In the rankings of fan favorites for science fiction/fantasy tv there are two main categories: the good and the awful. The rest, as John Kenneth Galbraith notes, fall into that third category of “guilty pleasure.” It is admittedly a subjective category but allows one to express that some shows had something worthy of watching but failed in its delivery. And the original Battlestar Galactica fits into that mode. Derided by many as a rip off of Star Wars (which itself blended elements of many known motifs and the famous Japanese movie The Seven Samurai), it still maintains a loyal following to this day even after the re-imagined series has run its course.
Series creator Glen Larson was a master of timing from all accounts. He had many shows under his belt that were based upon successful movies. Although the seeds of Battlestar Galactica were thought about before George Lucas came along, the popularity of space adventures meant the time was right for something different. And Battlestar Galactica offered to do just that. About the same time there were popular writers arguing that extraterrestrials visited Earth in its distant past leaving their mark in ancient civilizations. His show would combine both a space opera aspect and feed into that theme. The opening credits had this narration to offer up this tease for the audience:
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…that they may have been the architects of the Great Pyramids…or the lost civilizations of Lemuria…or Atlantis. Some believe that there may yet be brothers of man…who even now fight to survive—somewhere beyond the heavens! (There was a slightly different ending for the movie version .)
With big money behind the effort at ABC and Universal, the show drew good acting talent along with people who worked on Star Wars like John Dykstra (although he would leave the series later due to conflicts about the quality of the episodes). Lorne Greene (of Ponderosa fame) was cast as Commander Adama. Richard Hatch as Captain Apollo, Dirk Benedict at Lt. Starbuck, Maren Jensen as Adama’s daughter Lt. Athena (a bridge officer), Terry Carter as Colonel Tigh, Lew Ayres as President Adar, Ray Milland as Sire Uri, and John Calicos as the treacherous Count Baltar, and Wilfred Hyde-White as Sire Anton. During the season other famous actors would appear such as Fred Astaire, Bobby Van, Ray Bolger, Randolph Mantooh, Lloyd Bochner, Edward Mulhare, and Patrick Macnee (who played Count Iblis and was the voice of the Imperious Leader along with the opening narration in many episodes). Jonathan Harris lent his voice to the Cylon Lucifer.
Battlestar Galactica (BG)is set in either a distant part of our galaxy or another one (the BG writers were awful about many astronomical terms and their meaning) in a binary star system where twelve planets make up what is called the Twelve Colonies of Man. The names of the colonies are from the Zodiac. They are an advanced spacefaring civilization and descended from a mother civilization called Kobol. Although they speak English, much of their vocabulary is radically different from our own in key ways. For instance centaries instead of hours or yahren instead of years. Terms or names infer a connection to our own mythology (names like Apollo, Athena for instance). The colonies are united in a political union though its exact nature is not clearly defined but has an elected president (in this case President Adar) and the Council of Twelve which are leaders selected by each colony to serve as advisors to the president and possibly head up important areas of government. Commander Adama is the senior Colonial Fleet officer (his exact title is the complicated commander-in-chief instead of Fleet Admiral or Chief Fleet Operations).
The Colonies were at war with Cylons but a peace treaty is about to be signed. The Cylons were a sentient reptilian species that decided to create humanoid robots to serve their needs. Over time these robots became sentient and replaced the original Cylons who are believed to be extinct at this point in time. Their cosmic view of an ordered universe meant humans have no place in it. By extension that would also mean other sentient life might be considered a threat making the Cylons a grave threat to any race they encounter unless they were a more advanced civilization. In a future episode (War of the Gods) we learn that Count Iblis, either a fallen Lord of Kobol or Satan, is behind the Cylons. Which means the Cylons are part of a larger plan in the BG cosmos. The war lasted close to a millennia and President Adar is delighted mankind will at last have peace. Adama is unsure but demurs to Adar. Unfortunately Adama was correct. It turns out to be a ruse. A routine patrol led by his son Captain Apollo and another son Lieutenant Zac find a Cylon tanker and a large Cylon task force. Their discovery prompts the Cylons to attack sooner then intended but it has devastating results. Only Adama’s ship was prepared since he decided to run a battle drill. The other battlestars are unable to launch their fighters and the Cylons are fully prepared to use kamikaze tactics to destroy the battlestars. While this battle is going on, the Cylons move their large ships to attack the colonies directly. All the planets come under attack. We learn in a future episode that Baltar sabotaged the planetary defense platforms. Adama did take Galactica to Caprica but is unable to stop the holocaust that occurs. A lull in fighting allows Adama to collect survivors into whatever transport is available and lead a convoy away from their home system.
