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GDC: Building a Better Battlestar

This is an informal transcript for a GDC keynote session. This is really a chance for me to indulge some rampant and highly irregular fanboyishness, since Ron Moore is my favourite TV screenwriter, and I have followed his career from his early work on Star Trek: The Next Generation, through his tenure on Deep Space Nine and onwards. There are spoilers in the following account of his keynote address, but only if you have not already seen the mini-series.

What do you do after you’ve been a part of the rejuvenation of one of the most successful sci fi franchises of all time? In the case of Ronald D. Moore, you go on to rejuvenate another classic sci fi franchise – and earn even more critical acclaim in the process.

As Ron Moore comes out onto the stage, he displays the casual nonchalance of an experienced professional speaker, kicking off with a joke or two and a confession of his general uncertainty as to why, exactly, he was being asked to speak at the Game Developer’s Conference. He goes on to answer his own question, and observes that the issues relating to franchise development (and redevelopment) are extremely pertinent to the games industry. From hereon in, his presentation proceeds with consummate presence and confidence.

[As a multimedia challenged blogger, lacking in the skills and equipment to capture audio visual content, I can’t share with you any of the video sequences which peppered this keynote. It began with the original credit sequence from the original 1978 television show, interspersed with footage from the new show, often with hilarious results. The entire presentation was interspersed with these comparison sequences, which served not only to break up the speaking, but also to demonstrate just how lovingly this resurrection of the classic show has been carried out.]

Ron explains at the outset, that the core of the process of updating the show was identifying the fundamentals that made the original such a classic. Step by step, Ron reveals the process by which he took a marvelous, albeit cheesy, space opera classic, and remade it as a modern drama.

What follows is a summary of the elements Ron identified as core to the original show, and how these were updated for the new format.

The Cylon Attack on the Colonies

One of the core elements of the original show was the inherent darkness of the concept. The show was predicated upon the idea of a peaceful society all but eliminated by a vicious and unrelenting attack which all but exterminates that society. This is nothing short of genocide, and rarely considered a suitable topic for a television show!

It was a given that this element would not change, but there were still questions. What ‘key’ do you play it in? Ron decided not to play the attacks for spectacle – this seemed inappropriate; “genocide shouldn’t be that fun”. This lead to a particular conclusion which was to inform the entire adaptation process: everything should have realism at its base. It’s not that the show wouldn’t strive to be entertaining, but it should be situated upon a foundation of fundamental realism.

Ron notes that he was originally approached to pursue the update to the show shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. This undoubtedly influenced the desire to underpin the show with a realistic element, as well as allowing (as outstanding sci fi is empowered to do) for commentary on contemporary issues in a context sufficiently far removed from the real world to escape excess criticism or political insensitivity.

The Family Adama

Both the original show, and the new show, have at their centre the family Adama. In many respects, the family Adama is the subject of the show. In the original, there were four members – the Commander himself, Apollo, Athena and Zack – who dies in the pilot movie. Ron felt that it wasn’t very credible that Adama’s family would all be serving on the same ship. He considered the options for addressing this, including the possibility of making it a cultural element – that in this world, commanding officers generally serve with their entire family.

Eventually, he decided to pursue a more realistic approach, in keeping with the overall goal to build the new format on a bedrock of realism. Firstly, Apollo’s stationing was altered so that initially he is not serving on his father’s ship. The fact that they end up together then becomes a natural consequence of the surviving military forces being condensed into a single vessel. Furthermore, whereas Richard Hatch’s Apollo was a loyal and dutiful son in all ways, Jamie Bamber’s Apollo has father issues, which present a realistic tension between the two characters.

The character of Athena, Ron felt, served no purpose in the original series, except as a love interest for Dirk Benedict’s Starbuck. With the new series having a female Starbuck, Ron decided that the daughter relationship could be preserved without the need for the Athena character. “Adama’s daughter is effectively Starbuck,” Ron explains.

