The success of Star Wars inspired many space operas on both the big and little screens. The most notable and least respected was the 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica. In its original era, it was dismissed by t.v. critics and sci-fi fans as a Star Wars knockoff aimed at the lowest common denominator. However, if you can appreciate a show that filters some unusual ideas into a something-for-everybody approach to television, there’s a lot to enjoy in the original version of this show.
Though the success of Star Wars made it possible, Battlestar Galactica creator Glen Larson was also influenced by the classic western t.v. show Wagon Train when he devised his narrative for a show where survivors of a genocidal attack escape from their home galaxy in a ragtag fleet of ships led by the titular interstellar war vessel. He also mixed elements of his Mormon beliefs into the narrative as well as the kind of offbeat concepts about spirituality and space aliens that you might have seen on In Search Of. Throw in Star Wars-style interstellar dogfights and bubblegum t.v. concepts (a cute kid, a robotic pet dog, soap opera romantic complications, etc.) and you have a distinctly ’70s pop phenomenon that has more going on under the hood than you might first perceive.
Read on for the first six examples of Schlockmania’s favorite episodes from this series…
Saga Of A Star World: This pilot episode actually released to movie theaters in other countries before its t.v premiere and in the U.S. after the show’s original t.v. run. It works best in its longer episode-style version, where its t.v. structure and pacing play more comfortably. The plotting is a bit disjointed, particularly in its “Vegas in space” third segment, but the result gives you a feeling for the show’s yin/yang combination of the serious and the silly as well as how it could sneak eccentric concepts into formulaic storytelling structure. The show’s leads make strong impressions here, particularly the Hatch/Benedict team, and Dykstra’s visual FX are of comparable quality to anything you could see in a film of the same era. The show’s grasp of its own elements would improve substantially from here but this establishes its campy yet heartfelt and sometimes weird vibe. You’ll know after watching this if it’s your kind of show or not.
Lost Planet Of The Gods: The second episode was a two-parter and it’s a strong one that displays the show’s esoteric formula firing on all cylinders. The first half is an exciting action-driven piece that involves top warriors Apollo (Richard Hatch) and Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) having to train a group of female apprentice pilots for battle when a mysterious illness makes the male warriors ill. The second half of the episode involves the discovery of a planet that once housed the ancestors of our heroes’ race and it manages to incorporate Mormon theology, Chariots Of The Gods ideas about ancient astronauts and a dash of late ’70s Egyptian/pyramid craze into its stew. The result delivers excitement, humor, melodrama, a little pro-feminism theme – and don’t be surprised if its unexpected ending knocks the wind out of you in a way you’d never expect from a show considered to be lite entertainment.
The Lost Warrior: Battlestar Galactica was supposed to be a series of t.v. movies but that plan changed at the eleventh hour when the network decided it wanted a weekly show. Thus, there are several episodes where Larson and company poach familiar concepts from other genres that could be plugged into a space opera format. For example, this episode is clearly modeled on westerns like Shane, with Apollo crash-landing on a planet and assuming the role of mysterious gunslinger in a western-style small town under the grip of a vice lord who controls a Cylon, a member of the cyborg race that destroyed Apollo’s people. It’s a simple but effective genre-blender that plays out its oater concepts in a respectable style and gives Hatch a chance to show off his dramatic chops as he becomes friendly with a widow and her impressionable son. The human vs. Cylon shootout finale is staged with style and there’s also a fun, quirky performance from Claude Earl Jones as the town’s effete, soft-spoken crime boss.
Gun On Ice Planet Zero: this two-parter pushes the show’s habit of lifting concepts from films to the hilt. This time, the plot involves a desperate mission to destroy a Cylon-controlled weapon on a foreign planet that borrows its plot material from The Guns Of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen and Ice Station Zebra. Hatch and Benedict are supplemented by an ace cast of outlaws played by character faves Roy Thinnes, Christine Belford, Richard Hatch and James Olson – and once they get on the ice planet, you get Dan O’Herlihy as a mad scientist and Britt Ekland pops up in a unique multiple role. The direction by Alan J. Levi delivers action and an impressive amount of spectacle for a t.v. production, with the talented cast given room to embellish the thrills with their performances (Thinnes is particularly good as a tragic bad guy).
The Living Legend: perhaps the best of all this series’ two-part episodes. The Galactica finds itself in trouble when they run low on fuel while being chased by their traitorous enemy Baltar (John Colicos). Salvation arrives when they are reunited with Battlestar Pegasus, a long-lost ship commanded by legendary warrior Cain (Lloyd Bridges). Cain clashes with Galactica’s commander, Adama (Lorne Greene), over Cain’s warlike approach to strategy as they are forced to face off with the Cylons. Bridges brings a real charge to this episode with his gung-ho performance, making an effective sparring partner for Greene, and the mixture of battles and inter-crew tension means the action and dramatic components fuel each other in an effective way. Another cool aspect of this episode is the juicy role it provides for Cassiopea (Laurette Spang), a show regular who is revealed to be Cain’s girlfriend and also gets to lend a hand in an important mission in the show’s second half. Finally, this episode is notable for introducing Sheba (Anne Lockhart), a female warrior who would become a worthwhile addition to the regular cast, and providing most of the footage for the later feature film Cylon Attack.
Fire In Space: Schlockmania’s favorite of the single-show episodes. When Cylon ships launch a kamikaze attack on the Galactica, Adama is injured and the fires caused by the strategic Cylon ship crashes create a fire that threatens to destroy the entire ship. What follows is an ace cliffhanger-style episode where one set of characters is trapped in area by fire, ship doctor Salik (George Murdock) struggles to save Adama’s life with emergency surgery and Apollo and Starbuck work with the crew to figure out a way to extinguish the fires. Thus, it’s The Towering Inferno on a spaceship and it works thanks to a suspenseful script and tight direction. One of the secret strengths of Battlestar Galactica is the way its characters care for each other and this episode leans on that aspect, giving some unexpected heft to all the disaster cliffhangers.