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Gene Roddenberry’s THE QUESTOR TAPES

February 19, 2014 4 comments

I finally got around to buying the print-on-demand DVD of Gene Roddenberry’s 1974 pilot The Questor Tapes, featuring the android character who would be the prototype for Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Data. The reason it took me so long, after acquiring his Genesis II and Planet Earth pilots on DVD last year, is that I already had TQT on VHS tape and figured I’d use my VCR/DVD dubbing deck to archive it digitally. Now that I’ve actually found the time to begin transferring my old tapes, though, I realized my copy of TQT was way too low in quality — I’m pretty sure my VHS tape was copied in turn from a Beta recording off a TV movie — and that I’d be much better off paying for the inexpensive DVD release. Granted, the quality of that release isn’t that much better. It’s not remastered from the source, but is apparently just a reissue of a pay-TV edition, judging from the opening copyright disclaimer. Still, it’s the best we’ve got.

Questor was Roddenberry’s attempt to revisit the Kirk-Spock dynamic, with a logical, hyperintelligent lead character relying on the moral and emotional guidance of his human best friend. For the pilot, he brought in former Star Trek writer-producer Gene L. Coon to cowrite the script, which was a great choice, since Coon had a knack for writing close friendship between men. Batman producer Howie Horwitz is the credited producer (with Roddenberry as “executive consultant,” a title generally used for a creator who’s no longer in charge of the production), and the pilot was directed by Richard Colla, who would later direct the pilot movie of Battlestar Galactica.

The pilot is interesting in that it’s structured as a mystery revolving around the title character’s purpose for existence, creating a lot of ambiguity about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. It opens at Cal Tech, where top scientists from five nations (evidently including the US, the USSR, China, France, and one other) have come together in Project Questor, an initiative to assemble a revolutionary android designed by the Nobel-winning Dr. Emil Vaslovik, who’s been missing and presumed dead for three years. It quickly becomes evident that nobody understands the advanced technologies underlying the android’s components, not even the lead assembler, Vaslovik’s protege Jerry Robinson (Mike Farrell). And the programming tapes Vaslovik left have been half-erased by the project’s attempts to decrypt them. At first, the programming seems to fail; the android remains inert.  But that night — as project head Geoffrey Darro (John Vernon) is digging into Robinson’s background, suspicious that he may know more than he’s telling about Vaslovik’s intentions for the android — Questor himself awakens and gives his smooth plastic form a makeover using the project’s equipment, turning himself into Robert Foxworth. It’s actually a very clever effect — in continuous shots, we see the equipment removing the “robot” makeup and revealing Foxworth’s features underneath, creating the illusion that it’s actually molding those features onto the mannequin-like form. I’d forgotten that these scenes have a horror-movie quality, since at this point the audience has no way to know whether Questor is the hero or the villain.

Indeed, his actions are quite morally ambiguous at first. Once he breaks out of the lab, he forces a terrified Jerry to come with him, although it gradually becomes clear that he is programmed to be incapable of killing. Still, Jerry convinces Questor to accede to his guidance on matters of morality. Although he lets that slip a bit when they get to a casino in Universal-backlot London and Questor uses his computer senses to cheat at craps in order to obtain “specie,” as he keeps calling it. Virtually this same sequence, right down to the android using his superstrength to unload a pair of loaded dice, was later reused with Data in TNG’s “The Royale.”

Questor remembers enough about Vaslovik’s past to lead him to the home of Lady Helena Trimble (Dana Wynter), a prominent socialite and alleged courtesan,who turns out to be an information broker who worked with Vaslovik, leading Jerry to suspect that Questor may have been built for espionage purposes or worse. Especially once he discovers the secret information center where Questor, like Vaslovik before him, can monitor spy images and sensitive secrets from all over the world, possibly affecting millions of lives. Helena insists the motives behind this technology are benevolent, but Jerry has already called in Darro. Will his trust in Questor’s friendship win out over his doubts, and can Questor win over the cynical Darro to their side?

Spoiler alert: The movie climaxes at Mt. Ararat, where we learn that Vaslovik was himself an android, the latest in a line of androids who’ve been subtly guiding and safeguarding humanity for 200,000 years. Their mission is not to control us, but only to assist us to make our own decisions. But Questor is the last; if humanity survives to the end of his 200-year lifespan, it will have outgrown its childhood and won’t need a nanny anymore.

I think the pilot still holds up pretty well, although it’s not perfect. Foxworth’s jerky line delivery as Questor is a bit annoying after a while, although it gradually softens over the course of the movie. The Questor-Jerry relationship maybe develops a bit too quickly, but the same can be said of many TV relationships; a certain amount of shorthand is just part of the form. And some of the dialogue doesn’t flow as smoothly or logically as it could, and there are some abrupt transitions. It feels like a fair amount was cut out, although the running time on the DVD (96 minutes) is consistent with what the runtime for a movie in a 2-hour time slot would’ve been in 1973, so the cuts would’ve been in the original.

Still, Foxworth, Farrell, and Vernon are strong leads, and the core relationship is pretty solid — inspired by Kirk and Spock, but different enough to be fresh. Jerry is no Kirk, particularly not where women are concerned; at one point, Questor encourages him to seduce Lady Helena for information, but he’s terrible at it and can’t bring himself to use her that way. And Questor, much like Data, is rather the opposite of Spock: lacking the inbuilt potential for emotion (part of what was erased from the programming tapes) but eager to learn more about how to be human. The suspense over the purpose and morals of Questor’s creation is interesting, although resolved a bit too easily. And I kind of like it that there’s no villain in the story, just people with conflicting views and goals, doing what they think is right.

And there’s a lot here that seeded later SF productions. I’ve mentioned Questor as the inspiration for Data. Also, the music cue that composer Gil Melle uses in the Project Questor lab scenes would be repurposed later that year as the theme for Kolchak: The Night Stalker. And when Questor finds Vaslovik’s Mt. Ararat lair, the device that “heals” him and infuses him with his missing knowledge makes the same “ta-ta-tang” sound effect (albeit truncated) that would later become the trademark sound of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman (also from Universal).

The sad thing about TQT is that it almost became a series. As detailed in this excellent overview article (no longer “live” but preserved in the Internet Archive), a season of the show was actually commissioned, but the executives insisted on changes to make it more like The Fugitive — drop Jerry, ignore the ending where Questor found his answers, and have him be a lone hero on the run from the authorities. Apparently they wanted the benign-intervention angle dropped, uneasy with the idea of alien androids playing God — which I think was unfair, because the movie made it clear that Questor’s interventions were meant to be rather subtle. Rather than cave to network pressure, Roddenberry walked away from the show altogether, killing the project. This one movie is all we got. Although maybe that’s just as well, if the only alternative was to see a watered-down version that eliminated the core relationship and the core premise. (Said premise itself being Roddenberry’s latest attempt at the “aliens secretly guiding humans” premise from his Star Trek backdoor pilot episode “Assignment: Earth.”)

There was an attempt to reboot the series in the early 2000s, under the guidance of Herbert J. Wright, a former TNG producer who’d been attached to the abortive 1974 Questor series. Unfortunately, Wright passed away in 2005 and the project fell through. The rights are currently held by Imagine Entertainment, and in 2010 there was talk about a reimagining to be developed by Tim Minear; but nothing seems to have come of it. They keep trying, but they just can’t seem to get it off the ground.

Foxworth would later go on to play two major villains in the Trek franchise: Admiral Leyton in Deep Space Nine‘s “Homefront”/”Paradise Lost,” and Administrator V’Las in Enterprise‘s Vulcan Civil War trilogy. Farrell would never appear in another Trek or Roddenberry-related production, nor would Vernon. However, the pilot features a couple of Trek veterans in bit roles at the Project: Majel Barrett (who was in every Roddenberry production from TOS onward) as Dr. Bradley, one of the scientists, and Walter Koenig (unrecognizable under a Sonny Bono-ish hairdo and mustache) as Darro’s assistant Phillips. The matte paintings and visual effects in the movie were done by the great matte artist Albert Whitlock, who had previously done the matte paintings for TOS. (His paintings do enhance the “Ararat” location, but there are enough moving shots to make it clear that the featured mountain peak is real; I just wish I could find out where it was. It looks nothing like the real Mt. Ararat, but is extremely striking.)

Despite the abandonment of the series, the pilot got a novelization by Roddenberry’s former Trek colleague D.C. Fontana — the only novel on her resume other than Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory, although oddly the front matter of the book credits her with a Ballantine title called The Winds of Space, which was actually the title of a TV pilot that Fontana reportedly had in development around 1972-3. Perhaps there was a plan for her to novelize the pilot script, but it fell through.

Although it was Fontana’s first novel, it reads pretty well. It’s quite faithful to the script for the most part, but it adds a lot of material that fleshes out the story considerably and fills in a lot of the gaps in the movie. Notably, there’s a new thread of intrigue as the various nations partnering in Project Questor are all eager to get possession of the technology for themselves and trying to co-opt or bribe Jerry into selling out to them. It helps raise the stakes and helps explain why Darro is so concerned about Questor falling into the wrong hands. We learn a lot more about Lady Helena and Dr. Vaslovik, and there’s an added subplot about Questor using his precise computer projections to play the stock market and make millions by buying and selling at exactly the right moments — somewhat prophetic, I think, given how much stock trading today is dependent on computers. Although it clashes a bit with the movie plot, since the reason Questor suggested that Jerry seduce Helena was because they didn’t have the means to pay her. Fontana doesn’t provide a suitable alternative motivation for the wealthy Questor of the novel to suggest seduction.

The biggest departure from the movie is in the third act. The movie gives Questor a deadline of three days (after their time at Helena’s) to find Vaslovik, or something terrible will happen, and he figures out Vaslovik’s location just before he’s recaptured by Darro’s men. In the book, though, the deadline is extended to seven days, and he doesn’t get the vital clue before his recapture. Instead, there’s a sequence where he’s given the resources and personnel needed to attempt to track down Vaslovik — which seems a rather pointless addition, since after days of futile searching, he ultimately ends up getting the vital clue in the same coincidental way he did in the movie. It’s the one part of the novel that feels like it serves no purpose beyond padding the word count.

But it’s also just about the only part that doesn’t feel like an improvement. Although the novel is long out of print and much harder to track down these days than the DVD, I recommend it as a valuable supplement to the film. Some parts of it should be taken with a grain of salt, but others enhance the “reality” of the film considerably.

In my Genesis II/Planet Earth review, I talked about how I choose to interpret them as an alternate timeline of the Trek universe. But I’ve always liked to think that Questor actually took place in the Trek universe itself — and that maybe Data’s creator Noonien Soong learned some of what he knew about androids from Questor somehow. (Although a direct lineage doesn’t work, because Questor’s brain was based on something called “bionic plasma” rather than a positronic matrix.) Of course, since TQT was from Universal, that can never be officially asserted, but there have been several references in various Trek novels implying that Questor may have existed in that universe:

In Greg Cox’s Assignment: Eternity, Roberta Lincoln reminisces about helping Gary Seven retrieve some secret robot plans called “The Quasar Tapes, or something like that.” Roberta recalls that they were in the Pentagon rather than Cal Tech, but that still fits; maybe the Pentagon stole the plans from Vaslovik, and Gary and Roberta got them back into civilian hands.

In Jeffrey Lang’s Immortal Coil — and its followup, the Cold Equations trilogy by David Mack — we see that Flint, the immortal android-builder from “Requiem for Methuselah,” would live on into the 24th century and adopt the pseudonym Emil Vaslovik, becoming a mentor to Noonien Soong. There’s no mention that Vaslovik was the name of a real historical figure — indeed, given that TQT’s Vaslovik was a famous Nobel laureate, it might’ve been a bad idea for Flint to choose such a conspicuous pseudonym — but it’s possible to fudge things and surmise that Flint had known Vaslovik and/or Questor back in the 20th century and learned about androids from them.

And I’ve followed their lead and inserted a reference in my own work: in Watching the Clock, a member of Gary Seven’s Aegis organization refers to “those damn androids” as if they were the competition. And there’s another very subtle nod coming up in my DTI eBook The Collectors.

Although that competition thing is the main problem with having Questor in the Trek universe: aren’t he and Gary Seven basically doing the same thing? And since Gary and Roberta have been doing it six years longer, are Questor’s efforts even necessary? But seeing the movie again, I’m thinking maybe they don’t overlap that much. We know that Gary’s mission was to prevent humanity from destroying itself as it moved through the era of its greatest crisis. So he and Roberta are dealing fate-of-the-world stuff. By contrast, the Vaslovik androids are on a much subtler mission, just guiding and protecting human beings who have the potential to do good and make the world better — not making their decisions for them, but helping them survive or get the education or resources or opportunities they need to fulfill their potential. Maybe speaking a word in the right ear, as Questor puts it, to nudge someone in the right direction. They’ve been at it since the dawn of Homo sapiens‘ existence as a distinct species, and while there have been times in that 200,000-year span when we were at risk of extinction, it probably hasn’t been a concern for most of that span — or at least it wasn’t something that could’ve been affected by the ability to influence human decisions, not until the nuclear age. So maybe Questor’s activities are on a small enough scale that Gary’s activities don’t render them redundant. They could have even complemented each other, with Gary and Roberta tackling the big crises and Questor and Jerry and Helena helping out the little guys who fell through the cracks. Maybe that’s why Gary wanted to make sure the Questor Tapes ended up in the right hands.

Of course, that idea is somewhat dependent on the fact that neither show went past the pilot stage. If both shows had been made, they might have ended up telling fairly similar stories — and of course neither would’ve acknowledged the other. But then, if A:E had been made, Roddenberry wouldn’t have tried to revive the concept with Questor anyway. As it is, though, we’re free to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have been.

What would SFTV have been like in the STAR TREK universe?

One of the characters in my novel Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations: Watching the Clock was Clare Raymond, the 20th-century housewife from TNG’s “The Neutral Zone,” and while working on scenes involving her thoughts and recollections, I got to wondering what mass-media science fiction would’ve been like in a universe where there was no Star Trek TV series in the ’60s. I vacillated between positing a reality that simply lacked such a series altogether and inventing a substitute series that could go in its place and fill the same role. (I was tempted to use Astro Quest from the CSI episode “A Space Oddity”. Galaxy Quest wouldn’t have worked, since it was supposedly made in the ’80s.) I ended up going the former route, but I didn’t really develop it in detail.

But the subject recently came up in a thread on the TrekBBS,  and I got into a more in-depth analysis of the subject, which I want to repost here.

The thing is, Star Trek had such a major influence on popular culture that it’s hard to imagine how different the media landscape would be without it. Star Trek did a lot to make science fiction a more respectable genre in the mass media. It pioneered or popularized many aspects of the modern fandom experience — conventions, fanzines, even slash fiction. The success of ST in syndicated reruns proved that reruns were more viable than broadcasters had thought and led to a rise in rerun use and a decrease in season lengths. Later on, TNG’s breakthrough success in first-run syndication paved the way for the syndication boom of the ’90s.

So without Star Trek, there might never have been a Xena or a Babylon 5. Not to mention all the shows that have spawned directly from Trek veterans like Michael Piller, Ron Moore, Ira Steven Behr, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, Rene Echevarria, and so on. There’s no telling if they would’ve ever gone into SFTV if not for ST. If it hadn’t existed in the ’60s, then SFTV and first-run syndication in the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s would be a lot sparser. Heck, without B5 breaking new ground in serialized storytelling, we might not have as many of the heavily arc-driven shows we have today, in SF or otherwise. It’s a ripple effect.

Without ST, sci-fi would probably have maintained a reputation as kid stuff, since the most successful exemplars of the genre in TV would’ve been Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space. I think my conjecture in Watching the Clock that the bionic shows would still exist is pretty sound, since they were based on a novel and weren’t really seen as hardcore sci-fi; series producer Harve Bennett wasn’t an SF-oriented type and wasn’t very familiar with Star Trek prior to being pegged to produce the movies, so his ’70s career wouldn’t have been affected much by the absence of ST. Ditto for Bionic Woman creator Kenneth Johnson, who went on to do The Incredible Hulk, V, and Alien Nation. If Roddenberry hadn’t made his mark in SFTV, maybe we’d look back on Johnson as the man who proved that science fiction could be an adult genre, though that proof would’ve come along much later. And we might’ve still gotten Earthbound genre shows like The X-Files and Buffy.

