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'Battlestar' sci-fi celebrated

Rich Hobby / EMP|SFM

A battle-scarred Viper Mark II space fighter is one of the highlights of the "Battlestar Galactica" exhibit at Seattle's Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum. Click through a slideshow featuring highlights from the exhibit.

"Battlestar Galactica," the '70s sci-fi show that was updated to reflect 21st-century social issues, is being celebrated for its science as well as its fiction.

On the science front, a book titled "The Science of Battlestar Galactica" delves into the real-life research in robotics, genetics and physics that parallels the plots in the "reimagined" TV series. One big bonus is that the authors, Patrick di Justo and Kevin Grazier, untangle the labyrinthine twists in the story that came into play during its final season, which wrapped up last year on the Syfy cable network. (Syfy is a subsidiary of NBC Universal, which is also a partner with Microsoft in the msnbc.com joint venture.)

On the fiction front, some of the coolest props from the show --- including two Colonial Viper fighter mockups and an evil-looking Cylon Raider as well as Tricia Helfer's slinky red Cylon dress -- are going on exhibit this weekend at Seattle's Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum.

The book as well as the exhibit show that "Battlestar Galactica" is no mere space opera, but a cultural phenomenon worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as "Star Wars" and "Star Trek."

'Battlestar' made simple
Citing the reasons for that requires a refresher on the "Battlestar" saga. The tale begins when a race of robots known as Cylons attack their former human masters on a dozen planets known as the 12 Colonies of Kobol. Only a small remnant of humanity survives, fleeing the scene in a convoy led by Battlestar Galactica, the outer-space equivalent of an aircraft carrier. As the Colonists search for a legendary haven called "Earth," the Cylons are hot on their trail.

One of the big twists in the reimagined series is that some of the undercover Cylons look exactly like humans. For executive producer Ronald Moore, that opened up lots of possibilities for social commentary, especially since the show got its start in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks and amid the war in Iraq.

"Here was a show that was designed to mirror what we were going through as a people," Moore told journalists today at a press preview for the Seattle exhibit.

Many episodes echoed the tough choices that post-9/11 society was facing: Is it OK to torture a robot who looks like humans and feels pain just like humans do, if the information gained through that torture would head off an attack? Is it OK to send suicide bombers out to destroy Cylons, knowing that some humans would be killed as well?

From TV show to exhibit
"Battlestar" was a show that devoted attention to such serious issues -- and the exhibit follows in its footsteps. During a guided tour of the exhibition, curator Brooks Peck showed off the three full-size prop spaceships that were used and reused in battle scenes ... as well as the admiral's uniforms that were worn by the stars of the 1978-79 show (Lorne Greene's "leisure tunic") and the 2004-2009 version (Edward James Olmos' duty blues).

Peck said the Seattle exhibition started with the spaceships: "NBC Universal called us up, and they said, 'We have these big spaceships sitting in our warehouse, and it's kind of expensive to store them. Would you like to put them on exhibition?' And we said, 'Yes!'"

About 50 other props from collectors around the country -- including software billionaire Paul Allen, the museum's founder -- were borrowed to fill out the exhibit space. But Peck wanted to go beyond showing museumgoers stuff from the set of a TV show. The exhibition also offers videos and displays that tell the deeper stories behind the show. As an example, Peck pointed to an interactive kiosk where museumgoers could watch a scene with a suicide bomber -- and then register their vote on what they'd do. When I voted, the tally was 60 percent anti-bombing, 40 percent pro.

"Way back here in the back of the exhibit is where we dig into the tough stuff," Peck told me.

The science in the fiction
Moore told journalists that he aimed to keep the focus on the characters and their struggles rather than cool gadgetry and strange aliens -- in part because of his previous experience as a writer and producer for "Star Trek" shows. "The technobabble in 'Trek' just got completely out of control," Moore said.

That aversion to sci-fi cliches extended to Olmos, who played the patriarchal (but flawed) Admiral Bill Adama on the reimagined "Battlestar." Olmos said an anti-alien clause was written into his contract for the series ... and it didn't sound as if he was joking.

"The first four-eyed monster that I see, I'm going to faint on camera -- then I'm going to get up, and you're going to write me out of the show," he said.

Kevin Grazier, who served as the series' science consultant, said he didn't mind that the plot glossed over how Battlestar Galactica's FTL (faster-than-light) drive worked, or why gravity seemed to keep the admiral's feet on the floor just fine in deep space.

