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Fans Battle TV Over Galactica

It was the stuff of lunch boxes, kitschy bed sheets, Wonder Bread collector cards, and generations of geek dreams. This fall, it’s all coming back.

The 1978 sci-fi TV series Battlestar Galactica turns 25 in 2003, and a host of products will launch around the anniversary: DVD box sets of the original series and a feature film are due out in October, followed by a new prequel game for PlayStation 2 and Xbox in November. An interactive TV prototype is in development, as well, under the auspices of the American Film Institute.

But by far the most controversial element of Galactica revivalism is a new four-hour miniseries starring Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, airing Dec. 7 on the Sci Fi Channel. (A preview airs Aug. 8 during the Tremors season finale).

The original 1970s series debuted on the heels of Star Wars, but lasted only one season. Despite adding up to only 24 hours of show time and a disastrous ’80s remake, its fan base exploded when the original went into international syndication.

Decades of reruns spawned fans diverse in age, geography and demographics – but largely united in reaction to the forthcoming miniseries.

“It’s a travesty,” said Shawn O’Donnell, co-host of the Battlestar Galactica Fan Club. The 30-something California resident became a fan in 1979, then contacted original series star Richard Hatch (Capt. Apollo) two decades later to ask for the actor’s virtual blessing on the club’s newly created website.

Hatch, who has written five Battlestar Galactica novels, admits even he was unaware of just how popular the quarter-century-old show was until “third-generation” fans like O’Donnell began reaching out. An epiphany hit when Hatch’s girlfriend convinced him to attend a mid-’90s Star Trek convention packed with Galactica fans.

“I walked in thinking, ‘Why am I here?’,” said Hatch. “Then, they started lining up for my autograph, and the line stretched around the block – people in their teens, 20s, 30s. The show was about a community struggling to survive, looking for a safe place to belong. I guess that mythological quality just touches people in some profound, personal way.”

Inspired, the onetime ’70s heartthrob launched an epic battle of his own: a one-man crusade to persuade Sci Fi Channel parent company Universal – which owned the original series rights – to green-light a remake.

With no studio help but an abundance of donated resources and talent from fans, filmmakers and effects gurus, Hatch developed a trailer for what was to become Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming. Tens of thousands of dollars in personal credit-card debt later, Hatch toured the sci-fi convention circuit promoting the bootstrapped preview to standing ovations.

Distraught fans complain network execs witnessed that grass-roots support, then created a new show without Hatch that bore little resemblance to either the actor’s proposed remake or the ’70s classic.

“Richard’s trailer captured what fans really wanted – a continuation of the original,” said fan club leader O’Donnell. “What’s airing in December has nothing to do with that. Sci Fi Channel is pushing out something with the Battlestar name, but the feel is more Beverly Hills 90210 Galactica, or Melrose Place in Space.”

The 1978 prototype and the forthcoming TV “re-imagining” share some essentials: In both, earthlings cruise among the stars aboard a ship named Galactica when evildoers demolish their world. Homeless human heroes vow to survive, and the show follows their quest for a new place in space.

Beyond that, it’s all alien. Countless changes pissing off fans include a virtual sex change for Starbuck, the hunky, fearless fighter pilot played by actor Dirk Benedict in the ’70s series. News of the suddenly female character, now played by Katee Sackhoff (The Education of Max Bickford), has inspired online petitions and impassioned online bulletin board campaigns demanding that the suits at the Sci Fi Channel “keep their hands off Starbuck’s genitals.” Other characters have been altered or deleted, and the show’s aesthetic is said to be darker, sexier and edgier than the original.

X-Men and X2 executive producer Tom DeSanto and director Bryan Singer originally were tapped to head the new production, but schedule conflicts reportedly led to recasting former USA Cable Senior Vice President David Eick and writer Ronald D. Moore (Roswell, Mission: Impossible II, Star Trek: First Contact) as co-executive producers, with Michael Rymer (Angel Baby, Queen of the Damned) directing.

“Our hope is to branch out and attract new fans, but surprise original fans by demonstrating that we understand the essence of the original,” said Eick, whose TV credits include co-producing Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and co-creating its spinoff, Xena: Warrior Princess. “Both the cinematography and the emotional style with which actors perform in the new show are very realistic and nontheatrical.”

Eick said it won’t feel like conventional science-fiction television, and cites inspirations as diverse as the film Black Hawk Down and the vintage Atari arcade game Asteroids.

“We considered seriously how space travel might happen. In outer space, objects in motion remain in motion. You can’t bank against a gravitational pull. There’s a sense of organized chaos, you have to turn your craft around and fire jets in the opposite direction to slow down – just like the old games. When we were developing the show, I ran around telling everyone, ‘Remember Asteroids! Remember Asteroids!'”

An introduction by Moore on the new series’ website indicates they’re shooting to transform more than a miniseries. The statement reads like Dogme 95 for the entire sci-fi television genre.

“Our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of the science-fiction television series,” Moore’s statement reads. “We believe you can explore adult themes with adult characters and still tell a ripping good yarn. We believe that to portray human beings as flawed creations does not weaken them, it strengthens them … We believe that science fiction provides an opportunity to explore our own society, to provoke debate and to challenge our perceptions of ourselves and our fellow Man. If you agree with us, then this is the show for you. If not, then thanks for coming, but the popcorn is in a different aisle.”

For his part, Hatch will be joined in October by old-school fans and original cast and crew members to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary at the Galacticon 2003 reunion convention in Los Angeles.

“Had the miniseries been described as a spinoff instead of a continuation, fan reaction may have been more positive,” Hatch said. “But bringing back any classic is always a delicate thing. Change too much and you lose fans. Don’t change enough, and you lose relevance.”

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