DreamWatch (UK) #53: January 1999 (pp. 48-53)
by Paul Simon

 

There are those who believe that life here began out there…

One such man was Glen A. Larson. A former member of singing group The Four Preps, Larson turned his writing talents to television, and during the Sixties became a respected writer and producer, contributing to shows ranging from Westerns to cop shows. During the late Sixties, Larson attempted to sell the idea of a science fiction Western called Adam's Ark to American television networks, but the concept did not find favour. A revamped Adam's Ark was to stride the airwaves in the highest budgeted television show ever in September 1978: Battlestar Galactica.

Although Richard Hatch is now the actor most associated with the show - having co-written two novels based on the series, as well as seeking out funding for a revival that he hopes to get on air before the turn of the century - it very nearly came about that he was not involved. Kent McCord, who later headlined the short lived sequel series, Galactica 1980, was contracted to Universal for a large sum to take the part, having been involved with Glen Larson during his pre-production meetings with special effects wizard John Dykstra, amongst many others. Circumstances beyond his control meant that he was not able to play Apollo, and the search was on for a replacement. One person who had been approached some six months earlier was the former teen star of All My Children, Richard Hatch.

"I was a very idealistic actor," he says now. "I got into the business for one reason only - not to be a star, not to make lots of money, all of that was a big surprise to me - because I loved the process of acting and challenging myself. The problem is, most series you get on don't challenge you as much as the other roles you get to take, and it seems like sometimes the leading man roles tend to be really boring. I felt I was much more of a character actor, because the more challenging the role, the more I would get into it. The leading man role was just being charming on screen, and I just didn't feel challenged. I would get bored."

"With Battlestar, I was afraid it was just going to be a second rate Star Wars for TV, like TV so often does, and I also felt like I wasn't going to get a chance to do some acting. It wasn't ego, I just wanted to do something that would challenge me. But most people couldn't understand that. They wondered who I thought I was."

Glen Larson was not deterred by his failure to attract Hatch, and when time became critical to make the casting, he took the young actor to dinner. "He thought I was perfect for Apollo. They didn't even ask me to read, because I'd turned it down initially, but here they now were offering it to me. I went out for dinner with the producer and he basically said to me that this was going to be a combination of [two popular series:] Family and Wagon Train. It was going to be an adventure series, and there was going to be a lot of dramatic content, and some wonderful opportunities to act. When he said all this, I said 'Maybe I would be able to do something here', and looking at the big script with all these incredible graphics kind of blew me away. Up to this time I hadn't realized the scope of the piece. I didn't even know it was the biggest budgeted thing in history at this time."

"I think the big impact him me the day I showed up on the set, and realized the immensity of this show. I went through a terrifying moment of 'Oh My God!' and then we were launched into the series. On the day I signed the deal I was rushed over to the lot, jumped in costume, run over to the set, and began acting. Within a couple of hours, I went from signing to filming."

Hatch joined a varied array of actors, some of whom were better used in the series than others. Dirk Benedict played the devil-may-care Lieutenant Starbuck ("the networks wanted Don Johnson and Glen Larson wanted to go with Dirk Benedict," Hatch adds); Apollo's father, Adama, the Commander of the fleet, was portrayed by the patriarchal figure of Lorne Greene, best known for his role as Ben Cartwright on the long running Western series Bonanaza. In order to boost Apollo's character, the creators had him fall in love with, marry and quickly lose Serena (an early role for Jane Seymour), thus making him a single father to her young son Boxey (played by Noah Hathaway). Boxey's only friend seemed to be a mechanical dog (called a 'daggit' in Galacticese) named Muffet. Girl-on-every-ship Starbuck ends up falling in love with Cassiopeia (Laurette Spang), a socialator (for which read combination of bargirl and courtesan), who became a medical technician.

The focus on these main characters, however, meant that the rest of a potentially great cast was on the whole ignored. This was particularly regrettable in the cases of Terry Carter's Colonel Tigh - Adama's second-in-command - and Herb Jefferson Jr's Boomer, who were two of the first black SF heroes, and Maren Jensen's Athena, who was given little to do, despite being Adama's daughter and Apollo's sister.

The three hour premiere of Battlestar Galactica, aired in America on 17 September 1978, set the stage for an epic tale. After a thousand year war between humanity and the mechanical Cylon Empire, peace has been declared. On the twelve planets the human race inhabit is all ready to celebrate. The crews aboard the twelve battlestars (superfortress starships) are ready to stand down, their jobs finished. However, the peace is a sham: the negotiator, Baltar, has betrayed humanity to the Cylons, who attack when their guard is down. Most of the humans are killed, and eleven of the battlestars defeated (or so we think - one returns during the show's run). Those humans who have survived take every starship available and huddle around the one remaining battlestar, Galactica, as its commander, Adama, decides that their only hope is to search for the lost 'thirteenth tribe', apparently located on a planet called Earth. The Cylons pursue, intent on exterminating the last of humanity, assisted by the treacherous Baltar.

After Apollo was widowed in the two part The Lost Gods of Kobol, the series began to mine some very familiar themes, notably - and understandably, given Lorne Green's involvement - the Western. Hatch approved of this move. "The big connection to that was: back when [America was] basically Eastern orientated, going out West was the adventure lane. Now that we've conquered the West, and basically conquered the world, where does adventure lie? It lies in space, and the analogy is that same adventure, the same going into the unknown, that same Wild Woolly West where rules are made to be broken, and where the law is the strongest. We're going out into outer space and facing every unknown adversary and enemy and the unknown altogether, and somehow connecting that Wild West feeling to it was a really good idea."

The Magnificent Warriors was a case in point. Not only was the title an obvious reference to the classic Western, but it was set in the equivalent of a frontier town and had TV and movie Western veterans like Barry Nelson, Rance Howard and Ben Frommer in the guest cast. The Lost Warrior rewrote the classic Western Shane, and even had a shootout on Main Street with a Cylon as the episode's climax.

The Living Legend also had its roots in the Western, with Lloyd Bridges' Commander Cain being exactly the sort of role that John Wayne had excelled at over the years. The two part story also played another important part in Galactica's history: the introduction of the final new cast member - Anne Lockhart as Cain's daughter, Sheba.

Like Hatch, Lockhart had been approached for Galactica some time before she actually joined the show. "It was prior to all of the women's characters even being properly formulated," she recalls. "The character that I had read when Glen sent the script was not very strong. I called him up and said, 'I'm flattered that you wanted me, but I would want to do a good job for you, and in order to do that I would have to be happy, and I just don't think this kind of a role would be something I would be hooked on doing.' It wasn't anything like the character of Sheba, and he said, 'Well of course we can always rewrite and beef up the part'. I said, 'I certainly understand that, but you understand that I must make a decision based on what you have given me,' and so I thanked him very much, and said no, put down the phone, and went - 'What have I done?'"

"Not too long after that he called me and said, 'I have an opportunity to add a new female character, and I would like to write it for you, are you interested?' I said yes and he sent me the first 25 pages of The Living Legend. I read them and called him up and said 'What time do you want me to start?'

"The character of Sheba, even in those first 25 pages, was so strong and so wonderful, and really quite unlike anything else that was on television at that time. I was in combat, and there was really never any issue made about my gender. She had great strength, and great ability. She had a very good military mind, and she was appreciated and respected because of those abilities as opposed to just because she was female. That was what really appealed to me, and yet there was also a great vulnerability to her, which she tried very hard to mask because there was a wonderful quality in which she felt she needed to live up to the image of her father, Commander Cain, and so externally she had a bit of a chip on her shoulder. I played it that way although there was never dialogue to relate to that, that I recall."

"What I appreciated about her was the fact that it often afforded me the opportunity to portray a woman who did have those internal struggles but certainly was accepted and respected because she could do everything. The very first time you see Sheba on screen, she's in her Viper, and she has Apollo and Starbuck locked [as targets], and she's about to blow them out of the sky!"

Anne equally found little difficulty being accepted on the set, although originally the cast were not aware that she was joining them as anything more than that episode's guest star. "They were wonderful, they were very warm and open, and accepting of me. When I started, no one else knew at the time that I would be sticking around. I knew, but I could not say anything because they were still negotiating my contract to be a series regular, and I couldn't say anything to anybody until the deal was completed, which they were doing as I was filming. So I never made a peep on the set until one day I was sitting in the make-up chair, and Lorne was sitting in the next chair, and he turned and looked at me and said 'You know, I think this could turn out to be a very good thing for you', and he winked his eye at me. I thought, 'Ah, he knows', and I just looked at him and smiled and went 'Yep, I'm pretty happy about it', and that was all."

At around the time that Sheba joined the Galactica's crew, the emphasis of the show started to change, echoing Glen Larson's own religious beliefs. The ragtag fleet encountered the mysterious Count Iblis, who turned out to be the devil himself, as well as the Ships of Light that aided them in their quest for Earth. This spiritual flavour is something that Richard Hatch regards as one of the series' strengths.

"The premise for me is Moses and the Israelites," he explains. "It is a world, a species being thrust out of its homeland, like the Jewish people were. The Egyptians are following them, trying to destroy them, and they are trying to establish a new homeland. Essentially, we've been thrust into space, we're trying to find a new homeland, and being thrust from behind by the Cylon race bent on our destruction. We're trying to find the roots of out 13th Tribe that went before us - the ancient Kobollian forefathers - trying to find coordinates, clues to where they went. In the process of doing so, we uncover revelations about who we are as human beings, the ancient root race of humankind, exploring all the mysteries that everybody is curious about these days. Most science fiction does have some spiritual dynamics connected to it, and 'Battlestar' had the same thing with the ancient Kobollian forefathers, the 13th Tribe, the Ships of Light, Count Iblis. All those issues were exploring that spiritual dynamic that Star Wars got into with the Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force."

However to produce such a show was costly, both in financial terms, and in the effect on the cast and crew. "We were working seventeen to eighteen hour days," Anne Lockhart remembers. "There were times when we got rewrites the day after we'd shot stuff! There were scenes where we had to deliver dialogue which had just been handed to us. We glued it to the set! One night I was watching the show, and after it aired they showed the coming attractions, which simply were the dailies which we had shot the day before."

"On The Living Legend we filmed all day long, into the night, and at about midnight or one in the morning they sent home the crew and brought in an entire new crew because there were overtime things that they did not want to have to pay! They brought in an entire new crew to keep on shooting and they kept us! It was nearly daylight and we could barely stand!"

"Finally, I said, 'How much longer is this going to go on? I don't think I can drive home, and I think I only live nine miles away from the studios!'"

"It got to the point where we couldn't talk, we were just cross-eyed. At one point, I can remember having two episodes being filmed simultaneously on separate stages. We went to one stage to shoot our scenes and say our dialogue and then they'd say, 'Okay, they need you over on 38', and you'd go to the other stage, walk in and there is a bunch of actors you've never seen! There were times when it was a little crazy!"

Hatch agrees, but believes that this was not that unusual. "In any first year series, you have great expectations, great pressure on everybody to succeed, a great amount of money on the line, and a lot of people who have a lot of ideas and concepts about what should happen with the show. There are too many cooks in the kitchen, too many people afraid to make a mistake, and therefore the producers, the writers are really limited in what they can do. And the networks are very controlling during that first year of a new series, and they're also trying to explore and find the right formula that will be successful, and they're second guessing each other."

"Most series are lucky to survive that first year, no matter how good they are. And if they do survive, because somebody believes enough in them, in that second and third year, that's where a series gets to find its course and gets to determine what it is, and find it's rhythm."

