Sunday, 13 February 2011

SAGA OF A STAR WORLD. THE LAUNCH OF THE ORIGINAL "BATTLESTAR GALACTICA"

On the run from the Cylons, Apollo (Richard Hatch), Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) and Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) in the sci-fi classic BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. All images: UNIVERSAL/ABC TV

With industry insider interest starting to rise on George Lucas’s upcoming project called STAR WARS just prior to the films May 1977 release (the period of 1976 predicting doom and gloom for what was being called a B movie for kids project), the Hollywood film and TV studios suddenly began to wake up to the idea that if the young director, then riding high for several years with the success of his wonderful love letter to Southern California teen car dating film, AMERICAN GRAFFITI, one of the most successful low budget movies ever at the box office, was shrewd enough to consider the universe of science fiction worth resurrecting after so long, then they should too. Many would be slow out of the gate in their actions, eventually waiting to see how big the box office returns for STAR WARS would ultimately be (and they would prove to be world encompassinginly enormous!), but one TV player quick to sprint out would be legendary American producer Glen A. Larson. A shrewd and talented writer with a keen eye in finding movies that have been successful and then transferring similar ideas to television, such as the case with Clint Eastwood’s film COOGAN’S BLUFF, which he would re-imagine as the long running Dennis Weaver detective series McCLOUD, Larson would dust off an old story idea he had conceived in the mid sixties when the original STAR TREK TV series, a show he always admired, was on the air. ADAM’S ARK was the title of the project, which saw the human race in deep space fleeing a catastrophe to find a new home, but the intriguing concept was soon abandoned when TREK began to lose its way in the ratings, and was eventually buried and left to die in its third year by its makers/ NBC and PARAMOUNT within a late night Friday time slot (and despite what would ultimately prove to be very high demographics with TV’s most desired audiences: young teenagers). With the launch of STAR WARS, however, the tide seemed to be turning, and especially with the word WARS in that films title, Larson saw the opportunity to heavily re-work the concept and make it more exciting for modern film and TV audiences, incorporating other sci-fi related concepts that he’d been enjoying over the last seven to ten years, including the idea of spacemen from other galaxies influencing our ancient history, as had been theorized by Eric Von Daniken in his successful books of the seventies, the first of which had been titled MYSTERIES OF THE GODS, as well as elements from his own Mormon religious background. The revised ADAM’S ARK tale, now an ambitious and epic 500 pages long, would be called STAR WORLDS. Set in the time frame of the Seventh Millennia of Mankind, a race of humans belonging to the Twelve Colonies of Man would finally be all but decimated in an epic sneak attack (Pearl Harbour in space style) by their long time reptilian/cyborg enemies, the Cylons, of which the few remaining survivors would gather together in a rag tag fleet of 220 decrepit ships, protected by the only surviving Colonial Fleet warship, the huge aircraft carrier-like Battlestar Galactica, in their search for a new home…a shiny long distant planet from ancient history carrying the lost Thirteenth Tribe of Humanity- a place of land and sea called Earth.

Key STAR WARS visualist Ralph McQuarrie's evocative conceptual art showing the Cylon sneak attack on the Human Colonial Fleet.

Sworn enemy of mankind: one of the fearsome Cylon Centurion warriors.

