In September of 1978, when I was all of 11 (a few months shy of 12), a TV show blasted onto my family’s 25″ Zenith’s phosphors that captured my grade school imagination; the Star Wars inspired exodus-in-space story of “Battlestar Galactica.”
I remember reading the preview article in TV guide, and I eagerly awaited the 3 hour debut of this series (TV Guide was invaluable in those dark days before the internet). On the night of its premiere (September 17th), I watched every minute; even after the rest of my family had long gone to bed. I was hooked. This was like having a weekly Star Wars fix in my own living room. Many of the FX artists who worked on Star Wars (including Oscar-winner John Dykstra) worked on BSG as well. The show starred Bonanza’s Lorne Greene as Commander Adama, the Moses-esque leader of humanity who rallied the human survivors of “the twelve colonies”, following a holocaust inflicted upon them by the cybernetic “Cylons”(a race of murderous robots who were equal parts Star Wars-stormtrooper and Doctor Who-Dalek).
Other stars of this series were Richard Hatch as the heroic Captain Apollo (son of Greene’s Adama), Dirk Benedict as Apollo’s cigar-chomping Han Solo-ish buddy Starbuck, and Herb Jefferson Jr, rounding out the trio as the pragmatic Boomer. Some other high profile actors in that 3 hr. pilot included Lew Ayers (“All Quiet on the Western Front”) as President Adar, Ray Milland (“Lost Weekend”) as the corrupt Sire Uri, and former Bond girl Jane Seymour (“Live and Let Die”) as Serena, love interest of Hatch’s Apollo (full disclosure: Seymour was one of several painful TV crushes of mine in those days…).
The 3 hour pilot was later reedited into a 2 hour theatrical movie. And yes, I saw it on the big screen as well (many times, in fact). The pilot played very well theatrically, as least to my then-younger, simpler tastes.
The series that followed that ambitious pilot was decent family fare for the most part, but there were nagging issues. The writing often seemed rushed, subplots were introduced and ignored, and the groundbreaking visual FX began to increasingly rely on stock footage repurposed from the pilot. This was well before the relative ease of today’s computer-generated FX work. Everything in those days was shot with meticulous miniatures, rotoscoped animation and painstaking opticals. It was clear that the ambition of the series far outpaced the weekly grinding reality of television production.
As mid-season episodes became increasingly uneven in quality, the series was cancelled after one year. The final episode “Hand Of God” (which aired in May of 1979) was a promising glimpse into what a second season might’ve offered if given a chance. The characters finally took off, and the Cylons returned in full glory after a mid-season absence. Nevertheless, it was too little too late.
I was disappointed in the cancellation, as I’d stuck with the show all through the season; carefully audio-taping episodes right off of the TV speaker with my bulky tape recorder. I would play them back (sans commercials, of course) when doing homework. In that crude way of mine, I could make this beloved-but-cancelled series live just a little bit longer. Needless to say, my family couldn’t afford a then-$1,000 VCR, and DVDs were about two decades away.
The following January, in 1980, the series returned… kind of. It came back as “Galactica: 1980.” And it was horrible. This was the series that gave the ’80s a bad name. The battlestar Galactica had found it’s long sought ‘sister world’ of Earth. And it was the same Earth of “Charlie’s Angels” “Baretta” and “Starsky and Hutch.” An Earth mired in recycled plot-lines, flat jokes and boring car chases.
The ambitious, space exodus premise of the original series had mutated into something resembling “CHiPs” with flying motorcycles (aka ‘turbikes’… not making that up). It was downright embarrassing. Of the original cast, only Lorne Greene and Herb Jefferson Jr. returned, with Dirk Benedict appearing as Starbuck in a single, well-made flashback episode (“The Return of Starbuck”) that was the best (and final) offering of this painful resurrection. It died after 10 episodes, mercifully.
Original BSG star Richard Hatch (also of “All My Children” & “Streets of San Francisco”) declined to star in “Galactica:1980” (a wise move) though he lobbied for many years afterward to bring the original show back; either as a theatrical movie, or a rebooted TV series.
In 1997 he put up his own funds and rallied some of his friends in the industry to make a proof-of-concept trailer called “Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming” (1998). Several BSG-revival attempts almost came to fruition; there was a rumored mid-1990s Fox TV series, and a Bryan Singer (“X-Men”) produced remake in 2001 that got all the way to the set building phase before it was scrapped. Hatch was not involved in either of these abortive attempts.
Hatch did however, write several sequel novels to the original BSG series (“Warhawk” “Paradis” “Armageddon” “Resurrection” “Destiny”) which I’ve read and enjoyed. These books were his ‘fallback plan’ to tell his BSG stories when “Second Coming” trailer failed to yield a full production. Hatch’s books were very much in keeping with the original show’s premise and feel, but upped the sophistication level to something more akin to “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. Hatch had a genuine passion for the original series, and he would continue to showcase his trailer at conventions during annual BSG panel discussions. This was a few years before fan films such as the Star Trek Continues series would reach their current level of sophistication. I’ve attended quite a few of these panels and Hatch always had a contagious enthusiasm for the show and its core concepts.
In addition to talking BSG, Hatch would also teach acting classes and give seminars at conventions; offering suggestions to fans on acting, writing and pursuing their passions.
