by Helen Lee
TV shows come and go – and these days, they may also come and go again. The original “Battlestar Galactica” wields a surprising amount of influence for a one-season TV series that aired in the 1970s. But this is a show that can’t be talked about without bringing in the many people that kept it alive and still do so today. This is a both a testament to the power of fans and a lively look into a complex, chaotic, amazing niche culture that can influence and sway pop culture in unexpected and fascinating ways.
“Battlestar Galactica” started out as a TV show on ABC in 1978, created by Glen A. Larson and airing early on Sunday evenings. It was intended as three made-for-TV movies, but quickly became a full TV season. Then, due to popular demand, it returned the following season as the universally-panned “Galactica 1980.”
In 2003, it became reimagined as a popular mini-series on The SciFi Channel (now Syfy) that served as a back-door pilot. The new “Battlestar Galactica” aired from 2005-2009, and was able to conclude its story before it was cancelled. The new series demonstrated that reboots can work, creating a story with a beginning and end that played out over four seasons, and generating two spinoffs – “Caprica,” which ran for one season in 2010, and “Blood & Chrome,” which aired as 10 10-minute webisodes, then as a movie on Syfy in 2013.
From the start, “Battlestar Galactica” – often abbreviated as “Battlestar” or “BSG” – in both incarnations tackled big themes: religion and faith, survival, genocide, artificial intelligence, and politics. The plot followed the adventures of a ragtag band of human survivors whose civilization was decimated by a robot race called the Cylons. In the second series, these Cylons were the result of human experiments in artificial intelligence.
Because the first version was a family show, and the second was a much darker, heavyweight one, they have different audiences – but there is overlap. However, the history of “Battlestar Galactica” can’t really be talked about without discussing the fans, who may not rival “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” in terms of sheer numbers, but remain among the most passionate and active in science fiction circles.
THE FIRST BSG
Both shows are products of their times. The first, inspired in part by TV standards and pop culture of the ‘70s (yes, I mean disco) and the heady new possibilities of space travel, was a family-friendly series that appealed to people of all ages. tor.com’s Ryan Britt writes “There are so many aspects to Battlestar which prove it to be influential to future sci-fi television…But the real charm of Battlestar is its ability to do the swashbuckling space fantasy Star Wars thing, while still being a science fiction show about thought-provoking ideas.”
“Battlestar Galactica” was influenced by “Star Wars.” ABC is said to have contacted creator Glen A. Larson after George Lucas’ movie came out in 1977 to see if the network could leverage its popularity. If the look of the two franchises are similar, that’s in part because some of the behind-the-scenes people involved worked on both projects, including John Dykstra and Ralph McQuarrie. Indeed, 20th Century Fox eventually sued Universal over some of these similarities.
Richard Hatch, the actor who played Apollo in the first series and returned as Zarek in the second, considers himself one of the fans and remains one of the most dedicated “Battlestar Galactica” supporters out there. “We had 65 million people watching it on television, which would be unheard of today,” he says. “That’s because it wasn’t a niche or hard-core sci-fi audience…Basically, we were recognized by the average Joe, people with families who grew up on ‘Bonanza,’ loved Lorne Greene [the actor who played Commander Adama]. It was a very a broad-based audience of all backgrounds, all ages, and it was on network TV.”
Missy Best, a fan from Houston, Texas, loved it for its similarities to “Star Wars,” the Egyptian themes that permeated the visuals and mythology, its moralistic plotlines – and the eye candy. “I ate it up,” she says. “I fell in love with Starbuck! Head over heels…Everything about it resonated with me. Still does.”
She is part of a fan base that, according to longtime fan Dale Long from Sacramento, Calif., felt shortchanged when the series was cancelled by ABC after just one season. Although the reasons for the cancellation have been speculated upon for decades, the general consensus is that the network felt the show was too expensive for the ratings that it received, though those ratings were significant even after an initial drop.
“It was nothing like what had been on TV before,” says Long, who runs www.byyourcommand.net, a site dedicated to Cylon props, fan builds, costumes, and production memorabilia from the classic series. He started following the series before it had even debuted, and calls it “love at first sight.” He says, “It had family-friendly storylines. It was a weekly series. It was a series that should not have really happened….it was a show that ended too soon.”
Fans ran an official “Battlestar Galactica” fan club called Battlestar One, which put out a stenographed monthly fanzine. These fans also started a campaign to bring the show back when the cancellation news leaked out.
