TV Programs: 1978: A Carter-Era Odyssey

The main thing you should know about Battlestar Galactica, circa 1978-80 was the unfashionable fact that for all its lowbrow streak, which is deep and wide, it has a premise that's more relevant to the biggest questions of real history than its vastly more successful competitors. Star Trek at heart is about how the better angels of human nature will triumph given enough goodwill, even among non-humans and artificial humans. By contrast, the original Galactica foreshadowed the coming age of Reagan with a profoundly pessimistic story, with overtones of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the attack on Pearl Harbor. The writing was straightforward to the point of cornball, sure, but with a respect for traditionalism that was rare in Seventies pop culture. The first, infinitely successful Star Wars had visual, vivid things to say about legends, sagas, odysseys and heroes, but beyond a vague mysticism it wasn't about anything much beyond creating a new, complicated and copyright-able myth.

When the Galactica project got a hurried green light from ABC, Star Wars had opened only a half year ago, and when the show was rushed onto the air nine months later, there still hadn’t enough time for too many other imitators to appear yet. There would be hundreds of films and TV shows with some part of that description in the Eighties and Nineties, but not in '78. Lucas sued to prevent ABC and Universal from calling it Star Worlds and got them to change some character names, but couldn't block the project. The somewhat banal television dialog might have been flat, but creator and show boss Glen Larson paid Lucas's tech wizard John Dykstra for Lucas-level model and matte shots that were stunningly good on big theater screens. This got Dykstra banned from future Lucas projects.

Yes, that's right, I said theaters. Not long after the series started airing, the two-part first episodes appeared on the big screen, re-edited as a feature film. The theatrical version of the pilot had some scenes that were different from the show as broadcast. The biggest difference was that Count Baltar, possibly the most conniving, traitorous suck-up to evil in TV history—which is saying something—got his just deserves and was beheaded by the Cylons, rather abruptly ending his storyline. In fact, there was a subjective camera point of view of the execution that spun like Baltar’s head rolling into a bucket. But someone realized that sticking to this original plot would have deprived the weekly TV series of its villain, and like Dr. Zachary Smith on Lost In Space, Baltar would soon be something of a “Hun You Love To Hate” cult character. He joins Jonathan Harris (“Dr. Smith”) as creating two of the all-time hammiest comic portrayals of lying, sniveling bad guys. Like Ken Osmond's immortal portrayal of Eddie Haskell in Leave it to Beaver, the actor who played Baltar, John Colicos, oozes calculated, transparently self-serving dishonesty. Okay, sure, pile on: Count Baltar was the worst betrayer in human history. But it's hard to deny that watching him overact was eye-rolling, eyebrow-waggling fun.

Galactica’s graphics and special effects were so much better than the general run of network television that a theatrical run seemed inevitable. That big time picture and the Grateful Dead quality sound system made millions of kids spend money on seeing mostly the same thing they'd already seen on TV.

A slight flashback. The 1950s was full of Hollywood efforts to top television with dazzling spectacle that the little box couldn't offer. Most of these were projects in making screens wider, or 3D, or deeper and curved, like the human field of vision. The idea was, let’s give them something they can’t get sitting at home watching TV.

In the Seventies Universal Studios came up with a fairly inexpensive gimmick you couldn’t then get at home, Sensurround. The idea was similar to the low frequency rumble you now get with a home theater system. The special loudspeakers–super-woofers, in Fifties-Sixties high fidelity terms–were rented by a subsidiary of Universal and installed in theaters for the length of the run. Universal was unable to interest other studios into using the gimmick.

When the deluded leaders of Galactica’s world clink their glasses together in a toast and solemnly intone “peace”, the film cuts directly to a slowly drifting star field in empty space, and just holds the shot for a surprisingly long time against a growing, ominous rumble. No explanation, just a premonition and then a certainty that something real bad is going to happen. It’s a strong juxtaposition of image and sound, as simple as it reads on the printed page, and in movie theaters it was creepily effective in drumming home the message–it’s an unforgiving universe out there; when you forget that even for a moment, you die a premature death. There's a quote attributed to Lenin: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you”. That's a key, cynical part of the Glen Larson/Galactica philosophy; to them, pacifists are deluding themselves. An unusual message for an ABC show in the Seventies.