Running only a single season (but ultimately inspiring a franchise), the series premiered on television 40 years ago this month, and for the occasion The Bits features a Q&A with a trio of sci-fi authorities and television historians who discuss the virtues, shortcomings and legacy of the series (and franchise).
The participants are (in alphabetical order)…
Mark A. Altman is the author (with Edward Gross) of So Say We All: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Battlestar Galactica (Tor Books, 2018). He also co-wrote The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek (two volumes; St. Martin’s Press, 2016) and Slayers & Vampires: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Buffy and Angel (Tor Books, 2017). When he’s not busy writing large tomes devoted to icons of popular culture, he’s a writer/producer for such hit TV series as The Librarians (TNT), Agent X (TNT), Necessary Roughness (USA), Castle (ABC), Femme Fatales (Cinemax) and others and has sold numerous movies and TV pilots. The Bits readers might recognize Altman as the co-writer/producer of the award-winning romantic comedy Free Enterprise, starring William Shatner and Eric McCormack. Altman also recently moderated a 40th anniversary tribute to the original Battlestar Galactica as part of a screening series at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles.
Gary Gerani is the author (with Paul H. Schulman) of Fantastic Television: A Pictorial History of Sci-Fi, The Unusual, and the Fantastic from Captain Video to the Star Trek Phenomenon and Beyond (Harmony, 1977). Gary is known as the Card King, having written and edited more trading cards than anyone else, including the Topps Star Wars sets, which Abrams Books has recently reprinted in book form. He co-wrote the screenplay for Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead and Trading Paint starring John Travolta. His current project, due in 2020, is Romantic Mysticism: The Music of Billy Goldenberg, a documentary about the film/TV composer Billy Goldenberg (Spielberg’s Duel, among others). He also owns his own publishing company, Fantastic Press, in a partnership with IDW.
Herbie J Pilato is the founder of the Classic TV Preservation Society nonprofit and the host of the upcoming classic TV talk show Then Again with Herbie J Pilato. He is the author of several acclaimed books on pop culture, including Twitch Upon a Star: The Bewitched Life and Career of Elizabeth Montgomery (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2012), Dashing, Daring, and Debonair: TV’s Top Male Icons from the 50s, 60s, and 70s (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2016), Glamour, Gidgets, and the Girl Next Door: Television’s Iconic Women from the 50s, 60s, and 70s (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2014), The Bionic Book: The Six Million Dollar Man & the Bionic Woman Reconstructed (Bear Manor Media, 2007), and Mary, a soon-to-be-published new biography of Mary Tyler Moore. He presides over his own production company, Television, Ink, which produces family-oriented TV shows and was a consulting producer on the DVD season sets of Bewitched, CHiPs, Kung Fu and The Six Million Dollar Man. His website is: www.herbiejpilatio.com.
The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way do you think Battlestar Galactica should be remembered and/or celebrated on its 40th anniversary?
Mark A. Altman: The original Battlestar Galactica is a terribly misunderstood TV series. In a way, it has sadly become the Rodney Dangerfield of sci-fi TV, never getting any respect. A lot of that is due to the way it is considered by many to be a rip-off of Star Wars, which is no doubt due to the fact that Glen Larson had a history of taking popular movies and re-shaping them into hit TV series which led to the late Harlan Ellison dubbing him “Glen Larceny.” Whether it be Alias Smith and Jones which was clearly inspired by the success of Butch Cassidy or B.J. and the Bear which was extremely redolent of Clint Eastwood’s orangutan comedies. But Galactica is so much more than simply a Star Wars clone. Yes, the hiring of John Dkystra on the heels of his success with Star Wars and, of course, Ralph McQuarrie’s brilliant conceptual design for the show led to some clear comparisons with the Star Wars aesthetic, but BSG was big event television unlike the medium had ever seen. It’s no accident that Universal was able to release the three-hour TV premiere in theaters because the film had cinematic production values and scope unlike any series that had preceded it. The story of BSG is one of great tragedy and pathos. The entire human race is almost completely annihilated in an interstellar genocide by a race of sentient machines. David Gerrold once reviewed the series dismissing the show’s very concept as ill-conceived given it was a show about people perpetually on the run and fleeing which meant the show was inherently flawed in its very premise. And that may very well have been true at the time (despite the fact that The Fugitive had been a massive hit), but television has changed and evolved since then and what may not have worked in 1978 clearly provided the DNA of a very successful premise in 2004 when Ron Moore and David Eick rebooted it in one of the most significant and justly-lauded genre series of all time. At the same time, there was a great deal of heroism in the story of this family that was trying to survive. Despite all the horrors that befell them, they continued to hope and strive and fight and there’s a nobility in that which you won’t find in a lot of other post-apocalyptic genre television or film.
