How Ronald D. Moore Used Star Trek to Build a Better Battlestar Galactica

So I’ve been binge-watching Deep Space 9, and the funny thing is that some pretty familiar tropes from Battlestar Galactica sprout up during the last two seasons. It’s my first time rewatching DS9 since BSG, and the parallels make me very happy. Why?

Ronald D. Moore experiments with story threads, characters, and techniques in DS9 that he later fully realizes in BSG. Which means if we writers try something that isn’t quite up to snuff the first time around, we really do get endless do-overs. Which also means we can always get better. Although there are lots of parallels–from clones to a big bad team trying to take over the universe, and even religion as a deciding factor–here are the four biggest story and character tropes I’ve noticed and how they developed across the two series.

Warning: Lots and lots of spoilers below.

1. The less-than-heroic character haunted by the voice of a demon–literally right over his shoulder.
In Battlestar, we have Baltar’s fragile sanity constantly undermined by his own personal version of Caprica whispering in his ear. Is it a daydream? A hallucination? A memory that’s taken on a life of its own? A form of communication and mind control by the Cylons? Or Baltar’s own less charitable thoughts made more acceptable to his psyche in the form of a beautiful woman?

In true Ronald D. Moore style, it’s all of the above. What’s more, the script and the splendid performances gradually slide us into this bit of magical realism. Moore ensures that at first, viewers think she’s real. Gradually, we begin to question that. By the time we figure out there’s something schizophrenic about the genius Baltar, his delusions already seem real to us and slip in and out of scenes with ease. Moore trusts his audience and knows that the less believable a trope, the more necessary it is that viewers assemble the pieces themselves.

But we get this five years earlier in DS9. When antagonist Gul Dukat’s daughter dies, he suffers a mental collapse–rendering this despot alarmingly sympathetic. It’s Moore, however, who tackles this breakdown in greater depth in an outstanding episode in season six, “Waltz.” After the ship transporting Dukat to prison is destroyed, archnemeses Dukat and Captain Sisko end up marooned together on an uninhabited planet. Badly injured, Sisko is at the mercy of Dukat. But Dukat, like Baltar years later, is more concerned with friends and foes who are invisible to Sisko. Just as Baltar’s hallucinations did, they whisper and taunt him towards murder.

In one episode, of course, Moore couldn’t possibly ease us into Dukat’s mind as gradually as he did with Baltar. We figure out a little too quickly just how delusional Dukat really is. And, perhaps more damaging to the episode’s suspense, Sisko does, too. Which is when I stopped worrying for our hero.

But by the time we get to BSG, Moore knows how to hold his cards closer to his vest. He has learned the value of the gradual reveal as well as the importance of keeping other characters in the dark. After all, once we know Baltar is a loose cannon, we worry a hell of a lot more for all the characters who don’t. Without a clue how dangerously unhinged this man really is, some of them step right into the lion’s jaws. Whether Moore learned it from Hitchcock or Shakespeare, it’s a good move–and it makes the hallucination over his shoulder all the more eerie.

2. The noble hero who doesn’t stand a chance. And the team of people trying to save her who will fail, too. And the trauma that results.
If you’re in your teens, you’ve pretty much come of age with television series where the main characters can die off at any time. From Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead to Downton Abbey, broadcasting corporations have finally accepted what writers have known since the time of Homer: audiences love getting their hearts broken.

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine TV drama without constant peril. For the rest of us older folk, though, we remember when TV was relatively safe. The good guys won. Period. This was especially true in the Star Trek franchise.

Enter Ronald D. Moore.

And suddenly we have a spate of major and minor deaths, as well as injuries, all scripted as intense losses that take a toll on the crew left behind. It starts with Dukat’s daughter, Zial–a too-good-for-this-world character who has some parallels to Dee in BSG. But perhaps one of the more BSG losses is that of Captain Lisa Cusak (Debra Wilson) in another Moore episode, “The Sound of Her Voice.”

DS9 fans weren’t unanimously in love with the episode, but then again, the Star Trek franchise isn’t known for deep psychological characterization–and that’s exactly where this episode takes us. Here, we start to see Moore pushing against the constraints of Star Trek and drafting scenes that will make Battlestar the crowd-pleasing masterpiece that it is.

The problems are exactly what will become the strengths of Moore’s later work. Out of nowhere, we learn that Chief Engineer O’Brien is suffering from what looks an awful lot like PTSD. Which makes sense–he’s a combat veteran. That’s just not where the rest of the writing team has ever taken us. Still, PTSD among soldiers is a major theme in Battlestar, and here’s where I first see Moore exploring what he can do with it dramatically.

