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SYFY WIRE Battlestar Galactica

So Joke We All: How Battlestar Galactica influenced HBO's new space comedy

By Phil Pirrello
Avenue 5

The creator of Avenue 5 is a big science fiction fan.

Given that writer and showrunner Armando Iannucci’s resume is loaded with grounded, political-based comedies — including HBO’s Emmy-winning Veep and the BBC’s The Thick of It — you wouldn't necessarily expect him to call out Ron Moore and SYFY's Battlestar Galactica as a reference point for his new HBO sitcom, set aboard a Poseidon Adventure-sized intergalactic cruise ship. Avenue 5, like all BSG and good sci-fi before it, uses the future as both a lens and a mirror to provide commentary on some very modern cultural flashpoints, which Iannucci satirizes to great effect in his new series.

Whether it’s the maddening consequences of groupthink, or the comedic potential of the bureaucracy of space travel that often gets overlooked in fictional depictions, Iannucci says nothing is off limits for a show about “entitled, super-rich, white people.” But there is one theme in particular on which he hinged his show.

“I don’t see it as a satire, really. I see it more as a commentary on — specifically on — the madness of crowds,” Iannucci explained to SYFY WIRE last week. “The kind of social breakdown that’s kind of emerged in the last three or four years or so in the world. You feel like something is about to blow, so I wanted to create that sort of powder keg, where 5,000 people [confined in one space] could blow at any minute. And have that underlying threat, that thing of dislocation — what do people do when they are outside their comfort zones? — force them to work out who they really are. Figure out what they have got to offer life. All in a comedy.”

The thematic explorations of this conceit, coupled with Iannucci’s love for sci-fi, compelled him to make his first series set in space.

“I wasn’t interested in anything with hover boots or silver spacesuits or teleportation or any Star Trek stuff,” Iannucci said. But Gene Roddenberry’s franchise was still on his mind.

Star Trek — they do that really well. We make a reference to it, the ‘phaser’ line, in the pilot. But I didn’t want to do a parody of that or anything that would feel like that.”

What he did want to do was show his love for the genre, passed through his very unique (and hilarious) perspective. In doing so, he was very mindful of what came before in the genre and had some surprising touchstones in mind when creating a show where, in one episode, the titular vessel’s hull has a very close encounter with a coating of human excrement.

“As a teenager, I used to read H.G. Wells and his short stories. And [tonally], Wells is very much ‘Everything is fine, it’s just that this character can float.' You know? Things like that," Iannucci said. "So that, and 2001, were influences. The reboot of Battlestar Galactica I really liked, because — again — it kind of kept away from aliens, apart from the Cylons. And I like that for its exploring issues, non-sci-fi issues, like exploring terrorism.”

BSG’s grounded handling of its themes indirectly inspired how Iannucci and his writers would dramatize theirs.

“As our show progresses, we use that as sort of a guide — we get into things like life and death, who makes decisions [when dealing with that], and, again, ultimately, just the madness of crowds.”

Another topic Iannucci skewers is Americans. Specifically, their accents.

Captain Ryan Parker (Hugh Laurie), the ship's commander, who is more of a figurehead than an actual captain, speaks with an American accent was is really British. In the show, Parker justifies it by saying the passengers find that accent more comforting for whatever reason, but Iannucci insists that bit of dialogue is more than just a throwaway line.

"That's intentional. In the grand scheme of it all, what we are commenting on there, you will see how and why that is as the story goes."

We’ll see how it all plays out when Avenue 5 premieres Sunday on HBO.