One for the Books: Writing the 2003 BSG Miniseries Novelization

by Jeffrey A. Carver

The following essay is my contribution to Somewhere Beyond the Heavens:
Exploring Battlestar Galactica. This massive compendium was edited by Rich Handley and Lou Tambone and published in 2018 by the Sequart Organization. 

“So, Jeff, how would you like to write the novelization for Battlestar Galactica?”

That was what my Tor Books editor, Jim Frenkel, asked me, out of the blue, one day in 2005. Until that moment, the thought of writing anything related to Galactica had never crossed my mind.

As it happened, this was the day after I had finished writing the long overdue first draft of my novel Sunborn, a challenging project that had nearly done me in. I had let out an enormous sigh of relief at completing the rough draft. When Jim called me that next day, I assumed it was to find out how things were going with the new book. Instead, he asked if I had seen the new Battlestar Galactica on the Sci-Fi Channel, if I liked it.

“Well, yes,” I said. And, “Sure, talk to me about it. But you’re aware, right, that I have this unfinished book to finish? That you’re waiting for? I just wrapped up the first draft, by the way.”

“Perfect!” he said. “You need a break. You should do something different for a while, and this is right up your alley. I’m editing the Galactica tie-in books, and I think you’re just the writer to novelize the miniseries. Also, it will be fast. Can you write it in two months?”

“Uhhhh…” My mind raced. I am a notoriously slow writer. Most books take me years to complete. Could I even type a book in two months? I wasn’t sure. I had never written a novelization before; I was used to writing my own stuff. “Can you give me three?” I asked.

I did not start out as a fan of Battlestar Galactica. I had not much liked the original series, and when I read that someone was planning to do a new, “reimagined” version, my first thought was, Why? I almost didn’t see the new miniseries, because funds were a little tight then, and I couldn’t justify paying a premium to the cable company for the Sci-Fi Channel. But owing to a mistake by a cable guy installing service to the neighbors, I found we were unaccountably receiving the channel. (I didn’t know it was a mistake until later, when another cable guy found it and cut us off.) As a result, when the miniseries aired, I thought, “What the hell” and watched it. And to my great surprise, I liked it! Starbuck was great, Adama and Roslin were great, everyone was great—especially (whoo!) Six.

With my new assignment of writing the novel, I settled in to watch some television. The studio had provided me with DVDs of the miniseries, as well as the handful of episodes that had aired since (for context), a copy of the shooting script, the story bible, and some additional material. This gave me a unique perspective among tie-in writers. Usually, when a writer is handed a job like this, the idea is to write the book fast, as the show or movie is being filmed—the goal being to have both come out together. But in this case, the show not only had aired already, but was already out on commercial DVD, and was well into its first full season.[1]

So I had advantages denied to most tie-in writers. Whereas other writers had to scramble to keep up with last-minute script changes, and hope that the studio’s editing didn’t produce a story radically different from what they were putting on paper, I could stick the DVD right into my computer, and start by writing exactly what happened onscreen.

Note, I said start.

I wanted my novel, to whatever extent possible, to match the dialogue exactly as it was spoken on the show. I could expand upon it, or omit small portions, but I didn’t want readers who were devotees of the show to be jarred by dialogue that veered unnecessarily from what they already knew. It turned out I couldn’t always follow that rule, however.

For the watching and planning stages, I enlisted the help of my daughter, who was homeschooling at the time. We watched together, noting what was or wasn’t important, what might be interesting to expand upon, and what was not going to stand up to close examination on the page. We realized early on that a surprising number of scenes worked just fine onscreen, with the action whizzing by; but when you stopped and looked harder, they didn’t quite make sense on paper.

For example, early in the show, dignitaries attending the decommissioning ceremony are seated in one of the two big landing pods, listening to speeches, including one by Commander Adama. After the speeches, they’re treated to a rousing fly-by of Viper fighter-ships, roaring right over their heads, to gasps of amazement. It’s a great scene; it rocks you back in your seat. As I thought about the scene, though, I realized there was a problem: The hangar deck couldn’t be open to the sky. If it were, all the dignitaries would die, wheezing in the vacuum of space.

I could have just written the scene as it was shot. Most likely no one would have minded—no one except me, that is. Why did I think this was important enough to change? Look at it this way: Throughout my career, I have largely written character-oriented, hard science fiction. This means that I create characters who act and think like real people. The action has to make sense and remain scientifically plausible. I felt it was paramount to apply those same standards to this story. It became my favorite challenge: How could I make scene X, which worked great as video drama, also work on paper, where the reader’s eye would be more likely to linger (or perhaps go back and re-read) if the picture being built didn’t seem quite right? This is not a criticism of the script, but recognition that a novel is a different medium from the screen.

