B.C. crews, locations make Galactica soar

Despite borrowing its name from the original series created in the '70s, the reimagined version of Battlestar Galactica shot in B.C. definitely taps into a 21st century zeitgeist, with its handheld HD cinematography and politically charged storylines.

Despite borrowing its name from the original series created in the ’70s, the reimagined version of Battlestar Galactica shot in B.C. definitely taps into a 21st century zeitgeist, with its handheld HD cinematography and politically charged storylines.

Airing on CHUM’s Space channel in Canada and the NBC-Universal-owned Sci Fi Channel in the U.S., BSG recently wrapped production on the second half of season three, which will launch with its landmark 50th episode, titled ‘The Son Also Rises’, on March 4.

The series showcases the West Coast’s many strengths, the most obvious being its varied geography. Over the past three seasons, locations from downtown Vancouver to the Okanagan Valley have doubled for everything from a desert to the lush jungle of the planet New Caprica.

‘I love Vancouver,’ says Alberta-raised, supermodel-turned-actress Tricia Helfer, who plays a very human-looking Cylon android called Number Six. ‘It’s such a beautiful city. With Battlestar, we’ve generally shot from April to September. Flying into Vancouver in the summer, it’s so clear. You can see the mountains, the ocean and the islands. It’s breathtaking.’

The series has been a critical darling since it first launched as a mini in 2003, hailed for its ability to stay both emotionally powerful and contemporary within the science fiction genre. Time magazine named it the best show on TV in 2005 and it made the AFI’s Top 10 list for 2006. It also has a coveted Peabody Award in its trophy case – an unusual prop for a sci-fi show.

‘From a ratings point of view, it’s been huge – consistently high,’ says Ismé Bennie, CHUM’s director of programming and acquisitions. Although Bennie bought the series for Space sight unseen based on the name, it’s now also crossed over to Citytv.

‘You could look at Battlestar as straight sci-fi or you can read political, cultural and other parallels into it,’ she says. ‘It depends on the level of interaction you want to have with the show.’

BSG chronicles the wanderings of a fragile caravan of humans forced to leave their devastated home world of Caprica after genocide at the hands of the Cylons. The traveling society is led on its search for a fabled planet called Earth by the last remaining warship, Galactica, helmed by Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos).

‘The most stunning thing about the whole [experience] has been the intellectual and critical acclaim,’ says Olmos, noting that BSG is the only series he’s acted in that he actually watches. ‘When this show won the Peabody, it placed it in a different space than other sci-fi shows in the history of television.’

Series cocreator and executive producer David Eick (with Ronald D. Moore) notes that while tax credits and the exchange rate were the initial draws to B.C., Vancouver has become a world-class production center and one of the most production-friendly cities in the world.

‘You could go to Sao Paolo, Brazil if you really want a place where the dollar is strong,’ he says. ‘Or New Zealand, where I’ve made shows before. But it’s also about access to the other base of operations, which in this case happens to be L.A. – convenient because it’s only a three-hour flight. And you’re in the same time zone, which in its own way is the most meaningful convenience.’

Above all, though, Olmos notes that BSG has made its home in Vancouver for other reasons.

‘They have excellent crews in Vancouver,’ he says. ‘I’ve been able to work in Canada a few times. All the B.C. people and the Canadian actors are superb. No ifs, ands and buts about it.’

(Other Canucks featured in prominent roles include actor Michael Hogan (Col. Tigh) and cinematographer Stephen McNutt.)

Eick agrees. ‘The proficiency and the craftsmanship have become so stellar,’ he says. ‘It’s so impressive that you might go to Vancouver even if it costs more to make a show, just because the crews and the craftspeople are so expert at what they do. You’d be hard pressed to find better people even if you stayed in L.A.’

The nerve center of the series is located at Vancouver Film Studios, where BSG occupies 10 stages – a whopping 30% of VFS’ total space. Apart from the dozens of sets, the production offices are also close at hand and manned by local technicians and personnel.

Vancouver has seen some long-running series, including The X-Files, which, much like BSG, flew under the radar for a few seasons before taking off as an international phenomenon.

‘People I know that work on [BSG] are proud because of its content,’ says Peter Mitchell, SVP of marketing for VFS. ‘In terms of its impact on the city and its production scene, we have a couple of other series that are of the same magnitude like Smallville and Stargate: Atlantis – but it’s moving up there into the realm of the 10 signature series that Vancouver has [ever] had.’

While the Galactica crew spool up the FTL (faster-than-light) drive for the second half of season three, a timeslot change in the U.S. from Friday to Sunday night on Jan. 21 signals a transition point in the life of the series and will determine whether Sci Fi orders a fourth season.

‘It’ll be watched very closely,’ says Eick. ‘People want to see if the numbers pick up, whether our new lead-in is compatible, and if the demos shift.’

CHUM’s Space is going to follow suit and also switch time slots in January. Bennie hopes that BSG sticks around long enough to surpass 65 eps, so that it can run as a Monday-to-Friday strip. But at the moment that’s blue skying.

The most pressing concern after the U.S. numbers is the March deadline to renew the Master Production Agreement between the Union of B.C. Performers and producers, which will force a decision on the series’ renewal before the end of the season.

‘Those will be five very important weeks,’ says Eick of the period leading up to the deadline. ‘Creatively, we all feel that the show is firing on all cylinders and the network seems extremely happy with the episodes. I think there are some this year that we’ve done that we could put alongside, if not above, any other that we’ve done in the previous years.’

Which is quite an achievement in a third season in which, says Eick, the goal is to maintain the integrity of the series while battling exhaustion and complacency.

‘To do Battlestar Galactica justice, you want to be dark and subversive and unexpectedly irreverent, because that’s the last thing anyone expects from that title,’ he says. ‘If you’re going to do it in the ‘bad guys are bad guys’ way, then just air the old show.’

‘Hopefully, when we move to Sunday, there’ll be enough of an uptick that our fourth season orders will soon follow.’