Milestone: "Battlestar Galactica"

Sci Fi Channel's revamped "Battlestar Galactica" has beat the odds to become one of television's most critically acclaimed dramas.

To the uninitiated, the words "Battlestar Galactica" conjure images of carefully blow-dried hair, lumbering metallic robots and Lorne Greene in an outfit that could have come from Elvis Presley's personal Las Vegas collection. The campy TV space opera debuted to much fanfare in 1978, riding on the blockbuster coattails of 1977's "Star Wars." Although the short-lived series never became the juggernaut its creators had hoped it would become, it nevertheless spawned a Trekkie-like cult following that has kept its profile alive for more than two decades.

These days, a growing legion of fans knows a totally different "Battlestar" -- one that bears the same name and shares some history with its predecessor but has otherwise been completely reinvented for modern sensibilities. The award-winning Sci Fi Channel series, which entered its third season Oct. 6, has -- against all odds -- transcended preconceived genre boundaries to distinguish itself as one of the most provocative dramas on television.

"We have always looked at science-fiction products that have been on the air over the years to see if anything was truly worthy of resurrecting and bringing into the next generation," says Bonnie Hammer, president of USA Network and Sci Fi Channel.

"'Battlestar' always stuck in our minds as something that had a huge cult following, so it really made sense for us to see if there was any way to reinvent it for the present day."

When the new "Battlestar" miniseries debuted on Sci Fi in December 2003, it was an immediate hit, scoring a 3.2 share on the first night and 3.8 on the second. Reaching that point took a considerable amount of effort from the creative team, particularly executive producers David Eick and Ronald D. Moore -- both of whom have extensive credits producing genre fare for television. Eick already had signed a producing deal with Sci Fi when the network acquired the rights to "Battlestar" from Fox, which had formulated its own plan to resurrect the series as a pilot for Bryan Singer to direct. When Singer left the project to helm 2003's "X2: X-Men United," Sci Fi charged Eick with reinventing "Battlestar," and he, in turn, brought in Moore, who'd made a name for himself on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and was then working on HBO's "Carnivale."

"There was a real appetite to do something very much outside the rigors of what had become the conventional television space opera," Eick says. "That was very appealing to me as someone who never really watched or liked 'Star Trek' or any of its descendants but was a big fan of science-
fiction novels and science-fiction movies."

Although Moore had reservations about signing on to another sci-fi series, he agrees that, in many ways, the original show's apocalyptic premise resonates more strongly today than it did in 1978.

"When I watched it again -- particularly in the aftermath of 9/11 -- I realized that there was something really dark and interesting at the heart of that show that would have a unique relevance to today," Moore says. "The premise of the original is the same as ours: It ends with the apocalyptic attack of the Cylons on the human race, and 12 planets of people (are wiped out). I realized that if you did that show today, if you really took that premise seriously, you'd have an opportunity to do an interesting show, a show that was relevant, that really spoke to our time."

Adds Angela Bromstad, president of NBC Universal Television Studio: "Ron Moore and David Eick had a unique vision for this show that transcends the science-fiction genre both dramatically and visually. This is more than a space show; instead, it's an intense character exploration that informs us about our post-9/11 society. When watching (the series), fans see more than the adventures of the Galactica crew; they also see themselves and the complex issues we face each day."

Initially, "Battlestar" was prepped as a miniseries, but from the beginning, Moore says he had something more elaborate in mind. "I pitched it that way, and I wrote it that way," he says of the 2003 miniseries, which concluded with a cliffhanger. "I wanted to hook them. It was deliberate, and I wanted people to say, 'No, that can't be the end.'"

It didn't take long for Hammer to realize Sci Fi had something special with "Battlestar." "We were pretty sure at the rough-cut stage that we were going to go forward. The return on the ratings just cinched the deal. It was basically a home run for us, and there was no turning back," she says.

In fact, the series seems only to have picked up steam since its premiere episode aired in January 2005 (though the ratings dipped somewhat in the second season). With its third season just under way, the challenge "Battlestar" faces is keeping the converts captivated while continuing to expand the series' viewership.

Sci Fi executive vp/general manager Dave Howe says the network plans to do just that by emphasizing the program's complex themes rather than its science-fiction trappings. "We wanted to position it away from space and technology and robots," he says. "Everything we created was focused around the character drama and relationships and (around) some of the subject matter, like genocide and survival. We came up with tag lines that were designed to position it away from that cheesy '70s show."

Edward James Olmos, who plays Cmdr. William Adama, says it's the characters and the story arcs at the core of "Battlestar" that have made it so successful. "This (show) is character-driven and reality-based," he says. "The main thrust of what we're into now is a lot different than it was before 9/11, so this stops being science fiction and starts to become a real drama with social relevance."

Director Michael Rymer, who shot the miniseries and helped set the visual tone for the series with its fast cuts and immersive, cinema-verite style, says that the show is in no way limited by the constraints of the genre. "Because it's set in a different galaxy, it feels like we're much freer to take liberties and explore controversial subjects in a way that doesn't feel exploitive," he says. "You've got sexual relationships, you've got politics, you've got social issues, you've got action, you've got life-and-death struggles, you've got mystical and spiritual stories going on -- it's a very layered world. It has no boundaries."

Except maybe when it comes to the Emmy Awards. The series received a Hugo Award in 2005, and earlier this year, it claimed the prestigious Peabody Award. But to date, the show has only managed to earn Emmy nominations in the crafts categories. While Moore says that "(the Peabody) really took a lot of the sting out of not getting an Emmy," others involved with the series admit that its designation as science fiction could be holding the show back from wider recognition as a serious dramatic work.

"There is the sense that sci-fi is just a pulp medium, and it doesn't deserve to get acclaim," Sci Fi executive vp original programming Mark Stern says. "Our feeling is really to just continue to plug away in terms of getting the word out. 'Galactica' has a reach and an appeal that goes beyond that core sci-fi fan, and I think that certainly it has the potential to go even farther."

Sci Fi is already planning to make sure that happens, with a prequel series that takes place 50 years before "Battlestar" in the works and set to debut next year. "Ron and David approached us about a prequel toward the end of last year," Stern says. "What is interesting about the prequel, 'Caprica,' is that it keeps the integrity of the world they have created in 'Galactica,' but they have also found a whole different way to tell a socially-relevant character drama that is reflective of our world."