On a January evening nearly 40 years ago, I was 13 years old, and eagerly awaiting the return of a favorite TV series of mine that had been unceremoniously cancelled the previous year.
“Battlestar Galactica”, created by Glen Larson (“The Fall Guy”), was the TV-sized, Star Wars-styled opus chronicling the exodus of humans from a faraway galaxy, fleeing the evil Cylon Empire. Their destination was the legendary ‘lost’ planet, “Earth.” Now the cancelled show was coming back… well, sort of.
It looked like favorite characters “Starbuck” (Dirk Benedict) and “Apollo” (the late Richard Hatch) were not returning (not a good sign), not to mention the supporting cast (Terry Carter, Ann Lockhart, and Laurette Spang) but series’ anchor Lorne Greene (“Commander Adama” )and former Viper pilot-turned-Colonel “Boomer” (Herb Jefferson Jr.) were both set to appear. Bear in mind that 1980 was years before the internet was a thing, and even longer before it would become an arena of pop culture gossip, so my main vein of information for the series’ return came primarily from the pages of my beloved Starlog magazine. Beyond the casting deletions, I knew very little, except that in the first episode we were going to see the Galactica arrive at Earth…our Earth, in fact; the Earth of 1980. A time I remember by PeeChee school folders, ugly Wallabee shoes, brown corduroy pants, crude home video games (Pong), clunky microwave ovens and every other TV show involving car chases of some kind. I was curious to see the changes that were being made to my once-favorite series.
*****40 YEAR OLD SPOILERS!*****
“Galactica Finds Earth,” Parts 1, 2 and 3.
The series would premiere in three hour-long segments, titled “Galactica Finds Earth.” I had fresh blank audiocassettes and my old Sanyo audio cassette recorder standing by the single Zenith TV speaker (VCRs were available, but were prohibitively expensive, with an average deck costing over $1,000 in 1980 bucks). The preview of the episode showed a bearded Adama announcing “We have at last…found…Earth!” Followed by Vipers launching from their familiar launch tubes, and a pair of American F-16s sent to intercept them (!). After that, there were two guys who looked vaguely like Starbuck and Apollo getting into some weird scrapes, and of course, ending with a “Starsky and Hutch”-style car chase. Mmkay.
The familiar majestic strains of Stu Phillips’ “Battlestar Galactica” theme began, but they sounded…off. The tempo was rushed, and even to my unsophisticated ears of those days it sounded like a much smaller orchestra. Soon, we saw the bearded Adama (Lorne Greene was supposed to be a generation older, but he looked exactly the same as he had the year before) recording into his computer log. In this bit of exposition, he mentions that “too many of our sons and daughters did not survive” (clear explanation for the lack of Starbuck & Apollo to come), and he ends it with the aforementioned “we have at last … found … Earth!”
Next we see Adama consulting some weird kid in white duds named “Doctor Zee” (Brady Bunch alum Robbie Rist) about disturbing transmissions from Earth. The brainiac wunderkind concludes that the barbaric, technologically crude Earth is not be the Colonials’ sanctuary, after all. A devastated Adama recalls his warriors, who are apparently stationed throughout the fleet now (why they wouldn’t be on their mothership Galactica was just one question of a few thousand I’d imagine that first hour). New warriors “Dillon” (Barry Van Dyke, son of Dick), and “Troy” (Adam-12 star Kent McCord) are introduced. Troy is the grownup monicker now being used by former child character “Boxey” (the orphan adopted by Apollo in the earlier series, previously played by Noah Hathaway).
The two share a bit of exposition before arriving at the Galactica’s “Doctor Zee” lounge; a monitor-filled chamber draped in conveniently cheap black upholstery (no overly-expensive sets to build). Zee shows the assembled warriors, including malcontented warrior “Commander Xavier” (the late B-movie/TV staple villain, Richard Lynch), footage of what appears to be the dreaded Cylons attacking downtown Los Angeles (this is arguably the single best moment of the entire episode).
We see buildings collapsing under repeated laser barrages (cleverly disguised footage from 1974’s “Earthquake”), and streets of cars strafed by incoming Cylon fightercraft. The simulation ends with the Cylons flying off to the sky… and of course, it turns out to be “merely a computer simulation of what could happen” should the Colonials arrive at Earth and lead the Cylons there as well. Hence, another reason they can’t just land the fleet.
