Sci Fi looks for a future without ‘Battlestar Galactica’

Dec. 09, 2008 | 8:32 p.m.

Dave_howe_of_sci_fi

This is a longer version of a story that appeared in Sunday’s Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times. It was a part a package of stories on science fiction in Hollywood, past, present and future.

The end is in sight for “Battlestar Galactica,” and the beleaguered humans of the 12 Colonies aren’t the only ones fretting about their survival after the credits roll — there are also the executives at Sci Fi, the cable channel that has ridden “Galactica” as its esteemed flagship, who will now have to carry on without her.

The final 10 episodes of “Battlestar” begins on Jan. 16, and while a prequel series called “Caprica” has been locked in for a pilot movie in 2009 — and a series to follow in 2010 — that show begins with a new cast, a new story and no guarantees. Dave Howe, the president of the cable station owned by NBC Universal, said there is anxiety about decommissioning the award-winning drama that gave Sci Fi so much of its contemporary identity.

Cylon“Believe me, none of us could ever overestimate the success of ’Battlestar’ in terms of putting us on the map with not just a critical audience but actually with a new audience and an audience that is reevaluating a genre,” said Howe (above). “It’s been a honor to be associated with the show for all of us. It’s been an amazing ride, and I think all of us will be depressed when it’s over.”

On a recent visit to Los Angeles, Howe was plainly proud of the broader success of Sci Fi (formerly called the Sci Fi Channel), which for a considerable part of its 16-year history was known primarily as a fanboy corner of the cable dial with reruns of “The Incredible Hulk,” “Planet of the Apes” and “The Twilight Zone.” Now the channel is in a different strata.

“We’re at No. 5 for the year,” Howe said, “and within spitting distance of A&E at No. 4, which I think has shocked some people who have assumed that we’re so niche and narrow that we don’t even register on the Richter scale.”

The question is how the channel will make the Earth move again. Howe pointed to the series “Sanctuary,” which premiered Oct. 3 and saw its pilot finish as the night’s No. 1 prime-time cable entertainment program among adults 25 to 54, as part of the answer. The fantasy show — it’s about the mysterious 157-year-old researcher Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping), who tends to a refuge for magical beasties — is also a symbol of Sci Fi’s eagerness to embrace new models for the “next idea” of 21st century television series.

Battlestar_galactica_razor

“Sanctuary” began as an internet series of “webisodes” and is filmed on a “virtual set” (green screen technology and CGI provide the backdrop for the action in the show). The show also uses “RED camera,” a technique that means it is recorded straight to a computer hard drive instead of film and videotape and offers a higher-definition image and a more nimble post-production process.

Howe and his team are pushing hard online as well and view the cable channel as just part of the hardwiring they want to establish with science fiction and fantasy fans, a group that is now far broader and much less male-dominated in this post-“Matrix” and post-“Harry Potter” era.

Sci Fi is now working on a project that Howe calls “the Holy Grail” for Sci Fi: The channel is teaming television writers with video-game designers to create a franchise that is both a television series and a massive multiplayer game on the Internet — more than that, the fans who play the game will actually help shape the show’s story arc with their virtual exploits.

The premise is in play, but the show-game will be set about 80 years in the future and on an Earth that looks very different than the one we know today. Summer 2010 has been circled for the launch of the venture, which is looking to win the affection of the massive multiplayer gaming audience that has made World of Warcraft a $1-billion-per-year business.

And for a channel that has fiction right in its name, Sci Fi is making a bigger push into scripted reality shows. Just last month, two series premiered with premises that sound like the bizarre offspring of “Scooby Doo” or “The Running Man.” One series, “Estate of Panic,” would have contestants battle each other and a haunted house for cash prizes, while the other, delicately titled “Cha$e,” would have contestants run, solve puzzles and avoid being snagged by “men in black” hunters.

If anything, Sci Fi seems to be dealing with too many ideas; Howe says there are scores of potential projects being considered and dozens of option deals locked in, which may speak to the excitement of the sci-fi sector right now, but may also hint at a bit of anxious hyperactivity by a channel losing its go-to franchise.

Amanda_tapping_sanctuary Ronald Moore, the developer and executive producer of “Battlestar,” said as a creator that he has never been happier with Sci Fi — “This is the most stable it’s been since I’ve been there, and there’s a lot to be said for that” — and he is optimistic about his “Caprica” show and the cable channel where it will live. “I think there’s good people making good decisions and a sense that great things are happening.”

“Sanctuary” star Tapping, a longtime veteran of the channel from her “Stargate SG-1” days, is also enthused by the direction of the channel and, more than that, by the sophistication of science fiction programming which is beyond its “gee whiz” era.

“I think fans want shows that have real and believable people in fantastic settings. I think for a long time science fiction on TV had characters that weren’t very believable. People will watch a show once for the special effects, but it’s the characters that bring them back.”

That was certainly the case with “Battlestar,” and Howe seems to recognize that best special effects on that show were the dialogue and ambitious explorations of the human heart.

“To take something that was a cheesy 1970s show and turn it into something like the ‘West Wing’ of outer space is not something that anybody set out to do,” he said. “We set out to reinvent the show and make a space opera that could be relevant to a new audience, but to have this kind of impact and resonance way beyond anyone’s expectations. It brought in people who would have never touched us nor considered watching us before. Now we have to build on that. That is our challenge.”

