DirectorRichard A. Colla, Alan J. Levi (uncredited)
Release Date(s)1978 (August 29, 2023)
Studio(s)Glen A. Larson Productions/Universal Television/ABC (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: N/A
“Fleeing from the Cylon tyranny, the last battlestar, Galactica, leads a ragtag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest: a shining planet... known as Earth.”
Far away in deep space, the Twelve Colonies of Mankind have been at war with the robotic Cylons for many generations. Yet with the help of a human named Baltar (John Colicos), the Cylons have approached humanity with an offer of peace. To sign the resulting treaty, the Twelve Colonies send their entire fleet of battlestars—great space-based warships that carry squadrons of Viper fighter craft—to meet the Cylons. But instead of peace, the Cylons attack and destroy all of the battlestars with the exception of one: Galactica, led by Commander William Adama (Lorne Greene). At the same time, the Cylons launch a massive invasion of the Twelve Colonies, wiping out most of the human race in one stroke.
Running from a battle it can’t win, Galactica and its crew return to their devastated homeworld, Caprica, where Adama sends out word: Gather all the survivors aboard every spaceworthy ship and rendezvous with Galactica, which will lead what’s left of humanity away into deep space to escape the Cylons. And to give them all hope for the future, Adama looks to the legends of the past, which speak of a lost Thirteenth Colony, a world that—if found—could become their new home. But with fuel running short and supplies limited, all that’s certain is that the search for this so-called Earth, and the journey to reach it—assuming the planet even really exists—will be long and dangerous indeed.
The origins of Battlestar Galactica can be found in a project called Adam’s Ark that veteran TV writer/producer Glen A. Larson had been working on for years. In it, the best and brightest of humanity are invited to a party at a Howard Hughes-like character’s remote desert compound, only to discover that it’s actually a spaceship that whisks them all out into the cosmos to start civilization anew, because the end of the world is about to happen. But Universal wasn’t interested in such high-concept science fiction until the success of Star Wars made them reconsider. While developing the project with the studio as a series of TV movies for ABC, Larson drew upon his own Mormon faith, Judeo-Christian traditions, Egyptian culture, and even Greek mythology. He was also heavily inspired by Erich von Däniken’s popular 1968 pseudoscience book Chariots of the Gods?, which posited that “ancient astronauts” had once visited Earth and influenced early human cultures. An ensemble cast was recruited with both familiar faces, including Greene (Bonanza), Richard Hatch (The Streets of San Francisco), and Jane Seymour (Live and Let Die), as well as relative newcomers like Dirk Benedict (who would later star in The A-Team) and Rick Springfield (years before General Hospital, Hard to Hold, and his career as an MTV pop rock star with hits like Jessie’s Girl).
But as production on the first installment, entitled Saga of a Star World, finally got underway in late 1977 and early ’78, it quickly became clear that the project’s initial $3.8 million budget wasn’t going to be enough. So Universal decided that a theatrical release might help to cover the costs, which eventually ballooned to over $13 million. Part of the reason for this overrun was the fact that filming with original director Richard A. Colla (Ironside, The Questor Tapes) did not go smoothly. The shoot was supposed to last for roughly a month on the studio’s Universal City backlot, but a series of escalating disagreements with Larson led to Colla being fired with only four or five days left in the planned schedule, yet many scenes unfinished. Stuck in a difficult situation, Larson turned to an established Universal Television contract director named Alan J. Levi (Gemini Man, The Bionic Woman) to take over and finish the production. Levi was also asked to reshoot several scenes at Larson’s request, which required another full month of filming, for a total of fifty-seven days. (Levi would go on to shoot the two-part episode The Gun on Ice Planet Zero, before continuing on to other projects, including The Incredible Hulk, Airwolf, Magnum P.I., and JAG.)
Visual effects for the pilot film were produced by John Dykstra, who’d been instrumental in building the Industrial Light & Magic team that had successfully completed Star Wars. Dykstra had also pioneered the “Dykstraflex” motion-control camera system that made such work possible. But while waiting for George Lucas to mount his planned sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, Dykstra needed a way to keep his ILM team together and employed in the meantime. So he formed a company called Apogee and recruited several ILM-ers—including Richard Edlund and Dennis Muren, model builders Grant McCune and Lorne Peterson, and conceptual artists Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston—to work on Battlestar Galactica using the same camera equipment. When Lucas found out, however, he was furious, especially given that Battlestar was so obvious a Star Wars clone. (So too was 20th Century Fox, which promptly sued Universal for copyright infringement.) Subsequently, when the ILM team was relocated to San Francisco to begin working on Empire, Dykstra was not invited to join them. Nevertheless, thanks to his efforts, Galactica’s visual effects were completed successful.
