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GDC Keynote: Building a Better Battlestar

Entitled "Building a Better Battlestar" this keynote featured Battlestar Galactica creator and producer Ronald D. Moore sharing his thoughts and experiences on updating and re-imagining a well-known IP with great success.

March 23, 2006

11 Min Read

Author: by Christopher Woodard

GDC Keynote: Building a Better Battlestar

Shortly after Wednesdays Sony Keynote address, developers were treated to a slightly different session from television writing guru, Ronald D. Moore. Getting his career start working as writer and eventually producer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and HBO's short lived series Carnivale. Since then he has worked on what is considered one of the best shows currently on television by publications such as Time, Newsweek and Rolling Stone: Battlestar Galactica. Like the original, the new show is about the last survivors of humanity and their war against the Cylons and the ongoing search for planet Earth.

Before Ron Moore began the audience was treated to a montage of footage from both the original 1978 series intercut with the new one. What was made immediately apparent, to those who were not familiar with both series at least, was a big difference in tone. The original with it's colorful (comparatively) production design and more stationary camera work presented an image of adventure and heroism, while the darker and more subdued production design along with hand held camera work gave the new series the clear feeling of drama and impending doom.

Ron Moore began by jokingly stating his confusion at being invited to a video game convention. "Or maybe I'm here to talk about the Ron Moore first-person shooter... go around shooting network executives... ex-wives with alimony payments. Dealing with legions of disgruntled fans. The finale would be a showdown with Walter Koenig at a Star Trek convention in Grand Rapids, Michigan for ultimate control of the universe." He then conceded that he was asked to come because much like Hollywood these days, a large amount of games made now are sequels, updates, adaptations or outright remakes of an existing IP. As showrunner on what is considered to be one of the most successful updates of an existing property, the hope was that Moore could explain the decisions made that appeal to new and larger audience unfamiliar with the Galactica, as well as appeal to fans (most of them at any rate) of the original, which Moore described as "an early childhood guilty pleasure."

"The first thing to consider were the fundamentals of the original show." The inciting incident in both series is the destruction of "the 12 colonies" by the Cylons, resulting in the death of most of humanity. The first and most important decision to be made was how to portray "what is essentially genocide. Do we make genocide exciting and fun?" Ron was approached to run the series in early 2002, and the events of September the 11th were still fresh on everyone's mind. "It really made us look back at the attacks in the original differently. "The decision was made to go for a darker feel and make the attacks tragic and frightening with little in the way of action set pieces as well as leaving most of the attack off screen. "Doing it that way informed the entire style and architecture of the show, a fundamental realism behind everything."

"Who Are You?"

Concerning how to deal with the characters, Moore liked to the think of the crew of the ship as a family unit. In the original this was actual quite literal as Commander Adama actually had his three children serving under him in the original. This presented a problem for Moore as to logically do that meant creating a history for a society which would allow for such a situation, a sort of hierarchical military state, which was going too far away from the civilian run government that Moore wanted to portray. Though the commander's son, Apollo, is in the new series, he is there by circumstance rather than having been aboard the ship all along. Adama's daughter, Athena, was omitted completely since "she actually didn't have a purpose other than being romanced by Starbuck. And since we changed Starbuck to a woman..." In the original series Adama was an unquestionably noble and ideological man. Moore said that the two versions of Adama are actually rather similar in their strong ideology and conviction, but that the new Adama is not a perfect man. He will violate his own ethics if he feels he must and his decisions aren't always easy or maybe even right which "makes Adama more human and therefore easier to relate to."

Moore felt that in keeping with this family dynamic he needed a counterpoint to Adama to create a balance. In the original series, President Adar organized a peace conference that lead to the destruction of the colonies and was, as Moore put it, "A weakling." Now there is President Laura Roslin. If Adama is the father figure, then she is the mother. Because of that, there is very little sexual tension between her and Adama, "When you think of your parents you don't think of them as a sexual couple, so that was very intentional". Moore also felt that it was important to have a civilian authority figure on the show (the president in the original series dies during the destruction of the colonies) as a constant reminder that there was an entire society that has been wiped out, as well as allowing for the discussion of politics on the show, something "very important" to Moore.