– Geoff Boucher

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The virtual world of “Sanctuary” (with photo gallery)

Dave Howe photographed by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times in New York in October. Images from “Battlestar Galactica” and “Sanctuary” courtesy of Sci Fi. Jamie Bamber, Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell of “Battlestar” photographed at the offices of the Los Angeles Times in March 2008 by Genaro Molina of The Times.

More in: Uncategorized, Battlestar Galactica, SyFy

Comments


10 Responses to Sci Fi looks for a future without ‘Battlestar Galactica’

  1. Mark Allen says:

    Hi Geoff
    The problem that the Sci Fi Channel has is it's lack of loyalty to the shows it screens. It cancelled Sliders to create a Tv series based on the B grade movie Tremors, then gave that show a mercy killing before starting Farscape in 1999.
    In 2002 Sci Fi cancelled Farscape to pay for the last 2 years of Stargate SG1 and it's spinoff Stargate Atlantis. And now it has cancelled that show for a new Stargate spinoff series, full of much cheaper actors locked into cost saving 5 year contracts.
    It's an even money bet that Eureka will be cancelled before it's 5th season, probably to pay for this cheap and stupid game show idea.
    As soon as a show gets a good following, the Sci Fi Channel management kill it off to pay for something new.
    Sci Fi is a channel for the ADD generation.
    Mark Allen
    Sydney

  2. David V says:

    I don't understand why SciFi doesn't develop a series around Eric Flint's '1632' series. Very popular with sci-fi and speculative history fans, and very cheap to produce for a sci-fi series. I suspect it would appeal to the same audience as BSG.

  3. First of all, I am a huge fan of science fiction. That being said, BSG has been by far the best thing to grace the Sci Fi channel. Most of what flickers across it's screen is simply put – unbearable. Sanctuary is no exception. Amanda Tapping's bad, fake accent is enough alone to make it unwatchable. I dutifully suffered through SG-1 all the way though to the end and have even endured Atlantis in hopes it would redeem itself. But no. With the exception of a few (and I mean a few) scattered episodes that didn't cause me to recite my SG-1 mantra at the end of the hour, "worst show ever", it continues to underwhelm me. I won't even get in to how horrible all of the other Sci Fi originals are, there's no need to. They're just that, horrible, and no one can deny it.
    I will miss BSG very, very much. But I would much rather it end on a strong note so that it may live on as a classic and not slowly spiral down to some lesser, tainted, watered-down version of it's former glory.
    Thank's to everyone involved with the show for making something great.

  4. Jorge says:

    Just let Richard Parsons know that Tapping's accent on Sanctuary isn't fake — IT'S REAL. She actually is British; her American accent was faked. British people actually do speak like that.

  5. Pasquale Goglia says:

    As am I, that is a big fan of science fiction. Amanda Tapping's accent makes the program unwatchable. What studio hotshot thought of that idea. It is almost as bad as Battlestar Gallatica and the monotone acting of James Olmos. His only claim to fame is Zoot Suit, everything else is a waste of time.
    Holy Hannah, SG1 is probably the best sci fi program out there.
    There is nothing worse than the SCI FI channel's Saturday movies. Where do they find these actors.

  6. Al says:

    Loved Battlestar Galactia and the tension between all the players – the reality of living from one moment to the next. Did not believe a remake could be so smartly done!
    Stop watching Stargate and Alantis with such a disconnect between reality. Eureka is just to corny. How all these gifted people can be so stuipid.

  7. Mr. Bear says:

    Re: Amanda Tapping's British accent:
    The negative comments in this forum made me wonder, "Is her accent on Sanctuary real or faked?" Apparently, according to this interview with her, it's a bit of both. http://www.itv.com/Drama/cult/Sanctuary/AmandaTap

  8. IGPNicki says:

    Being a Brit living in the US, i'm pretty amused at the accent talk. Unfortunately, the series hasn't interested me enough to take a side. :) I think Battlestar Galactica is by no means a perfect show. In fact, in all honesty, the imperfectness in the show is not merely centered on the characters themselves. But I can't deny that it's done wonders for the sci-fi channel. Unfortunately, given their other shows, I suspect it's more a case of luck and odds than anything really on the sci-fi channel's part. Sorry to sound so negative, but I think despite Caprica, the sci-fi channel's going to have to do some real work if they plan to maintain their status. http://www.igp-scifi.com

  9. Zak Ray says:

    "The show also uses "RED camera," a technique that means it is recorded straight to a computer hard drive instead of film and videotape and offers a higher-definition image and a more nimble post-production process."
    RED is not a technique, it is a company that sells proprietary set of cameras. While they do utilize a hard-drive for recording, it does not define it.

  10. Puzzled says:

    Why hasn't SciFi developed Eric Flint's '1632' series of books? Lot's of action, enough tech for geeks, enough idea content for the BSG crowd, enough romance for the ladies, and basically a cross between present-day tech and a 17th-Century costume drama. So, easy to budget and produce. Relatively little CGI to break the bank.
    It seems like a natural, and it has a rabid fan following in print. I'm puzzled as to why it's not the next series up to bat.

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