Tuesday, April 04, 2006

CULT TV FLASHBACK #19: Galactica: 1980

Who says all cult TV flashbacks are good ones?

Today, the "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica is a (modest) hit on the Sci-Fi Channel, but as long time fans of the outer space franchise will recall, this isn't the first series to attempt to recapture the magic of the 1978-1979 original starring Richard Hatch, Lorne Greene and Dirk Benedict. There is another chapter in the Galactica's history...

In fact, it was January 1980 when a short-lived series called Galactica:1980 appeared on ABC.

I'll never forget opening an issue of TV Guide and seeing the black-and-white advertisement that heralded the news: Galactica had found Earth. The ad revealed two generic Colonial Warriors looming over an Earth city, like giants. This was my first cause for suspicion and cynicism: the two warriors were generic enough that they could have been Apollo and Starbuck. Or not. I began to get a sinking feeling: would any Galactica show be worthwhile without those who had starred in the previous series?

I watched with excitement and trepidation on Sunday, January 27, 1980, as the first installment of a three-part episode "Galactica Discovers Earth" aired. As I feared, there had been a lot of weird and unnecessary changes (although at least - in fairness - Starbuck wasn't a woman, Tigh wasn't a drunk, Apollo didn't hate his Dad, Boomer wasn't a woman, and the Cylons hadn't become T-100s...).

The series picked up twenty yahrens after the original show, as a bearded Commander Adama (Lorne Greene again) is counseled by a teenaged genius named Dr. Zee (Robbie Rist). It turns out, Earth is nearby, but does not possess the technology to defend itself against a Cylon attack. In other words, the shining quest is over and the Galactica has come a long way for nothing. Worse, with the Cylons in pursuit, Adama has merely led the exterminating machines to one more human outpost...

Proving his theory, Zee shows Adama a speculative film of what the destruction of the Earth would look like at Cylon hands (or pulsar cannons). Want to know what it looks like? Conveniently, just like stock footage from the Universal movie Earthquake (1976) only with Cylon ships superimposed over the action. Every time a building in L.A. is about to crumble (from the earthquake), instead a blue Cylon blast hits it, making it look like a laser salvo. Cheap isn't the word for this sequence. It's insulting.

The mattes in the Los Angeles attack scene are terrible too. Black lines are visible around the strafing craft at all times, scale fluctuates, and the black hooks used in the motion control process are visible on the tails of the Cylon ships throughout. It all looks slapped together to make a quick buck.

Welcome to Galactica: 1980.

From there, the series involved Adama and his grand-son Boxey - re-named Troy - trying to figure out a way to bring Earth technology up to speed so it can resist a Cylon attack. Adama and Zee want to do this by secretly delivering Colonial technology to kindly scientists (like the Brady Bunch's Robert Reed...) but a renegade scientist among the fleet, Xavier, is impatient. He believes he could travel back in time and alter Earth's history so that it will be ready now, in 1980, to assist. The premise (not counting the time travel angle...)was basically a variation on The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951): advanced aliens interact with humans to offer superior technology and peaceful co-existence.

Maybe that's not the best premise in the cosmos. Maybe it's not even particularly promising. But it certainly seems that it could have been workable, right? But where Galactica:1980 failed rather dramatically was in executing the premise

To wit, the first episode found Colonial Warriors Troy and Dillon riding space-age motorcycles that could actually fly, a ludicrous concept again made even worse by bad rear-projection and process work. They battled with a motorcycle gang, and there were lots of double takes and foolish reaction shots as the Colonials flew off into the sky...

If that wasn't bad enough, succeeding episodes were actually not that good. The second story, "The Super Scouts," found Troy and Dillon rescuing a group of Colonial children (ugh!) and hiding them on Earth as boy/girl scouts (ugh! ugh!). The children had little devices which could render them invisible (ugh! ugh! ugh!). Also, Earth's gravity rendered Galacticans super power and strength so they could jump like the Six-Million Dollar Man or Bionic Woman (ugh! ugh! ugh! ugh!). The story was a meditation on the dangers of pollution but it was really just playtime for the kiddies. One scene depicted the invisible children tossing apples at corrupt local policemen.

