Sci Fi looks for a future without ‘Battlestar Galactica’
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.
“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.
“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.
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
RECENT AND RELATED
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.