In days gone by, women in science fiction films were usually portrayed as a valiant but vulnerable lot – the daughters of brilliant scientists (or friendly alien rulers) who registered fear with marked regularity and wound up being rescued by the space faring hero during the film’s final ten minutes. The women carried spears, toted ray guns, stifled steno pads and pushed buttons while the men subdued alien terrors galore. Time and time again, screenwriters made it clear: space is no place for a woman!
If Battlestar Galactica’s Maren (Athena) Jensen has her way, that sort of thinking will be considered passe by this TV season’s end. In her eyes, TV science fiction doesn’t have to rely on cliches to hold the viewers’ attention. “Galactica has infinite possibilities. In fact, my character may be abnormal in the sense that she may be more independent than most of the women in classic space adventures.”
Lounging in her West Coast home, the outspoken young actress reflects on her highly touted involvement with screen SF. “I think it would be kind of nice to be considered a science-fiction heroine,” she muses. “But I just can’t relate to all that yet because everything is so new to me. I just go in, do my job and go home.”
Jensen breaks into a slight smile. Her current “job” is the envy of countless science-fiction fanatics and fellow actors alike. As Athena, the female lead in ABC’s multi-million dollar Battlestar Galactica, she holds the plum women’s role in this Quo Vadis of video science fiction. A role that, one year ago, then fashion model Maren Jensen never dreamed of.
“I got the part by showing up at the casting director’s office,” she recalls. “I was sent by my agent and I read and screen tested in November and again in February. I got the part. My first professional experience came right after my first screen test for the role. Glen Larson also produces The Hardy Boys and wanted me to get some on-the-air experience. So, right before I started shooting Galactica, I did a role on The Hardy Boys.” Her performance in the hour-long mystery assured her a berth on the Galactica.
Following her screen debut, Jensen plunged headfirst into the rigors of Galactica. Surrounded by Cylons, daggits, laser pistols and insect-men, the neophyte actress found herself surprisingly unperturbed by the show’s ambience, “I really didn’t think of Galactica as being that off the-wall. It didn’t seem all that out of the ordinary. No more so than acting in a sitcom where some of the situations are really unrealistic. I think we’re much more believable than that.”
Working twelve hours a day, Jensen also manages to ignore the show’s more overwhelming space element. “When we started the show,” she says, “I really didn’t come into contact with any of the special effects. What I see when I work is a big sound stage with some sets constructed in the middle. They’re very realistic; the bridge is certainly phenomenal. But the scope of the show really didn’t hit me until I saw the first bit of film with the special effects.”
As the opulence of Galactica’s visual clout dawned on the entire cast and they struggled to develop their different characters, the show’s financial import began to hit the heads of both Universal Studios and ABC-TV. Clearly, a lot was riding on the success of the good ship Galactica. So, in a flurry of activity that would have amazed even the most seasoned of actors, the studio heads began tinkering with the original concept of the series. Scripts were reworked. Characters’ roles expanded and diminished. Even the finale of the first three-hour episode was scratched. It was, in effect, the most hectic of times for all concerned.
Hard as it was for a new face on the set, Jensen managed to weather the whirlwind and now reflects upon those initial weeks with a dose of earthbound philosophy. “A lot of good scenes in terms of character development were trimmed,” she admits. “But I think that’s the actor’s classic complaint. There’s nothing at all you can do about that. All you can do is learn to work within the framework of knowing that much of what you do may be cut. You have to remember that we are shooting for a TV audience. There are a lot of rules and regulations. We may do a scene one way and then have to go back and reshoot it because it’s just too racy.
“In the beginning, that happened a lot. Mostly it concerned Starbuck’s stuff. He’s the great womanizer and he was saying a lot of things that, frankly, could have been taken two ways. It was all very funny and would have worked if it was played to an adult audience. But I think the network took a little bit of offense because Galactica is now being slated as a family show. So a lot of funny lines had to be cut, as well as some scenes.
“For instance, in the first episode, where I steam Starbuck and Cassiopia while they’re kissing away in the launching area. Well, originally, they were writhing away on the floor and all you saw was Starbuck’s bareback. They really toned that bit down.”