The details of Zack were kept largely the same, but rather than killing him in the pilot episode (as in the 1978 series), he was instead killed in the backstory. This served much the same purpose in narrative terms, but saved screen time for more important developments.

Adama, Ron notes, is key because he is the father figure – both figuratively and literally. Lorne Greene's Adama was a true believer in every manner; Edward James Olmos' Adama needed to be toned down for a more realistic take. The element of being a true believer was kept in the sense of his firm faith in democracy, but this was tempered by the reality of being the commander of a battleship in a time of war. The new Adama was to be fallible and human, making him easier to relate to for the audience.

Providing Balance: Roslin

In the original show, there is no figure to balance Adama. Ron felt it was necessary for their to be a counterweight, and this came to be Laura Roslin, the President of the Colonies, played by Mary McDonnell. Ron contends this character is vitally important to the new show for three reasons: firstly, she provides balance in the sense of being the civil authority to Adama’s military authority. She is also the mother figure to balance Adama’s father figure. And she is also emblematic of the apocalypse – a constant reminder of the attack which destroyed mankind. Although Ron fell short of linking her cancer to the fragility of the fleets continual existence, one assumes this is also part of the metaphorical role of the character of Roslin.

The Quorum of Twelve

This was imported from the original show, but as Ron observes, in the original show the quorum were “straw men” whose sole purpose was to suggest absurdly ridiculous courses of action which Adama could then shoot down. Ron wanted to lend weight to the quorum of twelve, and to use them as a means of expressing the preservation of the ideals of a free society. This was, naturally, in keeping of the tendency towards greater realism in the new show.  (The issue of casting Richard Hatch - the original Apollo - as one of the members of the Quorum of Twelve does not come up).

Starbuck as a Woman

The decision to change the character of Starbuck to being female “generated a fair amount of, shall we say… comment”. Ron is keen to note that Starbuck is a “load-bearing” member of the cast. The decision to cast her as a woman (convincingly played by Katee Sackhoff) was, however, somewhat random. Ron notes, in passing, that he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to get back into the space opera game at this point, and so a certain whimsy guided his hand in laying out the new framework.  

He notes that the logline for this character is cliché of the highest order – the hotshot pilot, gambler and sexually promiscuous rogue is something all too familiar. Ron notes that the original character works solely because of Dirk Benedict, who makes the role his own. But in making the character realistic, there are consequences. Applying the same role with a realistic bent, and in the context of a female character, implied that this person would naturally be somewhat disturbed. She’s still a hotshot pilot, and thrilling to watch in action, but underneath is a fundamentally screwed up person.

Colonel Tigh 

Tigh, played originally by Terry Carter and now by Michael Hogan, is another part of the ‘family’. In the backstory of the original series, Tigh and Adama had served together as pilots, and this was kept for the new show. To get something different out of the character, Ron wanted to make him different from the usual TV executive officer (XO) archetype. “I wanted to make him different to Commander Riker” he says, although he’s quick to point out that Jonathan Frakes is a good friend, and he doesn’t want to disrespect his performance on Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, Riker’s role on that show generally devolved into being a yes man for Captain Picard, and occasionally saying ‘Red Alert’.

Ron notes at this point that he actually had a brief spell in the Naval ROTC – and spent some time on a frigate in the Atlantic. He observes that nobody likes the XO. He or she is the barking dog who comes down hard on everyone. Giving Tigh, as XO of the Galactica, a drinking problem deepened the character, and also gave a new element to Adama. Tigh is Adama’s blind spot; he feels he must protect him, but his flaws present constant problems.

Boomer 

This character was originally a “third banana” in the original show, lacking any real narrative purpose. In the new show, Ron wanted there to be a second family, to balance the omnipresence of Adama’s family at the centre of the story. Originally, this would have been Boomer, Chief Tyrol and Boxy. (Ron never comments on how and why Boxy was cut, although there are certain logical reasons why this had to be so).

