Edward James Olmos is kind and gracious to his fans because he's a fan himself. Not a fan of himself, but rather SciFi Channel's award-winning series Battlestar Galactica. The actor says he has a great time starring as Admiral Will Adama, leading a rag-tag fleet of war-ravaged humans in search of Earth. But there's nothing he loves more than sitting down and watching the show, to see how all the disparate elements -- editing, sound, special effects -- come together.
Maybe that's why Olmos is, like most fans, righteously pissed off at last week's announcement that Battlestar Galactica will end after its fourth season airs in 2008. This anger bubbled to the surface several times during Wednesday’s BSG All Access event at the ArcLight’s Cinerama Dome in downtown Hollywood.
Fresh off the plane from Vancouver, where the show's been filming for three weeks: Olmos, Mary McDonnell (President Roslin), Jamie Bamber (Lee Adama) and Katee Sackhoff (Kara Thrace). Joining them were creators/showrunners Ronald D. Moore and David Eick.
Also in attendance: actor Mark Sheppard, whose portrayal of cunning lawyer Romo Lampkin drew its own cheering section of fans with signs begging: “More Romo!” Two seats down was white-haired BSG director Robert Young, a close friend of Olmos'.
Olmos and actor son Bodie (BSG’s Hotdog) showed up early to speak to the line of fans that snaked around the Cinerama dome. After a brief interview with E!’s Kristin Veitch (a vocal BSG fan), Olmos made his way down the line, shaking hands with fans and posing for pictures.
The evening began with a high-definition screening of the third season finale, “Crossroads, Part 2.” Olmos introduced the show by proclaiming, “This is the way Battlestar Galactica was meant to be seen: on the big screen!” (Whoa ... was this a hint of the show's future? More on that below).
Afterward, the cast and creatives took the stage under the often goofy guidance of hostess Lucy Lawless, currently in negotiations to reprise her role as D'Anna, the Cylon whose visions sent the plot spiraling into overdrive this season. Lawless neatly skirted questions of her return and instead kicked things off crisply by asking the Big Question: Why the hell is BSG coming to an end?
THIS IS THE END, BEAUTIFUL FRIEND
Ron Moore doesn't lay any blame on NBC/Universal, the parent company of SciFi, but instead points to the show’s narrative arc as the reason the show is ending. He cited several plot triggers that occurred during season three – the Eye of Jupiter, the algae planet, the vision of the final five Cylons. “This is really starting to say, we are going to a specific place,” Moore said. Rather than drag out plot points or repeat beats, Moore and company decided to pull out all the stops. “We’re gonna go to Earth … whatever that is.”
How does Olmos feel about the show ending? “Terrible,” he grumbled in his unmistakable rasp. “They can keep my paycheck. I’ll support the show myself.”
What about reports that the show’s viewership has dropped? “It’s bullshit,” Olmos proclaimed. “Most of you don’t wanna watch the commercials. You’ve been downloading it [for a fee, via iTunes] and the studio’s made a lot of money that way.”
While some viewers may tune in to BSG through either iTunes or DVR, the show’s overall ratings have declined since the second season ... if you trust the ratings systems, that is. Olmos minces no words about his lack of trust here. “The Nielsens don’t calibrate for Latinos, Asians, or African Americans,” he said bitterly.
Did I mention there was tension in the air? Not between Moore and Olmos, who seem to get along just fine, but rather their viewpoints on BSG's demise. Moore says the show's being shut down because of purely creative reasons, but here's the series star grumbling over financial issues. As angry as Olmos could be, his gruff humor was never far from the surface. At one point he hissed: “We’re not doing a dramatic series to sell Cheetos."
To which Moore chimed in innocently: “Cheetos are a fine snack.”
Olmos hesitated, then nodded with great gravity. “That’s why I brought it up.”
Mary McDonnell said the show’s fan base is inspiring and moving in ways no other audience has been for her. “It’s hard to contemplate giving this up,” she said. “We have the luxury as artists to tell a story this way. I feel honored to be inside of that.”
Jamie Bamber agreed (in his native British accent that’s easily a full octave above his character's voice). If anyone seems optimistic about the show’s demise, it’s this guy. “The greatest fear is to be caught short, before you have your ending.”
Indeed, if BSG had been canceled after the current cliffhanger finale, with Earth finally in plain view of the audience, one can easily imagine an audience revolt that would dwarf the recent Jericho protest.