And would there even have been a Star Wars without Star Trek? In the Trek Nation documentary, George Lucas says he’d attended some Trek conventions before creating Star Wars, and he says ST helped pave the way for SW by proving that sci-fi could be successful — and that it could be produced impressively on a tight budget. So without ST, with mass-media American science fiction in the ’70s lacking that one massive success story, would any movie studio have been willing to take a chance on Lucas’s idea to do a Flash Gordon pastiche as a big-budget movie? If they had, it probably wouldn’t have been called Star Wars, a name that I’ve read Lucas chose because it evoked Star Trek. And it might’ve been a much smaller, lower-budget film, and there would’ve been less of a pre-existing genre fanbase for it. And its effects might not have been as sophisticated, since the FX studios for Star Trek pioneered new techniques on that show. Without Star Wars as we know it, there wouldn’t have been an ILM, let alone a Pixar. Sci-fi and fantasy wouldn’t have become the giants in the motion picture industry that they are in our world; the films and franchises that would never have been made are too numerous to list. Nor would there have been a Battlestar Galactica or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or Jason of Star Command. And without Donald Bellisario cutting his genre teeth on Galactica, there might never have been a Quantum Leap.

So probably the biggest SF fan community would be for Doctor Who, and maybe Blake’s 7 would have a big following too. England would most likely be seen as the vanguard of science fiction in popular culture, though SF would be seen as a genre characterized by cheap production values, and thus would have trouble gaining more than a niche fanbase in the US.

And what about all the people inspired to become scientists and engineers because of Star Trek? If that show had never existed, then modern technology might be less advanced in some respects. There might not have been as much incentive driving people to invent flip phones or pad-style computers. Which might explain why some aspects of technology do seem to have advanced more gradually in the Trek universe itself, although its 20th century clearly had much more impressive progress in crewed spaceflight and genetic engineering than ours.

So all in all, as utopian as Star Trek‘s 22nd through 24th centuries are, it looks like their 20th and early 21st centuries would’ve been rather deprived where mass entertainment was concerned. Maybe that’s why ST’s characters are mainly fans of detective fiction and Westerns and gothic romances and the like — maybe science fiction never really caught on outside its particular niche audience.

GALACTICA 1980 thoughts — Ep. 10 and overview

February 3, 2011 14 comments

“The Return of Starbuck” is considered by fans to be the only good episode of Galactica 1980, largely because it has little to do with G80.  Glen Larson was fed up with writing this show he’d never wanted to do in the first place and decided to go back to writing about a more popular character, Starbuck.  It was considered a last-ditch attempt to revitalize a dying series, but it didn’t work.  However, it gave the show, and the original franchise, a better sendoff than it otherwise would have.

We open with Dr. Zee in Adama’s quarters, for once asking questions rather than answering them.  It’s the first time he’s ever come off as a child rather than a smug god-king.  He’s had a dream that he seeks to understand, a dream told… in flashback!

The dream begins with stock footage, mostly stuff from the opening of “The Young Lords” where Starbuck’s fighter was hit and had to crashland, interspersed with new dialogue footage of Starbuck and Boomer; you can tell the old from the new since the new stuff is shot in the revamped 2-seater cockpits.  Boomer tearfully leaves Starbuck, and there’s a tense scene on the Galactica (the tiny, pared-down G80 bridge set, which is the proportional equivalent of doing a flashback to Star Trek: TOS and setting all the bridge scenes in the turbolift) as Adama angrily, reluctantly convinces Boomer that they can’t risk going back for him.  Something of a retcon here, as Adama treats Starbuck like a beloved son, something never really in evidence in the original show (and unlikely given how Starbuck two-timed Adama’s daughter with, and eventually dumped her for, a hooker-turned-nurse).  But it’s a nice bit of drama and the first time Adama’s shown any trace of a backbone in this entire series.  He must’ve traded his spine in for that beard.

Starbuck crashes on a desert planet, and we discover that Viper cockpits are escape pods.  But he’s alone, and for the next act or so, Starbuck’s voiceover narrates the tale of his solitary exile, though to whom is unknown.  (Did Dr. Zee actually hear this narration in his dream?)  Eventually he finds the remains of the Cylon ship that crashed along with him, and there’s a nice scene of the bored Starbuck treating the inert robots as his troops and giving them orders for the day, including dinner in dress silvers.  Finally he gets tired of talking to himself and rebuilds one of the Cylons as a companion.  The Cylon, whom Starbuck calls “Cy,” is hostile at first, but Starbuck has neutralized his weapon and can switch him on and off, so they strike an uneasy truce.

Perhaps it’s supposed to be because Starbuck didn’t put him together right, but Cy has a unique voice treatment.  The Vocoder monotone is still there, but it’s supplementing rather than replacing the natural voice of the actor delivering the lines (an uncredited Gary Owens, best known as the announcer on Laugh-In and the voice of Space Ghost), so he has a more expressive voice than other Cylons.  And it soon becomes clear why, since Cy is quite a character.  Never before have we seen a Cylon given this degree of personality development or learned so much about their culture; even the humanoid Andromus in “The Night the Cylons Landed” was stiff compared to Cy.  Cy is opinionated, sarcastic, a critic of human nature, but also a bit prickly with easily wounded pride.  He’s the funniest character in the episode, and intentionally, not in a “so bad it’s good” way.

Starbuck teaches Cy to play cards, and when he inevitably cheats, Cy is “disappointed.”  Upon realizing that Starbuck is on edge due to a lack of female companionship, Cy storms off to find him a “woo-man.”  To Starbuck’s surprise, he actually finds one, a silent, mysterious, and moreover highly pregnant woman.  Starbuck cares for her for a week while blabbing his life story to this mute enigma, and when she speaks, her first question is, “Starbuck, would you die for me?”  Sheesh, talk about needy.  Anyway, her name is Angela (accented on the middle syllable), and she says she’s from “a dimension beyond.”  (The Twilight Zone?)  She also says the baby is his — spiritually, at least, though with Starbuck you never know — and that he’ll have to build a ship to protect the child from the Cylons’ inevitable arrival.  He convinces Cy to help build an escape ship out of parts of both their ships, reminding him that they share everything, but Cy is feeling left out as the only Cylon among an ever-growing population of humans, and insists that a Cylon and human can never be friends.  Still, he helps build the ship.

After the baby is born, “judgment day” soon comes as the Cylons land.  Cy goes off, and Starbuck is unable to bring himself to shoot him and prevent him from giving their presence away.  He gets Angela and Kal-El the baby to the ship and says he’s coming with them, but she’s awfully eager to push him into staying behind and sacrificing himself so their fuel will last longer, claiming it’s actually what he intended all along (maybe, but she could’ve at least pretended to object).  So he sends them on their way and stays  to fight the Cylons, even though he’s outnumbered, three against one.

“Three against two,” the returning Cy corrects, and goes out to meet his Cylon brethren.  He orders them to lower their weapons and then blasts them — but the last one shoots him before Starbuck downs it.  Cy’s dying words are, “Not Cylon.  Not human.  Friends.”  Awwwwwwwwwww.  It’s actually kind of a touching moment.

So Angela shows up on the cliff and intones that she’s judged Starbuck good, then fades into the ether.  Apparently she was a superbeing of some kind, probably one of the Beings of Light from the original series.  And it’s no great surprise that her baby was eventually retrieved by the fleet and became Dr. Zee.  (Although Zee is for once handed the Idiot Ball and is unable to deduce that until Adama tells him, even though he’s usually able to deduce things no one could possibly know without having read the script.)  The ship kept him in cryogenic stasis for an unknown amount of time before catching up with the fleet, thus reconciling the fact that Zee is only 10 despite the flashbacks having to be at least 20-25 years earlier.

So Zee is not actually human at all, but is a juvenile Being of Light.  That would explain his superintelligence.  Maybe the Beings sent him to guide the fleet?  If so, maybe the usual hands-off policy of super-advanced sci-fi beings is a good idea.  Better to leave mere mortals to develop self-sufficiency than allow them to become so passively dependent on this one supergenius boy to make all their decisions for them.

Although “The Return of Starbuck” is not perfect (and suffers particularly from Judith Chapman’s awkward acting as Angela), it’s certainly the best G80 episode, and in many ways one of the best episodes of Larson’s Galactica overall.  It’s a nice character-driven piece and adds new depth to Starbuck and the Cylons alike.  It just goes to show, often the best stories come from sticking two very different characters alone together in an empty room (or a deserted planet).

I think this episode answers a question I raised in my overview discussion for the original BSG.  I was wondering who it was that did the Cylons’ voices.  Vocoder aside, there was a particular, distinctive cadence to the way most Cylons spoke, a measured but somewhat syncopated delivery with a tendency to draw out the last syllables of sentences or long words.  So I figured there had to be a specific person speaking the Cylons’ lines into the Vocoder in most cases, but I couldn’t find out who it was.  But when listening to Gary Owens as Cy here, I listened past his own audible voice, listened to the cadence of the underlying monotone.  Now, I’ve always had a particularly good memory for rhythmic patterns such as music and speech cadence, which is how I noticed that distinctive Cylon speech rhythm in the first place.  And while it’s possible I might’ve been projecting my expectations onto it, I’m fairly certain I heard the same cadence in Owens’s delivery as Cy.  It fits the way he speaks as an announcer; he draws out the ends of sentences the same way, has the same kind of syncopated delivery.  I didn’t recognize it with just the rhythm and not the pitch, but Cy’s voice allows a direct, real-time comparison, and it fits pretty well.   So I think it’s likely that Gary Owens did all (or most) of the Cylon Centurion voices in the original two Galactica series.  It’s quite possible, since Owens was an active announcer and voice artist at the time (and for quite some time thereafter).

So what to make of Galactica 1980 overall?  Not much.  It was an afterthought, a bad idea, and mercifully short-lived.  It worked poorly as a continuation of the original.  Continuity was altered or ignored, whether in terms of the implied time frame of the original, the use of “alien” measurements and terminology, or whatever.  It was a very different show in format and approach as well.  The original was an epic space opera in concept (if rarely in execution), but this was a fairly run-of-the-mill entry in the “stranger in a strange land” genre of alien characters struggling to figure out Earth culture and idioms and using their strange alien powers and knowledge to solve the crisis of the week.  As a result, the Galactican characters were somewhat altered, presented as stiffer, more formal in their speech, and greater in intellect and physical abilities than they were in the original show.  In BSG, they were the humans, but here, they became the aliens, and were thus adjusted to fit the stock tropes of TV aliens.

Points of commonality with the original show are minimal.  Very little of the show is set on the Galactica or in the fleet, and we rarely see anyone aboard the Galactica besides Adama, Dr. Zee, and occasionally the Tigh-lite Col. Boomer.  And Adama is hardly the same character, reduced to a mere underling of Dr. Zee.

Ahh, yes, Dr. Zee.  I remembered the character from my childhood and the occasional times I’ve seen reruns of these episodes since then, but I’d never quite realized just what a disturbing character he was.  Most every SF show has its all-around genius character, the universal expert that the rest of the characters turn to for guidance on any and all scientific matters: Spock, Data, the Professor (yes, Gilligan’s Island was often essentially a sci-fi show), Kryten from Red Dwarf, Henry from Eureka, etc.  We even have Doctor Who, a series where that character is the star of the show.  But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show that took the universal-genius character to this extreme, making him effectively all-powerful, the ultimate and only decision-maker in the entire organization, to the extent that he’s essentially a de facto monarch.  One could make a case that such a character realistically could and would rise to such heights.  The Professor effectively was the leader of the castaways’ community despite the Skipper’s nominal authority.  Data could’ve easily commanded the entire Enterprise, or maybe even accomplished more without all those imperfect humanoids slowing things down.  Henry actually is the mayor of Eureka these days.  But usually these characters don’t seek any real authority or accept it grudgingly, content to serve or to focus on their studies, or else have weaknesses that limit their understanding of social or emotional matters and keep them from being effective leaders.  This is done as a way of balancing the cast, making sure the genius character doesn’t overshadow all the others or render them superfluous.  But G80 had no such care or thought put into it, and thus Zee is a striking exception, so completely dominant that he is, in effect, the humans’ Imperious Leader, reducing the rest of the Galactican cast to mere drones following his orders.  As I suggested before, the example I’m most reminded of is Anthony in the short story and Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” a young boy with unlimited power and no restraint, who rules as an absolute dictator over his community.  G80 presents Zee as a benevolent monarch, at least, but the unexamined implications of his power are rather alarming.  What would happen if Adama ever found his misplaced backbone and said no to Zee?  What would Zee do if he threw a tantrum?  This is what happens when you slap together a TV show without putting any real thought into it.  The most interesting stories may be the ones you don’t tell.

So where Battlestar Galactica was an epic premise executed by mediocre talents, generally banal in execution but sometimes inspiring its creators to raise their game and do something reasonably worthwhile, Galactica 1980 was a mediocre premise executed by equally mediocre talents, against their will and with no passion for, or even interest in, the work.  As such, it’s tedious, shallow, and directionless, only achieving banality on its best days, with no moments of inspiration except in the final episode.

The series’ highest points? Well, better to say that the series’ single high point is “The Return of Starbuck.”  Of the 9 episodes featuring Troy and Dillon, “The Night the Cylons Landed” is perhaps the most entertaining, though still quite silly and slow-paced.

Best cast members? Again, make that singular: Robyn Douglass.  The show didn’t really have much of a cast, and most of its recurring players were a bunch of interchangeable kids.  Douglass wasn’t a compellingly great actress, or at least didn’t have much to work with, but she brought a livelier presence than the rest and was pretty nice to look at.  The other adult actors weren’t bad per se, but had virtually nothing to work with.

Best production value?  Stu Phillips’s music.  There was a lot more original scoring here than I expected.  The best individual score was “The Return of Starbuck,” with some nice dramatic cues unlike anything else in the series.

I won’t bother to list the series’ low points, because we’d be here all night, and I’ve already covered most of them anyway.  The fact that it existed at all is a low point.  Galactica 1980 is a textbook case of the perils of network meddling overriding creative judgment.  Not that Glen Larson was ever that good a creator, but this is a show that literally only existed because of a network’s will overriding a creator’s will, a show that had no vision or purpose behind it beyond the network’s desire to  sell a few more nights’ worth of ad time and try to recoup some money on an investment they’d come to regret.  In a way, I feel that ABC has made the same mistake more recently with the remake of V.  That’s a show that had no creative vision or purpose behind it, that existed only because ABC wanted a new genre show to replace Lost and tried to find some pre-existing property they could get the rights to.  It exists because of concerns external to the story, and the actual story content was an afterthought.  So it really doesn’t have any story to tell, any creative purpose or voice, and is a directionless mess.  But the V remake inexplicably got a second season while G80 was mercifully short-lived.

Anyway, that’s enough of that.  Hopefully the next thing I review here will be much better.  There can be a certain Schaddenfreude in making fun of bad TV and movies, and it’s easier to be funny when talking about them, but it’s not something I’d want to make a regular habit of.

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GALACTICA 1980 thoughts — Eps. 7-9

February 1, 2011 1 comment

“The Night the Cylons Landed”: A lone Viper encounters a new type of Cylon fighter and rams it, damaging both ships so they fall to Earth.  For once, Glen Larson gets something right that most sci-fi gets wrong; when the new designated military guy Col. Briggs (Peter Mark Richman) suggests covering it up, his underling reports that every observatory is already tracking it.  You’d be amazed how many sci-fi shows and movies think the government can hide something happening up in space, even though all you have to do to see it is look up.  But here, the military is able to track the bogie right to landing.  They may have gotten it right here because it wasn’t long after the July 1979 re-entry and crash of the Skylab space station, which is repeatedly referenced in the episode.

But Galactica is tracking them too, and Troy & Dillon are ordered to head to the landing zone, thinking they’re going to retrieve the Viper.  Naturally, like most random arrivals on Earth in TV and movies, the crashing ship will come down right outside New York City.  (We also would have accepted Los Angeles, Tokyo, London, or any major landmark such as the Pyramids.)  But Jamie warns that the Air Force keeps detecting their Vipers, so they can’t get there that way.  (The Battlestar Wiki asks why they don’t just make their Vipers invisible.  But then, given what a power hog the invisibility field is, maybe it wouldn’t be practical to use it in flight for any length of time, so I can give them a pass on this one.)  So they have to go by commercial air to stay inconspicuous.  But a couple of disguised bad guys hijack the plane and order that it be flown to Cuba (since this show can rarely resist a cliche), and Troy & Dillon stun them and are observed doing so, so the FBI wants to talk to them when they land.  They go invisible in the restrooms and sneak out.

