Written By: Diane Werts (Staff Writer)
Submitted by: Nina
Those in the genre say it encompasses more than space and special effects and deserves critics’ respect and Emmy consideration
Case in point:
A vice president in the TV industry recently asked me what TV shows I watch for enjoyment. I mentioned my favorite is “Battlestar Galactica” on Sci Fi Channel. She laughed. I asked if she’d seen it. No, she said, and laughed again. Did she know, I asked, that it’s a gritty adult drama of family members and colleagues in deep-rooted conflict not unlike that of “The Sopranos”? That they’re part of a civilization struggling not only to survive but to define itself amid messy terrorist warfare? That it explores the values of competing societies that demonize each other’s spiritual beliefs? That it’s full of gutsy acting by the likes of Edward James Olmos and sophisticated allegory mirroring today’s global politics?
She laughed again.
And she’s not the only one. Mary McDonnell laughed, too, when the two-time Oscar nominee was offered one of the lead roles in Sci Fi’s latest series smash. From “Dances With Wolves” to “Battlestar Galactica”? “I couldn’t equate myself with that particular genre,” says McDonnell, a graceful 50ish woman you might expect to see on something erudite like “The West Wing,” if not the space-based drama that begins its second season Friday (10 p.m. on Sci Fi). Even McDonnell “felt, like, here I am, this sort of earth mother, and my perception of people in science fiction was sort of pristine. I was very naive and ignorant about the genre. And on the other hand, I’m very interested in the metaphysical in life.”
A challenging role
So McDonnell read the script and took the role of a government bureaucrat suddenly elevated to the presidency after an apocalyptic attack wipes out nearly her entire civilization. As the survivors continue to be hunted by an attacking race of human-looking robots that they themselves created, McDonnell’s character comes to believe she is a “chosen” leader whose rise was foretold by religious prophets. That makes her a lightning rod for no-nonsense military leaders (led by Olmos), for power-seeking rivals and even soldiers torn between pragmatic duty and spiritual beliefs.
“There are unlimited possibilities, really, because it embraces the other dimension, and the light and the dark of the spiritual dimension,” McDonnell says. “We’re able to look at religious, war and environmental needs – all of these imbalances we’re facing” in our own world today.
“I voted for it as outstanding drama on my Emmy ballot,” says Bryce Zabel, who served as chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences from 2001 to 2003, after writing and producing everything from “L.A. Law” to “Dallas” to his own fantasy-tinged creations, “Dark Skies” and “M.A.N.T.I.S.” Zabel knows from both sides the battle sci-fi wages to be taken seriously by those adult viewers who can’t get past the spaceships and alien species to savor the complex human stories those fantasy devices allow to be told. He says, “They don’t know how well-constructed and dramatic and emotional” Sci Fi’s new “Galactica” remake is under the guidance of executive producer Ronald D. Moore, most recently of HBO’s mystical “Carnivale.”
“There is this horrible misconception that science fiction is for somebody else, not for me,” says Bonnie Hammer, president of Sci Fi Channel and USA, who campaigns daily to convince skeptics that today’s TV genre encompasses more than space and special effects. “It’s speculative fiction, it’s the imagination, it’s anything outside what we know to be true, it’s the not-quantifiable,” she says. In her seven years overseeing Sci Fi programming, its series have been repositioned not as fantastic adventures but relatably soul-driven dramas.
“Farscape” portrayed a 1990s astronaut marooned alone among aliens at the far end of the galaxy, where he dropped pop culture quips while forging touching relationships. On the new “Galactica,” aliens are human-technology creations who look and act like us. Some of them yearn to be human. Meanwhile, some humans on the show actually begin to wonder whether these Cylon creations might potentially represent a higher-minded kind of humanity than what flesh-and-blood people have evolved into.
With McDonnell being a recent science-fiction convert herself, she was surprised at a recent genre convention to discover not a gathering of geeks but of cerebral viewers eager to discuss the values behind “Galactica” behavior. “A great deal of people needed to speak about the religious aspects of the show,” she says. “People were talking about the fact there isn’t really an intelligent form right now to go to, to truly wrestle with confusions about religion and the way religion and politics and war have all gotten tied in together. If we begin to wrestle with it in television, isn’t that very exciting?”
Only for those who experience it. And just the name Sci Fi Channel seems to scare away some from even sampling the show. Zabel admits when he first watched Sci Fi’s new take on “Galactica” – based on a 1978 ABC series designed in the wake of the original “Star Wars” to emphasize whizzing spaceships – “I didn’t expect to like it. But I was amazed. The characters and the human drama of that show surpassed anything I was watching. I mean, the stakes – I don’t think I’ve watched a series where I felt so torn about mankind’s chances to survive.”
“There’s something very liberating about the genre. You can do big, giant metaphors and really hit them hard,” says Tim Minear, co-creator of Fox’s psychological crime drama “The Inside.” Minear is also a veteran writer of futuristic space action (“Firefly”), contemporary fantasy (“Angel”) and whimsical flights of fancy (“Wonderfalls”). He says he’s producing “The Inside” in “exactly the way I did ‘Angel.’ It’s melodrama with big, epic villains and moral ambiguity and heroes in jeopardy of being corrupted and going over to the dark side or walking in the dark in order to maintain the good. They just don’t turn into vampires.”
Such pure-fantasy elements, despite their creative use in exploring human behavior, seem to alienate some viewers no matter what. Not to mention awards voters. Despite widespread critical acclaim for their psyche insight, series such as “Farscape,” “Angel” and its companion series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” have rarely been recognized with industry awards. Critics on the jury for the American Film Institute’s 2001 Television Awards campaigned hard to persuade the panel’s academics and Hollywood producers to nominate “Buffy” one of that year’s top shows. And some might attribute Sci Fi’s rare 2003 Emmy win for best miniseries to the executive producer’s name in the title of “Steven Spielberg Presents Taken.”
Looking for an Emmy nomination
When this year’s Emmy nods are announced Thursday, “It’d be wonderful just to get a nomination” for “Battlestar Galactica,” says Sci Fi chief Hammer. “There’s a lack of awareness or knowledge,” she thinks, among Academy members who, in the wide-open nomination process, tend to cite the same tried-and-true hits year after year, even if the shows have slipped in quality. Zabel notes that the Academy recently raised the number of citations in the nomination stage from five to 10 per category, to open things up beyond “the usual suspects,” as he puts it. “When members just do the ‘obligatory vote,’ the same things pop up, but the really fertile territory is in six-through-10,” where creative dark horses can build momentum alongside the familiar “West Wings” and “Sopranos.”
And now, sci-fi production seems poised to reach a larger critical mass and build more industry impact. After last season’s success of ABC’s “Lost” with its mystery-island elements of the supernatural, network television is jumping back into the game with five new fantasy hours this fall (see sidebar). Though these shows tend more toward spooky suspense than “Galactica’s” thoughtful drama, they should bring more writers, producers and hopefully viewers into the science fiction orbit.
Just as fandom can seem cliquish to “mainstream” viewers, Hollywood writers tend to be genre-specific. Zabel just wrote a remake of the 1970s hit “The Poseidon Adventure” for NBC. “Farscape” creator Rockne S. O’Bannon has a fall Sci Fi miniseries called “The Triangle.” Sci Fi’s Hammer says, “For those who started writing in science fiction because they had a love of what you could do with this, it’s hard to go back to ‘broader/mainstream’ afterwards. There’s a freedom and a liberty and no rules to the game here.”
Writer Minear admits: “Some may look down their nose at us, but let me tell you a little secret. People who work in the genre secretly think we’re much cooler. How many ‘West Wing’ conventions are there?”