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Battlestar Galactica, Part 1

By Philip Schweier
Mar 31, 2007 - 23:42

In the late 1960s, TV writer Glen Larson created a new science fiction show. His resumé included a stint as story editor on It Takes a Thief, which was produced by Gene L. Coon of Star Trek fame, who greatly influenced the young writer.

It was Coon's perception of science fiction that Larson remembered as he developed his own project, entitled Adam's Ark. The idea failed to raise interest among the networks, and Larson filed his idea away for another day. That day came in 1977, when Star Wars hit the big screens, and galvanized the world of science fiction.

Producer Glen Larson
Larson had become a successful TV producer, creating such shows as McCloud and Quincy. He was able to sell ABC his concept of a science fiction show that featured a remarkable cast of television veterans and talented newcomers, and special effects that rivaled those of the big screen. And on September 17, 1978, Battlestar Galactica debuted to a very receptive audience.

Battlestar Galactica tells the story of the last battlestar as it leads the remnants of humanity in a quest for the mysterious 13th Tribe. As the pilot opens, the citizens of the 12 Colonies (named for signs of the zodiac) have been at war with the robotic army of the Cylon empire for generations. After a thousand years, the Imperious Leader of the Cylons has sued for peace through a human mediator, Lord Baltar. On the eve of the peace agreement, Cylon destroyers ambush the fleet of battlestars.

The sole survivor, the Galactica, returns to the colonies to find the civilian population has been obliterated. The Galactica's commander, Adama, with the help of his son, Captain Apollo and his squadron of colonial fighter pilots, gathers the remains of humankind in a fleet of broken down vessels and sets off in search of a 13th colony, supposedly on a semi-mythical planet known as Earth.

The series drew heavily on the "ancient astronaut" notions common in the 1970s and incorporated bits and pieces of ancient cultures into the production design. Fighter pilots are equipped with helmets reminiscent of the headdress of ancient Egyptians, and names are appropriated from Greek, Roman, and Biblical lore. It is a smorgasbord of forgotten civilizations and mythological people.

Leading the cast as Commander Adama was TV veteran Lorne Greene, who effectively reprised his patriarchal leader role from Bonanza. Richard Hatch, late of The Streets of San Francisco, played Captain Apollo, Adama's dedicated son. Joining Apollo in his adventures was the brash and cocky Lt. Starbuck, played by Dirk Benedict. Together, these three principals form a triad, much as Kirk, Spock, and McCoy had done so a decade earlier.


Some of Ralph McQuarrie's impressive production paintings
At first Richard Hatch turned down the role, expecting a typically cheap made-for-TV imitation of Star Wars. After producers saw him in a television movie called Class of '65 they approached him again. Glen Larson took him to dinner and they discussed the nature of the show. Hatch says having read the script and seeing some of the artwork, he made his decision right then and there on the spot.

Larson also campaigned hard for Hatch's co-star, Dirk Benedict. The actor suffered through five or six screen tests, starting in November/December 1977 all the way through to February of 1978. ABC still refused to hire him. When shooting began that March, Frank Price, then the head of television for Universal, went to bat for Benedict, and he won the role.

Rihcard Hatch (left) as Capt. Apollo and Dirk Benedict (right) as Lt. Starbuck
Originally, the show was supposed to about Adama and his son, and Starbuck was just one of the fighter pilots. Sadly, many supporting characters were relegated to take the backseat of the fighter cockpit to the derring-do of Apollo and Starbuck. Benedict has high praise for Herb Jefferson, Jr. who played Lt. Boomer. He feels he didn't get the credit he deserved in anchoring the relationships between Starbuck, Apollo and others characters.

Other roles included Starbuck's long-suffering girlfriends Athena, Apollo's sister (played by Maren Jensen) and Cassiopea (played by Laurette Spang). Jane Seymour, as Serena, shines as Apollo's love interest who survived the destruction of her home world. With her son Boxey, played by child actor Noah Hathaway, they represent to Apollo and Adama just what they are struggling to maintain: a family of man, and a future for the coming generations.