Moore expressed thanks for the opportunity to create exactly the show he envisioned, the result of a rare alignment between network execs and creatives. “I’d never had a network note telling me to infuse religion into a show,” he gave as an example. He recounted how they took the 1978 show’s premise – humankind pushed to the edge of extinction by a violent attack – and recast it in light of 9/11. The network supported this vision from the get-go.
Eick said BSG’s gripping narrative results from their “progressive” way of showrunning – giving the writers some broad strokes, a rough story spine for the season, then backing out of the room and letting the writers run with it. Several BSG writers were in attendance, and they received thunderous applause when recognized.
When asked what brought her to this project, McDonnell said, “It was the writing. Bottom line.”
“There was a three-page prologue put onto the pilot script that kind’ve defined your understanding of it,” recalled Olmos. This document detailed the look and feel of the world, the visual and emotional aesthetics the show would strive for. “It was breathtaking to read this. You knew you were in on something monumental.”
Olmos had several meetings with Moore and Eick to clarify the show's direction before he signed on. Among other things, he swore that if he ever saw a rubber-headed alien, he’d leave the show. Instead, he pointed repeatedly to one of his early films as a signpost of what they could do.
“Blade Runner opened up a door that nobody ever went through,” said Olmos. “It was something that was supposed to happen, but there were no sequels. It failed at the box office because of Harrison Ford. Now, his performance was immaculate, but after Star Wars and Indiana Jones, his fan base really didn’t appreciate a role where all he really did was think.”
Citing that movie’s imaginative but gritty futurism anchored by dark emotional content, Olmos said, “BSG went into that world aesthetic and stood true to that character drama."
Eick concurred. “We sent prospective directors three movies for their aesthetics: Blade Runner, Alien, and Black Hawk Down.”
SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE
Since Ridley Scott’s worlds have been grim and harsh, it's obvious that many of his characters have taken some hard knocks. However, Katee Sackhoff was stunned with the knocks she took off the set. Before the mini-series even aired, she received mountains of hate mail from angry fans. Seems like some boneheads couldn't deal with the role of Starbuck, played by a cigar-chompin’ Dirk Benedict in the original series, being recast with a woman.
Sackhoff couldn’t dwell on the angry vibes from the fanbase. Her job was to dive in and flesh out this troubled but hopefully sympathetic character. Since she didn’t know any real-life pilots, Sackhoff based Kara Thrace on her brother, who she describes as strong, stubborn, and hard-ass. Like Starbuck, he’s brash and headstrong to a fault, “but if he loves you, he’ll fight like hell for you.”
These strong choices worked in her favor. The hate mail turned to love letters pretty quickly, and Sackhoff was glad Starbuck was finally accepted despite “not having a package.”
Bamber had no military background either (although he does reportedly have a package). He approached the role of Lee Adama by focusing on the shattered father-son relationship. However, a recent experience – flying with the Blue Angels – brought the military angle home in an unexpected way. Bamber was impressed by the connection between the ground crew of 200+ and the handful of pilots who take those machines into the sky. Here was a direct parallel to the support an actor receives on a set (nearly everybody praised the army of offscreen talent that makes the show happen).
Bamber was proud to see many of his choices for Apollo reflected in these real-life pilots. The Blue Angels always exude strong discipline, certainty, and a quiet but palpable arrogance that stems from experience. Bamber observed them and was pleased to realize that “Apollo would fit right in.”
HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS
What might the final season hold for these characters?
“I trust the writers,” said Bamber. “They’ve got some muscular plot threads to resolve, and it can’t help but be riveting. I’m almost a viewer! It’s fascinating to see how it’s gonna resolve.”
And will President Roslin fulfill her destiny and lead the survivors to Earth? McDonnell took a deep breath. “At this point, I’m just hoping to stay alive until the end.”
“That’s unfortunate,” Eick said with a frown.
McDonnell didn’t blink an eye. “Then I’d like to see her start drinking!”
Olmos was more philosophical. “I don’t think honestly the powers-that-be will understand exactly what this show is doing until twenty years from now. You will never see another program like this again in your lifetime. So enjoy it and pass it on to your children.”
When asked if the final season will have a happy ending, Moore shrugged. “So much of the satisfaction (of BSG) is the lack of it. This show’s about yearning. They can never quite find Earth, never quite save the human race, never quite find that happy ending.”
