New adventures in sci-fi

That camp Seventies space opera, Battlestar Galactica, is back from TV purgatory. But this time it's edgy (farewell, Muffy the cyborg panda). Matthew Sweet is impressed
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The Independent Online

Just before the original Star Wars cast a giant shadow over American cinema, George Lucas, in a comment that revealed rather too much about his shortcomings as a film-maker, described how much he was looking forward to watching all the imitations that he suspected would soon arrive in its wake.

He didn't have long to wait. Roger Corman rushed Battle Beyond the Stars into production, with John Boy from The Waltons in the Luke Skywalker role. The Japanese weighed in with Battle of the Planets, in which sweetly trundling robots and children dressed as seagulls fought the hooded agents of an evil space empire. Then the producer Glen A Larson launched Battlestar Galactica, in which Lorne Greene from Bonanza sought to save the last members of the human race from the villainies of the robotic Cylons and their imperious leader - named, for simplicity's sake, Imperious Leader.

Larson insisted that his series was a sci-fi rewrite of the Book of Mormon, but that didn't wash with George Lucas or his lawyers, who cited 34 similarities between Star Wars and Galactica - a bit rich, considering Lucas's film was a shameless rip-off of Flash Gordon and Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. The judge had similar misgivings. Lucas's case was rejected - but not before the offending series had been delivered a fatal blow, and consigned to the scrag bin of popular culture.

No one mourns for Battlestar Galactica. Even the most dyed-in-the-anorak sci-fi nut, the sort who can name everyone who ever played a Silurian in Doctor Who or recite the mantra of the Sapphire and Steel title sequence (altogether now, "transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life") feels little regret at its mayfly existence. Which makes it all the more surprising that the series has been revived. And by people who take it terribly, terribly seriously.

"We decided to take this exisiting mythos and reinterpret it without being married to any pre-existing formula or template," says the executive producer, David Eick. "We said, let's borrow from this rich tapestry and then find ways to reinvent it tonally, visually and editorially." The result, adds the director, Michael Rymer, is "a political film [that is] universal and profound [and] a very powerful allegory to our times."

More surprising still, these bonkers-sounding comments may not be far from the mark. Dreary, derivative, unloved Battlestar Galactica has been transformed into a stark and melancholy work of dystopian science fiction - television that's as good as anything currently being imported from the American networks.

Everything that was naff and embarrassing about the original series has been jettisoned. Muffy the cyborg panda has been blasted into space, along with his owner, a not-conspicuously-cute child named Boxey. Patrick MacNee no longer supplies the voice of the Imperious Leader. (The Imperious Leader, in fact, is nowhere to be seen.) The Cylons remain shiny robots - but some of them have taken human form, their metallic colleagues no longer have a glowing game of Pong going on in their face-visors, and you'd now need more than a kazoo and a clothes peg to replicate their voices.

The heroes of the original were a pair of roister-doistering, devil-may-care fighter pilots with a thing about suede waistcoats and extra-terrestrial nightclub hostesses. The sleazier of the pair - played by Dirk Benedict, later a member of the A-Team - went by the name of Starbuck, in homage to Herman Melville. Despite its modern association with the venti-skinny-decaf- cap-to-go, the name has survived into the revamped version. Now, however, she's a woman - played by Katee Sackhoff - and there's not an inch of suede in sight.

But it's the mood of the piece that has undergone the most radical transformation. The production reeks of dirty realism: under attack from the Cylons, the human characters are sweaty, dishevelled and sleep-deprived. They pop pills to stay awake, they hallucinate, they mumble and stumble over their lines, they eat messy mouthfuls of microwaved noodles. The camerawork is of the hand-held, verité variety: even in the shots of dogfights between spaceships, the image dips and judders as if you're watching news footage from some war beyond the solar system. The production design is refreshingly retro: in this take on the future of humanity, people still wear neckties and shirts with collars and use safety razors, felt-tip pens and telephones with cords. The music isn't the customary John Williams or Night on Bare Mountain pastiche - it's mainly vocal, and distinctly Middle Eastern. Even the laws of physics have been paid attention: spacecraft explode with muffled thuds, not the usual ka-booms that, in the real world, the vacuum of space would render impossible.

And the atmosphere is magnificently downbeat and depressing. The president of Earth (Mary McDonnell, from Donnie Darko) keeps a tally of the surviving members of the human race, rubbing out and correcting the figure every time her rag-tag fleet sustains another alien bombardment. The refugees from Earth maintain a chapel of remembrance for their fallen comrades - walls of photographs and written messages, modelled upon the memory boards that sprang up around Ground Zero. On-screen captions keep you informed of how many hours the crew has been forced to do without sleep. It's a story of the human race, routed by the monsters, on the run and pushed to the limits of exhaustion. It's light-years away from the smooth, corporate world of Star Trek: Captain Picard wouldn't last half an hour on the bridge of the new Battlestar Galactica.

How could such dodgy original material have yielded something so satisfyingly grim? The answer, according to the producers, is that this is the series that Glen A Larson would have made, had its backers, NBC, not insisted on something more simplistic and light-hearted. It's hard to measure the truth of the assertion: perhaps those with an intimate knowledge of the Book of Mormon are best qualified to make the judgement.

What the series demonstrates more convincingly, perhaps, is that writers and directors with imagination can make smart work of the flimsiest material, if they're granted permission to deviate from the original as much as they like. Michael Rymer has made a silk purse from a sow's ear. It might not be beyond his powers to reinvent Buck Rogers in the 25th Century - a 1980s space panto starring Gil Gerard and a talking biscuit dehumidifier called Dr Theopolis - as a moody, doomy, rough-and-ready action series.

George Lucas is now in the thick of post-production on the sixth - and hopefully final - instalment of the Star Wars saga. Revenge of the Sith will lumber into multiplexes next spring, by which time the new series of Battlestar Galactica ought to be coming out on DVD. The television series was once the shadow of the movie franchise; fag to its head prefect; Little and Large to its Morcambe and Wise. Now it has outgrown its inspiration. Next year, it may give George Lucas something to fill his empty afternoons.

'Battlestar Galactica' begins on 18 October, Sky One, 8pm