Episode 1: Saga of a Star World, Part 1 (of 3)

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Since I’ve been threatening this for a little while, and since the original Battlestar Galactica is tremendously underappreciated, I’ve undertaken a re-watch and I’m going to write extensively about it. Whoever wants an opinion or wants to argue with that opinion, is more than welcome.

Since the pilot, Saga of a Star World, is two hours and thirteen minutes long by itself, once you add in commercials, and the way the writing breaks up, it was probably actually designed as three episodes. I don’t remember watching it in three parts as a kid, but it fits together neatly that way to my viewing now. So, three distinct story lines, three posts to cover them.

Let’s start with an

Overly Long Synopsis

After a title sequence worthy of a summer blockbuster (and there was a theatrical release), we find a fleet of spaceships and zoom in on one of them, the Atlantia where a surprisingly diverse (ethnically if not sexually) council is celebrating the eve of peace after a thousand years of war.

Jump over to the Battlestar Galactica and young Rick Springfield Zack Adama weasels his way onto a patrol with his older brother Apollo because Apollo’s regular wingman, Starbuck, is “sick”. When Zach leaves, way too excited, Starbuck offers to come along anyway but Apollo tells him to enjoy the armistice. Zach and Apollo take off in a pair of pretty cool fighters.

In a very brief scene, we’re introduced to the idea of the enemy, the Cylons, and to the smarmy diplomat who made peace possible, Baltar.

Back on patrol, we check out a pair of empty Cylon tankers which are actually masking a fleet of attack craft. Apollo orders a retreat as we get our first view of the Cylon Centurions.

Pew, pew!

Zach takes a little damage in the ensuing dogfight but between the two of them they take out four Cylon fighters without much difficulty. Of course, there are still a thousand or so on he way. Since they’re being jammed and the fleet has to be warned, Zach convinces Apollo to go on ahead. He’ll catch up. It’s all good. Really.

Meanwhile, Commander Adama returns to the Galactica to find his ship is on alert status because something is up with the patrol. They’re being jammed and can’t communicate. The President won’t let Galactica launch more fighters because Baltar thinks it’s a bad idea, but Adama thinks it’s a fine time to have a battle stations drill so the pilots can all be ready just in case they do need to launch.

Zack doesn’t quite make it back, taking the fatal shot just within visual range of the Galactica. Tears on the bridge. Apollo is ordered to report in as soon as he’s on board and the Galactica launches all of her fighters now.

Lots of fighting, lots of pew, pew. In addition to Starbuck, we have two other named pilots, Jolly and Boomer, as well as some who don’t last very long in the the constant laser violence.

When Apollo reaches the bridge, he’s unhappy about leaving Zack behind and demands to go back and escort him in. No one actually tells him his brother is dead, but no one really needs to.

Still more pew, pew.

Commander Adama and Colonel Tigh (his second in command) start to wonder why they’re only being attacked by fighters, wondering where the base ships happen to be. They have the chilling thought that the whole fleet is more or less engaged here. What if the Cylons launched an attack on the colonies?

And then the Atlantia goes boom and we’re clearly meant to think it’s a big deal by the length of time it spends taking damage before exploding. The blinding flash makes everyone on the Galactica’s bridge at least shield their eyes or look away, but that doesn’t change Adama’s plan. He’d been trying to get permission from the president to break away, and now just gets to go because the Cylon base ships are attacking the colonies (ewhich are all conveniently named after signs of the zodiac to help us understand there’s a connection to Earth).

Pew, pew.

On the way back, they watch satellite TV and get to watch the initial attack on the colonies first hand. The action focuses briefly on a female news lead who breaks off reporting to catch her son and get to shelter. The dog daggit doesn’t quite make it through the fire and explosions and death.

We get a lot of emotion from the bridge crew, tears and sombre faces and the media keeps playing the background to keep a little tension going on for a while as other things happen. Apollo takes Adama to Caprica in his refueled fighter and sends the Galactica back to the battle.

But the battle is over with only sixty-seven fighters returning and only twenty-five of those belonging to the Galactica. No other battlestars have survived; the Galactica and the fighters it gathers up are all that’s left of the fleet.

The crying woman from the bridge is Athena, and she tries to help Starbuck fix some problems with his broken fighter but nothing works and he has to come in on full thrust anyway. He barrels in, almost crashing, and Athena runs from bridge to landing bay to meet him, then tries to explain exactly what happened to an angry pilot who only saw his base ship pull out in the middle of a battle that killed a bunch of his friends.

Meanwhile on Caprica, Adama is mourning his wife in a torched house as the city below is in flames and a crowd of injured survivors struggles towards them. Apollo meets them first and tries to explain that most of them are dead that the fleet is destroyed. Adama steps out and is recognized by Serina. He recognizes her, as well, on the strength of her being a major media personality, probably, and gives a rousing speech about how they’re going to fight back, but the colonies are lost so they’ll have to run and recover. Let the word go forth to gather any ship that can fly to come join the Galactica and a whole 220 of them do, all that’s left from a dozen human worlds.

A quick flash to Baltar, thrilled at the destruction, and not caring much about the rumours of survivors fleeing. He reminds a centurion that the standing order from the Imperious Leader is extermination of all humans, but apparently he doesn’t count as human.

