Over the summer, Katee Sackhoff, who plays Kara "Starbuck" Thrace on "Battlestar Galactica," received a nerve-racking phone call from Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, the show's executive producers.
"David and Ron said, 'We want to start this phone call out by saying that we love you,' " Sackhoff recalled last week.
Sackhoff knew she might not like what came next. And she didn't. "They said, 'You're not really gonna die -- but we're gonna blow you up.' "
At the end of the March 4 episode of "Battlestar Galactica," Starbuck, the swaggering, troubled pilot who has been one of the show's leads during its three seasons, did indeed blow up. The series' voracious fans' reactions ranged from mourning to disbelief that the producers would kill off such a popular character.
Those in the latter category turned out to be right: Three episodes later, in the season finale's last moments, Starbuck reappeared, flying alongside her friend Apollo (Jamie Bamber). She said she had been to Earth -- the search for Earth is the show's overarching story -- and would lead everyone there.
In a spoiler-centric world, where the plots of television series leak throughout the Internet, the so-called death of Starbuck was a big secret to keep in the months-long lag time between shooting "Battlestar Galactica" and its broadcast. Adding on that she wasn't actually dead, along with the surprising circumstances of her return, made it even more difficult. After all, the Sci Fi Channel show isn't so much watched by its moderately sized but fervent audience as it is dissected.
So the other part of that summer phone call was the hatching of an ornate scheme that would keep even the most curious and snooping viewers surprised, even if they did guess that Sackhoff was not actually gone from the show. Eick said: "This was by far the most difficult and complex secret to keep. It was no small feat."
At first, the producers wanted to deceive the whole "Battlestar Galactica" production, including the cast, into thinking that Sackhoff was really leaving. "They said, 'We're not telling anyone,' " she recounted. " 'We're not telling the entire crew. The entire cast. Some of the writers aren't even going to know.' I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me!' "
The cast found out Starbuck was "dying" while production was underway last year when they received the outline of the episode in which she blew up. "Everyone flipped out," Sackhoff said.
The animated Sackhoff found it difficult to lie to her fellow actors about what was going on. (Deceit doesn't seem to be her forte, generally speaking: In the first minute of this interview, Sackhoff admitted that she was hung over, because, she said, "I don't want you to think I'm stupid. I'd rather you think I'm, you know, a drunk.")
Eick soon realized that this part of the plan simply wouldn't work among the close group of friends in the "Battlestar Galactica" cast. "It wasn't fair to her," he said. "She was going to have to lie to literally everybody in the cast: 'Yeah, yeah, I know, it's awfully sad. I'm gonna miss you guys!' It got ridiculous at a certain point. She was a trooper; I think she would have done anything we asked her to. But she's not inhuman!"
So the cast was told that Sackhoff and Starbuck were there to stay, but anyone else deemed a potential leak was kept in the dark. Including Sackhoff's own father. "My dad has a big mouth, and I knew he would get on his e-mail list and tell everyone," she said.
As Season 3 progressed, Eick and Moore teased the press and fans with bits of information about how it would build toward a climax. In interviews, they said that Starbuck would have a big episode in early March; that after that episode, an actor would be gone from the opening credits; and that by the end of the season, it would be discovered that a major character was an undercover Cylon, the robotic race that looks human but appears to be set on annihilating mankind.
Those three plot points were all true -- Sackhoff was removed from the credits after Starbuck's "death," and in fact four Cylons were revealed in the finale -- but turned out not to be related. On the dozens of sites devoted to "Battlestar Galactica," fans mushed them together anyway, turning them into "foilers" rather than spoilers, as Eick and Moore hoped.
"My goal was to mislead the audience into thinking Kara Thrace was a Cylon," Eick said. Being a Cylon, after all, would mean that there were many copies of her, and therefore Sackhoff could come back as a different version of Starbuck.
"For the fans really paying close attention -- reading the message boards, consuming all the details -- I think they were adequately misled," Eick said. "They thought they knew the answer; they were wrong, and that's ultimately what they want -- to be surprised."