Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ronald D. Moore: "Building a Better Battlestar"

First off, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA really is as good as everyone says.

If you're not watching it yet, Netflix the miniseries and see for yourself. It's a drama set in a science fiction world, rather than being a sci fi drama, and the writing staff are fearless in their story choices, going for rich, authentic, and complicated over tidy, false, and cliche every time.

Ronald Moore was this year's keynote speaker for the Vision track of the Game Developers Conference. The connection between the hit Sci Fi Channel series and games might seem a bit tenuous, until you remember how many games are built on franchises or properties from other media. The GTA series got a sea-change facelift with GTA3; Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time gave that franchise a kickstart.

Using "then" and "now" video clips for illustration, Moore outlined how, in creating the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA series, he went back to the original show and broke down its elements to their fundamental architectural and dramatic purposes. Those elements then were altered or reinvented to fit the show's new, more realistic approach.

To quote from the speech's program description:

"Our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of science fiction television. We take as a given the idea that the traditional space opera – with its stock characters, techno double-talk, bumpy-headed aliens, thespian histrionics and empty heroics – has run its course and a new approach is required. That approach is to introduce realism into what has heretofore been an aggressively unrealistic genre...”
– Ronald D. Moore, the Battlestar Galactica Series Bible

My notes (and some SPOILERS, newbies!):

Premise - The Cylons' genocidal attack on the colonies and the desperate flight of the survivors. Pretty dark stuff. Genocide isn't fun. Moore wanted to keep the attack realistic and serious, in contrast to the laser-heavy 1978 scenes, and focus on how the assault is experienced by those living through it.

Family - The Adama family unit is central, but the family is less literal than in the original, more situational, and more rife with conflict. In the original, Adama's children are posted with him on Galactica (hardly realistic) and their relationship is strong and healthy. And boring.

Apollo - Brought onto Galactica with plenty o' baggage.

Commander Adama - Reframed as an active military man, fallible, with imperfect relationships with his children.

Zack - Still dead, but in a way that informs the current relationships.

Athena - Gone. But the daughter role is still there, occupied by someone else...

Roslin - Instead of an ineffectual, supporting-cast old man, the President is a very present woman, the fleet's mother figure, a balance and foil for Adama. She's also an emblem and reminder of the apocalypse: every time you see her you see someone who's in her position due to horrifying, cataclysmic events.

The government - Moore's impression of every Council of Twelve meeting:

COUNCIL: Let's trust the Cylons!

ADAMA: You're idiots!

Rather than a useless gathering of old guys in robes, the new Galactica's government is a civilization at war, with all the associated thorny problems and uprisings and sacrifices and making-do.

Starbuck - Adama's true daughter. Dirk Benedict's Starbuck -- a gambler and drinker who had problems with authority and slept around -- got by on charm and assured the audience that everything was going to be okay. The man lit his cigar off a Cylon's helmet in the credits, for Pete's sake!

So the new Starbuck? A gambler and drinker who has problems with authority and sleeps around. These, Moore says, when painted realistically are the characteristics of a very screwed up person. Starbuck is high-functioning in this military crisis environment because it's the only one in which she can function.

Tigh - Moore didn't want to write another Riker, the "I agree!" guy. In the real Navy (in which Moore served briefly; I'm a Navy brat me own self), the XO is the guy who makes you work. The CO is kinda lofty and you may not get to talk to him, but the XO is all up in your grill.

The XO, in short, is hated. Give that guy a drinking problem and buckle up. Tigh is also an indicator of Adama's fallibility: Adama cares for the people who serve with him, and has a blind spot to their flaws.

My additional two doubloons is that Tigh is far too old to still be an XO. The fact that the show opens with him still without his own command says something about his ability and career path.

Boomer - The original Boomer was a pretty boring utility player, just there to go on occasional missions or patrols. The new Boomer was intended to be young, naive, not yet super-proficient as a pilot, and in an inappropriate relationship with a noncom, someone more experienced and worldly. Boomer's a window for the audience into the story's new world. The decision to make Sharon a Cylon came, Moore said, after finishing the miniseries script. "You wanna know what'll make sure the series gets picked up?" Moore says David Eick asked him. They added the reveal at the miniseries' end without changing any of the previous scenes with her.