220 ships manage to make it with about 50,000 survivors scattered amongst them. They stop at Carillon, which is an old tylium mine, to get supplies and other needed things. However it is now being run by the Ovids (a sentient insect species that runs the resort) and there is a resort where many humans are living it up. They have no idea the colonies have been wiped out. The mine is huge but the official report (d0ne by Baltar’s people) downplayed it. Astonishingly the new Council of Twelve, with the repulsive Sire Uri as member (who was found hoarding food earlier), wants to disarm and live on Carillon! Unfortunately both the Ovids and Cylons get in the way. Turns out the Ovids have cut a deal with the Cylons. The Ovids happen to like how humans taste (literally) so keeping them around for food serves the Cylons nicely. However the Cylons have a small outpost on the planet and when that gets discovered (along with learning the Ovids like to consume humans), a gun battle ignites the tylium in the mine. Meanwhile the Cylons show up and a clever ruse by Apollo and Starbuck forces the Cylon ship closer to the surface where internally it is getting ready to blow. It does taking with it the Cylon fleet and its emperor (called the Imperious Leader) with it.
So where does the fleet go now? Well Adama suggests finding the 13th tribe, which according to scripture, went to a planet called Earth. He does not know its location (unlike the Adama in the re-imagined series that lied that he knew)but believes it is their best hope. And so the Colonials set off on their voyage of discovery and each episode, narrated by Adama ends:
Fleeing from the Cylon tyranny, the last battlestar, Galactica, leads a rag-tag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest…a shining planet known as Earth.
Meanwhile Baltar is spared (in the theatrical version he is beheaded) setting him up as the main protagonist for the series. In the following episode, he is given a Cylon ship and Lucifer to find Galactica.
Overall the pilot (Saga of a Star World) is not bad. It earned top ratings on television and the theatrical release also did well. Comparisons to Star Wars aside, the show offered something different. A distant but related colony of mankind that lost its home worlds and now seeks Earth as its new home. Their adventure to find Earth offered more opportunities to show their culture and history. Not to mention what they learn on their journey to Earth. So it was a promising start but has it problems. Special effects wise the pilot was well done but later on in the series, those special effects got reduced down to recycled footage to keep costs down. Supposedly the cost per episode was $1 million dollars, which was considerable back in 1978.
One of the big complaints is how the civilian government is always wrong and Adama always right. Critics are right to point this out as a problem. President Adar is a naive in trusting the Cylons and leaving the colonies unprotected by bringing all the battlestars. The new Council of Twelve is always inept and foolish while the military is always right.
It began in the pilot when, after the destruction of their home worlds, the Council of Twelve wants to disarm and live in peace. That is such a nonsensical position to begin with. When the Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor on 7 Dec 1941, there was no doubt in most people’s minds what needed to be done. Nor in Congress or in the presidency. War was declared and America went to war. It hunkered down, got the resources moving, and went out to challenge the Japanese (and later the Germans). Those that advocated against war were relegated to a corner where they could talk amongst themselves. No one wanted to listen to them.
