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You Can’t Do That On Television

February 26th, 2009

As Battlestar Galactica approaches its endgame, I’ve had cause to think back to a simpler time when Cylons were just stuntment in shiny suits and in no way resembled Tricia Helfer.

It may seem absurd now, but back in the day (1978) the original Galactica series was seen as a pretty big deal. Aside from a couple of delightfully dreadful imported sci-fi flicks–Japan’s Message from Space and Italy’s Star Crash–it was the first true response to the genre-busting Star Wars. At a time before VCRs, when the best Star Wars home viewing experience one could hope for was an eight-minute Super 8 film compilation, the thought of a big-budget space combat show being beamed into one’s household every week was pretty damned exciting.

Midway through its first and only season, though, I found myself understating: “This could be a whole lot better.” For me, the problem wasn’t just the obvious stuff like the monkey in the robot dog suit. I was bothered not only by the frequently-recycled special effects but by the plots lifted wholesale from other movies, among them Shane and The Guns of Navarone. And I began to think the thing that so many fanboys before or since have thought about their own particular obsessions: “I could make this better.”

So I began to think of changes both large and small that I would make to Galactica if I had the chance to start it over. Some were admittedly superficial. I wanted the Viper space fighters to have guns that fired backwards; why allow a Cylon raider to sneak into your “six” unchallenged? Some were in the interest of better storytelling. I wanted to go back to the original premise of the Cylons being lizard-like aliens before ABC’s Network Standards and Practices division decreed that such a kid-friendly series should instead use robots for its cannon fodder. Robots, I thought, were much less interesting than thinking, feeling opponents.¬†

But what really influenced me more than anything was a Japanese animated series that aired briefly on weekday afternoons before being shunted off to the hell of early morning TV: Star Blazers (aka Space Cruiser Yamato). In some ways, Yamato was Galactica, only the Japanese did it first. For that matter, Yamato predates Star Wars¬†itself by several years, which, given George Lucas’ attraction to Japanese culture, should be food for thought.

In its English-dubbed form, Star Blazers told the serialized story of a literal space battleship–the World War II-era Yamato–pulled from the sea bed, outfitted with an interstellar drive, and rechristened the Argo. It was humanity’s last hope of saving planet Earth from constant nuclear bombardment by the alien Gamilons, set off on a long voyage in search of the “Cosmo DNA” device that would remove the radioactivity and restore the environment.

One of the things I liked most about Star Blazers–aside from the numerous space battles–was its even-handed treatment of its villains. An early episode featured the crew of the Argo meeting a wounded Gamilon soldier face to face for the first time and realizing that their enemies had their own hopes and fears. Even their dreaded leader Desslok was an honorable figure who later became one of the Argo’s staunchest allies.

Another thing that pulled me in was the serialized story. Now, Galactica also had a story progression of sorts, but not so obvious as the one seen here, with its one-year timeline and frequently referenced doomsday countdown. (Each episode ended with a subtitle declaring, “The Argo has only X days left!”) Season-long story arcs were unknown on American TV at the time.

What I wanted to see from Galactica was even more ambitious, something akin to what eventually happened with Babylon 5: the multi-year story arc. Knowing full well that Galactica would probably wind up like Gilligan’s Island, with the entire premise negated if they ever reached “home,” I tried to think beyond that. And I came up with my own five-year plan:

  • Year One: The Colonials flee from the pursuing Cylons. (Pretty much what we actually got in that first and only season.)
  • Year Two: The Galactica escapes the Cylon sphere of influence and has various unrelated adventures in space.
  • Year Three: The Galactica reaches Earth, and has to build up its defenses against a presumed Cylon offensive. (Kinda like Galactica: 1980, only not lame.)
  • Year Four: Cylons launch wave after wave of attacks against the Colonials’ new home, and are finally repelled.
  • Year Five: Emboldened, the Galactica makes a perilous voyage back and strikes to eliminate the Cylon threat once and for all.

Oddly enough, I never had the opportunity to put my plan into action. But in 1986, I spent several months interning at Stephen J. Cannell Productions in Hollywood, fresh out of college with intentions of being a network TV writer. This was back when Cannell was at its peak, producing The A-Team as one of a half-dozen series. (Most of which were cancelled by the time my internship was up, which is one reason I never became established in Hollywood.) I was assigned to hang out with one of their producers, and one day I told him that what I really wanted to do if I had the chance was to remake Galactica and do it right.

I don’t recall the exact response, but it was something akin to “Why would you want to do that? Who would want to see a remake of a failed TV show?”

Hmm. Times change, don’t they? And Universal is apparently talking to original series producer Glen Larson about another Galactica reboot, this time a theatrical film.

Wonder if the Vipers will shoot backwards this time.

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