A few months ago, I stumbled across a blogger called Darth Mojo, who is an Emmy award-winning VFX artist for the remake version of Battlestar Galactica. My loyal readers know that I’m not a fan of Ron Moore’s take on one of my favorite childhood TV shows — I tried to like it, I really did, but in the end, it just wasn’t for me. Nevertheless, Mojo is an engaging writer who loves all kind of sci-fi stuff and is rightfully proud of his work on several of the landmark SF series of the past couple of decades. I’m interested in visual effects and often find his behind-the-scenes perspective fascinating, especially when he’s telling stories from the earlier days of his career when he worked on Babylon 5, among other shows. But the thing that really endears this guy to me is that, even though he’s an integral part of the new Galactica, he unabashedly loves the old Galactica as well… so much so that he accepted his Emmy while wearing an original-series Colonial Warrior uniform. Now that’s my kind of nerd.
Anyway, today Mojo reminds us that this is a very special date for his fellow geeky kids of the 1970s: on this date thirty years ago, September 17, 1978, the original Battlestar Galactica premiered on ABC-TV as a three-hour telefilm called “Saga of a Star World.” (Don’t ask, I’m a fan and I don’t even know what that title means.) To celebrate, he’s posted a really nifty downloadable image of the classic establishing shot so often seen on the old show, as re-created by his colleague Lee Stringer. (Stringer worked on the Neo-Galactica miniseries and first season of the regular series, and is, according to Mojo, “the second biggest Battlestar fan on the planet.” I assume from the context that he’s talking about the old series.)
Mojo also invites his readers to share their memories of the old series in the comments on his blog entry. I quickly dashed off something over there, but I’d like to expand a bit on those remarks:
What I mostly remember of that premiere night is the impotent rage I felt when President Carter interrupted the show for a speech about (I believe) the developing hostage crisis in Iran. I couldn’t believe that the grown-ups of the world didn’t understand how damn unfair was to break my viewing trance that way. My anticipation for this “galactical” thing had been growing for months, fueled by amazing two-page ads in the TV Guide, constant TV commercials, and the appearance of a whole new comic-book series in the racks at Riverton Drug. Star Wars was already a year old at this point and, even though I’d heard there was a “Star Wars 2” in the works, it wasn’t anywhere in sight. Even Star Trek: The Motion Picture wouldn’t be out for another year yet, an interminable wait. I needed a space-movie fix now, dammit! And this Battle-show was turning out to be just the methadone I needed to tide me over until the next hit of the pure stuff. It was all going so well, too, with robots and starships and pretty girls, just fabulous… right up until the adult world had to intrude and mess everything up. (Hey, I was only nine; cut me some slack for not having the greatest sense of priorities vis a vis TV vs. international diplomatic incidents.)
I don’t recall just where in the story Carter broke in, but it was definitely sometime after the first hour. I’d already seen the Colony Worlds destroyed, not catastrophically obliterated like Alderaan in Star Wars but demolished in a much more intimate and cruel fashion, via old-fashioned strafing runs. My grown-up mind knows that nuking the planet from orbit would be a far more efficient — and certain — method for the Cylons to exterminate that pesky lifeform known as Man, but the strafing was something a child could more easily understand, more personal and horrific than an instantaneous, worldwide evaporation, and it traumatized me quite thoroughly, too. To this day, the destruction of Caprica scene always causes me to well up a bit. The rest of the pilot movie would remain hazy at best in my memory for many years, because by the time Carter finished speaking, it was near my bedtime. I think my parents let me stay up and finish watching, but my foggy brain didn’t record much.
I didn’t fare much better at seeing complete episodes in the weeks to come, either. The show was on at 6 PM on Sundays, you see, a diabolically bad time because that was when I had to go feed the dogs, or eat dinner, or — worst of all — when we were in the car on the way home from Sunday gatherings at my grandmother’s. Oh, how I hated those interminable car rides when my guts were knotted up with anxiety and each tick of my little Timex watch echoed in my head like the crashing of a gavel. Sometimes it almost seemed as if my father deliberately timed our departure from Grandma’s so I’d miss half the show…
A year later, those Sunday drives didn’t matter anymore. The show had been cancelled and was gone forever, off to the television scrap heap like all the other failed shows. And yet… it never really seemed to go away. A short time after it was canceled, it was back on the air in the form of two-hour movies edited together from individual episodes. They ran on Saturday afternoons on Salt Lake’s fledgling UHF station, KSTU channel 20, which eventually relocated to channel 13 and became Utah’s Fox affiliate. Finally, I was able to see all those bits I’d missed while schlepping Gravy Train to our pack of hounds, or while trapped in the car whizzing along I-15. Sometimes it seems like those Saturday afternoons I spent sprawled in front of our big old console TV with the clunky channel-selector knob, watching Starbuck and Apollo race through the galaxy in their Vipers, were the best times of my life. Much later, I’d buy my favorite episodes on VHS and then, of course, “The Complete Epic Series” — eyes roll here — on DVD.
As much as I loved — still love — the original Battlestar, I can’t help but acknowledge that it was flawed in a lot of ways. The two-part episodes — which were originally intended to be movies-of-the-week, before the premise morphed from an occasional event into a weekly series — were usually pretty good, but the hour-long “filler” eps that went between the two-parters were almost uniformly lame. (I quite like “The Man With Nine Lives,” which featured Fred Astaire as Starbuck’s long-lost con-artist dad, and “The Long Patrol” is kind of fun, if for no other reason than it prompts us to ponder the eternal question asked by a drunken slattern, “what’s Star-buckin’?” However, the less said about “The Young Lords” and, oh gods, “Fire in Space,” the better.) The writers obviously knew nothing about science or science-fiction, which led to a lot of downright embarrassing crap (for example, the terms “solar system,” “galaxy,” and “universe” were pretty interchangeable on the old series, an error even a nine-year-old could spot).
Still, the show had a grandeur to it, a genuine sense of the epic mingled with the weird 1970s “ancient astronaut” zeitgeist that was its original inspiration. From what I’ve seen of it, the new Galactica — with all due respect to Darth Mojo, whose work on the new series truly is admirable — just doesn’t share that same vast canvas. It’s too down-to-earth, too concerned with being “realistic,” too filled with recognizably mundane details, like people wearing ordinary Earthly business suits and the president’s ship being painted the same colors as the real-world Air Force One.
I don’t want to get into a deep analysis of either version of Galactica or start dissecting what I like and dislike about the two series. I’ve done plenty of that elsewhere on this blog. But I will say that the reimagined Battlestar ultimately fails for me because it lacks the strong foundation of sentimentality and human warmth that lay at the heart of the original.
Thinking back on it now, the element I’ve always most responded to in Battlestar Galactica is the close, brotherly bond between Starbuck and Apollo and (to a slightly lesser extent) Boomer, and the gentle wisdom of Lorne Greene’s Adama. There was great appeal and comfort in that dynamic, and it’s something that I think is missing from TV in general these days. Quite frankly, I’m tired of all the strife and dysfunction in our entertainment, and I’d love to again see some characters who genuinely love and support one another. That’s not to say I want a show without conflict — the characters on the old Battlestar had plenty of disagreements. But at the end of the day, they were family. We could use some of that on the tube now.
Oh, and one final point of personal preference: Laurette Spang was and ever shall be infinitely hotter in my eyes than any of the ladies on the new show. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned glamour?