Critics say the show advocated fascism but I doubt that was in Glen Larson’s mind. Rather this is an example of lazy thinking and not understanding the implications of what the characters were implying. In short, bad script review. Worse was the total misuse of terms like galaxy, sector, quadrant throughout the series. Then there are the cliché driven episodes that really stank. Since they rushed to series, they relied upon using western themes hoping to fill out the schedule. And they really botched it about what happens in space. You can go up, down, right and left. A planet with a huge pulsar cannon can be easily avoided without having to remake, Galactica style, the Guns of Navarone. Since fire cannot burn in space (no oxygen), the episode Fire In Space was a nod to Irwin Allen. And trying to put out a fire with water would be likewise useless (it would freeze). The re-imagined show got that part right by having the affected area vented to space.
The did however manage to produce some stand out episodes that overall still made the series compelling. Lost Planet of The Gods took us to Kobol, Living Legend found another battlestar and its well known Commander Caine had also survived, War of the Gods introduced Count Iblis and the mysterious beings of light, and Hand of God had Galactica turn around and take on the Cylons and at the same time receive an interesting message that had traveled thousands of yahrens to get there (the moon landing). Some of the lesser episodes were not totally bad like Baltar’s Escape or The Man With Nine Lives in which Chameleon (played by Fred Astaire) might be Starbuck’s father (turns out he was but wanted it kept secret). And the ratings, overall for the entire first season were not totally bad. But ABC cancelled it despite its strong ratings (and some better ideas for a second season) likely because of the cost. And so ended Galactica.
Not quite. Perhaps because they realized they erred or the stars aligned properly, they decided to bring it back. Unfortunately that was Galactica 1980. Larson really lost his mind on this venture taking with it any loyalty of fans with it. The show had Galactica arrive at Earth in our time frame (totally contradicting the original series) and was a total mess. No one who liked BG liked Galactica 1980. It quickly went down in ratings and then a merciful dump into trash bin where such shows as My Mother The Car are tossed into. From that point on, I doubt many BG fans ever trusted Glen Larson again.
The Re-imagined Series
The SciFi(SyFy now)miniseries and series was a wholesale reinvention of the BG story. Ron Moore, who worked on Star Trek:Deep Space Nine was an executive producer with David Eick. Glen Larson is listed as a consulting producer. The show ran from 2004-2009 and received good ratings though they slipped in season three and four. It was received critical acclaim in many places as well. Many in the classical BG community were disappointed it was not either a continuation of the original BG series or a remake of it. The series was darker and more gritty in tone, not unlike Otto Preminger’s excellent 1965 World War II movie In Harm’ s Way. In that movie nearly all the major characters had significant flaws.
In the re-imagined series, there are significant changes. First, the Cylons are a creation of man. They were created as robots to serve them in a variety of tasks and rebelled. Second, the series fleshed out the religion of both humans and Cylons. Humans were polytheists who worship the Lords of Kobol, whose names are chiefly drawn from the Greek pantheon though Egyptian, Roman and even Norse ones appear as well. Cylons were monotheists (worshiping one god). Like the original series the humans are descended from a mother civilization that came from Kobol. Unlike the original series, on Kobol they co-existed with their gods until they had to leave. It is unclear exactly what these Lords of Kobol really were. Were they really deities, a highly advanced race that benevolently tried to help humans, or humans that had become like Bodhisattvas?
