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Requiem for Battlestar Galactica: Blow-Waves in Space

By Matthew Denby

Battlestar Galactica is often dismissed as one of the most expensive turkeys in television history. Labeled a shameless Star Wars rip-off, the show exploded onto TV screens in the late 70s, only to peter out in its first season after audiences tired of increasingly lame scripts apparently built around the re-use of expensive effects footage. But to my generation of George Lucas-infected fantasists, who could only tear themselves away from their Star Wars action figures for the weekly adventures of Apollo and Starbuck, it was the real deal. Now, like Star Trek before it, the much-maligned series looks set for a possible revival, with ongoing interest from Internet-empowered fans stirring rival camps to vie for production rights for a new series or cinema version.

Battlestar Galactica was initially a major ratings success when it debuted in 1978 with a pilot episode detailing the destruction of human civilization by the robotic Cylons--chrome-plated disco stormtroopers with metallic voices that were the last word in Casio home synthesizer effects. Lorne Greene as Adama effectively reprised his patriarchal role from Bonanza, leading the wretched remnants of human civilization as they fled their mechanical oppressors in search of refuge on a lost planet called Earth. Richard Hatch played his son Apollo, while a scene-stealing Dirk Benedict played Apollo's roguish friend, Starbuck. The two blow-waved heartthrobs were clearly molded on Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, but worked brown velvet in a way their cinematic counterparts never could.

Early plotlines--involving mass starvation, political corruption, class division and religious fanaticism--effectively detailed the desperate plight of the refugees and caught the imagination of viewers. But after the pilot won huge ratings, the full-length series that was hastily rushed into production abandoned such complex and gritty storylines for more puerile scripts that inevitably involved lots of re-used clips of explosions. Character development largely went out the window. Blonde vixen Cassiopeia, introduced in the pilot as a prostitute rescued by Starbuck from a baying refugee mob, was inexplicably reintroduced as a nurse and generic love interest. A disgruntled Jane Seymour apparently demanded that her character, Serina, be shot dead by a Cylon at the first possible opportunity. Her wish was granted in the fourth episode, leaving fans wishing that her precocious son, Boxey, and his yapping mechanical dog, Muffet (played by a chimp!), had also fallen under Cylon swords. Human traitor Baltar, who had been so satisfyingly hacked to death by his Cylon allies in the original version of the pilot, was the subject of an absurd plot alteration that saw him leading the genocidal robots in their quest to finish off humanity. John Colicos camped it up as Baltar, chewing through his ridiculous dialogue with panache and style. Baltar's queeny power struggles with his lieutenant, Lucifer--a bitchy robot with an impressive wardrobe of capes--were an ongoing feature of the series.

Amid the recycled dogfights and budget-saving plotlines that involved characters being regularly stranded on backward planets that inevitably resembled Earth, several excellent episodes were produced that have maintained fan interest to this day. Lloyd Bridges put in a star turn as the war-mongering Commander Cain and Patrick MacNee memorably appeared as a satanic alien. A generation of kids developed elevator phobias when a space casino and holiday resort was revealed to be a fattening farm for a race of alien insects who fed human partygoers to their larvae.

Despite sporadic dramatic flourishes, the hugely expensive show began to alienate advertiser-friendly demographics. It was axed at the end of its first season, leaving most storylines unresolved and a generation of kids feeling ripped off. When I read in TV Guide that the series had been canceled, I switched to immediate deep denial, as did many of my peers. In a highly publicized case, one child even killed himself. Many more were tempted to suicide the following year with the appearance of Galactica 1980, an ultra-cheap bastardization of the original show detailing the arrival of the refugees on a contemporary Earth. The largely recast show failed to attract even the young audience it aimed for. I recall there was a singular lack of Cylon Raiders and Colonial Vipers in the schoolyard that year, where only months before strafing runs on groups of girls with Barbie dolls had been commonplace.

Twenty years later, actor Richard Hatch, series creator Glen A. Larson and The Sci-Fi Channel are all working on separate Battlestar Galactica proposals. Although copyright issues and the apparent indecisiveness of Universal Pictures continue to cloud the possibility of a revival, twenty-something fans like myself with fond memories of the show know that not even corporate indifference can wipe out the iconic Cylons, faux-Babylonian chic and blow waves.

Read a love poem for Battlestar Galactica's Athena.

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