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‘My name is Paul Wells and I watch Battlestar Galactica'

It’s a gorgeous space opera filled with moral ambiguity and robots. What’s not to like?

PAUL WELLS April 7 2008
THE BACK PAGES

‘My name is Paul Wells and I watch Battlestar Galactica'

It’s a gorgeous space opera filled with moral ambiguity and robots. What’s not to like?

PAUL WELLS April 7 2008

‘My name is Paul Wells and I watch Battlestar Galactica'

THE BACK PAGES

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It’s a gorgeous space opera filled with moral ambiguity and robots. What’s not to like?

PAUL WELLS

Ronald D. Moore admits he didn’t know how Battlestar Galactica was going to end, but that he “figured it out along the way.” And it’s a good thing he finally did, because the end is nigh.

It is also a good thing Moore, the space opera’s lead writer and producer, knows where his show’s final season will end, because for ordinary viewers the suspense is getting hard to bear. When last we joined the crew of the Galáctica—at the end of season three, a year ago—things were getting pretty hairy.

Four of the characters realized that the tune they’d been humming was the old Bob Dylan hit, All Along the Watchtower, and that therefore they stood revealed, at least to one another, as evil killer robots in human form. (Therefore? It’s hard to explain. Just go with it.) Kara Thrace, the hard-drinking fighter pilot nicknamed Starbuck, returned from the dead long enough to reveal that she had visited the long-lost planet earth. And a massive fleet of enemy fighters was bearing down, for the umpteenth time, on the ragtag starfleet of human survivors, imperilling the last remnants of humanity yet again.

Just another day at the office, really.

Galáctica fans have been deciphering intertwining plots like these, each weirder than the last, since the series launched in 2005. It can be lonely work, because Galáctica fans have also grown used to enduring towering derision from friends who don’t watch the show. For the most part, those friends are quite certain they will never watch Galáctica. Seriously, how good could a space opera be? Especially a remake of the unbearably kitschy late-1970s ABC series that featured silver robots in loincloths and a cute kid with a robot dog?

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The surprise is that Galáctica, which is shot in Vancouver and has been thoroughly reimagined by producer and writer Ronald D. Moore, is excellent television. Wipe that smirk off your face. Here, look. Galáctica even won a Peabody Award for distinguished achievement in electronic media in 2006. The Peabodys only go to the best. Peter Gzowski won a Peabody and it has been established almost beyond doubt that Gzowski was not an evil killer robot in human form. Horace Newcomb, the director of the Peabodys—a guy so serious his name is Horace— actually had this to say about Galáctica:

“It treats contemporary issues from an angle that really makes you think about those issues... issues of race, gender, all those things are dealt with.”

And if those issues are dealt with in the context of a show in which guns erupt from robots’ clawed appendages, and ravishing blond bombshells seduce mad scientists into betraying humanity, well, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. And now the end of it all is in sight. On April 4, Canada’s Space network will begin broadcasting the fourth and final season of Battlestar Galáctica. The season will end, Moore promised in an interview with Maclean’s, with the resolution of the series’ two great riddles.

First, the location and nature of this mysterious planet earth. Galáctica, both in the cheesy original incarnation and in Moore’s revision, is set in distant space, among humans from 12 colonies who cherish myths about a planet of the lost 13th colony called earth. They built robots called Cylons to help them; the Cylons rebelled and evolved into human-looking brands, some of them quite dishy, the better to infiltrate human society; and the humans, facing extinction at the hands of the treacherous “toasters,” hightailed it for earth. Except they’re not sure where it is. Or whether it truly exists. Moore promises an answer this season.

OHe also promises to reveal the identity of the last humanlooking Cylon. The late-model robots, treacherous yet oddly spiritual, walk among the humans and sometimes are programmed to think they are human. We’ve known who most of them are since near the beginning, but a few were slower to reveal themselves, even to themselves. Four models figured out their secret a year ago, and boy were they bummed. Chief Tyrol and Col. Tigh, the fleet’s biggest Cylon-haters, turned out to be Cylons themselves. And now there’s one left. It’ll be a big surprise.

Including to Moore. When the series launched, he told Maclean’s, he knew only that his characters were seeking earth, not how—or even whether—they’d find it. “In the beginning I just sort of sent us on a direction. And I was comfortable with not knowing how it was going to end, and I knew at some point I would have to resolve the big questions.”