Cylons - The decision to make them look human was initially made in response to the limitations of TV. Given the expense, use of physical or digital effects would have to be severely constrained. Necessity's once again the mother of invention, and with human-looking Cylons we get all sorts of creative doors opened. Cylon social structures, cosmology... I particularly love the paranoia that pervades the series due to this one fact.

Baltar - Moore wondered, as I remember doing too, just why the hell the original Baltar betrayed the colonies. I mean, what was the point? In researching "Great Traitors in History," Moore learned that betrayals derive much less from ideology or abstract ideas than they do from the most concrete and base of motivations: (1) Greed and (2) Sex (money and women, in Moore's words).

The new Baltar is a smart, rich, accomplished man pleased with his place in the world, and susceptible to a female presence who bolsters those perceptions. "Yes, you're smart, yes, you're accomplished." So susceptible that he sells out the human race without even really noticing.

Vipers - The team thought these were cool as is, so they're in the new series largely unchanged.

SpaceCam - Moore said he found that unrealistic camera shots always brought him out of a story, such as the impossible tracking shot of the rocket lifting off in APOLLO 13. The fx crew on BATTLESTAR is directed to construct space scenes as if a real cameraman is there, placed realistically, and having to do things like refocus when shifting to a new depth of field and reacquire a subject lost while following.

Interiors - Real places where real people live and work. The CIC doesn't have some crazy pointless rotating platform or a highly vulnerable picture window, it's deep in the best-protected part of the ship.

And why, sci fi TV veteran Moore has repeatedly asked his production design folks, do people who live in space have pictures of space on their walls? None of that here. Personal mementos, yes, rugs, tapestries, yes. No nebulae prints.

The universe - The galaxies of BATTLESTAR are empty and lonely. Much less populated than in the original series. No space bars full of foxy alien dancers with more than the usual number of eyes. Without the "planet of the week" the story can turn inward and focus on the characters and their predicaments.

The search for Earth - Moore showed the two series' clips of Adama addressing the fleet about their new plan to find Earth. The scenes are quite similar, even down to the staging. The chief difference is that in the new series, Adama presents a lie, one told to preserve hope.

The talk ran long, but Moore graciously stuck around for a bit to answer a few questions. The only real interesting one asked how the episode's stories are structured. Moore said he looked to HILL STREET BLUES as an inspiration, and built the stories this way:

A - Weekly story, typically event/situation-driven
B - Story over 2-3 episodes, mostly focusing on character issues
C - Big season-long mythology, such as Season One's political explosion

Pretty frackin' good talk, I have to say.


Grubber said...

Thanks for that Kira, really appreciate the rundown, very interesting and shows Moore as a very intelligent writer and person.

Shawna said...

That was fantastic! I would love to know if he was at all inspired by 'Firefly' for the camera stuff, since they did the 'cameraman is there actually shooting this stuff' kind of technique.

Thanks for the recap.

Tiffany said...

Thanks for the excellent summary, Kira. Now I don't feel quite so bad about not having been there in person. I really enjoy the show and found the breakdown of the changes fascinating.

Kira said...

Shawna, good question -- there was such great "camerawork" in FIREFLY.

David Anaxagoras said...

I know I'm in the minority here, but I find Moore's reinvention of Galactica so self-conscious that it calls undue attention to itself. The SpaceCam is highly emblematic of this -- it does the exact opposite for me of what Moore intended. I find it very distracting. I keep asking, "Who the heck is filming this from that vantage point in space?"

There is no denying Moore's success with the fans and critics. I'm not bashing him or the show. It's just that I like me my space opera. The current incarnation of BG might as well be a modern-day Earth-bound naval drama.

clarkman said...

Great article! I saw Moore speak at the Paley Festival, but given the format, he couldn't go into the show with nearly as much depth.