Home > Reviews > Original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA musings — Eps. 1-5

Original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA musings — Eps. 1-5

As I mentioned a while back, I’ve recently come into possession of a copy of The Stu Phillips Anthology: Battlestar Galactica, a 4-CD collection of the music from the original 1978 TV series.  I was never a big fan of that series, but I was always fond of the music, and I’m very glad to have a collection that features the majority of it. But the thing about me is, when I get acquainted with the music from a film or TV show, I like to hear it in its original context.  So when I found that the entire original BSG series was available on Hulu, I decided to start watching and see if my past opinions of it were due for a reappraisal.  After seeing the 3-hour pilot “Saga of a Star World” and its immediate 2-part followup “Lost Planet of the Gods,”  I’d have to say the answer is, yes and no.

Now, “Star World” actually holds up pretty well, at least for the first half or so.  There’s still plenty of ’70s corniness and superficiality, and Glen Larson’s dialogue is often painfully awkward,  but given that, Larson managed to rise above his usual schlocky level (remember, this is the guy who brought us Sheriff Lobo) and tell a story of disaster and tragedy that had its compelling moments.  I’ve never been comfortable with the underlying politics; the story basically embraces the hawkish, military mentality as the only righteous one and dismisses any believers in negotiation and peace as either quislings or fools, which was a stronger statement back during the Cold War tensions of 1978 than it might seem today, and is rather one-sided and heavy-handed by any era’s standards.  But people of different political views have a right to tell their own stories their own way, and whatever my disagreement with the premise, there are aspects of the execution that are well-handled.  In particular, the interval between the exodus from the colonies and the arrival at Carillon, where the focus is on people struggling to survive in the aftermath and coping with their loss, is the strongest part of the story.  It’s probably the only part of the series that lives up to the potential of its premise.

Now, people often complain that the pilot lost its way when it got to Carillon and became about a space casino instead of about the struggle to survive and cope with tragedy.  I’m not sure I entirely agree.  Sure, there was some cheesy stuff in the casino sequence, but it served a purpose in the story, an allegorical temptation for the survivors.  They’d lost everything and were enduring hardship, and here was an evident paradise threatening to lead them astray, like Odysseus’s crew in the Land of the Lotus Eaters.  There’s actually some pretty tense stuff as Commander Adama plots secretly with Colonel Tigh in order to undermine the hedonistic Sire Uri’s (Ray Milland) plans for disarmament.  So it’s not that they completely abandoned the concept of the refugees’ struggle for survival halfway through the story, since the space casino was a deliberate counterpoint to that theme.  (Also, I’m sure it has some parallel in the Book of Mormon, since the whole premise was basically Larson retelling that tale as a space opera.)

No, I think where they really started to lose their way was in “Lost Planet of the Gods.”  This story follows pretty immediately on from the pilot, but any sense of struggle or deprivation or loss is pretty hard to find.  It opens with the main characters having a cheerful dinner party to announce Apollo and Serina’s engagement, followed by the lower-rank pilots’ shenanigans as they arrange a bachelor party.  There’s lip service paid to supply shortages, but only barely.   Then, the fighter pilots are taken down by a random disease that spread because two scouts were too excited by the bachelor party to go through decontamination — not because there was starvation in the ranks or because too many pilots were lost in the invasion or anything that would actually remind the viewer of the massive tragedy these people were supposedly recovering from.  One of the music cues from this episode was actually titled “Another Day on the Galactica.”  That’s how mundane things have suddenly become, despite the nominal premise.

(Another abrupt change from the pilot is the role of Cassiopeia, played by Laurette Spang.  In the pilot, she was a “socialator,” which was implicitly a prostitute.  Intriguingly, Larson anticipated Joss Whedon’s Firefly by postulating a society in which prostitution was a legal and respected profession, albeit with some detractors.  But the censorship of the time didn’t allow him to come out and say it, instead having to dance around it with veiled implications.  But by “Lost Planet,” he couldn’t even go that far; Cassiopeia had been retconned into a nurse without ceremony or explanation.)

