The Hit That Zaps Sci-Fi Cliches

Cued up for 10 p.m. and crowning the “Sci Fi Friday” stack of originals, Sci Fi Channel’s revival of Battlestar Galactica is arguably the network’s boldest weekly series play.

A gritty experiment in verisimilitude inspired by the old cult show of the same name, it’s also Sci Fi’s most expensive series.

Enraged fans wedded to the late-70s original at first vilified the network and president Bonnie Hammer over the decision to re-imagine the show. (See MCN, May 3, 2004.) But Battlestar has more than vindicated Hammer. Debuting Jan. 14, it has averaged more than 3 million viewers and become the NBC Universal-owned science-fiction network’s highest-rated original series. Sci Fi renewed the show for a second season, expanding the order to 20 episodes. (The first season ran for 13.)

The channel has also scheduled the start of season two for this coming July, a full 10 months earlier than expected.

Executive producers Ron Moore and David Eick are steering this starship into uncharted space. Moore is a veteran of three Star Trek series, Roswell and Carnivale. Wary of the musty Trek sensibility and an overused template laid out 25-plus years ago, this is a producer who knows what he doesn’t want.

Applying a “less is Moore” strategy, he’s stripped Battlestar of accepted space opera conventions. Moore muted the overblown roar of the space fighters (despite what you hear in Star Wars, space is soundless) and dispensed with the bridge as proscenium (a set conceit since the original Star Trek).

MCN went in-depth with Moore to discuss his radical overhaul of the genre. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: What’s wrong with present-day science fiction?

Ron Moore: Science fiction was born out of a desire to explore contemporary issues through a different prism, through a bigger game of “what if.” I think science fiction has gotten away from an exploration of the contemporary human condition. It has become on some level all about the eye candy, all about the fantasy level, all about the escapism. And that’s fine. I love escapist fantasy too. But there are other things you can do with this genre.

MCN: A few years ago, you were pretty vocal about your Star Trek: Voyager experience. What lessons did you apply?

Moore: Don’t bullshit the audience. Don’t damage the ship this week, then bring it back in pristine condition the next. Science fiction audiences in particular would like to have a show that doesn’t talk down to them: They’re well-read. They think issues through. They want a universe that challenges them: They want puzzles that intrigue them:

MCN: What’s the “Battlestar Manifesto?”

Moore: How did you hear about that?

MCN: It came up in my conversation with the channel.

Moore: Well, when I turned in the first draft of the miniseries [script] to the network, David Eick, my producing partner, suggested we write “The Manifesto” as a sales document for Sci Fi Channel. It got copied along with the first draft, and it stayed, so when the draft went out to all the actors and agents, the manifesto was the first thing everyone saw.

In it, [Battlestar] was called naturalistic science fiction — or taking the opera out of space opera. And the first line said our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of the science fiction television series. And from that point, the document laid it all out — what the show was, what the show wasn’t, how we were going to approach acting, editing, music, sound, cinematography and character.

MCN: What comes to mind immediately when you think of your characters?

Moore: In particular I’d say this show probably has more strong female characters. Typically in the space opera there’s one strong tough chick and the others are eye candy. We made a conscious effort not to do that. I thought it was interesting to have a world where there is more of an equal balance in the male and female roles. The Battlestar is a gender integrated military space. It’s fun to play a female fighter pilot without comment. This is very common; it isn’t even remarked upon that Starbuck is a woman. And she’s not a perfect woman. She’s a deeply flawed character like the rest of them:

MCN: They’re a handsome cast but not prettified. They’re gaunt, and the make-up is dark. They look stressed.

Moore: They’re supposed to be. The ship looked pretty good in the miniseries but by the time we get to the first episode of the series it’s been to hell and back. There’s a lot of wear and tear. They’re leaving junk in the corridors they should be cleaning up. Their uniforms don’t get cleaned as often as they should. People are shaving when they can get a chance. It’s all trying to give you a sense that this is really happening. When people get hurt in our show, they carry the wounds and the make-up from episode to episode. And they heal naturally. Starbuck badly damages her knee in episode five and she’s still using a cane by episode 13.

MCN: In our last conversation, we talked about dispensing with the bridge as proscenium. Conceptually, where did you go instead?

Moore: Every Trek bridge has a giant window that views all of space and aliens would come on and talk to you on this big view screen. I wanted to get pretty far away from that. It was symbolic. We’re not doing that show. Also, warships don’t work like that.

On a real aircraft carrier the bridge is actually just a place that they steer, and there are windows all the way around and they can look down on the aircraft carrier. but the actual heart is the CIC — the Combat Information Center — and that’s where the captain stays, and that’s where all the information comes in, and that’s where all the key decision are made. So, on Galactica, we have the CIC which is buried in the heart of the ship.

MCN: How is the manifesto reflected in your production design?