Some of the more spontaneous changes in the show’s plotlines, however, came as a result of some on-the-set fluffs; goofs that served to lighten the atmosphere on the lot and strengthen the cast’s sense of intergalactic camaraderie. “In terms of outtakes, most of our cast is pretty funny,” Jensen laughs. “Once Dirk (Starbuck) Benedict and Richard (Apollo) Hatch were doing this really heavy scene and they were both getting into it. At the very end, Apollo got excited and said to Starbuck, ‘Awwww, c’mon Dirk!’ The whole place cracked up. On another show, a lineup of those Cylons, the basketball players in the shiny suits, was leaving a scene and the first one happened to trip. Like tin soldiers, they all toppled in a row.”
But the champion scene stealer, according to Jensen, is the show’s resident droid daggit, Muffit. “Our daggit is the cutest little chimp named Evie. And since Evie is a real monkey dressed up in a suit, she is prone to talk monkey talk. Occasionally, we’ll be in the middle of a serious scene and all of a sudden you’ll hear all these jungle noises coming out of this suit. It never fails to break us up.”
With ten hours of filming complete, Galactica has proven to be a visual delight and a ratings winner. Yet the actress feels that, in terms of priorities, it’s time for the production to shift gears and get into the human element a bit more. “The show is still establishing itself,” she stresses. “But I think that the series is going to have to appeal to viewers because of both its special effects and its characterizations. I know right now that it’s the special effects that dominate it and people are watching primarily for that great look. Eventually, I feel that the accent will have to be put on human relationships … and viewers will start identifying with the regular characters. I know that the show couldn’t hold my attention after a certain amount of time if I didn’t identify with any of the characters and all I could do was watch a planet being blown up.”
As an energetic, aspiring performer on a one-of-a-kind show, Jensen finds the future development of Galactica’s characters an engrossing topic. “There’s a lot of potential there,” she beams. “I think Starbuck’s character, for the bum that he is, is very interesting. There usually aren’t good guys on TV that are such philanderers. I kind of like that, as well as his being so serious and just a tad on the pompous side. And what makes Athena so interesting for me is that she does have a few faults. She is, at times, daddy’s little girl and yet she chases around after this guy who really is a bum. There are interesting areas that could be explored in that.”
Jensen is most concerned about her portrayal of Athena. The only daughter of Commander Adama (Lorne Greene), Athena has her work cut out for her, stressing her feminine persona aboard a starship full of blatantly macho types. Although Athena is outnumbered by her male peer group, she has enough personality traits to give actress Jensen a firm foundation upon which to build a solid characterization. “Athena is about my age and very much like me in certain ways,” Jensen says. “She’s smart, courageous, emotional, sensitive but still young. Athena today isn’t that dissimilar to the way I first thought about her months ago. I do think that she’s a little more sassy now. I first thought of her as being a bit straight, but as the show got going and she interacted with some of the other characters, she got spunkier. She’s more willing to take chances now. And if someone does something nasty to her, she’s willing to pay them back.”
The actress realizes that science fiction has long been considered a man’s domain and that, in TV and movies at any rate, most women have been viewed as nothing more than an extension of the male space hero. Jensen is determined to place Athena above all that but finds that she has her hands full. She must strike a balance between starstruck kid and fighter pilot.
“My character’s development varies from show to show since there is such a large regular cast,” she explains. “And there might be a little bit of sexism at work as well. The guys are really the featured players on the show. Athena is very prominent in some episodes and, in others, not there at all. For instance, in the Britt Ekland story, they have her on for the entire episode. So the focus is, ‘Wow, here’s a known lady. Let’s spotlight her.’
“There’s some macho stuff going on. It doesn’t disturb me most of the time, but occasionally …” Blue-eyed Jensen knits her brows into an almost feline squint. “I don’t think of my role as being especially subservient, but I do think there are overtones of that. I’m continually chasing Starbuck and he’s always womanizing. For example, he ran around with Britt Ekland the entire time she was on the show and, since she played a clone, there were plenty of her to run around with.”
