Why ‘Battlestar Galactica’ is still the greatest sci-fi TV show of all time
In a year where just about every cheesy TV concept from the 1970s and 1980s seems to be the subject of a reboot, it’s high time we remember the one ’70s reboot that outshone them all — and managed the rare feat of surpassing the original in our imaginations.
I speak of course of Battlestar Galactica — which happens to be the subject of a fantastic oral history published this week. Titled So Say We All, it’s the latest outing for Mark Altman and Edward Gross, the pair who produced the mammoth and meticulous 50-Year Mission, the oral history of Star Trek. And for sci-fi geeks, it’s even more compulsively readable.
In the voices of the showrunners, cast and crew, So Say We All tells the entire story of Battlestar Galactica. It’s the illuminating tale behindthe tale of a rag-tag space fleet fleeing the massacre of 12 planets by the evil Cylons, searching for their lost colony, located on some planet named Earth.
The book takes us through every creative decision from its first introduction to a sci-fi hungry TV audience in 1978 through its longer-lasting and much better 2004-2010 incarnation. Three lessons stand out:
1. It really wasn’t a Star Wars clone
The original series appeared in the wake of the original Star Wars; when ABC went begging for shows with “star” in the title, comparisons were inevitable no matter what. Battlestar creator Glen A. Larson was hit with a copyright lawsuit from 20th Century Fox on behalf of its moneyspinning filmmaker. George Lucas, who’d harbored dreams of making his own Star Wars TV show, saw too many similarities.
Not only did Larson, a veteran TV writer, have form for copying the formats of other shows — writer Harlan Ellison called him “Glen Larceny” — he’d also used the same special effects guys Lucas had left unemployed after Star Wars wrapped. Apparently this meant war.
This first lawsuit was lost, and with hindsight the copycat charge has less merit. Larson first wrote up his network pitch in 1968; then called “Adam’s Ark” and featuring a migration away from Earth, it was more inspired by Star Trek than anything else. Larson layered on his own Mormon spirituality; the scattered tribes, the Council of Twelve and “Lords of Kobol” were familiar terms to the Church of Latter-Day Saints. The Force this was not.
Altman and Gross show how much Larson bent over backwards to please Lucas regardless, for example taking out laser beam special effects that the Star Wars creator didn’t exactly originate. Still, 20th Century Fox persisted, launching a second lawsuit that lasted much longer than the one season of original-flavor Battlestar Galactica and its disastrous follow-up Galactica 1980. (Larson’s studio bosses eventually settled out of court for $225,000).
The book doesn’t get into this, but there was vindication (or sweet revenge?) for Galactica fans years later. When Lucas finally decided to try to get a Star Wars TV show off the ground in the late 2000s, as I reported in How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, he not only hired second Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore to pen an episode starring Darth Vader, he also assigned his team of artists to figure out how Moore’s show had made sci-fi TV this damn good on less than $3 million an episode.
Lucas’ live-action show, tentatively titled “Star Wars: Underworld,” never made it to screen — largely because the creator couldn’t resist the urge to pack it with speeder bikes and pod races that ballooned the budget.
Despite its assistance to Lucasfilm, Galactica’s TV reign at the top of sci-fi would not be troubled by its old spendthrift nemesis.
2. Network suits were the real Cylons.
The fact that Battlestar Galactica made it to the screen in the first place was due to network suits chasing those Star Wars dollars. But from that point on, unintentionally and otherwise, those same TV bosses did their damnedest to destroy the show.
Galactica was originally supposed to be a seven-part miniseries, starting with a TV movie. Before the movie was done, the miniseries had morphed into a 24-part season. The pace required was crippling. The cast and crew were working almost literally around the clock. The budget bled. Larson’s writing suffered. The special effects couldn’t keep up (and were often reused).
And the network censors kept sticking their noses in, making the show toothless by demanding that no character could be killed in the 8pm hour. The Cylons got away with murder sometimes, but only because of a swift last-minute change that made them robots. Apparently that was more acceptable to the suits than lizards, which is what the race of Cylons were in the TV movie’s shooting script.
Larson himself told the story of “a lady from the network who was a coke addict” — hey, it was the late 1970s — who would “have these hyper ideas.” Her big idea for the show? “Let’s have Galactica discover Earth” — in the third episode!