Zee’s plan? Warriors from the fleet will arrive on Earth in small recon teams and will make contact with some of Earth’s scientists, who might be more receptive to their arrival. The teams will have cloaking technology (to be used only in “life or death situations”… yeah, right). Dillon and Troy are assigned to visit southern California’s previously unheard-of “Pacific Institute of Technology” (an ersatz Caltech) to meet with agoraphobic nuclear researcher “Dr. Mortinson” (the late Robert Reed, also from “The Brady Bunch”).
Unceremoniously flying their Viper spacecraft directly into US airspace, the two are met by a pair of F-16s, which they are able to deftly avoid with their cloaking shields. They land and somehow manage to pull two full-size motorcycles out of their compact spaceship underbellies (are those things hollow?). They casually cloak their two spacecraft in an open field (remember: “life or death situations”) and head off on their motorcycles, which we immediately learn are capable of flight (nice spoiled surprise there, Dillon).
Coming onto what looks like a stretch of the 10 freeway heading into Los Angeles, they are met by a group of surly bikers led by future “Blade Runner” costar Brion James. James tells the ‘two turkeys’ to pull off. Troy and Dillon, in front of dozens of witnesses, open the wings on their bikes and fly off… soon cutting in to a crappy rear-projection effect.
Temporarily abandoning their bikes and changing into ‘Earth clothes’ (which they should’ve done earlier), they arrive at a rundown service station where the two meet an over-eager young reporter cliche named “Jamie Hamilton” (Robyn Douglass).
After an initial misunderstanding over a payphone (1980 indeed), Jamie offers the two weird guys a ride in her Mustang into Cal-Pac. Yes, because it’s always a good idea for a young woman to give two strange men in heavy jackets without names a ride in her car…!
Once arrived at Cal-Pac, the two warriors notice a large anti-nuke protest outside. After stunning a security guard in the lobby, they eventually make their way into Mortinson’s office and from there, the ‘first contact’ story is lifted (almost verbatim at times) from the 1951 classic film “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, with Dillon & Troy acting as Klaatu to Reed’s Professor Barnhardt. Troy alters an equation in Mortinson’s clunky, crude 1979-vintage computer while the doctor is out (just as Klaatu changed the chalkboard formulae of Barnhardt in the original). Forced to leave, Dillon and Troy are arrested outside. Barnhart–er, Brady–er, Mortinson returns. Immediately notices the change on his computer, and nearly cries, “My god!” His sympathetic secretary, Ms. Carlyle (Pamela Susan Shoop, of “Halloween II”) was unable to stop the two “hoodlums” (seriously? Hoodlums?) and feels terrible for the doctor, until she realizes that he’s overjoyed, proclaiming that “these ‘hoodlums’ as you call them, may be as important to mankind…as the coming of the messiah.”
Further shenanigans ensue when the Colonial warriors are booked on suspicion of beating up the Cal-Pac security guard, and of being terrorist anti-nuke activists. They escape jail using their cloaks (traumatizing an old drunk in the process), and try again to contact Dr. Mortinson through Jamie (who, of course, also gave the two strange men her new work phone number…seriously, Jamie Hamilton is an idiot).
The ending of the first hour sees the cloaking shields on their deserted Viper spaceships run down, just in time to be seen by a little kid playing catch in that very same field with his dog Skip. The boy’s name, we later learn, is “Willy” and he is the second character in that first hour to have that first name (the first being Brion James’ surly biker). That’s the cliffhanger.
The second hour premiered a week later, and would see Jamie teaming up with the “Galacticans” as she calls them, and even going back in time with Troy and Dillon to stop Commander Xavier, who’s sick of waiting for Zee’s plan to work, and decides to introduce modern technology to 1944 Nazi Germany, because he figures Nazis are ‘good people’ (much like a current US president I won’t name) and would have a good 40 years to reach Galactica-level tech by 1980. If the Colonials have time travel, why the frack don’t they just go back and stop the Cylon attack on the Colonies years before…? Once again, this nagging question is never answered.
Jamie, Troy and Dillon stop Xavier’s ‘advanced’ V-2 rocket (with no mention of Von Braun’s team), and Xavier is arrested on suspicion of being a British spy (British? With his Bronx accent?).
Part three premiered sometime around the Winter Olympics, if I remember correctly, and was largely ignored (except by nerds like my 13 year old self, of course). Before returning to the year 1980, Dillon and Troy also use their flying motorcycles to strafe a few Nazi boxcar trains and liberate a few dozen Jewish prisoners. A noble enough goal, of course, but there seems to be absolutely zero worry about the effect that the sight of flying motorcycles firing laser beams at Nazi boxcars might have on the timeline.
Returning to 1980, Troy and Dillon discover they’re fugitives for their previous jailbreak in part one. To make matters worse, Xavier has once again escaped and is terrorizing Dr. Brady–er, Mortinson, trying to coerce the good nuclear physicist into changing history with him. The climax takes place at a US Air Force base, where all three Viper spaceships have been impounded (Troy, Dillon & Xavier’s). Using their personal cloaks, Dillon and Troy manage to escape with their ships and return to Galactica, but of course, Xavier once again escapes. The hour ends with the characters laughing it up in Adama’s quarters when Jamie suggests she might want to go back in time and have a fling with Ben Franklin (seriously, Jamie…have you ever seen a $5 bill? ).
The not-so Magnificent Seven.
Despite some wildly sloppy writing and a near-total lack of everything that defined the original “Battlestar Galactica”, “Galactica: 1980” managed to squeak out seven more installments before being cancelled sometime in May, with the very best episode (“The Return of Starbuck”) being saved for last. Before that triumphant return of Dirk Benedict’s Starbuck, we had to endure a group of “super scouts” (children of the fleet, who were forced to flee to Earth and form a phony scout troupe), Cylons kidnapping famed deejay Wolfman Jack (not even kidding), and an achingly sincere melodrama involving Hispanic farmers being driven under by evil rednecks. I’ll spare my readers all of the gory details, but here are the brief synopses of each:
“Super Scouts” Part 1.
During a Cylon attack on the fleet, a group of children evacuated from a destroyed freighter are shuttled to Earth when they realize they can’t make it back to the Galactica. Arriving in the woods of SoCal, Troi and Dillon ride into town for supplies and accidentally (?) rob a bank and steal a s#!t ton of scout clothing and gear. How they managed to take a canvas cart full of tents, gear and clothing back to the woods on motorcycles is never explained, of course. Once the faux scout troop is set up, Troi and Dillon seek out Jamie’s help. The sudden overnight appearance of these odd (all-caucasian) kids who can do bionic-style jumping, thanks to Earth’s ‘lower’ gravity attracts the attention of a very curious US Air Force colonel (the first of two we see in this show, played by Alan Miller and Mark Richmond, respectively). The end of part one sees the little moppets (some of whom were played by writer/producer Glen Larson’s own brood) falling ill, thanks to contaminated water and soil from a nearby chemical plant. To be continued…
“Super Scouts” Part 2.
Part two sees Troy and Dillon confronting the dastardly owner of the chemical plant, Mr. Stockton (the late Mike Kellin). Stockton cries balderdash at their claims, saying that his owns son works at the plant and he’s just swell. Realizing they’re powerless against rampant capitalism, the two warriors leave Jamie and the kids with a sympathetic young doctor (George Del Hoyo) and call in the big guns. Adama, Dr. Zee (now played by Patrick Stuart, not to be confused wth Sir Patrick Stewart) soon arrive in a total ripoff of the mothership from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, and bring the evil Mr. Stockton aboard, where Zee whips up one of his little ‘computer simulations’ to show Stockton his future. In a blatant ripoff of “A Christmas Carol”, Stockton learns that his boy “Jimmy” will die of chemical exposure in ten years if Stockton doesn’t get his act together at the plant. The Galactica’s god tech cures the moppet scouts and the whole thing ends at a waffle house, when one of the scouts tosses a syrup-soaked waffle directly at Dillon’s face. Syrupy doesn’t begin to cover it.
The super scouts are left in Jamie’s care (of course, because she’s a woman, right?? Jeezus… might as well be called “Galactica 1920”), while Dillon and Troy return in a single sabotaged Viper to the Galactica. Their ship loses power en route, and they soon realize that the “Lt. Dante” (future Sherlock Holmes star/legend Jeremy Brett) who greeted them on Earth is actually the renegade Xavier with a bit of unexplained plastic surgery and a newfound, vaguely German accent (maybe he picked it up back in Nazi, Germany…?). Xavier sabotaged their ship, and he soon learns of Jamie Hamilton and the ‘scouts.’ Meanwhile the scouts are at an orphan baseball camp run by a one-armed ex-pitcher named Billy (the late Paul Koslo). Billy takes the strange kids in, no questions asked (chalk up one more lost notion to the relatively innocent 1980s). The climax of the episode involves the scouts coached by Jamie to resist using their superior Galactican strength and speed until the very last second in order to win the ‘big game.’ The B-story also finds the previously seen Col. Sydell (Alan Miller) tracking the scouts to the camp, but his investigatory efforts are thwarted. Dillon & Troy arrive after fixing their ship, but once again, the big bad wolf Xavier escapes. The whole thing plays like a bad 1970s kiddie sports movie that never made it past the first draft.
