Grand space opera

Bonanza treks into the far beyond

Published: Jan 03 2015, 01:01:am

Thursday, July 12, 1978.

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. Written and executive-produced by Glen A. Larson. Music by Stu Phillips and Glen A. Larson. Directed by Richard A. Colla. Running time: 122 minutes. General entertainment.
EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO, PRODUCER Gene Roddenberry had an idea for a new TV series. He sat down at his typewriter and battered off an outline. "Star Trek," he wrote, "is a television first . . . The format is Wagon Train to the stars."
    When 20th Century-Fox first announced that a director named George Lucas was working on a picture called Star Wars,  the studio described his project as "a great celestial cowboys-and-indians story."
    Welcome Battlestar Galactica, a science-fiction epic that's sure to become known as "Bonanza in the far beyond." A space opera spectacular, the new movie introduces Lorne Greene as the greatest patriarch of them all, Commander Adama, saviour of all mankind.
    An ongoing lawsuit to the contrary, Battlestar Galactica is not a Star Wars ripoff. An independent concept that draws upon the special-effects expertise developed for the Lucas film, it was co-produced by John Dykstra, a Lucas subcontractor and special photographic effects supervisor on the earlier film.
    Galactica is that rare entertainment commodity, a TV concept too big for the small screen. Produced to theatrical standards, the series may be one of the [1978] fall season's big successes.
    In the meantime, Vancouver audiences are getting a stunning big screen preview, and enjoying every minute of it. This is one case where local filmgoers have lucked out. My advice is, don't wait for the TV release, see it now.
    In developing his concept, writer-producer Glen A. Larson had the good sense to consider the mistakes made by the producers of other TV sci-fi shows. He noted the flaws in such efforts as Space 1999 (1975-1977), The Starlost (1973-1974) and Star Trek (1966-1969), then created a storyline that works better than any of them.
    Star Trek, unfortunately, had a leadership problem. Bill Shatner's Captain Kirk was always leaving his bridge to get involved in fistfights. Patent nonsense.
    Galactica's Adama (Lorne Greene) is a commander in the true sense. When it comes to derring-do, it is his son Captain Apollo (Richard Hatch) and Apollo's flashy young wingman, Lieutenant Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) who exchange laser blasts with the enemy.
    For basic plot, Larson recalls The Starlost, CTV's ill-fated attempt to create a major SF series. That show, produced in Toronto, was set on a space ark, a huge ship fleeing a dying earth. The problem was that there wasn't much by way of dramatic conflict in the situation.
    Galactica has conflict. It opens with a battle fleet, the might of mankind's 12 colonies, on its way to a peace conference with the alien Cylons. Unbeknownst to President Adar (Lew Ayres), the aliens are a treacherous lot, sworn to destroy all humans.
     Unprovoked, the Cylons launch a  murderous attack on both the fleet and the humans' underdefended home planets. The fleet's flagship Galactica, under Adama, is the sole surviving battlestar.
     Returning to the smouldering homeworlds, it gathers together a ragtag armada, a collection of miscellaneous spacecraft that contain the remnants of a shattered human race.
    In a plot that crosses Star Wars with The Ten Commandments (1956), Adama leads them in an exodus toward their only hope, a distant planet called Earth.
    Between them, producer Dykstra and director Richard Colla have assembled a show with considerable polish and pace. Their film, not unexpectedly, divides neatly into three distinct movements.
    The first, consisting of the Cylons' attack, sets up the situation. The second, the organization of the exodus, introduces primary relationships. Apollo helps Serina (Jane Seymour), a lovely young widow with a preteen son.
    Starbuck, already involved with Apollo's starchy sister, Athena (Maren Jensen), is obviously headed for girl trouble. His problem is Cassiopeia (Laurette Spang), an attractive "socialator" eager to demonstrate her skills to her personal saviour.
    The third movement involves the cast in its first adventure. Following a hazardous journey through an outer-space minefield, the fleeing humans make planetfall on a deserted world, only to find it populated by an insect-like race whose apparent purpose in life is to serve man.
    Things, of course, are not as they seem.
    Jam-packed with heroes, villains and awesome special effects, Battlestar Galactica provides slam-bang action entertainment for the whole family. It delivers everything it promises.
*    *    *
TV OR NOT TV? That was your question.
    By now, everyone knows that Universal-TV is premiering a new show this fall [1978] on the ABC network. Called Battlestar Galactica, it is scheduled from 8 to 9 p.m. on Sundays.
    What, then, is Battlestar Galactica, the Universal feature currently playing in theatres across Canada? According to Universal spokesmen, it is a "special theatrical release version," prepared especially for cinemas.
     Although it will not be seen in the United States, the feature is being shown here and in other foreign markets. The television series, they say, will kick off with a three-hour episode. (After allowing time for station breaks and commercial interruptions, that first TV show will run about two hours and 20 minutes.)
    Special preparation for movie theatres consisted of paring the picture down to 122 minutes. Though Universal will not admit it, I've received independent confirmation that the film currently setting box office records on Granville Street is the one that will be seen on TV in September.
    Such a prerelease is far from standard practice. Universal offers no explanations, but my independent sources tell an interesting story.
    Battlestar Galactica, at a reported million dollars per hour-long episode, is the most expensive show ever developed for television. According to one source, Universal would never have attempted it without the front money put up by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).
    The project, first called Galactica, then renamed Earth Star, was designed as a seven-hour TV "event." When the first footage was screened, both the network and the film studio quickly changed their plans.
    It was good. So good that ABC ordered a full season's worth of hour-long episodes, 26 chapters in all.
    Universal, so the story goes, was suddenly very sorry that it had presold a potential theatrical hit to television. Exercising its right to distribute product theatrically in foreign markets, the studio put the opening episode into release in Canada and Europe.
    It appears that it was the right decision. Battlestar Galactica has the look of a winner.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1978. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Battlestar Galactica went to air as scheduled, but its winning ways cost a great deal of money. That, and the fact that in 1978 Universal Studious was sued by 20th Century Fox and Luscasfilms for copyright infringement, led to the show's cancellation after 24 episodes. Although the courts ruled in Universal's favour, the decision didn't come until August, 1980, 16 months after the decision to wrap production. There was a fan-inspired campaign, much like the one that had won a third season for Star Trek in 1968. The result was a three-episode mini-series, Galactica 1980, in which the story was brought to a close. A generation later, Larson's ideas were reimagined and updated in Universal Television's studios in Vancouver, B.C. A two-part mini-series premiered in December, 2003, followed by four full seasons of a successful new Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009). But wait, as they say in the late-night informercials, there's more. Two made-for-TV movies, Razor (2007) and The Plan (2009), broadened the narrative, and made possible the single season Caprica (2010) and Blood & Chrome (2012-2013), a single-season prequel. As for the future, the fan press reports that Bryan Singer, a director familiar with working in Vancouver, is keen on doing his own theatrical feature film based on the original 1978 series.