Note I’m not calling them “Trillon” here, because for once they aren’t entirely interchangeable.  This is the first time they’ve only had each other to play off of for any length of time, as opposed to reacting as a pair to Earthly characters and events, so for once they manifest some distinct personalities, if only because Larson is writing Troy & Dillon as if they were Apollo & Starbuck.  But hand-me-down personalities are better than no personalities, I guess.  Of course, Barry Van Dyke is more of a square and less of a rogue than Dirk Benedict (in performance, that is — I don’t know anything about their personal lives), so Dillon still isn’t that distinct from Troy.  But at least there’s a sense of command hierarchy between them for once.

And what of Jamie and the super scouts?  The kids are featured in the first act, initially laughing at This Island Earth and then visiting the Griffith Observatory for an Obligatory Science Content scene or two, before Jamie offers to dump them at the baseball camp for a while.  The one good thing about ABC’s demands for this show is that the requirement for educational content makes it a lot more scientifically literate than its predecessor, though that’s damning with faint praise.  But the periodic lectures are kind of boring.

Galactica recovers the Viper and learns from its scans that the Cylons have evolved into a new form — and a Dr. Zee/Adama discussion of Cylon progress from “The Super Scouts” is quite literally replayed here, the same footage cut into two separate episodes.   Zee is still clearly the monarch of the fleet, holding court in his TV gallery, with Adama reduced to his nervous, obsequious majordomo.  When the Viper pilot reports to them, he even addresses Zee before Adama.  I’d say it’s a major step down for Adama, but even in the original series, he spent half his time cowering in fear of discovery by the Cylons and willing to abandon his own son or Starbuck if necessary to stay hidden from danger, when he wasn’t lying sick or injured in bed.  But his occasional moments of authority and assertiveness in episodes like “Saga of a Star World,” “The Living Legend,” and “War of the Gods” are long gone.  He probably can’t even order breakfast without asking Zee for instructions.

So how have the Cylons evolved?  They’ve created skin jobs!  That’s right — the concept of Cylons in human form, the trademark of the Ron Moore revival series, actually originated in this episode of the much-reviled Galactica 1980.  But unfortunately these skin jobs don’t resemble Tricia Helfer or Grace Park.  They’re male androids wearing ridiculous pointy helmets (are they Cylons or Coneheads?).  Only one android, Andromus (Roger Davis), survives the crash, along with one Centurion, Centuri.  Gotta love these imaginative names.  (Luckily, the Conehead helmets don’t survive the crash either.)  After reminding Centuri of his prime directive to protect the superior skin jobs, Andromus sets the self-destruct and warns that they have only moments to get out before the blast.  So once they get out, they stand right alongside the ship for several minutes while discussing their plans.  Hu-whah?  The self-destruct is so delayed, in fact, that Troy & Dillon have time to show up and discover the existence of skin job Cylons and then dramatically escape just in time to survive the explosion.  (That’s why the self-destruct was delayed!  The laws of TV physics wouldn’t allow the explosion to go off until a pair of action heroes was running from it!  Gee, thank goodness they didn’t walk away in slow motion without looking back, or it would’ve been huge.)

The cops arrive, and seeing these two totally unharmed guys standing in the general vicinity of the crash, they instantly assume for some reason that they escaped from the crashing plane rather than being bystanders, and suspect them of being drugrunners.  Which is totally inexplicable; it just seems to be obligatory that Troy & Dillon be constantly in trouble with the law, like a pair of intergalactic Duke boys.  (Someday the Cylons might git ’em, but the law never will.)  So naturally, they stun the cops and steal their car to drive back to the city, tracking the Cylons’ distress signal.

See, Andromus picked up Earth transmissions on the way down, so he’s looking for a broadcasting center to amplify the distress signal and let the Cylon fleet know he’s found Earth.  By a staggering coincidence, it happens to be Halloween, and by an even more staggering coincidence, he and Centuri are mistaken for hitchhikers and picked up by a radio-station manager and his wife — respectively, William Daniels in clown makeup and Lara Parker as a more demure Vampira (evidently gag casting, since she was a regular in Dark Shadows).  While T&D are running from the cops and getting sidetracked by various things (including a weird stage show with Hanna-Barbera characters singing a Disney song and an attempted mugging by the cast of a high-school performance of West Side Story), the Cylons are taken to a costume party whose guest of honor is none other than Wolfman Jack, a prominent DJ of the era, known for his raucous, gravelly-voiced persona (imagine a voice halfway between an irate Popeye and the Shredder from the original Ninja Turtles cartoon, but cooler).  That’s right, the whole plotline about a Cylon scout discovering Earth and placing the entire planet in danger of annihilation was done solely as a vehicle for a celebrity guest star, as the Cylons take Wolfman Jack captive and force him to take them to his closed-for-the-night radio station so they can call the evil cavalry.  But first, Centuri is almost downed by a microwave oven (must be badly shielded) which Andromus blows up by firing a ray from his fingertips (gee, Number Six never did that), setting the apartment on fire and escaping with Wolfman in the confusion.  Troy arrives just in time to save a kid and his dog from the fire, pausing for a lecture about fire safety.  This is in between Wolfman Jack’s lectures about radio astronomy, solar flares, automated radio stations, and the Emergency Broadcast System.  Galactica 1980 has been brought to you today by the letters W and J.

Meanwhile, Col. Briggs has hooked up with a Grizzled Manhattan Police Chief and they’re investigating the fire.  Briggs is surprised to learn that neither of his suspects was the firestarter, but that one of them saved a boy’s life.  Briggs also mentions the fate of Col. Sydell — he’s in a hospital in shock, and “his brain is somewhere else.”  Much like most of the people making this show.  (Sometimes you just have to go for the obvious cheap shot…)

The radio station is atop the 70-story “International Trade Center,” and it takes a key to get to the top floors.  For some reason, the Cylons and Wolfman take an elevator that goes up to floor 60 before needing a key, while Troy & Dillon’s elevator stops at floor 30, forcing them to super-jump up one floor at a time.  Well, they had to pad this out to two hours somehow.  Finally there’s a laser fight on the rooftop while Wolfman hides.  Andromus is hit and orders Centuri to orient the satellite dish to signal the fleet.  But Centuri rather touchingly intones “I will protect you,” picks up his injured master, and tries to get him to safety.  Awww.  Unfortunately for them, he tries to escape by jumping off the side of a 70-story building.  Either his cognitive processor took some damage in the crash and the fight, or else the problem with that side-sweeping red eye is that it can’t look down.  The Cylons land in a dumpster and their remains get taken away with the trash.

So once again the day is saved, and T&D go invisible until the cops give up and leave.  Troy wants to leave right away, but Dillon wants to stick around, visit Central Park, take in a show, the whole New York experience.  Too bad he’s just the lieutenant.

This is a slow episode getting started, and it’s often slow later on.  Like so many of G80’s episodes, it had a lot of padding to get it to full length.  But it’s mercifully light on the moppets, and though Jamie’s presence is missed, it’s the first time that the nominal male leads of the show have gotten sufficient attention to manifest something resembling personalities.  And there’s some marginally fun stuff about the New Yorkers reacting to the Cylons and Colonials, and some mildly amusing comedy beats with the deadpan Centurion reacting to people.  We’ve never seen a Cylon played for comedy before, and it kinda works. All in all, it’s perhaps the show’s most effective execution of its bread-and-butter “Earthlings and aliens react to each other and comedy ensues” trope.  Also, the Cylon presence makes it perhaps the most effective episode at creating a sense of danger.  But neither of those is saying much.  Pretty much any praise this show can be given is damningly faint.

“Space Croppers”: We begin with a stock-footage Imperious Leader (voiced by Dennis Haysbert, but doing a Patrick Macnee-style nasal English accent that sounds more like a cross between Maxwell Smart and Toucan Sam) ordering a stock-footage Cylon Centurion to launch a stock-footage attack on the fleet’s stock-footage Agro ships — which are doubly stock footage since the battle scenes recycled here from “The Magnificent Warriors” include ship footage originally from Silent Running.  The battle destroys two of the fleet’s three Agro ships — even though the battle from “The Magnificent Warriors” 30 years earlier also destroyed two of the fleet’s three Agro ships.  Okay, maybe they built two more in the interim.  Maybe Dr. Zee assembled them out of the slats of his crib.  Somehow, even though Adama’s been through this exact same battle before, he’s so dependent on Dr. Zee that he needs the kid to explain the obvious to him, that the Cylons targeted the food supply deliberately rather than by chance.

This is all to set up a story about Troy & Dillon helping a downtrodden farmer, Hector (Ned Romero, who was a Klingon in “A Private Little War”), save his dying farm.  Since they seem to be the Duke boys now, they need their own Boss Hogg, in the person of Steadman (MacGyver‘s Dana Elcar), a corrupt, racist landowner who’s screwing Hector over because he’s Hispanic.  T&D use their fancy space tech to outwit Steadman’s ploys to screw them over, for instance, winning a bucking bronco from him by calming the mistreated horse with alpha waves from Dillon’s wristlojackimator.  The super-scouts are brought in to use their superpowers to plant the field that T&D plow with their lasers (which have somehow morphed into Cylon pistols), and Dr. Zee uses the Magic Zee Saucer from episode 5 to seed the clouds and produce rain enriched with patented Zee-tastic growth accelerators to make the crops grow overnight, as well as delivering the fleet’s agriculture extras experts to found a permanent farming colony.  Steadman witnesses all this weirdness and blabs to the farm council and the cops about it, making him look like a fool, so that his stranglehold on the valley’s water supply is broken and they all live happily ever after.  Somehow, it doesn’t occur to anyone to be surprised or suspicious that Hector’s formerly barren soil has miraculously grown a lush, ready-to-harvest crop in mere hours.

While “Space Croppers” is a silly episode in a lot of ways, I think it deserves credit for actually trying to be about something, confronting anti-Hispanic prejudices that are still sadly topical today.  It kind of reminded me of an episode of Filmation’s Shazam! or Isis, with the heroes using their powers to help a guest-of-the-week with his problems in a nonviolent way and making a socially responsible statement in the process.

Also, this is effectively the last episode in the story of Galactica‘s discovery of Earth, the last time we ever see Troy, Dillon, Jamie, and the super-scouts.  And in a way it actually provides an element of closure to that 9-week mini-saga, in that it ends with the successful establishment of a new Earthly home for the Colonials and the scouts.  Despite the complete abandonment of the chasing-Xaviar-through-time premise set up in the pilot, these nine episodes have had a surprising degree of continuity among them, feeling like an ongoing serial rather than a bunch of isolated episodes, and this installment gives that serial a sense of resolution.  It’s actually a decent note to go out on.  Though maybe I’m just being generous because it means I’ll never have to see those damn super-scouts again.  And because they finally had the good sense to put Robyn Douglass in pants again, though her farm overalls weren’t quite as charmingly tight as her pilot uniform in the, err, pilot.

But there’s one episode left!  Next, “The Return of Starbuck” and some final thoughts.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

GALACTICA 1980 thoughts — Eps. 4-6

January 29, 2011 2 comments

“The Super Scouts”: ABC wanted more kids in the show, so the producers decided to inundate them with kids.  The great and powerful Dr. Zee has unilaterally decided (yes, Dr. Zee, it’s a good thing you did) that the fleet’s children need to be sent down to Earth so they’ll survive in the event of a Cylon attack.  (Instead of the pilot’s Robbie Rist, Zee is now played by a different child actor named Patrick Stuart, not to be confused with Sir Patrick Stewart, who was 40 at the time.  Unlike Rist, Stuart’s real voice is not dubbed over — more’s the pity, because his diction isn’t great.)  Finally we get a decent explanation for why they’re operating in secret: since Earth is so divided, if the Galacticans dealt with just one government, it could spark paranoia among its rivals and trigger global war.  I was surprised to hear an explanation on this show that actually seemed intelligent.

Dillon is inexplicably teaching the children on the school ship which is lagging behind for repairs, and inevitably Troy shows up soon, just in time for the Cylons to attack it (Dr. Zee psychically intuits why — they’ve “evolved” new technologies and are testing them out by shooting at people — yeah, let’s go with that).  There’s a mix of stock and new battle footage, so that parts of the freighter occasionally become parts of Galactica.  Meanwhile, Trillon try to protect the kids from the stock-footage fires and badly double-exposed smoke, and get the last dozen off in a shuttle which is damaged and leaking fuel.  Unable to get back to the fleet, they take the kids to Earth.

What follows is pretty tedious and didn’t need to be 2 hours.  They land in the woods and try to be inconspicuous.  But guess what!  Suddenly we learn that the fleet’s standard gravity is higher and its atmosphere denser than Earth’s, so that Colonials have superstrength and can jump real high (albeit in slow motion and with a pseudo-bionic sound effect) which the kids can’t resist playing around with.  Gee, Jamie didn’t seem to have any trouble walking around on the Galactica.  (Also, if Earth’s air is thinner than theirs, shouldn’t it make them weaker?  This is paid lip service and then forgotten.)  There’s some padding as Trillon go into town on their bikes and get chased by a couple of CHiPs-knockoff motorcycle cops, whom they elude by going invisible, of course.  They intend to trade gold cubits for currency and buy local clothes for the kids.  Troy decides to buy a bunch of scouting gear while Dillon accidentally manages to rob the bank, and they make an invisible getaway after overpaying the clerk.  Air Force Col. Sydell, played by Alan Miller (“Genesis allowed is not!  Is planet forbidden!”), is investigating a possible UFO landing, and questions Trillon and the “scouts,” who deny having seen anything.  Jamie happens to show up (at last, someone appealing) to investigate the UFO reports, and is unsurprised to see Trillon there.  She sticks with them, and that night, three of the kids fall deathly ill and are rushed to the hospital.  Turns out they’ve been poisoned by evil pollution!  Since this is an “educational” show, it has to be socially conscious.  Troy or Dillon or whichever interchangeable guy says his wrist “computron” (basically a tricorder/Dick Tracy radio/Speak’n’Spell that does whatever the story needs at the moment, naturally invented by Dr. Zee) can’t identify the chemicals because there’s no Galactican equivalent, yet the display screen clearly shows terms like dioxin and benzene.

Trillon go to complain to the chemical company’s boss Stockton (Mike Kellin), who insists he and his fellow locals are perfectly healthy (though when a man that cadaverous says “Do I look like I’m dying?” one must consider one’s answer carefully).  He calls the local stereotyped fat hick sheriff and tells him to do something about them, since he doesn’t want the plant closed down again.  The sheriff, Ellsworth, has found that the scouts have no official existence.  There’s some padding as the Galacticans elude the law (stealing the cop cars while invisible) and the chemical-plant employees harass our heroes, and the doctor rants to Jamie about how the kids’ blood doesn’t look at all human (which doesn’t make sense, since the whole conceit of the franchise is that they are human and share a common origin with us) before suddenly going on a non sequitur about the pollution from the plant.  But then the hospitalized kids take a turn for the worse and Stockton follows our bunch to the hospital.  One of the kids is dead and on life support, but Troy says that by his people’s standards, he’s alive and can be saved.  Dillon calls the Galactica for help, his signal “encrypted” simply by speeding it up to trans-Chipmunk levels (which the monitoring military officer says is unlike anything he’s ever heard before — must not have a tape deck).  Turns out Dr. Zee has invented a uniquely advanced and powerful antigravity ship that happens to be a flying saucer, and he and Adama take it to Earth to save one kid, even though both the ship and Zee are too unique and valuable to risk.

Trillon take the kids and their life-support equipment in Stockton’s van, and Stockton gets to witness the whole “flying saucer” experience, and is timorously taken aboard, begging the “Venusians” not to abduct him.  The interior is a pretty weird environment with lots of open black space and red-lit lucite arches and creepy masked medics who surround the kid to treat him, and one wonders what the hell could possibly be the throughline uniting any of this weird stuff to the familiar technology of the Colonial fleet.  Okay, sure, it’s the invention of Dr. Zee, the one-boy Singularity, but still, he only has existing fleet equipment to work with, right?  (And even Dillon gets inexplicably formal and alien, telling Stockton “Come” instead of a more characteristic “Come on”, and intoning something about “The glory of the universe is intelligence” or whatever.)