“The Night the Cylons Landed,” Part 1.
With a nod to H.G. Wells’ (and Orson Welles’) “War of the Worlds” a new, advanced Cylon fighter is damaged by a Colonial scout, and crash-lands north of New York City on Halloween night. With their spacecraft usage raising a lot of suspicion, Dillon and Troy decide to take their first airplane ride to New York, once again leaving the kids in Jamie’s care (the formerly ambitious journalist now officially reduced to den mother). Arriving at LaGuardia (after thwarting a hijacking), the two warriors find themselves a few steps behind the crashed ship, which they mistakenly believe is one of their own Vipers. What Dillon and Troy don’t yet realize is that the crashed craft is Cylon, and that the Cylons are now capable of creating a humanoid-looking android model. One such android, named “Andromus” (Roger Davis) has survived the crash, along with a traditional Cylon centurion-robot (Rex Cutter) who are, of course, mistaken for Halloween cosplayers. The two Cylons are even given a lift into NYC by William Daniels and Lara Parker, who are attending an office Halloween party (once again, the curiously quaint and terrifying notion of giving very suspicious total strangers rides in one’s car is never once poo-pooed).
“The Night the Cylons Landed,” Part 2.
Part 2 begins with the pair of Cylons arriving at the Halloween party, which turns out to be an office party of radio station workers. A lucky break, of course, since the Cylons want to ‘phone home’ and tell their cybernetic siblings that they found the human hideout of Earth. Things get even more surreal (and frankly hilarious) as Wolfman Jack (playing himself) shows up at the party. The party’s host Arnie (Val Bisoglio, of “Saturday Night Fever”) begins microwaving his much-ballyhooed meatballs, and the centurion Cylon is nearly killed by the offensive oven’s waves of doom (this would’ve been one hell of a handy and simply-made weapon for the Colonial warriors about 30 years before…). Andromus shoots lasers from his fingers in order to stop the Cylon-killing piece of cooking hardware.
The two Cylons then escape the blazing kitchen and kidnap Wolfman Jack, in order to help them reach his radio station and “beam” a message to their “brothers.” Reaching the International Trade Center, an ersatz version of then-still intact Twin Towers, Wolfman Jack (never breaking his silly Wolfman affectation, even while being kidnapped) is forced to take the evil bots up to the rooftop in order to transmit Earth’s location to the Cylon Empire. Dillon and Troy, dressed in stolen all-white tops and tails, shoot it out with the machines and foil their plan. We see a shot of the dismembered Cylon centurion, piled atop a NYC garbage truck, still vowing to “protect” Andromus (pretty sure that load of garbage will be diverted to Area 51…).
A rare (and for the time bold) statement against racism is made for a series that simply wasn’t up to the challenge of telling it properly. Cowritten by Larson and Robert McCullough, the episode begins with the destruction of the Colonial fleet’s agricultural ship by a Cylon attack (look carefully for future dramatic star Dennis Haysbert as a Viper pilot). Dillon and Troy are forced to return to Earth in order to sharecrop with a willing farmer, whom they find in the form of Hector Alonzo (Ned Romero). Hector and his family are having their water supply choked off by local racist land baron Steadman (the late Dana Elcar, of “McGyver”). Enlisting help from the super scouts (who plant crops overnight by singing and jumping…long story), as well Doctor Zee’s handy-dandy ‘lightship’ (which creates rain, of course). In short, the Galacticans turn the tide against Steadman, and the entire town is given access to the dammed water supply (not ‘damned’, but literally ‘dammed’…). The ending sees a reluctant Dillon avoid a romantic entanglement with Alonzo’s sexy daughter (Ana Alicia, of “Halloween II”), because he’d rather fly off with Troy on his super-motorcycle (I guess…?). Maybe he’s heard a few Earth jokes about the ‘farmer’s daughter’.
A noble attempt to tackle racism is ultimately sabotaged by the “white savior” complex, with magical Space Caucasians coming to save the Alonzo farm. Admittedly bold for 1980, but embarrassing in 2020.
“The Return of Starbuck.”
