Guilty Pleasures: Battlestar Galactica (1978), Mormons From Outer Space

Battlestar galactica alex ross star wars

What the frack, Luke?

Imitation is supposedly the sincerest form of flattery, but not according to Star Wars creator George Lucas. TV hit maker Glen A Larson’s re-jigged concept “Adam’s Ark“, reborn as Universal ABC’s Battlestar Galactica, faced multiple lawsuits from George Lucas and 20th Century Fox on the basis of copyright infringement.  To add insult to injury, VFX whizz John Dykstra was using equipment and staff now available during ILM’s layoff to elaborate on that hit’s model effects shots. But did it really hurt it that much?

Larson described his original pitch thus:

“Adam’s Ark was sort of about the origins of mankind in the universe, taking some of the biblical stories and moving them off into space as if by the time we get them to Earth, they’re really not about things that happened here, but things that might have happened some place else in space. It was influenced by Von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods and some of those things… Adam’s Ark helped bring a focus into what my concept had been. Ultimately, Battlestar Galactica is my original idea refined down to where I now have fixed on what my point of view is on how all humans throughout the galaxy probably evolved from some mother colony.”

Larson, as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, infused Galactica with Mormon mythology. The exodus of Colonial survivors of the destruction of the Twelve Colonies in the pilot, Saga Of A Star World, to search for Earth, is an idea ripped from Mormon faith. In The Book of Mormon, it is stated that a remnant of the Israelite tribe of Joseph travelled from Jerusalem to America sometime around 600 BC, after the amalgamation of the original twelve tribes and during the period of the Babylonian conquest. (The remnant of this tribe are said to be the progenitors of the Mormon faith.) In Larson’s space mythology, all humans originally come from a mother world, Kobol; the name “Kobol” derives from “Kolob”, which in Mormon belief, refers to the star “nearest unto the throne of God.”

Fortunately, the show didn’t lay such stuff on too thick, but it created it’s own mythology to underpin a fast moving action adventure in the stars, dealing with heavy topics like genocide and freedom from the tyrannical robotic Cylons in a family friendly tea time slot.  Trouble is, like many such episodic shows of the day, time and budget restraints caused some filler and plain duff episodes. I’m afraid my enthusiasm and nostalgia for the original show (I much prefer the more adult, gritty Ronald Moore reboot) mostly extends to the stories that were cut and shunted for theatrical release (to help recoup the exorbitant budget for the ambitious show): Saga Of  A Star World; and The Living Legend.

Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra, Jonathan Erland, Ken Swenson, David Beasley

Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra, Jonathan Erland, Ken Swenson, David Beasley building Galactica

We’re getting the band back together

When Star Wars was done, John Dykstra and George Lucas parted under a cloud. As a head of department, he was disappointed Lucas didn’t give him points or a bonus, as he had done with others. For Galactica, Dykstra formed his own effects company, Apogee. On that show he felt he had more time to finesse motion control model shots (although paradoxically, due to budget constraints, weekly episodes would reuse stock footage). He took several ILM staff with him, including Denis Muren, Phil Tippett and Richard Edlund. Edlund made it clear though he would return to Lucas to supervise on The Empire Strikes Back. Don Trumbull, father of Doug Trumbull (2001, Silent Running) worked on the models and camera designs. Presumably son Doug in the photo above is popping in to see his Valley Forge model from Silent Running, being used as an agricultural ship in the rag tag fleet, isn’t being knocked about.

battlestar galactica ralph-mcquarrie-70

Much like with Star Wars, Ralph McQuarrie was hired to create the initial concept art to sell the series to the powers that be. He created, amongst others, the Galactica, the Viper, the Cylon Raider and Basestar, as well as preliminary artwork on the costumes of the Cylons, the Imperious Leader and the insectoid alien Ovions. The show followed the “used universe” concept of Star Wars for most ships and sets. The robotic Cylon centurions were highly polished, like the gleaming white stormtrooper armour, reflecting the oppressive domination of order over the earthy, soft suede costumes of the humans.

Lorne Greene as Commander Adama was a wise and beneficent leader, akin to Alec Guinness’ Ben Kenobi (although he made it alive to the end credits each week). As with Kenobi’s faith in the Force, he followed the prophecy of the lords of Kobol, that a 13th tribe existed on a planet called Earth. His two best pilots were steady, reliable son Captain Apollo (Richard hatch) and cocky hotshot Lt. Starbuck (Dirk Benedict), forever with a stogie in one hand and a lovely lady cupped in the other. He adopted a “live for today” attitude to the constant threat of the Cylons on their heels.

And, of course, the Galactica‘s complement of Viper fighters were the show’s version of Star Wars‘ X-Wings – they even had red stripes down the nose. The thrill of seeing them whoosh down the launch tubes was so good, Larson used it again on Buck Rogers In The 25th Century (that show’s Starfighters are actually McQuarrie’s original Viper concept).

battlestar galactica ralph-mcquarrie- original viper

Disco inferno

As the colonists flee their ruined and devastated worlds, they navigate a space mine field, Apollo and Starbuck clearing a path for the fleet, in another Biblical allusion. On the other side, they encounter not just Cylons, but an insectoid race called the Ovions, who surreptitiously mine Tyrillium for them (a substance used to fuel space ship travel). These aliens are also cannibalistic, harvesting other races they lure in with a casino resort. Larson said it was inspired by a “crazy weekend I had in Vegas.” Starbuck is very at home here, even attempting to manage the career of a glass shattering multi-eyed female singing group, an outer space 3 Degrees (of separation).

