There are those who believe that the greatest science fiction show of the 21st century is Battlestar Galactica. Those people probably aren’t wrong. But what makes the triumph of the Battlestar “reboot” so damn juicy is that its progenitor, the 1978 series of the same name, was initially branded as a massive Star Wars knock-off.
It wasn’t, really, even if it looked that way.
Enjoying both a limited theatrical release and a bold three-hour TV premiere on ABC, Battlestar Galactica was, in September 1978, simply the biggest and most ambitious science fiction TV series ever produced. In Rob Moore’s modern update, the phrase “all of this has happened before” ominously suggests that the conflict between the Cylons and the humans exist in a tragic loop of eternal recurrence.
In real life, relative to the original Battlestar, that eternal recurrence is 100 percent real. Battlestar was made in the late 1970s, returned from the dead in 2003, and will be rebooted again sometime in the future. As the Moore reboot rapidly recedes into TV “history,” big love for the classic BSG gets harder and harder to find. This is exactly why you should watch the original frakking Battlestar Galactica right now, currently streaming for free
The original Battlestar Galactica, explained
When you watch the original Battlestar (streaming free on Tubi), the first thing you’ll notice is that the show’s pilot seems to extend well past the first few episodes. That’s because the classic BSG was originally conceived as an epic 7-part made-for-TV miniseries and not a weekly TV series.
Inspired by the success of Star Wars, Glen A. Larson’s notion for the show was to have that same epic quality of a galaxy far, far away, but with an original story. Like the modern show, the classic BSG is all about a lost “tribe” of non-terrestrial humans, battling the robotic Cylons, searching for a lost colony called Earth to call home. The show only lasted one season, with a total of 24 episodes, but for its time, each episode had the look and feel of a major sci-fi feature film.
Part of this is because the production design of Battlestar (like Larson’s 1979 Buck Rogers) was influenced directly by Star Wars. Ralph McQuarrie did a ton of the concept art, and John Dykstra — the special effects legend who worked on the first Star Wars — was a producer on Battlestar Galactica. Although George Lucas unsuccessfully tried to sue BSG for copyright infringement in 1978, the public perception — good or bad — of the original Battlestar was connected to Star Wars.
Quite simply, ABC would have never greenlit Battlestar if Star Wars fever hadn’t swept America.
Structurally, however, the show hadn’t initially been designed for an ongoing Star Trek-style series run. When it became a weekly series, it ran into trouble. In the oral history of Battlestar Galactica, So Say We All, original Apollo actor Richard Hatch puts it like this: “It was originally supposed to be a seven-hour miniseries; then, halfway through the opening three-hour pilot, which they told us was also going to be a movie, they picked it up as a series. The hard part was that it was not constructed to be a series.”
In the newer Battlestar, we’re told the Cylons had a plan — but in the classic show, you can really tell, after about seven episodes, that they totally didn’t have a plan.
These days, big epic franchises like Star Wars and Marvel have figured out how to translate that scope into weekly TV, but the pseudo-tragedy of the classic Battlestar was that it tried to replicate the epic scope of a Star Wars feature for 24 episodes. The result is one of the most spectacularly strange sci-fi series in history. It’s both epically ambitious, but strangely small, mostly because of the limits of what TV could accomplish at the time. And although the show was pretty successful in the ratings, its huge goal — to be a weekly Star Wars — simply couldn’t be maintained creatively, or monetarily.
The upshot of OG Battlestar’s unwieldy quality is the show takes huge risks constantly. Even after you’re past the first three episodes, you’re actually still kind of at the beginning. What’s really cool about this and what feels very contemporary, is the show can still kill off major characters and radically change its format throughout its run.
If you pick a random episode of the sixties Star Trek from its first three seasons, the format and characters are essentially the same. You will not be confused as to the status quo on the Enterprise in Episode 3 versus Episode 66. But, in just one single season, the classic Battlestar changes the status quo constantly. A major character (it’s a spoiler to say who!) dies in Episode 5. In Episodes 12 and 13, the Galactica encounters another lost Battlestar, and the crew of that ship and the regular ship are integrated. When this plotline was reimagined for the modern show, the Battlestar Pegasus didn’t even show up until the second season. But the classic show doesn’t have time to wait. Everything is about change. Everything is about a new way to tell the story.
The classic BSG takes big plot swings and small character swings with equal zeal. And even by episodes 15 and 16, the story seems to challenge the basic premise of the entire series. In between all of that, you’ve got a smattering of trope-heavy planet-of-the-week style stories. A robot Cylon is a gunslinger in a small town. Starbuck’s dad (played by Fred Astaire!) is a con-man gambler. Fighter pilots argue with each other, and spaceships catch on fire. Ice planets are visited and whodunnits play out across a giant space fleet.
Perhaps the greatest episode of the classic Battlestar is also the silliest. In “The Long Patrol” (Episode 7), hotshot pilot Starbuck (Dirk Benedict before the A-Team) crash-lands on a prison planet, where all the prisoners are in jail for crimes committed by their ancestors. Their names reveal what each of their ancestors was in for, which is how you get characters called “Assualt 9,” and “Adultress 58.” It’s an old sci-f trope; the idea that an isolated space colony could be defined by the deeds of their forebearers, but the OG Battlestar turns it into a joke. When the other inmates assume Starbuck is also on the planet because his ancestors committed a crime, Adultress 58 asks him, “Well, what kind of a crime is star-bucking?”
If that single joke doesn’t sell you on the flavor of the classic Battlestar, nothing will.
Since the modern series is so revered, the status of the classic show’s utter bravery and charm has been oddly diminished. The 1978 Battlestar has been unfairly relegated to a kitsch curiosity by most modern sci-fi fans, imprisoned to obscurity for acts committed by its offspring, itself a critically acclaimed and groundbreaking reboot.
In truth, the only crime the classic Battlestar committed was being too much, too soon. As the success of the reboot proved, the world wasn’t ready for Battlestar Galactica in 1978. If you revisit the rich and risk-taking original show right now, you’ll see why.
Battlestar Galactica 1978 is streaming for free on Tubi. Google will tell you it’s on the NBC app, too, but it’s not!