Letting Cylons Be Cylons: Battlestar Galactica

The-Cylons-in-the-origina-001I loved the original Battlestar Galactica, at least during its original run when I simply didn’t know any better.  The blatant similarities to Star Wars didn’t bother me, because in my mind, it was essentially more Star Wars for free on TV every week.  The spaceships looked cool and the Cylons sounded neat and that was pretty much all I needed.  Being ignorant of things like ratings and budgets, I didn’t quite understand when Galactica went away and Galactica 1980 took its place, but I did understand that Galactica 1980 sucked.  And as time went on, my opinion of the original series lessened, going from favorite to piece of childhood nostalgia to missed opportunity to piece of 70s kitsch best left forgotten.  Once Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined version came along, it became even more obvious to me that I’d loved the show as a kid because I simply didn’t know any better.  I was beyond such childish things now.

I must have been in a childish mood a few weekends ago, or maybe it was the convenience of Netflix, but I decided to watch the original pilot that had been such a spectacular event some thirty-five years ago.  I figured I’d watch a little bit of it, just enough to sate my curiosity, then get bored and move along.  Next thing I knew, I’d watched the first six episodes and, so help me, was finding myself caught up in the whole thing.

First, let me clear that the 1978 Battlestar Galactica isn’t a great show.  It doesn’t try for the relevance of the remake.  It’s very much trapped in the 1970s sci-fi aesthetic (although not to the gaudy extent Buck Rogers in the 25th Century would take things the following year).  You can see the budgetary constraints even before the pilot ends, with effects shots being liberally recycled, and plenty of episodes that take place in very Earth-like power plants and industrial parks.  There’s also a dreary stretch late in the series where the Cylons disappear altogether, replaced by a badly acted Communist analog called the Eastern Alliance that allows the show to get totally earthbound.

But what surprised me — and what I’d forgotten after all these years — was the strong sense of continuity the show had.  We’re not talking the intricately plotted arcs of a Lost or a Fringe, but this wasn’t a series of one-off episodes where everything was reset back to zero at the end either.  A trio of nomadic tribesmen who may as well be Klingons at first seem destined to be single-episode fodder, yet show up two more times as integral parts of the plot (they do disappear abruptly though).  The treasonous Baltar is captured and spends several episodes on board the fleet’s prison ship, even engineering an escape, before playing a key role in the series finale.  And there’s the sense that the fleet is actually moving forward, leaving the region of space the crew knows and heading into the unknown.  It’s not the most elegant plotting in the world, but the show does move, and has a sense of itself.

The element that perhaps grates on most viewers, the young Boxey and his pet robot dog, virtually vanish by the midpoint of the season, never to be seen again with no real explanation (and no great sense of loss).  But up to that point, the kid isn’t terrible.  Yes, the character is out of place and a blatant attempt to lure in younger viewers, but Noah Hathaway isn’t necessarily bad in the role.  It’s just a thankless part.  The rest of the cast though is actually pretty damn solid, with Dirk Benedict damn near walking away with whole damn thing as Starbuck.  He’s clearly riffing on Han Solo, but he’s charming and funny and dashing and clearly having a good time with everything.  Going toe-to-toe with Benedict is John Colicos as Baltar, savoring every last morsel of scenery he bites into.  Again, we’re not talking Emmy-worthy stuff here, but everyone’s in fine genre form, apart from a clumsy extra or two.

I watched the final episode, where the Galactica intercepts transmissions of the Apollo 11 moon landing without grasping their significance, with a little bit of sadness that they never got a real second season.  And with more than a little amazement that a show I’d written off had kept me so enraptured that I’d burned through twenty-four episodes in less than two weeks.  I’ll admit, there was definitely some nostalgia at work, but there have been plenty of childhood favorites I can barely struggle through these days (let’s not speak of the Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon).  While I would never presume to place this anywhere near the much richer new series, the original Battlestar Galactica surprised me by being more than just some relic of TV lore.  There’s a kernel of something really entertaining here that I wish they’d had the chance to explore.


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