Last week marked the 45th anniversary of a show I was absolutely nuts about as a kid. I couldn’t let September 17th, 1978 go unmentioned. Oh, and apologies for borrowing the title of this column from a two-parter of the otherwise sacrilegious “Galactica: 1980,” but it seemed to fit…
In the second half of 1978, I was a few months shy of my 12th birthday and eagerly awaiting the arrival of a new TV show called “Battlestar Galactica” from producer Glen Larson (“The Six Million Dollar Man”) that promised to be TV’s answer to the kind of spectacle seen in “Star Wars” a year earlier. Even the visual FX work was being overseen by John Dykstra, who’d pioneered the computerized motion-control camera systems used in Star Wars (the “Dykstraflex”).
I still remember seeing a quick preview of “Battlestar Galactica” during a TV news show the previous summer. The clip featured two “Cylon” robots delivering a report to their “Imperious Leader,” as their words (delivered in flat, electronically-modulated voices) seared into my impressionable young brain: “All base ships are now in range to attack the colonies.”
These ‘Cylons’ were a fusion of Star Wars’ Imperial stormtroopers and Doctor Who’s “Daleks” (whom I’d only seen in photos in books at that point—“Dr. Who” wasn’t on PBS TV in America just yet). Whatever this was, it looked mighty expensive. To say I was excited for this new series was an understatement…
Sunday Evening, September 17th, 1978.
Cut to Sunday night, September 17th, 1978. Monday was a school day, but I stayed up from 8 pm to 11 pm to catch the three-hour debut of the “Battlestar Galactica” pilot, which I’d later learn was called “Saga of a Star World.” The music blasted through the TV’s monaural speaker with a heroic fanfare from composer Stu Phillips (“Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” “Knight Rider”) that sounded downright theatrical.
The titular “battlestars” (there were a fleet of them earlier in the pilot) were impressive; on a par with the massive Imperial Star Destroyers from “Star Wars” a year earlier. The Viper fighter launches were colorful and exciting (even when they reused that same launch footage repeatedly during the pilot). I distinctly remember thinking that the Egyptian pharaoh-style helmets worn by the Viper pilots looked decidedly goofy, but the King Tutankhamen exhibit had toured the US a year or so earlier, and it caused a certain Ancient Egypt-mania in pop culture…
The devastating Cylon attack on the colonial fleet and home worlds echoed the attacks on Pearl Harbor, some 37 years earlier (this was 1978, mind you—9/11 was decades away, and would inspire the 2003 reboot of the show). The death of “Zac” (Captain Apollo’s kid brother played by a young Rick Springfield) held surprising punch for me, perhaps because my own older brother had passed away only three years earlier. These characters were surprisingly vivid for what was supposed to be a spectacle-driven space fantasy show.
I remember feeling genuine awe—much of it from Stu Phillip’s sweeping score—during the exodus of the “rag-tag fugitive fleet” from the devastated 12 colonies, as they gathered in space to rendezvous with Commander Adama’s (Lorne Greene) last surviving battlestar. Galactica was the last hope of protecting survivors of the human race which inhabited those 12 destroyed planets (their names conspicuously suggested by the constellations of the Zodiacal belt; Capricans, Aires, Gemons, Virgos, Scorpios, Piscons, Sagitarrians, et al. Astrology was huge in those days…).
Later, the daring mine-sweeping operation in the blood red “Nova of Madagon” was pure unfiltered “Star Wars”-style adventureright there, on my parent’s 25” Zenith TV! This sequence saw Apollo (Richard Hatch), Boomer (Herb Jefferson Jr.) and Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) flying blind in a super-bright starfield to destroy Cylon mines ahead of the fleet, and it was arguably more colorful (though much less kinetic) than the attack on the Death Star. By this point, I was riveted. No force of human or nature was going to tear me away from that old cathode-ray TV. School night or no, I was staying up for the whole thing…
The discovery of the insectoid Ovions was genuinely creepy, as were their multi-armed costume designs. Aliens on the show were seen more fleetingly than in “Star Wars,” and even at 11 years old, I chalked that one up to a limited makeup budget. The show was clearly spending its ample funds on feature film quality sets, unique costumes and groundbreaking visual effects. It was hardly a surprise when I later learned that pilot cost around $14 million dollars (granted, much of that cost was allotted for the series that followed, but it was still a very impressive number for 1978).
After an explosive first hour (with commercials—as was/is the custom for US TV), the second hour was a bit slower paced, though I enjoyed the creation of the robotic ‘daggit’ Muffit (played by a chimpanzee stuffed in a suit) for the child Boxey (Noah Hathaway) and his grateful mother Serina (Jane Seymour—another childhood crush of mine!). The survivors later found themselves in a seeming oasis; a Las Vegas-style casino with unlimited wine, women and song, tucked away on a weird little desert planet called “Carillon”; a world that was also rich in much-needed “tylium” fuel.
Some of my sisters watched the pilot with me, but gradually, they each showed more common sense than myself and went to bed. I still remember one of my older sisters wisely pointing out to me that the ‘socialator’ character of “Cassiopeia” (Laurette Sang) was, in fact, a ‘space hooker.’ By 10 pm or so, I was the last one in our household still watching, but I was so engrossed that I don’t think I even realized I was watching it alone at that point…
I also vaguely remember a brief news bulletin about Jimmy Carter’s then-historic summit at Camp David between Israel and Egypt, but at the time, callow 11-year old me was only pissed that the promise of peace in the Middle East had the gall to interrupt this exciting new TV show. Yeah, that’s how kids think, folks…
The climax of the pilot revealed that the Ovions’ convenient oasis and fuel depot was an elaborate Cylon trap to lure the survivors into their final destruction. Of course, the all-wise Commander Adama, who expressed doubts about his leadership earlier in the pilot, saw through the trap. The viper pilots take off in a final attack on the Galactica that reused footage from the attack on the fleet in the first hour (optical FX were very expensive and time-consuming in those days, so some slack has to be cut…).
