Retro Review: Battlestar Galactica (1978).
This grand space odyssey roars out of the gate but malfunctions in the second act and has to limp home on impulse power.
Star Wars was not the only sweeping space opera to streak across the night sky in the late 1970’s. British series like Doctor Who, Blake 7, and Space: 1999 had primed audiences for galactic adventures and Star Wars’ surprise box office success opened the floodgates for American movies and shows. Battlestar Galactica rushed into the void, eager to court fans of the genre. While it has some obvious similarities to Star Wars, it was purportedly in development before Lucas set the galaxy on fire and dealt with a more mature story arc about the survivors of an interstellar genocide. Originally planned as a series of TV movies, Galactica had a theatrical release in 1978 and went on to become a popular but short lived show.
Battlestar Galactica is an odd beast that feels both cinematic and episodic by turns. It captures the high melodrama and action of the movies while dabbling with side stories and “planet of the week” content like Star Trek. In scope, visual quality, pacing, and story Battle Star Galactica feels like a chimera that couldn’t decide what niche it wanted to inhabit. The end product has much to laud and much to lament.
Battlestar Galactica (1978)
The twelve tribes of humanity have been in a costly thousand-year war for survival with the robotic Cylons. On the eve of an armistice brokered by the silver-tongued Count Baltar, Admiral Adama of the Galactica is troubled by doubts. He sends his sons out to patrol the planet system of the peace accords and they uncover a Cylon trap: thousands of war ships ready to attack the fleet of human Battlestars. Their discovery becomes even more dire when Adama learns that Cylon mother ships have also infiltrated behind the human defenses with plans to destroy their home-worlds.
Studying the Classics.
Galactica certainly has high ambitions when it comes to source material. While much of the themes and lore is thinly veiled references to the creator Glen A. Larson’s Mormon faith, Battlestar Galactica draws inspiration from classical works such as The Iliad and Odyssey, Old Testament narratives, Roman history, and contemporary science fiction standards like Star Trek, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers. The meat of the story is an epic amalgamation of science fiction tropes used to tell the story of a galactic diaspora, where the tribes of man are exiled from their homes and must struggle to reach a fabled haven: Earth.
This grandiose reach on the parts of the creators pays off immediately. The first arc of the story is the Trojan war, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the Exodus all rolled into one. While the settings and ship designs look futuristic in the mold of Star Wars and Star Trek, the costumes and characters feel as stately as a Roman Emperor. In space, the toga has never gone out of fashion apparently. As far as setting a tone, Galactica aspires to grand drama and succeeds in creating a story that feels timeless and epic.
Wandering in the Void.
The problems with Galactica assert themselves once this first story arc is over. Once the fighting ends, we are left to dwell upon the logistics of feeding and securing a desperate refugee population in space. The stitching together of adventure fantasy and solemn epic begins to tear apart. The show tries to humanize its main cast, and it backfires. They’re just not round enough characters.
Starbuck isn’t a lovable rogue, he’s just a mercenary. Apollo isn’t a stern warrior with a heart of gold, he’s just a soldier. Even Adama, played by Lorne Greene, feels too one-note to survive attempts to render him in shades of grey. The characters who function well in a Greek tragedy aren’t up to the task of mundane affairs. It’s fine to let us see Achilles mourn his fallen cousin, but we don’t want to see him counting sandals and worrying about digging latrines. The characters that worked well as archetypes falter when they have to become regular people and the pacing suffers tremendously.
Running on Fumes.
The final arc of the movie has the Galactica find a remote planet that promises a false respite of food, pleasure, and hope. You can see where they wanted to echo the tragedy of Aeneas and Dido or Odysseus and Circe, but instead it feels like a canned episode of Star Trek. The trap is all too apparent, the mechanisms of the plot are cliche, and the simplistic story just further serves to show how thin the characters are. This is also where you feel that the budget ran out.
While the film had an impressive budget for a TV show, it was not enough to sustain a theatrical film. The costumes and settings in the final arc feel cheaper, like they were cribbed from Doctor Who, and the final battle is filled with recycled footage from the epic space fight of the first arc. The plot runs out of material just as quickly as the costume department, and you see how trying to lead into further TV movies meant Galactica couldn’t end on a satisfying climax. It tries to have a big finish while also leaving the story open ended and winds up failing at both. It’s one title card shy of “Tune in Next Week!”
Battlestar Galactica is a franchise full of promise, much of which is consummated in the excellent SyFy series of the early 2000’s. The initial premise was full of grandeur and drama, and Battlestar Galactica 1978 wields it deftly in the first arc. While Star Wars feels like King Arthur in space, Galactica feels like a stately Greek tragedy amongst the stars. When it is leaning into this aspect, the movie is spectacular and has the visuals and characters to pull it off.
The switch to a longer arc about wandering through space has potential, but the film does not pull it off. The characters are stretched too far, the pacing screeches to a halt, and the visuals and action evaporate. Had Galactica beefed up the first arc into a full length film and left the rest of the world-building to a TV series, it would have been a rousing success. As it remains, the film dazzles you with promises that it cannot deliver upon in just one movie.