Watch this space

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 July, 2005, 12:00am

SPACE WAS STILL pretty much film's final frontier towards the end of the 1970s. The world was still buzzing from the aftershocks of George Lucas' staggeringly successful Star Wars (1977), which proved that film technology had reached a stage where life 'out there' could be made believable. No more dodgy rubber-suits for the aliens, no more sets that looked like they were made out of cardboard. The possibilities seemed endless.

For children of the world - and a few grown-ups too - Star Wars set the template for sci-fi. And everyone waited at home with their Luke Skywalker dolls in hand, wondering what would come along next.

Then in 1978, out of the darkness of space came Battlestar Galactica. And it was something of a sensation, making use of the medium that had by then found its way into almost every household, and a format that was all the rage - the miniseries.

Its almost biblical themes followed the escape towards safety (and a lost planet called Earth, no less) of a civilisation (read: human kind) that has been pushed to the brink of extinction by a bunch of space nasties (the Cylons). Makers of the series forked out US$1 million per episode (unheard of at the time), and drafted television veteran Lorne Greene and 70s pinups Richard Hatch and Jane Seymour to star.

But as quickly as it had appeared, Battlestar Galactica vanished into thin air, lost after just one series to a combination of mounting costs and a punishing shooting schedule that its makers simply couldn't sustain. And for the next two decades it would only be remembered by misty-eyed sci-fi geeks who gathered around the office water cooler.

Enter Ronald D. Moore. The Californian native had known all about Battlestar Galactica when growing up and, after studying political science at Cornell University, he managed in 1989 to sell a script to that other TV sci-fi classic, Star Trek: The Next Generation. That led to a role as a producer of that show, and work on the likes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Roswell.

And then came the call. 'I was approached by Universal television to reimage the series,' Moore says from his Los Angeles base. 'So I watched the original pilots and was struck by the dark nature of the premise. The heroes running into the night while being pursued by their enemies. In a post 9/11 world it has a very specific resonance that it didn't have in the 1970s. And it was an interesting chance to reinvent sci-fi on television, to make it more down to earth and gritty and to shoot it documentary-style.'

Moore took on the challenge and set about remaking Battlestar Galactica. The series made its TV debut in the US on the Sci Fi Channel in 2003 and has now landed in Asia, where it premieres tonight. Sci-fi fans will be quick to fact drop that it is sci-fi's highest-rated original series and picked up a slew of Emmy nominations along the way.

There have been changes too. Time has not been kind to the original series' special effects. And time has been positively brutal on the too-tight costumes and dodgy haircuts.

Moore has thrown a few things around with his scripts. While the original had a cigar-chomping rebel as a hero (Lieutenant Starbuck as played by Dirk Benedict), this time it's a cigar-chomping woman (Starbuck as played by Katee Sackhoff). The first season had the evil Cylons as laser-eyed metallic monsters; this time around they've evolved into humans - none more wicked than the sexually aggressive Six, played by Tricia Helfer.

'More people remember the name rather than the original show,' says Moore. 'When it premiered it was hard on the heels of the original Stars Wars, and there was a great deal of publicity and press. So a lot of people remember the beginning of the show, but not the rest. That gave me a lot of leeway when it came to reworking things.

'I wanted to do away with sci-fi trappings from the first series, the frilly hair and the spandex costumes, and make it more about people than just something set in a science fiction universe - then you have a more interesting and more dynamic show.'

The look and feel of the series is considerably darker too - there's none of the campy humour that marked the original or that can still be found in the Star Trek series that have undergone similar 'reimaging' for a new generation of fans.

'The technology is so much better and faster and cheaper,' Moore says. 'One of the visual ideas we wanted to explore in the series was the documentary look. There's a lot of hand-held stuff, cinema verite kind of style of cutting to make you feel like you're there. We wanted to apply the same sort of visual language to the exterior space shots. So you feel that there's a hand-held camera filming these objects.'

Because of his Star Trek background, Moore wanted to avoid any comparisons between the two projects. And he's succeeded in creating a series that's vastly different to what you expect from the genre.

'We made a very conscious effort from the beginning to make the show everything Star Trek is not,' he says. 'The surroundings are going to have more of a retro feel, the characters are more flawed than the Star Trek characters. Star Trek is structured like a morality play that teaches you a lesson each week. This show doesn't do that.'

There's also some interesting twists and turns - in keeping with what Moore describes as a focus on 'human drama'. You have the humans, for example, believing in a number of gods, while the Cylons believe in a singular supreme being - and use this as the driving force behind their actions.

And having the Cylon appearing in human form (as well as their being a more traditional robotic variety) lends itself to all manner of plot devices. They can then infiltrate the human fleet that the ship of the series' title protects and they can either know that they are Cylons or not have a clue. Until they are called into action.

Hogging the limelight are industry veterans Edward James Olmos as Commander William Adama, taking over from Greene's role in the original, Mary McDonnell as the survivors' new president, and the scenery-munching James Callis as Dr Gaius Baltar, a mad scientist in every sense. They help cover up for some of the show's lesser lights who will no doubt be better off for the experience.

Initially, fans of the original series were upset when news spread about the changes - and the 'making of' special that precedes tonight's premiere includes some great footage of the stars answering fans' questions during a sci-fi convention. But Moore stuck to his guns.

'Fans were upset because we were tinkering with the fundamentals of the first series,' says Moore. 'But we soldiered on, took the gamble, did what we wanted and hoped the audience would respond.'

The Making of Battlestar Galactica screens on Cinemax, tonight, 8.15pm, followed by Battlestar Galactica The Beginning Part 1, at 9pm. Part 2 screens at 9pm tomorrow and the series continues each Sunday