What treasures laid ahead for Galactica:1980 after this triumph? "Spaceball" -an episode I refer to as Chariot of the Gods meets The Bad News Bears (1976). This tale found the super scouts playing baseball at a camp for underprivileged children! Just image what wacky fun that was! Then came "The Night the Cylons Landed" on April 13 and April 20th 1980, which found the Cylons (led by an android named Andromus) crashing on Earth and seeking the help of guest star Wolfman Jack to "phone home" to the Empire.

The final episode of the series (the sixth story...) aired on May 4, 1980. It was called "The Return of Starbuck" and was a flashback story that saw guest star Dirk Benedict back as Lt. Starbuck. Stranded on an alien planet, he befriends a Cylon named "Cy" and helped a strange woman named Angela (Chapman), who is actually Dr. Zee's mother, get back to the fleet. As bad as this no doubt sounds, it was about a hundred times better than any other episode of Galactica:1980, a series that re-used all the props of the original 1978 space adventure but had none of the heart.

The science fiction press was not kind. "If Galactica fans were expecting the worst when the sequel arrived in 1980, they certainly weren't disappointed," wrote Epilog Magazine in 1993. "The stories were a complete waste of time" opined Michael Cassutt in The Best of Science Fiction Television (Harmony; 1987). And TV Zone called the show "an embarrassing, child-oriented mess." (June 1995, page 5).

I'm afraid Galactica:1980 finds no additional love from me, even in retrospect. Indeed, I was a ten-year old kid in 1980, and even at that age, I was insulted. This was, perhaps, my first exposure with the idea that entertainment I loved could be corrupted and destroyed by the very people who had crafted superior material. To put it bluntly, by my reckoning, Galactica:1980 is the nadir of televised sci-fi. Indulging in fan hyperbole..it was the worst show. EVER.

If you want to see for yourself just how bad Galactica:1980 is, please feel free. It's airing on the Sci-Fi Channel this Thursday morning (April 6). I recommend you watch it. Because if we don't remember history, we're doomed to repeat it.

5 comments:

  1. John, I remember having problems with Galactica: 1980 from the minute I saw the first episode. This was primarily because the final scene of "The Hand of God," the last episode of "Battlestar Galactica," showed the Galactica picking up a broadcast image of the Apollo XI landing from 1969. That would mean that the signal would be travelling into space and would reach the Galactica at some time in the future.
    When I saw that Boxey was now a full-grown man, and it was only supposed to be at the most, 11 years after the Apollo landing, I realized that the timeline was completely wrong (I had a similar problem with Terminator 3, but that's another story), and couldn't buy the premise from that point on.
    Oddly, I had a problem 5 years later with "Enemy Mine" because the film seemed to me a rehash of "The Return of Starbuck." Of course, as was brought up on a panel at I-Con last weekend, the big problem with that episode is that Starbuck, after defeating the three Cylons who land on the planet near the end of the episode, doesn't climb into their fighter craft and take off from the planet himself.

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  2. The only reason I'm thankful for 'Galactica: 1980' is because it provided the link to two other shows.

    With reporter from UBS, I was able to link that to 'America 2Night' (and maybe soon to 'Studio 60'?) which led back to 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman'.

    And then there was the NYC episode which featured Ken Lynch as his cop character of Grover from 'McCloud'.

    Good times... at least for Toobworld!

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  3. Dude, you said Yahrens. I didn't even know how to spell that!

    I seriously want to see this show and I can't believe I haven't. I mean, Barry Van Dyke. Me-ow! :)

    Really, I do want to see this show. I feel like it's on DVD and I've just been putting it off... maybe for good reason? I dunno, I am such a fan of the original (so much so I refuse to watch the new one, regardless of the good reviews. It's just stealing), but Lorne Greene keeps this one of interest to me. Maybe I'm just a sucker, but it's got Robbie Rist AND Robert Reed, you say? It's such a Brady Bunch re-union, how could I pass it up!!!

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  4. This was the worst series of any of the Galactica franchises..

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  5. It was so lame, being set in contemporary California. I kept expecting Officer Malloy to pull up to Troy-Boxley whoever McCord and tell Reid to get back into uniform and back in the squad car.

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