It was also the waning days of the television contract system and the last gasp of some of the great screen stars of film who were wiling away their pre-retirement years doing Universal TV shows. While you had movie greats like Barbara Stanwyck doing The Big Valley and Joan Crawford on Night Gallery, Galactica had legendary talents like Ray Milland, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Ray Bolger, Fred Astaire and, of course, the original James Bond, Barry Nelson.
Gary Gerani: Screening the episodes.
Herbie J Pilato: Battlestar Galactica remains in the history of pop-culture as one of the most star-studded, lavishly-produced, special-effects-laden television shows of all time. It was historic to say the least when show premiered on ABC, and the audience was ready for it. The network knew exactly what it was doing in placing the series on the air, and its viewers embraced the concept with open arms.
Coate: Can you describe what it was like watching the series for the first time?
Altman: I’m old enough to have first seen Galactica as a kid on ABC when it debuted and, as I write in the book, I vividly remember to this day the special bulletin which cut into the premiere in which Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Peace Accords. At the time I was outraged they would interrupt Galactica for something so seemingly trivial (ah, to be young and stupid), but I was lucky enough that my parents let me stay up to see how it ended because at the time there were no VCRs to record it and the plan to release it in [U.S.] theaters had not even been conceived yet. It was only after the cancellation and its strong theatrical performance in Canada and Europe that Universal decided to release the film in U.S. theaters as a chance to recoup some of the massive costs they had incurred on the series and, particularly, the three-hour premiere. No one expected this flagship series on the number one network to be cancelled after only one year and if it hadn’t been for the success of Mork and Mindy on Thursday nights, which was a bargain-basement sci-fi comedy, it probably wouldn’t have, but ABC said why are we spending all this money on Galactica whose ratings continued to decline throughout the season when we can put Mork and Mindy on instead and it costs us a fraction of what BSG is costing us. Well, they found out, when Mork got clobbered by All in the Family, but by then it was too late. The sets had been struck, some of them being re-painted and re-used on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century for NBC, also a Universal Television disco-era TV series. As a result you have Galactica 1980 instead of season two of Battlestar Galactica.
Gerani: Everyone was at the height of Star Wars fever when the series premiered. After the initial excitement, interest began to dissipate. Upon reevaluation, the show never lived up to its potential.
Pilato: I was just as excited about initially watching the show as anybody else. The late ‘70s was a transitional period for television, as many great shows had left a few years before, such as The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Here’s Lucy, The Odd Couple, Love, American Style, and so forth. And when it came to science fiction-fantasy on television, the days of the original Star Trek series and The Twilight Zone were long gone. There were dynamite superhero shows such as The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, and The Incredible Hulk, but there had not been a really well-though-out space-geared series since Star Trek. And yes, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was a respectable show on the air, but that series was more or less played for camp. Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, took itself seriously, and that’s why the majority of the audience was looking forward to seeing it.
Coate: Is the series significant in any way?
Altman: It was significant in a number of ways. It was really the beginning of TV with cinematic production values. The special effects could, and did, have movie-quality, but so did much of the production design. The bridge set alone cost over a million dollars to build and it looked like it. Obviously, I love the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, but it paled in comparison to the Galactica bridge which the directors shot with a crane because it was so big and had so many levels. I never saw anything like it until I was on the set of the pilot for Deep Space Nine. Even the 2004 Galactica couldn’t compete with the production values of the ABC series in terms of the bridge and the launch bays and much of the ship. Galactica was using more soundstages on the Universal lot than any TV series in Universal history and they ended up having to rent stages off-the-lot because they ran out of places to shoot there. The series is really significant because you had ABC which pioneered the idea of the miniseries as a movie event that attracted huge ratings like Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots and The Winds of War, but Galactica was a huge movie of the week that was comparable in terms of being event television writ large and the ratings, at least initially, were huge. And, of course, even the least successful episode of BSG back then would be bigger than virtually anything on television today.
The visual effects, pre CGI, are also a stunning accomplishment and, in many cases, better than anything in Star Wars. Ultimately though, you can’t keep up that schedule with practical effects on a television budget so you end up re-using effects over and over again as stock footage and that did no favors in terms of Galactica’s reputation over time. The Cylons are also incredibly iconic villains. Yes, they’re men in suits, but with their distinctive voices through the vocoder and those reflective silver armor, they rank among the greatest and most iconic sci-fi villains of all-time. And, of course, the Galactica itself ranks alongside the Starship Enterprise as the most beautiful and brilliantly designed miniature ever seen in a sci-fi series. You look at ships like the Jupiter 2 in Lost in Space and other shows of the 60s and 70s and what even comes close? It’s just a gorgeous ship as are the Cylon Basestars and the Viper and Raiders as well.