This pressure to “front load” stuff the audience wants to see was common in network TV, and eventually coked-up network lady got her wish. After cancelling the show and then having a sudden, jittery change of heart, ABC suits gave us Galactica 1980, where the ship does find Earth. It then sends a bunch of super-powered teenage ambassadors to meet our teens and have wild adventures, all because the suits wanted a younger audience.
It’s a testament to the kernel of the idea of Battlestar Galactica that it survived these stabs in the back. In the 2000s it was revived by a much more story-savvy Hollywood exec, David Eick, who brought on wunderkind Star Trek writer Ronald D. Moore to pen a TV movie that they immediately sold to what was then the correctly-spelled Sci-Fi Channel.
But Sci-Fi suits were almost as nerve-wracked as their ABC ancestors. Moore and Eick settled into the roles of co-showrunners and had to fend off all kinds of interference over their four-season run, largely attempts to tone down the violence.
The pair had three things going for them: the fact that Moore was churning out brilliant scripts with crazy concepts (human-like Cylons that worship God!) at a rate of knots; the fact that the show was a critical darling, widely seen as expressing and exploring America’s post-9/11 moral crisis; and sheer bullheadedness about making exactly the kind of science fiction they wanted to see.
Against all odds, and over the protests of highly skeptical, downright hostile fans of the original series — who were especially annoyed that Starbuck was recast as a woman! — it worked.
3. The 2004 series caught lightning in a bottle like no other sci-fi show before or since.
Sure, go ahead and make your argument for Star Trek: the Next Generation or Deep Space Nine or Babylon 5 or The Expanse as the best space show in the history of TV. They’re all good candidates.
But nobody can doubt, especially not after reading this account, that Galactica perfected three elements that were not always present in those other shows: casting, chemistry, and consistently kick-ass writing.
The three blended together in fascinating ways, with the cast contributing more to the direction of the show than you might think. For example, that rousing phrase “so say we all,” which is now so indelibly associated with the show that there was really only one thing this book could be called? It was ad-libbed by Edward James Olmos (Adama).
This scene in the TV movie, aboard the Galactica after the Cylons destroy everything, was supposed to end before Olmos’ addendum. It is to Eick’s credit that he stopped the director yelling “cut” before this happened. It’s the first and only take.
The cast is so in love with each other, even now, that the pages of So Say We All are sticky with tributes. But it’s all sincere: they still hang out in ones and twos a lot and have regular full-scale reunions. Galactica was a trial by fire on its Vancouver set; the many young, mostly Canadian actors found mentor figures in established figures like Olmos and Michael Hogan (Colonel Tigh).
Olmos returned the feelings a thousand-fold. Incensed by the showrunners’ insistence that Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck) was being permanently killed off in season 3, he was so relieved when he found out the truth (they were saving her return for a season finale surprise) that he blabbed the spoiler to the entire world.
Moore and Eick now freely admit that twist didn’t really work (although Moore still defends the final Starbuck twist a season later, in which she is presented as some kind of guardian angel.) But so much else did, and it was the result of a hot-house writer’s room that paid attention to the actors, wasn’t afraid to experiment and grabbed ideas from everywhere.
For my money, the best example is the sudden intrusion of the Bob Dylan song “All Along the Watchtower” at the end of Season 3. Broadcast from some mysterious beacon, the song awakens the final human-like Cylons in the crew to their true identities. All this was based on a script concept Moore had for an old song that would awaken aliens in the short-lived TV show he ran briefly, Roswell. The suits canceled that show, but the idea lived on.
The show never explained why that song was chosen as the signal. On paper, it looked like a ludicrous choice. But in the show, invested with a menacing mythical style by musician Bear McCreary, it worked like crazy. The plot twist came during the trial of traitor president Gaius Baltar (and what other TV show can give us the traitor president trial we crave?), barreling at high speed into what seemed to be a perfectly set-up courtroom finale.
Years before the so-called Golden Age of TV, here was a show that excelled at upending expectations. It was comfortable asking really big questions, and not afraid to admit that — like that rag-tag fleet — it had no idea where it was going or how it was going to end until it happened.
That’s what gives it the edge over its Syfy Channel successor The Expanse, or Netflix’s Altered Carbon, both of which are running on the rails of the novels they’re based on. The novels are enjoyable enough, but the shows based on them have no inherent spark, no real desire to go off in their own direction on a musical whim.
If Battlestar Galactica is ever going to be surpassed, then both the suits and creatives are going to have to take a lot more risks in telling original science fiction stories — especially ones that reflect the kinds of dilemma America and the world faces today.
So say we all.