than Kirk got in the full run of his show.

The new, sexier incarnation of Battlestar began in 2003 when the Sci Fi Channel produced a miniseries “reimagining” the 1978-1980 series. The new show retains many of the same basic elements, most notably the plotline: After the 12 planets of a distant colony of humans are decimated by a race of cybernetic beings called Cylons, the few surviving humans set off into space searching for a lost mythic planet called Earth.

The show has been widely acclaimed as superior to the very popular original series, due in large part to its creators’ rejecting many of the well-worn sci-fi TV tropes made into virtual guiding principles of the genre by Star Trek. In addition to Battlestar’s other revolutionary elements—including handheld camera, bullets instead of energy beam weapons, and a primitive-sounding drum score rather than the more familiar orchestral bombast—the show also features some of the most appealing forms in outer space, including burgeoning lesbian icon Katee Sackhoff (“Starbuck”), hunky Tahmoh Penikett (“Helo”), and, of course, Bamber.

The Sci Fi Channel’s runaway hit is emblematic of a new trend in science fiction television toward more fully realized, complex characters, many of whom even have sex lives. And if the sexing of sci-fi TV is a trend, then gay fans are thanking their lucky stars for sexy Bamber, whose body-conscious tank tops and revealing sex scenes turn the more common objectification of sci-fi women (think Princess Leia in the golden bikini) on its ear. Bamber’s season 2 scene in a unisex locker room in which he wears only a towel (and not for long) was no less than a queer blogosphere sensation.

As hunky as Bamber is, he’s the show’s accidental heartthrob. During casting, the 5-foot-9 Bamber says, he was dwarfed by the competition: “There were several other hunks in the room that were a lot hunkier than me. They were huge! The overall average physical body type in Los Angeles is completely different [than] in the U.K. So I’m not used to being in a room with a bunch of guys that look like they play college football—and yet they were obviously good actors as well. They didn’t want the archetypal sort of jock hero. They wanted someone a bit more, I guess, cerebral.”

Battlestar executive producer and writer David Eick says he and director Michael Rymer decided against casting the beefcake actors vying for the role: “I just thought it was a mistake to go in that direction because it felt more traditional, more the archetype of the genre.” Eick initially thought of Bamber as “sort of a small, retreating, very nice English guy… That was before I saw how he looked on film. The camera really likes Jamie. He cuts the light, as they say, in a very arresting way, and I can certainly see why gay men and straight women find him attractive.”

Despite the fact that sci-fi TV has been an almost categorically hetero medium, depictions of worlds in which homophobia, racism, and sexism were artifacts of a less sophisticated era (ours) are appealing to anyone regularly on the wrong end of an epithet. Nevertheless, the genre has been tediously ham-fisted when it comes to depictions of romance. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s edict for all the spin-off shows was that in the future, human society would be more enlightened. While the concept was rosily utopian, it presented a dilemma for writers. “There was little opportunity for conflict between characters because it was written in stone that they all get along and are highly professional and much more evolved than we are,” notes Bryan Fuller, a gay former writer on the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine and Voyager. “With that came a sort of sexual sterility.”

“When you look at Battlestar Galactica, they’re fucking all the time—because they’re playing people,” says Fuller. “Every [Star Trek character] was this one-line description for a character, which really isn’t the most fertile ground to write from. The sexuality was always a little more removed.”

“Sexuality in the show is one of the ingredients that turns it from a kids’ show into more of an adult thing,” says Bamber. And we’re not talking hyperflowers and space chocolates here; there’s not much wooing going on. “There are people in very confined spaces that have to live in close proximity to one another. So it makes sense that sex is a much more aggressive, confined act. And this world is a kind of gender-blind world. Men and women are called ‘sir,’ there are coeducational facilities, the shower and everything, and they bunk and they sleep and live and eat and do everything together. In that regard, I guess what we’ve created is a world in which sex is not as much of a taboo as it is in our world.”

