White Jumpsuits: Sci-Fi TV of the Disco Era

Despite skin-tight jumpsuits, dodgy special effects, and silly plots, "disco-era" sci-fi helped US TV became comfortable with ideas too big, too strange, or too disturbing for a "mundane" context.

In an earlier essay, “White Jumpsuits, Catsuited Babes, Pornstaches and Other Joys of ‘70s Sci-Fi Television“, I identified the starlost subgenre of the ’70s, TV shows about space-wanderers in skin-tight jumpers of various hues. This international trend gave us the seminal (although not to say good), Canadian series The Starlost; the underrated, mid-Atlantic Space: 1999; and the original, half-baked Battlestar: Galactica. The latter was the first of three interrelated shows — all produced by the late Glen Larson — whose history illustrates the market forces then impeding good television, especially science fiction.

Battlestar Galactica (1978-79, ABC) is the larger-than-life saga of a “ragtag fleet” that carries the homeless survivors of war with the robotic Cylons. In one of those fun mind-warps only possible in science fiction, the Galacticans are seeking the “legendary” planet Earth, and we can’t be sure if they’re in our past, present, or future. Still, the series is the most mainstream of the starlost subgenre, with suspiciously cheerful refugees, including a cute kid and his robot dog.

With its many flaws, Battlestar Galactica retains an innocent, eager charm (it’s available on both DVD and Blu-ray). Its legacy includes a far superior remake (2003-2009) that’s much darker, but otherwise faithful to the original (unless noted, my references are to the original series). In the ’70s, a mature remake of Battlestar Galactica was an alternate-reality scenario: sheer science fiction. Today, it’s the bottom-line orthodoxy of ’70s-era network TV that requires archaeological proof.

Battlestar Galactica belongs to a now-extinct species: the high-profile family show. At a trumpeted cost of $1 million per episode, it was also the return of the escapist costume picture, drawing from swashbucklers and sword and sandal epics, adding ’70s fads like ancient astronauts, religious syncretism, and disaster flicks. It followed a now-familiar pattern for sci-fi shows: a much-hyped, high-rated debut; ratings decline, network cold-feet, and nervous attempts to fix the show; cancellation amid claims of disinterest; and recriminations from all sides. Battlestar Galactica‘s cancellation was especially controversial, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Despite the white-hot popularity of Star Wars and Star Trek circa 1978, those franchises would provide only four movies (combined) in the following five years. In a time before VCRs, Glen Larson’s new series tried to fill a void. While the Battlestar Galactica format was as flexible as Star Trek‘s, the show’s visual qualities (costumes, sets, etc.) were light-years ahead of Gene Roddenberry’s velour-and-cardboard utopia. Battlestar Galactica even flirts with diversity, offering two prominent black soldiers, and strong women, sometimes in combat. The cast is winning: earnest Richard Hatch had the role of a lifetime as Apollo (he’s the only original-series star in the remake, although as a different character), buddy to the roguish Starbuck, which Dirk Benedict (The A-Team) modeled on James Garner’s Maverick character. The pre-CGI effects can be erratic, but the score is fantastic, with Stu Phillips’ main theme (co-written by Larson) an instant classic.

At the time, Larson was widely accused of ripping off Star Wars, as in a lawsuit by 20th Century Fox, possibly triggered by the pilot’s successful release to theatres. In retrospect, the show drew as much from Larson’s Mormonism as from Star Wars (itself swiped from Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and Frank Herbert’s Dune). Both films used light adventure to cater to America’s post-Vietnam longing for reconciliation, butBattlestar Galactica is less coy: its heroes are in uniform from the start.

The narrative begins with a Pearl Harbor-like sneak attack, an attempted genocide by the Cylons (in case of any doubt, the latter half of the season introduces a second group of space Nazis: the Eastern Alliance). Then: a benign military coup, led by Lorne Greene as all-wise patriarch Admiral Adama, the name one of many tie-ins within the series to Earth mythology. The series’ militarism, however, is somewhat mitigated by storylines about bullied groups and the occasional debate on ethics.

Then and now, die-hard fans blame the show’s failure on ABC’s interference (schedule changes, impossible deadlines), while skeptics point to poor writing that whittled away the 65 million who watched the three-hour premiere. The evidence suggests that both sides are correct. (By the way, if I see both sides of this tempest while having attention-span for 40-year-old TV shows, it might be because my younger self didn’t watch Battlestar Galactica. I was too much of a (relative) snob, one of the acolytes triangulating on reruns of Star Trek and The Outer Limits.)

