Battlestar Galactica (1979): Empire retrospective feature

BSG79SquareWhen Star Wars opened in US cinemas on May 25th 1977, destroying global box office records with the deadly efficiency of a Death Star, science fiction suddenly had a future again. And since everyone in Hollywood likes to be first to do something for the second time, it was only a matter of time before the imitators arrived.

First out of the star gate was Battlestar Galactica, which wasn’t a movie at all, but an edited cutdown/blow-up of the three-hour pilot for a TV series, in which the eponymous spacecraft’s passengers and crew, the last survivors of mankind’s thousand-year war with evil chrome robots named Cylons, roam the galaxy looking for Earth. The series, the most expensive television production of its time, was the brainchild of writer-producer Glen A Larson, who had earned the nickname Glen Larceny by making a career out of riffing on – or, more accurately, ripping off – successful films in order to carve out a career: his TV western Alias Smith and Jones (1971), for example, had been a thinly-veiled copy of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), while tec-in-a-stetson drama McCloud (1970) was a small-screen take on Coogan’s Bluff (1968). According to Larson, the success of Star Wars prompted Universal-owned ABC Television to dust off a pilot script of Larson’ss entitled Adam’s Ark, which the studio had rejected in the late ‘60s. Heavily influenced by its author’s Mormon beliefs, and more directly Eric Von Daniken’s bestselling Chariots of the Gods series, Adam’s Ark told the story of a colony of ancient or future humans, searching the galaxy for a fabled ‘thirteenth colony’ named Earth. “It was sort of about the origins of mankind in the universe,” explains Larson, “taking some of the biblical stories and moving them off into space.”

While Star Wars dominated the summer of ‘77, Larson toiled away on revisions to Adam’s Ark, ostensibly to make it “more current” – in other words, more like Star Wars. Thus, in the final script, dated August 30th, 1977 and re-titled “Saga of a Star World”, robots have become ‘droids’, the Ark is a ‘Battlestar’ (like a Death Star, only friendlier), and the hero is a young pilot named Skyler (not Skywalker, no sir!), who sports a roguish sidekick with a fondness for gambling and an eye for the ladies. Suddenly, Universal loved the concept it had rejected only a few years earlier. George Lucas, however, didn’t love it. Sent the script as a courtesy by the studio which had famously turned down Star Wars, Lucas asked them to make numerous changes, including the removal of ‘Star World’ from the title, references to “star warriors” and droids, and so on. “It was a problem for George,” says conceptual designer Ralph McQuarrie, the first Star Wars veteran whom Larson hired to work on his show, “because Galactica had an emperor, stormtroopers, rocket fighters – a lot of things that figured in Star Wars, and it was beginning to look like a Star Wars rip-off.” As Alan J Levi, who directed half of the Galactica pilot and several subsequent episodes of the series, recalls, “It was well known that Glen did have a reputation and love of stealing from the best, [and] t was widespread knowledge that after Glen read the original George Lucas’ Star Wars script, which Universal had turned down, he set out immediately to ‘beat the Star Wars concept to the audience. We were beating 20th Century Fox at their own game, and loving it. We were creators, and competitive ones to say the least.” BSGWide1With pre-production underway, Larson cast a staple of Sunday night television, Bonanza star Lorne Greene, as the patriarchal Commander Adama, with heartthrobs Richard Hatch and future A-Team star Dirk Benedict as the show’s younger bucks, Captain Apollo and Lieutenant Starbuck. Knowing that audiences would not settle for anything less than state-of-the-art effects, Larson cheekily hired effects pioneers John Dykstra, Richard Edlund, Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston and Joe Johnston, all of whom had found themselves out of work when George Lucas shut down Industrial Light and Magic after Star Wars wrapped. “All the people were still there,” Johnston recalls, “and Glen hired the entire group, including me, to design, build, and photograph all these visual effects.” Says Edlund, “We got ‘hornswoggled’ into doing Galactica.”

With so many Star Wars alumni on the show, it was small wonder that Galactica’s visual effects looked so familiar; “very derivative,” as Johnston puts it. Lucas and Fox agreed. On December 8th 1977, lawyers for Twentieth Century Fox, at Lucas’ behest, sent a letter to Universal’s parent company, MCA, asking them to halt production of Galactica on the basis of copyright infringement. “We all felt that Battlestar was a rip-off of Star Wars,” explained Lucas’ close collaborator Howard Kazanjian, who would go on to produce Return of the Jedi. “We immediately sued Universal because not only were they copying Star Wars, they were using ILM’s equipment.” Commented Lucas, “There’s a line between just doing something similar and doing something that is trying to copy it directly, especially when you move it to a different medium. People felt like Battlestar Galactica was a television version of Star Wars,” he added. “Not only does it upset me because I didn’t think the quality was very good, but also because, if I wanted to do a TV series of Star Wars, I couldn’t.”