We then learn that our heroic Captain Sisko is having relationship troubles with his badass, dreamy freighter captain–for the one and only time in the season. Again, news to viewers. But this, too, will later re-emerge as another core of Battlestar: How can damaged, traumatized people possibly connect with each other?

And we only learn all this because of Captain Cusak. She’s able to draw it out of each character–talking them through their wounds over the radio, even as she is dying alone on a planet where she crash-landed. Which makes her compassion into a brave and noble final act. Exactly the stuff of some of Battlestar’s best heartache and gut-punches.

We get a beautiful tracking shot of the Chief Engineer alone in his bunk, and as the camera hovers beside him and then slowly recedes–showing us the empty, quiet room and the glare of the overhead lights–he confesses to Cusak’s disembodied voice how isolated he feels.

We also get a moving memorial service over Cusak’s coffin as the crew gather around to pay tribute–but also to make new promises to each other and to anticipate the still deeper losses yet to come.

None of this is very Star Trek. But it’s all completely Moore, as he explores the dramatic power of loss, grief, hopeless causes, fallen heroes whose bravery could not save them, and the psychic wounds of soldiers. All very, very familiar terrain to Battlestar fans.

3. The destructive power of drugs and homesickness. 
Addiction figures prominently in Battlestar. I dare you to come up with a more hard-drinking alcoholic on TV than Colonel Tigh. Even his fellow alcoholic Starbuck expresses misgivings.

But alcoholism seems mild compared to the addiction to stims (stimulants) that destroys Kat and threatens a lot of other favorites as well. Part of Moore’s point is that human beings aren’t designed to run on high alert for so long. That’s why soldiers are supposed to serve limited tours and even then get shore leave. So what do you do for troops who get neither leave nor home?

But BSG isn’t Moore’s first exploration of addiction among soldiers on extended tours. In his DS9 episode, “Valiant,” Moore follows a young crew that has been hunting the enemy for months. The crew are forbidden from speaking of home, they have a cult-like suspicion of outsiders–and the young captain is addicted to stims. Although nobody gets jettisoned from an airlock and the addiction is subtly portrayed–this is still a family show after all–there’s no doubt everyone here is capable of murder and addiction. When the drugged up captain makes a choice that kills his crew, the lone survivor still insists he was a “great man.”

She’s also–no surprise–the crew member who was most homesick and least numb.

It’s just one episode, but in BSG, most of the main characters suffer from one or the other–or both. And it clouds their judgment and complicates our own.

4. Impossible choices.
If you’ve seen Battlestar, then you know. This is pretty much every episode. But the DS9 episode, “In the Pale Moonlight” goes pretty fucking dark for Star Trek. Sisko manufactured evidence in order to pull a new ally into the war. He makes some pretty shady deals and even gets several people killed in order to achieve that. Much of the episode is Sisko’s direct address to the camera, confessing his sins–only to discover he feels no compunction whatsoever.

Moore is a writer-philosopher, and this ends-versus-means question provides a central conflict throughout the Battlestar series. But it’s usually something the Trek universe steers clear of. Here Moore gives us a captain who has a very dirty pair of hands and a clear conscience. Although Sisko is unquestionably the most complex and nuanced of the Trek captains, we don’t get many chances to doubt that he’s fundamentally a good, moral person–outside Moore’s episode. An early draft of Adama or Roslyn perhaps?

Deep Space 9 is certainly not Battlestar Galactica’s equal in terms of craft and dramatic power. But that’s exactly my point. Many of Moore’s DS9 episodes can be watched as early drafts of BSG themes, characters, and arcs. But isn’t this true for most writers’ bodies of work? All of us recycle questions and dilemmas that have no easy answers.

And like much early work, when DS9 falls short of Battlestar, it’s most often due to a lack of subtlety. Moore has O’Brien tell us how it feels to suffer from PTSD; roughly five years later, he gives Starbuck lines that are all about trying to avoid what you need to say but can’t bear to. He’s also learned that sometimes you just have to let a character slug somebody without explanation.

Where Star Trek is all about exposition, Battlestar is all about action. It’s a distinction that we writers have to learn through trial and error, and it’s been a blast to revisit how exactly that happened for one world-class sci-fi screenwriter. After all, we all start somewhere.

Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

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