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Cult | News | 20 February 2004

Galactica interview

Ronald D Moore talks about the new Battlestar Galactica.

Galactica supremo, and long-time Trek producer Ronald T Moore spoke to us about his revival of the fleeting fleet series.

How did you get involved in this project?

About two years ago, I was wrapping up production on Roswell, and I got a call from David Eick. He said that Universal was looking for somebody to come in and give a different take on Battlestar Galactica.

The previous effort had collapsed and the project was now back at square one, and they wanted somebody to come in with a new take on it, would I be interested? I told him to let me think about it over the weekend. I went out and got a copy of the original pilot, and watched it again. I'd seen the show, originally, when I was a kid and it went out in the seventies, but I hadn't seen it in a very long time.

I thought about it, and I still liked the premise. I thought that there were things I could do with it, things I was interested in exploring in science fiction, and changing it and trying to do a different kind of television series.

The relevancy of Galactica's premise just struck me. When you watch it now, in the post 9/11 world, this story of this society that is suddenly and shockingly destroyed in a devastating sweep, it hits you in a different way than in 1978. I realised that this was an opportunity to make science fiction relevant again.

Science fiction to me is at its best when it's a vehicle for commenting on and exploring contemporary social and political ideas. So, for all those reasons, I thought, yeah, I'd like to take a crack at re-inventing Galactica. I called him back on Monday and said, "Yeah, let's do it."

Were you at all tempted to completely wipe the slate clean?

Not really. The previous effort with Brian Singer and Tom De Santo had been a continuation of the old show, picking up the story of the original show twenty years later. That didn't work out for a variety of reasons.

When I approached it, I was always interested in going back and remaking it from the beginning. I didn't want to completely get rid of everything and just hang onto the name. I wanted it to be recognisable as Battlestar Galactica. It is still about an aircraft carrier in space, a rag-tag fugitive fleet of civilians, the Cylons destroying their society, and the Galactica and the survivors are looking for a planet called Earth that may or may not exist. It's about Adama and his son, in my version called Lee, and friend Starbuck.

I wanted to retain the core elements of what was Battlestar Galactica, and then it was just a question of looking through it and deciding what elements work and what elements don't. I think any writer that approaches the process would make different decisions. Some things that worked for me wouldn't have worked for anyone else, and vice versa.

The mini-series is very unsentimental. Was that hard to get past the studio?

When I talked to the studio and the network about what the intention of the project was, I pretty much laid all that out in the very first meeting. I said I wanted this to have a different style and aesthetic than other space opera that's on television. One has to play it real, one has to take it seriously. I don't want it to be hyped-up melodrama, I don't want it to be sentimental and milking everything, I want to play it as if this really happened to a race and a culture that is basically ours. I wanted it to be a parallel society to our society, because I found that that was more intriguing and relevant and I wanted the audience to hook into that.

They were very open to that. I think there was a general agreement amongst everybody involved in the project that the traditional space opera genre needed to be reinvented. Star Trek, Farscape and Andromeda and those sort of shows, good as they may be, had run their course.

Does traditional science fiction remain relevant today?

I don't think so. I mean, I worked at Star Trek for a long time, and I'm very proud of what we did there. There's certainly episodes of Star Trek in all its incarnations that were social commentary, that said things about humanity, but I don't think they really relate to the here and now anymore.

Star Trek and those shows became very stylised and specific in their versions of Starfleet and the Federation and what the future is like. That distances the audience from the drama, in my opinion.

What we did with Galactica was strip away a lot of the artifice. We didn't want space clothes, and we didn't want space hair. All these things tend to hold the audience at bay. A new viewer to these properties comes in and goes, "Well, what does a chair look like in this world, and oh wow, that's a lamp!"

There's this whole vocabulary, visual and otherwise, that you have to get up to speed on. At some level that's part of the fun of science fiction, the escapist quality of it, but it also distances you from what's going on.

For instance, in the Galactica mini-series, when the Cylons attack the colonists, they attack them with thermonuclear weapons. They don't attack them with lasers and photon torpedoes, and strange things that don't exist.