Having previously, and foolishly, turned down STAR WARS in the early seventies as being too big and impractical to make, and seeing potential with the new project from their in-house producer, UNIVERSAL TELEVISION quickly greenlighted it into pre-production whilst they found a US TV channel willing to fund and show it. That TV channel would be ABC TV, purchasing STAR WORLDS for a undervalued 1.8 million dollars, who would decide with Larson/UNIVERSAL on a seven hour TV mini-series that would do the project the justice it deserved. The first three hours of STAR WORLDS would be a mammoth event TV movie (which, to help recuperate the shows expensive production costs, and against Larson's ultimate wishes, would also be released as shortened down theatrical releases from July 18th 1978 in the Canadian, European and Japan markets (the former seeing it before the US TV premiere)), whilst the final four hours would be two, two part movies carrying on from the opening film. Pulling together his creative team on the project, Larson would assemble some of the finest and experienced names in TV, including his friend, writer/ producer Leslie Stevens, who had worked in the sci-fi series realm with the popular sixties anthology series THE OUTER LIMITS (and whom, in the same 70's period, would also assist Larson in developing a re-imagined TV series of BUCK ROGERS as well, soon to star Gil Gerard and Erin Gray). One of Stevens biggest tasks on the show was becoming entrenched with all the new department heads and helping to establish its visual aspects-making reality a believable and consistent new universe beyond anything previously attempted on television. The director assigned to the project was Richard A. Colla, who had experience with TV movies of the week (including sci-fi of a smaller scale) and other UNIVERSAL made series, whilst respected clothes designer Jean- Pierre Dorleac, brought in over the in-house UNIVERSAL designers, would handle the many distinctive military and civilian costumes needed for the series intriguing futuristic, but with nods to the past, new universe (as well as working on the distinctive Cylon robots (later played by six foot Baseball players and stuntmen) with their huge armour, swords (whose use was cut down after the pilot and during the TV series for violence reasons), and constantly moving red eye light) alongside series Art Director, John Chilberg (who would create the expansive bridge (one of the most budget absorbing sets ever built for either the series or television, and one which underwent last minutes changes-the removal of several large and heavy columns- in a move that was originally demoralizing to the set building crew but needed to be done so as to improve camera filming), quarters and corridors of the Battlestar itself and the huge casino interior of the alien planet/ sanctuary world of Carillon, with its accompanying deadly lower cave catacombs). Importantly rounding off the core team would be another of Larson’s old friends, composer Stu Phillips, who would be in charge of bringing the shows memorable theme tunes (and then regular series music) to life.

John Dykstra (left) and an ILM colleague ready the Galactica model for filming.

With the now release of STAR WARS, the world had gone mad for the movie, its characters and its amazing special effects, and knowing that he needed effects for his newly titled STAR WORLDS to rival WARS, Larson was quick to find out that Lucas’s effects company, INDUSTRIAL LIGHT AND MAGIC, headed up by the legendary technician John Dykstra, was in a state of limbo: having now completed work on the space opera, they were all tired and exhausted in a period prior to STAR WARS release where no one knew whether the about to disband company would be re-formed for any sequel. The effects group was now out of work and all its members desperately needed further financial security to survive. Intrigued by the idea of the new sci-fi project being done for television, though aware of its possible similarities to STAR WARS, Dykstra and the ILM team were swiftly snapped up to handle the mini series effects work (with Lucas and TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX (which owned partial rights and distribution to the first STAR WARS film at that time) agreeing to loan out the Van Nuys based facility and equipment to Larson/UNIVERSAL- FOX, in particular, were desperate to get any money back on their investment return for STAR WARS, on what they once thought was a doomed project that may sink the company! In this early stage, Lucas was happy to see that his STAR WARS might see in more fantasy and science fiction projects, though he hoped that they would be original and have interesting characters and storylines that would make them uniquely different to the tales he was telling with STAR WARS, and he had no idea how similar much of Larson’s STAR WORLDS concept would ultimately be. As Dykstra, now a confirmed producer on the entire seven hour mini-series, and his brilliant technicians began the first pre-production work designing creatures, spaceships (including the Galactica herself and the superb fighter craft called the Vipers), vehicles, weapons and alien civilizations, set building at the UNIVERSAL STUDIOS was equally frenetically underway, as was writing and revising of the opening scripts and the formation of the regular characters, of which the casting search for the actors and actresses to play them followed suit…

Richard Hatch as Captain Apollo.
Dirk Benedict as the roguish Lt. Starbuck
Then relative TV newcomer Maren Jensen as Lt. Athena.
Protector of the Human race: Commander Adama (Lorne Greene)
Adama, Colonel Tigh (Terry Carter) and Athena discuss their next move on the Galactica bridge, in an image from the first two part episode filmed after the pilot: GUN ON ICE PLANET ZERO.

