Captain’s Log

Want to understand Battlestar Galactica? Eavesdrop on its writers.

Battlestar Galactica writer and executive producer Ronald D. Moore

Ronald D. Moore, the executive producer of Battlestar Galactica, has created a great show with a goofy title. The title isn’t his fault, of course—he’s remaking a crappy 1970s sci-fi relic—and, in any case, it lured in an audience of geeks who will watch anything with the word star in the title. A few months ago, Moore told me (and, more recently, Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen) that the geeky title means a swath of Battlestar’s potential audience doesn’t tune in.

Whether as fan service or a hunt for those missing viewers, Moore has done Herculean labors to promote his show. He blogsand he podcasts DVD-like audio commentary tracks for every episode; die-hards painstakingly synchronize their iPods and TiVos every week. But if you really want to understand what makes Battlestar Galactica great, scroll through the iTunes list to the podcasts called “Battlestar Galactica Writers Meeting.” These are four hours of unedited recordings  from the writers’ room, and they’re fascinating, even for the uninitiated. The podcasts are like a master class in how to make good television.

For most of those four hours, writers David Weddle and Bradley Thompson are working on an episode called “Scar” (which aired Feb. 6), presenting their detailed outline of the episode to Moore, the show runner. (The process is called “breaking.”) Moore made his bones working on Star Trek spinoffs, which he says had an almost totalitarian approach to breaking and story development. Trek characters weren’t allowed to have flaws or conflicts, and almost every story was external—it originated as a mission from Starfleet or as a complication posed by some visitor. As a result, Trek plots don’t hold up; shows from the last 20 years seem stilted and predictable. BSG is rigorous about “breaking” stories, too, but to the opposite end. Every show is internally directed and driven by character, by conflict. There are no aliens with weird foreheads or pointy ears on the Galactica—just imperfect people in extraordinary circumstances.

While breaking “Scar,” the writers get stuck on a plot point. The Galactica is a sort of aircraft carrier in space, home to dozens of fighter pilots; Weddle and Thompson’s story is about how those pilots deal with facing an unbeatable, Red Baron-like enemy. The writers’ problem is, why does it make sense that the Galactica has to stay in one place while one of the bad guys—they’re called Cylons—picks off its fighters? Why doesn’t the Galactica just, you know, fly away?

One writer suggests that they’re fixing the engines (a true standby of science fiction, one that served Star Trek for decades). Another writer proposes that Galactica’s fighters—called Vipers—are vulnerable because they’re flying attenuated, long-distance patrols. Moore eventually decides that the fleet must have manufacturing facilities, but needs raw material, some magic metal for building Vipers found only where the ship is stuck. “Then it can influence the conversations in the ready room,” Moore says, “because of the psychological toll on the pilots. Now their machines are more valuable than they are.”

But the podcasts are about more than geeky plot points. While the BSG writers break the story, they also bare their souls. And it’s here that the podcasts move from a peek at the sausage-making process to great, almost intimate, radio drama. I don’t recognize any of the writers’ voices except for Moore’s, but it takes all of 20 minutes for their personalities to shine through. One falls back on Hollywood shorthand, blazing through a string of references to other TV shows and movies—The Right Stuff, The Getaway, and so on. Another turns to military history for inspiration, referencing Royal Navy traditions and heavy drinking among Vietnam-era pilots. (So that’s why Starbuck, one of the main characters, takes that crazy, boozy dive off a barroom table.) Family stories get told, like how a writer’s salesman father superstitiously avoided ever putting his hat on a hotel-room bed. The writers have all become characters in their own story, the particulars of which dribble into the episodes.

The last hour of the podcasts consists of a planning meeting, and the writers go completely wild. Moore tosses out the idea of doing an episode told from the point of view of two of the killer androids. Then, the whole group tries to figure out the Cylons’ deeper motivations via a rapid-fire series of metaphors. The Cylons are Nazis, hell-bent on solving the Human Question. The Cylons are Jews, trying to defend Israel. The Cylons are U.S. troops in Iraq, caught off guard by an uprising.

Building in all that symbolism turns out to be complicated—who’s representing what changes from week to week, from scene to scene. In just eight episodes, the current season has morphed humans from Iraqi-style insurgents into post-apartheid South Africans, complete with a truth and reconciliation commission. I once heard a media-studies professor claim that the best, most adult television shows embrace cognitive dissonance as a storytelling tool. He was talking about the old cop show Hill Street Blues, but I understood him to mean that characters and situations seem more “real” if they have an ambiguous, or situational, alignment on the grid from Dungeons & Dragons (good versus evil, lawful versus chaotic). I realize I’m mixing my geek metaphors here, but the podcasts illustrate the ambiguity of the Battlestar Galactica approach: There’s no single political subtext. The show has all the subtexts at once.

Eventually, Moore goes on a riff that tees up all the narrative pitch and yaw of the end of Season 2, which concluded with a seriously ballsy move: jumping the whole story forward a year in an instant—forcing viewers, as Moore puts it, “to play catch-up, which I think is really fun.” Other TV shows have built extended story arcs—Chris Carter did it on The X-Files, and we might charitably assume that J.J. Abrams knows what’s really happening on the Lost island. But actually hearing a producer of Moore’s caliber work through the process is thrilling, because he relies on the improvisational qualities of the writers’ room. Maybe he has no idea whether his human characters will ever find the (possibly mythical) Earth. It doesn’t matter. He and his writers are building a world to live in, not a theory to unravel. It’s a world that does more than transcend his show’s silly title. It actually redeems it.