The score for Battlestar Galactica was composed by Stu Phillips and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. For its theatrical release, the 148-minute pilot film (which aired on ABC TV on September 17, 1978) was edited down to 125 minutes. It arrived in theaters in the US on May 18, 1979 (though it appeared theatrically in Canada on July 7, 1978, fully two months before its TV debut). The film ultimately grossed over $41 million internationally, not only recouping its production costs but earning Universal a tidy profit. And the Neilsen ratings for the pilot film’s broadcast debut on ABC were so high—on the order of 70 million viewers—that the network decided to continue the project as a TV series instead, giving it a hasty full-season order. (A single season of 24 episodes was eventually produced, along with a 10-episode follow-on series called Galactica: 1980.)
Shorter than the TV version by some 23 minutes, the theatrical feature has the character of Baltar being betrayed and executed by the Cylons, whereas new scenes were shot for the series to show the character’s survival among the Cylons in a new and ongoing role. The TV version also includes additional scenes that expand the relationship between Starbuck and Athena, that reveal the Cylons as pure robots (instead of aliens in armored suits), and that replace some of the alien creatures in the Carillon casino with human actors. There’s also additional footage that makes more explicit and obvious the Galactica crew’s plot to fool the Cylons on Carillon, and the sex scene between Starbuck and Cassiopeia is also edited for TV to remove obvious nudity in the theatrical cut. Curiously (and likely because the negative was later conformed for syndication), the toned-down version of the scene and a few other TV changes remain in the film as released on Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD.
[Editor’s Note: The TV version as available on disc (Blu-ray and DVD) runs approximately 139 minutes, whereas this 4K runs 124:19, for a difference of roughly 14 minutes—not 23. There’s been fan speculation that the 148-minute running time included scenes shot for future episodes, or was simply a reporting error that’s persisted in the record over time, or that it included broadcast tags, etc. Thanks to Bits reader Rick C. for pointing this out.]
Battlestar Galactica was shot on 35 mm photochemical film by veteran Universal Television cinematographer Ben Colman (Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Fall Guy) in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio for TV exhibition (but with 1.85:1 theatrical release framing in mind) using Panavision R200 and Arriflex 35 IIA cameras with Panavision Super Speed MKII spherical lenses. For its release on Ultra HD, the original camera negative and interpositive visual effects footage were scanned in 4K. The resulting image was then digitally remastered and graded for high dynamic range (only HDR10 is available). It’s presented here on a UHD-66 disc. While far from reference-quality, this image looks better than you’ve ever seen it before. The contrast is nicely expended, with deeply-black shadows and bright highlights. Image detail is excellent, save for the occasional shot of soft focus, with light organic photochemical grain in evidence at all times. And of course, the visual effects have all been composited optically, so the final shots are a few generations away from original negative and thus exhibit coarser grain. (It would be interesting to know if all of the original visual effects elements survive, so that these shots could one day be digitally recomposited if the resources to do so were made available.) But the real improvement here is the color palette, which has always seemed limited on DVD but now looks much bolder and more richly saturated. If you were fortunate enough to watch the original TV broadcast back in 1978—on the ever-popular ABC Sunday Night Movie—the experience you had then was a pale shadow of this new 4K UHD. Again, it isn’t reference-quality, but it’s a superlative experience for this particular film.
Primary English audio is offered here in a lossless 2.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix, which recreates the original theatrical mono with low-frequency Sensurround. (Battlestar Galactica and its compilation sequel, Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack in 1979, were the last films released using the Sensurround process). It’s the same mix included on the 2013 Blu-ray, which is fine as there’s not much that could be done to improve on that original sound experience while still being faithful to it. The mono audio has been spread out to the front left and right, with the Sensurround information directed to the sub channel for a bit of low-end rumble. Dialogue is clean and easily discernible, with a nice bit of sonic play involving com chatter during the space combat scenes. Phillips’ score is staged with pleasing fidelity, and very few analog or age-related defects can be heard. French 2.0 mono audio is also available in lossy DTS format, as are optional subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
Unfortunately, Universal’s new 4K Ultra HD release includes no special features and has only a very basic menu screen. Strangely, there’s also no Digital code included in the packaging. However, you do at least get a copy of the 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray released by the studio back in 2013 (and reviewed at the time here on The Bits).
Star Wars knock off though it might be, Battlestar Galactica was a major television event in 1978, and one that many young members of Generation X will never forget—especially those that, having been wowed by George Lucas’ space adventure, craved more experiences like it. And while there were certainly other sci-fi series made in the 1970s and early 80s, including Larson’s own Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, as well as Space: 1999, UFO, and others, few beyond Star Trek have retained the same level of cult following as Battlestar. Indeed, this series eventually spawned one of the most successful reboots of all time, when Universal and the Sci-Fi Channel commissioned Trek veteran Ronald D. Moore to launch a modern and gripping post-9/11 take on the Battlestar Galactica mythos. But as good as the 2004 series is—and it is justly regarded as one of the best science fiction series ever—it’s great to be able to return to the franchise’s origins in the highest possible quality. For fans of Battlestar Galactica then, this new 4K Ultra HD release is highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt