RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Battlestar Galactica (1978/79): Prolog

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We’re trying to do shows here on Retrospeculative TV that had a huge influence on us as younger folk, and checking to see how they hold up. Essentially we’re treating them as if they’re new, and subjecting them to the same rigors we use on modern shows. The only real criteria here is that they have to be more than a decade old and, ideally, have impacted us in some forceful way, but we want to stay away from the really popular, legendary shows. Why? Well, they’re too easy, (“I remember when Mister Spock taught me the same important lesson about life than he taught all of you at the same exact time”), they’re too ubiquitous (To this day, I still meet people who think all SF is Star Trek, period, end of sentence), and it’s got too much coverage anyway. There are eleventy jillion websites yammering on about “The X-Files” and “Star Trek: So You Guys Aren’t Done With This Yet, Huh?” Conversely, I’m pretty sure I’m the only guy in the world to review “Man From Atlantis” and “Quark.”

I’m bending the rules a bit for the original Battlestar: Galactica, because although it was hugely, hugely influential on me as a boy, it was widely syndicated all the way up into the 1990s, so it’s hardly obscure. So why cover it?

Well the thing is: Over the last seven years, the original Galactica (Hereafter: “TOG”) has taken a lot of crap from the goosestepping jackasses who decry it as “That stupid show with the robot dog and the disco haircuts and Face from The A-Team,” without ever actually having watched it. That’s hardly fair, is it? But that’s how it goes: Some poser latches on to a new thing (The RDM Galactica), and then - because he’s a poser - he regurgitates the opinions of the other posers, without any kind of critical insight, or even an attempt to verify information. It’s stupid, but it’s hardly unique. We see this thing all the time all over the place. To this day, you still find geeks with no knowledge of film complaining about how “The first Star Trek movie sucked because they gave it to the guy who directed The Sound of Music!” [He laughs honking through his nose] “That’s a musical!” [More honking] “That’s the kind of movie my mom would like, how lame!” [Honk honk honk] At this point, I introduce myself, and point out that Robert Wise was one of the Journeyman directors of the 20th century, the only man to have had a massive hit in *Every* genre of film, an auteur who’s career began as an editor on Citizen Kane, the greatest film of all time, and he only did that stupid Trek movie as a favor (Which he regretted) to his wife, who was a Trekie. I then point out that they can get down on their lousy, feculent knees and kiss my oversized clown feet in quaking gratitude that I haven’t killed them. Yet.

I mean, yeah, it’s crap, but come on, he’s Bob freakin’ Wise. The man deserves some respect.

That kind of stuff drives me nuts: People with little or no knowledge of something, an aversion to finding out more, and yet they feel the urge to make blanket statements damning people and things based on no knowledge whatsoever.

And that’s what’s happened to the Original Galactica. Oh, excuse me: “TOG.”

It’s not that TOG was the greatest show ever - that would be The Prisoner - but it was a huge deal at the time, and while it wasn’t as bleak and misanthropic and self-obsessed as the RDM Galactica was, it wasn’t trying to be, either, now was it? It had a different aim, a different reason for being, and the fact is that while it’s a series with many, many, many heavy flaws, it is still far, far, far better than most people remember. It’s deserving of a fair look-see from someone who’ll call a turd a turd without fear, and who’ll also call a brilliant idea a brilliant idea without fear of getting laughed at by people who insist the whole thing is a turd. That’d be me: I’m an irritating man. Just irritating enough for this purpose, I think.

So, before we get into it, I’d like to give a quick review of how TOG came to be, and then in a subsequent entry, we’ll get into the reviews, ok?

In about 1976, Glenn Larson came to ABC and pitched an idea for a TV show called “Adam’s Ark.” The premise: a fantastically wealthy Howard Hughes type named “Adam” invites all the most brilliant people to the grand unveiling of his huge new hotel in the desert. Once there, he explains that the world is about to end (How he knew this isn’t clear, but it’s probably typical 70s stuff - Nuclear War, Fuel Shortages, Snail Darters), and that his hotel is actually a starship. He locks the doors, the world ends, and they head off into space to find a new world, a new earth, on which to rebuild our species. Basically, it was a planet-of-the-week series, derivative of Trek, but a bit of a downer. And hokey.

ABC passed on it, wisely, so Larson went home and worked on it some more, and that, presumably, would have been that, had it not been for a little picture called “The Amazing Apes,’ which broke all box office records and proved that…oh, no, wait, no, that wasn’t it. Hm. Annie Hall? Was that it? No. “Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night?” No, no, that wasn’t it either. Funny, though.

Well, anyway, whatever the big movie was in 1977, suddenly everyone was nuts to cash in on the SF boom and get space-shipy crap on the air ASAP, before those idiots in the metroplex forgot they liked it and went back to movies about discos. ABC called Larson up and said, “Hey, are you still interested in doing that Adam’s Ark” show? Larson said yeah, but that he’d made a lot of changes to it. They didn’t care. He could have pitched them “Lancelot Link: The Next Generation,” and it would have gotten on the air, so long as it had space ships and explosions. They really didn’t care about anything apart from that. The show was effectively picked up before he’d even finished pitching it to ‘em.

The show was now recognizably Battlestar Galactica: Twelve Colonies, Cylons, apocalypse, search for Earth, it’s all there, though there were some differences: the Cylons were reptiles, for instance. The idea was to do the show as a series of Movies of the Week: Four the first year, and if the ratings were good then three or four more the next year, and so on. It was a good plan, and the format was popular at the time. The budget was through-the-roof, but not because ABC had lots of faith in the show, no, it was for more nefarious purposes, but we’ll get to that in the fullness of time.