MCA-Universal responded by counter-suing Fox, claiming numerous points of similarity between Star Wars and its own 1973 film, Silent Running, as well as the Buck Rogers serial of the 1930s. Larson, meanwhile, vehemently denied any wrongdoing. “Battlestar Galactica is quite different, when it comes to who are characters and what our story is,” he said at the time. “If you were trying to compare Shane to Gunfight At The OK Corral, you’d say, ‘Yes, they’re both Westerns,’ but I doubt if you’d find many parallels beyond that.” Nevertheless, Fox’s lawsuit cited 83 points of similarity between Galactica and Star Wars. “One of the points was the battle scenes, the ship to ship gunnery,” says sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, who was drafted in as an expert witness for the defence. “On that one, even Lucas said he drew much of that from 12 O’Clock High.” Even Edlund, who acknowledged Galactica’s debt to Star Wars, felt the lawsuit was unwarranted. “Glen Larson didn’t shy away from plagiarism,” he admits. “He ‘borrowed’ wherever he could, as did George Lucas: C-3PO is a dead ringer for Maria in Metropolis.”

Undeterred by Lucas’ legal action, production continued under the supervision of director Richard A Colla, a veteran of McCloud and other Larson series.

“Battlestar Galactica was a huge production,” recalls Richard ‘Apollo’ Hatch. “Shot on 35mm, with basically one camera and filmed almost like a movie. Unfortunately, we had little time to rehearse due to the size and challenges of filming a theatrical style movie for television. We ended up filming sixteen hour days, almost seven days a week, to make our airing dates.” With just days to go before the pilot wrapped, the pressure on set reached critical mass, leading to the abrupt departure of original director Richard A Colla. “Glen, I guess, felt that he needed more control than he had,” Colla explains. “I felt that many of the suggestions he made did not seem to be properly in keeping with what we were doing, and I guess I was vocal enough to tell him so. I told him he was an ungrateful bastard, because everybody was working so hard to pull his ass out of the fire, and now he’s in there pretending like he’s the one who has all the ideas.”

BSGWide2Colla’s replacement, Alan J Levi, was another TV veteran, having directed episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, The Gemini Man and The Incredible Hulk. “Glen wanted to have me not only complete the original schedule,” he explains, “but undertake a large number of reshoots of scenes, which Colla had shot, but which he was unhappy with. I shot the remaining fifteen days of the original schedule, and an additional nine days of ‘reshoots’. bringing my total to 24 days of filming – slightly fewer than Richard’s 25.” No wonder Levi was aggrieved when the co-director credit Larson had promised him failed to materialise. “Glen accused me of ‘jumping ship’ and deserting him, after I went off to direct a miniseries for Universal,” he says. “He was so angry he refused to support my dual director credit with the Directors’ Guild of America, and therefore the DGA awarded the credit solely to Richard Colla. I never forgave Glen for that.” Levi did, however, get his revenge, as part of a baseball team fielded by Universal, which beat a 20th Century Fox team coached by one Glen A Larson. “The first time we played each other, we beat the hell out of his team,” laughs Levi. “I walked up to Glen after the game with a big smile on my face and just shook his hand.”

As filming continued at a staggering $1 million per episode, Universal decided to recoup some of its huge investment by re-cutting the pilot and releasing it at cinemas in Canada and parts of Europe, including the UK. Although Larson was unhappy with this turn of events, feeling that the show’s production schedule was being hurt by the demands of the big screen, audiences hungry for more Star Wars-style sci-fi action were delighted: within two minutes, a fanfare-like orchestral theme, and lengthy opening shot of a gigantic spaceship, put them firmly in mind of their favourite film. Nor did the similarities end there: the space battles kicked familiar-looking ass, Colonial Vipers looked as much like X-Wing clones as the Apollo and Starbuck were stand-ins for Skywalker and Solo, and the shiny silver Cylons were arguably even cooler and definitely scarier than stormtroopers – even if their ‘Imperious Leader’ was voiced by cuddly Avengers star Patrick Macnee. For little kids, furry robot ‘Muffet II‘ looked like the lovechild of R2-D2 and Chewbacca; while for older boys, Larson had the decency not to tape down the breasts of his leading lady, British beauty Jane Seymour. Small wonder that Battlestar Galactica became the biggest film of 1979 in some territories, even spawning a sequel, Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack, cobbled together from three more TV episodes, and released in cinemas later the same year.
BSGWide3Battlestar Galactica made its US TV debut in September 1978, with a staggering 65 million Americans tuning in for its three-hour debut. (It would not reach British TV screens until September 1980, by which time The Empire Strikes Back was busy cleaning up in UK cinemas.) Its small-screen success was short-lived, however, lasting a single season before Universal pulled the plug on its cripplingly expensive show in favour of a much cheaper sci-fi spectacle: Mork and Mindy. “It was frustrating that the networks and studios never realised what they had, or how a series that was only on for one year could reach and touch so many generations of people from all walks of life,” says Hatch. “The core story is about more than Starbuck or Apollo saving the day, or Adama’s courage and strength leading the fleet on an impossible journey, or how important family or the extended family of mankind is. It’s compelling, to me, because it relates to all of us, no matter what our age or background and challenges all of us to look into the mirror and see how honest we can be about what we would do in the same situation. What are we made of, can we forgive our frailties, would we be able to fall over and over again and still get up, and survive the impossible. If we lost our world, and were cast into space, we all would be tested in ways we cannot imagine and the question is would we survive?” Hatch wasn’t the only one disappointed: in 1979, a 15-year-old native of St Paul, Minnesota, killed himself upon learning his favourite show had been cancelled. A few months later, however, the show briefly returned to the screen in a new incarnation, Galactica 1980, set on Earth in the (cheap to film) present day. By then, however, The Empire Strikes Back had revived Star Wars mania, and Galactica 1980 lasted barely half a season before it, too, was summarily terminated.