Battlestar Galactica‘s target viewer was at least a few years younger than Star Trek‘s, but even so, the scripts can be unforgivably sloppy. In the second episode “Lost Planet of the Gods”, our heroes find Baltar (John Colicos), the traitor of the Cylon sneak-attack, but instead of punishing him, Adama briefs Baltar on his fleet’s plans. A few episodes later, the writers of “Fire in Space” seem to believe their title is literally possible (it isn’t).

This kind of self-injury is a shame, because the show remains distinctive and impressive. While all 17 episodes are flawed, there’s enough magic to suggest the show might’ve reversed Star Trek‘s arc and gotten better as it went. For decades after cancellation, most of the episodes existed in multiple versions, including TV-movies slapped together for syndication; this contributed to a love-or-hate-it reputation. In a 1987 poll of critics and experts for The Best of Science Fiction TV, by John Javna, Battlestar Galactica was voted both 22nd Best and 5th Worst (that’s worse than Far Out Space Nuts and any Irwin Allen series).

The DVD/Blu-ray releases of this century allow a measured view. The opener “Saga of a Star World” is somewhat overrated; ABC-haters should remember it was written before the production schedule got crazy, but is itself half-shoddy. This series had trouble realizing that non-fleet settings, like the casino on Carillon — supposedly a trap to lure humans — had a studio-set-with-drapes quality that wouldn’t fool anyone. Of the two versions of this episode, the shorter, theatrical version is marginally better.

The other consensus-best episodes include “War of the Gods” with Patrick Macnee; “The Living Legend”, with Lloyd Bridges as the Patton-like Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes took this part in the remake); and “Experiment in Terra”, which evokes Quantum Leap, created a decade later by ex-Galactica scribe Donald Bellisario (NCIS). These episodes hold up pretty well. Still, this choppy series might be best served by a cleaned-up miniseries culled from all existing footage, but that seems unlikely: Larson died in 2014, and most fan passion is devoted to arguing the merits of new series vs. old.

Glen Larson also created B.J. and the Bear and Knight Rider; no one’s claiming he’s a neglected genius. Still, there’s much evidence of network malpractice. We’re all well used to fans (or producers) alleging their favorite was screwed over by the network and/or studio, but Battlestar Galactica might be the poster-child.

Glen Larson originally proposed a miniseries, possibly followed by a series of TV movies. ABC was so impressed by the production, however, they demanded an immediate weekly show, resulting in a severe time crunch, which helps to explain the plot holes and the heavy reuse of certain effects shots (effects expert John Dykstra quit the show after several episodes of network interference). As the only high-profile space series at the time, Battlestar Galactica should’ve had its choice of Hollywood story ideas, but the hurriedly produced first season consists mostly of cross-dressed Westerns, war, and crime stories: in other words, space opera. The final episode “The Hand of God” is one of the best, as the writers rediscover their own mythology.

Clearly, ABC had trouble conceiving the time, labor, and money Battlestar Galactica would require. The network had been spoiled by the success of Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company, shows powered by the charms of cast members (several of them bound for celebrated salary disputes). While ABC had just retired a sci-fi hit, the bionic powers of The Six Million Dollar Man had been put over mostly with miming and sound effects. Glen Larson’s new project was a different order of show.

Dictatorship and Cannibalism, Science and Religion

Production interviews reveal complaints about all-nighters and last-minute changes. The episode guide also tells the tale: in the 15 weeks from early October 1978 to mid-January 1979, the show offered only six new narratives, although two of those were two-hour stories. One of the latter was “The Living Legend”, presumably the type of TV-movie Larson originally had in mind. Unfortunately, most of the other episodes in this crucial period were filler, including three space-Westerns, down to the cowboy hats and six-shooters, as the under-the-gun series resorted to adapting movies: The Guns of Navarone became the two-hour “Gun on Ice Planet Zero”, The Magnificent Seven became “The Magnificent Warriors”, and The Towering Inferno became “Fire in Space”. Though the ratings dropped, what’s surprising is that they remained respectable given these conditions.

Although TV of the era avoided primetime serials, ABC allowed the Galactica franchise to go with multi-part stories half the time. This was partly to amortize the high cost of effects and guest stars (including Fred Astaire), but it was a further obstacle at a time when viewers expected standalone plots. Perhaps most significant: ABC didn’t own the show, and thus had no stake in later syndication; even today, such economics can be a stumbling block for pricey shows, witness Revolution and Terra Nova. Still, Battlestar Galactica ranked #24 for the year, despite enough pre-emptions to obliterate most shows. Did ABC expect better?