While the synchronized surgery team saves the super-scout (sssibilant, isssn’t it?), Dr. Zee plays Ghost of Christmas Future and shows Stockton a computer projection of his son’s funeral ten years hence, making him see the error of his ways and promise to clean up the pollution.  Adama orders Troy and Dillon to remain on Earth with the kids (there’s a nice little reprise of the Serena/Boxey leitmotif as Adama speaks to his grandson), and the Zee-Saucer flies away just before Sydell, Fat Hick Sheriff, and the National Guard get there.  As always, Trillon and the kids get away by turning invisible, the world’s second-cheapest special effect.  (Second-cheapest because they fade in and out.  Cheapest would be a jump cut.)  But later they return Hick Sheriff’s car along with enough gold cubits to repay the bank twice over.  From the slimy smiles on the sheriff’s and deputy’s faces, I doubt they’re going to turn over the entire amount.

But typically, the boys soon get called away “on a mission” (yeah, right) and dump responsibility for these twelve superstrong, dangerously naive children onto poor Jamie Hamilton with no advance warning.  What a couple of deadbeats.

Hilariously, the episode ends with an incongruous text disclaimer (looking uncannily like a Jeopardy clue) reassuring its viewers that “The United States Air Force stopped investigating UFOs in 1969. After 22 years, they found no evidence of extra-terrestrial visits and no threat to national security.”  Even more hilariously, this disclaimer is shown at the end of the next four episodes as well.  I know ABC wanted the show to be educational, but were they really so afraid kids would take the stories seriously that they felt the need to throw this in?

While “Galactica Discovers Earth” had enough going on to be mildly entertaining if you just turned off you critical faculties and went with the stream of consciousness, “The Super-Scouts” is pretty tedious and bizarre.  Why this sudden retconning of the Galacticans into something so alien?  Why give them bionic jump powers and a flying saucer?  I think Larson, who really had no interest in doing this show, was just throwing in whatever random stuff he thought of, hence the ripoffs of CHiPs, the bionic shows, Close Encounters, and A Christmas Carol.  It also suffers from a relative lack of Robyn Douglass screentime, and a complete lack of Robyn Douglass in tight clothes.

“Spaceball”: In this episode, Troy and Dillon must stop President Skroob and Dark Helmet from stealing Druidia’s air and…

No, wait, that’s Spaceballs.  Sorry.

We pick up right after the last episode, with Trillon arriving for their sudden special mission, and they’re met by holy frak it’s Sherlock Holmes! Jeremy Brett climbs out of the Viper and introduces himself as Lt. Nash, speaking in an odd accent that I think is supposed to be German but at times makes him sound like a Swedish Dracula.  He sends Trillon off in the Viper in pursuit of Xaviar, who’s returned to the present (though why nobody’s chasing him through history anymore is never explained).  Meanwhile, Jamie brings the super-scouts to work with her, where they disassemble a TV camera, get caught, then reassemble it before the boss arrives, so the camera guy is humiliated.  Anyway, Jamie snaps up the opportunity to cover a story about a kids’ camp, thinking it’s her opportunity to ditch the little terrors.  But when she gets there, she discovers it’s a baseball camp, and she’s afraid of the kids showing off their superpowers (and that is definitely a stock sound effect from the bionic shows when little Starla sends a baseball flying past the treeline).  Meanwhile, Trillon’s Viper shuts down and strands them in space (depicted hilariously by pulling in on a freeze-frame of a Viper in flight, complete with motion blur), leaving Jamie and the kids unprotected from Sherlock Holmes, whom they realize is actually Xaviar in disguise.  (Zee is blase about this “epidermal restructuring,” saying that “Ours” — yep, he speaks of himself in the royal we — went flawlessly.  So at least they’ve handwaved his recasting.)  Sherlock Xaviar apparently plans to use the kids as bargaining chips with Adama.  He shows up at the camp as Lt. Nash and tells Jamie he’s there to help with the kids.  He assures her “I love children” in a tone so sinister you expect him to add “with fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

Now begins the whiplash portion of our program.  Jamie’s told the kids to play to lose in order to keep their secret.  But then she learns that the moustache-twirling landlord is going to evict the camp if they don’t field a winning team at the playoffs the next day, so she tells the kids to play to win.  But when they get to the playoffs, Jamie learns that Col. Sydell is on his way, still suspicious that the kids are Not Of This Earth.  So she tells them to play to lose, which they do for the first six innings.  But then Jamie overhears Sherlock Xaviar threatening to kill the kids after Adama rejects his demands, and so she tells them to start playing to win, since the press of the crowd around the winners will protect them.  So it’s your classic Harlem Globetrotters scenario where the hero team sucks at first and then calls on their special skills and comes from behind.  So the scouts win and the crowd surrounds them, protecting them from Sherlock Xaviar.  This has made Sydell all the more interested in them, but Jamie pits Sydell and Xaviar against each other, delaying them long enough for Trillon to get back.  (They did a spacewalk to repair their Viper, somehow changing into spacesuits in that tight cockpit; in some shots the wires are painfully obvious.  But at least the spacesuit helmets aren’t as stupid-looking as the ones from “Fire in Space.”)  A laser shootout ensues and Xaviar shoots Sydell, but one of our interchangeable heroes says he’ll survive with proper medical attention.  But we don’t find out for sure, since it’s time for the obligatory funny tag where little Starla lands a basketball in the hoop on her first try and Jamie’s all “Oh no, here we go again.”

I guess this could be considered a conclusion to the Super-Scouts trilogy, since it’s pretty closely tied to the previous two.  But it’s a rather tedious hour, and even Jeremy Brett can’t save it, given the bizarre accent he’s hampered with.  (And what’s up with that?  The original Xaviar spoke with Richard Lynch’s normal New York accent.)  It does, however, underline the extent to which Robyn Douglass has been the real star of this series up to this point.  Basically she’s Mindy with no Mork to overshadow her, the everywoman coping with strangeness and serving as a point of audience identification.  She carries most of the episode herself while Trillon are sitting uselessly out in space.  And as boring as the episode is, I can’t really fault her for it, since she’s more watchable than the other two leads.  She’s not a great actress, but she’s got more charisma than any of the original show’s female regulars had; and while she’s not quite as hot as Maren Jensen, she’s close.  Unfortunately, this is the last episode where she plays more than a small supporting role.

And you know something?  After seeing this episode, I’m not convinced Xaviar is the villain.  He might be secretly the hero of this show.  Why?  Because he doesn’t want to follow Doctor Zee’s orders. He’s the only person in the Colonial fleet who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid, who doesn’t worship this pompous 10-year-old mutant as an infallible oracle.  Maybe he’s the one person who’s contemplated the fact that a child who has an intellect none of them can begin to match, and  minimal life experience to temper it with wisdom or humility, might not be entirely trustworthy, and that it might be a bad idea to encourage him to think of everyone else in the fleet as his willing and obsequious servants while simultaneously giving him unlimited resources to invent technologies of incredible power.

Okay, so Xavvy tried to share advanced technology with the Nazis, but in his defense, he only sided with them because they had the most advanced rocketry, and he probably didn’t know about the whole genocide thing.  And sure, he threatened to kill a bunch of kids, but perhaps he feels such desperate tactics are his only recourse given how completely the rest of the fleet is under Zee’s power.  Besides, some of the super-scouts are geniuses themselves, so maybe Xaviar’s afraid there may be a whole race of superchildren emerging, ready to leave Colonial humanity to go the way of the Neanderthal (did they have Neanderthals on Kobol?).  Maybe Xaviar is a Tom Zarek figure, to draw from the revival series — willing to use violent means, but toward the end of freedom from oppression.

Or maybe not.  Still, Xaviar is the one character who has a dissenting opinion about Dr. Zee, and I have to respect that.  That kid is scary.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

GALACTICA 1980 thoughts — Eps. 1-3

January 27, 2011 4 comments

Well, as I promised, I’m moving on to review Galactica 1980.  This is a show that nobody involved really wanted to do.  Apparently the ABC network “strong-armed” Universal and Glen Larson into doing it.  Battlestar Galactica was so expensive to make that even after it was cancelled, ABC wanted to amortize their investment in its sets, props, costumes, and stock footage by repurposing them in another, cheaper show, one which would be set largely on Earth with cheaper actors.  However, despite their intentions, Galactica 1980 went heavily over budget in almost every episode, and thus only lasted ten weeks.

Of course, after BSG’s cancellation, most of the cast and crew had moved on to other work, so new actors and production staff had to be assembled.  The result is a show that’s rather different in look, feel, and content from its predecessor.

The network also scheduled G80 in the 7 PM timeslot and insisted that it be kid-friendly, with diminished violence, “educational” content, and a lot of child characters.  Which worked for me when it first aired, since I was 11 at the time.  So how does it hold up now?  Let’s find out!

“Galactica Discovers Earth”: This 3-parter opens with a title sequence featuring randomly chosen BSG clips over a slightly modified arrangement of Stu Phillips’s main title theme.  The series title is rendered in an MICR-type “computer” font, but the rest of the titles are in the same typeface used in BSG.  The story doesn’t waste time; we open with Adama’s log announcing that Earth has already been discovered.  It’s 30 years since BSG, and most of the familiar cast is dead (Jolly! Nooooo!!!).  Adama doesn’t look any older aside from sporting a (fake) white beard to make him look more patriarchal.  Not too implausible, since BSG established that Colonial humans have a 200-yahren lifespan.  The only other returning cast member is Herbert Jefferson, Jr. as “Colonel Boomer,” filling Tigh’s role with some Tigh-like grey in his hair.

We cut to a cheap, almost empty set in which Adama is consulting with Doctor Zee, a 10-year-old “cerebral mutation” supergenius who’s the fleet’s resident oracle, handing out wisdom which Adama considers infallible.  (In the pilot, he’s played by Robbie Rist, The Brady Bunch‘s infamous Cousin Oliver, who has since gone on to become a successful voice artist whose roles include Michaelangelo in the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies.  Ironically, Rist’s voice here is dubbed over by an uncredited adult’s voice electronically processed to sound higher.)  Being a 10-year-old with nigh-absolute power, Zee has naturally surrounded himself with televisions, with which he’s determined that Earth’s technology is too primitive to help fight off the Cylons.  (By an astonishing coincidence, all his TVs are tuned to programming owned by Universal, including Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.  The video-wall montage goes on interminably, helping to pad this story out to three hours.)  What’s more, Zee has also somehow determined that the Cylons, who haven’t been encountered in “a billion space miles,” have been following the fleet all along, hoping it would lead them to Earth so they could destroy the last remaining population of humans in the universe (aside from all those Convenient Human Colonies of the Week from BSG).  How Zee knows this is never explained, since the Cylons don’t make any actual appearances here.  He’s just such a syooper-geeenius that he pulls this information out of the aether and nobody questions its accuracy.  Neither is it explained why Adama never considered the possibility that Earth might be too primitive to help them.

Just from these initial minutes, a number of continuity holes are evident.  The Terra episodes clearly implied that BSG was in the future, with Terra most likely being a colony of Earth.  Moving it to 1980 is an understandable if awkward retcon, since it’s cheaper to produce a show set in the present day.  But suddenly the Colonials use years and miles instead of the “alien” units they used before.  And there are other discontinuities to come.

Zee shows a computer simulation of Cylon Raiders blowing up LA, which is largely made by superimposing Raiders onto stock footage from Earthquake and setting off some “strafing” squibs on the Universal backlot with extras running around.  Adama and Zee decide that the fleet must subtly infiltrate Earth, contacting its scientists and helping them advance Earth’s technology to a level where it can defend against the Cylons, while the fleet leads them away from Earth.  An objection is raised by Xaviar (Richard Lynch), apparently another commander within the fleet, though what ship he commands is not established.  But Xaviar is overruled.

The main characters of the show are Captain Troy (Kent McCord, later to play John Crichton’s father in Farscape) and Lt. Dillon (Barry Van Dyke, son of Dick Van Dyke).  They’re a bargain-basement Apollo and Starbuck, except that they have no personality and are essentially interchangeable.  There’s a bit of clunky exposition to establish that Troy is actually a grown-up Boxey, Apollo’s adopted son, but this is the extent of the character development Troy gets.  Anyway, they’re one of several teams sent down to Earth clandestinely.  They can’t risk revealing themselves (for nebulously explained reasons), but luckily Dr. Zee’s genius is a magic cornucopia, and he’s invented invisibility “forcefields” they can use to cloak their Vipers and themselves, along with “turbines,” i.e. fancy motorcycles that can fly.  Troy and Dillon go down to LA, and no sooner does Troy advise Dillon that they’d better avoid doing anything conspicuous that they get harassed by a gang of bikers (including Mickey Jones, who was required by law to appear in any ’80s TV episode involving bikers) and immediately fly away, causing the entire bike gang to wipe out in reaction to this highly inconspicuous event.  (The turbine bikes have their own musical leitmotif which is basically a funky disco-ish remix of the Galactica theme.  I was expecting the show to rely mainly on stock BSG music, but mostly Stu Phillips’s score is original and has much more of a contemporary sound.)

Anyway, Trillon (I’m just going to call them that now because they’re so interchangeable they might as well be just one guy) get into the usual “stranger in a strange land” schtick you get in any story about aliens trying to deal with present-day Earth — not knowing how a phone works, speaking in overly stilted terminology, etc.  The Warrior characters in BSG were never this stiff and formal.  And after a whole lengthy scene of Trillon being totally stymied by the operation of a pay phone, I laughed out loud when two hours later we saw Adama talking to them from his office using a handset that was very much like a telephone’s.

But the pay phone  scene is when the episode gains its most watchable character, Jamie Hamilton, played by the lively and delightfully curvaceous Robyn Douglass.  She’s an aspiring reporter hoping for a TV gig, and somehow Trillon convince her to give them a lift to meet a noted scientist, Mortinson — played by Robert Reed, Mike Brady himself, making him Dr. Zee’s uncle.  He’s a nuclear physicist, and there’s a huge anti-nuke rally outside when Trillon arrive.  Mortinson gives his assistant a long, awkwardly expositional speech about how nuclear power shouldn’t be abandoned just because its problems aren’t solved yet, something she presumably already knows unless she just got hired or something.  Anyway, he’s out of the office when Trillon arrive, so they take a page from The Day the Earth Stood Still and rewrite Barnhardt Mortinson’s formula to solve his problems for him.  The assistant thinks they’re vandals, so she calls the cops and gets them arrested, but Mortinson returns, sees the formula, and somehow concludes that since he’s not aware of anyone else on Earth who could have these answers, the intruders must’ve been aliens.  (What, there couldn’t be a reclusive genius out there or something?)

Fortunately, Trillon left Jamie’s name as their point of contact, so Jamie’s prospective boss is thrilled when the secretive Mortinson calls her, and insists she set up an ambush interview with the guy.  Meanwhile, the cops discover that Trillon have no fingerprints (that’s new), and then they escape from jail with their invisibility gizmos, to the shock of the obligatory drunk in lockup.  Trillon intercept Jamie and Mortinson and try to go off to talk to the doctor alone, but Jamie declares she’s going wherever Trillon go and forces herself into the car with them.  I have to admire Jamie’s Lois Lane-esque doggedness in pursuit of a story, if only because it makes her the only one of the three lead characters to have any actual character traits.  Anyway, the cops show up and a long, gratuitous car chase ensues, culminating in a crash into a shop window with an obvious bewigged stunt driver in the car and a dummy in the back seat.  Trillon and Jamie escape by being invisible, and Trillon are called back to the Galactica, with Jamie inviting herself along.

It was at this point that I realized the Viper cockpits have been refitted as 2-seaters, with the canopies modified to match.  Which creates a mismatch with the stock effects footage.

