Original Battlestar Galactica: Saga Of A Star World review

Mark begins a series covering the original Battlestar Galactica. A journey that he hopes will bring him eventually to a distant world called Earth…

The DVD boxset for the original Battlestar Galactica includes the original 24 episodes of the original series, totalling some 21 hours of TV. I say ‘TV’, but the pilot three episodes, which I’d like to talk about first, weren’t shown on TV in the UK initially.

As in the DVD presentation these Saga Of A Star World parts 1, 2 and 3 were lumped into a single movie length adventure and distributed through the cinema.

I should mention that the version on the DVD is the American TV release combined into a single showing, because in the cinema version I saw Baltar is killed by the Cylons and in the DVD release he is reprieved to turn up later in the series.

If memory serves me right, I saw Battlestar Galactica at the Classic Cinema in Liverpool, which had been outfitted for this presentation with fine nets over the ceiling. Why? Because this was one of the first films distributed with surround sound and the nets were tactically placed to catch dislodged plaster and peeling paint worked loose by low frequency sound waves. It worked, mostly, although I do recall seeing a small flurry of particles fall during the first appearance of the Galactica, which was utterly deafening.

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My reaction to Galactica then was mixed. Having had my interest in science fiction charged by Star Wars the previous year, I was desperate for more intergalactic entertainment, and the magazine, Starlog had fuelled me further with its coverage of Galactica and other projects.

Yet even to my then limited understanding of the sci-fi genre, Galactica wasn’t Star Wars or anything close, but it filled a void in my appetite for all things other-worldly. Before I’d even turned up at the cinema I’d read the paperback novelisation, which confusingly calls the fighters ‘Star Hounds’ and not Colonial Vipers.

Coming back to the series 30 years later how does Saga Of A Star World play?

If I’m brutally honest, it isn’t great. The story told in these episodes covers the preparation for a treaty of peace between the humans and Cylons which is rudely interrupted when the robots use this as an opportunity to wipe out mankind. It’s all set in a distant part of the galaxy where there are 12 planet colonies, and ‘Earth’ is a distant mythological reference.

The Cylons almost succeed, but one giant aircraft carrier-sized ship, Battlestar Galactica, survives and with the remnants of humanity escapes across deep space with their mechanical enemy in hot pursuit. Having nowhere else to go, or any prior engagements planned, they decide to seek out the legendary thirteenth colony, Earth.

Much of what happens is designed to introduce the main characters, Commander Adama (Lorne Greene), Captain Apollo (Richard Hatch) and Lieutenant Starbuck (Dirk Benedict). There are others, including Lieutenant Boomer, Colonel Tigh and others, but most of the first story revolves around the main three characters and how they personally react to the Cylon onslaught.

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In the first wave Adama loses his other son, Zac, who is shot down in his Viper, giving him and Apollo their motivation to fight the Cylon menace. The architect of their downfall isn’t just the Cylons; they’ve had the expert help from human betrayer Count Baltar. He has manipulated the weak-minded President into believing the Cylon offers of peace, while preparing to eliminate all the colonies. It’s sufficiently Machiavellian to make it obvious from the outset who the good and bad guys are.

This being the 70s TV they also needed to introduce ‘love interest’, so along the way they find the lovely Cassiopeia (Laurette Spang) and Serina (Jane Seymour), who look destined from the outset to be the partners of Starbuck and Apollo.

Except that Serina comes with the emotional baggage of a son, Boxey (Noah Hathaway), who is possibly the most annoying little boy one could reasonably imagine. They are both rescued from the devastated planet of Caprica, and, personally, I wish they one or both had been left there.

Taking what people they can find, the Galactica and any ships they can find then flee across space, and eventually desperate for supplies, come across a distant world called Carillon, inhabited by the insect-like Ovions who’ve set up a casino of sorts.

This is so obviously a trap that the audience gets to feel smug for at least 20 minutes while the characters work it out. The Ovions are using humans to pupate their young, and the house always wins. Rather stupidly for the Ovions, they live on a rock that’s made of a highly reactive substance called tylium, which when ignited destroys the entire planet. Obviously, ‘health and safety’ wasn’t a big deal in Ovion culture it seems.

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Luckily, when the Carillon blows up it also takes out a Cylon baseship, giving Galactica an opportunity to escape once more. Baltar is retasked to hunt them down for more ‘negotiations’ and the rag-tag fleet of ships heads off to find a planet that most of the humans don’t even believe exists.

Where the whole exercise starts to flounder for me is in the effects department, which the back of the novel had pushed as the most expensive ever created! The visual effects were created by the legendary John Dykstra, and his work is plainly evident in the quality of the models he created and the classic styling of the ships.

However, where it sort of went wrong was in the translation of those models through optical composition into the scenes. In some places it’s excellent, and in others it’s appalling. In a number of shots square artefacts can be seen around ships where light leaked when the mask wasn’t opaque enough. Overall, the optical effects range from being pretty good to exceptionally sloppy. I think much of the problem was that visual effects had never been generated in these sorts of qualities, and failed shots were too expensive to reshoot. The temptation to reuse good sequences was way too high. You might get away with reusing a shot or flipping one left to right, but showing exactly the same shot three, four or more times, it becomes pretty glaring.

But these aren’t what really dates the show for me, and it isn’t even the 70s hairstyles. It’s the complete lack of consistency. Much of the lore of Galactica appears to be built around the odd science associated with Erich von Däniken’s Chariots Of The Gods? But that’s just a start point, as they throw in ancient Greece, Rome, astrology, Mormonism, Maya and a dozen other cultures and historical references.

There’s no identifiable vision, like in Stargate. It’s just a mishmash of cultural references that actually make little coherent sense. Perhaps if they’d chosen one era to springboard off then it might have worked better, although some might see the scatological nature of the Earth references as one of its charms.

There is also a tonal inconstancy, where the plot moves from quite dark and disturbing stuff to knock-about comedy. The scenes on Carillon where people are abducted to become living hosts are actually quite nasty for American TV of this period. That contrasts heavily with the many Starbuck comedy sequences, and the introduction of Boxey to the robotic ‘daggit’. I hate that particular scene, partly because it’s saccharrin sweet, but also I keep thinking about the poor chimp stuck in that horrendous robot outfit.

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The scenes I like most here are the ones that hint at the political shenanigans that surrounded the Cylon attack, most notably those where the fantastic Ray Milland turns up as the nepotistic Sire Uri. In retrospect, it comforts me that, in the re-imagining of the show that Ronald D Moore created, more focus was put on the politics of their plight, and much less and the comedy potential of an intergalactic holocaust.

The Cylons, rather than being threatening, come across as a remarkably slow and ponderous foe, underlined by their inability to keep up with the fleeing Galactica or any humans they encounter. Their entire philosophy appears to be ambush, on the basis they can’t move quickly enough to do much else.

My final complaint is the quality of the prints used for the transfer, which are exceptionally abysmal in places. I hope they’re not tempted to put this on Blu-ray, because for much of the running time it’s barely good enough for DVD.

Even with all these faults, Galactica was groundbreaking in many respects, and brought a whole new level of production value that science fiction on TV had never previously seen. The unusual concept and design work stand as a testament to those who worked on the series, even if some other aspects are less worthy of note.

Next I’m going to look at the very first regular series story, the two part Lost Planet Of The Gods.