I still remember my jaw dropping when Carillon exploded and took the Cylon base ship with it. As the last kid in the house still awake to see it, I felt like the sole eyewitness to a 4th of July fireworks show. I remember trying to explain the spectacle I’d witnessed to my old man the next morning, who perhaps thought I’d rightly lost my mind. In context, there was literally nothing like “Battlestar Galactica” on TV at the time. It was unprecedented.
Of course, TV shows with feature film production values are commonplace today (see: any Marvel or Star Wars show on Disney+), but in 1978, TV and movies were as far apart in production value as a grade school play was from Broadway.
I wrote a breakdown of the pilot and TV series five years ago for the show’s then-40th anniversary (“The original “Battlestar Galactica” 40 yahrens later…”), but for this column, I just wanted to convey the feeling of excitement that pilot delivered to me as a kid. Young people today simply cannot know what’s it’s like to wait in front of a TV just to catch a program, for fear of never seeing it otherwise. “Battlestar Galactica” debuted just before VCRs became popularized (they were more of a costly toy in 1978), let alone DVDs, BluRays or streaming. When a show we wanted to see was broadcast, we would hurriedly finish our homework and chores to watch it. None of this streaming/binging stuff. “Battlestar Galactica” was event TV. You made sure your butt was parked on the sofa when the music began…
During the run of “Battlestar Galactica” (which I got my kid sister into as well), I collected the soundtrack album by Stu Phillips, got the Mattel action figures for Christmas (neither the “Colonial Warrior” or Cylon looked much like their TV counterparts), built the Revell model kits of the various spaceships, and eventually got my hands on the only collectible I still have today—the 1979 “photo story” of the pilot movie; a collection of screencaps in a single paperback book, with comic book-like captions recreating most of the movie’s dialogue. This was almost as good as having a print of the movie—no, it was better, because I could take the photostory with me to school and relive that pilot movie over and over again to my heart’s content wherever I wanted. This was decades before you could casually stream hit movies on your smartphone…
The Movie—in “Sensurround”
The pilot episode was never rebroadcast on ABC, because it’d already been released as a theatrical movie in Canada and overseas in Sensurround (monaural movie sound, but with a hidden subwoofer to add some low-end rumble to sound FX). That theatrical version of the pilot would eventually reach the US in May of 1979, and yes, younger me asked—no, demanded that my parents take me to see this movie I’d just watched for free on TV back in September. I would later cough up allowance after allowance to see the movie multiple times theatrically. Never mind that 25 minutes of the pilot had been trimmed from the theatrical version—this was “Battlestar Galactica” on the big screen!
In late 1979, my school chum and best friend James (who passed away only 12 short years later) invited me over to record the pilot movie onto audio cassette, directly from the TV speaker, when the movie came to the Showtime cable channel (yes, Showtime was around in those primitive bygone days). That audiotape, combined with the Photostory, was like having the movie at my fingertips. I used to also play the tape while doing homework, the same way others would play music (I loved music too, of course).
With that cassette, I came to memorize all of the pilot movie’s dialogue and sound effects. An amazing feat that sadly had no value whatsoever in those days. Geek culture did not yet rule the roost as it does today…
Even as I grew older and my tastes matured (somewhat), I never quite forgot how “Battlestar Galactica” gave me some wonderful, short-lived escapism in my early ‘wonder years.’ Sadly, the show was cancelled in the summer of 1979, only to return as the bastardized “Galactica 1980” the following January (click on the link if you want to read more about that little abomination…).
Older me would also have access my younger self could’ve never dreamed, as my sci-fi fan wife would introduce me (at the tender age of 34) to the thrill of sci-fi conventions, starting with smaller conventions in Pasadena, before ‘graduating’ onto much bigger cons, like San Diego Comic Con and WonderCon in Anaheim.
During these events, I would come to meet the late Richard Hatch (1945-2017), Herb Jefferson Jr. (whom I recently had another chat with at WonderCon), Dirk Benedict (who appreciated that I was interested in his stage revival of “Columbo” in London), and Anne Lockhart, who appeared as “Lt. Sheba” during the series’ run, and was the daughter of June Lockhart (“Lost in Space”). I would also meet composer Stu Phillips in 2003, and he was a surprisingly humble and lovely man who seemed delighted that I was using his “Battlestar” theme as my cellphone ringtone.
Younger me would’ve never imagined that I’d ever meet the stars of the show, let alone see them multiple times at various events over the years. It got to a point where Richard Hatch and I would often wave to each other in recognition before his premature passing. Of course, I would later become a huge fan of the 2003 rebooted version of “Battlestar Galactica”, and would meet many of those cast members as well.
But September 17th, 1978 was the genesis of my connection with “Battlestar Galactica,” and I’ll never forget it. Yes, we do get older. That’s unavoidable, like death and taxes. But we shouldn’t forget or dismiss those cathode-ray tube delivered tales of imagination, wonder and joy we first experienced as kids.
“Fleeing the Cylon tyranny, the last battlestar, Galactica, leads a rag-tag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest… a shining planet known as Earth.”
Where To Watch
1978’s “Battlestar Galactica” sometimes rotates on Peacock.com, and can be digitally streamed/purchased on YouTube Premium and PrimeVideo. The complete series is also available on DVD and BluRay from Amazon. I also read on DigitalBits that the feature film of the pilot was recently released in 4K BluRay.