Essay: The Battlestar Treatment

In 2003, Ronald D. Moore and David Eiek headed the production team that returned Battlestar Galactica to television. It was bold and fresh. It was dynamic and compelling. It took the fun, campy genre of the space opera and turned it on its head, giving us sci-fi fans a serious, well-written, well-acted and all-around brilliant dramatic series. Audiences loved it. Critics loved it. And not only did most of the 70s’ Galactica geeks eventually get over the changes to the source material, they loved it too. Battlestar Galactica became one of the most successful sci-fi TV shows of recent years.

Since then a trend has been emerging. I have no idea what you call it, and I suspect TV executives are calling it “my brilliant new idea” even now, but I have taken to calling it “the Battlestar Treatment“. In case you haven’t already figured it out, the Battlestar Treatment involves taking an established series, or series concept, and making it serious.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out quite as well as BSG did. In 2007 the SciFi Channel brought back some classic heroes and villains for new television adventures. For nigh on 70 years Flash Gordon was a dashing space hero who wooed Dale Arden and battled the insidious plots of Ming the Merciless. But now… Now, Flash Boring battles Ming the Slightly Constipated with an arsenal of lame dialogue, rubbish writing and useless, boring allies. The only good thing about the show is the character they created from scratch. Despite dismal review after dismal review the show remains on the air as the latest and greatest cure for insomnia… and possible constipation (hey, perhaps Ming should sit down and watch a few episodes).*

Now, lets move beyond the straight reimaginings to the more stripped down examples of the Battlestar Treatment. In the 1980s Scott Bakula randomly jumped around in time, helping people, righting wrongs, and being an all-around good guy. In 2007, Kevin McKidd began randomly jumping around in time, helping people, righting his marriage and generally trying not to eff up the flow of time. Yes, I’m talking about Quantum Leap. And yes, I’m talking about Journeyman. Not to have a go at either series: Journeyman is hands-down one of the best shows of recent years, and what I’ve seen of Quantum Leap I’ve enjoyed immensely. But you can’t deny that Kevin Falls took the concept of random time travel – like that of Quantum Leap – and gave it the Battlestar Treatment. He built the show around an ensemble of realistic and compelling characters and used the time travel concept as a means of driving the characters development and the drama of the show. Just – just – like what Ronald D. Moore did with BSG.

So here’s the question: just how successful is the Battlestar Treatment? While BSG is into its fourth season already, Journeyman didn’t go past the thirteenth episode. And the less that’s said about Flash Gordon the better, as I’m sure most people who saw that show will agree. The problem with the Battlestar Treatment is that like any kind of writing or adaptation strategy, all the complexity and quality in the universe won’t help if you can’t get the viewers to keep the show afloat. It ties back into that damned stereotype amongst the television viewing population: that science fiction can’t offer any kind of complex or meaningful stories. So when something like BSG, Journeyman, or Flash Gordon comes along the average viewer doesn’t think anything of it. Which is how we come to networks like Fox, who miss-market shows believing that giving a show a different label will give it greater appeal. Anyone who has seen Firefly, and then seen the advertisements for Firefly will know exactly what I mean.

Wow. That was roundabout. So what’s my answer? The Battlestar Treatment is a writing strategy that can give an old concept an interesting new spin, as evidenced by BSG and Journeyman, but the average viewer doesn’t think that science fiction can be a serious genre, resulting in Battlestar Treatment’d shows being less likely to gain an audience. And in the modern age of television, if a show can’t gain a huge audience it doesn’t survive long, no matter how many nuts, drumsticks, Rico’o’Roni packs or pints of blood we contribute to the cause.

So as always, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that someday, and someday soon, they’ll change the flipping rating system and good shows will be able to survive for years and years and years.

Boy, can I go off on a tangent.

* Since writing this essay, Flash has been cancelled. Yay!

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