'Battlestar' stays true to sci-fi roots

Like a handful of other science fiction works — Battlestar Galactica may be headed where no space opera has gone before, rocketing through the glass ceiling to be recognized as (gasp!) drama.

Like a handful of other science fiction works - think Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or George Orwell's 1984 - the reworking of the campy 1978-1979 television series, which tomorrow night begins its third season on the Sci-Fi Channel, may transcend its genre.


Since last season, Battlestar, which depicts an epic struggle between humanity and the Cylons, a race of robot zealots, won a Peabody Award and was nominated for three Emmys. It was ranked fourth-best television series last spring in two Entertainment Weekly's polls and was featured in September on the magazine's cover. And Battlestar cast members also appeared last month in a fashion layout published in the glossy men's magazine Maxim.

Nonetheless, though flattered by the attention, the show's creators say they're staying true to their roots.


"As much as I want it to be a drama set in that [mainstream] universe, it is a science fiction series. I still want to play in that world," said writer/producer Ronald D. Moore.

Indeed "Occupation/Precipice," tomorrow's two-hour season premiere, will launch what may be the show's riskiest storyline ever: a complex narrative that to some extent "humanizes" the villainous robotic Cylons by fleshing out their culture.

In previous seasons, Battlestar, which typically attracts 3 million weekly viewers, has been focused upon the human characters as they fight to avoid extermination.

But "it was starting to feel to me like we were getting in a comfort zone with the audience where they're not really sweating it when the Cylons show up," Moore said. "So we took the leap forward, and we colonized a planet, put [humans] under occupation, changed the motivation of what the Cylons are about, what they want from humanity. ...

"It was really a way to shake up the show."

Longtime fans nonetheless may rest assured. The show will retain much of what has worked for it in the past, including Sept. 11 motifs and its contemplation of contemporary society as viewed through a sci-fi prism. (The war in Iraq gets the full treatment in the season opener.)

"The humans, the Colonials, do things like Islamic radicals at times, but they also do things like American soldiers. So we try to mix it all up, and not make it a one-for-one allegory," said producer David Weddle. "It takes [contemporary issues] and makes them timeless."

Now the once-zealous Cylons will begin to question some of their motivations. "The Cylons can never again be the sort of faceless, scary opponent out there somewhere that initiated the nuclear holocaust on Caprica [where the humans lived] in the beginning of the series," Moore said.


"Their role as a straight up, hate them, scared of them all the time villain is probably over. ... You're sort of looking at the show as the clash of these two races, these two civilizations. You sort of whipsaw back and forth as an audience member about, 'Whose side am I on?'"

To actor Jamie Bamber, who plays Commander Lee "Apollo" Adama, the changes in the Cylons have allowed his character to get soft. "He's gotten bored and fat because there are no Cylons to fight," said Bamber, who attended Shore Leave, a science fiction convention held annually in Hunt Valley. "He's learned that he needs to fight. He needs the responsibility. He needs to be running for his life every day."

Battlestar's success may spawn a spinoff titled Caprica, co-written by Moore and awaiting approval from the Sci Fi Channel. In the meantime, producer Weddle and Moore are hoping to leverage critical acclaim into a bigger audience. "The critical acclaim is tremendous," said Moore. "We're trying to ride that as best we can to bring in new eyes. We think there is a big, untapped audience for the show out there."