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Starbuck is a . . . she?

'Battlestar' fans angry over update of sci-fi favorite

When he was 10 years old, Marc Drucker remembers, his best friend Jordan would come by his house every Saturday night to watch television. Drucker's mother would make popcorn. And together the boys would become engrossed in their favorite program, "Battlestar Galactica," that science fiction series famous for its robotic red-eyed villains, the Cylons.

"It was a great buddy show set in space," recalls Drucker, now a 35-year-old medical-device designer in Newton. "Every week, the fighter pilots Apollo and Starbuck would compete with each other. Apollo had the birthright. He was the commander's son. And Starbuck had the talent.

"In the end, neither would get the girl. We loved it."

Tomorrow night at 9, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the classic series, the Sci Fi Channel is airing the first episode of a new two-part "Battlestar Galactica" miniseries. The four-hour drama continues at 9 p.m. on Tuesday.

Perhaps it was inevitable that notoriously outspoken science-fiction fans would be critical of any new fashioning of a beloved show.

But the Sci Fi Channel has enraged would-be viewers with the news that their version of "Battlestar Galactica" features a female Starbuck who smokes cigars, plays poker, and has a love interest in Apollo. Boomer, an African-American man in the original show, is now an Asian woman. And the dreaded Cylons are now humanoid, mingling undetected among people. One of the Cylons, No. 6, is a seductress. Meanwhile, the mysterious reptilian race that controlled the Cylon troopers in the original show is nowhere to be found.

The show's biggest name is Oscar-nominated actor Edward James Olmos, who takes on the Lorne Greene role as Commander Adama. Otherwise, the cast is made up largely of newcomers, among them Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck (formerly Dirk Benedict) and Jamie Bamber as Apollo (once Richard Hatch).

Behind the scenes, the producers seem to have the right credentials. Ronald D. Moore is a veteran writer for "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and David Eick produced the syndicated series "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys."

But many fans are unimpressed. "They managed to change all of the elements other than the characters' names," said Drucker. "They are forcing me to start from scratch with a new show when I have so much affection for the original. I'd be more excited if they announced they were showing reruns."

Drucker, however, does plan to watch the miniseries, unlike Michael Johnson, a 32-year-old financial-services professional in Milford.

"Why don't they remake `Star Trek' and make Captain Kirk a woman?" he says. "Making Starbuck, who was a womanizer in the original series, a female is too weird. I don't like them changing things too much, and I've made up my mind not to watch it."

Despite the passion of its fans -- there are at least 21 websites devoted to the show and its original cast -- "Battlestar Galactica" was only broadcast for one season on ABC in 1978. Attempting to capitalize on the success of "Star Wars," the show followed a convoy of space ships heading to Earth after being attacked by the Cylons who wanted to destroy mankind. In 1980, ABC aired a sequel, "Galactica 1980," in which Earth was threatened by the Cylons. That series lasted just three months.

Since the late 1990s, a revival has been in the works. Hatch co-wrote five books advancing the series, including "Battlestar Galactica: Resurrection." In 1999, he also wrote and starred in a 4 1/2-minute film trailer, "Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming," which illustrated his ideas for a new film or series.

Fox also considered a series from Universal Television in 2001, but turned away the script, said Eick, who was later hired by Universal to develop a show for Sci Fi.

"It seemed to be a genre ripe for reinterpretation," he said. "The sweeping camera moves. The big orchestral score. The space opera has been mastered by `Star Trek.' We opted to go for a story where the heroes have moral ambiguity to them. Cinematically, there's a lot more hand-held camera work. Our sets are less designed."

From the beginning, Sci Fi made it clear to Eick that it had no intention of simply remaking the original, a show Bonnie Hammer, Sci Fi's president, said she watched and enjoyed but found to be "too campy." The Sci Fi Channel has aired reruns of that show periodically since 1994.

"We didn't want to completely negate the story line, but we wanted some surprises," she said. "If we had just done a continuation of the original, it would have shut out a lot of viewers who didn't see it. We had to make this fresh and self-contained."

Making the gender changes was one way to modernize the script, she said: "I love the twist of Starbuck being this sassy, tough pilot. That's probably very true today in the military world." In an attempt to reach more viewers, the channel will also close-caption the series in Spanish, making it the first basic cable channel to do so for an original drama.

Among those with doubts about the new "Battlestar Galactica" is Glen Larson, who created the original series.

"I don't know that the Sci Fi Channel is comfortable with [traditional] science fiction," contends Larson, who watched an advance tape of the minisieres recently. "To make the Cylons humanoid is a concept that has been done in `The Matrix' and `Terminator.' The gender changes seemed to be a change just for the sake of change. I'm thrilled that a story I wrote 25 years ago has held up, but I would have liked this version to be a little more faithful to the original."

To be sure, Hammer was prepared for a backlash. Earlier this year, she endured widespread criticism from fans who were upset that the channel had canceled "Farscape," a series some fans called television's best science-fiction program since the original "Star Trek."

"Farscape" had suffered from ratings declines, and the channel determined that it was time to move away from traditional space-odyssey science fiction in favor of shows based on Earth. "We are trying to open the door to those people who go to see `The Matrix' and `Harry Potter,' " Hammer said.

While not giving up on space stories completely, this year the 24-hour basic-cable channel, which is available in 82 million subscribing homes nationwide, introduced a reality show, "Scare Tactics," and the horror-comedy series "Tremors" (which has already been canceled). Its miniseries "Frank Herbert's Children of Dune" attracted 2.4 million viewers, making it the third most-watched original program in the channel's history behind 2002's "Taken" and 2000's "Dune."

"We are trying to strike that perfect balance between redefining science fiction for our audience and supporting the classics that the fans really love," Hammer said.

The Sci Fi Channel's website, www.scifi.com, has been "inundated" with protests, said Hammer, who added that fans "can't drive the creative process."

In a nod to the old generation, the channel did air a one-hour special, "Battlestar Galactica: The Lowdown," Nov. 26, in which Katee Sackhoff, as Starbuck, bought a Starbucks coffee for Dirk Benedict, the old Starbuck. "We hung out," said Sackhoff, who had no idea her character was originally a man when she received her script.

"He told me that his Starbuck would hide when it was time to go out on a mission," Sackhoff said. "He would go play cards and hit on women. My Starbuck wanted to be the first one out there."

Chris Feehan, co-president of the Battlestar Fan Club at www.battlestarfanclub.com, said he's "shocked" that the fans have not prevailed. "Deep down," he said, "I'm hoping this is a flop so we can have a proper revival."

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at sryan@globe.com

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