Tuesday, June 10, 2014

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Battlestar Galactica first hit the ABC airwaves back in 1978 for one reason and one reason only: Star Wars.

For a couple of years after the massive (and somewhat surprise) success of Star Wars in 1977, all of Hollywood turned their cameras skyward and decided that outer space was the best way to replicate Wars’ box office take. Creator George Lucas kept all proprietary licensing rights close to the vest – so we started seeing a plethora of film and TV offerings not just set in space but also featuring, sometimes none-too-subtly, aspects of Star Wars (albeit in different forms): cute robots, a looming, dark overlord for a villain, a clean-cut hero balanced by a renegade cynic, and as many realistic-looking spaceships as the budget would allow.

And so Galactica became the first major work of this ilk, and was a huge gamble for the network (given its unheard-of budget, especially for TV). Creator Glenn Larson was the driving force behind all of it – his conception began in the late 60s but after Star Wars he dusted it off and pedaled it around to interested parties. ABC bit, and Larson was hoping to give them a series of two-hour TV movies, beginning with the three-our pilot, Saga of a Star World, which had already been released, in an edited form, theatrically in Canada (and would later be in the U.S.). ABC instead opted for a standard season of one-hour episodes, but compromised somewhat by allowing five episodes to be two-hours in length.

The buildup to the series premiere, on September 17th, 1978, was unprecedented. So was allocating 3 hours of prime network airtime, on the biggest ratings night of the week – Sunday, to a relatively untested property. But one must not underestimate the holy grail of space opera that everyone was chasing at the time. ABC was clearly the first out of the gate on this count; in addition to Battlestar they also had Mork and Mindy and Quark going on Thursdays. (It took NBC another year for their return volley, Buck Rogers.)

So did the gamble pay off? All depends on whom you ask. After the first few episodes aired, CBS moved its juggernaut, All in the Family, to 8:00 on Sunday, directly opposite Battlestar, effectively crushing it to dust. And given the show’s humungous budget, the decision by network execs to cancel it was an easy one; it would move Mork and Mindy to Battlestar’s timeslot the following season in an attempt to dethrone Archie Bunker in his new show, Archie Bunker’s Place (it didn’t work; America’s favorite Orkan was forced to return to his Thursday night home with his tail between his legs).

But the show had a fervent following. Like Star Wars, it merchandised itscharacters out for everything from trading cards to action figures, clearly targeting a young male demographic hic for its audience, who stood by the show in a massive letter-writing campaign. ABC reconsidered it decision by enlisting Larson and Donald Bellisario (creator of Magnum P.I., Quantum Leap, Airwolf) to create a spin off/continuation of the series for the next season. Galactica 1980 picked up five years after the original series, with a few of the same characters – and promptly flopped after only ten episodes. Even Lorne Greene couldn’t survive this one; his career never fully recovered.

But like its TV antecedent Star Trek, Battlestar has refused to die; in the years since it cancellation it has been studied, analyzed – and celebrated – at comic conventions and sci-fi gatherings all over the world. (Its stigma as a Star Wars copycat has all but vanished, probably since such cannibalization is so rampant today it barely gets a second look.) Inevitably, in 2003 the concept was resurrected for a Battlestar Galactica miniseries for the Sci-Fi channel. With far less pressure to perform on a niche cable channel, it did spectacularly, and was promptly commissioned as a TV series, which lasted for four years. Additional, it a attained a viral presence when a spin off series was created for the Internet – and now it has become a franchise. Hardly surprising given that its detailed matrix is tailor-made for wired 21st century sci-fi buffs.

That’s probably why I wasn’t a fan back in 1978. The show was pretty boring to me; it lacked the operatic qualities of George Lucas’ universe – the gee-whiz, wide-eyed innocence of Luke Skywalker, the edgy but identifiable cynicism of Han Solo - and of course, the special effects. Perhaps Battlestar was too mannered, too cerebral for me, I don’t know, but that’s precisely what I intend to find out. The Rocket’s next blog will be Battlestar Galatica and Galactica 1980. Same format, same concept, with the only difference being that this time I will give a star rating to each episode, and then a final rating for the whole series. I’ll see how the show looks now through 44-year-old eyes, in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

About my rating system – the four-star scale is simply the format I’m most comfortable with -  I grew up with the local paper’s TV guide using such a system for movies. And it’s best, too; any more stars and it’s meaningless. The review itself will qualify my opinion, and explain, for example, how one show might get a higher three-star ranking and another a lower one. Like Roger Ebert once said about his thumbs-up/down system, it’s merely a “theatrical device.”

So here we go, beginning with that behemoth pilot episode (the television version, that is – the theatrical version will get its own review when it aired later). I’m using the Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Epic Series box set, and if I have time I’ll even review the extras. It’s only one season, so we’re probably looking at a month or so. If you’re ready, let’s go….

The Rocket is revving up – to take you back to 1978!!!

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