Adam gathers representatives in a meeting hall on Galactica, representing all of the peoples from the colonies. Another speech, and he reminds us all that there were other colonies and that at least one, or only one, survived, Earth, and that’s where they’re going. He offers hope.

A little emotional closure between Athena and Starbuck. He came to apologize and gently hit on her; talks her into the idea of there being a future and she reminds him that he’s a thrill seeker as well as being a warrior, more than her brother Zack ever was.

We close with a shot of the ragtag fleet fading into another shot of the ragtag fleet and because we’re about forty-three and a half minutes in and about to start a new storyline, we’ll call that an episode transition.

Story

So there’s a lot going on here. A lot of characters, a lot of background, and a lot of universe. Boiled down, and stripping out the kid and the dog and the feathered hair styles, we’ve actually got a really dark beginning to the show. Big bad enemy with legions of robot soldiers destroys twelve human worlds all at once, butchers most of the fleet, and leaves the human race with what can be crammed onto one battleship and 220 miscellaneous civilian ships, half of which are barely flightworthy. There was betrayal, death and destruction on a species-ending scale, and robots that are almost the definition of scary AI bent on human destruction. I have seen the future, and it is chrome and talks with a badass robotic voice.

In short, humanity lost, and is probably screwed, but we’ve got this legend to give us hope (and the first long term story arc in TV SF that I can remember).

Without giving anything away, I hope, there are other dark themes and subjects to come.

Music

The opening does go on for a really long time. Yes, I get that this was presented as a movie, and the soundtrack is both awesome and epic. It’s a pretty rare occurrence that a TV show theme song uses an entire symphony orchestra (in this case the LA Philharmonic). Maybe I’ve been spoiled by solid teasers and short credits in the years since, but it does seem to drag a bit when put on the front of the episode.

But there’s more here than just the opening and the music adds to the emotional tone of every scene. Brilliant work by Stu Phillips, a composer with a long career in film and television and who created some critical themes in TV SF in the 1970s and early 1980s (The Six Million Dollar Man, Buck Rogers, Knight Rider, and, of course, Battlestar Galactica). For Battlestar, I have to say I love the soundtrack throughout.

The Ships

Title ship first. Big-ass aircraft carrier in space. Lots of guns. Home to thousands. And, long before the end of this section of the pilot, last of its kind. Shots of the Galactica come in three types: showing off the immensity of the ship, some piece of the ship that displays its name, and a tight shot to show off model detail or lasers being fired.

Do the Vipers look like they came out of Star Wars? Well, if you squint a little and remember that the primary special effects guy, John Dykstra, had just come off of working on A New Hope and was firmly rooted in the late 70s SF aesthetic, then sure. But these are definitely different ships. And as a kid in the late 70s, they were remarkably easy to build out of lego. X-Wings, not so much. And the pilot controls and cockpits, while betraying a limited budget, were built like they at least wanted a little bit of realism.

 

The CGI and other Effects

The CGI is period specific. Which means what’s there looked impressive at the time, but most of what’s done is with models and working directly with the film. We’re way above pong on what’s there, but check out the detail involved in the ship models and how well the sequences are put together.

And you know when the ship is at Red Alert, because there are only red lights. No doubt, no alarm in the background after the first few seconds, no pretending. Red light = red alert and stuff is going down.

The Background

Worth noting that we also start to see some background characters who are more than just extras. At the time, I think this was a fairly new thing. Consistency in the background might have been seen as distracting from the stars of the show a lot of the time. Really, it adds a bit of verisimilitude, especially when you don’t really get to replace crewmembers on demand because you’re the last remnants of the human race. This is a point I might come back to later, but here are a few examples:

Flight Corporal Rigel
Flight Sergeant Greenbean
Dr. Wilker

{Dr. Salik, Dr. Wilker

The Acting

Any show lives and dies by two things: the acting and the writing.

The acting here is a bit variable, but it’s a pilot. Some of the actors pass over into melodrama here and there, but mostly the emotional tone is good and we get great, believable performances from just about everyone, especially the secondary characters who, heroes aside, can make or break a large scene fairly easily. The height of this is probably watching the reactions of the bridge crew as they see the cylons destroying their homeworlds and can do absolutely nothing about it.

And if you need more than that, I’ve got two words for you: Lorne Green. Mr. Green’s skill and voice brought gravitas and believability to any role he played. Green as Commander Adama, member of the Quorum of Twelve, commanding officer of the Battlestar Galactica, leader of the remnants of humanity, and not incidentally father and widower, brings everything you need in an on screen leader. Any scene he’s in has that much more reality in it, and Terry Carter as Colonel Tigh isn’t far behind.

The Writing

This first chunk of the pilot is actually pretty strong. It’s rough in patches and we still need to get used to the lingo (and there’s more of that to come, some fun, some eye rolling, even later in the pilot) but what we’ve got so far is a good start. Fun characters, a good setting, a devastating beginning, and a little hope. Lots to hook you here, and lots to look forward to on that quest for the shining planet known as Earth.

 

Future posts in this series may or may not be shorter. Be well, everyone.

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Lance
Lance Schonberg is an eclectic genre fiction author with more than two dozen stories published or on the way. 2019 is the year he dives into independent publishing, starting with "Thorvald's Wyrd", "Skip To My Luu", and "Turn the World Around". And he needs a more exciting short bio.

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