The impact Star Wars had on movies and television cannot be overstated, for years Glen A. Larson had tried to get a space exodus show greenlit called Adam’s Ark but with no luck, then with the success of Star Wars the execs over at Universal quickly greenlit the project, under the new name Battlestar Galactica.
The pilot episode titled “Saga of a Star World” was re-edited and released theatrically in Canada, Australia and some countries in Europe and Latin America, to help recoup the expense of such a special effects laden production. Those of us who got to see this theatrical release had the privilege of seeing the traitorous Count Baltar beheaded by the Cylons, but when it aired on American television he survived to become a recurring villain.
The story of Battlestar Galactica is set during “The Seventh Millennium of Time” as a thousand year war between humanity and the Cylon Empire is finally coming to a close. Commander Adama (Lorne Greene), of the Battlestar Galactica, is the only member of the Council of Twelve who doesn’t trust this armistice, because mankind’s very existence is an antithesis to everything the Cylons stand for, “They hate us with every fibre of their existence. We love freedom. We love independence, to feel, to question, to resist oppression. To them it is an alien way of existing they will never accept.”
The President of the Council Adar (Lew Ayres) pooh-poohs Adama’s fears because it was the Cylons who sued for peace, through the masterful negotiations of Count Baltar (John Colicos). Of course, anyone who has seen an episode of Star Trek knows not to trust robots or anybody played by John Colicos. This doesn’t stop Adama from having some fighters patrolling the area, and low and behold a Cylon fueling ship is discovered by Adama’s two sons; Captain Apollo (Richard Hatch) and Zac (Rick Springfield). As Zac is Apollo’s younger brother, and this is his very first space patrol, you can chart his life expectancy with an egg timer.
The first forty minutes of the pilot is full of solid dramatic tension – they assembled an excellent cast of new and veteran actors – that is then boosted by fantastic action, as the Cylons make their attack on the fleet as well as the home worlds of the Twelve Colonies. In such a brief time Glen A. Larson and director Richard A. Colla have made you care for these characters so that it actually matters to you when they are in danger. When Adama informs Adar that the pilot who was just killed was his son it’s just gut wrenchingly powerful. This is what you get when you cast someone as great as Lorne Greene. Things get even worse when Adama learns of the attacks on Caprica where his wife, and Apollo and Athena’s mother, is currently living. This is where the Armistice Ceremony was to take place, but instead it is strafed by Cylon Raiders.
Now it isn’t all doom and gloom, as there are some light moments in this first hour with most of those centering on roguish Viper pilot Lt. Starbuck (Dirk Benedict), whose card game is interrupted by the Cylon attack. His character is also given the unfortunate problem of a love triangle between Athena (Maren Jensen), who is Apollo’s sister, and Cassiopeia (Laurette Spang), who before the attack was a socialator – which is short for a space prostitute, who is sanctified by the elders. This may sound silly but to be fair, Joss Whedon later used this profession on his short lived show Firefly.
It’s at about this point that the story structure gets a bit dodgy, we get Adama mourning over the ruins of his home, where his wife perished, and then we get wacky hi-jinks with Starbuck and his love life, but then the true horror raises it’s ugly head as we get the introduction of Boxey (Noah Hathaway) and and his robot dog Muffy. Serena (Jane Seymour), the reporter on Caprica, survived along with her son but his daggett (that’s space dog to you and me) did not. Serena, who becomes the love interest of Apollo, is helped by the gang by having a traumatized Boxey be given a robot replacement for his dog. Whenever I watch a scene with Muffy I just feel awful for the poor chimpanzee stuck in that horrible robot dog suit.
Then as the survivors of the attacks form a ragtag fleet we are introduced to Sire Uri (Ray Milland), who is part of the newly elected Council of Twelve, and he is also a complete asshat. He’s a self-entitled prick whose sole purpose seems to be to piss off Commander Adama, and to roll over for the Cylons like a space faring Neville Chamberlain. I’m a huge fan of Ray Milland, but this character is just awful. We first see him living in the lap of luxury, eating roast something or other, and partying with his rich friends while most of the fleet are starving with barely enough water to stay alive. He constantly tries to get everyone to agree on a peace treaty with Cylons, as if he has forgotten what happened during the last peace accord… ONE BLOODY DAY AGO!
The planet Carillon is the nearest place that could supply the fleet with desperately needed food and fuel, but Adama is leery of it being another Cylon trap, but slimey Sire Uri gets the council to agree that Carillon is the only option. When they arrive at Carillon instead of finding a deserted mining operation – which is what they were led to believe – they find a space casino that is just full of happy winners. This kind of thing will become indicative to the series, as our intrepid heroes travel through space on their way to find a mythical thirteenth colony; they keep running into more and more humans. I’m not so sure why the Cylons have such a hardon for the Galactica and friends when it looks like humanity is spread out through the galaxy. They’re worse than weeds.
Turns out that not only is Carillon a secret mining operation, with ties to the Cylons, but the casino is a front for the insectoid Ovions who have used the place as a lure to capture humans, and then serve them up as living food for their hatching larvae in their underground chambers. Sire Uri had organized an awards ceremony in the casino for Apollo, Starbuck and Boomer (Herbert Jefferson Jr.), for their part in getting the fleet safely to Carillon, and all the pilots were to attend, which would have left the Galactica completely vulnerable, but a suspicious Adama had the pilots switch places with maintenance crews and serving staff so that when the Cylons sprung their trap Adama could spring his own. The Cylon raiders are wiped out and their Basestar is destroyed.
You won’t find too many cooler looking enemies than the Cylon Centurions in Battlestar Galactica, their shiny chrome armor and pulsing red eye make them one badass looking villain. Their backstory is also interesting, as apparently the Cylon were originally a reptilian race that came to the conclusion that humans were the ideal design, so they created robots in our image, and now those reptiles are extinct and their robot children are all that is left of them.
On the downside the Cylons are slow moving and vastly bad at killing our heroes – they are even worse shots than the Stormtroopers from Star Wars – but the true villain of the series is of course Count Baltar, who betrayed his species for personal gain, and then when his job was done the Imperious Leader ordered his execution. But when the Cylon Basestar was destroyed at Carillon he was given a reprieve by the new Imperious Leader (voiced by Patrick Macnee who also does the opening narration), and he is told to open up negotiations for a new truce with the humans.
Many decreed this show as being a blatant rip-off of Star Wars, as did 20th Century Fox, who sued them for copyright infringement citing 34 similarities between the two films. The courts ruled in Universal’s favour, stating that the two films were very different when viewed as a whole. I for one agree with that verdict, as even though there are some similarities between the two shows their stories and character are vastly different. Sure, Starbuck is a roguish character in the same vein as Han Solo, but you can find that same character in countless westerns and film noirs.
Battlestar Galactica is a science fiction epic that sadly only lasted one year – it was just too damn expensive – and it was superbly cast with several Star Wars alums like special effects wizard John Dykstra and conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie helping to make it a fantastic looking show. So join me each week as I will be going through every episode of the series, as well as it’s follow up show Galactica 1980. It should be a fun ride.