STAR WARS had proved that science fiction was truly for the young at heart, the kidult in all of us, and this was shown with its core trio of equally youthful heroes, which would influence all other science fiction projects for a long time to come, and STAR WORLDS would be no exception, with its similar group of Colonial Warriors-the main protectorates of the surviving human species, working alongside their leader/father, Commander Adama, the ultimate custodian of their race and in charge of the mighty Galactica in protecting these last vestiges. Adama’s son, Skyler (later changed to Captain Apollo), would be the main character in this ever dangerous quest and the head of an elite fighter group called Blue Squadron, played by TV series veteran Richard Hatch (who had just finished his year stint on the final series of THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, replacing the departed Michael Douglas, and working alongside legendary film actor Karl Malden. For GALACTICA, Hatch would beat hundreds of other hopeful actors for the role of Apollo, taking on a character allegedly intended for Kent McCord, an actor friend of Larson's who would ultimately not be available for the role (though he would be the star of the eventual GALACTICA spin-off, the much-derided GALACTICA 1980). Larson saw in Hatch, who was previously fascinated in all things sci-fi (having even tested for the part of Luke Skywalker in STAR WARS in 1975), all the great heroic possibilities, and viewer accessibility, that he could bring to the role. To counter balance the good hearted Apollo would be the roguish Han Solo-like Starbuck, also a crack pilot, a cool shot with a laser, and a bit of a ladies man, gambler and all round likable rogue, whom, though friends with Apollo, would often challenge some of his decision-making and do his own thing. Originally cast in what would become one of the series most popular roles would be Missouri born rising star Don Johnson (then known in Hollywood as the boyfriend of Tippi Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, and later to be well received by the public for his iconic TV roles in NASH BRIDGES and MIAMI VICE). On the feisty heroine front, the lovely Californian actress/model, born to Hawaiian and Dutch parentage, Maren Jensen, a new face in the Hollywood industry, would be cast as the important series female lead, Athena, a vital member of the Galactica bridge technician team and a warrior in her own right, who just happened to be the sister of Apollo, on and off girlfriend to Starbuck (one of his many romantic conquests) and daughter to the protective Commander Adama. (In the original conception for the role, and as seen in the three hour pilot, Athena was also a shuttle/Viper pilot, though this all changed as it became a weekly series. Actress Anne Lockhart, later to join the weekly series as the popular Sheba, was originally approached to play the Athena role but, feeling that the potential for the role hadn't yet been developed properly whilst the series pre-production character bible was being formulated, turned the role down). As for the critical choice of Adama, Larson knew that he needed a man of strong character and bearing but one who also had the ability to play tender scenes with great humanity, emotional depth and audience appreciation. The actor chosen had to be an experienced “name actor” who would help give the series some distinctive and respectable clout in selling the concept of the series to worldwide audiences, but who could also act as father figure of sorts not only in the role to the younger characters but to the actors playing them, too. Larson’s excellent choice would be the popular Canadian actor Lorne Greene, who, for nearly fifteen years from the fifties to the early seventies, had showed all those desired traits in his performance as Ben Cartwright in the eternally popular western series BONANZA. Working tirelessly alongside Adama would be his longtime friend and second in command, Colonel Tigh, a nicely layered performance from another Larson TV series stalwart, again from McCLOUD, Terry Carter (who originally had tested for the role of fighter pilot Lt. Boomer). STAR WORLDS main cast had been found.

John Colicos as Baltar, executed by his Cylon friends in the GALACTICA movie, but spared that fate for the weekly TV series.
It all looks a bit cruel now, but three Chimps played Muffey the Daggit during the series.

