After the faces of four of the final five humanoid Cylons, or “skinjobs,” were revealed at the end of Battlestar Galactica‘s third season, fans longed to discover the identity of the fifth Cylon. Re-imagined series creator/executive producer Ron Moore kept them waiting until the second half of the show’s fourth year when, in the episode Sometimes a Great Notion, Colonel Saul Tigh, a humanoid Cylon, experiences a flashback of his past life on Earth, and realizes that his wife Ellen is the fifth Cylon.
“I’m not quite sure exactly when I picked Ellen,” said Moore during a conference call earlier this year with journalists. “It was some time in the third season. I think the option of presenting her as one of the final Cylons was kicking around for a while, but we really didn’t intend on revealing four of the five final Cylons in the season finale [Crossroads: Part 2] until we were breaking that actual episode. That’s when the identity of the fifth Cylon became a more pressing question. In-between the two seasons we went on a writers’ retreat and talked about everything in detail, and Ellen was the primary candidate to be the fifth Cylon. We discussed other possibilities but none of them really held water, so we stuck with Ellen.
“And I would say it worked primarily because of her relationship with Tigh [Michael Hogan]. It really sort of anchored that couple as something very special. Also, as a character, Ellen had been an off-camera presence right from the beginning of the show in the  miniseries. We began hearing about Tigh’s wife and it was one of his key defining characteristics, so we knew she was important in the mythology of the show. I also liked the idea of saying that this couple had been together a very long time. Theirs had been this sort of eternal romance and love, which I thought was cool. It completed the framework of the final five and just fit. It also made the fact that Tigh had killed his wife back on New Caprica even richer and further complicated as well as filled with irony and more conflicted feelings.
“I liked Tigh and Ellen because they were both flawed and noble characters who tended to get in their own way, and I liked the bad choices they made as much as I enjoyed their good choices. I loved watching them claw at each other and the fact that they couldn’t bear to be apart from one another. Usually the two lovers who transcend time are people who long for each other and are such good and noble individuals that you hate them. Ellen and Tigh just feel like a legitimate twosome. They’re a married couple who have to go at it periodically as well as have major issues and this and that, but their bond was one that literally could not be broken. And I thought that that was a really interesting and, ultimately, positive thing to say.”
Saul and Ellen Tigh are among those colonists on New Caprica when, in season three of Galactica, the planet ends up under Cylon occupation. After her husband is imprisoned by the enemy, Ellen begins having sexual relations with the humanoid Cylon Cavil (Dean Stockwell) in order to secure Saul’s release. Cavil, in return, uses Ellen to gain information about the human insurgency. Her betrayal is eventually uncovered, and although Saul realizes that his wife’s actions were out of love for him, her collaboration with the enemy is punishable by death. Rather than have his fellow resistance fighters kill Ellen, he gives her a poisoned drink and she dies in his arms. Given her character’s demise, actress Kate Vernon, who plays Ellen, was surprised to subsequently be asked by Ron Moore to once again return to the show.
“Ron called me one day and he sounded really sad and kind of morose,” recalls Vernon. “He said to me, ‘I spoke with the [NBC] network and I’m sorry to say that they agreed to green light this project. It’s unfortunate, but you’re going to have to come back to work for us.’ Ron messed with my head right up to the very minute of actually letting me know that I was coming back.
“At that point I didn’t know what that meant. I was just elated that I was coming back, and then the conversation evolved into Ellen being the fifth Cylon. I wasn’t sure he was talking to the right person or teasing me again. My jaw fell open and I was waiting for Ron to say, ‘Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, I’m kidding.’ I had been invited back for a few episodes and was hoping to be invited back again, but I was not expecting this, so I was stunned.”
Once the actress was told about her character’s resurrection and true identity, was it difficult for Vernon to keep it a secret? “Oh, gosh, yes. There were waves of intense agony and frustration, and then I would completely forget about it,” she says. “I mean, it was quite a while before I was back on the [Galactica] set, so I actually did forget about it for a bit. For the most part, though, this was something I desperately wanted to talk about just because it was such an honor to be given this role.
“When Ron killed Ellen off, I went up to him, looked him straight in the eye and asked, ‘Isn’t there any way I can come back?’ He looked at me very gently and assuredly said, ‘No,’ so in Ron’s eyes I was done. However, in my heart I personally had a love affair with Ellen as an actress and this show, so I never let go of it. Ron can attest to that because I called him many times, and, bless you, Ron, for taking all my phone calls.”