This dueling theology (polytheism vs monotheism) made the show interesting along with the conflicts between the military and civilian leaders. We also learn in season 2 where Earth is and, as it was revealed at that time, there could be only explanation for how this information was displayed: that humans had come from Earth setting the whole thing in the future. However that turned out not to be the case at all. By the end of season 4 we learned that the 13th tribe that left Kobol 2,000 years before the departure of the colonials were humanoid Cylons and settled on not-our-Earth. There they learned to procreate naturally without the need of resurrection technology. But alas they also created mechanical robots who rebelled and the resulting war killed everyone leaving that Earth a desolate wasteland for Galactica to find. There were 5 survivors (the Final Five) who were warned about the destruction, used resurrection technology to save themselves, and set off for the colonies to prevent them from mistaking the same mistake. They got their too late but did end the war and created the new Cylons (Cavil etc). In the finale, after the destruction of the Cylon colony, Starbuck enters the coordinates realizing a song she heard her father play has the information. And then they arrive on Earth II, our Earth it seems. An Earth that already has a tribe of primitive humans genetically compatible with them. The colonials decide to settle, give up all their technology, and start anew. The Cylon centurions are given their freedom to head out into the cosmos and the remaining Cylons decide to stay on Earth. Adama selects areas around the globe for people to settle in. 150,000 years later we see New York City and a man (Ron Moore) reading a news story about the finding of a mitochondrial Eve, which is Hera Agathon, born of a Cylon mother and a human father. Messenger counterparts of Six and Baltar speculate on whether it will turn out as before but Six thinks they will make it by the law of averages.
The finale was controversial. It not only misused what mitochondrial Eve is, it made it abundantly clear that a supreme being was behind everything from the beginning. In short, none of the characters had any free will. They were living out what this deity wanted, Cylon and human. And only a supreme being make another Earth and make it compatible for the colonials. The colonials desire to somehow make a change never materializes because there is no evidence they ever existed on this Earth. They also gave up everything for a simple basic existence, which defies logic considering how dangerous that is considering the threats they know exist. Aside from diseases they have never dealt with before they would have a hand to mouth existence living on what ever they are able to grow, catch or raise. Another troubling thing is that, if there is a supreme being involved, the same bad thing happens over and over again. It happened on Kobol, on the humanoid Cylon world, and in the Colonies of Kobol. It is like a lab experiment, with only variations on a theme. Either mankind is doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again, or perhaps there is another element that is sort of hinted at. Perhaps there is a fallen Lord of Kobol or Lucifer that exists as well that somehow manages to help muck up what ever this supreme being tries to do.
A mess is what it is and Moore, like Larson, has earned wrath from the fans who may not trust him again. Why Moore choose this route is anyone’s guess. If the original series can be blamed for sloppy writing and poor thinking, one can argue Moore over thought this series. It would be one thing had from the start if a supreme being was calling the shots and have them deal with it by trying to circumvent the design. But that is now it was laid out for most of the series. Babylon 5 had its principal characters challenge the Vorlons and Shadows to stop trying to make the universe in their image. It forced them to leave when they learned none of the younger races would be part of their grand plans. That might have had a chance on this Galactica had it been shown the Lords of Kobol, in competing factions, were behind much of went on.
The possibility of a movie based on the original series is still out there. Glen Larson owns those rights and has indicated a script is being done. And if reports are accurate, will link to the re-imagined series. Since the shows took place in different eras (the re-imagined show thousands of years ago, and BG thousands of years from now)it is possible to link them. It would be interesting to see how that turns out. Till then those of us who enjoy the guilty pleasure of watching the classic BG can do so thanks to it being out on dvd. It is also available on Netflix (dvd and streaming as of this date). Battlestar Galactica was one of those shows that ought to have succeeded. But a combination of bad writing, incoherent thinking, and costs all conspired to ruin a promising show. It had its moments, like all guilty pleasures do.
1. For those wanting to delve deeply into classical BG, I highly recommend John Kenneth Muir’s book An Analytical Guide To Television’s Battlestar Galactica(McFarland & Company, 1999). It is available through Amazon in hardcover and paperback editions. Also check your local library as well. Muir gives the series a through examination going through all its good and bad points. John Muir has a website and a blog.
2. There are numerous websites about Battlestar Galactica. But a good place to start is Battlestar Wiki. The site has detailed information about the classic series, the re-imagined series, Caprica, and Blood & Chrome.
3. One of the most well written analysis of the finale was written by Brad Templeton on his blog Brad Ideas. The entry Battlestar’s “Daybreak:” The worst ending in the history of on-screen science fiction goes through all the problems created by Moore’s decision to make it all God’s will and use Hera to fit Mitochondrial Eve.