Moore also dismissed any chance of future stand-alone movies, no matter how large the screen. When this story's over, he said, it's over. Finis.
McDonnell admitted that the filming of these final episodes carries a sudden weight. She finds herself approaching stage hands and crew she’s never really spoken to, just to learn their names and thank them for all they’ve done.
Moore said, “It’s like the beginning of senior year in high school.”
Sackhoff smirked. “I never showed up for senior year, though!”
DYLAN IN SPACE
Hopefully we’ll all have Cinerama Domes installed in our home theaters one day. The high-def episode looked incredible on the big screen. In the show’s kick-off mini-series, director Michael Rymer established the look and feel of BSG, and he’s been summoned for many of the show’s most pivotal episodes, including this season three finale.
On the big screen, Rymer’s framing of the intense courtroom scenes is even more claustrophobic and oppressive, adding to the pressure cooker scenario. Sheppard's scene-stealing performance as a shit-slick lawyer also benefitted from the up-close treatment, revealing almost microscopic layers of cunning and stealth.
The unmasking of the Cylons is lensed by a dreamlike, floating camera, and you feel as weightless and dislocated as those stunned characters. The space scenes were eye-popping, particularly the final zoom-out that warps us from the rag-tag fleet across the galaxy to a distant and waiting Earth. As Lawless later pointed out, the sound design and Bear McCreary’s incredible score were overwhelmingly powerful. Bob Dylan never sounded so cosmic or ominous.
“I got the Dylan bug on a show called Roswell from Jason Katims,” said Moore. “I had an idea for using contemporary music as early as the pilot, but didn’t know how or why it would connect with the story.”
Eick recalled an early draft of Moore’s BSG pilot in which the opening scenes showed peaceful vistas of space set to Simon & Garfunkel’s anthemic “America.” Eick loved the script, but kept going back to that song on page one and wondering: What the hell?
Moore said the juxtaposition of something familiar in a setting so removed from our own spoke to him. While it pegged something emotional, perhaps even mystical, Moore couldn’t resolve it in terms of the story itself, so he pulled the song. Chalked it up to some creative fluke.
But the offbeat musical musings kept recurring to Moore. Bamber recalled seeing a music cue for Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” in the script for the first season finale. People would see these suggestions on the page, but before they could say “What's this about?” the next draft would omit them.
While breaking stories for the third season, the writers worked hard to develop the pivotal unveiling of four of the final five Cylons. Moore mandated there had to be some sort of trigger that would awaken these major characters to their secret destinies. Someone in the writers room – not Moore -- suggested this trigger could be a song. At which point gears clicked in Moore's head: “And it’s Dylan.”
FLIGHT OF THE PEGASUS
No word on what contemporary music, if any, we might hear in Battlestar Galactica: Razor, a two-hour movie to be broadcast this fall, with a DVD release falling as early as the very next day. This movie tells the full story of the Battlestar Pegasus, covering not only 2nd season events but even reaching back to the initial Cylon attack. If I understood correctly, Moore indicated the show’s structure may actually go backward in time, or at least involve many flashbacks.
The story introduces a new officer who comes aboard the Pegasus to serve under Admiral Cain (reprised by the always-rockin’ Michelle Forbes). Almost all of the series regulars appear in the episode, although some, like President Roslin, only have single-scene cameos.
The Razor trailer (not high-def, so it was very grainy compared to “Crossroads, Part 2”) made extensive use of footage from the second season. One notable new scene shows Cain responding to the initial Cylon attack and ordering her crew into battle. This was capped by a nice stinger of a friendly and radiant Number 6, prior to her unmasking aboard the Pegasus, telling Cain (or someone): “Relax … we’re only human.”
Earlier, Moore made a brief reference to a perverse sexual situation we see in Razor. My money (and hope) is on Cain.
BACK TO CAPRICA?
When Moore mentioned his pilot script for the possible BSG spin-off series Caprica, someone burst into applause. Moore quickly encouraged the entire audience to make some noise, a hint that perhaps SciFi needs to hear more from its fans. Although Caprica explores decades of BSG backstory, specifically the creation of the first Cylons, it sounds like another breed of show entirely. Think family saga meets sci-fi. When asked about the status of the series, Moore and Eick would only say that it’s “on the back-burner” at the channel.