Realizing that the series main pilot needed more name actors to play supporting leads, especially as it was also going to be a theatrical release, Larson, Colla and their casting team secured some first rate, long time character actors in those slots, including Ray Milland as Adama’s treacherous council rival, the greedy and duplicitous Sire Uri, aging star Wilfrid Hyde White as fellow councilman, Anton, and Lew Ayres as the doomed President Adar who is tricked into seeing humanity destroyed by the traitorous Cylons and their human lackey, Count Baltar (played by the excellent John Colicos, who, with a track records of playing crafty and conniving villains, proved superb in the role. Though killed off in the pilot’s theatrical release, he was spared death in the TV series where he became the shows regular opponent). Also on the enemy side, the charming British ex-Avenger Patrick Macnee, now a resident of Hollywood film and TV production, would add his distinctive, un-credited voice to the reptilian Cylon leader, the Imperious Leader (replacing THE ADDAM’S FAMILY’s Ted Cassidy who voiced it prior to an abandoned vocoder sound distorting equipment test using the voice of THE INCREDIBLE HULK actor Lou Ferrignio, of which early tests proved too frightening audio-wise to use), as well as the series opening narration that would set-up the film and the latter series. On the ladies side of the guest acting talent, there would also be a love interest for Apollo in the form of the beautiful Caprica colony newsreader Lyra (later re-named Serina), played by the charming and beautiful young actress Jane Seymour (whom actor Richard Hatch would also develop a real life crush on during her filming stint), fresh from England with her success in the BBC drama series THE ONEDIN LINE and as a Bond girl in Roger Moore’s first James Bond movie outing, the very popular LIVE AND LET DIE. Alas, Serina’s part in STAR WORLDS would be consigned to the pilot episode only, as it was planned that she would contract a terminal illness (the result of Cylon weaponry used in their attacks on the human race that would see her off screen demise, whilst her son, Boxey, played by little Noah Hathaway, who would hopefully entice the series children viewing audience (alongside his daggit robot, Muffit (played by three often disgruntled chimps in a suit, one of which was named Evie)), entered the custodianship of Apollo. Seymour liked the original script for the pilot and was intrigued by the character, playing Serina with a doomed tragic quality in its second half, and was at first thrilled to be in a film/ TV production that looked big in every sense of the word.

Jane Seymour as the Caprican newscaster now refugee, Serina.

The lovely Jane Seymour as Serina, with her on-screen beau Apollo (Richard Hatch)

As the rush of pre-production into full production commenced for the mini-series set in stone transmission date of Sunday, September 17th 1978, work on the pilot would be in a continued state of transmogrification. With so much money being spent on the pilot and its two parters than had ever been first anticipated, it was decided, with STAR WARS continued gargantuan success, to turn the event mini series into a regular series instead, a move that upped the ante pressure wise considerably for Larson and his ever growing team of writers and producers, and resulted in certain re-thinks with regards to characters and storylines already being developed during and after the pilot, of which ABC TV and UNIVERSAL had to be kept constantly in the loop and involved in the final creative decisions alongside its creator, during what would be a difficult and strenuous time. Additionally, George Lucas was unhappy with the series being titled STAR WORLDS (resulting in it being changed to the one word title GALACTICA, and then, just before the pilots completion, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) as well as several of the series similarities to his own sci-fi universe, requesting, through his producer, Gary Kurtz, changes be made to the series, most notably some character names, the way certain designs looked and the way the human/Cylon weaponry were to be optically achieved on screen. Larson, not wanting any law suits and especially needing Lucas’s effects house at that critical time (in which he was already in strained relations with them, in particular Dykstra, due to time pressures in getting the now series made), acquiesced to their stipulations.

They may be lovers but Starbuck and Athena's relationship was often spiky at best!
Lt. Boomer (Herb Jefferson Jr.) covers for his escaping friends in part of an action scene cut from the pilot movie. 

