Inside 'Battlestar Galactica'


[Editor's note:HowStuffWorks.com published this article in 2005, and it reflects the viewpoints of its creators at that time.]

Splashy, stylish and very expensive for 1978, Battlestar Galactica was TV's answer to Star Wars. In case you missed it the first time around, Galactica was a sci-fi adventure show about a fleet of human refugees searching for Earthly asylum while under constant threat from the vanquishing Cylon robots they created. It ran for just one season on ABC, but in its time it became a worldwide cult favorite and has maintained a devoted following to this day.

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Even so, it took 25 years to resurrect Galactica in the form of a miniseries starring Edward James Olmos in the Commander Adama role originally played by Lorne Greene. That 2003 incarnation was so successful that the Sci Fi Channel brought it back this year as a regular series, not a sequel but a re-imagining of the original premise. Read on to hear what members of the new cast and crew told us about the series.

Winning Over The Fans

Tricia Helfer as Number Six
Tricia Helfer as Number Six
Photo courtesy NBC Universal, Inc.

Some updates -- including turning Lt. Starbuck, Dirk Benedict's role in the original, into a woman (Katee Sackhoff) -- outraged some diehard fans. But good stories, performances and the kind of effects that would have been impossible back in '78 have resulted in strong ratings. The show's numbers have validated executive producer-writer Ronald Moore's belief that "the fan community has started to embrace this version of the show."

For Moore, who also produced the miniseries, the challenge of creating a large-scale sci fi drama for television has its financial and logistical challenges. "We don't have a huge budget," he says, unwilling to get specific but confirming that it's "significantly less" than that of Star Trek: Enterprise.

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Budget Smarts

Luckily, the crew had the foresight to save the sets created for the 2003 miniseries. "We did the miniseries with a series in mind, and constructed all the sets that would be standing sets including the entire Galactica, the Vipers, the Raptors," explains Moore. "We have three soundstages in Vancouver and we go on location in the surrounding area. With the Canadian dollar, it's cheaper to shoot there because costs are lower. Right now the exchange rate is not so favorable, but it's still a savings," he notes.

New construction is always a huge budgetary line item in a sci fi series. Some new settings in the scripts still required new building projects, including the planet Caprica and the prison ship. Visual effects using green screen also add to the bill. "We do some shows that are light on visual effects work and save the money to blow it later on a big, heavy visual effects sequence," Moore notes.

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He has, however, made a point "to not make the show about the gadgets or gee-whiz scientific things," and uses the Galactica back story as justification. "Part of the premise is that this society got in trouble because they were too high tech and they created the Cylons. Now they've pulled so far back. They don't have network computers anymore. They don't have cell phones. They have run away from technology because it bit them in the ass," Moore explains. "So the phones have cords on them and people use grease pencils on tabletops. They obviously have advanced technology but they've chosen not to use a great deal of it."

A Whole New Galactica

A Viper Mark VII makes a three point landing.
A Viper Mark VII makes a three point landing.
Photo courtesy NBC Universal, Inc.

Moore found the miniseries experience invaluable in terms of learning what worked and what didn't. "That year off gave us a lot of time to refine and work out the kinks. We found problems with certain sets and different angles and lighting schemes but it was mostly just tweaking. We changed the way we light the sets and, I think they're lit better than they were in the miniseries in certain ways. We aged down the Galactica quite a bit in between. We've gone much more strongly into a hand-held arena with the cinematography -- very few steadicams, truly hand-held. The show looks better when it's more free form."

One key difference between the miniseries and series is that the former was shot on 35mm film and the series is shot on digital video. "The savings are significant, and it looks great. I forget it's not film," Moore says. "We've crossed that threshold where the distinction between the two is gone."

