Friday, August 19, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 6: Battlestar Galactica: "Lost Planet of the Gods"


During the long wait between Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), there was only one good way to make the time go faster: watching Glen Larson's ABC epic space saga, Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) every Sunday night. Although the series got on the prime-time schedule because of Star Wars' powerhouse influence on the box office and the industry, I've always felt that the series quickly and confidently staked out its own terrain in a rather interesting fashion, so much so that a "re-imagination" of the concept wasn't really necessary. The ingredients in the first series always had the potential, as far as I was concerned, to carry a Galactica franchise well into the future.

As I write in my study of the series,
An Analytical Guide to Television's Battlestar Galactica (1998; McFarland and Company Inc., Pub), due to be re-printed this month in soft-cover form, Battlestar Galactica boasted "some rather remarkable and memorable strengths." After just a few short weeks on the air, the series regulars, including Richard Hatch as Apollo, Dirk Benedict as Starbuck, and Lorne Greene as Commander Adama, were "entrenched as interesting, surprisingly believable people whom audiences found they truly cared for. Like Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983) or even Lassie (1954-71), Battlestar Galactica featured a tragedy each and every week: an emotional, family-oriented tearjerker."

Sadly, most critics didn't view the series in this fashion, perhaps because they were inclined only to see the similarities to Star Wars. "Star Wars was fun and I enjoyed it. But Battlestar Galactica was Star Wars all over again and I couldn't enjoy it without amnesia," wrote Isaac Asimov in his article "Science Fiction is More Than a Space Age Western," (Knight-Ridder Newspapers, September 17, 1978). Phil Hardly, in The Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction (William and Morrow Company, page 339), called the series "a charmless clone" of the George Lucas epic, and Time Magazine, on September 18, 1978, page 98, noted that Galactica was perhaps "the most blatant rip-off ever to appear on the small screen."

Despite the blasts (Stephen King even called Galactica a "deep space turkey"), some astute reviewers began to detect that the series had value and its own identity, in part because TV can be a much more intimate medium than the movies. By mere virtue of the fact that Galactica was on the air every week - beaming into our living rooms - its dramatis personae boasted a deeper "inner life" than those featured in the delightful Star Wars. On Galactica, characters developed, changed, and evolved, and I submit that it is this character development that is actually the reason for the series' sustained popularity over more than a quarter century. We liked these people. We cared about them. We wanted to know what would happen to them; how they would survive.

"For the most part, the characters are given more psychological dimension than the comic-strip cutouts engaged in Star Wars, and Galactica creator Larson has a deft knack for spaced out humor...Expensive, ingeniously crafted and singularly fun-filled," critic Harry Waters described Galactica for Newsweek on September 11, 1978. "It's amazing that Battlestar Galactica looked as good as it did," noted critic Tom Shales at the time, and in 1995 a book called Net Trek (page 311) commented insightfully that Battlestar Galactica was..."immensely enjoyable, and few shows since have matched it for pure entertainment value." Amen.

An episode that shows off the dramatic series at its very best is "Lost Planet of the Gods." This is the episode that aired immediately after the three-hour premiere, "Saga of a Star World," and it was broadcast on September 24, 1978 and October 1, 1978. Written by Glen A. Larson and Donald Bellisario, and directed by Christian Nyby, Jr., this episode guest stars Jane Seymour as Serina, Boxey's mother, and tells the tale of a deadly plague that incapacitates the rag-tag fleet's warrior contingent, forcing Apollo and Starbuck (both unaffected by the disease...) to train a group of raw recruits including Athena (Maren Jensen) and Serina. At the same time, the Galactica and her wards run across a strange void - an area of unremitting darkness -in space, and Adama believes this strange phenomenon is actually the hallowed path to the legendary planet called Kobol, the planet where the 13 tribes originated long, long ago. He believes that somewhere in Kobol's ancient cities may be the answer to the location of Earth, the Galactica's destination. Although the Cylons (and Baltar...) are in pursuit, the Galactica stops at Kobol to explore the cities,( after a star is detected in the void right at the height of Apollo and Serina's joining [marriage] ceremony.) In the end, the Cylons attack Kobol, and there is another tragedy...

The first hour of this two-part of Battlestar Galactica focuses mainly on the warriors coming down with a disease, a genre trope of not much interest, but what makes both segments work so well is the chemistry and character fireworks between Richard Hatch's Captain Apollo and Jane Seymour's Serina. There's a real romantic spark there, and the moments wherein Apollo and Serina bicker over her decision to become a viper pilot, have a real kitchen-sink reality to them, something you just won't find anywhere in Star Wars. These scenes - played out against the cramped, gray-battleship set design of Battlestar Galactica - evoke what remains best about the series; that it can focus on the loves and losses of the Colonials, a kind of From Here to Eternity in space.

