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'Battlestar Galactica' focus on story, not science fiction

Some snarkier pop culture purists still refuse to believe this TV truth: the new Battlestar Galactica remake is the best science fiction show on the small screen.

And co-star Katee Sackhoff — who gave old school Galactica fans all kinds of agita by re-creating the classic show's womanizing swashbuckler Starbuck as a female — has a simple explanation for how it has all worked out.

Nobody at the new Galactica treats the show like science fiction.

"We never relied on the science fiction of the show," said Sackhoff, who probably reached more viewers playing wacko villain Sarah Corvus on NBC's failed Bionic Woman reboot than on the Sci Fi Channel's underwatched gem, which begins its fourth and final season Friday.

"Most science fiction shows rely way too much on the bells and whistles," she added, speaking to journalists last week on a conference call. "It kind of opened doors in science fiction to realize . . . it's just a setting. . . . It's not, (and) it should never have been what the show is."

No character embodies that story-first philosophy better than Sackhoff's Kara "Starbuck" Thrace; a fearless, self-destructive fighter who seemed to return from the dead at the end of last season, popping up with a plan to save humanity two months after her compatriots saw her starship blown to bits.

Explaining why that means so much gets at the toughest part of life as a Galactica fan. You still have to explain a lot of "bells and whistles" to the uninitiated before they'll understand the drama.

A different millennium

First, forget comparisons to the cheesy, '70s-era series. You know, the one starring the dad from Bonanza and the guy who would go on to play "the Face" on the A-Team. (Lorne Greene and Dirk Benedict, respectively).

Conceived as a quick way to cash in on the Star Wars phenomenon, TV's first Galactica was a cavalcade of one-dimensional characters, Star Trek-style plots and effects so expensive, cheapo producers kept replaying the same starship footage over and over to save cash.

Mostly, the two Galacticas share character names and a general story: in a galaxy far away, humans fall prey to sneak attack by a robot race called the Cylons. With their population from 12 colonies reduced to about 50,000 people, including the battered starship in the show's title, these humans take off for a planet hailed in their theology as the homeworld of all humans, Earth.

For three fabulous seasons, the new Galactica has turned that premise on its head, creating a strain of Cylons that look human, have their own religion, and are determined to create a human-Cylon hybrid.

Along the way, the new show has explored sticky, substantive themes of war and religion. When just one official from the old human government survived and was declared president, the battlestar's leader Adm. William Adama (Edward James Olmos) had to decide whether to obey civilian rule (he did).

When the Cylons found a world where surviving humans resettled, enforcing a brutal occupation, the good guys turned themselves into suicide bombers to resist the occupying force (sound familiar?). After humans escaped, the military had to stop vigilante killings of those who had cooperated with the occupiers.

Inner struggles

Now, as the Galactica heads on a new course for Earth, four crew members struggle with a revelation from the Season 3 finale: they are Cylons (a fifth and final model remains unknown).

What they don't know is whether that changes who they are. Or how they will choose between defending a human race they have supported their entire lives, or the mechanical race which may take control of their actions at any time.

Sackhoff said the actors playing the crew members revealed as Cylons — Michael Hogan as Col. Saul Tigh, Aaron Douglas as chief engineer Galen Tyrol, Michael Trucco as Samuel Anders and Rekha Sharma as presidential aide Tory Foster — had an odd reaction to the revelation about their characters.

They got mad.

"You get the wool pulled over your eyes for four years and then lo and behold, your character's something completely different," she said. "I still think Michael Hogan hasn't come to terms with it."

As Friday's episode unfolds, Starbuck returns to Galactica certain she knows the way to Earth but surprised to learn an absence which felt like hours has actually spanned two months. Because she returns in a spotless ship with no flight recorder, many assume she is simply a Cylon copy.

"These are the major questions of humanity and what the show has always kind of asked," said Sackhoff. "If you found out tomorrow that

your best friend or your mother or something was a Cylon, would it make your experiences that you had with that person or thing less important to you?"

Good mixed with evil

This is what makes Galactica such delicious drama — and so hard to explain.

Episodes never come down to fixing a blaster or hopping onto a teleporter at the last second. Instead, no villain is thoroughly bad and no hero is fully virtuous, as the series explores what makes us family or foe, righteous or wicked, at peace or at odds.

Which makes it even tougher to learn from Sackhoff that there will likely be no Galactica movie when the series ends — though Sci Fi has picked up Caprica, a two-hour TV movie doubling as a "backdoor" pilot for a series taking place 50 years before Galactica's time.

Ever the ambitious actor, Sackhoff isn't so sad about new opportunities, though she promises plenty of fireworks for her character before it all wraps up.

"We've never seen Starbuck so alone and so lost . . . not only because of the way that people are treating her but because of the questions that her coming back has raised in her own mind," she said.

"I think (finding Earth)

is her revolution," Sackhoff said.

"She's putting so much weight on this one thing, this one task that she believes that is her destiny, that I think she wouldn't let anything stand in her way. (And) when that is the case, you've got a very scary person on your hands."

Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727)

893-8521. See his blog at blogs.

.on tv

Battlestar Galactica

The show's fourth and final season debuts at 10 p.m. Friday on the Sci Fi Channel.

Grade: A-.

'Battlestar Galactica' focus on story, not science fiction 04/02/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2008 5:02pm]
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