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Flak hits retrofitted 'Battlestar'

ERIC DEGGANS
Published December 7, 2003

On the surface, it was a publicist's worst nightmare.

Battlestar Galactica star Edward James Olmos was taking a reporter's question on the perils of revamping a TV show that still has devoted fans, 25 years after it left the air.

His response was painfully blunt.

"A person who has a strict belief in the original, I would advise not to watch this program. It'll hurt them," said Olmos, drawing laughter from the journalists at the summertime news conference and gasps from executives at the Sci Fi Channel. The cable network spent millions "reimagining" the 1978 space opera as a four-hour miniseries.

"Some of the characters' names are the same, but the intent and the way we are building the reality is completely not the reality that was built in the original," he said. "I know that Sci Fi Channel wants to say that everybody's going to enjoy it. They're not."

It was a unique way of marketing this new series, already drowning in criticism from longtime fans. But Galactica producer Ronald D. Moore said he understood what Olmos was attempting.

"I thought it was a great piece of PR," said Moore, a writer and producer on numerous Star Trek series and films, along with the WB series Roswell, HBO's Carnivale and the film Mission Impossible 2. "I knew going out of that room that every journalist would write a story saying, "Edward James Olmos doesn't want you to watch this series.' And I know what he's saying: If you really loved the way the show was originally, this will be painful to watch."

For confirmation, ask Richard Hatch, the actor who played intrepid Capt. Apollo on the original Galactica. Since the show's demise, he has written five novels based on the series' characters and spent thousands of dollars developing his own proposed update.

"Imagine taking Lord of the Rings or Star Trek and changing the (gender) and tone of the central characters. . . . Would you not feel violated?" said Hatch, who remains so close to the show's fans that he helped organize a 25th anniversary Galactica convention in California this year. "They totally alienated the fans, slapped them in the face and said, "You don't count. We're going after new fans.' Watching something like this . . . it's difficult on an emotional level."

Why all the conflict? Because Moore decided to take a chain saw to Galactica's original story, which aired over one season in 1978 as TV's answer to Star Wars.

In the original Galactica, humans also exist in a far-away galaxy, in 12 colonies with technology allowing them to zip between the stars as easily as a New Yorker hops on the A train.

Fighting the Cylons, a force of alien-built, one-eyed robots that resembled Star Wars' armored storm troopers, the humans are crushed by a Pearl Harbor-style Cylon attack on the eve of a proposed armistice.

Like Star Wars, the original Galactica was a space opera of Shakespearean proportions, with Bonanza star Lorne Greene playing Cmdr. Adama, the grave, stately leader of the last large warship to survive the Cylons' attack (hence the series' title). Look closely at the recently released DVD of the show's two-hour premiere, and you'll also see future '80s TV icons Rick Springfield and Jane Seymour.

This was a world of blaster totin', spaceship flyin' heroes, bound by honor to face an inhumanly evil foe as they head for Earth (the lost 13th colony) as a final refuge to avoid extinction. And that's just the sort of good-vs.-evil melodrama that Moore wanted to avoid in bringing the show back for the 21st century.

His Galactica wouldn't be a grand adventure, like Star Wars, or a cyberpunk exercise in cynicism, like The Matrix. Moore wanted something, well, more.

"The space opera on television has run its course. . . . Star Trek, Farscape and Andromeda are all pieces of the same pie," said the producer. "Larger than life characters, grand tales. . . . I said, "Let's make (the new Galactica) real. Let's scale down the histrionics.' When you watch Galactica in the post 9/11 world, it has a very different resonance. Our goal is nothing more than the reinvention of (the sci-fi) series on television."

The biggest change: the original Galactica featured two fighter-pilot pals, Adama's son, Apollo, and the lovable rogue Starbuck, who palled around like Star Wars heroes Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. In Moore's version, Starbuck is a cigar-chomping tomboy who once romanced Apollo's brother.

"Making Starbuck a woman was, literally, one of the first things I thought of . . . because at the core of the show, you have a different relationship," the producer said. "Instead of two buddy-buddy guys and all of this testosterone, you have a different (tension). And you get rid of all the comparisons."

Dirk Benedict, who earned his TV chops playing Starbuck before moving on to his signature role as "Face" on NBC's adventure farce The A-Team, declined to comment at length on the controversy.