At this point, the story veers into left field.  Off-camera, Commander Xaviar (who must be evil since his name vaguely resembles “Baltar”) has stolen — get this — Dr. Zee’s experimental time-travel technology (stop him before he invents again!) and gone back to 1944 to accelerate the Nazis’ rocket technology.  Why the Nazis? Because he’s evil, of course, and because there’s plenty of WWII stock footage and costumes available.  We get an “educational” moment as Jamie fills in the Colonials about WWII, and she convinces them that they need her along as a source of information on Earth history.  So our three leads (with one personality among them) fly off in Vipers and use a time-travel mechanism that seems largely similar to Superman’s: fly around the world faster than light until you’ve completed enough reverse orbits to get back to your target date.  The time warp is a nifty psychedelic slit-scan effect like a disco-era version of 2001‘s Stargate, and it somehow causes their uniforms to change into the white versions that Apollo, Starbuck, and Sheba wore aboard the Ship of Lights in “War of the Gods.”  And Robyn Douglass looks fabulous in those tight white trousers.

(By the way, in my “Take the Celestra” review, I commented on how it bugged me that the uniform jackets had these big shiny buckles that were never fastened.  Well, on this show, thanks to a different costuming staff, they’re almost constantly fastened, so I finally get to see what they look like that way.  I can kind of see why the original staff didn’t fasten them.)

So there’s a strange hourlong interlude spanning parts 2 & 3 where they try to find Xaviar in 1944 Peenemunde and prevent him from changing history while simultaneously taking care not to change history themselves — which naturally goes out the window as soon as there’s an American agent and a bunch of Jewish prisoners to help out.  But the agent wants to blow up the V2 super-rocket Xaviar’s helped make, so Trillon and Jamie help him do it and catch Xaviar, and then they free the prisoners, but there’s no worry about history being changed since it’s conveniently the night before D-Day and they would’ve been okay anyway, so what the frakking felgercarb was the point?!  (Apparently in the G80 universe, the Nazis never tested the V2 until June 5, 1944, rather than October 3, 1942 as in reality.  So much for Xaviar trying to speed up their tech development.)  And Trillon rather foolishly fail to relieve Xaviar of his invisibility wristwatch, so he scarpers and leaves them no choice but to return to 1980 where their clothes are the right color.

But conveniently, Xaviar has decided to follow Trillon’s example and talk to Mortinson (remember him?), claiming that Trillon are the history-meddling villains and getting his advice on where “they” might strike next.  Jamie calls and warns him, but Xaviar catches on and takes him captive.

Okay, now I need to go back and mention an irritating subplot that’s run through all this.  Dr. Zee’s invisibility fields are power hogs and run out quickly, so Trillon’s Vipers were discovered by a child actor so abominably bad that he makes Noah Hathaway seem like an Oscar contender.  He told his daddy that he’d found spaceships — though why he’d think that is unclear, since Vipers pretty much look like fancy fighter jets.  Anyway, word eventually reached the military and they confiscated the Vipers, so Trillon went to talk to the annoying kid at school and find out where they’d taken them.  Fortunately, the kid is the worst secret-keeper on the planet, unhesitatingly blabbing to his classmates about seeing spaceships even after swearing to the US military that he wouldn’t (oh, what an adorable traitor to his country!), so all Trillon have to do is let him use an invisibility watch to humiliate a bully (oh, how educational) and he spills national secrets to them.  Including the fact that the military impounded three ships, including Xaviar’s.  So they can find him at the military base.

Jamie helps distract a guard so Trillon can sneak in, and Xaviar apparently sets Mortinson free off-camera (most of what Xaviar does is off-camera) and begins powering up his Viper by draining the base’s generators.  He flies off and Trillon chase after him, but not before Jamie secretes herself in the back seat of one of their Vipers (they didn’t take her invisi-watch away either).  They chase after Xaviar, but he goes invisible and they can’t tell if they hit him.  So they go back to Galactica and Adama says that Zee has tracked Xaviar to colonial America (because Zee knows everything, that’s how) and asks for Jamie’s help in pursuing Xaviar through history.  And that’s the end of the pilot.

It seems they were setting up for a series that used time travel both as an educational device (like early Doctor Who or Voyagers) and as a means of recycling stock footage (like The Time Tunnel).  But the whole time-travel angle would never be used again, the dangling thread of Xaviar’s trip to the 1700s ignored.  Welcome to Galactica 1980.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Original GALACTICA thoughts — final 2 episodes and overview

January 14, 2011 2 comments

“Take the Celestra”: Please! 😉  This is a filler episode focusing on characters we’ve never seen before.  Adama’s former commander Kronus (Paul Fix, the doctor from the second Star Trek pilot, and just as unimpressive here as there) now commands the repair ship Celestra, and is being promoted to run all the maintenance ships as his own mini-fleet.  (We learn that, as in the revival series, the Colonial anthem is Stu Phillips’s BSG theme.)  Meanwhile, Starbuck discovers that Kronus’s pilot is Aurora (Ana Alicia), a long-lost love that he thought had died in the Cylon invasion.  Apparently he really really cared for her and searched for her the night of the attack, even though that contradicts his behavior in the pilot and everything we’ve learned about him since.  (He was shown to be involved with Athena at the time, but Athena has now been retconned out of existence, it seems.)  But Aurora wants nothing to do with him.  She has other plans, such as staging a mutiny with her new boyfriend Damon, who sports a very ’70s white-guy Afro.  See, they think Kronus is a slavedriver forcing his crew to work in awful conditions, but it’s actually Kronus’s assistant Charka who’s doing that under Kronus’s nose.  When Apollo and Starbuck (who’s coming to talk to Aurora) happen to show up and stop the mutiny (with a bad camera angle exposing the wooden scaffolding within one of the Viper mockups as they taxi to a stop), they take the mutineers and Kronus back to Galactica to press charges.  But Charka somehow knew all this was going to happen and uses it to take command of the Celestra by sending their shuttle on a course to oblivion.  Somehow Apollo and Starbuck, these experienced space pilots, are completely dependent on flight control to tell them their course and are unable to recognize that they’re off-course until it’s too late.  All those stars in the viewports and they don’t know how to navigate by them.  But once they figure out what’s really going on, they team up with Damon and Aurora and make their way back to the Celestra, almost running out of fuel, since of course this universe is innocent of physics and a spaceship that isn’t exerting thrust will just stop dead.  Also, the Celestra obscures itself from sensors by shutting off beacons and extraneous power emissions, yet somehow the intense, white-hot energy of their engines firing is undetectable.  Yeah, okay.

But they get back to the hijacked ship and there’s a big shootout and Kronus saves the ship from… something… by taking the controls (this is the second time BSG has shown a ship in weightless space going into an apparent nosedive when the control stick was released), but has a heart attack and dies (and somehow the controls no longer need someone operating them at this point).  And Starbuck realizes Aurora loves Damon and he loves Cassie, so he convinces Damon not to be a fool and drive her away.  And Cassie’s a liberated woman who doesn’t need commitment anyway and all but gives Starbuck permission to cheat on her, so it’s a happy ending from a guy point of view.

Not much of an episode, particularly the tedious soap-opera stuff in the first half, though the heartfelt talks that resolve the triangle in the second half aren’t bad.  The mutineers’ complaints about the hardships of the lower-class people in the fleet is a promising thread until it turns out to be just one guy’s corruption.  The budget is clearly tight; there are new FX of the Celestra, but they’re fairly limited compared to what we’ve seen in most of this series.

There’s one interesting bit that I think must’ve been an in-joke.  The costume design for the Colonial Warriors includes brown jackets with these four pairs of big shiny buckles on the front, but they’re never seen fastened for some reason.  That’s been bugging me nearly the whole time I’ve been watching this.  There’s a moment in this episode where Apollo chastises Starbuck about his slovenly appearance and tells him to fasten his jacket before seeing Kronus, but they hear shooting before Starbuck can comply.  I think the writers were poking fun at this oddity of the costuming.

“The Hand of God”: Luckily, the final episode is written (and directed) by Donald Bellisario, not Glen Larson.  Apollo, Starbuck, Sheba, and Cassiopeia go on a double date in an outdated, forgotten astronomy dome atop the Galactica, and its equipment picks up an obsolete “Gamma frequency” signal.  We can tell it’s stock footage of an Apollo Lunar Module, but the episode acts as though we wouldn’t recognize it, even though TV viewers in the late ’70s would’ve probably been even more familiar with the sight than the average viewer today.  Either way, the characters don’t know what it is, so they turn to Boomer (who’s suddenly a signal-tech expert filling Dr. Wilker’s expository role), who suggests it could be from nearby or hundreds of err, light-yahrens away (which would put it in another “galaxy,” since BSG-verse galaxies are teeny little things).  There’s one star system in range along that vector, so the gang goes off in Vipers to check it out — only to discover a Cylon base star!  Luckily, the base star doesn’t see them.  Now, since galaxies are so tiny here, having the Cylons occupying a single star system on the edge of this galaxy means the fleet can’t enter it undetected unless they go a very long way around (which is self-contradictory, but what the frak).  But Adama recognizes they have the element of surprise, and he’s tired of running.  They will launch a surprise attack and destroy the base star.

There’s a nice bit where we cut from a scene aboard the base star to an exterior shot of same — only to pull back and see it’s a tabletop model that Tigh is using to give a briefing to the pilots.  (No doubt it’s the actual FX miniature.)  The plan seems sound, but it depends on the Cylons being too distracted by the Viper attack to notice Galactica coming in from behind the sun (again, tiny tiny space distances, except when the plot requires them to be immense as in the previous episode).  Apollo suggests they can even the odds by using Baltar’s captured Raider as a Trojan horse to board the base star and blow out its sensors.  But they don’t know where to find the control center — unless Adama can convince Baltar to help, which he does by offering to release him on an empty, habitable planet.  There’s also the fact that if the Galactica is destroyed, Baltar will be too. Baltar, ever self-serving, agrees to help.

There’s some soul-searching stuff as Cassie and Sheba confront their respective men (since it turns out Sheba’s falling for Apollo) about their insistence of taking every dangerous mission themselves — a nice attempt to rationalize the dramatic conceit of having the same few protagonists do all the work despite there being plenty of others in the crew.  Sheba brings up Serena for the first time since she died, implying that Apollo’s been trying to get himself killed out of grief, which hardly seems to mesh with his personality throughout the season.  She also says Serena was a lovely person, but how would she know if she never met her?  Well, Serena was a noted TV journalist on Caprica, so maybe Sheba saw her broadcasts before the Pegasus was, err, misplaced.

Anyway, Apollo & Starbuck sneak into the base star successfully and get to the central core, which is actually shot in a mockup of the Skylab space station (not the same backup station I walked through at the National Air & Space Museum back in November, but another one that wasn’t flight-ready).  They set off the charges, and the attack goes off on schedule in an orgy of stock footage, largely from the pilot and “The Living Legend” (but accompanied by new music).  The base star is destroyed, but A & S lost the transponder that identifies them as friendlies, so their Raider almost gets blown up before Boomer notices they’re waggling their wings, as Starbuck had suggested doing earlier in Boomer’s hearing.

The episode ends with Apollo checking for signals in the dome again, but Starbuck convinces him to leave — just before a transmission of “The Eagle has landed” comes in undetected.  Are they recording incoming transmissions, or is this opportunity lost forever?  We will never know, since few would count Galactica 1980 as part of this continuity (insofar as it has a continuity).

All in all, this is a fairly effective episode for what it is, with some decent character moments amid the action, and not much that’s stupid aside from the inept astronomy.  Bellisario started out writing some of the worst episodes of the series, but as the season progressed, his work improved substantially, and his competent dialogue writing was a welcome alternative to Larson’s clunky verbiage.

So what’s my verdict for Battlestar Galactica as a whole?  Well, I still think Glen Larson is basically a hack, but this was the one time he really attempted to stretch himself and do something epic, and the result is in keeping with that — awkward, often silly, but occasionally respectable in its ambition and sometimes even good, or at least entertaining.  It was a good idea executed by people who didn’t quite have the talent or experience to make the most of it, but who were inspired enough by it to raise their game, at least some of the time.

I can see why the show failed; aside from the great expense of making it, those weak 1-parters in the first half-season — and the general lack of direction or clear identity after the pilot — probably caused a lot of viewers to tune out.  Yet I can also understand why it has loyal fans.  If you left out those first four 1-parters and maybe “Take the Celestra,” you’d have a relatively strong core narrative that told a relatively coherent space-opera epic.  (To be specific, such a viewing program would consist of “Saga of a Star World,” “Lost Planet of the Gods,” “The Gun on Ice Planet Zero,” “The Living Legend,” “Fire in Space,” “War of the Gods,” “The Man with Nine Lives,” “Murder on the Rising Star,” the Terra arc, and “The Hand of God.”  You could also leave out “Fire in Space” without losing much, but at least its first act works quite well.)  Unfortunately this still leaves in some weak parts, notably the second and fourth hours of the Terra arc.  But they’re necessary to the core storyline.

Galactica was unusual in its heavy use of 2-part and longer stories, perhaps the first prime-time US genre show to have a hint of the kind of serialization and story evolution that’s standard today.  I wouldn’t exactly call that pioneering, since prime-time soaps like Dallas paved the way, and since a lot of the growth and change was due to network interference and retooling; but it’s worthy of recognition.  It’s certainly not in the same league as Star Trek, Stargate, or its own remake, but it does stand out among genre shows of its era.

One more thing I’ll give the show credit for: it had a lot less cheesecake than one would expect for a show from the late ’70s, aka the Jiggle Era.  Certainly the female characters weren’t treated as equally in the scripts as they are today, but it was about typical of its era, even progressive in including female fighter pilots long before the real US military did.  But the female costumes were a lot less skimpy than they’ve been in most genre shows either before or after this.  There was a bit of cheesecake early on — Athena in her skin-toned leotard “underwear” (which actually showed no flesh beyond head and hands) in the pilot, the female Viper trainees in same in “Lost Planet,” Cassiopeia’s fairly skimpy red dress, Audrey Landers’s Viking/Indian getup in “The Young Lords.”  But for the most part, the female characters on the show tended to be as fully clothed as the males, and sometimes substantially more so.  The male triad players in various episodes were rather scantily attired, and the final episode features a scene of Sheba and Cassiopeia ogling Boomer in his underwear.  I’d always remembered this show as relatively sexist, so it’s a bit surprising to realize this.

The highest points: “Saga of a Star World” (at least the first 60 percent or so), “The Living Legend,” “The Man With Nine Lives,” and the first half of “Greetings from Earth.”  The lowest points: “The Lost Warrior,” “The Long Patrol,” “The Magnificent Warriors,” the second half of “Greetings from Earth,” and “Experiment in Terra.”  The show started out strong, quickly lost it and floundered for half a season, finally found its voice and was solid for about a third of the season, but then started to lose it again toward the end.  Somehow, all the worst parts of the series seem to take place on planets instead of in space, even though the show’s portrayal of space physics and astronautics is insanely bad.  Best planet-based material: the destruction of Caprica in “Saga” and the raid on Gamoray in “The Living Legend.”  Honorable mention to the planet in “War of the Gods,” in which they processed the film to make green plants appear red and create an odd, exotic lighting effect.  (The Battlestar Wiki describes this as a red filter, but that would just make plants look gray or brown.  I’m guessing they took the green negative, printed it in monochrome, and rephotographed just it through a red filter, then recombined it with the other color negatives.)

The best cast members: John Colicos, Dirk Benedict, Terry Carter (once he and the writers settled into Tigh’s dry, sardonic wit and sense of quiet exasperation), and Lorne Greene at his high points, though he far too often phoned in his performance.  However, there’s nobody in the regular cast besides Colicos that I’d consider truly excellent.  The worst cast member: Noah Hathaway.  (I’m being generous by not counting Anne Lockhart, who wasn’t so much bad as miscast.)  The most forgettable cast member: Tony Swartz as Jolly.  I’d forgotten he even was a regular for the run of the show.  (Somehow I’d gotten the impression that he was dropped early on and that Ed Begley Jr.’s Greenbean was a regular throughout, and it’s actually the other way around.)  Best recurring players: George Murdock as Dr. Salik, especially in “Greetings from Earth,” and Jonathan Harris as the unbilled voice of Lucifer.  Best guest stars: Jane Seymour, Lloyd Bridges, Patrick Macnee, Brock Peters, Ray Bolger.  Worst non-child guest stars: Charles Bloom (leader of “The Young Lords”), Randolph Mantooth (Michael in “Greetings from Earth”).  Most successful production values: John Dykstra’s visual effects, Stu Phillips’s music, Andrew Probert’s ship designs (not necessarily in that order).  Overall weakest production values: the writing and guest casting.

