Culture

White Jumpsuits: Sci-Fi TV of the Disco Era

Thomas Lalli Foster

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.

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