In an unusual, statistics-heavy article in Fantastic Films magazine (June 1982), William J. Adams alleged that ABC’s frequent pre-emptions of Battlestar Galactica were sabotage, part of a larger pattern of network hostility to one-hour science fiction. Adams reminds us that US broadcasting is a public trust and subject to Congressional oversight, at least in theory: the success of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Star Trek (in syndication) shed harsh light on the lack of new sci-fi on US networks. Under these conditions, a high-profile flop wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Not long before the remake’s debut in 2003, film and TV critic John Kenneth Muir published An Analytical Guide to Battlestar Galactica (McFarland, 1999). Muir barely mentions the Adams article, although he agrees that the original show was cancelled due to high production costs, rather than poor ratings. Muir also acknowledges the production grind, leaving the reader wondering if the pre-emptions were simply due to a lack of finished episodes.

Focused on their research, these writers circle around a less-quantifiable factor: a costly-but-popular series would have been more of a boon to CBS or, in particular, NBC, mired in a distant third place. NBC had a history of poaching: Sanford and Son, one of their few hits of the ’70s, gestated at CBS (the home of Norman Lear’s other sitcoms) as well as being a remake of Steptoe and Son, which aired on the BBC from 1962 to 1974; when ABC tired of their bionic franchise, NBC picked up the last season of The Bionic Woman. Indeed, NBC did scoop up producer Larson and his spaceship models for their Fall 1979 offering Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but it was too little too late.

In addition to high production costs, ABC might’ve desired the death of its own due to the social stigma against science fiction, which lingers today, and the genre’s bent toward controversial ideas. Toward the end of two-hour “War of the Gods”, nervous censors cut the big reveal that the villain’s crashed ship contains demonic-looking corpses. Some episodes of Galactica 1980, the short-lived sequel-series, end with a sincere disclaimer that UFOs are no threat to national security!

If ABC execs of the day hadn’t seen much of Doctor Who or Star Trek, they may have been shocked: “Saga of a Star World” touches on dictatorship and cannibalism, and “Lost Planet of the Gods” implies science and religion are both needed to understand human origins — all of this on a juvenile sci-fi drama. Battlestar Galactica is really the origin-story of a nation, like The Aeneid, pantheon included. It was dumbed-down, yes, but perhaps not enough to make ABC comfortable.

It’s always been a rocky marriage between sci-fi and US television. Futuristic shows get a quick hook, and dominant networks tend to avoid science fiction (The Twilight Zone ran on dominant CBS in the early ’60s, but most of its tales are fantasy, not science fiction). If we set aside sitcoms and superheroes, it’s arguable whether the genre succeeded on a major US network until Fox’s Fringe debuted in 2008. Irwin Allen’s monster-rally Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea lasted four years, but it ran in the mid-’60s, when ABC was still becoming a major network. Similar conditions boosted The X-Files (Fox in the ’90s). The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Alias are more spy than sci-fi. Lost and Quantum Leap also walk a line, allowing viewers to class them fantasy.

The three major networks of the ’70s must have been particularly angered and perplexed by Star Trek‘s unprecedented success in syndication: not only was the show a first-run failure, its 78 segments fell well short of the industry-standard, 100-episode minimum for syndication success. In 1976, Saturday Night Live aired its first Star Trek sketch. It ends with John Belushi-as-Kirk declaring intelligent life everywhere except “one television network” (that would be SNL‘s own NBC).

Like sci-fi, Battlestar Galactica wouldn’t stay dead. Prior to Fall 1979, Larson and Universal shopped the cancelled series to the two other networks — rumors had Isaac Asimov coming aboard — but ultimately contracted with ABC for the widely hated Galactica 1980, which aired in the suicide-slot opposite 60 Minutes. In this short-lived sequel, a new group of Galacticans find Earth and try to prepare humanity for Cylon contact. Like several other sci-fi series (Wonder Woman, Enterprise), Galactica 1980 hedged its bets by opening with World War II storylines, in this case courtesy of time travel.

