Home > Reviews > Original GALACTICA thoughts, Ep. 6-9

Original GALACTICA thoughts, Ep. 6-9

Here’s my second batch of reviews of the original Battlestar Galactica.  To be as fair as possible to the show, I’m going to lead off with “The Gun on Ice Planet Zero,” since even though it was aired after “The Lost Warrior” and “The Long Patrol,” it was evidently meant to come before them, following on from “Lost Planet of the Gods.”  While that 2-parter seemed to lose sight of the tragedy and tension inherent in the series premise, TGoIPZ at least manages to restore the tension, giving us a thriller in which Galactica is being herded by the Cylons into the path of a devastating superweapon and a team consisting largely of convicts must go down to a dangerous ice planet (which is actually called Arcta, not Zero) on a mission to destroy it.  There is an effective sense of menace from the Cylons here (though in extended all-Cylon dialogue scenes it can be difficult to tell who’s speaking), and some reasonably effective tension between the heroes and the convicts.  Meanwhile, Starbuck gets a subplot that makes him fairly sympathetic; a cadet pilot is captured by the Cylons on his watch, and he makes it a personal mission to find him and bring him back.  Although this would’ve been more potent if the lost cadet had been somebody we’d seen before, ideally one of the female cadets from LPotG (like that adorable Brie).  Though I gather this story was filmed before that one, so that might not have been possible.

Basically this is a mix of elements from The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and The Dirty Dozen, but it doesn’t seem to borrow too slavishly (as far as I can tell), and holds together moderately well as a story in its own right.

There are a few things that drag the episode down, though, notably a pointless subplot in which Boxey and robo-dog Muffit stow away on the dangerous mission and contribute essentially nothing to the story.  Okay, the daggit does save the team from freezing by finding a bunch of clone workers in identical disco work clothes, who turn out to be a creation of the polymath scientist (Dan O’Herlihy) who also built the peaceful communication tool that happens to double as a horrible super-raygun complete with Flash Gordon sound effects.  The story slows down too much in the middle parts; it would probably have worked better as a 90-minute special, though that would’ve been problematical in reruns.  There’s a bit too much trudging through the snow (though Stu Phillips creates an effectively unnerving snow-trudging leitmotif) and too much of Baltar playing ring-the-doorbell-and-run-away with Cylon Raiders against the fleet.  But the tension builds up again as the climax nears and the Flash Gordon ray gun takes increasingly close potshots at the fleet.

One does wonder what the fate of the clones will be after they destroy the Cylon installation, since apparently they’re being left behind at the end.  We’re told the Cylons are determined to exterminate all human life in the universe, but our “heroes” have no trouble abandoning a human population known to the Cylons, with no assurance beyond Dan O’Herlihy’s claim that he can somehow protect them (despite Apollo telling him earlier that the Cylons would kill him too eventually).  It’s a perennial problem with this series.  Another is the overuse of stock footage, which gets a bit out of hand here.  There’s a certain FX shot of Viper fire chasing a Cylon raider and blowing it up in the upper right corner of the screen with what I’ve always thought of as a raider-shaped explosion.  It’s often used more than once in an episode, generally being flipped left-to-right from time to time to vary it up.  But it was used over half a dozen times in this 2-parter, sometimes just seconds apart, and only flipped once.  The explosion at the end was even used once to represent the supergun’s beam (since ray guns in the BSG universe always explode in the middle of space even if they don’t hit anything).

But with fairly effective tension and action, and with a guest cast including O’Herlihy, Roy Thinnes, Richard Lynch, Christine Belford, and Britt Ekland, TGoIPZ is one of the original series’ high points.

Which cannot be said of the first one-part episode, “The Lost Warrior,” scripted by future Quantum Leap/JAG/NCIS creator Donald P. Bellisario, who had previously co-written “Lost Planet of the Gods.”  It’s an eminently forgettable episode and an example of everything that was wrong with the execution of this series.  In short, it’s a thinly veiled Shane remake, a stock Western story with sci-fi trappings tacked on.  Apollo crashlands on a planet whose people know nothing of Colonial Warriors and live like characters in a Western, albeit with occasional high-tech trappings since it’s In Space!  They even have synth Scott Joplin tunes playing at the saloon (I guess “All Along the Watchtower” isn’t the only piece of Earth music that has Happened Before And Will Happen Again).  Only the resident overacted baddie’s enforcer is an amnesiac Cylon — who inevitably ends up in a quick-draw contest with Apollo, complete with music paraphrasing the theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

This is just a painfully inept excuse for science fiction storytelling.  There’s no attempt at developing the alien world, at elaborating on the ramifications of the series premise.  Indeed, the broader issues are ignored.  If Equellus is a habitable planet that the Cylons apparently have no knowledge of, why doesn’t the fleet settle there?  Okay, granted, it seems to be within the territory patrolled by the Cylons.  But, as with the clones in “Ice Planet Zero,” doesn’t that mean its human population is in mortal danger?  Doesn’t the fleet have a responsibility to evacuate them?  By leaving them behind, aren’t they dooming this whole colony to eventual extermination?  Bellisario and story writer Herman Groves didn’t care about any of that; they evidently just chose to fill an hour the laziest way possible, by retelling a familiar Western tale and slapping some faux-Latin and astronomical terminology on it.