One of the most startling changes that occurred for the show was the changing of the hotshot/gambler/drinker/womanizer Starbuck into a woman. Which oddly enough was a decision made without a lot of forethought, "The idea was just kind of thrown out there and we just never changed it." The only reason the discussion of changing the character came up at all was Moore was never enamored with Starbuck as a character. "The only reason he ever worked I think was because of Dirk Benedict's performance" adding that "The character made things feel safe, which we didn't want to do". Starbuck as a woman still shares many of the same characteristics as the original, she's also a hotshot/gambler/sexually voracious person. But instead of playing up those characteristics in a charmingly roguish manner, they are used as symptoms of self-destruction. Otherwise having "someone who has a problem with authority in a military organization just won't work."

The next character up for discussion was Colonel Tigh. Here Ron Moore relied on two life experiences when writing the character. Firstly was his experience in the ROTC as an executive officer (XO). Second was his experience in the Star Trek: The Next Generation writer's room. A character he always had issues with in the series was Commander Riker, whose job as the handsome and well-liked second-in-command was mostly to agree with whatever course of action Captain Picard would decide. An XO, Moore relayed, "Is the most hated officer on a ship", and cannot simply agree with the captain because he said so, but because his order is right and falls within the law of military procedures. So, of course, it seemed natural to make Colonel Tigh an alcoholic. He has a vital job necessary to ensure that things are done the right way and yet everyone hates him for it. Of course he's going to drink. This ties into the more human Adama of the new series, one of his faults is getting too close to people, and allowing them to indulge in their weakness.

One of the most significant character changes was made to Boomer. In the original series he was simply a secondary character who was another pilot and was just kind of... there. Another gender change was done and Boomer became female, but in this case the idea was to have a secondary family unit on the ship represented through infidelity. Then one day, Ronald Moore's associate told him "You know how we can make sure this gets picked up into a series?" A dramatic pause ensued. "At the end make Boomer a Cylon." Ron Moore's reaction was a simple "That's fucking genius!". The entire original miniseries had been written at that point, and though the ending had been changed to reflect this new plot twist, all the existing scenes with Boomer remained unchanged.

"Make It More Real!"

One of the most important decisions in updating the series lay with the villainous army of Cylons. How exactly should they be portrayed? The clumsy, slow walking, and very inarticulate robots of the original wouldn't work as menacing threat these days. It turned out to be a case where "The limitation of a TV budget helped us". Doing a sophisticated suit for a human actor was not only cost prohibitive in terms of production costs, but simply shooting it on the set as a single robot was simply a waste of time. During pre-production in 2002, the idea of cost-effective CGI seemed equally laughable (though eventually turned out to be quite feasible), so the decision was made to make them human-like in appearance. The consequences of that decision informed much of the new show's history. The Cylons were no longer a menace created by an reptilian alien threat, but in fact servant machines made in the image of man who essentially began a revolt. They created their own social infrastructure, their own religion, and was an example of what Moore described as a case of budgetary limitation leading to a narrative boon.

Stylistically one of the more consistent things between the two series is the Viper combat ships. What was changed was the style of the combat scenes. Similar to the cult favorite show Firefly, Battlestar Galactica makes use of a hand-held camera style not only on set, but in the CG-rendered space combat. Something that always bothered Moore in Star Trek as well as any other film or TV show was the use of impossible camera moves. "Everyone knows how to use a camera. So the audience can tell when a camera shot is technically impossible. There's something about it that tells them that what they're watching isn't real." So his direction to the staff was to act as though "there was a guy out there in space with a camera doing every shot". The hand-held, shaky, zoom-filled action scenes "do kind of violate the film school rule of "the audience shouldn't be aware of the camera" but I think in this case being of aware of the camera, and having it always function realistically allows the audience to believe in what they're seeing."

Wrapping things up, Ron Moore said that the most important thing when updating and adapting an existing work was to "not lose the architecture that made them unique" and that despite the narrative and stylistic changes both shows are "unmistakably Battlestar Galactica".



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