Sunday 2 April 2023

Battlestar Galactica at 45

In the wake of seeing Star Wars 45 years ago, I would develop an insatiable appetite for shiny US imports on the big and small screen, cashing in on its box office success.

From Disney's The Black Hole to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The most memorable of which was Battlestar Galactica, released as the first of three feature-length movies in the UK between 1978 and 1980. The BBC's Doctor Who and Blake's 7 were (briefly) sidelined in favour of ITV's big-budget sci-fi offerings from across the pond.

Glen A. Larson's epic television series, following a rag-tag fugitive fleet led by Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) in search of Earth, foreshadowed the long-form storytelling of Babylon 5.

Battlestar Galactica may have been a bigger success had Larson and Universal not been embroiled in litigation with Lucasfilm and Twentieth Century Fox over allegations of ripping-off Star Wars wholesale. George Lucas’ space opera was a distillation of disparate influences from Flash Gordon to Joseph Campbell.

Notably, Star Wars luminaries John Dykstra, a special effects pioneer, and Ralph McQuarrie, a conceptual artist, worked on the fledgling sci-fi series. The following year, McQuarrie's starship designs would also appear in Larson's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Despite being the most expensive series ever made at the time, to save money, Battlestar Galactica reused special effects ad nauseam in later episodes. Larson would go on to reuse Cylon sound effects for KITT in Knight Rider.

At the time in 1978, the 3-part Saga of a Star World was recut and shown theatrically to promote the upcoming series. Infamously, it showed Baltar (John Colicos) being beheaded by the Cylons after failing the Imperious Leader (Patrick Macnee), which confused me as a child when I saw Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack on home video. How the frak did Baltar survive?

Years later, I worked on Dirk Maggs' The Gemini Apes for BBC Radio 4 with Colicos' son, Nicholas, and we talked about his father's iconic roles on Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek.

Battlestar Galactica didn't shy away from darker themes such as betrayal and death. The aforementioned Balter betrayed the human race to the Cylons and Serina (Jane Seymour) died in Lost Planet of the Gods Part 2. At least Athena (Maren Jensen) survived but was increasingly sidelined by Sheba (Anne Lockhart), much to my chagrin.

Where would the explosive space battles be without a bombastic soundtrack underscoring the action? Stu Phillips' music for Battlestar Galactica is memorable and compares favourably with John Williams' operatic Star Wars themes. I adored both soundtracks. For anyone interested, Phillips' recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is available on Spotify and Apple Music.

Like Mego, Mattel passed on Star Wars (thereby facilitating Kenner's unprecedented success). Mattel bet on Battlestar Galactica and released a range of merchandise. Exeter's Pram & Toy Shop didn't give up much shelf space, but I did manage to get a Cylon Centurion, Imperious Leader, Ovion, Lucifer and a Cylon Raider.

Growing up, my parents didn't have cable television. So, I only viewed the first movie theatrically, a few of the episodes on HTV at my maternal grandmother's house (Rediffusion television was an early cable provider) and the two 'sequels' on rental video.

During the Betamax vs VHS format war, studios signed exclusive deals with Sony or JVC. Battlestar Galactica was only available on Sony Betamax. Thankfully, an aunt and uncle (who gifted me an Atari VCS in 1980) owned a high-end Sony machine featuring stereo sound, and I was able to watch Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack and Galactica III: Conquest of the Earth on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Teignmouth after playing Pole Position at the seafront arcade.

It would be nearly a decade before I had an opportunity to see the entire Battlestar Galactica series including the risible spin-off series Galactica 1980. The less said about the latter the better. However, The Return of Starbuck, guest starring Dirk Benedict (The A-Team) in the titular role from the original series, is a highlight foreshadowing Enemy Mine.

Ronald D. Moore's (For All Mankind) acclaimed reboot of Battlestar Galactica, one of the first sci-fi series I covered on this blog, ended 16 years ago and was followed by a short-lived prequel series, Caprica.

Much was made of Starbuck's recasting as a female in the reboot - years before Jodie Whittaker would play Doctor Who - and Katee Sackhoff's stellar performance, alongside a fantastic cast, soon allayed any fears. Sackhoff has gone on to play fan-favourite Bo-Katan Kryze in various Star Wars spin-offs including The Mandalorian on Disney+.

The late Richard Hatch, who portrayed Captain Apollo in the original Battlestar Galactica and became a childhood hero alongside Luke Skywalker and The Six Million Dollar Man, played Tom Zarek in Moore's lauded reboot. We were friends on social media. Hatch sadly passed away in 2017.

Battlestar Galactica has left a lasting legacy in popular culture from The Big Bang Theory to Portlandia.

What are your memories of Battlestar Galactica? Let me know in the comments below.

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