Like its predecessor, the series begins with a serviceable three-hour special (“Galactica Discovers Earth”), but despite some interesting concepts Galactica 1980 becomes even more juvenile than Battlestar Galactica, leaning hard on the broad comedy of Americans encountering spacemen. Though produced by Larson, the show is widely considered non-canonical (although fans have adopted the last segment, the oneiric “The Return of Starbuck” with Dirk Benedict). When Galactica 1980 died after ten episodes, there was no chance of another network hitching its wagon to a Battlestar Galactica. The franchise was left for dead.

Having its worst decade, NBC was making their own grab for the space-opera audience. They’d tried mightily for a success in the mold of ABC’s The Six Million Dollar Man, thus the masculine-but-short-lived Gemini Man, The Invisible Man, The Man from Atlantis, and The Amazing Spider-Man. Finally, the Peacock network scraped up the Rip Van Winkle-like Buck Rogers, a character created in 1928 — and parodied by Daffy Duck in 1953 (“Duck Dodgers” vs. cult-hero Marvin the Martian) — but NBC thought well enough of Battlestar Galactica to partner with Universal and Glen Larson for another space mission.

The best episodes of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) hint at potential, but even the worst might be essential viewing (the series is available on DVD, but not Blu-ray). This is the future as discotopia: several episodes have disco-dancing numbers, and Gil Gerard’s smirky Buck has a neckline thatch worthy of Burt Reynolds. “Jiggle TV” had bounced ABC into first place, so be prepared for skin and spandex, a good look for shapely Erin Gray (as Col. Wilma Deering). A former model and likable actress with a dazzling smile, Gray had maybe the best walk-in-heels in Hollywood at the time.

So Buck Rogers is pretty to look at — the colors pop against the bright-white backgrounds, and the special effects can be impressive; like Battlestar Galactica it might be better ambient video than TV show. Larson and company replicated most of what worked before: rousing Stu Phillips score, fast pace and wink-wink humor, and a two-hour premiere co-released to theatres. They re-used many props and models, and some effects footage, from the prior franchise. Unfortunately, Buck Rogers reflects the false assumption that Battlestar Galactica failed to get viewers, a defeatism that informs countless flaws, down to condescension to people of color: the Snow White-inspired “Schgoratchx!” takes for granted the black dwarf is the servant of the others.

As Buck Rogers in the 25th Century struggled for first-season ratings, executive producer Bruce Lansbury gave an interview to Starlog #35 (published June 1980). Although he’d succeeded with the genre-blending Wild Wild West, Lansbury complained that sci-fi’s “hardware and futuristic setting create an anxiety in some people”. “The one thing we don’t want” the producer said, “is to tell concept stories” (e.g., “what if Kirk meets Apollo?”) Instead, Lansbury wanted “basic melodrama, action-adventure, and humor”.

Unsurprisingly, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) tries to be four shows in one — family-friendly adventure, campy self-parody, Star Trek pastiche, sexy titillation — with each of these personalities sabotaging the others. The kitchen-sink strategy does leave an impressive guest roster, including Jack Palance, Sam Jaffe, Vera Miles, Ray Walston, Batman alumni Julie Newmar and Frank Gorshin, the ill-fated Dorothy Stratten, and pre-stardom Markie Post and Dennis Haysbert.

Much like Sylvester Stallone’s Demolition Man (1993), the show’s dramatic hook contrasts smart-ass Buck with the oh-so-correct denizens of the future, usually blunt Wilma and ingenuous Dr. Huer (Tim O’Connor). This works well enough in the splashy, movie-length “Awakening” (the debut) and “The Plot to Kill a City”. Usually though, the producers fail to deliver on their own opening credits: Jamie Lee Curtis as “Unchained Woman”, Peter Graves in “Return of the Fighting 69th”, the two-hour “Flight of the War Witch”. That last features the show’s “superbitch” Princess Ardala, delightfully played by Pamela Hensley: if the show had caught on, Hensley would be as famous as Ms. Newmar. Hensley’s best showcase is “Ardala Returns”, a mildly diverting mix of The Nutty Professor and Star Trek‘s “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”

Whereas Battlestar Galactica aimed for the Star Wars crowd, Buck Rogers made clumsy nods toward Star Trek morality plays. The problem is a lack of shadows, literal or otherwise. “Testimony of a Traitor” is The Manchurian Candidate with flashbacks, but Buck’s such a straight-arrow the only question is who’s behind the set-up. “A Dream of Jennifer” is proof Vertigo doesn’t work if the star can’t go crazy. In Starlog #48, former story-editor Alan Brennert (L.A. Law) blamed NBC and star Gil Gerard for imposing Buck Rogers‘ black-and-white morality (apparently, Gerard’s background as an industrial chemist didn’t include dramatic chemistry).

