In 2003, the San Diego Comic-Con was a much less intense event than it is today, but networks and studios still saw the value of promoting new TV shows to fans. So, a few months before the premiere of the miniseries that re-launched “Battlestar Galactica,” creator Ronald D. Moore and cast members Edward James Olmos, Jamie Bamber, and Katee Sackhoff, sat on a raised platform in one of the venue’s smaller conference rooms.
They screened the trailer. And then they ate a lot of crap. Although the original “Battlestar Galactica” premiered in 1978 for just one season, the audience was rooted in debating the old version, and why the Sci-Fi Channel (as it was then known) wanted to reboot the show.
The mood did lighten a bit when Sackhoff, cast as the gender-swapped character of Starbuck, addressed how much her role would resemble the one originally played by Dirk Benedict as a womanizing, gambling, and hard-drinking rascal. She said her Starbuck was definitely not afraid of drinking, gambling, or rebelling — and, when it came to the last thing, “as long as I’m involved in the casting…” It went better than another panel held at a “Galactica” fan convention, where Moore was booed.
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Two years later, “Battlestar” returned to San Diego Comic-Con — but this time, they were in the massive Ballroom 20 before a packed crowd in love with its dark and political sci-fi storytelling. They were converts to Moore’s vision: As he pledged to do in a 2003 blog post on the Sci-Fi Channel’s website, “Our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of the science-fiction television series.” Today, “Battlestar” stands as the gold standard of what is possible when a property is revived for a new audience.
Premiering 15 years ago on Sci-Fi, “Battlestar” was a show about the apocalypse — what happens to the survivors of an epic catastrophe that led to the deaths of billions on the planets that constituted the Twelve Colonies of Kobal. Only those who were in space were still alive, and so they eventually formed a caravan of oddball ships that represented the last chance for the human race. Each week, its opening credits provided an updated reminder of just how many humans were still alive. All spaceships aside, it was really a show about survival — what it takes as well as what it costs.
People regularly made hard choices that led to innocent deaths. With deeply felt characters, betrayals experienced by series regulars had profound impact. The show also featured groundbreaking twists, including a year-forward time jump that was relatively unprecedented but became an industry-altering narrative device that many shows would emulate.
As then-San Francisco Chronicle critic Tim Goodman wrote in 2008, “What really separates ‘Battlestar Galactica’ from most dramas, not just sci-fi series, is that it has a fearlessness in tackling big issues. War, race, religion, gender equity and, particularly this season, personal identity (and what it means to be human, or not) have been prevalent from the start. You just don’t see that very often — anywhere.”
One immensely important storyline came in early episodes of Season 3, when most of the remaining humans found themselves living under the rule of Cylon overlords and began rebelling in brutal ways. At the height of the American war in Iraq, an American television show was telling stories from the point of view of suicide bombers.
“Battlestar” did not have a flawless run. It petered out in its final season with an overemphasis on mythology and perhaps a narrative that veered too much into the darkness. Still, it’s funny to remember the naysayers in 2003, bitter that their childhood favorite was getting a gritty makeover. They had no idea how “Battlestar” would prove why not all reboots are bad ideas, as well as why great TV can be found in any genre, as long as it’s being made by thoughtful storytellers, able to find the humanity in anything.
“Battlestar Galactica” is streaming now on Hulu. If you’ve never seen it before, be sure to start with the 2003 miniseries, which premiered 15 years ago this week.