So what could I do about the hangar scene? Could there be some kind of force-field at either end of the deck, one that would keep air in but allow ships to pass through? Good idea—except in the BSG universe, they don’t have force-fields. Well, how about if the roof over the hangar deck were clear, and the Vipers flew right overhead, but on the outside? That would also be cool, except that we see those hangar pods from the outside in other scenes—and no, they’re not clear. If anything, they look like they’re armor-plated.

In the end, I decided that large video screens set up at either end of the hangar pod would allow the dignitaries to watch the Viper pilots do their stuff, including making a simulated low pass over the crowd. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it seemed to work.

In another scene, after the Cylon sneak attack, the Galactica is pressed back into service as a warship. Unfortunately, her current-generation Vipers have all left the ship and have been destroyed in the attack. Could anything on the ship still fly? Well, there are a bunch of older Vipers set up in the hangar pod that’s been converted to a museum. The ships have all been set up as exhibits, complete with velvet ropes and placards. In the miniseries, Chief Tyrol says, “Well, the reactor’s still hot, so all we have to do is pull the rad buffers from the engine, refuel it, load the ordnance, and you’re ready to go. The biggest problem is getting them over to the port launch bay.”[2] And that’s when an alarm jangled in my brain, and I thought, The reactor’s still hot? In a museum gallery, where families will be wandering around, and kids sneaking under the ropes to get up close? I don’t think so.

I thought about that one for a while, but ultimately decided not to quote the chief at all. Instead, I provided a different explanation in the narrative. In my version, the reactors had been sensibly removed; but thanks to modular design, they could be swapped back into the Vipers and fueled with something called “quantum-catalytic Tylium.”[3] It would take the chief longer to ready the ships, and I could see why the show’s producers wouldn’t want to slow the action onscreen by explaining that, but changing it made the written narrative more plausible. Most readers probably never noticed the difference, but if I hadn’t changed it, the violation of common sense would have bugged me.

Inevitably, I had questions about the characters and their backgrounds. I was trying to identify places where I might be able to add some supplementary details to give greater depth to the novel. My editor arranged for a phone conference with Ronald Moore, the show’s co-creator. I was aware that his time was at a premium—he had an ongoing show to get out, after all—so I wanted to make the most of the time I had with him. He turned out to be affable and easy to talk to. We went through my list of questions with minimal small-talk. Unfortunately, for many of my questions, he didn’t really have answers—not because he wasn’t on top of his job, but because the production staff hadn’t yet worked out all the details. There was a lot they were making up as they went.

Part of our conversation went something like this:

Me: When I introduce characters in a book, I like to know their full names. Do you have first names for your crewmembers, beyond the leads? People like Cally? [4]

RM: Actually, we don’t. We haven’t needed them, so we haven’t made them up. You can go ahead and give them first names, if you want.

Me: Okay. Well, what about Six? Does she have a name for her human persona? Baltar’s been carrying on hot and heavy with her for a while now. He must call her something.

RM: I guess we figured that the relationship was so shallow that he never bothered to learn her name. If you like, you can give her a name.

Me (thinking): He had to have had a name for her. I think I’ll call her… Natasi. I like that. Sounds vaguely sinister, yet glamorous and exotic. Anyway, they’re going to have to approve the manuscript. If they don’t like it, they’ll tell me.

Me: There are suggestions in the story of interesting religious elements. Can I play with that, to give a little more depth and texture?

RM: Well… actually, we’d rather you didn’t. We’re going to be exploring some of the religious elements as the series develops. But we’re not exactly sure where we’re going with it, so best if you stay away from it.

And they sure did! There’s no way I would have anticipated the direction they took, so it’s probably a good thing I left the religious angle alone. The bottom line was, they wanted me to retell the story straight, make it an exciting read, but ‘not stray too much from the script, okay?


Speaking of the script, it was an eye-opener to compare the shooting script they gave me to the final show that aired. As an art form, the show seemed to have been a surprisingly dynamic production, growing organically as it was made. There were all kinds of differences: scenes changed, other scenes were fully drafted but left out of the final cut, and things were moved all around. I had expected differences, yes, but I was unprepared for the extent of it. It was an education for me to see how much rewriting was apparently done on the set, just prior to shooting, or in the editing room. As a result, I depended heavily on the finished show as my primary source, yet mined the script where and when I could for additional detail and background.

In the end, the book took me three months to write—which, for me, was greased lightning. Of course, I was telling someone else’s story, so the story-creating part of my brain was given some rest, while the story-crafting part shifted into high gear. I did have to go back and add physical descriptions to some of the scenes. It was so easy to visualize the scenes in my head—because it was right there in living color in front of me—that it was easy to forget that the settings and local color were not right there for the reader unless I put them in.