A large part of the story is devoted to training the all-female shuttle pilots to take the place of the sick, all-male fighter pilots, and here’s where we see a very ’70s approach to gender progressiveness.  Apollo and Starbuck never openly complain that women shouldn’t be in fighters; instead they say simply that shuttle pilots don’t have the training.  But there’s still the obvious if unstated gender segregation between the types of pilot, and there is an unspoken condescension to the scenes of the male heroes training the clumsy, unsure female pilots — although the women do eventually get the hang of it and prove to be pretty good, which I guess is about as progressive a statement as you could expect from 1978 American TV.  (And we never got a shot of the male pilots stripped down to those skintight, flesh-toned “pressure suits.”)  Stories about equality in that time were always very aware of gender roles even as they challenged gender expectations.  There’s a scene where the victorious female pilots are talking afterward about their conquests in battle, and Apollo and Starbuck jokingly fall into girl talk about shopping and home decoration — at least, I think the joke was on the characters’ parts rather than the writer’s.  (There’s an earlier scene where Starbuck expresses “jealousy” about Apollo’s impending marriage, and I just bet a million slash fanfics grew out of that moment.)  Anyway, the aftermath of tragedy and the struggle for survival are largely forgotten or downplayed in favor of less profound issues.

True, the Cylons still pose a mortal threat, but here’s where the storytelling becomes inconsistent.  In the original pilot film, the traitor Baltar (the always-superb John Colicos) is killed by the Cylons he served, but for the series this was recut and redubbed so that his execution was postponed, and a new scene was affixed to the end (evidently shot for episode 4 and awkwardly cut in here) where he’s spared by the new Imperious Leader.   Weirdly, the new IL says he’s a kinder, gentler robot and wants to make peace with humanity, and assigns Baltar to that mission.  It’s an oddly anticlimactic cliffhanger, more of a cliff-retreater-from.  And yet in “Lost Planet,” which contains a direct continuation of the same scene, the whole idea of the IL sincerely wanting peace is forgotten; Baltar and the Cylons are simply hunting the fleet down and the offer of peace is nothing but a ploy.  And when Baltar arrives on Kobol and makes his peace offer, there’s no clear reason why Adama would reject it beyond simple stubbornness and suspicion; again, a kneejerk hawkish mentality is extolled as the righteous ideal.  More to the point, it feels as if Adama suspects Baltar only because the scriptwriter knows Baltar’s the bad guy and requires Adama to be always right.  It’s a step down from the pilot, where Adama showed moments of doubt and despair that foreshadowed his counterpart in the revival series.

I’m probably BSG’ed out for the moment, but I still intend to work through the rest of the series on Hulu.  It wasn’t a great series, but in many ways I find it more enjoyable than the Ron Moore remake.  While Larson’s BSG essentially abandoned the darker aspects of the story after the pilot, I feel Moore’s version went too far in the other direction.  For every story of despair and hopelessness and venality in the aftermath of a tragedy, there’s a story of hope and heroism and togetherness and joy.  Disaster brings out the best as well as the worst in people, but in Moore’s BSG, we rarely saw anything but the worst.

And whatever its story flaws, the original series has elements that make it entertaining.  The music, as I’ve said, was excellent.  The production values were good for the time, even if they became dependent on stock footage from the pilot.  John Colicos is always a delight to watch, and Jonathan Harris (the voice of Baltar’s henchbot Lucifer) is equally delightful to listen to.  Dirk Benedict, an actor I came to find annoying for a while, is actually more charismatic than I used to think (something I already figured out from watching A-Team reruns).  And Maren Jensen (Athena) was probably the earliest woman I can remember being sexually attracted to — and even though a person’s tastes can change over time, my opinion of her looks doesn’t seem to have changed much in 32 years (good grief, it’s been that long?).

Mainly, though, I’m just curious.  Listening to the music and reading the track listings has reminded me of some of the storylines and I want to flesh out my recollections.  How much I’ll enjoy that process remains to be seen.

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