"Lost Planet of the Gods," follows this couple from their fight in Apollo's quarters, to a tender marriage ceremony, to utter despair and loss when Serina is shot in the back on Kobol by a Cylon Centurion. The episode's coda - one of Galactica's very best - sees young Boxey (Noah Hathaway) and Apollo visit Serina's bedside as she lays dying. It's a horribly sad goodbye. Out in the hallway beyond, all of Apollo's friends and family gather in mourning. For me, this in particular is just a lovely touch to the show. The large cast is gathered to grieve with Apollo, and this is precisely the kind of moment that is missing on the new Galactica which - well-written though it may be - never quite manages to tug at the heartstrings (in part because it is too busy scoring political points about Abu Ghraib, 9/11, religious fanaticism, whathaveyou.)

The new cast - accomplished as it is - never seems actually be working together on the same show, instead seeming fragmented and at odds, chewing away at various and sundry sub-plots (and quoting from great war movies such as Patton or pop culture touchstones like Top Gun).

This "Lost Planet of the Gods" coda reveals that in the original Battlestar Galactica at least, the characters do care about each other, and there is growth, change, mourning, etc. Apollo is married, and loses Serina after the equivalent of five episodes (five hours of the series), so it isn't like a guest star just popped on and got killed. As viewers, we felt the attachment to Serina that Apollo did, and now watch as he must raise her little son alone. The death of Serina is a 20-Kleenex tearjerker, and the characters' reaction to this loss puts truth to the lie that Galactica was just about dogfights and Star Wars, just a "popcorn" show. On the contrary, the series often concerned itself with very human characters and the sacrifices they had to endure.

Richard Hatch - who is so good as the revolutionary Tom Zarek in the new Sci-Fi Channel Battlestar Galactica - gives a touching, heart-wrenching and thoroughly honest performance in "Lost Planet of the Gods," and it may be his best work in Galactica's canon. It isn't shmaltzy or histrionic, just very, very genuine. It is for that performance -and for the touching, human - emotional - finale that sees the cast gathered in grief, that I recall Battlestar Galactica's "Lost Planet of the Gods" for this sixth Friday Cult TV Flashback. The next time somebody remarks that the characters were just ciphers, or rip-offs from Star Wars, pop this episode in the DVD player and prove 'em wrong.

6 comments:

  1. Anonymous11:26 AM

    Thanks for remembering what Battlestar Galactica USED to look like. Before it was "sexed up" and dominated by September 11th references. The new one is a fad, for sure, but I wonder if it will have the staying power that the original did. People like you still remember the first series so fondly...

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  2. Anonymous12:13 AM

    Although there were things that I liked about the original Galactica series, the show suffered from scripting problems, repetitive special effects, and blatant plot-holes. Sorry John, but "Lost Planet of the Gods" is probably the greatest offender of the series.

    While I will agree that Serena's final death scene was somewhat touching, the truth is she was scripted to die of radiation poisoning in the pilot - "Saga of a Star World". Check out the deleted scene section of disc 1 of the DVD box set for some wonderfully played out scenes regarding her fatal illness. According to an interview with Jane Seymor (in Starlog, I believe), she was outraged when she learned all her death-related scenes had been removed. She agreed to return for one more storyline (ie. "Lost Planet of the Gods") on the strict condition that she be killed off again - for REAL this time. Sadly, the "shot in the back" sequence was cheap and lacked the heart of her original radiation poisonig plot in the pilot. Her death-bed scene, although shot during the "Lost Planet" production, was probably lifted from the script of the pilot.

    Also, the episode left open a gaping plothole - Baltar is left trapped under a pillar in the depths of one of the pyramids. In his final scene, it looks very obvious that he is to be left stranded there forever. However, in his next appearance, he's back on his base-star with Lucifer as if nothing happened.

    Finally, whatever happened to the female squadron that was formed with such fanfare in this episode? It appears that once the men of Blue Squadron were cured of their illness, the women all returned to piloting shuttles? This seems like a waste of resources, as the women proved themselves to be combat-worthy.

    You might want to drop by the Battlestar Wiki and read up on the analyses and questions that were brought up on each episode. Here is the link to the analysis of the second half of "Lost Planet of the Gods":

    http://en.battlestarwiki.org/wiki/Lost_Planet_of_the_Gods%2C_Part_II

    I must say that after watching the entire series on DVD, I can understand why this show was cancelled after only one season. There were simply too many corny & campy stories ("The Lost warrior" and "The Young Lords" are painful examples). Richard Hatch admitted that the original plan was to produce only a few miniseries/specials throughout the first year, but Universal put on the pressure to produce a full season's worth of episodes, which generated a significant amount of sub-par material.