This genre has blazed trails before: The famous first televised interracial kiss was between Uhura and Kirk on Star Trek. The international cast was a veritable United Colors of Benetton, plus a Vulcan. Various Star Trek series created episodes that metaphorically dealt with sexism, racism, and even AIDS, yet they never once created a gay character of any significance.

For the most progressive and groundbreaking show in the genre, Battlestar’s lack of gay characters is acute. “Well, as far as you know you haven’t seen any gay characters,” says Eick, claiming that because the characters are still dealing with the annihilation of civilization, there’s not much room for gay story lines yet. “As we evolve through the series and get further away from that cataclysm, we may feel like it’s less of a stretch to start showing people getting involved with each other. Who’s to say who won’t turn out gay?”

Bamber champions the prospect: “There’s no reason, in a world that is gender-blind, on the Battlestars and across this fleet, that we haven’t had an overtly gay relationship come to fruition. It should be there, and it should be as unabashedly honest as the heterosexual relationships.”

While Battlestar may be late to the game in this respect (assuming the show’s creators do enter the game at all), others have already begun to take up the mantle of depicting characters more reflective of their queer audiences. NBC’s upcoming fall drama Heroes, created by Crossing Jordan exec producer Tim Kring, features a diverse international cast and depicts the fallout in ordinary people’s lives when, due to an evolutionary leap, they discover they have extraordinary unexplained abilities. Heroes will feature a gay character, according to Kring and Fuller, who is now writing for the show. In the pilot a popular high school cheerleader with superhuman invulnerability selects a loner from her class to divulge her secret to—though he’s not revealed as gay in that episode. Kring admits, “I’m feeling a little odd about it, because I literally haven’t even discussed it with the actor yet.”

On the network that brought us Will & Grace, there’s still resistance even to peripheral queer characters. Fuller says, “There was a moment on the set where [Kring] was with an NBC executive, who shall remain nameless, and the exec said, ‘Hmm, you need to watch [the cheerleader’s friend] because that character could be interpreted as gay.’ And Tim said, ‘Why do we need to watch that?’ ”

Kring hints that there may be queers in the second wave of rotating characters. “I am intrigued by a gay character front and center, and we are openly discussing it in the studio and in the writers’ room now,” says Kring, undaunted by network resistance. “It doesn’t scare me at all to do that, and it’s always been a battle with networks on that sort of thing. There’s a subversiveness that you’re forced to think about these things with. You try to come in through a side door.”

The queerest rebellion in sci-fi TV is doubtlessly the latest incarnation of the British classic Doctor Who, which recently aired its first season on the Sci Fi Channel, starring Christopher Eccleston and written by out Queer as Folk creator Russell T. Davies. The third season of the show is now in production in Wales.

“There’s very classically and traditionally a strong gay fan base for Doctor Who, ” Davies told The New York Times recently. In the first season of the new Who, the Doctor and his assistant, Rose (played by Billie Piper), join forces with Captain Jack Harkness, a 51st-century bisexual time traveler played by out actor John Barrowman. Handsome and debonair, and as comfortable with his clothes off as with them on, Jack is at ease seducing both male and female characters.

As a sort of omnisexual James Bond of the future, Captain Jack is getting his own spin-off series created by Davies. Called Torchwood (an anagram of “Doctor Who”), the show is billed as sci-fi for adults, and it promises not to shy away from the sex as Jack and company explore alien phenomena in modern-day Britain.

On this side of the pond, look for a Battlestar prequel series called Caprica, now in the early stages of development. Though it takes place on a distant planet, Eick says it will be “more like Dallas than it is like Star Trek.” And in Battlestar’s upcoming third season, Xena star Lucy Lawless, a bona fide lesbian icon, returns as a Cylon for 10 episodes.

Jamie Bamber’s character, who begins the season married and 30 pounds heavier (thanks to prosthetic makeup), will no doubt return to his fighting form in no time. But Eick issues a warning: “It is a war show first and foremost. The audience should never get too attached to any single character because you never know when they may not be around anymore.”

No comments: