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Battlestar Galactica Orginal Series - some thoughts [Jan. 22nd, 2006|12:20 am]
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I recently purchased the original series of Battlestar Galactica on DVD. All I actually wanted was the pilot movie, as a historical piece, one of the things that sprang into existence thanks to the monster that was the first Star Wars film. However, to buy the film version of Galactica was going to cost me $35, whereas to buy the series would only cost me $27 and while I had almost no interest in watching the series, this would give me a chance to re-evaluate it. Plus I now had access to bonus features not available with the film.

One of the things I try to do when I watch a tv series or film is take into account the time in which it was made. This attitude comes partly from my great love of Doctor Who, a series often affected by the eras in which it was made and by politics both within and external to the running of the BBC. Most things are affected by these influences. The original series of Battlestar Galactica is no different.

Now in the light of the new series, a lot of people say that the original is, to be blunt, shit. And to some degree they are right. However, when you take into account the way it was being made, it's hard in all fairness not to be a little more appreciative of the thing. Yes, there's a lot of crap. However it is usually entertaining and there are many, many shows that have less reason to be rubbish and are far harder to watch. Think of it this way, if it was so very awful, why was there a sequel series, not to mention a remake? It must have had some value, despite its more obvious problems.

The first thing it suffers from is 1970's American TV writing. No cure for that, that was when and where it was made. And that informs all sorts of aspects of plot and writing. There's a reason many people remember it fondly, the level of writing we got was no worse than most things around it. It was a simpler time, in many respects. The audience on average wouldn't have been as tech savvy as most people today. The writers have to tell a story accessible to the average audience member. If you load it down with tonnes of real physics and science, you leave a chunk of the audience scratching their heads, and then they turn off. It's not how you stay employed. Most people just want to be entertained, so dealing with real issues is difficult too. If people have their own problems, why would they tune in to watch somebody elses?

In spite of this, there's a number of moments that show the writers were aware of the broader issues. Deeper things get hinted at within the series, but all too often they were ignored, or lost. So concerns brought up about food shortages, illnesses, untrained personal having to learn to fly vipers, etc. all get touched on then passed by in the interests of 'entertainment'.

One of the most important behind the scenes influences on every aspect of production was how quickly it went to series. They did the first two tv movies, those being the Galactica pilot, Saga of a Star World, and its sequel Lost Planet of the Gods. Glen A. Larson wanted to go to series after a 12 month development window. Universal wanted the series now. Universal won, to the detriment of the series and the agony of the writers, cast and crew. Some episodes were literally in rewrites as it was being filmed, the actors being given changes on-set while shooting. One actress mentioned getting given changes for one script the day after having filmed the relevant scenes. One writer talks about handing in an outline, a three or four line description of the story, and it being given the go-ahead at around 3pm on the Wednesday. The finished script was to be handed in for copying Friday morning. So the writers had approximately 40 hours to go from outline to finished script.

It's hard to maintain quality in that sort of environment. It's very easy to be critical of the writing, but it's harder to imagine what it must have been like to try to write under those conditions. It certainly explains why there are sequences and situations that make no logical sense.

One of the more unforgivable things was the treatment of Sheba. When first introduced in The Living Legend, she's a feisty fighter pilot, more than capable of holding her own in the battle field, and with a strong personality away from it, too. She's watered down almost immediately, becoming a teary, weak woman who hangs off the man she obviously cares for. But it's not as if Galactica is the only series from this period (or even much later) to have treated its female characters so poorly. The women were being written in the way women were expected to act, at least in television.

Other things that were affected were major character scenes. Most of the really interesting ones hit the cutting room floor. One of the deleted scenes has Adama talking about not wanting the responsibility any more. Lorne Green's acting is brilliant. He's totally believable and the sense of self hatred is palpable. I can see two main reasons it was cut. One is timing. Whenever any show runs over time, the first things they lose are comedy and character moments.

The other reason I can see it being cut is because Adama wants to give up. This is the exactly the sort of scene where the studios get antsy about the big, strong hero coming across as a wimp. He's a hero! Heroes don't have doubts or give up. Another of the cut scenes featured Boxey showing a surprisingly adult attitude to death. A kid talking about death? No, too confronting! Kids are cute, mischievous and immortal. Cut it! It's interesting to note that many of the cut scenes on the DVD show characters dealing with self doubt or death, reinforcing my theory that they were removing anything that dealt with real human issues, that moved away from pure entertainment.

One particularly hurtful issue of censorship was that it was a problem to show humans being killed. To have a human killed was a major fight with the powers that be. Hence, the cylons being unable to shoot straight. Kind of hard to build drama when week after week, no-one dies. So even in a story where almost all the pilots are untrained, going up against wave after wave of cylon fighters, from memory no-one dies. You could kill cylons because they were robots. But that led to its own issues.

The series of Galactica had a much smaller budget than the movies. Around halfway through, they ran out of money to make more cylon outfits. They were told outright that they couldn't blow up their main enemies any more. So, how do you do a story with them? You can't shoot them, they can't shoot you. But every episode ends with Adama's 'fleeing from the cylon tyranny' speech. The cylons became conspicuous by their absence.

The other thing that was conspicuous very early on was the re-use of stock footage. Mainly from the space fight scenes. It makes good sense to re-use this footage where possible. Model work is expensive. People would only be seeing these things once a week, so over twenty-four weeks it's going to be less obvious to the casual viewer. and let's face it, the casual viewer makes up the majority of the audience.

The lack of time for story/script development and lack of budget, combined during the course of the series to create some of the most boring and/or ridiculous television imaginable. The Young Lords and Fire in Space spring to mind. But interestingly enough, it's right at the end of the series that things take an upward swing. Possibly the last four episodes benefited from being right at the end of the run. The writers had had time to think, picking up on the more interesting threads and ideas started in the otherwise annoying and predictable Greetings from Earth, they had a chance to play with continuity and set up possible future storylines. I don't think it's accidental that we ended up with four of the more interesting stories (only the last of which features cylons) at the end of the run.

One of the things I feel a need to mention is the use of rear projection during the viper scenes. Unlike most sf, Galactica seldom used chromakey or bluescreen to incorporate images of space battles around the cockpits of the fighter pilots. Instead they actually projected footage on to screens behind the actors. This gave the them something to react to and also had the benefit of interactive lighting and effects. Stars reflect in the cockpit glass, cylon energy bolts light and reflect off the hull as they zip past, explosions light the pilots faces... Even with the frequent use of stock footage, I found myself loving the subtle realism this gave some (not all) of the scenes. I know it's unlikely, but I hope to see this technique used again one day.

Battlestar Galactica tried to tell a sprawling, epic story of humanity fleeing from an implacible foe towards a mythical safe-haven. There's plenty wrong with the stories handling, but then there's the things they got right. There are plenty of tv shows that suffered none of the problems Galactica had, and have been far worse. Despite all that was ranged against them, the cast and crew managed to create a show that was usually entertaining, and surely that was their job at the end of the day. Knowing more about the harried production, I think they more than earned their cult following.


Additional notes -

There is some utter crap Original Galactica, so here is my list of the ones that have some value. I'm not saying that these are all brilliant, but they have enough good moments or ideas to make them at least worth a look. Most of them are superior to the majority of Star Trek Voyager and Enterprise episodes.

Saga of a Star World
The pilot. Yes, it's got some awful science in it towards the end, but it's reasonably engaging.

Lost Planet of the Gods
Not as strong as the pilot, and some very weak character moments. You can miss this one but it does tie up a few threads started with the pilot.

Gun on Ice Planet Zero
A big story idea, hampered by some weird timing issues towards the end with regards to what point the Galactica is actually in danger. If you're going to steal though, steal from the best and this is a remake of a whole bunch of war films.

The Living Legend
Probably the high-point of the series. There's a reason this is a fondly remembered episode. Commander Cain is a memorable and likeable character.

War of the Gods
Probably would have been better without the whole light-ship angle, this is quite a good tale of greed and seduction on multiple levels. Patrick Macnee puts in a wonderful performance. The ending is, however, kind of rank.

The Man with Nine Lives
The first non-telemovie of the bunch and a fairly typical piece of 70's story-telling. The ending manages to take things in an interesting direction, helped along massively by Fred Astaire's wonderful performance.

Baltar's Escape
A prison break episode, featuring a couple of recently seen villains working with our favourite scenery-chewing baddie. It's fun watching the devious Baltar dealing with others that are better at strategy than he is.

Experiment in Terra
The return of the light-ships is in some ways, typically annoying. But it plays a part in tying up some interesting threads began in Greetings from Earth as well as hinting at possible future run-ins with hostile humans. Look out for one of those features the Galactica shows that probably would have been handy in a few previous stories.

Take the Celestra
Politics, mutiny, lies, betrayal... all within the human fleet.

The Hand of God
The series finale, giving some nice broad hints of possible future directions. The cylons return, there's an audacious plan and deals are made. If only Sheba wasn't such a big girls blouse *sigh*

[User Picture]From: baralier
2006-01-21 03:37 pm (UTC)
Love the write up. Now I know you have the box I shall have to ask to borrow it.

I think one of the other things that the series tied into was the very prevalent concept of the 70s that we came from "elsewhere". Between Erik Von Daniken, Charles Berlitz and plethora of friendly alien movies there was a big feeling that aliens where somehow involved in our past.

By stylising the Viper pilot helmets after an Egyptian Nemes and naming the various planets after the Zodiac signs the show's creators struck a chord with many "star hippies" as well as the regular SF fans.

Or at least that how it seems to me.
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-01-21 09:27 pm (UTC)
You're more than welcome to borrow it, buddy!

Oh yeah, they were very conscious of that while making it. Shooting a bunch of stuff with extras at the pyramids in Egypt wasn't just a way to avoid having to build stuff :)

Nemes! Of course! How thick am I? The familiarity of the helmets kept getting to me, like an itch I didn't know how to scratch. I kept thinking 'I should recognise those shapes...' That is so cool!
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[User Picture]From: utopos
2006-01-21 03:45 pm (UTC)
I'm so tempted to ask you if you want to run a panel comparing the versions of Battlestar and the relative merits of both at Swancon this year...
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-01-21 09:32 pm (UTC)
I saw the mini-series a while back, but haven't caught up with the series yet. Anyone want to swing it my way for a second article?

There were elements I liked in the mini-series, and aspects I loathed. But I thought it showed a healthy and interesting level of respect for the original series. I liked the fact that the creators looked at the original viper design and decided not to mess with it. It's a really distinct silhouettes that screams 'Battlestar'.
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[User Picture]From: angriest
2006-01-22 02:00 am (UTC)
I'd suggest a broader panel on revisiting the past: Galactica and Doctor Who just got remade, Enterprise as the last (to date) iteration of the Trek saga. I'm sure there are more examples. Why do we go back? What changes? Commercial considerations, creative decisions, and so on.

You could also broaden it to allow the direct comparisons to lead into a wider comparison of contemporary television vs the TV of our youth.

Or something.
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[User Picture]From: stephen_dedman
2006-01-22 03:59 am (UTC)
Not sure I'd call the new Doctor Who series a remake, though it does do a little rewriting the series background in the same way as the more obvious remakes. But it's an excellent idea for a panel: you could also discuss the remake of 'Randall & Hopkirk Deceased', the remake of 'The Night Stalker' (if anyone's seen it), 'Astro Boy', '8-Man After'... there must be others.
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[User Picture]From: dalekboy
2006-01-22 04:53 am (UTC)
No, the new DW is more of a continuation. It doesn't change or reinvent the series any more than previous version, in a lot of ways. I've seen the pilot of Nightstalker, it was an X-Files wannabe, which is ironic considering the X-Files source material was Nightstalker.
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[User Picture]From: dalekboy
2006-01-22 04:54 am (UTC)
Sounds like a good idea to me, I'd be on it.
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From: livelurker
2006-01-21 03:57 pm (UTC)
In retrospect, it had a) a continuing storyline between episodes (unlike Trek) and b) space battles, which certainly added to its appeal at the time (Yes, the BBC had both of those, but not as big a budget, of course :)
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[User Picture]From: dalekboy
2006-01-21 09:41 pm (UTC)
Yay! I remembered to log in!

The continuing storyline only truly came in over the last five stories. Prior to that it's just 'Oh no! There are cylons here!

But the space battles, even allowing for the re-used footage, were impressive for any television series. There's a point, people complain about Battlestar re-using old footage for its narrative. I'd prefer re-used footage than Star Trek Next Generation's approach of not bloody showing anything!

Then we had the Star Trek feature films re-use the same explosion at the finale of two movies in a row!
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[User Picture]From: stephen_dedman
2006-01-22 04:15 am (UTC)
Star Trek TOS did this a lot, too - the ultimate example possibly being 'Let that Be Your Last Battlefield' in which one alien arrived in a stolen Federation shuttle and the other beamed onto the bridge, simply because they didn't have the budget for any alien spaceships (though they made up for this with a brilliant use of news footage of the Watts riots as the aftermath of an alien genocidal civil war).

'Lost in Space' also cheated in the same way, Irwin Allen once notoriously exploding that rather than spend $5000 on a spaceship, he'd have the alien walk onto the planet.
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[User Picture]From: kaths
2006-01-22 12:03 am (UTC)
Very interesting!

Any chance I could put this up on the frontiermagazine.net website?
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[User Picture]From: dalekboy
2006-01-22 04:57 am (UTC)
By all means, gorgeous! Glad you liked it. If you'd like to edit it (or would like me to edit it) just let me know.
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[User Picture]From: kaths
2006-01-22 10:45 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

I'll go through it and do a quick edit, I don't think much is needed. Just gotta get some paid word done first :)
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[User Picture]From: kaths
2006-01-22 10:49 pm (UTC)
Err, that's 'work', although there's lots of words involved :)
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[User Picture]From: dalekboy
2006-01-22 11:34 pm (UTC)
You're always welcome.

Must try to get organised and actually catch up one day.
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[User Picture]From: kaths
2006-01-28 08:10 am (UTC)
Yay, finally got it done!

Do you go to the MSFC at all? I'm planning to go in a couple of weeks, have some overdue books to return, and some new authors to explore...
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[User Picture]From: dalekboy
2006-01-29 12:19 am (UTC)
Cool! Again, glad you liked it. Looks cool with the piccies you've chucked in, too :)

Was going twice a month to the MSFC, but that's dropped off since last year, just finding myself busy/not up for the hour-and-a-half round trip. Post when you're going next and I'll try to get along.
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[User Picture]From: kaths
2006-01-29 12:57 am (UTC)
Okie dokes, will do.

Was that the cover of the version of the DVD you got? It was the only one I could find for the whole series.
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[User Picture]From: dalekboy
2006-01-29 08:50 am (UTC)
Mine has a different cover, but it doesn't matter. Thanks for making me look good by doing a nice job of laying out :)
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