"That first year was playing havoc with all of us. We were filming eighteen hour days, seven days a week, twelve day shoots instead of the normal seven. There was so much pressure on everybody, with all of that, that it was very difficult to do the kinds of things that were possible on that show. I had many meetings with the writers and producers just exchanging ideas on how we could improve the show and the characters, and just giving input."

"We sort of started off with a bang, and then sort of meandered for a few episodes, then finally started to find our rhythm towards the end. It was a learning curve for me."

For reasons that are still argued over to this day, ABC decided to pull the plug on Battlestar Galactica. "We all thought we would be picked up," Anne Lockhart states. "We had huge ratings, and we never went below something like No. 23 or something. I think there was some politics going on there. It was also very expensive: it cost about a million dollars for a one hour episode of television which was pretty large chunk of money to be spent twenty years ago. But we were all somewhat surprised."

Hatch is more vocal. "We were the highest rated science fiction show of all time on network TV. We were the sixth highest rated show of the season. We were in the Top Ten for half the season. No science fiction show ever had the demographics and had the kind of success that we had. We had toy lines, we had theatrical movies that went overseas and were as big as Star Wars. There never was a first year series that accomplished what Battlestar did. Battlestar had one of the most powerful merchandising possibilities of any show ever on television. But they didn't understand the merchandising power of a show then, they didn't know how to exploit it, and unfortunately revenues were not being shared with ABC. So ABC felt like, 'Okay, so the show's successful, but we're not getting the lion's share of the revenue. We could do better with a show that is less successful but will make more money.' But had a better arrangement with Universal and ABC to share revenues been made, Universal and ABC would have made a hell of a lot more money. And it was just a lot of stupid decisions that were made for a lot of stupid reasons. If you look at the demographics, and the research, I have never seen so many snafus and so many ill-fated decisions that terminated a show that could have gone on and probably made historical TV."

When an outcry followed the decision to cancel Battlestar Galactica, ABC changed their minds and ordered a second season. However, the series had to cost considerable less. To that end, Larson revamped the show into the new Galactica: 1980. It is thirty or so years after the events of Battlestar Galactica, and the Galactica has discovered Earth - brining the Cylons along in tow. Kent McCord played the now-grown up Boxey, partnering Barry Van Dyke as Dillon. Lorne Greene and Herb Jefferson Jnr reprised their roles from the first season, but none of the other cast returned. "Battlestar 1980 (sic) failed because it wasn't the original show," Richard Hatch claims. "It wasn't the original cast, it wasn't the original premise. Once they made that decision to bring it back with 1980 and they ruined it with 1980, and all the fans realized that it wasn't the same show, it didn't have the same stars, they turned away in droves."

Kent McCord believes that the timeslot that ABC insisted the show be aired in - Sundays at 7 pm, when only children's or religious programming was allowed - was the death knell for the series. Attracted by the idea of a TV version of the classic Robert Wise film The Day The Earth Stood Still, he ended up being Scoutmaster to a group of Galactican children stranded down on Earth - in a show that was still costing over a million dollars a throw. Despite a last ditch attempt to woo the old fans back with an appearance by Dirk Benedict as Starbuck, Galactica 1980 was cancelled after only 10 episodes.

However, Battlestar Galactica refused to die. A series of 14 books was published by Berkeley, adding original stores to earlier novelisations, and new novels are now appearing from Simon & Schuster. Marvel Comics printed a short lived comics run, which has since continued under other publishers. Toys continue to be licensed.

Richard Hatch strongly believes that the show will return, and has been working with various groups to raise finance for it. "Most shows disappear," he points out. "One year, and they never see the light of day again - and no-one cares. This show only had one year, never had a chance to really find its rhythm, had everything going against it, too much expectation, too much pressure, too many cooks in the kitchen, not enough opportunity to really determine a very clear and precise course that the show could go in. It kept meandering left, right, going in so many different directions, but somehow the theme, the premise of that show had so much impact, like Star Wars, on people that they've never forgotten it."