Friday, 21 November 2008

Battlestar Galactica (1978)

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A friend of mine recently gave me a CD stuffed full of old TV show themes he’d downloaded, everything from a re-mixed version of the Battle of the Planets theme to the Charles in Charge title song to the opening strains for Battlestar Galactica. I immediately did two things: I told my friend he wasn't cool enough to know me anymore, and then I rented the pilot for Galactica. I’ve not seen the highly-regarded re-make of recent years, so Galactica is still defined for me by vague memories of fuzzy, over-used FX shots and ‘70s hair-don’ts in outer space. As it should be. The original telemovie presents the show’s strengths and weaknesses in equal balance.
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The set-up is intriguing and substantial. The human race, far from being limited to one naff planet in the Milky Way, is actually a galactic species with thirteen colonies, each one named for a sign of the Zodiac, with Earth as a near-mythical lost colony. Having waged a long war with the evil, robotic Cylons, who, we’re told, despise freedom and tolerance – no other traits are outstanding – a peace treaty is in the offing.
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But the Cylons have decided extermination is the only solution to the human question, and, being sneaky, have instead worked out how to take advantage of the humans’ gullibility, fooling the space fleet into an ambush and destroying all the ships except for the Galactica, the ship of Commander Adama (Lorne Greene), and simultaneously attacking and nearly exterminating all the inhabitants of the human colonies.
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Their dimwit leaders, like Lew Ayres’ President Adar, are blown to pieces, and the last survivors drawn from the colonies, clustered around the title craft, set out to reach their last known, long-lost colony of Earth. Cue dramatic music and frantic rhubarbing by the extras.
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It’s a tremendous idea for a sci-fi epic, spun from the founding legends of writer Glen A. Larson’s Mormon background. Producer John Dykstra’s effects are of a surprisingly high standard. But ‘70s TV hard-tack hurts it – the bland acting, the flat dialogue, the episodic story arcs. Adama, played with fair stentorian flavour by Greene, is basically Ben Cartwright in space, except that his kids get whittled down pretty quick as one son, Zac (Rick Springfield!) dies in the first attack. His elder son, Apollo (Richard Hatch, who’s pretty damn dull) and daughter Athena (Maren Jensen, who’s pretty damn hot) continue to fight for the Ponder – er, Battlestar.
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Apollo’s best pal Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) is so thinly conceived as the bad-ass on board, complete with cigars and running flirtation with both Athena and a space-hooker Cassiopeia (Laurette Spang), but without any actual grit, that I suspect he may have inspired Futurama’s Bender. A third musketeer is Boomer (Herb Jefferson Jr), whose chief characteristic is that he’s not Starbuck.
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The tech stuff doesn’t bear up to much scrutiny. In this super-technological setting the Cylons wipe out human kind by strafing streets like WW2 fighters rather than dropping atomic weapons or biological agents, and the supposedly formidable Battlestars are oddly vulnerable to hordes of pesky fighters, betraying a lack of much conceptual imagination from director Richard A. Colla, Dykstra, and the writers.
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Essentially two episodes jammed roughly together, the pilot gets the over-arcing plot in motion and then primes the viewer for the expected episodic patterns. It plants the human survivors of the holocaust on a remote mining planet, where a gambling resort provides cover for the insectoid locals to imprison and eat humans, whilst helping the Cylons to make another destructive ambush.
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Galactica reminded me vividly of a rather cornball TV culture that’s virtually vanished, perhaps most identifiable in the proliferation of ad-break cliffhangers. Many of these involve an elevator in the resort which, when it decides to take passengers down to the lowest floor, opens its doors to reveal a sight so terrifying the passengers scream in unholy terror. Battlestar Galactica will return after these messages! The Cylons are strikingly creepy in appearance, until they start to move in battle, where their inability to perambulate faster than an eighty-year-old with a bad hip, and total lack of any capacity to aim a gun and hit a target, renders them awesomely lame adversaries.
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Then again, the humans are hardly more impressive. Between Ayres’ senile Adar, the idiotic traitor Baltar (John Colicos) who gets his head cut off half way through after failing to notice the Cylons’ genocidal tendencies, and the moronic replacement councillors like those played by Ray Milland and Wilfred Hyde-White, it’s a wonder the human race has survived this long, for all the acumen they display. Only Adama’s resolute will and nose for both sniffing out and arranging conspiracies saves the day. Milland has some fun as the greasy politician who lounges in private quarters with a bevy of beauties and pilfered supplies. Now there’s a man who knows how to do the end of civilisation.
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2 comments:

Mr Wonderful said...

I am so cool enough! Btw, I'm off again this morning, but drop down to the house at your convenience and pick up the discs I'm leaving here for you.

Roderick Heath said...

No-one who names himself after obscure Matt Dillon movies can be considered cool. End of section. Unless, possibly, you changed it to "Rumble Fish".