Saturday 14 June 2014

Battlestar Galactica (1978)

The original Battlestar Galactica series first aired in 1978. It was an expensive and ambitious series and folded after one season. It was of course revived a quarter of a century later. The later version was more successful but not as much fun.

The story of the last survivors of the human race making an epic voyage through space in search of a legendary planet known as Earth has some obvious biblical overtones. Series creator Glen A. Larson is a Mormon and this series also utilises elements from Mormon theology and history. Fortunately it’s done fairly subtly and most viewers probably didn’t even notice.

There’s a famous story that Gene Roddenberry sold Star Trek to NBC by telling them that it would be Wagon Train in space, Wagon Train being a very popular late 50s TV western series. That was just a way to sell the network on what would otherwise have been a much too unfamiliar concept, but it really is true of Battlestar Galactica. Battlestar Galactica really is Wagon Train in space, with occasional hints of Little House on the Prairie (as in the episode The Lost Warrior). This isn’t a major problem and the series combines science fiction and western tropes fairly effectively. The Magnificent Warriors is another episode that is pure western and succeeds surprisingly well.

Harlan Ellison apparently used to refer to Glen A. Larson as Glen A. Larceny due to his habit of borrowing ideas a little too freely from other writers. It’s true that there’s very little original in Battlestar Galactica. It’s mostly a conglomeration of fairly old ideas but they’re blended into an entertaining enough mixture.

Much of the fun comes from identifying which movies and TV series each particular episode has been inspired by (or put less charitably stolen from).

Despite the obvious borrowings the series does have a distinctive flavour of its own, and it does have a certain sense of style. I particularly love the fact that the Viper pilots’ helmets have a vaguely ancient Egyptian look to them.

The Cylons, a malevolent and remorseless robotic civilisation, make effective villains. Mechanical man-type robots are difficult to do convincingly. All too often such robots just look like a guy in a tin man costume. It’s even more difficult to make them seem genuinely menacing. This is one area where Battlestar Galactica succeeds pretty well - the Cylons do look sinister and nasty.

The special effects still look good. There’s an abundance of action with enough battles between the Vipers and the Cylon fighter ships to keep any reasonable person happy. 

Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) is the character who made the most impact on viewers, a good-natured Han Solo-type hero. He provides a good deal of the comedy whilst also being a classic action hero. Richard Hatch as Captain Apollo is a more straightforward square-jawed noble hero type, rather overshadowed by the more flashy Starbuck. Lorne Greene pretty much reprises his most famous role as the kindly but deceptively tough patriarch of the Ponderosa Ranch from the long-running Bonanza series. Greene’s presence in the cast is yet another nod to the classic western genre.

Battlestar Galactica’s biggest problem is that it was a very expensive series to make. Its initial ratings were quite favourable but expensive series need to rate very well indeed to have a chance of survival. They tend to make TV networks very nervous and when the ratings faltered after a switch in time-slots ABC pulled the plug after one season. The series was revived in 2003 although in my personal opinion the original series was vastly superior.

The entire series is available on DVD and the transfers are very acceptable.

If you like the idea of a space western then Battlestar Galactica should keep you pretty happy. Recommended.

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