After a week of rumours, Universal have announced that Bryan Singer is to produce and direct a cinematic adaptation of Battlestar Galactica.
It’s not the first time Singer (director of The Usual Suspects, the first two X-Men movies and most recently Valkyrie) has been attached to a remake of Glenn A. Larson’s 1970s television cheesetacular. In 2000 Singer developed a mini-series based on the original series for Fox, but despite being scheduled to go into production in November 2001, the project came unravelled in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the aftermath of the collapse of Singer’s remake Ronald D. Moore and David Eick were commissioned to reimagine the franchise yet again, leading initially to the 2003 mini-series, starring Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, and subsequently the recently concluded television series.
For those struggling to understand where a remake would fit in the Battlestar Galactica universe created by Moore and Eick, which ended (satisfactorily or not) with the remnants of the Human and Cylon civilizations finding Earth, they need struggle no longer, because it is clear Singer’s version, which is being produced in collaboration with Larson himself, will not be a continuation of Moore and Eick’s show, but a wholly new interpretation of the material.
Superficially at least it’s difficult to imagine why Universal, and more particularly Singer, would want to make a Battlestar Galactica without Edward James Olmos’ Adama, or Mary McDonnell’s President Roslin, or Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck, to say nothing of their extraordinary vision of Cylon society, particularly given that, with at least one television movie, The Plan, still to screen, and the prequel spinoff, Caprica, scheduled to begin on SyFy next year, Moore and Eick’s version isn’t even cold in its grave yet. With what is now widely regarded as one of the most audacious and powerful television shows ever made so fresh in the memory, why make a movie the very existence of which seems certain to alienate much of the show’s fan base? And what, given the sheer complexity and metaphorical power of Moore and Eick’s version, does Singer think he can bring that is fresh to the material?
Of course there’s nothing new about the cannibalistic nature of science fiction, and science fiction film and television in particular. Like horror and fantasy, science fiction has a long tradition of freely borrowing, adapting and just straight appropriating tropes, devices and ideas. Remakes abound, as do thinly-disguised copies. Indeed the original Battlestar Galactica owes its existence to the success of Star Wars, and was the subject of a lawsuit by George Lucas for copyright infringement, a lawsuit which is itself ironic given the fact that it is difficult to imagine a film more aware of cinematic history, and more laden with appropriations than Star Wars itself.
As I’ve observed before, Moore and Eick’s version makes powerful, and often amusing use of this same history. Intended as a reboot rather than a sequel of Larson’s original 1970s version of the show, it incorporates elements of the original version without ever quite accepting the original series as prehistory. The basic premise, of a catastrophic attack on the Twelve Colonies, and the desperate search of the survivors for the lost Thirteenth Colony, Earth, is retained, as are the names and identities of many of the original characters, but simultaneously the now-dated futuristic technology of the original show is utilized as the technology extant in the Cylon Wars 40 years earlier, transforming the original series into something like mythological prehistory.
In places this prehistory is given playful, or ironic effect, as in the Cylon helmet on display in the museum in the mini-series, the chainsmoking Dr Cottle, or the antiquated computers of the ageing Galactica. And in this sense it is only one of a number of echoes of other science fiction texts within the fabric of Moore and Eick’s version of the show, in particular the appropriation of the term “skinjob” from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (itself, of course, an adaptation of Phillp K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?) or the use of Minority Report’s dreaming precogs (again themselves inspired by a Dick story) as the model for Battlestar Galactica’s Delphic Cylon Hybrids.
But more importantly, Moore and Eick’s play with the original series allows their reimagined version to incorporate the original series into their version’s already somewhat overdetermined mythic structure, joining texts as disparate as Virgil’s Aenied, Exodus, Paradise Lost, The Book of Mormon, more potent, contemporary anxieties about terrorism and the War on Terror, and the Classical, zodiacal associations invoked by the names of the Colonies and the characters as part of the dense web of allusion within which the show operates.
But the cannibalistic nature of the genre – and indeed the show itself – aside, it’s still difficult not to feel there’s something peculiar in the notion of rebooting the show again, so soon. Why, one wants to ask, what can a reboot do that Moore and Eick’s version didn’t?
The problem is that this is exactly the wrong question to ask. Universal aren’t interested in finding something new in the material, any more than the creators of Transformers or GI Joe were interested in the ideas behind them (such as they were). What they want is a property that will allow them to unleash the machinery of the contemporary Hollywood spectacular, together with the associated merchandizing and marketing campaign. The precise nature of the property is relatively unimportant in the whole equation. What matters is that it provides a canvas upon which the digital wizardry of contemporary filmmaking can be unleashed.
Looked at this way a number of the more puzzling revivals of recent years seem a little less peculiar. Land of the Lost didn’t come into being because someone had a burning desire to tell the story of the Sleestak on the big screen. It came into being because the studios knew they had the technology and the promotional machinery to create a summer blockbuster, and Land of the Lost provided a convenient tentpole for them to deploy them. And, by using an extant property, they didn’t even have to go to the trouble of creating something new.
With this in mind it’s not difficult to imagine what Singer’s Battlestar Galactica will be like. Say goodbye to Moore and Eick’s handheld camera work and silent, spinning space battles; say hello to digital explosions and monster robots. Say goodbye as well to the complex political subtexts: no doubt there will be gestures in that direction but the nature of the beast (and indeed the somewhat lugubrious nature of Singer’s filmmaking) almost ensures they will be little more than gestures; what Universal will want is Transformers in space, and that, presumably, is what Singer will give them.