^ Flash forward to 2003 and Battlestar Galactica once again came back to TV screens as a SciFi (later SyFy) channel miniseries, and subsequent weekly series a year later. This new version of BSG featured Oscar nominee Edward James Olmos (“Stand And Deliver” “American Me” “Blade Runner”) leading a cast that also included fellow Oscar nom Mary McDonnell (“Dances With Wolves” “Grand Canyon”). The new BSG was a complete, roots-up reimagining of the original series. Gone were the furry robot ‘daggits,’ Egyptian pharaoh-inspired headgear and campy overtones of the original. Overseen by former Star Trek Next Generation/Deep Space Nine writer/producer Ron Moore, the new BSG was hard-hitting, deeply sophisticated and very adult. Comparing it to the 1978 version would be like comparing “T.J. Hooker” to “The Wire.”
The Cylon machine uprising/holocaust of the original was now a frighteningly uncanny and timely analog of America’s own 9/11; with the Cylons now acting as jihadist sleeper agents who can mimic human form, right down to our blood. It had an atmosphere of reality and paranoia that redefined the entire space opera genre. Space opera could now be be gritty, dirty, brutal and unflinchingly honest. This was a whole different animal.
So how did Richard Hatch, who was so heavily invested in his own continuance of the original BSG, react to this new series? Initially he was skeptical (according to interviews) but eventually he came around to accept and love the new show. It’s sophistication, rawness and timeliness in the post-9/11 age were too intriguing to ignore.
In the 4th episode of the new series, Hatch returned as the former terrorist/prisoner-of-conscience/political opportunist known as Tom Zarek. Zarek was conceived as sort of a Nelson Mandela-type character, but with a deeply dark and flawed nature. His ethical ambiguity was in keeping with the new series’ much grayer morality.
Hatch seemed to relish the role; and what initially began as stunt casting rapidly proved to be a smart and welcome addition to the series. Tom Zarek remained with the show until the character’s death by firing squad in the fourth and final season’s “Blood On The Scales.” A powerful end to a complex character.
I remember in 2006, my wife and I went to Los Angeles along with our friend (a fellow BSG fan) to the Director’s Guild Theater for a “Battlestar Galactica” night hosted by the Museum of Television and Radio (MTR). It was BSG nerd-vana. We sat two rows behind writer/director Kevin Smith (“Clerks” “Chasing Amy”) and his wife (!). The cast of the show was in attendance as well. We watched part one of the season two finale “Lay Down Your Burdens” on the theatre’s giant screen.
Hatch’s Tom Zarek played a critical role in the episode, scheming and plotting with reimagined villain “Gaius Baltar” (James Callis) in a bid to take over the government. It surprised me how well this television show played on the big screen and it was also a bit of deja vu for me personally, since I still keenly remembered seeing the theatrical release of the original series’ pilot back in 1979.
I first met Richard Hatch at San Diego Comic Con in 2004, and I would subsequently see him many times at conventions in the years afterward. In 2005 I had a nice chat with him about his BSG novels. He seemed to relish talking about extending the original series’ characters beyond their two-dimensional frameworks. Hatch was very generous with his fans. Perhaps this generosity stemmed from his own fandom and affection for the science fiction genre. He was one of us. A member of the tribe…
I also recall meeting him at the 2013 WonderCon in Anaheim, when I (finally) remembered to bring my old copy of the “Encyclopedia Galactica”; a cherished book I’d bought when I was 12 years old. I’d previously had the book autographed by series’ stars Herb Jefferson Jr., Dirk Benedict and Anne Lockhart (who played original series’ Sheba, and was the real-life daughter of “Lost In Space” star June Lockhart) but I’d always forgotten to bring the book with me when I’d met Hatch at earlier conventions. This time, I remembered. Hatch was touched that I kept the book in mint condition. He looked through its pages and wistfully smiled at some of the color photos within it. A cherished piece of my childhood signed by my childhood hero; my inner 12 year old self was delighted…
^ When I asked to take the above picture, Hatch, who always signed autographs with his trademark “Keep the Faith,” gave a raised fist bump to the camera. It was fitting. He tried for so long to resurrect his beloved, prematurely cancelled series and eventually got to star in its successful reincarnation. His ‘faith’ was vindicated. That particular arc of his career had come full circle.
The last time I saw Hatch was in the summer of 2016 at yet another San Diego Comic Con, at his annual Battlestar Galactica panel. He talked about his involvement in the Star Trek fan film “Axanar” in which he was to play a Klingon warlord (“Axanar” was sadly mired in an ugly legal battle… that’s another story for another time).
At one point during Comic Con 2016, I slipped away from the convention to see the opening of “Star Trek Beyond” at a local shopping center multiplex, where I would once again run into Richard Hatch. We were on the same floor of the center, going in opposite directions, when he saw me, smiled, and waved. I waved back. He seemed to remember me from previous meets. I jokingly texted a friend of mine, “Just ran into Apollo near Starbucks.”
Sadly, that would also be the last time I saw him. Two days ago, I was very saddened to hear that Richard Hatch passed away from pancreatic cancer at age 71. This longtime passionate advocate and friend of the sci-fi fandom community was gone.
I’m grateful that I got to know my ‘childhood hero’ a little bit, and that he got the opportunity to costar in the remake of his beloved series.
He kept the faith… till the very end.
So say we all.
Richard Hatch, 1945-2017.