Mentally surveying the Galactica’s domain, she continues. “That aspect of my role disturbs me. Starbuck’s is the classic male role. And I’m always over there mooning and pining for him. Some of the aspects of Athena’s character are fine. I’ve been daddy’s little girl a lot but that doesn’t bother me too much because Athena is a young girl. She’s proficient in a lot of things, but maybe emotionally she’s not all grown up.”
It’s Athena’s current status as Starbuck’s unrequited paramount that irks Jensen most. “I don’t think it’s the ideal match right now. I think it could be someday because he is a bright and courageous character. I just think he should be developed. Obviously, the show would be less interesting if we were lovey-dovey.
“There are some loose ends that do disturb me. I don’t think they came in with my character as strongly defined as were some of the others. I don’t feel that Athena’s on completely equal footing with Starbuck and Apollo at this point. I’d like to say that Athena will develop to the point where things are completely equal, but that’s dependent on the writers and the producer. Although I’d personally like to see it go that way, I give it my best effort to not subordinate myself and to not put myself in a sexist position.”
Some of the more sexist positions Jensen has found herself in have wound up on the cutting-room floor. “In the second episode, the one with all the women pilots, the televised show was greatly toned down. The way it was originally shot, there was a lot more footage of all of us in those ‘g-suits,’ those little underwear outfits. And, of course, they cast women who were very, very beautiful. I guess you could say that’s a little sexist. But I think that Galactica has come a long way in terms of science fiction. There are things about it that aren’t at all sexist as they have been in the past on other shows.” She pauses for a moment. “Hmmm, you know, I’ve never mentioned any of this before.”
Jensen briefly considers what changes she would like to bring to Athena’s future lifestyle aboard the Battlestar Galactica. “I would like to see her fitting into the framework of the show as an independent woman with a lot of brains, which I think she already has. I don’t mind showing people’s weaknesses, either. I think it’s important to show weakness so that people can identify with the character. They look at Athena and say, ‘OK, she’s stuck on this guy. I can relate to that. I’ve been in that situation, too. A guy has stepped all over me and I’m still madly in love with him.’ That part of Athena doesn’t bother me, but I’d like to show a little more strength in that relationship. At present, she is more subordinate than not.
“In the past few years there have been so many good women’s parts in films and on TV. There have been some real strides made. My role is not a ground breaker in that sense, but I like to think I’m bringing certain degrees of sensitivity to the part that makes Athena unstereotyped.”. *
Maren Jensen was born in Arcadia, California. Her father was a physician, and her mother was a secretary with the Los Angeles Zoo. She is a middle child, with an older brother, Dana, and a younger sister, Kathleen. Maren attended Herbert Hoover High School from 1971 to 1974, and after graduating received a scholarship to attend UCLA, where she majored in Theater Arts and Law.
While still in college, Maren began a modeling career. She was featured on the covers of Vogue and Mademoiselle. A mutual friend introduced her to the agent Barbara Gale, who helped arrange two network commercials and a role in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries in 1977. In 1978, Jensen starred in Battlestar Galactica. She was featured on the cover of TV Guide in April 1978. Her last known role was in Wes Craven’s 1981 horror film Deadly Blessing alongside Sharon Stone. Her career was cut short by illness, after she contracted Epstein-Barr Syndrome.
Jensen was a longtime companion of singer-songwriter Don Henley. In 1982, Henley released his first solo album, I Can’t Stand Still, and dedicated it to her. She is credited for “Harmony Vocals” on the song “Johnny Can’t Read,” and is credited in the liner notes for having composed the piano intro and interlude on the song “A Month of Sundays” on Henley’s 1984 album Building the Perfect Beast. She appeared in the video for Henley’s song “Not Enough Love In the World” in 1985. Henley and Jensen were engaged, but they separated in 1986. Jensen helped Henley establish The Walden Woods Project in the early 1990s, an organization dedicated to protecting the Walden Woods area in Concord, Massachusetts from development.