When you see a planet nuked, and you see those mushroom clouds, and hear about the destruction of entire cities by nuclear weapons, that is a much more terrifying and frightening idea than if you're saying fifteen thousand photon torpedoes were launched at Caprica. One is real and one is not.

How did you make the military atmosphere so much more convincing than in, say, Star Trek?

Starfleet in the Original Star Trek series was played more like an actual military ship than it was in later incarnations. As Star Trek went on, Star Fleet got more and more of a social animal, and became a large bureaucracy rather than a military organisation.

With Galactica, I wanted it to be true to a military aesthetic. It's also one of my interests, one of the things that drew me to the project. I'm an amateur historian, interested in naval history in particular.

I've studied a lot about the [aircraft] carrier battles of the Pacific in the Second World War, and my father's a veteran of the Vietnam war. I'm very interested in military affairs and military history. So I brought a lot of that knowledge and that interest to the project.

The actors were all put through a boot camp, and there was a military advisor on the set. It was important to us that that all had a sense of truth to it.

Why did you decide to make Starbuck a woman?

It was one of the first things I thought of, that very first weekend when I was considering the project. It just popped into my head, "What if we made Starbuck a woman?" It was a writer's instinct, and then the more I thought about it, the more I thought that it was a really good idea.

One of the problems bringing the show back is - what do you do with Starbuck and Apollo? Here's the straight arrow, good son of the Commander, who's the lead pilot, here's his friend who's the cocky rogue who chases women and is always getting in trouble but is Apollo's best friend. It's just a very familiar trope. We've seen that sort of dynamic many, many times, especially between two men.

If you change it to a woman, it introduces a different chemistry to the whole equation. You're not used to seeing women as fighter pilots in general, it's a fairly recent thing that we're all getting used to, so it's nice to [have her in] a non-traditional role. Then, you almost never cast [a woman] as the rogue. You don't cast the woman as the cocky pilot, who's likely to throw a punch at someone, so that's interesting too.

Then you add in; she's friends with Apollo, so what does that do to the relationship? How do you play two warriors, who are of different sexes? There's always going to be a male-female dynamic at play there, so how will that work itself out? How does that change the traditional Band of Brothers concept of warriors?

So, the more I thought about it, the more I felt, "This is intriguing, there's a lot of stuff to play with here." It just felt that this was a good way to go.

What was behind the decision to make the Cylons humaniod?

That came out of two things. One was creative, and one was practical.

The creative aspect was: one of the problems of the original series was that you never really understood why the Cylons wanted to kill the humans. They spent a tremendous amount of time and resources chasing down the Galactica and its rag-tag fleet, hellbent on destroying them, and you're never really clear why, except that they were the bad guys, space Nazis. They were evil and humans were the good guys. That was about the long and the short of it.

So they needed something that was more intriguing and more interesting to have as their motivation for going against our people. One of the roads that that brings you to is, what if the humans created the Cylons? What if human beings, in this other society, had advanced to the point where they created truly sentient beings and then they rebelled against them? That's a familiar science-fiction idea, that has been explored in many other arenas, but in our version, what made it different was the way the Cylons were specifically realised. They have a belief in god, they have a religion, a society, a culture.

They view themselves not just terminators out to destroy mankind, because they hate us, [but instead] as mankind's children who can never quite realise their own potential until their parents have died. Which is a bizarre, but more intriguing idea.

Then, from the practical aspect, if you went with mechanoid Cylons, close to the original or even just a modern day version of them, it's going to cost a lot of money. Modern day audiences are not going to accept the slow-walking, bad-shooting Cylons of 1978.

So, it would require very complicated suits, which are very expensive and would be hard to mass-produce, if not impossible. That leads you to CGI, which we did use in the pilot, but again, the expense of all the CGI means that you couldn't do a lot of them on a television series' weekly budget.

If you make them human, all those problems go away, and we could still bring in a few mechanoid Cylons here and there. It was a good way to go for creative and practical reasons.

Are the Cylons an embodiment of religious fanaticism at all?

To some extent, yes, there is that element to them.

I think that the enemy that says I'm killing you in the name of god, and god is love, is a more frightening enemy to me than the one that's the space Nazi and just wants to kill you because they're evil. You get the feeling that one, you can take care of them. The other, you're not quite sure how to even approach them.