The other thing that is significant about the show is its color-blind casting at a time when this was not often the case. Race is not an issue in the show… ever. Colonel Tigh is second in command and it’s not remotely an issue that he’s African-American in the same way Boomer is one of the top Viper pilots and there’s no issue that he’s black. And both Terry Carter and Herbert Jefferson, Jr. in these roles, respectively, are terrific. Sadly, this same progressiveness in casting didn’t extend to gender as one of the most dated aspects of the series is the fact that women can’t become Viper pilots, so in Lost Planet of the Gods you have an episode where the men are sidelined by a virus and the women have to become pilots and they shriek and do their nails until they’re whipped into shape by a disapproving Apollo and Starbuck. That said though, once this happens, you continue to see female Viper pilots throughout the series and one of the best characters who joins the ensemble a few episodes later is Sheba, played by Anne Lockhart, who can fly circles around the men.
Finally, it was one of the first series to embrace serialization to an extent. While it certainly wasn’t as ambitious in this area as later series during the peek-TV, binge era, it did take baby steps by introducing character arcs that would be continued over multiple episodes as well as plot points that would pay off later such as the capture of Baltar’s Cylon fighter in War of the Gods which would then be important in both Baltar’s Escape and Hand of God. Also, the beings of light introduced in War of the Gods would again play a part in Experiment in Terra and Return of Starbuck so you start to see the layering in of serialized plot elements including The Eastern Alliance as a short-lived antagonist as well, which was virtually unheard of in late 70s television.
Gerani: The effects for TV were quite spectacular in 1979.
Pilato: The series was significant in several ways. Number one… it was the first time that any television series, science-fiction-oriented or not, utilized such a large budget and lofty sets and special effects. And it was also one of the initial instances when the story-arc format was utilized in any mainstream way over a succession of episodes. It was the beginning of such a style that was later taken to another level with shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, which utilized a similar storytelling technique in its second season.
Secondly, it brought together so many different elements of storytelling and pop-culture in one fine swoop with a family-based center to boot. It mixed mystic elements of Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods with core sci-fi storytelling. And because of stars like Lorne Greene, Richard Hatch, Dirk Benedict, Marin Jensen, Laurette Spang, and Ann Lockhart, it was like Bonanza meets The Streets of San Francisco, with a little Charlie’s Angels on the side, and some Lost in Space with a twist… as Ann is the daughter of Lost in Space star June Lockhart. In the meantime, too, it was the first space-adventure show to feature African-American actors in regular roles since Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek. Herbert Jefferson, Jr. and Terry Carter were wonderful on the show. And just as with Nichelle on Star Trek, no big deal was made about the fact that she was African-American. Herbert and Terry’s characters were just like everyone else’s. They just “happened to be African-American.” That’s ground-breaking stuff.
Coate: Which were the standout episodes?
Altman: There are a few really classic episodes. Certainly, War of the Gods is a remarkable two-parter that deals with faith and spirituality. It’s a shame Ron Moore never figured out a way to crack the Count Iblis storyline for 2004 BSG, which he did try to do, because he could have really taken this to the next level, but even back then it’s a really well told story with a remarkable cliffhanger vividly heightened by Stu Phillips’ swelling score. Of course, The Living Legend is a magnificent two-parter that introduces Lloyd Bridges’ Commander Cain as a foil for Lorne Greene’s Adama and is a Patton In Space story brilliantly told. And it eventually led to Ron Moore gender swapping Bridges’ Commander Cain for Michelle Forbes’ steely Admiral Cain as part of a stellar arc on BSG 2004 as well as in the telefilm, Razor. “Commander, why are you launching Vipers… ” another in a great line of cliffhanger endings.
Gerani: War of the Gods was more interesting than most. Living Legend was fun with Lloyd Bridges chewing the scenery. Hand of God was a spirited final episode.
Coate: Which episode is your favorite?
