With the phenomenal success of Star Wars in 1977, it was inevitable that studios would want to ride the renewed interest in epic space operas. Glen A. Larson was one of the first to get a project out. In 1978, Larson’s Battlestar Galactica aired on ABC and was released to theatres in Canada and Europe. The pilot episode received high ratings. The show detailed life after the Cylons, a mechanical life form, destroyed the Twelve Colonies and the survivors escaping the destruction lead by the titular starship.
The show did well in the ratings, at least at first. However, the network, not happy with the expense of the series, was inconsistent with scheduling, often letting Larson’s production company know only at the last minute if an episode was needed. Given the time slot, Sundays at 7pm, the show could be pushed back or even pre-empted for sports, especially football. Eventually, ABC pulled the plug.
The show was expensive. Special effects were all miniatures based. The bridge set of the Galactica was filled with Tektronics computers. The nature of some effects required precision timing on the part of actors involved. At the same time, the show was a hit.
In 2004, Ronald D. Moore, who had previously worked on Star Trek: Deep Space 9, developed a reimagining of the original Battlestar. The two-part miniseries aired on the Sci-Fi Channel and covered about three-quarters of the original series pilot movie, namely, the destruction of the Twelve Colonies and the gathering of the survivors into a rag-tag fleet. The tone of the reimagined series was notably bleaker than the original. ABC’s Galactica had a current of shining hope that the fleet would find Earth and escape the Cylons. Moore’s version had people wondering who would destroy the fleet first, the Cylons or the refugees themselves.
The mood shift wasn’t the only change. While Moore did use the names from the original, he didn’t necessarily bring the personalities over to the new Galactica. Some changes that annoyed the fandom even before the miniseries aired included gender swapping Starbuck and Boomer (both went from male to female), minor changes to the Galactica’s design, and adding human-form Cylons. The new series also added a focus on how the survivors were coping, the needs of the last humans to survive as a species, and difficult choices being made.*
However, the mood shift reflected the change in the general demeanor of society and the demands viewing audiences had on television. Gone were the days where everything got wrapped up neatly at the end of the day, with the cast having a laugh before the final freeze. The new Battlestar very seldom had things tied up in a nice bow.
This isn’t to say Moore completely ignored the original series. With the new Galactica lasting four seasons, he had more time to develop the setting and the history, both of the Colonies and of the Cylons. The characters moved away from being archetypical (ace, gambler, wise commander) and made them human, with flaws and quirks. The new ship looked much like the original, as did the Vipers.** The original theme became the Colonial anthem.
So, was the 2004 Battlestar Galactica a successful adaptation? With the number of changes made, no, but the core idea remained strong and the creators’ respect for the work could be seen. But, as seen two weeks ago with Real Steel, a not-so-good adaptation can be well worth seeing, and the new Galactica not only fits that bill but also won a Hugo***, several Spaceys****, several Saturns*****, and several Emmys.
Next week, anniversary!
* The first episode, “33” started /in media res/ with everyone on duty suffering from sleep deprivation and ended with Commander Adama having to decide if a civilian vessel that got lost several light jumps back had to be destroyed.
** In fact, two different makes of Vipers appeared. The older model, based on the Vipers in the original /Galactica/ were to be museum pieces from the Colonial-Cylon war fifty years prior to the mini-series before being put back into duty. The new model had problems due to the Cylon ability to hack networks and surviving planes had to be downgraded before being put back into service.
*** For the episode “33”.
**** Presented by the Canadian specialty channel Space
***** Presented by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Films