For what had been billed to me as a quick side project, it was a real kick to work in the Galactica universe. I began watching the series to see where it was going and I quickly became hooked. My whole family became fans, in fact. To this day, when I hear the Universal opening logo music, I instantly think of BSG.

I felt an unexpected sense of satisfaction at being given a small part to play in the vast BSG universe.

Did it make me famous? Notorious? Neither, and both.

The day the hardcover was published—I mean, literally, the day it went on sale—I received an email from a reader, pointing out a mistake. William Adama’s call sign, stenciled on the side of his restored Viper, was not “Husher,” but “Husker.” The name was basically in focus in a single frame of the video, and I’d misread it. D’oh! Fix it in the paperback and ebook! Not long after that, I found my way to an “everything about BSG” website, where comments had been posted about my book. Some of my made-up names were noted, and found to be non-canonical. Natasi, in particular, drew attention after someone pointed out that “Natasi” was “I Satan” spelled backwards! Oops! Didn’t see that one coming.

My hometown press jumped on the event and called me for an interview. (Could I sneak them some intel about where the series was headed? Nope, sorry. I didn’t know more than any other viewer.) At book signings in general public settings, the BSG book was a definite draw. At science-fiction conventions, however, it was barely noticed. This was most likely because it was viewed as a tie-in, and not a real book—though, in my mind, of course, it’s both.

Must have sold like gangbusters, though, right?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? After all, the series had a fanatical following and received critical acclaim. What could go wrong? I don’t know for certain, but book sales were disappointing. I didn’t take it personally, nor did I view it as a reflection on the show. Why, then? One guess is that the cover (chosen by the studio and publisher) didn’t communicate the actual story inside. The title omitted the word “miniseries,” and the art depicted Apollo and Starbuck against a backdrop of an army of Cylon Centurions, a scene that had nothing to do with this story. Had it been up to me, I would have used art echoing that on the miniseries DVD, to clearly indicate to the reader what was being offered. That may just be next-day quarterbacking, but it was my initial opinion and it remains unchanged.

I suspect another reason for weak sales was competition from all the other options available to fans who wanted to spend more time in the BSG world. In the heyday of movie tie-ins—before the internet and video streaming—novelizations were the name of the game for fans who wanted more after watching an original movie or broadcast. In 2006, when this novelization was published, the miniseries had already been out on DVD for a while, the weekly series was running full-tilt, and the web offered countless sites catering to the interests of the fans. It may simply be that those options already fulfilled the fans’ needs. However, the readership the book did capture seemed appreciative.

As the series drew on, the storylines grew increasingly dark—a little too close to the underbelly of human nature for easy watching. My wife and daughters dropped down to intermittent viewing, saying that if they wanted to become depressed that badly, they could just turn on the news.

I kept following, regardless. I remember when Galen Tyrol, moments before discovering his Cylon nature, muttered,[5] “There must be some kind of way out of here.” Without even thinking, I muttered back, “Said the joker to the thief?” My older daughter, who had joined me for that episode, looked at me quizzically. It took a few moments for the actual song to surface in my forebrain: a cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” sung by Jimi Hendrix. A minute later came the line I’d just quoted (spoken by Saul Tigh), followed by, “There’s too much confusion here” (from Sam Anders), to which I (and Tory Forster) echoed, “I can’t get no relief.” At that point, I returned my daughter’s quizzical expression, thinking, Are we in the Twilight Zone here? I think a lot of viewers were soon saying that, especially during the final season.

When the series finale aired, my reactions were intense and complex. On the one hand, it was a breathlessly paced conclusion, and satisfying in the sense that we finally found resolution, while our characters, battered and bruised, finally found a measure of peace—even Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, possibly the most conflicted person in the known universe. I felt our people had earned it.

That they found and settled the world known to us as “Earth”—our Earth—came as no surprise. Most of us, I think, had been expecting an Adam and Eve story all along. How could it have ended otherwise? It seemed entwined through the very fiber of the series from the start. And while the “Adam and Eve” story is one of the oldest chestnuts in science fiction, there is no fundamental reason that an old or even clichéd story cannot be retold in a fresh and engaging way, though to do so requires extraordinary talent and skill. (Not recommended for novices!) I had already decided to spot them that point, if they could pull it off. But did they? I’ll offer my possibly biased opinion.

Let’s start with plausibility. Were there issues? For sure. Let’s start with the notion that the fleet would transport everyone down to a wilderness planet, equipped only with what they could carry, give or take a few Raptors, and shoot the rest of their considerable technology into the sun. Nah, I don’t think so. I suppose the writers didn’t want too much star technology lying around to be unearthed by latter-day Indiana Joneses. Whatever. I wasn’t buying it.