    Other than the pilot, my favorite episode from this series is "The Hand of God" (the season/series finale), because the writers finally decided to smarten up, and as they say on the Wiki: "This episode indicates that the series was beginning to finally come together. Relationships were being developed and cemented, characters were coming into their own and future plot lines were beginning to take shape that would have given the series life." Ah, if but to dream...

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  3. Dear anonymous,

    Thank you for writing. I enjoy reading other opinions and appreciate you visiting this site and sharing yours with me and my readership. Welcome, and my gratitude for your contribution to the debate.

    Now, here are my thoughts in regards to what you wrote in the above-comment.

    1. How the death of Serina originally played out is interesting historically in terms of production, but ultimately immaterial to an enjoyment of the "Lost Planet of the Gods" episode. Dr. Smith and the Robot were not originally a part of Lost in Space, and were added later, after the pilot episode was shot. Likewise, on Star Trek, the original crew consisted of Mr. Alden, Dr. Mark Piper and Mr. Sulu wasn't the helmsman. Spock was a "Vulcanian" and it was like 900 years in the future according to "Squire of Gothos."

    Premises change, is what I'm saying. So I don't think "Lost Planet of the Gods" gets a demerit purely and simply on the basis that Serina was to have died in "Saga of a Star World." In sci-fi TV, premises change from first episode to regular series quite a bit. I find the death of Serina enormously affecting in "Lost Planet of the Gods."

    2. Baltar's predicament at episode end is a gaping hole? Why? Since he shows up again, it's clear he was rescued, treated and restored to the base star throne, as it were. This is hardly a leap of faith or plot hole at all. Indeed, I see the current trend on the new BSG to explain EVERYTHING (to over-explain,...) as a more dramatic problem. Why not leave an episode on a note like this? Why spoon feed us every last detail? If Baltar is back in the next episode, we assume, well, he was rescued...

    3. I also really like "Hand of God," one of the best eps of the series.

    4. The original Battlestar Galactica stories are campy and corny and cheesy? At least the original series with its expensive costumes, elaborate sets and detailed miniatures attempted to create a new and authentic world "out there" (complete with a colonial lexicon). The series is flawed, we're agreed...but so are al series, really. Today, we might look at what was accomplished with thirty years of hindsight and say it is campy and cheesy and corny and all that. But is that fair?

    What about the new show? Is it held to the same high standard?

    It makes ZERO attempt to craft an alien reality. The characters wear business suits and eye glasses like people you meet on Wall Stret today...they look and sound just like us, down to the unfortunate usage of earthbound terms like "lemonade" and "stogie" and the like. In fact, the characters even quote from Earth movies like Patton and Top Gun (in one episode of the new series, for instance Starbuck says "I feel the need, the need for speed..."). Ugh. This is science fiction for people who don't understand what science fiction is; or what it is supposed to be.

    So at least we can accurately claim that the original show had ambition, and perhaps gets an A for effort in creating an alien "reality" for the viewer. The new show doesn't even make a token attempt. So I rank it lower. Much lower.

    Which makes me wonder why people can cheerfully accept without question all the deficits of the new show but like to rag on the corniness of the old show.

    Let's see whether or not the new show also looks corny in nearly 30 years.

    Come back and visit again. I enjoy the debate (and hope you do too...).

    All my best,
    John

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  4. Anonymous3:15 PM

    Hello again, John. Thanks for the quick response. My name is Ryan.

    First, I want to clear one thing off the bat - With exception to the miniseries, I haven't seen anything more to do with the new Battlestar Galactica series. When I first saw it, I hated it, for all of the reasons you mentioned in your comments above, plus the fact that all special effects shots have annoying "quick-zooms" that really water down the entire presentation. They didn't even provide a clear shot of the Galactica itself until a relatively brief shot near the end of the 3 hour movie! Anyway, as time has gone on, the buzz has grown, and more and more people are saying that this is supposed to be an excellent drama series. Drama? Hmmm... I'd never thought of it that way. Maybe I have to treat it like a drama series before I'll enjoy it? Like you said, maybe this is science fiction for people who don't understand what science fiction is. That said, I'm not a big fan of TV-based sci-fi. I find them too watered-down, especially if it's a spin-off of a movie franchise (eg. Stargate, Robocop, and even Star Trek, as I grew up on the early movies, not the 60s show.)