With filming underway and over schedule (the planned 27 days eventually became 57), with scenes soon ether re-filmed (either due to studio/network interference or just for the film version of the pilot), or new ones added (some of which would be re-scheduled into the already tight filming schedules of the upcoming two-parter episodes), it was decided about four or five days into early shooting that, despite looking the part, Don Johnson wasn’t the actor whom ABC wanted to play Starbuck: allegedly, and primarily, they were not happy with his Southern accent. Larson, impressed with the young actor, was unhappy to let him go but had no choice (as far as we are aware no filming had taken place with Johnson at this point anyway), instead replacing him with an actor who would soon prove a more than acceptable replacement, and one whom the show’s creator had originally wanted but the network didn’t find sexy enough in an early screen test, Dirk Benedict (who would shortly make a name for himself after GALACTICA as Templeton “Faceman” Peck in the hit action series THE A-TEAM), quickly rushed into filming with very little preparation time, who became so popular with the writers and viewers as the series went on that there would end up being a kind of friendly rivalry on set between Benedict and Richard Hatch. Joining Benedict, who based his playing of the role on James Garner in MAVERICK, in filling out the rest of the series characters as close friends to Starbuck would be Herb Jefferson Jr., as his loyal Viper pilot wingman, serious buddy/straight man foil, Lt. Boomer, the portly Tony Swartz as the fighter pilot/technician Lt. Jolly, and the charming ex-escort (named a “socialator” in the pilot film), Cassiopeia, as played by the gorgeous Laurette Spang, who, as love rival with Athena for Starbuck’s attentions, would prove so popular behind the scenes that her character would becomes a series regular, in her new audience friendly role as a medical technician, by the start of production on the second two parter filmed (to become known as  LOST PLANET OF THE GODS). Finally, though briefly appearing in the opening twenty minutes alongside Starbuck, the character of Zac, the youngest son to Adama lost in the uncovering of the Cylon sneak attack, would be well played by American actor Rick Springfield, who would go onto have a popular singing career in the early eighties.

Laurette Spang proved a winning addition to the cast as Cassiopeia.
On the ground: at the Carillon casino, the Cylons spring their trap on the humans in the finale of SAGA OF A STAR WORLD

In space: the Cylons attack the Galactica, but Adama has a few surprises for them...

Despite the new and winning re-casting, production problems would continue with an alleged fall-out over the overall direction of the series between Pilot helmer Richard Colla and Larson, with the former leaving the project near the end of the shoot’s last four days, citing Larson as being ungrateful to the cast and crew for all the hard work being done to bring the series to life (despite his woes on GALACTICA, Colla would later direct more sci-fi with an early episode of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION in 1987), and resulting in Larson’s stalwart TV directing friend, Alan J. Levi, who had already been assigned to direct the series next heavily re-worked two part episode (set on an ice planet and eventually titled GUN ON ICE PLANET ZERO), coming into finish things off or continue in the re-shooting of certain sequences (Levi would tell the EMPIRE film magazine in 2011 that he came in to finish the pilot episodes last 15 days of shooting and then had a further nine days spent with re-shoots of previous Colla material, and would ultimately end up being very hurt that Larson did not live up to his promise and credit him as the pilots co-director). By the time of the films final editing, of which six hours of actual footage is believed to have been shot for the opener, editorial changes to keep it to three hours were still happening (including certain scenes considered too violent being trimmed or removed). It was also decided that the openers original ending, in which the survivors of the fleet, having gotten out of a new Cylon trap on the gambling resort world of Carillon (which would also involve the cannibalistic insectoids, the Ovions), get together for a final sing song celebration (whilst a seriously ill Serina sneaks away from Apollo and Boxey in order to die alone), felt flat and would be excised, consequently deciding to instead end it with the sequence prior to the celebration: namely a big bang finale where Apollo and Starbuck, in their Colonial Vipers, trick a Cylon Basestar ship into crashing into Carillon and causing that fuel rich planets ultimate destruction, which proved to be a much more satisfying conclusion. Bringing such major sequences to life effects-wise (including the stunning space battle opener with the destruction of humanity and the Colonial Fleet traversing a deadly space minefield), many of which would have to be filmed and re-filmed with the constant changes of the scripts and network decisions, would continue to cause problems in the relationship between Larson and John Dykstra/ILM, so much so that angry technicians sneaked in the words “F++k off Larson” in to a city lights display seen at the beginning of the opener’s Cylon Raider fleet attack on the planet Caprica (the twelve human colony worlds being name adjusted by Larson after popular star-signs). At first happy to do revolutionary new effects and sequences for television that were choreographically superior to many of the shots that had been achieved on film in STAR WARS, but unhappy that the GALACTICA work was being transferred, with possible quality flaws, to the big-screen, Dykstra, who, as producer, was also on the GALACTICA set full-time pilot-wise to oversee the demanding planning and technical live-action realization of certain effects and maintaining continuity with what was being filmed with the models, joined his ILM compatriots in quitting the full series run once it reached the end of its opening seven hours, with UNIVERSAL initiating from scratch its own effects company instead, newly christened UNIVERSAL HARTLAND, to take over the running of those duties and copy the technology that had been used to make the effects a reality (much to the chagrin of an angry ILM who had spent so much time revolutionising the equipment in the first place for use on STAR WARS!).

