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Appreciating Richard Hatch and the Underrated BATTLESTAR GALACTICA ’78 Movie

Appreciating Richard Hatch and the Underrated BATTLESTAR GALACTICA ’78 Movie

Mention Battlestar Galactica and the common sentiment tends to be that the rebooted series was cool (except the ending), and the original was campy cheese. Not all of this thinking necessarily comes from the material itself; George Lucas and 20th Century Fox sued Universal over Battlestar Galactica‘s similarities to Star Wars, and star Richard Hatch, who passed away yesterday at the age of 71, spent so many years on the convention circuit pitching a reboot that it sometimes came off as desperate…though it worked in the end by ultimately getting him a new role on the remake.

And yes, the original TV series had its cheesy moments even before the 1980 “comeback” season that’s extremely difficult to defend. But that’s partly because it was never meant to be a regular series–the initial plan was for three TV movies. When the network and producer Glen A. Larson made it a weekly, the writers had to adapt quickly and on a lower budget, not always with the best results. But that original three-hour episode was eventually edited into a two-hour-long movie to help recoup some of the costs of the $7 million dollar pilot. And it is a legitimately great piece of sci-fi.

Is it derivative? Sure. Just as Star Wars borrowed heavily from Flash Gordon, Silent Running, The Hidden Fortress, and everything else George Lucas liked, Galactica has elements of Star Wars, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, the Book of Mormon (the sacred book, not the yet-to-be-made musical), and a heavy dose of Cold War politics. If it is a Star Wars rip-off, it is maybe the best one… and I will argue that its classic theme music is almost as good.

So let us first applaud it for what it does better than any of its sources: introduce many characters very quickly, and in very definable ways, without ever feeling like it’s spoonfeeding you. Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) sweeping his gambling winnings into the crotch of his pants during an alert tells you everything you need to know about him, while the James Earl Jones-ish proclamations of Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) promptly establishes him as the righteous veteran and good guy version of Darth Vader. Treacherous Baltar (John Colicos) is instantly recognized as a sleazy appeaser, and his fall into downright evil is inevitable from there. Sweeping in to take his place is Ray Milland’s Sire Uri, an aristocrat who gorges himself at the expense of refugees and insists upon unilateral disarmament right up until the point that it ceases to benefit him personally.

Numerous other characters make lasting impressions, like jealous Athena (Maren Jensen), interrupting Starbuck’s secret makeout session, or loyal Colonel Tigh (Terry Carter), a straight-and-noble until he has to lie to his men, at which point he briefly becomes comic relief because of what we know of him already. There’s outcast “socialator” Cassiopeia (Laurette Spang), who reflects Starbuck’s free-wheeling nature right back at him in a more formalized way–yes, space-hookers were on TV way before Firefly. There’s best friend Boomer (Herb Jefferson Jr.), wearily yet willingly tagging along with his pals’ schemes. And yeah, we knew Boxey and Muffit were there to appeal to the youngest kids in the audience, but compare them to Jake Lloyd and Jar Jar and it’s clear which feels less like pandering.

Hatch had arguably the most thankless role of all amidst so many great characters: upon him was the burden of playing the straight-arrow good guy; a hero defined by being a loyal son, a good surrogate father, and the moral counterweight to the more roguish Starbuck. He played it the only way he could–with sincerity. When Boxey wished aloud that Apollo could be his dad, he was expressing the wishes of many youngsters in the audience. The Captain wasn’t just some white-bread generic goodie, but a man you knew would protect you.

And then there’s the conflict these great characters find themselves faced with, which still rings true today: Do you appease a ruthless enemy bent on your destruction when they extend a hand for peace, or do you automatically distrust? Star Wars had more of a liberal bent, with the Empire representing the Nixon White House in George Lucas’ mind; Battlestar Galactica’s Adama is a Reagan-ish foreign policy hawk by comparison, especially when we learn that the reason the whole war started is that humans felt the need to intervene in Cylon oppression of other worlds. And yet it’s a populist kind of conservatism that greatly distrusts the wealthy, most of whom end up pampered in a resort run by giant insects and prepared as food for their larvae. Eat the rich, indeed.

Yes, the Viper fighters look a bit like X-wings, and Apollo and Starbuck totally have a Luke/Han dynamic. But the influence didn’t all go one way. Have you noticed how much Imperious Leader’s altering of the bargain between Baltar and himself closely resembles the Vader/Lando deal that would appear onscreen two years later? To the extent that Ralph McQuarrie and John Dykstra worked on both series, there will obviously be similarities, though the Galactica is more Starship Enterprise than Star Destroyer.

Plus it looks amazing; the models still hold up better than far more recent films do. Veteran TV directors Richard A. Colla and Alan J. Levi may not have had Lucas-level gifts when it came to editing action, but little is ever unclear in the space battles, and the effects shots worked so well they were subsequently recycled in probably every episode. Just looking at those intergendered, four-eyed and dual-mouthed space Motown singers break my brain–I get hung up just trying to figure out how that makeup was done.

As a twentysomething film school grad viewing for the first time (granted, I knew every detail by then, as I owned the picture storybook in the pre-VHS era), I was transfixed. This was not the flying-bikes-on-the-freeway cheesefest people had been talking down for years, but a bona fide space epic, with a plot specific enough to feel like it related to current events but also classically scriptural in a way that made it timeless. If Adama was Moses, leading his people into the desert to find the promised land called Earth, Apollo was the worthy Joshua who would succeed him… the fact that he didn’t is one of many problems with Galactica 1980, but whatever. You don’t have to accept any of what came later as canon, because the beauty of the movie is that it does have enough closure to satisfy.

Image: ABC/Universal


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