    I can accept the fact that scripts get changed all the time, especially in sci-fi universes. However, I still think they could've written Serena's (second) death better than to just have a couple of Cylons come out of nowhere and shoot her in the back. It looked like a quick-insert scene that was put in at the very last minute. For me, it killed the mood of the episode. As you say, her death bed scene and the follow-up scene with Apollo and Boxey were wonderfully done in the emotional sense, but I was still scratching my head saying to myself, "What just happened? Where the heck did that come from??"

    I'll say it again: Baltar's fate was a gaping plothole. Give me another example of a situation like Baltar's, where a character's fate is left on such a cliffhanger that the viewer is begging for a well-explained resolve. I mean, the camera was lifting & moving away from Baltar as he cursed Adama and Lucifer, pinned under a collapsing pyramid and potentially bleeding to death. I'm sorry, but Baltar's sudden and unexplained return to his base-star with no anger towards Lucifer is very sloppy writing if you ask me. The only excuse I can figure is that since the Galactica production team was under the wire to produce a full season of episodes, that they had to sacrifice continuity for quantity.

    I definately agree with your view on the costumes, sets, models, and special effects (even though most of the effects were shot for the pilot, and reused over and over again for the rest of the series). The positive side is that there's something to be said about a show that is shot, edited, and mastered completely on film. Compare this to the sad look of Star Trek: TNG or any other series that produces its special effects on video tape, where in the end everything looks jagged and unprofessional.

    The cheesiness that I'm talking about refers to plot elements that just gets me laughing on my couch and saying "Yeah, right! Gimme a break!" Compare this with the original Star Wars trilogy (well, maybe not so much with Ewok-infested Return of the Jedi), where I can watch them again and again and not say, "Ugh, what did I ever see in this series when I was a kid?", like I do now with Galactica.

    The fact is I bought the Galactica DVD set because I hadn't seen the series since it first aired (when I was 6 or 7 years old) and was dying to see it again. Although I was expecting some 70s corniness, I didnt figure the show was going to be THAT corny. So you can understand that I have come to be somewhat disappointed in the series. I suppose that if I caught episodes of the series when they aired on the Space network here in Canada before the DVD set came out, I would've thought twice about spending the $100 (of course, the box set has come down to half the price since that time). When I started showing the episodes to my cousin, he was very excited as he watched the pilot, but then lost interest completely after watching "Lost Planet of the Gods". His reaction was, "Well, I'm glad YOU were the sucker who dropped the cash on this."

    At any rate, I respect your opinion on this subject, and if you truly obtain satisfying entertainment value out of this classic series, then I salute you and wish you many hours of watching the series again and again. I have to admit that I've watched the series through twice to at least try to salvage and enjoy the good aspects of the show. I would assume that you have picked up the box set yourself by this time. If not, what the heck are you doing sitting on your butt? Go out and buy it!! (Or better yet, buy a used one at a better deal from me! ;) )

    Take care,
    Ryan
    Calgary, Canada

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  5. Hey Ryan,

    Thanks for checkin' back in. You know, we share some common ground here. In my Analytical Guide to BG, I write that the series had enormous potential...but rarely realized it. I still believe that's true (and I think that's also what you're getting at...).

    Still, I like "Lost Planet of the Gods," and episodes including "Hand of God," "The Living Legend," and "War of the Gods." I think that these examples (as well as the opener...) make up for the lousy space westerns like "Magnificent Warriors," "Lost Warrior" and the "Young Lords" stuff.

    There's still enough there for me to like; I remain enamored of the cast and I do think that they managed to craft engaging, memorable and charismatic characters.

    But, yes some episodes are flaky and corny. I'd be a fool to deny it. BSG is a long way from perfect, and yet occasionally - on wonderful occasions - it reaches that potential!

    I don't know if I agree with you about it being more cheesy than Star Wars (particularly Return of the Jedi and the recent prequels). I'll still take Muffit and Boxey over Jar-Jar and little Anakin any day!

    But again, I like to read other opinions, or this whole blog gig is no fun! So keep writin' and let me know when you think I've missed the mark (or heck, when you agree with me!)

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  6. Anonymous10:45 AM

    Actually, I was only referring to the original Star Wars trilogy (minus the before-mentioned Jedi, which I guess leaves only two films, LOL). Obviously, Boxey, Muffit, and even those insect aliens from the pilot are more worthy than Jar-Jar and Anakin from the new trilogy! ;)

    I can see myself cracking open the box set to watch the series for a third time in the near future. Maybe I could find a friend to watch it with who won't get turned off this time. ;) By the way, how are the novels? I wouldn't mind seeing what they provide in regards to the characters and storyline after the show was cancelled. I'd be especially interested in reading Richard Hatch's own take on the series. BTW, do you know what his view is on the new Galactica?

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