Moore: The design elements started off as a dictum from us to get very utilitarian, very claustrophobic — like a submarine or a real aircraft carrier.

In the early design models, the network was a little skittish about going that far into a Das Boot, so we started to cross-pollinate those designs with a NASA aesthetic. So what you end up with is a meld of those two ideas. It’s still utilitarian. It has bathrooms — which for some reason are missing in starships. It has places for people to set their coffee. It’s a real place where people live, work and play. Everything started there.

The second big dictum was to give the series a retro feel. We stayed away from flat paneled, magic touch controls which is what we see in Star Trek and to an extent Star Wars. You know — the starships can turn on a dime if you press two buttons and everything is super computerized and ultra-cool. What we wanted to do is make it a much more interactive, human show where people throw switches and turn levers. It’s tactile. It’s puts the human component strongly back into the equation. People actually have to use pens and paper and calculate things on occasion and they actually have to look at maps. They have to think for themselves, to put themselves in the story instead of allowing technology to work for them:

MCN: I noticed that Commander Adama [Edward James Olmos] occasionally picks up one of those old, clunky phones. It’s almost the anti-future.

Moore: Yes! One of the weird things that happens when you’re writing and producing in this genre is this convention that phones are going to go away and we’re all going to talk into the air. Somehow everyone’s going to hear all of our conversations? Why would you want that? Why would you want everyone in the room to hear your conversation with everyone else?

And you find yourself writing around that constantly. It’s a weird thing. What’s wrong with a phone?

And also there’s a certain logic. On a real warship, all the equipment is designed to operate under the worst conditions imaginable. If the power is knocked out, or there’s a fire on board, they need phones that they can pick up and talk to each other as opposed to the magical computer that’s now offline and you can’t communicate.

MCN: You have a Navy background correct? There’s a scene on the Battlestar flight deck, in which some ordinance comes loose from a Viper [fighter] and causes an explosion, killing a third of the trained pilots. Was that a John McCain/USS Forrestal moment?

Moore: Oh, I’d forgotten that McCain was involved in that. Yes, when I was in Navy ROTC the fire on the Forrestal was a video they still showed. They get all the midshipmen together and they sit you down and you watch this video which is film from that accident — literally a piece of ordinance that fell and hit the deck and caused this terrible conflagration.

MCN: In that moment, when the ordnance came loose, I saw the deck of the Forrestal.

Moore: That to me is scary. It emphasizes how dangerous this kind of work is.

And it’s real, as opposed to a Cylon super-secret device that blows up and kills people. I think we discussed this about the miniseries. We use nukes. And these days, that’s truly scary. You use photon torpedoes and the audience goes 'oh, okay. shrug.’

MCN: In our last conversation you also mentioned the predictable space opera camerawork — the master two-shot, etc. Can you summarize how you’ve moved beyond that?

Moore: As you’ve probably noticed, we’re very hand-held, very loose. We’re letting the camerman play, track with this actor, don’t track with that actor. There’s a lot of freedom with the director and the camerman on the set to find a moment. … If you watch NYPD Blue or a show that uses a similar technique, you have a sense that you’re there with a film crew trying to pick up the action as it happens as opposed to actors walking through carefully choreographed blocking, go over here, turn, move the camera.

MCN: How have you approached visual effects to create a sense of realism?

Moore: In the visual effects we were able to go more strongly into the docu-handheld style in the series than we did in the miniseries. That goes for the cinematography as well.

We’re always talking about where our imaginary cameraman is on the exterior shots. There’s a medium shot of one of our general spaceships cruising along, and suddenly two Vipers do a fast pass in front of the camera. And the cameraman literally shakes like it startled him. Then he zooms out to go find where those Vipers went, zooms in and holds the frame.

The traditional kind of approach in all this stuff is the film school theory that the audience should never be aware of the camera. I think in something like this, you have to go against that.

The audience knows intuitively, instinctively that all of this is phony. These are not real spaceships. But if you can give them a sense that somebody actually filmed it, somebody actually had to stand somewhere with a camera on their shoulder, and find it and get it to focus, you start to believe it’s real.

MCN: So, it’s docu-handheld special effects? Is there a formal term for that?

Moore: Not that I know of. When we were coming up with this approach we weren’t aware that Firefly was experimenting with the same ideas. Our people at Zoic, our special effects house, worked on Firefly too, and they were exploring some of these same avenues and they were able to take the knowledge that had from that project and apply to ours.

MCN: And what is the contemporary issue closest to your heart that you want to illuminate through the Battlestar prism?

Moore: The great debate of our time is security vs. freedom. This is at the center of many of the Battlestar episodes — the struggle to save the people without destroying the society in which they operate, how to balance democratic principles against the hard reality of fighting a vicious enemy. I think that struggle has no easy answer. Battlestar will continue to illuminate that, poke around the edges and examine it from different points of view.