Biggest unanswered production question: Who did the Cylons’ voices?  Yes, I know the basic tone was produced by a Vocoder, specifically this Vocoder.  Here’s a neat video showing how that works, albeit with a different model:

But still, someone had to be actually speaking the Cylons’ lines into the mike, and I think it was the same person throughout, since most of the Cylons had a certain distinctive cadence to their voices, and that wouldn’t be the Vocoder’s work.  So who was it?  Someone from the show’s sound department?  Glen Larson himself?  Who?

Is it as good as the remake series?  Not by a long shot.  But it’s generally a lot more fun.  Even when it’s bad, it’s at least goofy and light, not wallowing in self-conscious darkness and despair.  It usually wastes the opportunity to explore the darker issues of survival, but no more than the remake wasted the opportunity to explore the more optimistic and hopeful side of human behavior in crisis.  One thing both shows have in common is that their execution often fell short of their ambitions, but at least this show wasn’t as boastful about its ambitions, didn’t demand to be taken as seriously, and thus was easier to forgive for its shortfalls.

So am I going to keep going and watch Galactica 1980?  I quail at the prospect, but it’s only ten episodes (and six distinct stories), and my curiosity is piqued and must be satisfied.  Damn my thoroughness!  However, it’ll have to wait.  Hulu doesn’t have the full 3-part premiere episode, just a chopped-down VHS version combining parts of it with parts of a later episode and some footage from the original series.  So I’ll have to Netflix it.  Just as well; I have other priorities right now anyway.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Original GALACTICA thoughts, Eps. 19-22

January 12, 2011 2 comments

“Greetings from Earth”: Adama’s now-traditional log entry is essentially indistinguishable from last week’s, but this time it actually connects to the story.  We cut to Apollo and Starbuck, oddly, asleep in their patrolling Vipers.  I guess that isn’t so dangerous in the emptiness of space, but it’s odd that they don’t nap in shifts.  Anyway, the sleepy ships discover a sleeper ship: an unfamiliar sublight craft with six human life signs in suspended animation.  They’ve moved past the region where Colonial offshoots can be found, so they get excited at what might be their first contact with Earth.  They bring the ship back to Galactica — somehow (Vipers don’t have tractor beams as far as I know).  Study of the ship’s databanks reveals a name, Terra, which Adama recognizes as Gemonese for Earth!

The events that follow read in outline almost like a plot from the revival series, though of course the execution is very different.  The first hour of this 2-parter is driven by the conflicting reactions within the fleet to this ambiguous discovery and the tensions that result.  Dr. McCoy Salik is reluctant to risk the safety of the six sleepers (four of which are children) by tampering with their unfamiliar technology, but the overconfident Dr. Wilker (the fleet’s resident expert-in-everything scientist — every sci-fi franchise has one) is determined to proceed.  Apollo, acting more like his revival counterpart than ever, expresses concern over the rightness of hijacking the Terrans’ ship and risking their lives trying to awaken them, but others argue that the survival of the fleet is more important and the risk must be taken; the argument almost comes to blows, but it’s Apollo, not the hotheaded Starbuck, who nearly starts it.   Adama is caught in the middle as his son and Salik urge caution and the Council, led by Sire Geller (Murray Matheson), bows to the voice of the mob and pushes him to awaken the sleepers.  (No, don’t do it!  They might be eugenic supermen out to seduce your historian, take over your ship, and kill your best friend fifteen years later!)  The ongoing debate over the prickly ethical question of whether the needs of the fleet’s thousands outweigh the needs of a few children who can’t speak for themselves is the most intelligent writing in the series to date, if not in Glen Larson’s entire career.  The focus on ethics and philosophy makes this feel almost like a Star Trek episode.  And as in ST, the military characters are portrayed as more sympathetic and reasonable than the imperious bureaucrats giving them their marching orders.

One of the show’s finest moments comes when the Council orders Dr. Salik to awaken the sleepers and Salik tells them they’ll need to find another doctor.  After he storms out, Adama declaims, “Something magnificent has happened here.  Dr. Salik has just reaffirmed that we are a race worth saving.”

Of course, this isn’t the revival series, so the quandary is rendered somewhat moot when the adult sleepers (Michael and Sarah) awaken on their own.  But we’re not completely out of the woods, for they’re acclimated to a fifth of the fleet’s air pressure and can’t survive long aboard its ships.  They’d be imprisoned for life in decompression tubes.  So Apollo finally convinces his father to clandestinely free the Terrans and let them resume their original course.  The tone shifts more to humor as Apollo and Starbuck sneak the Terrans back aboard their ship under the noses of civilian security and jettison it as a contamination hazard.  Cassiopeia is also aboard to monitor the Terrans’ condition, and Apollo and Starbuck follow in their Vipers.

Unfortunately, the second half of this originally 2-hour episode (which I’m counting as two episodes because that’s how it’s presented on Hulu) doesn’t nearly live up to the sophistication of the first.  Somehow, almost every time this show goes to a planet, its quality plummets.  The planet here is Paradeen (perhaps derived from “paradise” and “Eden?”), an abandoned colony of the Terrans.  Michael and Sarah finally explain their situation.  Terra has two major factions, East and West, whose ongoing war has spread into space.  They’re refugees from a lunar colony (whose low pressure they’re acclimated to) conquered by the Eastern Alliance, who are almost literally Space Nazis, complete with German names and accents.  (They’re led by Commandant Leiter, played by Lloyd Bochner, future voice of Gotham City’s mayor in Batman: The Animated Series.)  They seek refuge at Sarah’s late father’s home on Paradeen, tended by two silly-looking comic-relief androids, Vector and his “son” Hector.  Which would be completely embarrassing if not for the fact that Vector is played by Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, and he brings an effective comic charm to the role.  (The androids have the exact same electronic vocal treatment as Peepo on Filmation’s Space Academy.)  Anyway, there’s some tedious stuff about Sarah hating technology and falling instantly in love with Apollo and sabotaging their Vipers so they’ll have to stay, while Starbuck gets lost in the tunnels of an abandoned city, and then the Space Nazis track them down and act mean while the kids run for help, and blah blah blah, oh, and the androids do a funny dance.  The most impressive part is the tour of the dead city, which makes very effective use of location shooting at the abandoned Expo ’67 site in Montreal.

Anyway, our heroes defeat the Space Nazis and take their captured kitbash model, err, starship, back to the Galactica, grinning as Space Nazi Leiter’s boasts of being the most advanced force in the universe are deflated when he sees how huge the battlestar is.

So is Terra Earth?  Michael says at one point that he’s heard Terra called Earth, but that conversation is interrupted by something more trivial.  The Terrans have Earthly names (unlike the Colonials, who have names like Apollo and Sheba and… err… Ortega and Carmichael and Reese and… never mind).  They use minutes and days instead of centons and sectons and whatnot.  Their East-West conflict certainly appears to be an extrapolation of the Cold War that still existed when this episode was made.  And oh, Space Nazis.

Even the strong first half has some of the usual flaws, like weak acting.  Randolph Mantooth in particular is painfully bad as Michael.  There are some pointless cutaways to a schoolroom being taught by Athena for some reason (aren’t there any actual teachers among the refugees?  Maybe even a secretary of education?).  These bits of unadulterated padding are noteworthy only as the final appearance of Maren Jensen (Athena) and Noah Hathaway (Boxey) in the series.  The latter departure is welcome, but the former is a shame.  Jensen may not have been a great actress, but it’s not like Laurette Spang and Anne Lockhart were much better.  And she was really hot, and her role as daughter and sister to two of the leads had a lot of untapped potential.

There are conceptual problems; at first, Salik and Wilker have no idea how to read the completely alien controls and markings of the Terran ship, but later we see both species write in English, just in different fonts (and of course they speak the same language despite being separated by millennia).  And the attempt to replace the Cylons with the Eastern Alliance as the big new threat is odd, given how technologically inferior the EA is.  Generally if you introduce a new Big Bad, you make it bigger than the old one, as Count Iblis was.  But these guys were overconfident pushovers, easily captured.  Which leads us into:

“Baltar’s Escape”: Adama interviews the imprisoned Commandant Leiter, who boasts of the natural order dictating that the strong, namely the Eastern Alliance, are destined to rule the weak, namely everyone else in the universe.  Ambiguous villains are not a feature of this show.  But the Quorum (or as they’re called here, the Council) disagrees, convinced that the Alliance can be negotiated with and the military has been on the defensive too long to see it.  So, after offering Adama the sop of a prestigious award, they inform him that martial law has been rescinded and Adama must now answer to civilian control of the fleet.  Apollo and Starbuck are outraged, but Adama sternly intones that if they’ve forgotten their duty to obey civil authority, maybe martial law has lasted too long.  It’s the first of a number of strong lines in this Donald Bellisario script.

Back on the prison barge, Baltar conspires with the Borellian Nomen from “The Man with Nine Lives,” convincing them that the impending transfer of the Space Nazis to meet with the Council is their opportunity to escape.  The Borellians agree, which is odd.  If they’re members of the refugee population, then that means the Cylons destroyed their homeworld as well as everyone else’s.  Given their Klingon-like culture, you’d think they’d be taking blood vengeance on Baltar, not collaborating with him.  But political nuance is ignored; they’re all Bad Guys, and thus they’re automatically on the same side.

A more ambiguous figure is Siress Tinia (Ina Balin), the Quorum/Council member appointed as Adama’s liaison/watchdog.  Although she supports the (oh, I give up) Quouncil’s goal of extending diplomacy to the Alliance and sees Adama as unduly paranoid, she proves more reasonable and approachable than the rest of the Quouncil (which is now led by John Hoyt in a bad toupee; Sire Geller has inexplicably vanished).

The Nomen have another good line while plotting with Baltar: When the time comes to move, they say, “we will momentarily die.”  “Die?” a confused Baltar replies.  “We will do anything to survive.  Even die.”  When the time comes, they somehow suspend their pulses, feigning death, then awake and take the guards by surprise, spring the other plot-relevant prisoners, and capture the shuttle piloted by Boomer and Sheba.  Baltar recognizes Boomer as an old rival and says he wishes Apollo and Starbuck were here too so he could settle all his scores at once.  This is odd, since I don’t think Baltar has ever met Boomer before, or has any reason to hold a greater grudge against the big three than against any other Viper pilots.  Then again, those three are responsible for most of the victories the fleet has achieved over the Cylons, so maybe Cylon intelligence efforts revealed their names to him.  (Could it be that Karibdis from “Murder…” was still funnelling intelligence back to the Cylons?)

Anyway, Omega notes that the prison barge has gone silent, making Adama suspicious, but Tinia resists sending warriors.  Tigh says he needs to go for a walk, and the canny Tinia warns him not to take it in the landing bay.  So he goes to the officers’ club and casually clues in Apollo and Starbuck so that they’ll go on their own initiative.  It’s a fun moment for Terry Carter as Tigh, one of several fun bits of understated comedy he’s had lately.

Anyway, the Bad Guys take the Quouncil hostage and Baltar demands that his Cylon pilots be freed so he can fly away in his Raider (or “fighter,” or — no, I’m not using that gag again), but Dr. Wilker has the Cylons in pieces and the best he can do in reassembling them is a clumsy Cylon who bashes equipment to pieces when trying to operate it. Which gives Apollo an idea.  Adama has a plan of his own, and is pleasantly surprised when Tinia admits her former error and is now firmly on his side.  And when Adama turns himself in as a hostage to buy Wilker more time, Tinia insists on going along to help.  However, Apollo’s plan requires cancelling Adama’s plan, forcing Tigh to pull rank on his own commander.  Turns out that Baltar’s pilot is our old friend Bashy, who goes to town on the Raider’s controls.  Leiter and his Space Nazis get away (allowing them to be tracked back to their base), but Baltar is recaptured.  The chastened Quouncil restores Adama’s emergency powers.  And Adama and Tinia seem to have a bit of a thing going, much to Tigh’s dismay.

Despite some conceptual weaknesses, this is a strong episode, with much better dialogue writing than anything Larson was capable of.  Tinia is a good character, though the rest of the Quouncil is unfortunately caricatured.  And I’m not very comfortable with this show’s persistent mindset that only the military is reasonable and responsible while civilians, especially aspiring peacemakers, are a bunch of self-destructive fools.  Although that attitude is somewhat ameliorated by Adama’s reasoned acceptance and defense of the right of civilians to  hold authority over the military, even if the military disagrees with their decisions.  It’s a damn sight better than his revival-series counterpart’s policy, which is to pay lip service to civilian authority but then stage a military coup the moment things don’t go his way.

Conversely, Baltar here is written in a way that finally makes me understand the roots of Gaius Baltar’s characterization in the revival series.  Here, Baltar is a rather comic figure: manipulative and self-serving, but cowardly, somewhat naive, and easily flustered.  He’s blindly convinced that his plan to use the hostages to stage a safe escape will work, and is surprised when the Nomen inform him that Adama will surely launch an attack at their vulnerable moment.  And, unexpectedly, he seems quite sincere when he tells his co-conspirators that he has every intention of keeping his word to free the hostages once he’s safe.  An odd departure from the Baltar of “Saga of a Star World,” who ruthlessly demanded that the Cylons carry out their directive to slaughter all survivors without mercy.  I wonder if it was decided to tone down his character, make him more sympathetic for some reason.  Anyway, his namesake Gaius is much closer to this episode’s Baltar than any prior depiction of the character.

“Experiment in Terra”:  While Apollo is leading a squad of Vipers to track the escaped Space Nazis to their base, he is overtaken by the Ship of Lights from “War of the Gods.”  The noise of their approach induces an attack of Awkward Exposition Tourette’s in Apollo.  (“What’s that sound?  Too loud!  I can’t –“)  Yes, it’s another Glen Larson script.  Anyway, Apollo awakens in the SoL with his costume and gear spray-painted white, and is greeted by Devon from Knight Rider — err, John (Edward Mulhare), a Being of Light who tells him he’s been recruited to go to Terra and help stave off a war.  Like most all-powerful superbeings in sci-fi, the BoL are forbidden to interfere directly in mortal affairs but can only advise, or in this case, recruit rather clueless agents and drop them in without adequate briefing.  A confused Apollo finds himself on Terra, where he’s seen by others as a missing pilot named Charlie, who’s found by Charlie’s ex-girlfriend (in an amusing bit, Apollo first thinks her name is Amnesia — “That’s a pretty name” — but it’s actually Brenda).  John pops in to give cryptic advice but only Apollo can see him, making Brenda think “Charlie” is nuts.  Hey, John isn’t Devon from Knight Rider, he’s Al from Quantum Leap!  I do wonder if this is where Bellisario got the idea for that show.  Invisible Devon tells Apollo to “let your uniform be your guide” — as long as it’s white, he’s “protected,” but when it returns to normal hue, he’ll be vulnerable.  This never pays off in any way.

Anyway, Brenda sics security on Apollo/Charlie (for his own good) and he’s taken away.  Even though this Nationalist faction is nominally the good guys, their authorities are not to be trusted.  Here’s where Larson’s hawkish politics reassert themselves more blatantly and heavy-handedly than ever before.  In the past, both in the pilot and in “Baltar’s Escape,” he’s painted those who seek peace as clueless dupes.  But here, the Nationalist president is so determined to sign a peace treaty with the Eastern Alliance that he’s knowingly covering up evidence that they’ve conquered all the Nationalists’ satellite colonies.  So he knows full well that the Space Nazis are actively at war with his nation — and winning — and yet he deceptively pushes for a treaty anyway, and imprisons anyone who protests.  It’s rather bizarre, really.  What could possibly be motivating him?  He doesn’t seem to actively want the Space Nazis to destroy his nation, but he has no reason to believe they’d honor a treaty.  He’s a complete straw man whose actions make no sense.

Anyway, Starbuck has followed Apollo to Terra, landing in Vasquez Rocks at night, where he’s confronted by Nationalist troops commanded by Q.  Yep, it’s a young John DeLancie — his face concealed by a motocross, err, soldier’s helmet, but his voice unmistakeable.  Starbuck stuns Q’s troops with his superior zapgun and tracks down Apollo’s comm signal.  He’s intercepted by Angel Devon, who whitewashes his uniform and fills him in on the situation.  Starbuck saves Apollo, along with Brenda and her general father, who’ve also been arrested to keep them from telling the Presidium (or the Preseedyum, as they pronounce it) about the Space Nazis’ conquests.  Deciding they need a demonstration to prove Apollo’s evidence, Starbuck and Brenda drive off to find his Viper.  Apollo vamps before the Preseedyum, telling them the story of the series and becoming a mouthpiece for Larson’s right-wing, peace-through-superior-firepower rhetoric.

