Everyone in the US got a Starbuck doll this Christmas. Well, not everyone; it wasn’t the Tickle Me Elmo of 2008 or anything, but 28-year-old Katee Sackhoff gifted the figurines of her Battlestar Galactica character to everyone she knows. The toy isn’t quite a doll, but it’s not really an action figure, either; on the phone between pre-Christmas errands, Sackhoff laughs that her Mini-Me is somewhere in between. Which is true to form; everything about the show falls into a grey area, from the ethics to the endings.
Five years ago, the Battlestar Galactica miniseries-cum-pilot seemed simple enough. It was a reboot of a lesser-’70s science fiction series about mankind fleeing killer robots, called Cylons, in space. Finding the elusive planet Earth would be great, but not going extinct was really their primary goal. If Star Trek was an awe-filled tribute to ‘new life and new civilisations ’, all the old clunker Battlestar wanted was to get the hell out of Dodge.
But creators Ron Moore and David Eick immediately set to mixing up the basic plot with ambiguities and inversions. Sackhoff faced righteous indignation from science fiction purists for embodying what was originally a swaggering, alpha-male character. Back then, The New York Times warily likened Sackhoff’s Starbuck to an ‘overcaffeinated’ punk-pop star. Three and a half seasons later, the show has won a Peabody award, critics lump it with The Wire and The Sopranos, and Sackhoff’s turning down auditions for Joss Whedon movies. (‘It’s flattering,’ she says, but the role was too young. ‘There’s a rule that once you play 30 you can’t play 21 again.’)
Sackhoff’s prospects aren’t all that’s changed. Since the show premiered, war and religious insurgents – key themes of the series – have become a reality for Americans. These days, the idea of a show flourishing on a third-string cable network like Sci Fi isn’t as unlikely as it once was; just ask Mad Men on AMC or The Closer on TNT. And while Hollywood filmmaking is still a harsh realm for actresses, television has become the stage for tough-chick dramas built around the likes of Holly Hunter and Glenn Close.
But the women that form half of Battlestar Galactica’s ensemble were never just ballbusters. Sackhoff and fellow cast members Mary McDonnell and Tricia Helfer didn’t just step into powerful roles – that of hotshot pilot, president and, well, genocidal robot. All three layered their characters with both femininity and weakness without mistaking the two for the same thing.
‘What they did is cast a lot of head-strong actresses who were unwilling to come to work every day and play a wilted flower,’ says Sackhoff. ‘Or to play a man.’ They made their own calls, ad-libbing so much that she calls them ‘the queens of changing dialogue’.
And so the cigar-chomping tomboy from the pilot has become, among other things, a married woman, stubbornly spiritual and prone to outbursts. ‘When a man cries on camera, it’s considered weakness,’ says Sackhoff, reasoning that the men on set have a harder time delivering the necessary wartime emotions. ‘In war, there are tears, there is fear, there is loss,’ she says, ‘but men – they’re trained to be strong little boys.’
After the season four finale the makers are planning a spin-off prequel series Caprica and a TV movie called The Plan, featuring some series stars. Sackhoff won’t appear in the latter, and says she’s laid the show, along with its signature fake swear-word, to bed: ‘I think I’m ready for a show with real swearwords. I’ve said frak enough.’
But back to the doll. Sackhoff may have redefined Starbuck – and the rules for how much a smart-mouthed maverick can cry—but the ghost of old science fiction lingers. When her Starbuck action figure showed up, Sackhoff noticed that she was no flight-suit Barbie: ‘I was like, “What did you guys do, take a picture of Dirk Benedict?”’ laughs Sackhoff. The character may have had something to prove in the toy department, but Sackhoff didn’t. ‘Can’t we do something? Like raise the cheekbones up, give her some lip gloss, put her hair in a ponytail?’ she says. “I’m only a feminist for so long. Occasionally you’re like, “We can make her boobs bigger?”’
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