Serena would sadly be killed off in the show's third episode. In a two-part story entitled "The Gods of Kobol," the fleet manages to locate the planet from which the colonies originated. Again, in an ambitious move to raise the quality of the show, a crew was sent to the Egypt to shoot footage at the ruins near the Great Pyramids. Such attention to detail, while dedicated, also added to the overall cost of the production.

Providing the role of the villain of the series was John Colicos as the traitorous Lord Baltar. It is Baltar's expectation that by aiding the Cylons in their destruction the 12 Colonies, he will be named their new governor, a puppet government under Cylon rule.

Originally, Baltar was executed in a scene shown in the theatrical version of the series pilot. But when the pilot was broadcast on television in its three-hour debut, Baltar is spared. With the death of the Cylon Imperious Leader responsible for the destruction of the Colonies, his successor chooses to seek genuine peace with the humans. Given a Cylon basestar, Baltar is sent as an emissary, confronting Adama on Kobol. Cylons attack, and Adama is forced to abandon Baltar to die. Cylon centurions rescue the traitor, and his mission becomes one of revenge, pursuing Adama across the galaxy. Baltar's power struggles with his robotic lieutenant, Lucifer – voiced by Jonathan Harris of Lost in Space fame – became an ongoing feature of the series.

Initially, the production was plagued with spiraling costs, as well as a lawsuit from George Lucas claiming the show resembled his Star Wars saga a bit too closely. True, both stories take place in outer space; both feature the eternal struggle of a handful of believers against an oppressive empire. True, both productions shared the same concept artist in Ralph McQuarry, but he came up with completely different designs for both. To regard one as a duplicate of the other is to indict all Westerns for being carbon copies, all kung fu movies as cheap imitators.

In the end, Battlestar Galactica won what may be its only fight in its efforts to be respected for its individuality in science fiction. Today, the premise of the show is regarded as one of the most original in science fiction programming, and as such lends itself to being taken in a variety of directions, each one as compelling and thought provoking as the next.

A great deal of effort went into creating a believable setting for the series. Soundstages were consumed by the enormous bridge set, complete with $1 million worth of working computers from the Tektronics company. Boeing Aircraft and American Airlines also contributed flight simulators to enhance the flight of the Viper fighter craft.

The series was launched with something of a dark tone. Remember, it BEGINS with the destruction of humanity. In early plotlines the survivors faced issues such as starvation, corruption, class division and religious fanaticism. But beneath the darkness it is an engaging saga about tragedy and survival. A number of episodes were two-part stories, suggesting that there may be more to this series than most of the late-'70s mediocrity.

But with the rush for production, better story ideas were abandoned to accommodate quick-fix episodes that featured either ubiquitous stock footage, or too often involved characters being stranded on backward planets that resembled Earth.

More than a few episodes "borrowed" movie plots from such films as The Guns of Navarone and Shane. Westerns too often served as inspiration to staff writers, as they shared the same concepts of outward exploration.

Inside John Dykstra's special effects studio
Special effects, under the direction of veteran John Dykstra, were extensive, though often repetitive. By some reports, the pilot had cost $14 million, and producers were determined to get their money's worth. As the series ran its course, viewers were treated to the same stock footage of Viper fighter craft launching, Cylon raiders attacking and a limited number of beauty shots of the Galactica as it slowly made its way through space. Amid the recycled dog-fights and budget-saving plotlines, there are several excellent episodes that have maintained fan interest to this day.

In "The Living Legend," Lloyd Bridges gave a stellar performance as an old war dog Commander Cain. It is discovered that another battlestar, the Pegasus, survived the destruction of the colonies. Conflict is built on the two seasoned commanders with opposing yet equally valid agendas. Cain leads the colonial warriors in a raid on a Cylon fuel station, despite Adama's more conservative ways. In the interest of fleet safety, he hopes to slip by undetected.

"The Living Legend" gave Larson a chance to supplement his cast with Cain's daughter, Lt. Sheba. Anne Lockhart, daughter of Lost In Space mom June Lockhart, had been sent an early pilot script for Galactica in the very beginning, but had turned it down. She believed the role for which she was considered was not very strong, and that she would not be happy enough to give the show her best.