The devastating sneak attack on the planet Caprica in the opening hour of SAGA OF A STAR WORLD.

Terrific main theme for the series: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzyHxYxc-Mo

Early, effects heavy trailer for the series (featuring alternate scenes and different voiced Imperious Leader alien): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRcmTwqzggA

1978/79 trailer for the pilot movie’s theatrical release: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTjSckBBcHU

Behind the scenes effects filming footage by ex-ILM staffer Dave Berry for the episodes GUN ON ICE PLANET ZERO: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lbBQ_QaI2k

Another important key art image used for the series promotion.

Finally airing as planned, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA launched its bravura three hour duration pilot episode (over the years there would also be many differing running time versions of it, with scenes/alternate footage, too numerous to catalogue, in TV syndication reruns and video/DVD releases), of which no series of that time would receive as much advance press publicity in the pages of so many American newspapers and magazines as this would, especially the all-important listings digest, TV GUIDE. First launched in movie form in Canada where it was a huge success, US Viewer expectations for the epic opener in the light of STAR WARS were very high, though its memorable start ultimately lived up to its spectacular promise with TV viewers and most sci-fi fans, with a huge record breaking Sunday night audience of 65 million ultimately tuning in, and despite heavy opposition on other channels and the mixed at best critical reaction it would receive (whilst everyone praised the effects, its familiarities to STAR WARS with regards to certain story and characters proved highly noticeable to many (so much so that an angry George Lucas, joined by TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX, soon handed a law suit to Larson and UNIVERSAL citing infringement on STAR WARS idea and its concepts, especially visually (an unavoidable cost of film-making, really, when you consider ILM’s heavy involvement in the creation of both sci-fi universes), in a legal process which was turned into quite a nasty and long running battle, and would take several ultimately wasted years to settle)).

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA’s opening adventure, titled SAGA OF A STAR WORLD, though immensely costly (with pricing ranged over the years between seven and fourteen million dollars), had indeed been successfully realised and enjoyed by the all important viewing public (overall, people liked the series concept and the reverse idea of humans in space looking for us rather than the other way around, the likable cast and the intriguing, if underdeveloped alien enemy chasing them), not only in the US but worldwide as the aforementioned film, whose sound was processed through UNIVERSAL’s unique SENSURROUND system in selected cinemas, made enough box office profit to have the studio initiate plans for future two part episodes to be released as sequels, and would also go on to spawn a reasonably successful line in merchandise, primarily consisting of books, toys, games and MARVEL comic books, and even a short term ride at the UNIVERSAL STUDIOS theme park in Los Angeles, titled BATTLE OF THE CYLONS.

Creating GALACTICA had not been easy and the pressure on its creators, cast and crew would be difficult in the next few months ahead as the weekly series evolved. Ultimately, the show would never totally recover from being rushed into production so early, and suffer from too many cooks interfering with its inspired but delicate birth.

But all that is another story….

Check out the KOOL TV companion site to the series: BATTLESTAR GALACTICA - SAGA OF A STAR WORLD


The entire BATTLESTAR GALACTICA 1978 series is available on DVD from UNIVERSAL PLAYBACK. Hopefully, someone at UNIVERSAL will eventually see sense and re-master the series for Blu-ray.

Check out a great photo gallery of black and white theatrical stills from the pilot episode here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28247036@N04/sets/72157623294687055/with/4350814899/, and the best GALACTICA related website, both modern and new, you’ll ever find, here:


Look out for more features on the original GALACTICA series in the not too distant future...

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