At some point, Ron’s colleague (and co-Executive Producer on the new show) David Eick suggested that there was one sure way to make sure the pilot got picked up by the networks: make Boomer a cylon. This immediately clicked, and works perfectly because Grace Park plays the character in such a human manner throughout, so the resulting reversal where she is revealed at the end of the pilot to be a cylon has correspondingly greater intensity. 

Cylons

Obviously, there had to be cylons. The only question was, what to do with them? There were several options, mostly dictated by the budget of the show. Firstly, a fancy suit could be developed. Alternatively, an animatronic appliance could be built – but probably only a single unit. CGI was originally considered to be something that couldn’t be afforded (only once the show was rolling did it become apparent that this was indeed a viable option). This lead to an entirely new concept – make the cylons look human. This was driven by financial decisions (obviously, showing a human is much cheaper than showing a robot!) but the idea had such merit that it drove the construction of the new show. 

Ron observes that if money hadn’t been an object, they probably would have just stuck with superpowered robots throughout, although he glibly notes than in the original show the cylons are so incompetent as to “make stormtroopers look like special forces”. As it happened, the new idea of human-like cylons really adds significantly to the feel of the new show.

The Betrayer 

Along with the cylons comes the notion of a betrayer. There had to be a Baltar, the only question was: why did he do it? Ron was drawn to this central issue of motivation. However, he was also keen to ensure that the new Baltar (an impressive performance by James Callis) would be located with the fleet, and not rapidly written out of relevance as happened with John Colicos’ Baltar in the original series. (Although it was not mentioned, Ron worked with John Colicos on Deep Space Nine, as he reprised his role as the Klingon Kor from the original Star Trek show; he was keen to express his admiration for John, however).

Baltar, in Ron’s eyes, is emblematic of the problems originating within the society. He is, therefore, a metaphor for what has lead humanity to its tragic circumstances. Ron reveals he has a certain fascination with famous traitors (he corrects himself from saying “Great Traitors”, by making a joke from it: “Great Traitors of History!”), and indeed was at one point working on a script based around Benedict Arnold. He observes that most traitors instigate their betrayal for one of two reasons: money or women. Since money couldn’t be a possibility in this case, that left one obvious choice. 

There is something appealing, Ron suggests, about a man so afflicted by hubris that he leaves himself vulnerable to a flattering woman – or in the case of the new show, a flattering cylon. He is a victim of his own pride and arrogance, taken in by a woman who plays to his weaknesses. Yes, you are a great and clever man. And oh, by the way, you’ve just destroyed mankind.

I was surprised to hear Ron speak explicitly at this point about the visions Baltar experiences of Tricia Helfer's cylon ‘Number six’. He notes the ambiguity – is this a chip (or some other technological mcguffin) or is it a psychotic break? The allusions to God in these visions seems to further tie into the idea of this being a mental breakdown, brought upon by inability to relate to the guilt of what he has done. The cause of my surprise was that I felt this all but canonically stated that the visions are a consequence of psychosis, although since Ron is keen to underline the ambiguity, I feel it is safe to say that even the writing team on the show has not fully decided what the underlying cause will transpire to be, if indeed it is ever firmly resolved. 

Vipers

Ron calls these “the darlings of the original series”, and stresses that he didn’t want to make changes. However, one thing he was keen to avoid was immersion breaking cinematography. He notes that he was working on a Dragonriders of Pern show for “the WB” (which presumably never happened) and was faced with the problem of how to show these unreal objects. When special effects shots show camera angles which are too clean, or which clearly could not have happened, it presents a break with immersion. He cites an example from Apollo 13 (a film he has fondness for) in which the launching Saturn V is shown from a position that would clearly vapourise any camera thus positioned. 

This lead to the idea of the “hand camera in space” which characterises all of the space action shots from the new show. The philosophy of the VFX (visual effects) for the new show is that there is always a camera person somewhere; it is never a disembodied shot. This violates the film school assumption that the audience should not be aware of the camera, but in the context of Battlestar Galactica it works to underline the reality of the experience. (Doubtless, the rise of reality TV has significantly rewritten the underlying rules of film making. In this regard, Ron is perhaps ahead of the curve)

Interiors 

The new sets were based very much upon the original sets, but reworked with the inevitable new focus on realism. The guiding philosophy was to make it feel as if these were places that people really lived and worked. He notes that one of the most ridiculous elements of many sci fi shows is that the bridge area has a huge glass window in it – a serious vulnerability in battle. Rather, the centre of ship operations (the Combat Information Centre or CIC for the Battlestars) should be at a safe, central position. Information can be piped to this location – it need not and should not be at the edge of the ship.

Another thing that used to drive Ron mad was when people living in space have pictures of space on their walls. They live on spaceships and have pictures of space in their personal areas even though space is just outside. This is the reason why Adama’s quarters in the new show has absolutely nothing related to space in it. 

Mythology

The notion of Kobol (the birthplace of humanity) and the thirteenth tribe was carried over to the new show. However, whereas the original was steeped in Mayan and Egyptian design elements, Ron felt this was too distinctly 1970’s (being reminiscent of ‘Chariots of the Gods’ – undoubtedly a cultural influence that affected Glen A. Larson in conceiving the original show). Instead, he pushed for a more Graeco-Roman influence. 

Universe

The old show had a populous feel, with many different races. But this, Ron observes, has become a very tired approach to sci fi. The original series had “planet of the week” shows, and hokey alien races. Ron discarded this because, as much as anything, he’d worked ten years on Star Trek and had seen enough bumpy headed aliens. (He does note that the make up people on Star Trek did a sterling job; it’s just there are only so many places one can position latex on a person’s face).

The new universe, therefore, is barren and largely empty of life.

Ron was keen to make the new show be a drama set in a science fiction setting, not a science fiction drama. This forces the show to be internally driven, which was one of his fundamental goals for the show.

The Search for Earth 

With the possible exception of the fact that the Battlestar Galactica is an aircraft carrier in space, there is nothing more fundamental to the concept of the show than the search for Earth. It is core to the show’s concept. To improve the audience's ability to accept this element, which risked the audience rolling their eyes in disbelief when it was eventually brought up, Ron elected to make it a lie on Adama’s part. He tells the fleet about Earth as a means to an end – to give a reason to hope. He does not believe it exists. This neatly places the audience in an unusual position, as they think to themselves of Adama’s fabrication: “You’re so lucky it’s true!”

Conclusion

Summing up, Ron is keen to note that he didn’t want to destroy the show to remake it. He wanted to see what made the original show a classic (and he stresses that it is a classic) and then rebuilt that on a modern basis. The job of an adaptor is to allow a new audience to enjoy the original material in a new context. He hopes that in remaking Battlestar Galactica he has achieved that goal.

 

Q&A

There wasn’t much time for questions, but here is what was asked, and an encapsulation of the response: 

Q. Why do the cylons have one god and the humans many?
A. This originated in an off-hand line in the original script, but it has allowed for the show to explore the idea of the one god forcing out the many gods, as happened in Western history with monotheism unseating polytheism.  

Q. What are your thoughts on episodic content? I’m sure you’d love to know you’dre going to have 22 episodes for 7 seasons, but in reality you don’t know if you’re going to have another season in advance. How does this affect how you make a show?
A. “22 episodes and 7 seasons? It makes me tired just thinking about it!” [Although disguised as humour, there is a definite sense that he is serious about this]. I actually don’t like episodic content, I prefer serialisation. I like to be able to develop a larger plotline, but that’s tough in TV as it places a burden on the viewer to keep watching regular and follow what’s going on. The challenge of the show was going to make episodic and serialised content to work together. With that in mind, I took inspiration from the show Hill Street Blues. Each week, it had an A story, which was unique to that show, a B story which ran over a handful of shows, and also a C story which ran over the entire season. I borrowed this format for the new Battlestar Galactica show. 

