- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2003

‘Galactica’ revisited

Only the most rabid science fiction fan would watch the new “Battlestar Galactica” miniseries with unabashed optimism. The source material — the short-lived 1978 television series which rode the coattails of “Star Wars” — hardly measured up to George Lucas’ vision, let alone the “Star Trek” banner.

Still, its tale of a fledgling human outpost dueling with those knuckleheaded Cylons made it a guilty pleasure for many.

The setup for the four-hour miniseries, starting tonight at 9 on cable’s SciFi Network and wrapping at the same time tomorrow, begins with a creative bang. The series’ bold reinvention, alas, quickly fades into a morass of stale characters and languid set pieces.

The far-flung human inhabitants of the 12 colonies are at peace following a protracted war with the Cylons, robotic humanoids created by humans that eventually turned on their masters.

The Battlestar Galactica, a once-proud ship led by Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos), is about to become a floating museum. The fragile peace the ship has helped protect is coming unglued.

Unbeknownst to our heroes, the Cylons can now take human shape, and a rather comely Cylon (Tricia Helfer) has seduced key defense secrets out of a scientist named Baltar (James Callis).

Soon, Cylon ships are attacking the colonies at will. The decommissioned Galactica, one of the few ships left unscathed, must charge into battle for humanity’s sake.

Much like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” excised the humor from the original “Trek,” this “Galactica” paints permanent scowls on every major hero. “Galactica” purists have howled for months over significant changes made to the original series. The cigar-chomping Starbuck, once played by Dirk Benedict, has undergone a sex change. Actress Katee Sackhoff takes over the role, retaining Starbuck’s ornery spirit and fighting chops. Yet Miss Sackhoff’s performance is one of the few reasons to care about the assembled warriors.

The usually dependable Mr. Olmos is all gravitas and gravelly pronouncements; hardly someone to rally around. Mary McDonnell (“Dances with Wolves”) fares no better as the education minister turned president.

The series does take pains to depict space flight from a more realistic vista than other space epics, but the addition of a sexy Cylon smacks of pandering.

Much of the joy from the original series got lost in the upgrade. We don’t get those gloriously campy Cylon warriors with their constantly darting red eyes. In fact, we see precious little of the enemy throughout the two-night affair.

Worse, the film’s recurring theme — humanity brought on its own near extinction by creating the Cylons in the first place — smacks of the “blame America” crowd’s world view.

The series throws a few nostalgic crumbs to the faithful, including recreations of the streamlined “Galactica” space fighters. Fans may be too busy grousing over the changes to nod with approval.

The miniseries really starts to slog in the second half, as if it’s in no rush to tell a compelling story.

Perhaps the creators expect the material will translate into a new series and figure they can take their time painting the bigger picture.

Purists should understand a 2003 version of their beloved show deserves a few new wrinkles. But re-imagining a cult favorite isn’t nearly so sinful as squandering the chance to do it right.

Roman holiday

Reuters News Agency

Et tu, ABC?

Two television networks are taking over from where William Shakespeare left off with projects about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire after Julius Caesar.

ABC on Friday said it planned to launch “Empire” in fall 2004, while cable network HBO had already slated its “Rome” to debut in 2005.

Caesar, who in Shakespeare’s play named after him gasped “Et tu, Brute?” in surprise when he saw his friend Brutus among his assassins, was the first dictator of Rome and its most famous general.

ABC’s “Empire” begins in 44 B.C., the year Caesar died, and tells the tale of the ascension of Octavius, Julius Caesar’s nephew who becomes Augustus Caesar, battling Marc Antony.

Octavius gets a little Hollywood help in the form of a gladiator named Tyrannus — not part of textbook history — who guards and befriends Octavius in the eight-episode project.

ABC hasn’t decided how to package “Empire,” which could be shown as a miniseries or could become the first season of a longer series. It’s expensive in any case, with a price tag one industry insider put at about $30 million.

HBO’s “Rome,” produced with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), begins a bit earlier, in 51 B.C., as the victorious Caesar heads back to the empire’s capital. HBO is a unit of Time Warner Inc.

“Rome,” a continuing series, will tell the story of the fall of Julius Caesar and the rise of his nephew — called Octavian, rather than Octavius, at HBO — through the eyes of two soldiers who fought with Julius Caesar.

Neil Meron, one of the executive producers of ABC’s “Empire,” said ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun came up with the idea of a Roman story, the seed of the “epic entertainment” in the works.

Mr. Meron said the projects at the networks might sound similar but would probably be as distinct as different genre series.

“How many lawyer shows are there, how many doctor shows are there, how many cop shows are there?,” he asked.

Weighty matters

ABC News weighs in on our country’s obesity problem with a look at how both the food industry and the government feed the epidemic.

The hourlong “Peter Jennings Reporting: How to Get Fat Without Really Trying” airs at 8 tonight on ABC.

Nearly two-thirds of our population is considered overweight and nearly one-third are obese, the report says.

“Obesity is fast becoming the largest public health crisis in America,” Mr. Jennings said. “The simple answer is to tell people to just eat less and exercise more. What few people know is how much of the problem with the American diet is a direct result of federal government policy and food industry practices.”

The special examines how agricultural subsidies, which often go toward unhealthy foods, can impact our dietary habits.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson tells Mr. Jennings the subsidies stem from political moves and won’t change much anytime soon.

The special also lobs blame on the aggressive marketing policies of the food industry. Shouldn’t the government, which protects children from smoking advertisements, do the same with bad foods, the special asks.

Compiled by Christian Toto from staff and wire reports.

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