Monday, June 16, 2014

Battlestar Galactica 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3: “Saga of a Star World”

Airdate: 9/17/78

Set sometime many years in the future, somewhere in the far reaches of outer space, our story begins as a federation of twelve human colonies prepares for a long-awaited peace negotiation with the dreaded Cylons, feckless bunch of synthesized-voiced chrome automatons who are clearly not to be trusted. Only Commander Adama senses a trap, so he defiantly puts his battlestar “Gaactica” on high alert: a move that winds up saving his colony from destruction, a fate met by all other colonies, but not his son Zac, who initiated the assault against the Cylons with Adama’s other son, Apollo. Rounding out the lead roles s Starbuck, a hotshot pilot and best friend of Apollo.

But Adama won’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet; his home planet of Caprica seems the Cylon’s new primary target. Retreating to save the defenseless planet, Galacta’s pilots realize they are too late, and all they are able to do is pick up the straggling survivors of a newly ruined world. Among those rescued are a beautiful woman (Jane Seymour) and her son, whose crippled dog is given new life by the Galactica crew as a robotic pet called a Daggit. Apollo develops romantic feelings for the woman, and the boy sees to want him for a father.

Galactica finds a temporary haven the planet Carillon, which is home to numerous mines of tylium, coveted for its use as fuel for fighters. But it’s also a decadent hive of gambling dens, populated by hedonists of all walks of life. Meantime a man named Sire Uri, head of the brand-new Council of Twelve, tries to get Adama and his boys to drop all their weapons to sue for a new peace treaty with the Cylons – to celebrate, he and his men should all attend a lavish banquet. Again, Adama is skeptical, so he orders his boys to ditch the party and put some other poor suckers in his fighters’ uniforms so they will be the Cylon’s targets instead.

But what about Carillon? It turns out to be a planet of man-eating insect monsters who mine the fuel for the Cylons who let them keep their freedom (those Cylons know how to bargain!). Apollo and Starbuck plan to destroy the gambling planet just as the Cylon battlestar is nearby – so all get blown to smithereens, except a few remaining Cylons, along with their “Imperious Leader,” who will continue to chase the Battlestar Galactica as it continues to search for that “twelfth human colony”: Earth.

The gargantuan, triple-sized series premiere of Battlestar Galactica aired onABC in September of 1978, and after it was two-thirds over it was infamously interrupted by the announcement that President Carter had arranged the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. (This was back when they did such a thing, as major news stories once were deemed more important than television entertainment.) Galactica fans need not have worried: they pre-empted the show and ran the conclusion in its entirety. (Did perhaps anyone notice the ironic juxtaposition of peace in the Middle East with warfare in outer space?) This shouldn’t be a surprise considering the huge bucks shelled out on this behemoth and the eager word of mouth leading up to it. I’m surprised they didn’t rebroadcast it the next day without interruption.

The good news: the money (all 3 million of it) is evident on the screen. This is a handsomely mounted production, and it has a feature-quality look to it (it was, in fact, released theatrically). This is due in no small part to the participation of John Dykstra as producer – he was the visual effects supervisor on Star Wars . Considering this is TV and doubtlessly had a much smaller budget than Lucas’s masterwork, it looks pretty good, with some shots experimenting with hazy filters and lower light levels and others clear and colorful. And bravo to Stu Phillips for composing a score that has become a minor classic, even if many (myself included) associate it with Airplane II.

But Dykstra’s involvement is not where similarities between this and Star Wars stop. Twentieth Century Fox, in fact, sued Universal for copyright infringement, citing 34 purloined concepts (the trial was later dismissed). It’s hard to argue against their case – despite Glenn Larson’s claim that he had this idea for over 10 years, it’s evident that the final product rips off Star Wars pretty blatantly – and shamelessly. Clean cut Apollo bears more than a fleeting resemblance to Luke Skywalker, while “average” flyboy Starbuck could easily be Han Solo. The wanton destruction of Adama’s home planet echoes Darth’s doing in of Alderran, and the gambling planet section plays like an extended version of the cantina scene. The Vipers and X-Wings are early identical, the Cylons are just metallic Stormtroopers, and the climactic race to destroy the Cylon’s “space station” is a veiled approximation of Wars classic finale. Well, at least there’s no cute robots, unless you count the fuzzy Daggit (I won’t).

There’s more, but I’ll stop. You get the point. Yet all this thievery could easily be overlooked if the whole thing was more – fun. My childhood reasons for not subscribing to its fandom are the same for my lukewarm review of it now: it’s kinda boring. After a dynamite first hour, things start to slow down. Once the Battlestar gets to Carillon, we get a whole mess of inconsequential developments, including a silly love triangle with Starbuck and a comely blonde and sexy brunette (well, it is 70s TV, I suppose). Worse than that, long – loooong – stretches of static scenes where characters spout technobabble at each other. Scenes are confusingly edited, too, so that keeping track of the plot requires nothing short of a slide rule (thank God for the DVD’s synopsis). And worse yet, I didn’t really care. In syndication, the epic is chopped into three single-length parts, and I’m sure it would work better that way given the lack of plot cohesion.

Through it all, I just kept thinking of Star Wars – the one thing they couldn’t steal from that “space opera” was its heart and soul. In 1977, George Lucas crafted a fantasy film (exactly when the country needed a fantasy film), but with an emphasis on character realism – yes, the setting was a galaxy far, far away, but these guys were fleshed out as thoroughly as those from his previous film, American Graffiti (Harrison Ford as Han Solo pilots his spacecraft with the same everyman bravado as he did as Bob in Graffiti). How ironic is it that the film that pretty much ushered in the blockbuster age could pass for art house film by today’s standards!

Evidently, TV audiences were not as discriminating. The show pulled in impressive ratings for its first month – until CBS moved juggernaut All in the Family opposite and beat the living asteroids out of it. My theory on its success, besides the fact there were only three networks to choose from back then, also has to do with time and place. Devout Star Wars fans, still hungry for space action and still several years away from home video, could tune in to Battlestar every week to get their fill. And on that count, it does deliver. I’ll keep blogging to see if it gets any better, but for now, my rating is:

Star rating: **  (out of four)

Wow – I just finished watching short interview with Galactica creator Glenn Larson on the DVD, and it explains a lot, namely the show’s general incoherency. He’s like Joesph Campbell on acid, blathering on about ancient civilizations and religions and prophecies with nary a lucid explanation for any of it. I guess the universe he created makes sense in his mind; for the rest of us, it’s pretty rough going.

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