"One could write an entire piece on the politics behind the difference between the show of 1979 and the one of 2003," he wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "Not the least of which is that the (old) show was male driven and this one is completely female driven. Lorne must be rolling over in his grave."

Moore's Galactica features the taciturn Olmos as Adama, playing the commander as a slightly burned-out soldier on the verge of retirement, leading a 50-year-old ship that has been turned into a museum. His son Lee, nicknamed Apollo, blames him for the death of a younger brother (Springfield played Apollo's younger brother in the originalGalactica pilot and was killed by Cylons early in the two-hour movie).

Dances with Wolves' Mary McDonnell is a relatively low-ranking public official made president when most other politicians outranking her are killed. And the Cylon attack comes after 50 years of peace, in a rout made possible by an advance humans don't yet realize: the Cylons now look like humans.

"These machines actually believe they have souls," said Moore. "They have a God and believe that the child cannot become an adult until the parent is dead. They come and kill us in the name of love. Personally, I'm more frightened by that than the idea of a bunch of space Nazis."

Classic Galactica featured a universe where heroes wore their courage on their sleeves, and the bad guys had slicked-back hair and built-in sneers. In particular, the show's main villain, turncoat scientist Gaius Baltar, was a cardboard baddie who helped the Cylons eliminate the human race for no reason.

The new Galactica's Baltar is an egotistical, womanizing scientist duped by a blond Cylon into giving her access to the humans' defense systems. It's a prime example of the conflicted characters in Moore's world, where even the heroes drink too much and make morally questionable choices: ample doses of sex and violence sate fans weaned on Terminator and Matrix movies.

Indeed, viewers will see shards of other, more contemporary sci-fi films in the Galactica remake. The machines-invented-by-man-turning-on-him storyline echoes The Matrix; the attractive-yet-deadly blond female Cylon references Terminator 3's blond, bodacious villain; the sexed-up, co-ed fighter pilots seem pulled straight from Paul Verhooven's oddball film Starship Troopers.

Making the bad guys look human also avoids spending lots of cash updating the Cylons' look - which, back in 1978, resembled a bunch of extras standing around in plastic, chrome-colored armor.

"You can't compete with the spectacle of The Matrix or Star Trek movies on a TV budget," Moore said. "What TV does well that movies don't, is characters. Star Trek (on TV) was never about spectacle . . . it was about Kirk, McCoy and Spock. They're not perfect people, they're flawed human beings. . . . And how they rise to the occasion, is what defines them as heroes."

But such reinvention collides with the expectations of fans who have kept the flame for 25 years, said Hatch, who even turned down a cameo role in the new Galactica.

"I've worked five years with fans to try and bring the show back. . . . I couldn't betray that," he said. "Anyway, any actor will tell you, a cameo role is (producers') way of saying to you, "We want to use your name, but we don't want to use you.' Why would I do something like that?"

Still youthful-looking at 58, Hatch blames Galactica's original TV demise on a budget that never matched the series' ambitions. "It was the most expensive show in history, and we couldn't even complete shows by the air dates, because the technology wasn't there," he said.

In 1997, working with a co-author, he wrote the first Galactica novel Armageddon, set nearly 20 years past the original series' events.

The next year, he tracked down the owner of rights to new Galactica products and made a 41/2-minute trailer for a project he called Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming. It would have featured the show's original characters alongside their adult children.

But Universal Television instead discussed a Galactica movie with X-Men director Bryan Singer and his producing partner Tom DeSanto. Eventually, former USA cable executive David Eick and Moore took over the project, which landed at Universal's Sci Fi Channel.

Now Hatch doubts the new miniseries, which could become a regular series if the ratings are high enough, will score new fans.

"There's so much sex between characters who don't seem to care about each other," he said. "I wondered why they didn't keep the main core of characters intact, like they did with the Star Trek movies. Or why they didn't just call it by a different name and make it a spin off."

But with a 25th edition Galactica DVD set now on store shelves, Moore said the time is perfect to reinvent the show - and science-fiction TV right along with it.

"The hardcore fans get a bit myopic," said Moore, shrugging off the complaints. "The truth is, Galactica hasn't been seen much in 25 years . . . most people have just a memory of it. But once you've got the name recognition, you can bring an audience, who hopefully will like what we bring them."

Review

Battlestar Galactica airs at 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on Sci Fi Channel. Grade: B-.

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