But it’s all rendered moot when Alliance leader Nehemiah Persoff decides to launch all-out nuclear armageddon, not only crushing the Nationalists but solving their world’s population crisis by wiping out their own surplus population and leaving only the loyalists protected in bunkers.  Luckily, the Galactica has caught up with the lost Vipers by travelling at “lightspeed” for the first time in many sectars or sectons or whatever, which means that the ragtag, fugitive fleet has come from “another galaxy” and passed through dozens of star systems in less than a year while travelling slower than light.  Yeah, okay.  It also means that Adama’s changed his policy about leaving the fleet behind and largely undefended, perhaps because the Cylons haven’t been seen in some time and the Space Nazis are pushovers.

Anyway, the Galactica folks see the missile launches, get filled in by Starbuck, and deploy a hitherto-unmentioned green ray that somehow covers the whole planet with a glowing shield that blows up all the missiles in flight. (Oh, and apparently Colonials don’t consider the ionosphere to be part of the atmosphere.)  Terra is saved, and the Space Nazis, convinced that the Nationalists have a superior missile shield, meekly sue for peace on the Nationalists’ terms.  It’s rather startling to remember that this was made before Ronald Reagan took office, because it feels like propaganda for his Strategic Defense Initiative boondoggle.  That was nicknamed “Star Wars” by the press, but maybe they picked the wrong franchise.

Apollo slips away with John, who reveals that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Terra is not Earth.  Which further implies that it was intended to be a colony of Earth.  It’s hard to believe that all the similarities of names, units, technology, etc. could be coincidence (although that didn’t stop Ron Moore).

Yes, the sequel series had Galactica reach Earth in 1980, but that was mandated by network bean-counters to save money.  These episodes certainly suggest that the original intent was for the series to be set in Earth’s future.

Well, it seems the peak of this series’ quality has passed.  This is the weakest episode in quite a while.  It’s conceptually awkward, it’s a feeble and somewhat non sequitur ending to the Terra arc, and it’s a profoundly heavyhanded political tract.  Don’t get me wrong, the problem isn’t just that Larson’s politics differ from mine.  It’s a valid thing for a writer to express one’s views in one’s writing, but it’s something very different to paint one’s opposition as fools or traitors.  And it’s just not good writing to paint the bad guys in a story as incoherently as the straw-man president was portrayed here.

Additionally, it’s hard to see why the Beings of Light would intervene to save Terra from annihilation after permitting the Twelve Colonies to suffer the same fate.  It’s harder to see why they’d recruit some guy from Galactica to save Terra and only give him two minutes of preparation.  Also, Apollo is uncharacteristically awkward and slow to catch up here, no doubt because the script was originally written to focus on Starbuck.  Richard Hatch pushed for the change because Starbuck had gotten too many focus episodes, and apparently Larson simply swapped the names “Apollo” and “Starbuck” in the script without changing the actual lines.  So Apollo is playing Starbuck, Starbuck is playing Apollo, and thus they’re both out of character.  That’s just inept.

But it’s interesting to note the presence of the John character — a messenger of a higher, seemingly divine race, using a human as an agent, making himself visible and audible only to his chosen agents so that they seem to be talking to thin air as far as others are concerned.  It’s a striking parallel to “Head Six” and the other “Messengers” from the revival series and Caprica.  I always thought that concept was original to the remake, but perhaps it was based on this episode.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Original GALACTICA thoughts, Eps. 17-18

“The Man with Nine Lives”: It’s downtime in the ragtag, fugitive fleet, with no Cylons in sight and the people feeling hopeful in the wake of recent events.  The legendary Fred Astaire guest stars as Chameleon (pronounced with a “sh” sound at the start for some reason), an elderly con man on the run from Borellians, a Klingonish warrior culture within the survivor population.  To get away from their “blood hunt” squad, he takes advantage of some things he learned about Starbuck from a TV talk show to con the orphaned Starbuck into thinking Chameleon might be his father, so he can be taken back to the Galactica with a warrior escort.  It brings out a side of Starbuck we’ve never seen before as he bonds with the old man and considers resigning his commission to reconnect with family.  But the Borellians are still determined to hunt the old man down to keep him from revealing what he knows about their private stockpiling.

This is another side story by Donald Bellisario with no connection to the core narrative, but unlike his disastrous planet-of-the-week stories, it’s actually quite strong.  It’s an effective character-driven story with some real emotion, particularly at the end when (spoiler alert) Chameleon learns he actually is Starbuck’s father, but refuses to tell him in order to protect him from giving up his life and loved ones.  And it’s a rare look at life in the fleet beyond the military.  We get a glimpse of the fleet’s broadcasting system, the civilian travel and commerce among ships, etc.  We see Omega narrating a “We want you” recruitment video for new Viper pilots.  There’s only lip service paid to the hardships of the refugees, since the focus is on the recreations of the wealthy and important people aboard the luxury liner Rising Star.  But it is a nice change of pace from previous episodes, and by developing the culture and characters within the fleet rather than going off to some random planet, Bellisario finds a far more successful way to tell a side story.   (One nice subtle touch is that Sheba is the one most invested in believing that Chameleon is Starbuck’s father, implicitly reflecting her own hope to be reunited with her father Cain.  It’s nice that the script respected the audience’s intelligence enough not to spell out her motives explicitly in dialogue.)

The Borellian Nomen, though, are a bit odd.  They’re said to be humans from a forbidding region, and there’s a bit of a Bedouin look to their attire (“Noman” is probably meant to suggest “nomad”), but the actors are wearing Neanderthalesque prosthetic brow ridges.  It’s an odd decision.  And why make up a name like “Borellian?”  Why not use one of the zodiac-based planet names?  The idea of twelve colonies has been pretty much forgotten by this point, with only Caprica getting mentioned anymore.

Of course, a guest star of Fred Astaire’s magnitude is a real high point, though I found his performance a bit unfocused.  And there’s a sadly missed opportunity.  According to the Battlestar Wiki,  Chameleon’s brief dance with his romantic interest Siress Blassie in the Rising Star‘s disco is the last time Astaire ever danced onscreen — yet it’s way in the back of the crowd and you can barely see him.  Maybe that was intentional, since Astaire was reportedly reluctant to dance onscreen at that point, perhaps aware that he couldn’t live up to his past brilliance and not wanting to let his fans down.  Still, it’s kind of sad.

But the real standout here is Dirk Benedict, who’s called on to take Starbuck in directions he’s never been before, and who rises to the occasion.  I understand now why Starbuck was such a popular character.  Benedict is one of the strongest actors on this show, though admittedly he has very little competition.

My one gripe is that I’m getting sick of all the corny space terminology, which is getting increasingly lazy as they just stick “-on” at the end of everything.  It was one thing to have Cylons and centons and microns, but now a furlough for soldiers is called a “furlon” and weapon power is measured in “voltons.”  Although I guess it could’ve been worse.  “Fleeing from the Cylon tyrannon, the laston battlestaron Galacticon leads a ragton, fugiton fleeton-on-on-on-on…”

Is this thing -on?  In the BSG universe, yes, it probably is.

“Murder on the Rising Star”: For the second week in a row, we open with Adama recording a log about their ongoing search for Earth, including the discovery of multiple planets showing signs of the Thirteenth Tribe.  And for the second week in a row, it has nothing to do with the actual plot.  Again, Apollo and Starbuck are playing triad (and the costumes are extremely skimpy, the kind of abbreviated halter-and-briefs getup you’d expect to see as an exploitative costume for female characters in a ’70s genre show, but instead worn by the males), but this time they’re up against a team including Ortega, a hitherto-unknown longtime rival of Starbuck.  Naturally, Ortega gets killed after a public fight with Starbuck, and everyone’s favorite rogue is arrested for the crime — and prosecuted by Brock Peters!  There’s a nice bit of futuristic forensics to determine that Starbuck’s laser is the “termination weapon,” although again the clunky “alien” terminology gets in the way (energy is measured, predictably, in “ergons”).  Apollo turns out to have studied law (or “the codes”) in the Academy, allowing him to serve as Starbuck’s “protector” (defense attorney) — a bit of characterization that the revival series picked up on and ran with.

Except Apollo never sets foot in the courtroom, since that’s not action-heroey enough.  He’s out investigating another lead — Ortega’s wingman says the deceased once boasted that no one but Karibdis would dare kill him.  Karibdis, as Adama reveals, was a hitherto-unknown ally of Baltar’s who sabotaged the Caprican defense computers on the night of the Cylon attack (again a bit of new-series foreshadowing, since that’s what Gaius Baltar himself inadvertently let the Cylons do in the revival miniseries).  So what seemed like a standalone murder-mystery episode takes a twist that connects to the core mythology of the series, flashing back to the destruction of Caprica (though mostly through stock footage and narration) to reveal that three men had bribed Ortega to escape Caprica under false names, and he was blackmailing them all.  Apollo realizes that one is Karibdis, and uses Baltar himself, the only other man who can identify him, as the bait to draw him out.  (Why did Karibdis wait this long to kill Ortega, though?)

Now, the logical thing to do here would be for Apollo to go to the courtroom where he belongs and send Boomer to draw out Karibdis, but of course, this is ’70s TV and you can’t have the second banana stealing the hero’s glory.  So Boomer vamps awkwardly in court until he can turn on the radio channel allowing everyone in the courtroom to hear Karibdis’s convenient confession (although no one questions the authenticity or admissibility of this highly irregular evidence).  Before Karibdis can shoot them both, Baltar fights back to save himself and inadvertently saves Apollo in the process.

This is another standalone that actually more or less works because it derives from the characters and concepts of the series premise rather than random planet-of-the-week ideas.  Maybe a budget crunch was also a factor; both this and “The Man with Nine Lives” are clearly money-saving bottle shows shot on standing sets and keeping action and new FX footage to a minimum.  That kind of episode forces the writers to depend more on characters and ideas, and that leads to stronger storytelling.  (Cf. ST:TNG’s “The Drumhead” or ST:DS9’s “Duet.”)  This episode, however, does feature some evidently new FX footage of the Rising Star and some original scoring (which, alas, is not included on the soundtrack CDs I have).

Baltar’s imprisonment turns out to be a good development in that it allows Colicos to play off other regulars instead of being stuck talking to guys in robot suits all the time.   Otherwise, Starbuck’s still getting the bulk of the attention, and while he showed a softer side last time, here he’s angry and embittered, even staging a prison break and almost going on the run until Apollo talks him out of it.  On the other hand, he seems to be getting more domesticated romantically, even telling Cassiopeia that he loves her.  While Athena seems to have accepted that she’s been sidelined in Starbuck’s love life, now seeming to be more a friend to Cassie than a rival.  Which is part and parcel of how she’s been sidelined overall.

Next begins a new, 4-episode arc which I’ll cover in one post, which is why I only included these two standalones here.

Original GALACTICA thoughts, Ep. 14-16

January 7, 2011 1 comment

“Fire in Space”: In a tense opening, a massive Cylon attack turns into a suicide bombing run that heavily damages the bridge and the landing bay.  Yet somehow, even though the sensor screen showed hundreds of Raiders and two base stars closing in, once the two suicide Raiders have done their job, the Cylons disappear, and the rest of the episode is The Towering Inferno in space as the crew struggles to put out the spreading fires inside the ship; Adama is injured and in need of surgery under risky battlefield conditions; and Boomer, Athena, and Boxey are trapped by the fire and running out of air.

The first act or so is very effective.  No episode since the pilot has been as effective at creating a sense of danger for the Galactica and its crew, and the scenes of the bridge blowing up are very effective (a particular highlight is the shattering of the glass map display that’s been such a prominent element of the bridge set).  What follows is a workmanlike disaster episode, one that gives the whole cast a chance to contribute.  It’s Athena’s biggest role in a while, Boomer gets to be more than just the sidekick, Tigh commands the bridge, and even bit player Omega gets his most lines yet.  It’s also the biggest role yet for George Murdock, who does a passable Dr. McCoy impression as Dr. Salik.  On the downside, there’s also a big focus on Muffy, who uses his skill to sniff out “mushies” (some kind of pastry) to travel through the ductwork to the bridge in order to bring breathing masks to the trapped personnel (and for some reason Tigh handles this personally instead of delegating it to one of the dozens of background crew).

The episode unravels when you think about the logistics and physics involved.  How can the landing bay be on fire when it’s open to the vacuum of space?  The fire is ultimately quelled by blowing hulls in the hull and letting the vacuum “smother” the fire, and yet the landing bay fire that’s already in vacuum is burning unabated.  It’s one thing for a fictional story to contradict real physics, but if a story contradicts its own rules, that’s a much bigger problem.  Even a pure fantasy should be consistent within itself.

Realistically, putting out a fire in a spaceship should be easy.  You don’t even have to vent atmosphere, so long as you have the ability to shut down the artificial gravity.   Under gravity, the air heated by a fire becomes lighter and rises, carrying it away from the fire and allowing new air to rush in, maintaining the fire’s oxygen supply.  This is why flames lick upward.  But in microgravity, that convection process doesn’t happen.  Unless there’s some other source of air circulation, the oxygen-depleted air around a flame just stays there and smothers it.  So you could put out a fire in a spaceship just by shutting off the gravity and the ventilation fans, if you were unable to vent the compartment to vacuum.  But of course, spaceships that are actually Hollywood sets never lose gravity.

And yet when Apollo and Starbuck go out on top of the ship to plant charges and blow the hull, they’re in complete weightlessness, even though there’s gravity inside the ship just a few meters below them.  Every sci-fi show and movie does this, assuming that a ship’s artificial gravity comes to an abrupt halt at the hull, as if gravity were conducted by atmosphere or something.  It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense; obviously solid matter is not opaque to gravity, or we’d all be floating weightless right now.  So a ship’s gravity field should realistically extend beyond its hull.  I know I shouldn’t expect this show to get that right if even Star Trek gets it wrong, but it’s a chronic pet peeve of mine and I can’t resist griping about it.  Also, the spacesuits and the wire work here are just so cheesy.  When Apollo misses a handhold and goes flying, he doesn’t continue on a ballistic trajectory — he swings backward and then forward again like an actor hanging from a wire.

But despite the episode’s conceptual holes, it’s still tons better than any prior one-part episode of this show, simply by virtue of having no Convenient Human Colony of the Week.  True, it’s just as much a disaster-movie knockoff as two of the previous one-parters were Western knockoffs, but as imitations go, it’s a much better fit.  It feels like a story that belongs to this show’s particular narrative rather than being a generic ’70s space opera episode shoehorned into it.

“War of the Gods”: BSG’s mythology jumps to a new level in a 2-part episode that crosses Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a Biblical morality tale.  When Viper pilots begin disappearing, abducted by a mysterious cross-shaped UFO known behind the scenes as the Ship of Lights, Apollo, Starbuck, and Sheba head to a nearby planet to search for them and instead find Count Iblis, played by Patrick Macnee, whose voice has been heard every week as the pre-title narrator as well as the Cylon Imperious Leader.  Iblis presents himself as the survivor of a mysterious crashed ship, but he’s evasive and manifests signs of strange powers.  He gains a hypnotic control over Sheba and spreads his influence throughout the Fleet, boasting of his infinite power (he uses the word “infinite” at least three times in the first half of part 1 — more of Glen Larson’s clunky use of language) and offering to lead them to Earth in exchange for their obedience.  He even uses his mind mojo to make Baltar turn himself in, as well as seemingly making the crops grow overnight.  But Adama draws on his knowledge of ancient lore to recognize that Iblis is a representative of a more highly evolved ancestral race of humanity, one with nigh-godlike powers.  They are like unto angels, and he is the fallen one who leads mortals into temptation.  Could he be, hmm, oh, maybe… Satan? (As Dana Carvey used to say.)

Well, yes and no.   Larson is clearly going for religious allegory here, but he does in in a sci-fi vein, painting the demonic Iblis and the angelic inhabitants of the Ship of Lights as highly evolved humanoids with a more advanced version of the mental powers that are allegedly innate in Colonial humanity — Adama himself manifests a hitherto-unsuspected telekinetic ability, something he says was a subject of study at the military institute (so I guess Adama was one of The Men Who Stare at Goats — as befits a Caprican).  Still, it couldn’t be more faux-Biblical in the way it’s presented, right down to the angelic choir in the soundtrack when Apollo, Starbuck, and Sheba are taken to the heavenly “dimension” of the Beings of Light at the climax.

