To refashion a phrase made popular by "Battlestar Galactica," all this has happened before, but will it happen again?
When great shows go away, they leave a hole in the television landscape. Difficult as that may be, it's appropriate, given that every great show brings something unique to the party. Part of what makes a classic show great is the fact that it has ideas, dynamics, characters or worlds that aren't like anything else and can't be easily imitated.
When "Battlestar Galactica" debuted with its initial miniseries on Dec. 8, 2003, few shows had taken on the War on Terror in intellectually challenging or uncomfortable ways. Outside of a subset of few shows on a very small number of cable channels, serialization was deeply frowned upon by industry executives. Science fiction was not taken seriously on the small screen, and post-apocalyptic scenarios were not nearly as common in mainstream entertainment as they are today. And of course, most TV executives would have rather swallowed strychnine than air a show that considered religious differences and spiritual evolution in a thoughtful and systematic way.
"Battlestar Galactica" did all those things while supplying rousing action, telling raw and memorable war stories and creating indelible characters whose presences are still missed today. I wouldn't make the argument that every episode is perfect -- nor would anyone associated with the show -- but I would argue that very few shows from the post-aughts Golden Age aimed higher and hit their chosen targets more consistently and more thrillingly.
As I said in my write-up of the show's 2009 finale, "Throughout its four seasons, through the wobbles and the detours and the shocks and the amazing moments and the revelatory beauty, this show mixed action, philosophy, human emotion and compassion in a way I've never encountered before." It was one of a kind.
So was "Lost," but we saw a lot of shows that tried (and failed) to capture or reformulate a few shreds of that show's magic. That hasn't been the case with "Battlestar," and it's not just because most TV executives assume anything depicting spaceships or interstellar travel will put off large numbers of potential viewers (as obviously happened with "Star Wars" and "Avatar").
In a long interview conducted this week (which is available as a Talking TV podcast), Ronald D. Moore, executive producer of "Battlestar Galactica" and its chief creative mastermind, shied away from making any grand claims about his show's long-term impact. The soft-spoken Moore allowed that the story of Roslin, Adama, Starbuck and the rest was one of a wave of shows that may have helped audiences embrace complicated, morally questionable characters, and "Battlestar's" post-disaster premise certainly anticipated shows like "The Walking Dead" and "Revolution."
But making a deep, non-formulaic science fiction show or a drama that takes on serious political issues -- let alone combining the two -- is not exactly easy, then or now. Despite the fact that "Battlestar Galactica" won a loyal following and a great deal of acclaim (including a Peabody Award), most networks aren't eager to do anything ambitious or adventurous with science fiction premises. That's frustrating, given that the events that take place on other worlds and in other galaxies, as Moore notes, give creators a bit of license when it comes to telling challenging tales about the way life is lived here and now.
"That's still my objection to a lot of science fiction [on TV] -- it doesn't take advantage of" the metaphorical possibilities of the genre, Moore said. "Science fiction programming doesn't really take advantage of the fact that we get a free pass on commentary, and you can really talk about deep, powerful things and very political things. And the same with the spiritual component. Television can't deal with anything spiritual anymore unless it's like 'Once Upon A Time,' when it's witchcraft or magic, which doesn't exist in any kind of real way for most people. So because it's fantasy, it gets a pass. 'Oh yeah, they can be spiritual people about made-up stuff and incantations and waving wands and spells and all that, we're perfectly fine with that.' But any kind of actual religion, any kind of actual spirituality or dealing with the philosophical questions -- [the networks] just get all weird about it."
There has been one big change since "Battlestar Galactica" was starting out: Serialization, which had been an anathema to most network executives, is now valued and sought after. But there's a flip side to that, Moore said: Executives want writers to walk into pitch meetings with several years' worth of storytelling already worked out in advance.
"They're starting to sort of talk themselves into believing that if you walk in and you've got it all worked out in advance, that's the ticket to success," Moore said. "And the truth is, 'Lost' and 'Battlestar' and shows like that -- we kind of made it up as we went along, and you discover things, you improve things, you make corrections ... Networks, in classic network fashion, are talking themselves into believing, 'Well, if we can just get them to tell us everything at the beginning,'" then a show will succeed.
And even now -- in an environment in which dark characters, grim scenarios and atmospheres of decay and death are the norm on many popular shows -- the allure of formulas is still strong. Shows like "The Sopranos" and "Lost" and "Battlestar" succeeded, in part, because they were different than what had come before, or came at familiar premises in fresh and distinctive ways. Though things are changing -- as Moore said, there are now "niche markets for more philosophical, religious, weirder programming" -- there's still a sense of caution that often enters into the development process, even when network executives are attracted to risky ideas.
"You go in and you sell them, and you give them a pitch on something that's outside of their comfort zone or outside the box," Moore said. "And at first, their eyes light up and they're like 'Wow, that's so different, so cool.' And then you can almost watch the fear creeping in as they start to really think about it. It's hard to get other people to take risks with you."
That said, even when a creator gets to make the show he or she wanted to make and is largely happy with the results, there are then the reactions of fans who may not always understand or agree with what a show did or where it ended up. The "Battlestar Galactica" finale was no different than most high-profile finales of the past decade in that it was debated almost endlessly online and vociferously lauded and derided by different subsets of fans. "Lost" ended a year after "Battlestar" did, and Moore had some advice for one of the ABC show's creators around the time of its controversial finale.
"I know ['Lost' Executive Producer and Co-creator] Damon Lindelof casually, and the day after the 'Lost' finale aired, I sent him an email just saying, 'Okay, here's what it is. Today sucks because it was all yesterday and it's all over and it's all this press -- it's all this stuff. But the day after it's done, there's just this hole, and it just hurts because it's gone. And you're just grappling with the fact that for so long the show 'is,' and suddenly the show 'was.'"
As for his own show's finale, he had some thoughts on two of the objections that fans have raised since the last episode. (Moore also addressed these points in an extensive post-finale interview published in 2009).
One complaint was, "'Well, we never got to find out what Starbuck was,'" Moore said. "And I was like, well, okay, but that's just a choice. It wasn't like we forgot. We decided to have an ambiguous ending to that character. And then other people say, 'Well, there was too much God, and God changed everything in the end, and there was a deus ex machina.' And I'm like, well, but then you haven't been really been paying attention, because that element has been in the show from the beginning. And to me there was no way to conclude the show without bringing that element in as a strong part of it because it was baked into the concept."
In the interview, Moore also talked about the upcoming thriller "Helix," of which he's an executive producer. (The show premieres on Jan. 10 on Syfy.) He also discussed the very different adaptation challenges of "Outlander," which is based on a series of books by Diana Gabaldon and which debuts on Starz in 2014. We also discussed shows as varied as "The Walking Dead," "Orange Is the New Black," and "Vikings." (He's a fan). But we kept circling back to "Battlestar," its legacy and what he learned from that experience.
"The big takeaway was to try to really push for something new," Moore said. "To try to fight against the temptation in this business to do something that's familiar and to do a new version of the same old thing all over again."
The Talking TV podcast with Ron Moore can be found here, on iTunes and below. Other Talking TV podcasts -- including an in-depth discussion with "Battlestar Galactica" writers Bradley Thompson and David Weddle -- are here. My coverage of the show while it was on the air is here. (Keep clicking "Next" to find older stories.)