Sunday, March 30

'Battlestar Galactica,' king of the remakes


"Battlestar Galactica" is the best drama currently on television. That doesn't sound right, does it? Sure, some of this is by default - "The Wire" just ended and "Mad Men" and "The Shield" won't be back until later this year - but qualifiers or no, how exactly does a remake of a profoundly cheeseball '70s "Star Wars" rip-off wind up as a contender for the title of best anything on television? Why, even as the critically acclaimed new "Galactica" heads into its fourth and final season, does its genius still seem so improbable?

Maybe it's the name. If you're old enough to remember the original "Galactica," it conjures up memories of Dirk Benedict wearing a cape, robotic dogs, and the same three space battles shown over and over again from slightly different angles. If you're not old enough, then the title still sounds too silly to apply to a series that, in its new form, intelligently deals with religion and politics (better than any show this side of early "West Wing") while finding time for fist-pumping action.

But really, the surprise about the sustained brilliance of the new show shouldn't come from it being a remake of "Battlestar Galactica," but from it being a remake of anything.
Remakes are always popular in Hollywood, as they're an easier pitch to both studio execs and audiences than entirely new ideas. Coming out of the strike, the TV business is in heavy remaking mode, with new versions of shows both popular ("Beverly Hills 90210," "Knight Rider") and not ("Cupid," "The Pitts") strong contenders to be on someone's schedule next season.

But an easy pitch isn't necessarily an easy success. Creating something out of whole cloth is hard, but in some ways recreating a previous work can be even harder. There can be audience expectations, positive or negative, that are impossible to compensate for. There's danger in sticking too close to the original and being called derivative, just as there's danger in changing too much. (There's still a small, resolute group of sci-fi fans who refer to the new show as "GINO," or "Galactica in name only.")

From the jump, the new "Galactica" started out with a leg up over most remakes because of the quality (or lack thereof) of the original. The most common remake mistake is to try to duplicate a beloved classic. There's no upside to that; see the Gus Van Sant "Psycho," or the Harrison Ford "Sabrina."

"Galactica" producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick took the opposite approach. Though the original "Galactica" still has a few vocal supporters (see the "GINO" crowd), it's not remembered fondly enough for people to mind major tinkering. More importantly, while it was a bad show, it had a great idea at the core - humanity is nearly annihilated by an alien race, and the handful of survivors band together to go searching for Earth - that the original producers squandered on stock footage, space battles, robot dogs, etc.

Moore, Eick and company decided to take the premise seriously, and used it as an allegory for the War on Terror. The robotic Cylons, anonymous stormtroopers in the original, are now religious zealots convinced their deity wants humanity destroyed. The non-military members of the ragtag fleet, an afterthought at best in the '70s, are now a key element of the series, with civilian president Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) being granted the same level of screen time (and gravitas) as Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos).

Above all else, the new "Galactica" takes itself and its sometimes fanciful concepts seriously. Where the first show had a lot of actors picking up a paycheck, the new ensemble is deep and dedicated, creating a host of indelible characters: McDonnell's iron fist in velvet glove commander in chief, Katee Sackhoff's self-destructive hotshot pilot Starbuck, Michael Hogan's tragic drunk Colonel Tigh, Jamie Bamber's ambivalent Lee Adama, James Callis' charlatan genius Gaius Baltar, etc.

And yet reviving a silly genre show and treating it seriously the second time around doesn't guarantee a great remake, even with some of the same personnel involved. Earlier this year, Eick was one of the men in charge of NBC's "Bionic Woman" remake, which followed the "Galactica" playbook to the letter - a solemn take on what was essentially a kids' show with slick production values and relevance to current events - but turned out to be the biggest failure of the pre-strike TV season. After a big tune-in on night one, the audience plummeted quickly, there was a revolving door approach to hiring producers, and NBC didn't bother with the pretense that it might continue after the strike.

The fatal flaw of the new "Bionic Woman" - other than the fact that the "ordinary woman becomes cybernetic superhero" premise didn't lend itself as well to an extreme makeover - was the casting of Michelle Ryan in the lead role. An actress from England, Ryan struggled to display any screen presence while working in an accent not her own (not coincidentally, her strongest episode was one where she went undercover as a British exchange student) and was constantly being upstaged by Katee Sackhoff, whom Eick had brought over from "Galactica" as an evil bionic woman prototype.

On paper, "Bionic Woman" should have worked. It didn't. Then again, on paper, a "Kolchak the Night Stalker" remake from a veteran producer of "The X-Files" (which was itself inspired by the '70s "Night Stalker") should have worked, and it was one of the dullest shows of the 2005-06 season, also done in by poor casting of the title role. Lots of ideas - be they new or "reimagined" - seem wonderful on paper but don't translate into the finished product. I'm sure when some executive at USA decided to remake "Kojak," with Ving Rhames in the Telly Savalas role, they thought, "Perfect! They're both big bald guys from the movies!" But the only point of the original was to give Savalas a weekly showcase; without him, it was just another N.Y.C. cop show.

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