Ahead of its Time — The Rise and Fall of the Original Battlestar Galactica
When we use the phrase “ahead of its time,” we tend to refer to ideas or products that appear progressive or new, or look to the future more than the present. Far less often do we use it to refer to something that failed because of the time in which it was produced.
In the annals of science fiction, there is a series that meets the proper definition of “ahead of its time” in almost every conceivable way — a show that failed more because of the year in which it was produced and aired than any other reason, and that, had it been produced only ten years later, would have revolutionized televised science fiction: the original Battlestar Galactica.
Today, the original Battlestar Galactica has a reputation for campiness, but this is quite undeserved. While it had its campy moments, they were few and far between in comparison to its contemporaries, such as Space 1999. The story, in fact, was quite dark and the characters very realistic. The overarching plot was a televised novel of the sort common in genre television today. But what happened? Why was this show a footnote instead of a revolution in televised science fiction? And, the ultimate answer is that it was made and aired in 1978.
In many ways, the series existed because of Star Wars. The original idea was that ABC would bring the feature film quality production of Star Wars to the small screen. The original plan for doing this was to produce a number of made-for-TV movies that would air throughout the 1978–1979 season. The first of these movies, Saga of a Star World, featured visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic — their first job after the original Star Wars. Not only did ILM produce the visual effects for what would eventually become the series pilot, they also used it to dial in some of the effects that had given them trouble during the production of Star Wars the year before, and pushed the envelope of what could be shown on the screen.
The showrunner and series creator was Glen Larson, who imagined an overarching plot based on his Mormon mythology, something he had been attempting to sell to a network since the 1960s but been unable to acquire the funding to produce it. The story would begin with humanity being reduced to a small group of refugees in the wake of a genocide — a “rag-tag fugitive fleet” seeking a new home: Earth. And had this concept been kept in its original form of TV movies, it might have had a very different legacy. Unfortunately, the superior quality of Saga of a Star World ran face first into the network politics of 1978, and the show was ordered to series, to air in the 1978–1979 season.
This created a major problem — the speed with which the show had been ordered to series and placed on the schedule left it with little to no pre-production time to produce dozens of extra hours of programming. This left the production team scrambling to create filler episodes that could be produced quickly while they sorted out the back half of the season — as a result, the first half was characterized by theme episodes, some of which were little more than rehashes of movies.
However, by mid-season, this problem had been, for all intents and purposes, solved, and the show began telling its full story arc, without the filler episodes that had characterized the first half. As the story unfolded, the Galactica and its rag-tag fugitive fleet began to run into signs that it was going to be drawn into a far greater and more meaningful conflict between light and darkness, introducing the angelic Beings of Light and Patrick Macnee’s Count Iblis as the literal devil.
As the series progressed, it did a number of innovative and even revolutionary things. The first post-pilot story, “Lost Planet of the Gods,” put women in direct combat roles as viper pilots, and they remained in the space battle footage for the rest of the show. Repeated attempts to reverse-engineer alien technology — a well-worn trope since Star Trek — invariably failed, one of several reality checks the show applied to its characters and situations so that if something had no chance of succeeding, it didn’t. Characters had to deal with mundane concerns such as supplies and even being sick in bed. One episode, “The Young Lords,” somehow managed to sneak an exploration of child soldiers past the censors.
And then the show was cancelled at the end of its first season.
The cancellation was inevitable. Between the ambition of the show’s story and the ambition of the network’s attempt to bring it to the screen with feature film quality production only one year after the release of Star Wars, ABC had created the most expensive television series in history up to that point, with each episode costing around $1 million. Even with the unsustainably massive budget, the show had to make numerous compromises, resulting in the obvious re-use of VFX footage.
To make matters worse, the network censors compromised the story in fundamental ways. ABC’s censors took a hard line against violence, allowing the human characters to kill Cylons but almost never the other way around, defanging the Cylons as villains any time they weren’t in a space battle scene.
The degree to which Battlestar Galactica was one of the first trailblazers of the televised novel also worked against it. Once the second half of the season started and each episode progressed the story, a viewer who missed a single episode could become completely lost. To prevent that today, modern series feature regular pre-episode recaps, filling in viewers on the pertinent information they need to understand what will happen in the episode to come. But, in 1978 these recaps were reserved for the conclusions of two-part stories — instead, the start of each episode tended to have a trailer of sorts to get the interest of viewers and keep them watching.
The end result was a series that would not have been out of place in this year’s television line-up, heavily compromised by the year in which it was produced. Network politics short-changed the show of both the pre-production time and compelling villain it needed, the newness of VFX technology pioneered by ILM rendered the budget unsustainable, and the lack of any support for viewers who might have missed an episode in the early days of the VCR made following the story difficult. It was a show that could not possibly have succeeded in 1978. Had it been produced in 1988 or 1993, Battlestar Galactica would have been remembered as revolutionary in the annals of televised science fiction, standing alongside Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9. Instead, it became a footnote.