Gil Gerard is an interesting case. Admittedly, my eyes were on Ms. Gray, but Gerard too was an icon for sci-fi nerds, the closest thing in those years to a first-run Captain Kirk. Gerard’s a good actor, with a persona comparable to Burt Reynolds or Bruce Willis. His personal appearances (viewable on YouTube) reveal he’s aged well. Still, he virtually disappeared: while Gray and Hensley went on to hit shows (Silver Spoons and Matt Houston respectively), Gerard’s most prominent later credits are single episodes of Pacific Blue and Drop Dead Diva. In those YouTube interviews, he boasts of “improving” Buck Rogers scripts; as the title character, he felt irreplaceable. Hollywood’s a small place; it’s tempting to conclude Gerard crossed the wrong people, but his life-long struggle with weight may have been a factor in body-conscious Hollywood.

In season two, Buck Rogers gets an ill-advised makeover, becoming less comic (and less sexy), providing new supporting characters for Buck and Wilma, and a new mission, something about finding lost human colonies. Ronald Reagan had been elected president, but we can assume little on-set rejoicing given season two’s frequent helpings of New Age folklore, such as satyrs, riddles, and the transmutation of metal.

Buck Rogers was better off as a self-parody, but in the middle of its strike-shortened second year comes the best episode, the unsung children’s tale “The Crystals”. (In a similar vein, see Battlestar Galactica‘s charming, underrated “The Young Lords”.) It’s a coming-of-age story about an adolescent girl (Amanda Wyss, a familiar face at the time) menaced by a mummy, and it probably got filmed because the series was doomed and the creative types were left alone.

If you’d rather mock and shame, don’t miss sitcom-brat Gary Coleman (NBC’s Diff’rent Strokes) as a kidnapped president in “Cosmic Whiz Kid”, one of several episodes in which Buck travels to a sleazy planet to free hostages or slaves. Or “Space Rockers”, in which Jerry Orbach somehow keeps his dignity as Svengali to a rock group, hypnotizing teens into smashing furniture (all the better to conquer the universe). “Space Vampire” isn’t so bad (it’s top-rated on imdb), but achieves camp because of the title threat: Nosferatu with a styled monobrow. Ben Stiller and Jack Black remembered this, cutting to this “Vorvon” in the credits of their spoof-pilot Heat Vision and Jack.

Buck Rogers wasn’t set in the same fictional galaxy as Battlestar Galactica, but if you were following media-science fiction at the time, it’s impossible not to think of the shows together. Like any sci-fi artifact, Buck Rogers developed a cult following, but Battlestar Galactica‘s is much larger and more vocal. Over the years, many were disappointed by Glen Larson’s seeming ambivalence toward a Battlestar Galactica revival, but Larson was busy with the type of career Gene Roddenberry wanted in the ’60s and ’70s: while Roddenberry’s fantasy pilots became TV-movie curios, Larson’s action-adventure pilots went to series. Larson had little to gain from a Battlestar Galactica revival; if it had worked out, he might have been pigeonholed.

We could speculate Larson was disturbed by the passion of sci-fi fans, whereas Roddenberry couldn’t afford to be: about six years after the cancellation of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the syndicated Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered with Roddenberry in charge. Its first season was little better than Buck Rogers, but its financers took the long view, and in doing so they solved the business model for sci-fi TV, in syndication at least. Early CGI eased budget stresses. The production avoided pricey stars, and signed the regular cast to long options. They courted the fans without fearing them. And over time, they learned to let their writers explore unusual subject matter.

Watching the three Glen Larson shows of 1978 to 1981, silly as they are, it’s clear that most of the concepts ultimately used for the Battlestar Galactica remake were already present in some form. The Galactica franchise was revived in 2003 not just because of name recognition, but because those ideas were sound, even after 25 years of cold storage. None of this is to take away from the accomplishments of Ronald D. Moore and the other creators of the Battlestar Galactica remake. It’s only a reminder that the improved version was possible only as US television became comfortable with science fiction, a genre devoted to ideas that are too big, too strange, or too disturbing for a “mundane” context.

Thomas A. Foster writes about popular culture in the context of social change. He has written for Video Watchdog, Rue Morgue, and Senses of Cinema.