They got so much good press from people who were interested to see Galactica, that they expanded the order from TV movies to a full series just a few months before it was scheduled to air. Suddenly, they went from having to do nine hours of TV in a season to having to do twenty-four hours in the same period. They were completely and totally not prepared for that, but, of course, they tried anyway. I mean, what, you’re going to say ‘no’ to that much money?

The first episode, “Saga of a Star World” debuted to the second-highest ratings in history, only slightly below that episode of The Beverly Hillbillies where Jethro became a Double-Naught spy. (Don’t ask. No, really, just don’t.) It was a huge hit. While there was a bit of dropoff, the ratings were really solid and the reviews were pretty positive. Everyone kind of liked the show, yeah, it was derivative of a lot of different things - George Lucas sued, but he’s a jerk - but the point is: People liked the show better than anything else on ABC that year.

And that’s when ABC started britting shicks. Defecating Construction Materials, as they say. People started panicking.

Because, you see, they didn’t *Want* it to be a hit. They wanted it to be a loss-leader.

ABC had become the number-one network based entirely on cheap sitcoms that were popular with kids - Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Three’s Company, Mork and Mindy, What’s Happening, and so on - and not terribly challenging to adults. There were some higher-end sitcoms, of course - Barney Miller, Taxi, Soap - but they weren’t as topical or controversial as All in the Family or Maude or whatever. And they were generally funnier. Stupider, but funnier, which has always been a way to gain popularity. Remember the spastic kid in fifth grate who ate moss to get people to like him? And it worked? There you go.

Not only did ABC not want TOG to be a hit, they couldn’t afford it. It was a *MASSIVELY* expensive show, averaging a million dollars per hour of air time. Adjusting for inflation, that’s $3,477,000 an hour! That’s nearly as expensive as Kings! Given the average budget of a standard ABC sitcom was $200,000 or less, well, it’s like trying to keep U2 on the payroll as your house band when you can’t even afford Richard Cheese. They simply couldn’t afford a hit.

So why did they green light it in the first place? Well, since Star Trek ended in 1968, there hadn’t been a single American SF show that lasted more than a season, and in fact the overwhelming majority didn’t last that long: Logan’s Run: 14 episodes. Man From Atlantis: 17 episodes. Quark: 8 episodes. Beyond Westworld: 5 episodes. Fantastic Journey: 10 episodes. Spot a trend here? Most of these shows bleed ratings, and that’s that. ABC didn’t care about Science Fiction (Then. They adore it now. They run more SF than Syfy does), they didn’t even care about getting Maren Jensen to go to bed with them, or at least hang around naked (And I really can’t understand how they wouldn’t have been interested in her. Yow!), all they wanted was to milk the sudden popularity of the SF trend, knowing it would be short-lived. They hyped the heck out of a show with a really goofy concept to get people interested, knowing the popularity would soon wane and they could cancel the show halfway through the season. Probably no one would even notice, but by then their new slate of cheap-and-popular sitcoms would have found an audience, and they’d be rich(er).

But then it was a hit.

They tried to burry it. They pre-empted it, moved it around on the schedule, didn’t promote new episodes. Here’s a list of the top three shows that had their schedules screwed with and moved around more than any others in history:

#1 - Third Rock From The Sun
#2 - WKRP in Cincinnati
#3 - Battlestar Galactica

This had the obvious effect of driving down ratings, and by the end of the season it had sunk from the number one show to the number 27 show, which was still pretty respectable. There were about 78 shows on TV in those days, and anything in the top third generally came back for another year. Just the same, the network cancelled it citing low ratings and a lack of public interest. Once it was canned, they left it in the same slot in the summer reruns, and its ratings consistently grew, now that it had a regular home and people could find it.

Personally I don’t understand all the rigmarole. I mean, it’s *their* network. All they had to do was say “Because the Democrats are in the White House, we can’t afford this,” or “We’re going to go back to our original plan of three or four TV movies a year,” or even “We just don’t want to run it anymore. We were drunk, did it on a dare, and we regret it now, so it’s done.” I mean, it’s not like they can’t cancel any show they want, so why lie about it? Why invest so much energy in lying about it?

So: the first thing to remember before we get to the reviews is that the show was doomed before it ever hit the air. It was actually greenlit with the secret understanding that it wouldn’t live long.

The second thing to remember is that the show was conceived of as a bunch of movies of the week, and while they were already in production, they had their episode order more-than-doubled, which was way way way too much strain on the writers, the SFX team, and the crew.

Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, they actually made a surprisingly good show. Much better than the posing, purulent naysayers who decry things without checking ‘em out first will recall. Best show ever? No, not by a long shot. Consistently good? Not even that much, really. But it is vastly, vastly better than it had any right to be under the circumstances.

A last bit: As Fantastic Films and Science Fiction once put it, “ABC had angered the television gods and must pay.” (I love that line!) None of the new sitcoms introduced in the ‘78/’79 season were hits. “Delta House?” 13 episodes (I liked that one). “Makin’ It” (Which I didn‘t like) lasted 8 episodes. “Apple Pie” - a show I don’t even remember, and I remember pretty much everything, whether I want to or not - lasted just two episodes, and then Dabney Coleman was out of work again. The only new show from that year that lasted more than a season was “Angie,” and even that barely made it through to the end of it's second year. It didn't come back for more.

On top of this, the ‘77/’78 season’s breakout comedy, “Mork & Mindy,” suffered through a disastrous re-tooling, and was bleeding ratings. It lasted the better part of four seasons, but it never recovered. And the older shows were suddenly showing signs of age and declining in popularity and quality. Within a year, they’d sunk from the number one spot, to the number two spot as a network, rapidly heading for number three.

So that’s that. On with the reviews.