The return of Sci Fi's ''Battlestar Galactica'' -- The update of the original '70's series proves its worth with smart writing
Credit: Battlestar Galactica: Anthony Mandler

Mary McDonnell looks miserable. It’s only her first scene of the day for Sci Fi’s Battlestar Galactica, and she’s being asked to struggle up a muddy Vancouver hillside in a downpour, while her woolly red mane clings limply to her face. Even with studly costar Jamie Bamber propping her up, this would seem to be the beginning of a dreadful afternoon.

Yet just before the director yells ”Cut!” and the fake rain blinks out, McDonnell — apropos of nothing — lets out a jolly chuckle. Word comes down from above, radioed from a producer to a grumpy third assistant director: ”Just a suggestion, Mary shouldn’t be laughing.”

Well, why not? Sure, McDonnell plays Battlestar‘s President Laura Roslin, a schoolteacher forced to lead thousands of desperate, space-faring refugees after humanity is virtually exterminated by killer robots. As if that’s not enough, breast cancer threatens to kill her in months. But amid all this cosmic gloom, McDonnell and the folks behind the gritty Battlestar remake have good reason to be giddy: The show — based on a 1978 ABC series starring Lorne Greene that lasted only one season — has quickly become the highest-rated program in Sci Fi Channel’s 13-year history, averaging over 2.8 million viewers in its first season.

The updated series, which begins its second season on Friday, July 15, at 10 p.m., is not your typical tidy space opera: A civilization of humans in a distant galaxy creates a race of powerful robots (Cylons) who violently turn the tables on their masters. But the look of the humans is at odds with the futuristic setting — these highly advanced folks wear everyday suits, communicate via clunky old phones (with cords!), and travel in run-down spaceships.

”I wanted it to feel and look different,” says writer-executive producer Ronald D. Moore (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Roswell), who, along with fellow exec producer David Eick, was charged with reimagining the ’70s show as a miniseries/pilot that aired on Sci Fi in 2003. ”I did not want the viewer to be put off by space clothes, space hair, and wacky designs. There’s so much artifice in science fiction that distances the audience from the drama.” Edward James Olmos, who plays curmudgeonly Commander Adama, shares Moore’s concerns. ”The first four-eyed monster I see, I’m going to faint,” he says. ”And I am out of the picture.”

But while Moore’s vision was more low-tech and alien-free than the original — not to mention glossy genre giants Star Wars and Star Trek — he stayed true to the first Battlestar in one key aspect. ”I was really struck by the dark nature of the premise,” he says. ”There’s this genocidal attack that wipes out the human race, and then your heroes are people that are running away. When you watch that pilot in the post-9/11 world, it has a completely different resonance than it did in 1978.”