Battlestar Galactica also had its share of strong female characters; Marin Jansen as bridge officer Athena; Laurette Sprang as tart with a heart turned medic Cassiopeia; Ann Lockhart as Viper pilot Sheba; and Jane Seymour as Serina, a widow with a young son Boxey (Noah Hathaway).

battlestar galactica jane seymour

Serina and Apollo eventually marry, and she becomes a pilot herself. Her character was originally meant to die in the pilot; in the end, Boxey’s pet daggit (dog) carked it. Endearing himself to his mother, Apollo has a robotic Daggit companion, Muffitt, made for him to cheer him up. This creature was actually a chimp named Evie wearing a furry costume:

battlestar galactica daggit

battlestar galactica daggit 2

You can type this felgercarb, but you can’t say it

The production design and breadth of ambition was impressive, but Larson sorely underestimated the budget, selling it to ABC for $1.8 million. Director Richard Colla talked to various department heads and reckoned the three hour telemovie would cost in the region of $9 million. He used whatever tricks he could, but to help recoup the cost it was decided to release it theatrically first. It was a huge hit with young audiences hungry for more outer space adventure. When ABC saw the profits come in they ordered a full series, instead of the three feature follow up specials initially planned. Battlestar Galactica’s success was to partly be its undoing. Actors were walking on to sets still wet from painting; scripts were rushed; FX footage became endlessly recycled, as ABC replaced Apogee with their own in-house effects unit (stealing their ideas and copying equipment). And, of course, poor broadcast scheduling.

battlestar galactica ships

Amidst the dross, average and plain filler episodes however, there was The Living Legend – a great, action packed two parter with a real living legend guest star, Lloyd Bridges. Bridges starred as Commander Cain, hawk to Adama’s, if not dove, shepherd. Cain and his long lost command, the Battlestar Pegasus, have escaped the Cylon treachery at the peace accord that destroyed the colony worlds, and have been hitting back ever since. Though their approaches broadly differ (he wants Tyrillium to fight on, Adama wants to lead the fleet to safety) they take on superior Cylon odds to secure a refinery in enemy territory. This story too became a theatrical release as The Cylon Attack. Bridges struts around in a Colonial warrior bomber jacket, a puffed up Patton, blaster on hip. To Starbuck’s chagrin, his girlfriend Cassiopeia and Cain were once lovers.

"Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop fracking Cylons!"

“Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop fracking Cylons!”

Incidentally, a VFX demo reel by Adam “Mojo” Lebowitz has surface on Vimeo. Lebowitz was a VFX artist on the new Battlestar Galactica, plus Star Trek (including Voyager & The Motion Picture: Director’s Edition), Serenity, and Babylon 5. After Ron Moore’s reimagined BSG  finished, he hoped to convince the powers that be to revamp the effects on the original Galactica, in much the same way as the digital restorations of the original Star Trek series benefited. The original idea was to remaster the entire series, this was whittled down to remastering just the two-part episodes, and then finally just The Living Legend: Parts 1 & 2. Money was a barrier until the idea was eventually dropped, but here’s a sample of what we could have got:

The trouble with BSG, as cool as the concept was, as great as the effects were, it wasn’t edgy enough. These days show runners like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat on the revamped Doctor Who treat young people with respect and credit them with brains, spinning complex mult-show arcs, ideas and scares. While BSG did admittedly show some death and consequences, it was mostly a case of “This week, on Battlestar Galactica” – hitting the reset button. Cylons were specifically created because the heroes couldn’t be seen to kill other people.

Despite George Lucas’ irritation, the show’s influence did rub off. Strong African-American characters like pilot Boomer (Herb Jefferson) and Colonel Tigh (Terry Carter) indirectly led to The Empire Strikes Back‘s Lando becoming a black character, played by Billy Dee Williams. In the bloodless prequels, a droid army takes over Naboo. There is a throwaway reference to “camps” and invading droids are knocked over like ninepins, or switched off. Even Acorn Antiques‘ Miss Babs (Celia Imrie) becomes a pilot. And of course, a moppet kid, Jake Lloyd (a Boxey by proxy) becomes the hero, Anakin Skywalker. Yippee! (Not.)

As I said earlier, Ronald D Moore took the basic BSG concept and shook it apart, creating a gritty drama that brilliantly holds a mirror up to our own world, reflecting on faith, the war on terror, and much more. At first, when I heard various attempted new film adaptations are going back to the series early roots, I rolled my eyes. But nostalgia is a fickle mistress. Whatever they come up with, it can’t be any worse then BSG‘s ignominious follow up, Galactica 1980, right?!

battlestar galactica cast

Originally posted 2014-04-25 06:36:31. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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