But the script for "The Living Legend" turned her around. A much stronger character, Lt. Sheba was accepted and respected for her abilities as a warrior and as a pilot, without losing her femininity. As shooting of the episode progressed, it was obvious that there was good chemistry between Sheba and Apollo, the single-father Viper captain played by Richard Hatch.

By the time the two-parter had finished, her contract was negotiated to allow her to remain as a series regular. There was good chemistry off-screen as well, as the cast and crew established a very warm and open working atmosphere.

Former child actor Noah Hathaway, c. 2003
Noah Hathaway, who played Apollo's adopted son Boxey, celebrated his seventh birthday on the set. "It was like I was a part of one big happy family," he says. His strongest impression is the chaos on the set, due to the show being behind schedule every week. "Mostly, I just chased the dog the whole damn time."

On the show, Boxey had a mechanical dog, called a daggit. Actually a chimp named Evie inside a robotic suit, the animal had a tendency to bite when the heat from the lights and the daggit costume got be too much. "I was holding her, and I thought she was slipping, when she wanted to get down, so she just kind of turned her head and gave me a little nip and, my God, if you could've seen the look on everyone's face on that set when they heard me scream. They all knew what it was, because they heard a squeal, and they all knew, 'Oh God, Noah got bit,' and five minutes later it was nothing. That's how animals let you know sometimes that you aint doing something right."

"The Living Legend" features an open ending, with Commander Cain chasing the Cylons out into the void. It was never made clear whether Cain and the Pegasus were destroyed or had managed to survive, creating dramatic emotional tension for Lt. Sheba. Not knowing the fate of her father becomes her Achilles heel, allowing the charismatic Count Iblis to prey upon those feelings in the episode "War of the Gods."

Portrayed by Patrick MacNee – who also provided the voice of the Cylon Imperious Leader – the seductive Iblis was an alien being with Satanic overtones. Encountering mysterious ships of light, a number of fighter pilots are lost, and the enigmatic Count Iblis seems to be the only one with the answers.

As he fulfills impossible promises, Adama begins to fall out of favor with the ruling Council of 12, and a power struggle ensues. Iblis later reveals himself to be a being of indescribable evil, but is chased off by the angelic ships of light, who pass on to the Galacticans possible coordinates for Earth.

Despite some ambitious episodes, the show’s full potential was never realized. Network television was a self-contained canvas in the late 1970s.  Shows were written to be viewed as a series of stand-alone stories, without overlapping plotlines and multi-episode story arcs. Certainly the scripts were uneven, but that is true of many science fiction and fantasy shows as they struggle to find what works and what doesn't.

In an interview with Barbara Lewis of Starlog magazine at the time, Lorne Greene explained, "You must remember that this is a brand new venture on the part of Universal. Nothing like this has ever been done on television before. Things have been written and shot that just didn't work, and the things that didn't work were immediately scrapped, and they would be rewritten and re-shot. I don't know of any other television series that will do that, certainly not these days. We're all learning. The whole series is a learning process."

In any first year series, there are high expectations, with a great deal of money at stake. Often, a network will micro-manage during the show's freshman season, as producers and writers are trying to explore and find the right formula that will be successful.

Usually a series will not hit its stride until the second season, as actors become more comfortable in their roles, and writers have a better handle on the characters and concepts to be presented on screen.

"Most series are lucky to survive that first year, no matter how good they are," says Richard Hatch. "And if they do survive, it's because somebody believes enough in them, in that second and third year, that's when a series gets to find its course and gets to determine what it is, and find its rhythm.

"The challenges were astronomical," Hatch told an audience at an Atlanta science fiction convention in 2003. "We would work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and each episode would take 10 to 12 days. Most episodes take seven days to produce. That meant that the budget was doubled, tripled in golden overtime. People were getting rich sitting in their truck, reading a book, waiting for the actors to finish so they could take them home just because overtime hours were so extraordinarily high."

Anne Lockhart claims rewrites often came the day after the scene had been shot, and that there were times when they delivered dialogue that had just been handed to them. With no time to memorize lines, scripts were glued to the set out of sight of the camera. She remembers watching the show one Sunday night, and previews for the following week's episode were the dailies shot the day before. The pace for the actors was brutal.