Altman: The one-hour episodes are almost never as good as the two-hour episodes because they don’t have the budget and the tapestry to tell big stories, but there is a one-hour episode that is among the best BSG ever had to offer in its original incarnation. It finally cracks the code on action and character and that, of course, is Hand of God, the final episode of the first season in which Apollo receives, what is revealed to be, a transmission of the lunar landing. It’s just a case of the show firing on all cylinders and it’s so sad that this is the episode on which the show went out on because you can’t help but wonder how much better the show could’ve been had it been renewed for a second season and we might see the original show in a very different light today as a result.
Gerani: War of the Gods.
Coate: Favorite character?
Altman: Like most people, I would have to say Starbuck. Dirk Benedict was just so perfect in that role, and what’s ironic is ABC didn’t want him and didn’t think he was handsome enough. They fought Larson the whole time until they finally had to give in once production began to avoid a shutdown. Ironically, Barry Van Dyke who ended up playing Dillon in Galactica 1980, was one of the runner-ups and ABC jumped on the chance to cast him when it was clear that Benedict was not coming back to do Galactica 1980. And how anyone can’t adore the villainous, mustache-twirling John Colicos as the traitorous Baltar, I’ll never understood. His scenery chewing performance is a classic as is Lorne Greene as the patriarch of the Adama clan and, of course, the late Patrick Macnee as Count Iblis. But you also have to acknowledge the extraordinary challenge that Richard Hatch as Apollo, playing such a straight-laced and one-dimensional hero and then what he managed to do playing the multi-faceted and endlessly fascinating Tom Zarek on the 2004 series. He also was a cheerleader for the franchise and an advocate for BSG when no one else was and for this he deserves endless appreciation. Of course, when I was ten years old watching it, nothing was better than Maren Jensen as Athena at the time, but that was then and this is now.
Gerani: Adama, nicely realized by Lorne Greene.
Pilato: My favorite character was Lorne Greene’s Adama. First of all, it was wonderful to see Greene back on TV in a regular capacity since his Bonanza days. He had attempted a series return shortly before his gig on Galactica with an ABC detective show called Griff. But that didn’t last too long at all, as the audience wasn’t ready to accept him as a detective after loving him so many years as a cowboy. So when Galactica and the role of Adama came along a few years later, that seemed a better fit for Greene. He was still playing a father on Galactica, as he had on Bonanza, and he was now a cowboy in space. It was a perfect alignment of the stars, so to speak.
Coate: Where does the show rank among sci-fi television?
Altman: There are three great science fiction masterpieces in the history of genre television: the original Star Trek, The Twilight Zone and Battlestar Galactica 2004. You couldn’t have that without BSG 1978. Right behind those series, you have Deep Space Nine and then you have The Next Generation and The Outer Limits. Somewhere in the middle is Babylon 5, The X-Files and Space: 1999. Way at the bottom, you have shows like Manimal and Supertrain and Galactica 1980 and Salvage One. So where does Galactica go? Somewhere in between. It’s hard to evaluate the show based on one season, particularly given the amount of nostalgia the series evokes for people like me who watched it in its original run.
Gerani: It’s a notable misfire, but remains fairly unique.
Pilato: The original Battlestar: Galactica series holds sci-fi TV rank somewhere between the original Star Trek series and Space: 1999, and it is light years away from a show like the original Lost in Space, which I loved as well, but like Buck Rogers, was eventually played for laughs.
Coate: Do you believe the series has been well represented on home video?
Altman: In the VHS and LaserDisc era, it was dreadfully mistreated. You had the movie and then later you inconceivably had the one-hour episodes released on tape, which were among the worst of the shows. The two-hour episodes didn’t get released, with the exception of Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack, a pastiche of The Living Legend and Fire in Space for overseas theatrical release and later Conquest of the Earth, a terrible hybrid of multiple Galactica 1980 episodes. Based on all this, you wouldn’t think much of BSG. Years later, Universal Home Video did a really nice job of releasing the entire series in a Cylon head package with a myriad deleted scenes and some new featurettes for the 25th anniversary which tied in with the success of the new series which hugely benefitted from its sales on home video. In fact, Syfy probably would have cancelled the 2004 series earlier had Universal not been making such a windfall from the DVD releases of the new series. But the real apex of BSG’s multiple releases is the Blu-ray box set which is still a benchmark for the medium. Not only does it include both BSG 1978 and BSG 1980 along with all the deleted scenes from the DVD set, but they re-mastered the episodes for widescreen as well so there’s a second set of discs in which all the episodes are cropped for widescreen. The visual effects are a little softer as a result, but it’s still a great option to have and my preferred way to watch the show. It also includes both the two-hour theatrical cut of the premiere along with the three hour episode as well.