Continues Moore, “I have to say that, creatively, killing off Ellen was a great move. It was one of those big sort of, ‘Wow, what an ending. Man, that’s going to be powerful.’ There was great excitement about what it was, but, you know, it was hard to let go of that character and know that Ellen wouldn’t be in the program any more. Honestly, probably my most difficult experience on the series was calling Kate Vernon and saying, ‘We’re killing off your character.’ It was really emotional as well as heartbreaking, and I think that on some level I carried that with me a lot. It certainly gave me the impetus to want to bring her back.”
Says Vernon, “I thank you for that, Ron. That’s a wonderful compliment.”
Adds Moore, “When it comes to keeping the secret, I know that a number of fan sites out there as well as several of the on-line communities fervently follow the series. Sometimes things slip out, and this one was really well-suppressed. However, we didn’t have to do too much to keep the secret because there’s so much bad information out there about the show in general. There was all this speculation posing as fact where people were saying, ‘I know who the fifth Cylon is.’ Occasionally one of them would say Ellen and we’d all be like, ‘Oh, crap, it’s out.’ Then on the same website or a site that it’s linked to, someone was saying it’s Boxy [a character from the original 1979 Battlestar Galactica series], and we’re definitely bringing him back. Again, because there was so much bad information out there, our hope was that the few nuggets of truth would be hard to sift out of the rest of it, and that’s what happened.”
In the fourth season Galactica episode No Exit, Ellen Tigh wakes in a fright, covered in goop and sitting in a Cylon re-birthing tank. The time line is 18 months ago and she has been reborn after her death on New Caprica. Ellen is on-board a Cylon base ship and being held there by Cavil, whose disdain of her and the four other Cylons who created him and the other seven existing humanoid models has only grown worse. When the Cylon resurrection ship is destroyed, Cavil orders Ellen to tell him how to reconstruct the technology, but she refuses, so he plans to cut her open and extract the necessary information from her brain. Ellen is in a very different place than any we have ever seen her in before, which provided Vernon with new challenges when it came to her performance.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about what I was going to do,” notes the actress. “I needed the material, though, to see what direction Ellen was going in, and because the writers on this program are so brilliant and their imaginations so incredible, I just really had to open up and trust these words and this concept. I also had a couple of talks with Ron as well as the directors about where we were headed, but I’m a feeling actress. I didn’t necessarily go in there and intellectually just break it down on a mental level. I know who Ellen is and I took this new information, which was so rich and profound, and just let it guide me through the change that Ellen experiences.”
During the final moments of No Exit, one of the Boomer (Grace Park) models double-crosses Cavil and uses a Raptor to fly Ellen to safety on-board the Galactica. No one is more surprised to see her than Tigh, and the two of them waste no time in becoming reacquainted. Ellen is later shocked to discover that Saul and Number Six (Tricia Helfer) are involved and the Cylon is pregnant with their child. Reconnecting with her onscreen hubby Michael Hogan was a joy for Vernon.
“Michael Hogan has always been extremely encouraging,” she says. “At one point before I began shooting I was still a little worried and walked into his trailer. I was coming back as the fifth Cylon and felt a tremendous responsibility, which included quite a bit of dialogue. Michael looked at me and said, ‘Just know that you are Ellen and everything will be fine.’ Basically what he was saying was that I was already Ellen; I didn’t need to do anything more, but, again, just let the words guide me. It was the kindest and most supportive thing an actor or anybody could have said because I was quite concerned whether or not I’d be able to creatively answer what Ron and the other writers intended to reveal.”
There is no doubt that Ellen Tigh’s return to the Cylon fold causes further unheaval in what has been an extremely volatile period in their history. Although Ron Moore will be working on the Galactica prequel, Caprica, he promises that fans will not have to wait for the new series to learn what the future holds for the Cylons and humankind.
“Caprica will explore how the people on the colonies developed the Cylons and how all that came about,” explains the executive producer. “However, as far as the larger mysteries as well as mythologies along with the hows and whys and how everything plays out on Galactica, we set out to answer as many questions as we could by the end of the show, and that’s what we did. We didn’t hold anything in reserve and say, ‘Oh, well, we’ll deal with this on Caprica.”
With Galactica‘s fourth season also being its final one, that means the show’s actors have said goodbye to their alter egos. While sad to leave Ellen behind, Vernon will always be grateful for having had the opportunity to portray such a sexy, playful and intelligent character.
“Ellen is the best role I’ve had in my career,” says the actress. “I had no expectations when I auditioned for the part. I was told there might be two or three episodes, but they kept bringing me back, and with each new story I couldn’t wait to crack open the script because the writers seemed to really indulge the character’s naughtiness, feistiness, trouble-making, the complicated relations she had with her husband, etc.
“I found Ellen more and more fascinating as well as dark, delicious and misunderstood. So as an actress it was pure discovery, and I never expected to continue on as much as I wanted to. So it was just a wild ride.”
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