On "The Living Legend," filming went on all day long, into the night. About midnight the crew was sent home and an entirely new crew was brought in to keep on shooting through the night. In some instances, different episodes were shot simultaneously on separate stages. Actors were ushered from scene to scene, with little opportunity for rehearsal.

Unfortunately, the audience at which ABC targeted the show was largely juvenile, so it was only a matter of time before the series chose to focus on lighter material. One episode features Ray Bolger, famous for his role as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Entitled "Greetings From Earth," Bolger plays a robot who shares a Laurel & Hardy relationship with his mechanical "son."

While shooting the series, the production had to deal with the press, which some contend doomed Galactica. A great deal of media hype resulted in critics sometimes making unfair comparisons to Star Wars.

The time period given by the network also had an impact on the show's success. Galactica was up against All in the Family, a long-running series that appealed to a different audience. ABC had high hopes its space epic would knock All in the Family out of the number-one time slot, and were disappointed when that failed to happen.

Compounding the competition was the fact that on Sundays during the fall, NFL games often run into early evening hours on the East Coast. This bit into the 8-9 pm "family hour" often enough to diminish what were very respectable ratings. In fact, some claim Battlestar Galactica was the highest rated science fiction series to date, and its ratings have seldom been challenged on network television.

Galactica merchandise was plentiful in time for Christmas, 1978
Marvel Comics produced a comic book series that lasted longer than the original television show.
Galactica ranked number six for the entire season of shows, in the top 10 for half the season. Toys, comic books, novels and other merchandise strengthened Galactica's presence beyond the small screen. But ABC wasn't merchandise savvy, and the lion's share of revenue was going to Universal.

So while the show's demographic might have indicated a success, the network felt that by producing a cheaper and less successful show, while reaping the financial rewards, was in its best interests. Perhaps had a better deal been struck between ABC and Universal, the show might have survived.

"I believe that had we had more time to develop quality scripts, and had more lead time to do all the things we would have done in the second year, we would have stayed in the top 10," says Hatch. "But we started out with a bang, and then we kind of meandered there in the middle of the season. Then towards the end they started catching up and doing some wonderful shows again, and I think it started getting back to what Galactica was all about.

"It's unfortunate because Isaac Asimov was coming on board as our head story writer. Imagine had we had that team in place, along with John Dysktra and company, and really had some lead time to prepare all the special effects, to do everything the right way, because never before in history had a theatrical style series been produced for television."

The series eventually was shot down in its infancy by penny-pinching on the part of the network, despite the fact that its ratings were healthy. As actors began to settle into their roles, and writers had a better handle on the characters, the show went down due to cost overruns.

Certainly visual effects processes would have eventually been streamlined and made more economical, and episodes could have been written focusing on the survival of humanity, eliminating the need for costly special effects or tiresome stock footage.

But programming executives just aren't known for their patience, and network brass unceremoniously pulled the plug at the end of the first season.

Lockhart read the news in the paper while on vacationing in Hawaii. The cast and crew had every expectation of being renewed for a second season. Despite an ignoble ending, the show remains close to the hearts of those who genuinely believed in it.

Benedict admits he enjoyed the role of Starbuck very much, and regards him to be the most fun character he has played, and was sad when the show was cancelled. The actor especially relished the opportunity to work with show business legend Fred Astaire.  In Benedict's favorite episode, “The Man With Nine Lives,” Astaire made a rare television appearance to play Starbuck's long-lost father.

"Fred and I became very close, we spent hours talking and spent a lot of time away from the set, too," he says in an interview with Starburst magazine. "That was probably the one single highlight, although the whole damn show was kind of a highlight. We worked 12 months solid and we only took a couple of two-week breaks, but I think the whole thing was like a fantasy from the day I went to work until the last day we shot it. It was like being a sugar junkie in a candy store."

"In terms of experience, it was just unbelievably rich," he continues. "It was the show of shows."

Part 2: Galactica 1980 and beyond

Last Updated: Jun 26, 2018 - 9:28

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