I’m having a hard time assessing the quality of this episode.  My tendency is to look askance on stories with this kind of religious symbolism — not just as a matter of belief, but because it’s something of a cliche.  I prefer stories with more nuance, ambiguity, and individual free will to those where everything can be reduced to a simple, Manichaean good and evil.  But to be fair, religious allegory was part of Larson’s intent in creating this show, and this is really the first time since the pilot that he’s managed to develop that aspect of the concept.  At least it’s truer to the show’s intent than Westerns in space.  The show seems to be asserting its own voice better now than it did in the first half of the season, when it couldn’t seem to decide what it was about.

On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s really two hours worth of story here.  Iblis is so clearly untrustworthy from the beginning that it doesn’t seem it should take as long as it does for his malevolent intentions to be confirmed.  If there’d been more ambiguity, if it had been credible that he might be well-intentioned so that the people who followed him didn’t come off as chumps or mind-control dupes, then two hours of this would’ve been more interesting.

And Sheba in particular comes off badly here.  I said in reviewing “The Living Legend” that I hoped she’d come off stronger as time went on, but my initial assessment of her as weak and simpering was only strengthened here.  It’s very ’70s writing — more like ’60s, in fact — in that the woman is weak-willed and easily seduced by the charismatic man that the smarter, less emotional males see through right away.  Sheba, meet Marla McGivers and Carolyn Palamas.  But it’s not just the writing.  Anne Lockhart may be nice to look at, but I’m getting annoyed just listening to her mewling voice.

Still, this is the first episode in a while where Lorne Greene actually seems to be making an effort.  For weeks now, when Adama hasn’t been sick or injured, he’s been weak and distracted.  Here, though, Greene seems to be finally back in the game, giving Adama the strength in standing up to Iblis that he lacked when standing up to Commander Cain.

One strength of the episode is that it gives us a look at the ragtag fleet for the first time in a while; in particular, the fact that some of the poorer refugees are still undernourished and malcontented is revisited for the first time since the pilot.  Yet at the same time, a lot of the episode focuses on sports.  Apparently Apollo, Starbuck, and Boomer are not just top fighter pilots, but suddenly top athletes as well, fleet champions in the basketball-like game of triad.  (In this continuity, pyramid is a card game and triad a team sport; for some reason, the names are transposed in the revival continuity.)  There’s an attempt to rationalize it as a necessary escape for the war-weary populace, but it seems incongruously frivolous.

Also, it’s never explained why the Beings of Light abducted nine Viper pilots if it was Iblis they were after.  It was just thrown in because abductions are part of the UFO lore that was experiencing a surge of popularity in the wake of CE3K.

The arrest of Baltar and the introduction of the Ship of Lights herald a new direction for the show, getting away from the whole “fleeing from the Cylon tyranny” angle for most of the rest of the season.  The abruptness and casualness of Baltar’s arrest, which is practically an afterthought, has the tinge of a network-mandated retool.  But Larson manages to spin it as an enlargement of the story rather than a derailment — the human war with the Cylons is just one battle in the larger war of cosmic good and evil.  (The familiarity of Patrick Macnee’s voice is even acknowledged by Baltar, with a hint that Count Iblis was the one who programmed the first Imperious Leader and started the Cylons on their path to conquest.)  Too melodramatic for my tastes, but in a way, it foreshadows the revival series and its more subtle “angels” manipulating events from behind the scenes.

One notable detail about this 2-parter: it guest stars both Superman and Batman.  An elderly refugee is played by Kirk Alyn, the first actor to play Superman in live action (in the 1948 and 1950 film serials), and the caretaker of the “Agro ships,” Carmichael (previously seen in “The Magnificent Warriors”), is played by Olan Soulé, the first actor to voice Batman in animation (in Filmation’s 1969 Batman cartoon and later in Hanna-Barbera’s Superfriends).

So all in all, this isn’t my favorite, but it’s not actually bad, and it’s certainly one of the more important storylines of the series.  And one of the more memorable.  Even after I outgrew this show back in the ’80s and my memories of it faded, I still remembered Patrick Macnee as Iblis.  Though maybe that’s more due to having once owned the novelization than to a direct memory of the episode itself.  (Although I misremembered the climactic confrontation on the planet — I thought it was Iblis against Adama, not Apollo.)

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Original GALACTICA thoughts, Eps. 10-13

January 3, 2011 1 comment

“The Magnificent Warriors”: This episode is another illustration of the fatal mismatch behind Glen A. Larson’s proclivities as a storyteller and the nature of the series premise he came up with for Battlestar Galactica.  The setup for this episode is quite grave: a Cylon raid manages to destroy two of the fleet’s three “Agro ships” (represented by stock footage from Douglas Trumbull’s film Silent Running) and destroy the crop in the third, leaving the populace of the fleet in imminent danger of starvation.  And yet this is nothing more than a pretense for a lame comedy episode that’s also the show’s second lame Western-movie knockoff, this time a blatant pastiche of The Magnificent Seven.  Lorne Greene gives a distracted, fumbling performance as Adama fends off the allegedly comical romantic advances of spinster Siress Belloby, played by Brett Somers, whom I knew at the time as a fixture of the game show Match Game.  This is part of a tedious and rather incoherent hour in which the cast fumblingly tries to get fresh seed from the Convenient Human Colony of the Week and is stymied by its corrupt boss (played by an enormous toupee resting atop the head of Barry Nelson, who was once the first actor to play a version of James Bond), who cons Starbuck into becoming the new constable, a de facto sacrifice to the raiding Borays (a term previously used as an unexplained derogatory epithet, now revealed to be a race of pig-ape aliens with a herd mentality).  And yet Nelson and his hairpiece suddenly become all nice and respectful once he figures out from their bravery that our heroes must be Colonial Warriors (and for some reason there’s no worrying that this lying manipulator might sell them out to the Cylons — though again there’s the bizarre conceit that Colonials are the only humans who actually have to worry about being exterminated).  Oh, and Boxey and Muffit are brought along just for the hell of it,  which comes in handy because somehow the only sophisticated tracking sensor this advanced civilization has is built into an experimental robot dog.  (Every time I see Muffit, I can’t help feeling sorry for the poor baby chimp stuck in that costume.)

The episode does have a mildly amusing twist at its resolution, though a somewhat disturbing one if you consider the ramifications.  And it’s mildly of note for introducing the Silent Running agro-ships to the Fleet complement, and for introducing the first non-Cylon aliens we’ve seen since the pilot.  Overall, though, it’s a waste of an episode.

“The Young Lords”: Another “Starbuck gets shot down and has a solo adventure while the others try to find him” episode, this time with Starbuck crashing on a Cylon garrison planet and rescued by a band of preteen-to-young-adult survivors dressed as some sort of Ren Faire/Native-American hybrids and engaged in an ongoing guerrilla war against the Cylons who hold their father captive.  At first they plan to trade Starbuck for their father, but Starbuck convinces them to meet the Cylons’ inevitable double-cross with one of their own and then stage a raid to liberate daddy (all while engaging in borderline-creepy flirtation with the local jailbait, played by the then-22-year-old Audrey Landers but implicitly not quite an adult).

This is the first one-part episode that hasn’t been a complete waste of film, though it’s mediocre at best.  The guest acting (especially by the leader of the kids) is pretty bad, there’s a pointless and maudlin subplot about Adama being sick in bed and getting comforted by Boxey, and the climax is built around Starbuck teaching the cute kids an annoying doggerel verse to help them remember the strategy for their violent, lethal assault on the Cylons, an off-putting tonal mismatch that kind of sums up the entire series’ fatal weakness.

The most entertaining part of the story is the subplot revolving around the Cylon garrison commander Spectre (voice of Murray Matheson), a member of the same pointy-headed, English-accented Cylon caste as Baltar’s advisor Lucifer.  Spectre lies about his setbacks and flatters Baltar outrageously to curry favor, and while a jealous Lucifer sees right through his felgercarb, Baltar falls for it completely.  But amusing though it is, it makes Baltar look like an idiot.  Also, oddly, Baltar’s throne room set has been replaced with a much less impressive computer-center set including a narrow computer room that’s identical to Galactica‘s, only darker.

And the episode has the same overarching conceptual flaws as the other Convenient Human Colony of the Week episodes.  I can’t put it better than the Battlestar Wiki did in its entry for this episode: “Why do the Cylons so ruthlessly pursue the Galactica as the ‘last remnants of humanity’ when, in reality, humans clearly exist in abundance everywhere they go? Nearly every episode has them encountering some forgotten “fringe colony” teeming with humanity, yet the Cylons turn a blind eye toward them and myopically follow the Galactica.”  Not to mention the continued failure of the fleet to consider settling these worlds or at least evacuating their populace.  Moreover, even though the fleet supposedly passed into uncharted territory some time ago, here they’re already aware of the indigenous name of the planet that Starbuck crashed on (which is Attila for some reason).

“The Living Legend”: Possibly the most famous storyline of the original series other than the pilot, in part because it’s the only storyline other than the pilot to be remade in the 2004 series.  The legendary Commander Cain (Lloyd Bridges), a gung-ho Pattonesque military genius thought to be a casualty of war, turns up alive along with his battlestar Pegasus.  He and Adama clash over strategy, with Cain’s desire to go on the offensive against the Cylons conflicting with Adama’s responsibility to protect the unarmed civilian fleet.  Meanwhile, Cain turns out to be Cassiopeia’s old flame, creating a triangle with Starbuck, and a different kind of triangle with Cain’s daughter Sheba, who resents Cassiopeia (presumably for taking her mother’s place in Cain’s affections while being barely older than she is — and the long-ignored fact that Cassie was a professional sex worker at the time is probably an implicit factor as well).

To my surprise, this 2-part episode is actually good, despite being scripted by Larson (from a story by Ken Pettus and Larson).  It’s a strongly character-driven story; the introduction of the new characters and their clashes with the established cast give a lot of nice dramatic moments to a lot of characters.  This Cain is actually a more nuanced and textured character than his namesake in the revival series, who was simply a straw-woman psychopathic bully in command of a crew of psychopathic bullies.  (Pardon the digression, but that was one of the most implausible and ill-conceived things about the allegedly more realistic revival series.  The original premise of that show was that Galactica‘s crew was the dregs of the fleet, surviving in part because they were an unimportant crew on an obsolete ship.  The Pegasus was supposed to be the best and the brightest.  But the Pegasus crew turned out to be so exaggeratedly corrupt and cruel that they made Galactica‘s dysfunctional bunch seem like paragons.  And any hope of rationalizing that as the result of long, traumatic months battling the Cylons was scuttled by the movie Razor, which established that Cain and her crew were just as malevolent from day one, and never bothered to explain why.  I found that every bit as cartoony as anything from “The Magnificent Warriors” or “The Long Patrol.”  Just being dark doesn’t automatically make a story smart or sophisticated.)

Uhh, where was I?  Oh yeah, the original Cain.  He’s a piece of work, to be sure — arrogant, domineering, too quick to believe his own press.  He’s so determined to attack the Cylons that he sabotages Adama’s more defensive plan, wilfully destroying two Cylon fuel tankers so that Adama will be forced to agree to Cain’s plan to conquer a Cylon planet for its fuel supplies.  But when his deception is uncovered and he’s relieved of command by Adama (his superior officer here, the inverse of the rank relationship in the remake), this supremely arrogant man actually has the maturity to admit that he was wrong.  Far from being a one-note caricature, he’s a multifaceted figure, flawed but redeemable.

Lloyd Bridges’s charisma certainly helps make Cain sympathetic.  In fact, Adama rather suffers by comparison.  Supposedly Adama is the voice of wisdom and Cain the dangerous renegade, but Lorne Greene just doesn’t seem to be all that invested in the role anymore, and so Adama comes off as meek and hesitant in comparison to Bridges’s confident, compelling Cain.  And after weeks of seeing Adama wring his hands, passively worry, and give orders to leave family and friends to die rather than risk jeopardizing his grand “run and hide” initiative, it’s kind of refreshing to see a commander who’s willing to take bold action.  On the one hand, Greene’s weakness opposite Bridges is one of the few things that undermines the episode.  But on the other hand, it helps enhance the sense of ambiguity, the lack of a clear-cut right and wrong.  Both Adama and Cain are well-intentioned and both have valid arguments; they’re just approaching the problem from different perspectives.  That’s my favorite kind of conflict in fiction, the kind where both sides are in the right and there’s no easy answer.  (Too often in the revival series, the ambiguity came down to both sides being in the wrong, which isn’t as satisfying.  It’s lazy to generate conflict from characters being too screwed-up or mutually hostile to cope with an easily-solved or easily-avoided problem.  Better to devise a really challenging problem that even well-adjusted, highly competent characters can’t easily resolve.)  And it’s a level of nuance I’m surprised to see on this show.

The Cain-Cassiopeia subplot is effective too, because it has so many facets — not just those two, but the added interactions with Starbuck and Sheba.  It’s profoundly contrived that one of the series’ female leads (arguably the main female lead at this point, since the gorgeous Athena has unfortunately been marginalized for some reason) should happen to be Cain’s old flame, but it opens the door to a lot of character-oriented writing, and that enhances the episode.  Even Starbuck does a little soul-baring, explaining that he resists close attachments because he lacked a family like Apollo’s and is afraid of getting hurt (though he doesn’t admit that part aloud).  The downside is Sheba.  She’s supposed to be this tough, hotshot warrior, a chip off the old block, but Anne Lockhart comes off as more simpering and overemotional than anything else.  Maybe that’s more the fault of 1978 expectations about female behavior than Lockhart’s fault, but I can’t help thinking that the part could’ve been better cast.  But Sheba is a regular from this point on, so we’ll have to see if she improves.

Another significant flaw is in the pacing; the cliffhanger at the end of part 1 is in entirely the wrong place.  It should’ve come a moment earlier when the Cylon fighters were bearing down on the Galactica and Baltar was crowing about it being doomed.  Instead, we saw the Pegasus arriving to save the day and the freezeframe came on Baltar’s expression of panic as the battlestar came right for his ship.  A cliffhanger should come at a moment when the heroes are in danger, not when the villain is in danger.  It makes me wonder if this 2-parter was intended to be aired as a 2-hour episode and got hastily edited at the last minute.

But part of why the story works is that it lacks a lot of the usual flaws.  There’s no Convenient Human Colony of the Week, none of the prickly questions they raise, none of the pointless side stories and inappropriate comedy.  The tone is serious, tense, and dramatic, the dangers facing the fleet treated with due solemnity.  (What understated humor there is comes mainly from Baltar’s arrogance, vanity, and cowardice and the Cylons’ reactions thereto.)  Inept attempts at high-concept sci-fi are avoided in favor of a story that arises organically from the core premise and characters of the series.  There’s a wider range of action than the usual recycled dogfight footage, including a parachute drop to the Cylon planet and a climatic confrontation with two base stars.

We even learn more about the Cylons, seeing a Cylon city complete with “civilians” for the first time.  In addition to the three known types of Cylon — the Centurions, the Lucifer-type IL series, and the Imperious Leader — we glimpse a fourth type, presumably the aforementioned civilians, represented by extras in hooded gold cloaks and metallic face masks with blinking white eye lights (rather than the trademark sweeping red lights).  A rather cheap way of creating a new type of Cylon in large numbers, and we apparently never see this model again, but it’s interesting to discover that there’s more diversity among the Cylons than we’d known.  (Indeed, we arguably see a fifth type as well, the golden Command Centurion.  So this episode, and only this episode, features every type of Cylon established in the original series — unless you count the budget-saving, human-appearing “evolved” Cylons from Galactica 1980, a coincidental forerunner of the revival’s “skin jobs.”)

We’re halfway through the series now, and it took this long to get a story that fired on nearly all cylinders (with the main disappointment being the acting rather than the writing or concepts).   It continues the pattern of the multipart stories being the only ones worth a damn, but it’s not as uneven as the prior multiparters.  I’m hoping the episodes that follow are more like this than like what came before.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

Original GALACTICA thoughts, Ep. 6-9

December 18, 2010 4 comments

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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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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