Now, for absolute Galactica completists, there is still a Holy Grail out there. Because of how few episodes were ever produced, many local stations won’t repeat a show that had so few episodes, even with Galactica 1980 added to the syndication package, so like what Fox did with the short-lived Planet of the Apes TV series, Universal edited all the episodes into two-hour TV movies and, in a few cases, added deleted footage as well as a new intro for Experiment in Terra which used pre-production art to explain the history of The Cylon Wars as well as additional footage from the Galactica 1980 episode, Return of Starbuck. These have never been released on home video and I’d love to see them, even as part of their disc on demand service or streaming.
Gerani: The Blu-rays look great.
Coate: How do the sequel series and reboot compare to the original series?
Altman: To me it’s like Star Trek The Original Series and The Next Generation, only flipped. I think TOS is a masterpiece and TNG is a great television series as is Deep Space Nine. In the case of BSG, I think the 1978 is a great, significant and vastly misunderstood series, but BSG 2004 is a masterpiece despite its flaws of which there are a few. I was never a fan of the amount of time spent aboard the Cylon Basestar in the later seasons in which I felt I was trapped inside a Crate & Barrel outlet store nor the Baltar Messiah arc, and it was unfortunate the network was so intent on keeping the show in space because as brilliant as the New Caprica arc was and is, it absolutely could have sustained an entire season on its own when you think of how much they mined from Vichy France and World War II and how many more stories there were that could have been told down there on New Caprica with that amazing cast.
Gerani: The reboot abandoned the Star Wars imitation problem and established a cerebral new direction.
Pilato: The Galactica: 1980 series was simply not the same. The momentum wasn’t there as it had been for the original Battlestar Galactica show. And the latter-day Battlestar Galactica reboot was, of course, darker and edgier. But for my personal tastes, it was too dark and edgy… mostly because the original Battlestar series was already darker and edgier than any space series that had debuted before. So, by the time the reboot arrived decades later, television shows in general, including regular drama series and comedies were dark and edgy… too dark and edgy, for my part. And making an already dark and edgy concept even darker and edgier was just simply a turn-off for me when it came to the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, its wonderful cast and solid writing, notwithstanding. Although, I, and I’m sure many others, would loved to have seen Richard Hatch’s concept of a rebooted Battlestar come to life… which he had worked on for years… even though it certainly was nice to have him involved, at least in some way, when another rebooted Battlestar concept actually made it to the air. I thought it was very respectful to Hatch to include him, and his fans, and fans of the entire Battlestar franchise, appreciated this involvement. It’s important to do that… to somehow respect the original mythology of a concept in some way, even if it means acknowledging and somehow bringing original actors back into the arena, even if they are not playing the original characters with which they are associated.
Coate: What is the legacy of Battlestar Galactica?
Altman: If BSG 1978’s only legacy was that it provided the inspiration for BSG 2004 by presenting the story of an intergalactic Pearl Harbor and galactic genocide that would have been enough, but I feel that the 1978 show’s legacy is far more significant and complex than that. And while unlike Star Trek, which presented a progressive, liberal, optimistic version of the future, Galactica depicts a far more militaristic, nihilistic and neo-conservative view with its dismissiveness of the naïve President Adar who sells out the human race in order to close an arms control treaty, a thinly veiled swipe at Jimmy Carter from the conservative Glen Larson, although, of course, Reagan would go on to be even more aggressive in this regard after the show was cancelled. Galactica ‘78 endorses military rule over civilian leadership, who are often portrayed as self-serving and incompetent, to wit the gluttonous Sire Uri, played by Ray Milland, and the entire Council of Twelve which are time and time again depicted as total incompetents. But this aside, the original Battlestar Galactica is a stunningly realized series which is Star Wars for television in the best sense of the word and a show that epitomizes the best popcorn entertainment has to offer. The less said about Galactica 1980 the better, however. Although it probably is the most marvelous chapter of our book. Seriously!
Gerani: It proved TV producers could move beyond Star Trek in producing a space-based series with continuing characters.
Pilato: The original Battlestar Galactica will forever remain a benchmark in the history of television programming. It arrived in a timely fashion, yes, to take advantage of the new-found interest in “space operas” that was rejuvenated by the original Star Wars film on the big screen. But Battlestar Galactica stands alone in the presentation of the science fiction genre when it comes to weekly TV shows.
Coate: Thank you – Mark, Gary, and Herbie – for sharing your thoughts on Battlestar Galactica on the occasion of its 40th anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy ABC-TV, Glen A. Larson Productions, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, Universal Television. Herbie J Pilato image by Dan Holm Photography.
- Michael Coate