But here’s the thing: Battlestar Galactica was never really about plausibility in the scientific or technological sense. In my novelization, I attended to it as best I could. But as the series went on, it became clear that this BSG was about something else. It was about humanity at war with its own worst elements, and the dark places of the soul where people find the strength to endure, and to fight back. Because it dealt with this stuff so well, I could forgive and forget the science lapses. For all of its hard edges, it was never hard science fiction—it was pure human-dramas science fiction, and every time it careened near the edge of a cliff even in those terms, it always somehow staggered back.

What about the religious elements? They were intriguing, yes, but did they make sense? Um… well… I dunno. Someday, I want to re-watch the series straight through to see if I can follow the last season’s revelations better. I didn’t know what it all meant in the end, and that’s the simple truth.

What about Starbuck as an angel? That was kind of cool, but it seemed to stick in a lot of craws. This could be because some felt the notion of angels seemed to come out of left field in this universe.[6] There had to be some explanation for how she had returned from the dead. But nagging questions remained: Why was Starbuck a hard-drinkin’, ass-kickin’, physical kind of angel, while the Six and Baltar angels were purely will o’ the wisps, here one moment and gone the next? And why did Starbuck have to go through such torment to discover who she was? Was she the only angel who didn’t know she was an angel?

Despite my qualms, I found myself willing to go along for the ride. Did that mean I was going soft in the head, or that I was open to the production team’s willingness to take chances and make mistakes? How many mass-market science-fiction shows have ever entertained the notion of there actually being a God (even if He doesn’t like to be called that, as Baltar claims), or heavenly, spiritual beings? BSG‘s writers may have bobbled the play, but they gave it a good try.

Finally, what about the Cylons’ infamous plan? The phrase “they have a plan” was like Pavlov’s bell calling us to each week’s episode. It was intriguing; it felt real; it promised discovery. I wanted to learn what it was. As recently as a few weeks ago, my daughter said something to me about her “having a plan” for some goal, to which I snorted, “So did the Cylons.” To which she responded, “No, as it turns out, they didn’t.”

Well, as it turns out, she was right. Ron Moore recently conceded, at the ATX Television Festival, that they never really did figure out what the plan was. It just sort of got left behind, creatively speaking.[7] I can understand that. As a novelist, I often find that story threads I think are going to lead in interesting directions instead just peter out. That’s okay, because other threads, including some I start without a clue to where they’re going, turn out to be not just satisfying, but integral to the story’s conclusion. It’s all part of the creative process. Unlike the BSG show writers, I have the luxury of working it all out before a book goes to press.[8] They, on the other hand, had a show to get out each week. They had to make it up like a song as they went. There was no other way.

In the end, we were left with notes both satisfying and dissonant ringing in the air. For me, the final note was especially persistent. It seemed to say, “The words to ‘All Along the Watchtower’ lie somewhere deep in our racial memory.” It took the Cylons to show us that, and Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix in the present day to bring them bubbling back to the surface.

[1] There’s a story behind that, something about a first book being rejected, but I never learned the details.

[2] From “Miniseries, Part 1,” at approximately the 51:20 mark.

[3] Just what that Tylium is, I have no idea, but according the information I was given, it’s sort of nuclear, and sort of not—hence, my qualifying it as a quantum-catalytic fuel, which I’m sure we’d all like to have in our flying cars. The name “Tylium” came from the show materials. The “quantum catalytic” part was my refinement, intended to convey “sort of nuclear, sort of chemical, not quite magical.”

[4] I decided to call her Jane Cally. Peter David’s tie-in novel Sagittarius Is Bleeding later identified her as Callista Henderson, before the episode “Escape Velocity” established her full name as Callandra “Cally” Henderson.

[5] In the third-season finale episode “Crossroads, Part 2”

[6] EDITORS’ NOTE: Of course, angels have been a part of Battlestar Galactica from the beginning. During the original series, the beings on the Ships of Light are said to be angels. On Galactica: 1980, Angela—whom Starbuck meets in “The Return of Starbuck”—is revealed to be an angel as well. As for the rebooted series, Six tells Baltar early in season two (in “Home, Part 2”) that she’s an angel (“I’m an angel of God sent here to protect you. To guide you. To love you.”), but Baltar simply doesn’t believe her. So the precedent for the existence of angels had long been a part of BSG‘s fabric. AUTHOR’S NOTE: Obviously, the editors know a lot more about this than I do!

[7] Rodman, Sarah. “Battlestar Galactica reunion at ATX Television Festival reveals that the Cylons never had a plan.” Los Angeles Times, 11 June 2017. (

[8] Though not, as it turns out, before a book series is finished. But that’s another story.

Essay copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey A. Carver
Collection copyright © 2018 by the Sequart Organization