I could see a story like this happening in a later season when the show had run out of ideas.  But as the fourth overall story of the entire series (and the third one aired), the very first standalone episode?  That’s a bad sign.  And if they were just going to imitate existing stories, why not follow the precedent of The Twilight Zone and adapt classic works of science fiction?  I can easily see “The Cold Equations” working as a BSG-universe story.  Maybe something from Saberhagen’s Berserker series or Benford’s Galactic Center series would’ve been adaptable to the premise of humans fleeing from robotic exterminators.   There was so much potential here that was ignored.

There are a couple of minor effective moments, mainly when Colonel Tigh chews out Adama for being unwilling to risk the appearance of favoritism by ordering a special effort to search for his son.  Also the kid, Noah Hathaway, manages an amusing delivery when he’s playing cards for jellybeans with the pilots and turns out to be a real card sharp.  But overall, this is a complete waste of an episode.

“The Long Patrol”: This is another Bellisario episode involving a character getting stranded away from the fleet,  as Starbuck is waylaid by a space pirate and ends up in a space prison.  (In Space!)  This time, though, there’s actually a glimmering of effort to come up with a speculative premise: the prisoners are the descendants of the original prisoners, keeping alive a system of inmate labor to supply weapons and booze (now just booze) to a fleet they’ve been out of contact with for centuries.  It’s not a very well-developed premise, though, since it’s implausible that the inmates would be capable of living their entire lives and raising families in one small cell block or maintain any kind of viable economy that way, let alone that they’d submit to it voluntarily only on the basis of ancestral tradition.  And overall the episode seems more interested in Starbuck’s woman troubles as he tries to juggle his romances with Athena and Cassiopeia without either woman finding out about the other (something I’ve always found jerky and may be why I never liked the character when I was young) and deal with CORA the talking computer in his experimental Viper, who’s sort of a prototype KITT from Knight Rider crossed with the flirtatious Enterprise computer from Star Trek‘s “Tomorrow is Yesterday.”

Also, this show’s grasp of astronomy is consistently infantile.  They leave their home “star system” (also called the Cyrannus galaxy by Starbuck) by passing through a belt of  “asteroid dust” into a “new galaxy” that “no human has ever laid eyes on before” — only to promptly run into a bunch of humans who left the colonies centuries before them.  It’s always startled me how many writers of movies, TV shows, and cartoons have no comprehension of the difference between a galaxy and a star system, or even what a galaxy is.  (I once read an art book where the narrating character said something about being only two parsecs from Earth, only a few galaxies away.  That’s like saying you’re two blocks from home, only a few continents away.)  Why don’t our schools teach these things?

At least this time it’s suggested that the lost colonists were brought into the fleet at the end.  And it’s not a completely pointless interlude, because Starbuck’s prison cell happened to contain paintings left by a mysterious “Silent One” imprisoned there long before — most of which inexplicably resemble 40,000-year-old cave paintings from Lascaux, but which also included a map that Adama recognizes as Earth’s solar system from the ancient texts — suggesting that they’re on the right track after all.  (I wonder if this was an inspiration for Kara Thrace’s wall painting in the revival series, which turned out to be a signpost toward Earth.)  Still, overall it’s a forgettable episode having no lasting impact on the series.

One thing both these Bellisario scripts have in common is that the kid Boxey and his pet robot dog apparently have the run of the bridge.  And not only does Adama not kick him out, but he’ll happily ignore his responsibilities as the leader of the last surviving human population in order to play doting grandpa.  (At one point when Terry Carter’s Tigh walked by and glanced at Muffit, I had a mental image of Michael Hogan’s Saul Tigh growling, “Get that frakkin’ daggit out of the C-in-C before I have it skinned.”)

Okay, I can understand focusing on the kid and his robo-dog (actually what must have been a very unhappy baby chimpanzee in a heavy, motorized costume)  and telling light, fluffy stories like these if the network’s goal was to make a light, fun, family-friendly adventure hour.   But in that case, why build the series premise around the complete annihilation of a civilization and the desperate struggle of the refugees?  It’s a conceptual mismatch that pretty much hamstrung the show from the start.

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  1. February 11, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    The Long Patrol had an interesting premise that it never really tried to develop. Otherwise I found it pretty entertaining, and one of the better one-parters. I never really liked Ice Planet as much as other fans do. It doesn’t have too much rewatchability. Like you said, it’s too long, and too repetitive. Don’t get the disco worker clothes reference, though. Lots of people like to bash the original BG with the disco references. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, but I don’t picture disco-ers wearing work overalls. Not that I ever went to a disco, you understand.

    I haven’t actually watched the show in years now, but reading your great reviews on it today is putting me in the mood to see it again. I loved it as a kid. It was Star Wars at home. And now, despite its many flaws, I see it as a nostalgic guilty pleasure, and it’ll probably always like it no matter how much more evolved TV gets through the years.

  2. February 11, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    “Patrol” isn’t as awful as the two space-western episodes, no, but it’s rather pointless and illustrative of many of the show’s systemic failings.

    I think it was the berets that made me think of the disco era. Maybe the colors. Maybe the haircuts.

  3. February 11, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    I think most of the time the disco references are just residual anger from the 70s in general. Not saying this about you, but I think a lot of people just look back on the past unfavorably, see long hair, think of that disco crap, etc. It’ll be the same twenty years from now when people see old film of people covered in tattoos, with their shirts almost artistically untucked.

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