Just how far he goes toward resolving those questions is open to... well, question. Are the Final Four—Tigh and Tyrol and the others, who just figured out they’re Cylons—really Cylons? “Yes. As far as we know,” says Katee Sackhoff, who plays Starbuck.

“Anything can change,” Grace Park, the Vancouverite who plays Cylon model No. 8, chimes in. “That’s a very definite maybe. I think they’re Cylons.”

“I do too,” Sackhoff says, trying to be helpful. “They’ve been accepted by the Cylons into the Cylons.” So everyone thinks they’re evil robots, including an evil robot. That settles it, probably.

One other question we can settle—probably—is whether Starbuck, who in some ways serves as the show’s rebellious, libidinous, overwrought, confused moral centre, is herself a Cylon. “No. I was told from day one that, ‘We know for sure, as a matter of fact— and granted everything changes on this show, so you can never really know for sure—that the only thing we know for sure is that you aren’t a Cylon.’ ”

But just because she’s not humankind’s worst enemy (well, probably not) doesn’t mean Starbuck is heading toward a happy ending. In fact, Sackhoff is adamant that she’d rather see her character sign off in any other way. “I told Ron Moore a while ago, ‘Please God, do not wrap up her storyline, put it in a box, put a pretty little bow on it and hand it to me.’ That’s not who she is. This is an extremely flawed woman who is not happy when things are easy, when things are good, and she will never be the woman who sits at home with a baby and loves a husband. That’s not her.”

Indeed, much of the appeal of Galáctica is that it resists neat resolutions. It’s a messy show—adamantly, gorgeously so. The last fleeing survivors of Cylon treachery don’t often have time to shave and put on their dress uniforms. They are often on the verge of mass panic. They are morally flawed, stooping to torture and terrorism in their fight against the Cylon pursuer. Indeed, in recent seasons the Cylons have often seemed morally superior to humanity. The Cylons are

‘They wanted to be “Star Trek” on some level, and “Lost in Space,” and “StarWars”’

monotheistic, deeply spiritual, and sometimes torn about the morality of their campaign to exterminate the Galáctica and the rest of her fleet.

For all of this delicious moral ambiguity, it is customary to thank Moore. When he retooled the Galáctica franchise in 2003, the first sound you heard was the sound of fans of the original series (yes, there are some) who didn’t like the changes he was implementing. In the original series, Starbuck was a guy. His sex

change seemed transgressive. It turned out the fans hadn’t seen anything compared to the transgressions to come.

“I remember watching the original series on the air when I was a kid, and even then I was dissatisfied with what they were doing with it,” Moore says. “But I thought it was a unique premise for a sci-fi piece. It wasn’t people who were the best of the best and fighting the good fight; they were running away, and their world was shattered. And there was something just tragic about the concept that appealed to me. I approached it like, okay, let’s keep all the things that are good and interesting, and discard all the things that don’t work.”

There was a lot to discard. The cute robot dog is nowhere to be seen. “They felt the need to camp it up and do western episodes,” Moore says about the original series’ creators. “And they wanted to be Star Trek on some level, and Lost in Space on some level, and Star Wars on some level, and they weren’t comfortable just being Battlestar Galáctica. Which is what we’ve tried to do.”

Judging from the first two episodes of the final season, Galáctica is now more Galáctica than ever. The riddle over how Starbuck could be back, when we all saw her fighter explode last season, is a driving theme of the early episodes. And it has a new urgency, because if this Starbuck can be trusted, then she has seen earth and believes she knows how to find it. But Admiral Adama, the patriarch of the Galáctica fleet played by Edward James Olmos, doesn’t seem to be listening to her.

Meanwhile there is dissent among the Cylons, and still more trouble for Gaius Baltar (James Callis), the tragicomic villain of the tale, who sold out humanity for a dishy Cylon at the beginning of the series and has now become almost a messianic figure for some of the survivors.

Unlike last season, which took single-episode detours into issues like labour unrest, “this season is more of a piece,” Moore says. “It’s more like one long story as opposed to a bunch of little ones.”

Any more hints they can drop? “Starbuck will have some unlikely allies in the coming season,” Sackhoff says mysteriously. Really? After the Peabody Award, nothing seems unlikely any more. M

Patricia Treble