Q. The Centurians in the original show were quite vocal – although admittedly they only said ‘by your command’ most of the time. Are there any plans for the new Centurians to speak?
A. No, my initial thought was that they wouldn’t speak, and that pretty much still stands. In fact, in the third season, one of the themes we’re going to explore is the idea that cylon society has social issues – that the human-like cylons intentionally keep the Centurians at a low level of sophistication so that they can continue to exploit them as a subjugated ‘slave’ race.

Q. Finding Earth became a dead end in the original series. What are you planning to do to prevent that becoming a problem in the new show?
A. I have an idea of how they might eventually find Earth, and it won’t be a case of ‘they find Earth, the end’, because it’s going to take some time to play out the story of finding Earth. But the show should only run as long as it is viable. I hope we will be able to spot when is the right time to tie it up.

Comments

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Thanks for this fantastic reporting! I'm linking to you from my blog at http://amongthedust.blogspot.com but I can't work out how to get your trackback system happening.

Excellent and thorough round-up... your devotion to the series is clear :)

I've only seen a scant few episodes, but I've been a fan of both ST:NG and DS9 so I probably ought to consider watching it.

My only comment is the bit about the "realistic" choice of shakeycam for the space sequences: everyone and his mother these days is pulling the handheld camera shtick, even for science fiction shows. Most people associate it with Firefly, but it appears to be just "one of those things" that becomes immensely popular seemingly all at once. The people working on Firefly commented that they were very excited to debut the shakeycam style space sequences when the show aired, only to see Star Wars Episode II featured similar (albeit not as pronounced) virtual camera work.

I agree it can be very effective, but I think generally I side with the film school line about not making the viewer aware of the camera. The episodes of BSG I've seen, there were a lot of hasty zoom-ins and camera wobble for interior as well as space sequences, with the net effect (to me) canceling out the effect entirely through its ubiquity.
Besides, we've already got consumer-level hand held cameras that cancel out wobble, what happened to this in the future? I guess that's one of the technologies they'll rediscover once they find Earth again. :)

I may be mistaken about the use of the effect, as I've said, I've only seen a few episodes. This summary has more than piqued my interest in watching it more.

Wow, that was awesome. I really wish I had been there to listen to this myself but I think I have a pretty good idea after reading this. I believe they've started shooting already for the next season so I was hoping he'd comment on that. You didn't seem to mention that.

I'm not really a sci-fi fan but this is really the only one that I enjoy a lot.

"The cause of my surprise was that I felt this all but canonically stated that the visions are a consequence of psychosis"

Have you seen the recent episode "Downloaded"? With the revelation in that episode about Six, it's extremely hard to believe that it's nothing more than mental breakdown. It seems like someone (though not the Cylons) is deliberately pushing Baltar forward, whether it is the Cylon god, or some third side to the story we haven't heard anything about yet. Admittedly, this latter possibility seems unlikely, but those are the only two possibilities that still make sense after everything we've seen.

Greg:

I'm not sure about the trackback system... Since I never trackback to myself, I don't know what to suggest.

Has anyone trackbacked to me successfully and can offer advice?

Jack:

I can't quite believe that I still haven't seen Firefly. I'm sure one of my friends will give me a DVD of it at somepoint.

Paul:

Ron mentioned the new season, but only in the Q&A. So it's definitely coming, but that's all we know. :)

Mory:

Just to let you know, I haven't read your comment because a friend has warned me it contains spoilers for an episode I haven't seen yet! :)

Thanks so much for this. I'm such a BSG fanboy, and I was worried that I'd never find out what Moore had to say. I hope someone taped it.

Hi there Chris, seems you have a real scoop here, none of the other GDC coverage I have seen goes into quite as much detail on the BSG Keynote, is this a full transcript? if not is there one available? Thanks

Gurahl: This wasn't from GDC 2007, but 2006. I don't have a full transcript, I'm afraid, nor do I know if there is one available. If I see one, I'll link it to here, though. Best wishes!

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