The fate of Colonial warrior Starbuck (a returning Dirk Benedict) is revealed in flashback through a dream of Dr. Zee (Patrick Stuart). The famously cigar-chomping Viper pilot’s ship is damaged in a desperate battle, and crash-lands on an uninhabited planet (with a bunch of moons and suns). In a nod to “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” and a foreshadowing of Wolfgang Petersen’s “Enemy Mine”, Starbuck finds a crashed Cylon ship nearby as well. Using parts from the ship to fashion a makeshift shelter, Starbuck also decides to create a ‘friend’ by reactivating a Cylon centurion (Rex Cutter, voiced by classic radio deejay Gary Owens). The repaired Cylon, nicknamed “Cy”, slowly begins to trust his longtime human foe, when he realizes he owes his very reanimation to Starbuck.
Realizing the lonely human needs a “woo-man” for companionship, Cy sets off on his own and returns with a mysterious pregnant woman foreshadowingly named “Angela” (Judith Chapman). Starbuck and Cy deliver her baby, and soon realize she can’t remain on the dangerous planet for too long.
Creating an escape craft using parts from both of their ships, Cy and Starbuck set Angela and her infant son on a presumed course for the Colonial fleet (odd that it was unreachable earlier, but okay…). Doing this selfless act, the ‘spirit’ of Angela returns (somehow?) and she judges the mortal Starbuck to be “good…so very good.” The pod was eventually retrieved by the fleet, and the child (of course) grew up to be Doctor Zee.
It’s (heavily) implied that Angela may have been one of the Ship of Lights’ ‘angels’ which were seen in the original Battlestar Galactica’s “War of the Gods” and “Experiment in Terra.” Despite a few clumsy bits here and there, “The Return of Starbuck” is a decent (albeit corny) slice of retro sci-fi TV that more or less holds up today.
Is “Galactica: 1980” as bad as its malignant reputation suggests? Well, that depends. The writing is dreadful, the characters are as dumb as pet rocks, and the ‘futuristic’ technology of the Galacticans became obsolete in a matter of a few short years. The original “Battlestar Galactica” certainly had its own flaws (many of which were rectified in the vastly superior 2003-2009 remake by Ronald D. Moore and David Eick), but what makes “Galactica: 1980” so spellbinding is how consistently bad it is…it never lets up.
“Galactica: 1980” takes all of the expensive-looking space opera of its parent series and chucks it in favor of “CHiPs”-style dramatics and “Sheriff Lobo”-level humor. Since the series had a 7 pm Sunday time slot, it was also forced by since-abandoned FCC mandates to have ‘educational content’ for younger audience members, wherein characters would clumsily stop almost mid-sentence to explain the size of the solar system, or how basic agriculture works.
It was also called upon by the ABC network to reduce the violence seen on its predecessor series, as primetime TV in those days was on a fervent anti-violence crusade (this was also the reason we never saw CBS’ “Incredible Hulk” punch anyone in the face, either). To say the series was made under tight constraints (both from its mad dash to air in January of 1980 as well as its new conservative time slot) was an understatement. Did it succeed? Not at all. It was cringeworthy then, and it’s “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”-level stuff today.
However, after rewatching this 10-episode series about a year ago, I was struck by the fact that I was rarely bored. It’s so mesmerizingly mishandled and audacious in its ineptitude that it’s downright entertaining. Unlike, say, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” (1978), “Galactica: 1980” has actual value as an earthbound space opera-comedy… a farcical reimagining of Larson’s own 1978 concept. It’s also watchable today as a period piece, chronicling long-forgotten social norms and technologies of the time, such as nurses wearing those useless little caps in hospitals, or needing pocket change to ‘use the phone.’
Seeing the Galactica’s Colonial warriors riding their super-motorcycles on my local freeways on TV in those days was as about as bizarre as imagining running into Boba Fett and Chewbacca at my local grocery store (though years of convention attendance have far better prepared me for that eventuality).
Forty years later, I’m aware enough to realize that “Galactica: 1980” hasn’t gotten better with age, nor has it became some underrated TV classic overlooked in its time. It’s unchanged, but I’m not. Perhaps I’ve simply become easier to entertain in my old age, but today I look upon the cheesy, silly spectacle of “Galactica: 1980” with a bit more forgiveness and a lot more humor than my 13-year old self ever could have. In fact, it’s just this side of a guilty pleasure.
Sometimes, even truly bad things live long enough to be eventually enjoyed.
All Battlestar Galactica/Galactica: 1980 screencaps: http://www.galacticabbs.com
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