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.