"I made the claim that to get most of the things that you see in the show, at a confidence level that's good enough for science fiction, your goal is to create more 'Oh, Wow' moments and fewer 'Oh, Please' moments," he told me.

Rest assured, however, that Grazier has the mad science skillz to back up what he says. He's on the science team for the Cassini mission to Saturn at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and teaches astronomy, cosmology and planetary science at the University of California at Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

The book that Grazier co-wrote with Wired contributing editor Patrick Di Justo goes into all the geekery that the show took for granted. Take that FTL drive, for example: Grazier and Di Justo speculate that the 12 Colonies' scientists found a way to unify the gravitational force with the other fundamental forces, and could use that knowledge to build gravitational field generators for the propulsion drive. The FTL drive could send ships "jumping" through extradimensional shortcuts in spacetime. Similar field generators, on a much smaller scale, could produce artificial gravity inside the spaceships.

"The Science of Battlestar Galactica" answers some of the nagging technical questions viewers may have had about various plot twists. One chapter lays out the rationale for being able to survive exposure to the vacuum of outer space, as a couple of the show's characters did. (However, they had to undergo treatment afterward for the bends -- something that the writers of "2001: A Space Odyssey" may have overlooked.) The book also delves into real-life science that parallels the gee-whiz technologies seen in the background on "Battlestar."

Even if you're not a "Battlestar Galactica" fan, you'll pick up deep insights on 21st century science and technology from "The Science of Battlestar Galactic," and you'll get a behind-the-scenes look at how Hollywood does sci-fi from "Battlestar Galactica: The Exhibition" in Seattle.  If you are a BSG fan, as many of us at today's press preview were, the book as well as the exhibit merit a place on your must-see list.

So say we all!

Update for 3:45 p.m. ET Oct. 23: The "Battlestar Galactica" guests of honor mixed it up with hundreds of fans at the EMP last night during an opening reception for museum members and VIP (and a few press types they let in the door).

I asked Ronald Moore, who was the executive producer of the reimagined "Battlestar," what he knew about "Blood and Chrome," the newly greenlighted Syfy TV show that is supposed to bridge the gap between "Caprica" and "Battlestar" (and is supposed to feature a young Bill Adama, who ends up as BSG's commander and patriarch). He said he didn't know much about the project (although TV writer Maureen Ryan quoted a Syfy exec as saying Moore was "in the room" when the project was conceived). When I asked Moore whether he might expect a phone call asking him to get involved, he said he couldn't. The way he told it, his recent deal with Sony would preclude him from working on the new "Battlestar" spin-off. 

"Sometimes you have to walk away from your children," Moore told me.

Deadline TV recently reported that Moore is working through Sony with NBC Universal on what sounds like a Harry Potteresque TV project.

Other tidbits from the Q&A at the reception, totally directed at fans:

  • Glen Larson, creator and executive producer of the original BSG in 1978, traced the travails he went through getting that series on television: "You've got to will it to get it on the air, and will it to be a success."
  • Michael Hogan, who played Col. Saul Tigh, Adama's right-hand man and drinking buddy, was asked how he coped with wearing an eyepatch during the latter part of the series: "My favorite scenes after I lost the eye were ... flashbacks," he joked.
  • Kate Vernon, who played Tigh's wife, Ellen, said her character was much more outgoing than she was in real life -- and that it took some "courage" to become so extroverted. "Once I made that leap, it was like, 'Yeehaw!'" she said.
  • Richard Hatch, who was Captain Apollo in the original series and a coup leader in the updated version, said he played his character as someone who thought he was a good guy rather than a bad guy -- in part because few people think of themselves as evil. "Everybody thinks he's a good guy," Hatch observed.
  • Edward James Olmos, the Admiral Adama character, was asked to give his favorite catchphrase from the show. You'd expect it to be "So say we all" ... but Olmos threw out a mischievous alternative, referring to his character's relationship with President Laura Roslin, played by Mary McDonnell. "I love you, Laura," Olmos said in his sexiest sotto voce.

More about 'Battlestar Galactica':

Be sure to check out our slideshow about the making of the "Battlestar Galactica" exhibition, which will be on display through March 2012 at the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum in Seattle. There is an admission charge. After its Seattle run, Peck hopes the show will go on the road, but no specific tour schedule has been set.

"Battlestar Galactica" is available on DVD, and a prequel to the series, titled "Caprica," airs on the Syfy cable network. Another BSG spin-off, "Blood and Chrome," has been greenlighted for production.

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