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A fan of the original series, Moore wanted to preserve two iconic elements. "The Vipers are nearly identical. It's classic good design. The design of the Galactica herself is fairly similar; it still looks like an alligator on skis. But we got rid of everything else. We pretty much said we wanted to have a different esthetic. We wanted it to be more gritty, more real, feel like a real place where people live and work. But at the heart of it I tried to preserve the mythology and the basic premise. It is Battlestar Galactica. I just wanted it to be a different take on it."

Darker Storyline

The new Galactica cast
The new Galactica cast
Photo courtesy NBC Universal, Inc.

Moore's approach also differs from his previous series Star Trek: Next Generation and Deep Space Nine in terms of avoiding "the planet of the week and encountering an alien race that is some metaphor for human society. There weren't going to be a lot of shoot 'em up firefights with guys running around on the surface of the planet. We weren't going to be doing bug-eyed aliens. We weren't going to be doing a lot of things that are the staples of the genre and as a result we could put all our resources into this one ship and this one world and really concentrate on it and bring it to life."

To Moore, the dark tone of the premise, "an apocalyptic bolt-from-the-blue attack that wipes out a civilization and leaves a core group of survivors," can be handled much more realistically than it could in 1978, and gains extra significance in the current historical climate. "The show is definitely imbued with themes from the 9/11 attack, the war in Iraq, the war against terrorism, to civil liberties, security, freedom and all the issues we grapple with daily," he says.

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Populating the gritty new Galactica alongside Olmos and Sackhoff, are Jamie Bamber as Capt. Lee "Apollo" Adama, James Callis as Dr. Gaius Baltar, Tricia Helfer as Number Six and Mary McDonnell as President Laura Roslin. In two episodes this season, original Apollo Richard Hatch returns as imprisoned revolutionary Tom Zarek.

Hatch's Take

Cylon Centurian
Cylon Centurian
Photo courtesy NBC Universal, Inc.

Richard Hatch has remained closely aligned with the Galactica world for the past decade. He appears at sci fi conventions, writes comic books and tie-in novels, and contributes his voice to a character in a Battlestar prequel game for PlayStation 2 and XBox. He also owns and operates battlestargalactica.com.

Playing a new character in an altered version made it easier for him. "What could have been an awkward situation got smoothed over very quickly. Everybody was friendly and also fans of the original show so I didn't feel like I was in an alien environment with a bunch of strangers. I had to work hard to get over my bias and prejudice because I loved the original story so much," Hatch continues. "Now I can look at it on its own terms and appreciate it and not compare it."

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Remembering the three-story bridge of the original spaceship, Hatch was pleasantly surprised by the look and scope of the new production. "The sets were big, more detailed and the ships more weathered and real. I was blown away." He hopes that this version will last longer than the first, which proved too costly to repeat for additional seasons. "We had high ratings for a first year show but it was too expensive and we couldn't get the shows completed in time to air them." Also, he adds, "They didn't realize the merchandising value of the show," and produced few collectibles. Hatch owns a lunchbox, plus "a couple of the original Vipers that were used for special effects. I think they're worth in the thousands and thousands of dollars."

He also has one of Apollo's jackets. "I liked the costume. I wasn't that into the cape," he confides. "But I liked the boots and the leather jackets."

Will Dirk Benedict Return?

Lt. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Kate Sackhoff) struggles to survive on a desolate planet after her Viper is shot down in combat.
Lt. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Kate Sackhoff) struggles to survive on a desolate planet after her Viper is shot down in combat.
Photo courtesy NBC Universal, Inc.

Hatch sees an opportunity for Galactica in the void left by the canceled Farscape, Babylon 5, and the soon-to-be-canceled Star Trek: Enterprise. The built-in Galactica fan base gives it a good head start at building a loyal following. It has already been renewed for season two, and Hatch is slated to return.

Will we see any other original Battlestar cast members, maybe The A-Team's Dirk Benedict? "We've talked about it but it's about finding the right role for them," says Ron Moore. "Tom Zarek is an interesting character that we'd use in the show whether Richard came to play him or not -- he's just an extra bonus. We'll do the same thing if we bring anybody else in."

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