Also, it's a contemporary thing. We're dealing with religious fanaticism in many contexts, some on the left, some on the right, and I think it's an interesting area to explore. The humans in the show believe in god, or in gods, rather, and have a religious faith, and a belief in something larger than themselves, and so do their enemies. That's intriguing, because it gets you out of the easy dialectic, "We're the good guys and god is on our side, and you're the soulless, godless evil ones who are trying to hurt us."

Did any of the cast bringing anything to their roles that surprised you?

I think the one that brought the most that I didn't expect was James Callis in his version of Baltar.

I had always loved Baltar on the page, and thought he was a really complicated, intriguing dark character, but what James brought to the role was a sense of humour. He's a much funnier character on the screen than he is on the page, and that was a perfect instinct on his part that gave us a flavour that we didn't have.

He provides some of the only laughs of the whole project. You really like Baltar. Even as you despise him - this is a weak, arrogant man who has helped bring down an entire civilisation - you do still kind of like him, and it's an intriguing mix.

How have fans of the original reacted?

It depends on how... I'm trying not to use the word fanatical... how strongly they feel about the original.

There are people who liked the original series who have embraced this one. I'm one of those, I liked the original series, and I can embrace this version, and there's a lot of people who are like that.

I think there's a dedicated core of the fans who love the original, who are only interested in a continuation of the original, using the original sets, costumes and surviving cast members. That's really the only thing they wanted to see, and those people are never going to accept this version.

But, by and large, it's been very successful in the fan community. I think when you browse the internet sites, you see a sea change in the way the fans respond. The mini-series has brought in a lot of new fans to Battlestar Galactica, and they're crowding out and overwhelming the old guard who are still up in arms about the fact we changed Starbuck to a woman.

Can you tell us a little about the upcoming Galactica series that's just been announced?

We're starting production in the next couple of months. They picked us up for thirteen episodes, we have the whole cast coming back, and we're very excited.

It'll be connected by long story arcs. I have story arcs that take us through to the end of the first season in terms of plot, and then there's various character arcs that I want to do as well. It's going to be an ongoing story.

Each week you should be able to tune in and watch that week's episode, and follow the general plot that will have a beginning, a middle and an end that week, but also there'll be many plot threads that are continuing throughout.

There'll probably be a little bit more humour. I don't know if it'll ever have comedy as a strong element in it, because that's just not the nature of the situation, but there'll be grace under pressure, and comic moments. The pilot is pretty bleak, because it's a bleak story, but it won't be that bleak week in and week out.

What's the difference between working on Galactica and on Trek?

One of the key differences is that I'm working on it from the beginning. When I joined The Next Generation, it was already in its third season. when I joined Deep Space Nine it was already in its third season, and I joined Roswell in its second season. I was there at the beginning of Carnivàle, and I was there at the very beginning of Galactica. The key difference is that I created this version and I'm the one that says, this is what the show is, and I provided the creative vision to it.

It means there's a great deal more freedom. I'm not having to figure out what someone else has already created, and then adjust accordingly, which is what you do when you're on a show that's already been established. Now I have a chance to say, "OK, this is where we're going to go, and all the possibilities are still open, and there's lots of room to change your mind and play with things." It's just a wide open field.

What do you think about the role of fan campaigns in reviving or saving programmes?

They can work. It's a numbers game - how big a campaign is it? How much support can a fan community generate?

In the case of Roswell, there was a large groundswell of support for that show. They sent in Tabasco bottles to the network, it got people's attention. The Original Star Trek series had the same thing, it got saved from cancellation in its second series - a genuine grass-roots phenomenon.

It's become commonplace now that when shows get cancelled, fans try to get together and bring them back, but it's really a question of how many of those fans are there. What you're looking for in order for that to be successful, is that when the fans gather together and send their input into the studio, the studio is surprised, and goes "Wow, we didn't realised there were this many people."

They always expect some support, they always expect some complaints, like "No, don't cancel it, it's my favourite," but it gets their attention when they think, "Oh my god, we didn't expect it to get this response, maybe we should re-examine the ratings, or there's something out there that we didn't realise." That's when fan campaigns have impact.

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