“There are those who believe that life here began out there: far across the universe, with tribes of humans who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians, or the Toltecs, or the Mayans. Some believe there may yet be brothers of man who even now fight to survive…somewhere beyond the heavens.”
I was only in single digits when it was first broadcast, but I’ll never forget watching the original Battlestar Galactica television series. Most science fiction programs like Star Trek, The Invaders, and even My Favorite Martian were relegated to UHF back then. A high-budget network television show with dogfighting spaceships, scary robots, and aliens was special. Even the comic books were cool. We all wanted to be like Starbuck or Apollo. Adama was the wise grandfather we wish we had. And who didn’t want to pilot a Colonial Viper?
As I watch it today, Battlestar Galactica‘s flaws become more evident. It could be that it’s a different viewing experience when you’re not seated six inches from a wood-framed color TV, wide-eyed and absorbing uncounted roentgens of radiation. Or maybe it’s got real problems. Nevertheless, it’s still an entertaining program, and worth talking about. We can discuss the 2003 remake at a later time. I’ve got all the DVDs.
The most striking thing about the show when you first watch it is the music. Both sad and stirring, it fits perfectly within the theme of embattled humanity fleeing for its life across the blackness of space. It conveys both loss and dignity, grief and unbowed heads.
Casting and performances were uneven, but hit the mark where it counted. Lorne Greene inhabited Adama, and to those of us who never watched Greene in Bonanza (why would you when Star Trek reruns were on), he nevertheless became a favorite actor. A great leader of men. His rich, deep voice conveyed both wisdom and authority, and he was very rarely wrong about anything. You’d follow Adama to the end of the universe if he asked, and would be honored by the request every centon. Dirk Benedict as Starbuck was the perfect lovable rogue: smoked cigars, drank, played cards, joked, womanized, feared commitment but possessed fierce loyalty, always with an eye for the main chance. You rooted for him, or for Richard Hatch as Apollo, the strait-laced fighter pilot who always did the right thing, and did it by the book. The other characters were, for the most part, interchangeable except for Herbert Jefferson Jr as Boomer and John Colicos as the evil Count Baltar. No one else stood out.
The child character Boxey was a problem. His pet robot dog Muffit was a problem. Even as a small boy I hated them. Perhaps I was born a cynic, but back then I knew they’d only been put into the show to cater to young people like me. Perhaps if Muffit wasn’t so obviously a performer in a robot dog suit or if Boxey hadn’t been so irritating they might have been better received. As it was, they were an unwelcome distraction that took you out of the show.
There’s a fundamental decency to the characters, themes, and storytelling that’s completely absent from today’s television fare. The people of the 12 Colonies believed in God. They prayed to Him, these ancient, starfaring people who had a different Bible, a different set of legends and heroes. They had marriage and codes of honor and were appalled at the necessity, when all else failed, of putting their women on the front lines of combat in Colonial Vipers. The miniseries’s pilot, Saga of a Star World, reflects late 1970’s Cold War concerns, with the Cylons filling in for the Soviets as a dreadful, implacable enemy. This Cold War comparison becomes even more stark when Sire Uri, a leader among the surviving humans, suggests that they should dispose of all of their weapons to show the Cylons that humans are no longer a threat. The Cylons would presumably call off the war and sue for peace: a perfect metaphor for the demand for nuclear disarmament in the face of Soviet aggression. We know how that ended up in the real world, and the people of Battlestar Galactica were at least as wise as us in refusing Sire Uri’s suggestion.
The special effects were good for the time. A common complaint was the frequent reuse of certain special effects shots: dogfights, ships exploding, Vipers leaving the flight bay, etc. I already mentioned the unfortunate Muffit. Still, they don’t get in the way of the plot. The Cylons were creepy, with their absurdly shiny bodies and that red, endlessly scanning eye. Despite the uniformity of their electronic voices, they’re not emotionless robots: they experience anger, concern, and fear. Some even carry swords. There’s a Cylon culture buried somewhere deep in their reptilian past, but we don’t see much of it. Lucifer, Count Baltar’s erstwhile dogsbody, has a disquietingly effete, refined voice, but his sparkling robot head is too small for his body and he’s difficult to be afraid of. All in all, Battlestar Galactica‘s illusion is imperfect, but functional.
Unfortunately, the show had problems throughout its run, with high budgets, terrible mid-season episodes, and dwindling viewership. It didn’t last past a single season. Galactica 1980 failed to recapture the magic and didn’t last long, either.
Nevertheless, it still holds up. If barely.
“Fleeing from the Cylon tyranny, the last Battlestar, the Galactica, leads a ragtag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest: a shining planet known as Earth.”