Meanwhile, the Lucas vs Larson lawsuit rumbled on, with US District Judge Irving Hill finally throwing out Fox’s copyright-infingement case on August 22nd 1980. Seven months later, MCA-Universal’s counter-suit was thrown out – although in early 1983, the US Court of Appeals ruled that “the films do in fact raise genuine issues of material fact as to whether only the Star Wars idea or the expression of that idea was copied.” On November 18th of that year, with Return of the Jedi in cinemas and Galactica already consigned to the annals of sci-fi history, an Agreement for Settlement of Lawsuit and Release forced MCA to pay Fox $225,000 – barely enough to cover five years’ worth of legal fees in its protracted battle against Larson.

Little was heard of Battlestar Galactica until 1999, when Richard Hatch financed and produced a trailer for a brand new series, tentatively titled The Second Coming. “Sequels to many earlier hit series were being made all through the nineties, and it never made sense to me that Universal was not taking advantage of a series that not only garnered one of the largest audiences in sci-fi history in ’78-’79, but had become an icon in the sci-fi universe.” After several meetings with Universal executives, he recalls, “it became quite apparent that they were not supportive bringing back a series they claimed only lasted one year and therefore could not have much current fan support.” Despite this setback, Universal went on to produce a brand new series, beginning in 2003, under the stewardship of Star Trek: First Contact screenwriter Ronald D Moore and “consulting producer” Glen A Larson – who, in truth, had nothing to do with its reincarnation. The reboot was a critical and commercial success, lasting six seasons, and spawning two made-for-TV movies, Razor and The Plan, a (short-lived) spin-off series, Caprica, and some healthy DVD sales.
BSGWide4Rumours persist that a brand new feature film, unconnected to the recent TV reboot, may be released in 2012. “A new Battlestar Galactica movie, based on the original series from ’78, is in the planning stages,” confirms Hatch, who played a small role in the TV revival and hopes to secure a part in Singer’s version. “Glen Larson is writing it, with Bryan Singer directing. As far as I know it will not include any of the original actors,” he adds, “but will follow the original mythology and backstory of the original.”

Whatever the future holds for Battlestar Galactica, it has certainly outgrown its origins as a Star Wars knock-off, however well-meaning. Besides, Dennis Muren admits to having learned more doing Galactica than he did on Star Wars. “It wasn’t until Star Wars was over and I was working on Galactica that I fully appreciated the power of motion control,” he says. “It was something I could never have done on Star Wars, because the pace was just too fast. There, we got the elements together and followed George’s vision, kept our fingers crossed, and either it worked or it didn’t. But on Galactica, we got the opportunity to design shots ourselves and try different things – perspectives and graphic exchanges of objects coming toward you, and going away from you simultaneously. I brought that [knowledge] into The Empire Strikes Back.” Edlund notes that the effects required for a Galactica episode entitled “Gun on Ice Planet Zero” proved particularly useful when it came to shoot scenes in the Star Wars sequel set on Hoth. “We came up with some pretty neat ideas [for that episode] which bore fruit on The Empire Strikes Back,” he says. “[So] even though Galactica was a rip-off of Star Wars in many ways, it didn’t hurt Star Wars that much.”

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2 comments

  1. Robert

    Mork and Mindy was from Paramount, not Universal. You may recall it was a spin off of another Paramount series Happy Days.

    Like

  2. Christopher Dalton

    The original will always be the best version in my book.

    Like

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