AUSTIN, Texas — The lively and laughter-filled “Battlestar Galactica” panel at the ATX Television Festival started to seem like an episode of the show about halfway through its nearly two-hour running time: Technical glitches garbled the Skype participation of cast member Jamie Bamber, who called in from France. Maybe it was the Cylons having a last bit of revenge?
For a few minutes, Bamber’s face on a screen loomed over the reunited cast, and when a connection was finally established, most of Bamber’s answers were unintelligible. Mary McDonnell, who played Laura Roslin, stood up from the gray couches assembled on the Paramount Theatre stage and tried to chat with Bamber. Edward James Olmos, who played Admiral William Adama on the Peabody-winning Syfy series, also stood up and asked Bamber if he had headphones with a microphone to cut down on the audio difficulties. He then tried to call Bamber on his phone.
“Eddie is the Admiral, and the Admiral is Eddie,” Michael Trucco said with a smile. It was an answer to a fan question about who was most like their character, but he might as well have been talking about the way the show’s leaders, Roslin and Adama, took charge of their improvised family in that moment.
As he sipped a beer, Bamber did let the audience know that it was 3 a.m. where he was. The technical problems were never quite sorted out, but Bamber’s attempt to participate was an opportunity for comedy and also one of many reminders of how close the cast still is. The actors at the panel — McDonnell, Olmos, Katee Sackhoff, James Callis, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, and Michael Trucco — ended up assembling around the camera transmitting their images to Bamber, blowing kisses as they said goodbye to him. He saluted — in true Lee Adama style — and then let the cast get back to their fond memories and funny stories.
Executive producer and showrunner Ron Moore talked about how he rented the original series from Blockbuster more than 15 years ago, after executive producer David Eick had raised the possibility of reviving the show.
“I was very struck by the idea of doing that show at that time — it was months after Sept. 11, an attack that had been out of the blue,” Moore said. “This was about survivors who ran away, pursued their enemies into the night. If you did that show [at that time], it would be an opportunity to talk about things happening in the world, to talk about the military, a civilian government in a time of war, fundamentalism.”
Before the show dove into those themes, Olmos united the cast on one of the first days of shooting. He called them into his trailer and gave them an inspirational speech that several still recalled vividly.
“When I first met Eddie, I was pretty scared, to be honest,” Callis said. “He had that conviction, he knew exactly what he was doing and where he was going, which I must say, was the opposite of me in that first week. But everything Eddie said turned out to be true. He said it would go for five years, and he said to keep your powder dry for the long haul. He said, ‘Nobody make fun of this,’ there will be enough people who want to rubbish this idea because of the title ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ which is a blessing and a poisoned chalice. He said, ‘Nobody needs to take us as seriously as we do.”
“At the time, you don’t realize how important something like that is. The thing I really got was the passion and the commitment,” Callis added. “We were led through example, by Mary and Eddie, these two incredible professionals who gave us everything.”
For McDonnell, “I wanted to explore a woman coming into power without cultural training or support behind her, as many women my age have experienced. We were shooting when Hillary [Clinton] was running, and it became very timely for me.”
Asked for a favorite scene, McDonnell said, “Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about, ‘I’m coming for all of you!'” The reason I loved it was because we finally got to touch on Laura Roslin’s rage. That was liberating.”
One of Helfer’s favorite moments was in the miniseries, when her Cylon character snapped a baby’s neck (a moment that caused her sister, who had just had a baby when she saw it, to stop watching the show forever).
“There was a lot of discussion about it. The network didn’t want it in there,” Helfer said. “I liked the fact that it was in there, and her seeing it as being more of a mercy killing. It was important to have that moment, because you saw this baby was going to die shortly [due to the massive destruction caused by the Cylons]. But for the first time, she held a baby, and she was fascinated by it. She picked it up and was taken by its innocence, so she made a choice to end its life quickly. To me, that was very integral moment. It showed the other side is not just evil, they have some sort of empathy. They can feel — here are robots that can have these moments and feel.”
Trucco talked about coming on board the show well after it had started, and he and Sackhoff laughed a lot as they recalled having to invent the on-screen game of Pyramid, because nobody had bothered to think up the rules. And Trucco recalled how, though the cast embraced him as one of their own from Day One, some fans didn’t like his character, Anders, at first. “That just fueled Ron,” Trucco said.
“Oh, he’s coming back!” Moore recalled thinking.
Sackhoff recalled having been deemed “too girly” to play Starbuck before getting the part, and she talked about her reaction when she found a message board where her casting was being discussed by fans of the original series, in which Starbuck was played by a man.
“I marched down to an internet cafe and paid my $11.99 and I logged onto a chat group just to see what they thought,” Sackhoff recalled. “And I learned in that moment, f**k ‘em.”
Like Sackhoff, Callis had to audition over and over again. “I auditioned so many times for this show. I thought, why don’t they make it this difficult to become the President?”
Moore said the “stupidest” thing he and Eick ever did was try to hide from the cast and crew that Starbuck would be coming back after her apparent “death” in the middle of one season.
Sackhoff hated keeping the secret, so she told Olmos “because he would tell everyone.” The news was kept under wraps in the real world for some time, but on the “Battlestar” set, the secret about Starbuck lasted less than a week, Moore said. “It spiraled completely out of control.”
As for the famous phrase from the opening credits — about the Cylons having a plan — that was just thrown in because it sounded good. Moore remembered Eick saying they’d figure out the plan later, but Eick lobbied for “they have a plan” to be in there because it was punchy and sounded cool.
He keeps getting asked about it though, but the answer remains the same: “There’s no f*****g plan,” he said.
That said, there was a plan for how the show would look and what its themes and tone would be. Olmos remembered his first conversations with Moore and Eick, seeking their assurances that the aesthetic would recall films like “Blade Runner,” and not B-movies like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” If he ever saw a low-budget creature like that on the show, Olmos said he told the producers, “I’m going to faint on camera, and you are going to have to write ‘He died of a heart attack.’”
If he were to make the show in 2017, Moore said that he wasn’t quite sure how he would approach it from political and social angles. If the show was made today, he theorized that the main difference would be structural.
As Moore noted, “serialized TV was frowned upon” back then (the “Battlestar” miniseries aired in 2003 and the full series arrived the following year). “There was no way to catch up on shows, DVR penetration wasn’t that high. Networks wanted each episode to stand alone. Today we would write it as a flat-out serial.”
But McDonnell said that she still found great relevance in the show’s core premise, which involved more than 50,000 people having to find ways to survive in a series of inhospitable environments.
“The idea of forcing a collected group of people to see each other as one is the thing that continually resonates with me,” McDonnell said. “The powers that be are trying to create as much difference between us as their pocketbooks will allow. With ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ we have a reminder that it could all go away like that. Perhaps we can stop dividing each other and seeing each other as the ‘Other.’”
Moments later, Olmos led a chant, with the crowd on its feet, as the panel ended: “So say we all!”