Long, naturally, participated in the letter-writing campaign to ABC and Universal Studios. “I did send in my little letter,” he says. “I think back then, for each letter that was received, it was counted as a thousand people felt the same…They only counted handwritten, they don’t count typed because it’s easy to push ‘print’ and sign your name to it. Whether it had any influence or not – maybe it did.” But, as there was no real way of making contact with any other fans beyond putting your contact information out in a monthly newsletter or using snail mail, history does not tell us how many letters were received by the decision makers.
Still, it was clear that fan response actually did do something, although fans think Universal execs missed the point with their response, which was to scramble to put together a new show for the next TV season called “Galactica 1980.” The new show moved the action to present-day Earth, which had been found by the Galactica’s crew. However, most of the original actors were skeptical of the new concept and/or unavailable, and the producers were forced to turn it into a next generation of Galactica warriors with only two actors (Lorne Greene and Herbert Jefferson, Jr.) returning.
People hated this version, which aired during a family hour and featured many children; it’s widely considered to be mostly terrible, except for one episode which brought back actor Dirk Benedict from the original series, in a special appearance that purported to tell what actually happened to his character, Starbuck. “Galactica 1980” lasted 10 episodes. Among its critics, Lawrence McIlhoney called it “…..an embarrassing, child-oriented mess in which Earth had been found and all semblance of logic and drama abandoned.” (TV Zone Special #17: “The Lost Voyagers of Cult TV,” June 1995, page 5). “Galactica 1980” is no longer considered canon, though elements of it did influence later projects.
After that, “Battlestar Galactica” was mostly relegated to reruns in syndication. In many areas of the country, it was shown with “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” (another Glen A. Larson series) on weekends to fill programming holes. As with many syndicated shows, portions were often cut out to accommodate additional commercial time.
The Rebirth of BSG
But when the Internet began to proliferate in the 1990s, a movement to bring the show back gained steam.
For Richard Hatch, his awareness that the show was still popular, and that people wanted to see a continuation, began in 1995. He was a guest at a “Star Trek” convention in Pasadena, Calif. that year. When he was introduced, he received a huge ovation and couldn’t believe so many fans still remembered the show. “And I started basically talking to a lot fans and how dedicated and hungry and passionate they were about ‘Battlestar’ and how they would love to see a new ‘Battlestar’ story,” he says.
That spurred the movement for a revival, which Hatch had already had in mind. “I started taking that idea and pushing it forward, and started developing an idea, a concept, Then, eventually I started going up to Universal and pitching it, and meeting with different companies and looking at ways to somehow put something together. But nobody could quite put it all together, thinking that a show that was on only one year couldn’t have had that much of an audience. And I told them that’s not true. It was only on one year, but there’s never been a one-year series that had such a large dedicated audience. They couldn’t get that,” Hatch says.
The result was a new, professionally-made trailer, called “The Second Coming,” which was produced by Hatch and supported by other members of the cast, such as John Colicos, who reprised his role as the evil traitor Baltar. This trailer, according to popular convention lore, got standing ovations and wonderfully positive reactions at the venues where it was shown, and became somewhat of a phenomenon in itself.
It proposed to continue the story of the Galactica with original actors, and brought some of them in with high-tech special effects. It became, as Hatch put it, a “rallying point.” The trailer spurred a resurgence in fandom, leading to additional “Galactica” properties, such as games, comic books, toys, novels – some of which were written by Hatch himself. He calls this a very powerful time in his life.
Despite initial obstacles at Universal, Hatch and other supporters were persistent. The ball started rolling. At one point, writing/producing/directing team Tom De Santo and Brian Singer were attached to a new “Battlestar Galactica” project from Studios USA (Vivendi Universal Entertainment), which was slated to air on FOX Network and take up the original story, 23 years later. However, according to Galactica.tv, just as production was about to begin, the attacks of 9/11 happened and set production back just enough that Singer was forced to leave and fulfill his contractual obligation to finish the second “X-Men” film. With that, Fox pulled the plug.
But Hatch and other fans had at last succeeded in regenerating interest in another “Battlestar Galactica” property. Vivendi Universal tapped David Eick to take over the franchise’s future. Eick did not want to continue the old series – he wanted to reinvent the genre of space opera. He brought in Ron Moore as a collaborator, and the re-imagined “Battlestar Galactica,” with its gender-bending, cinema verite style and more modern sensibilities, became a reality.
The Second BSG
The second “Battlestar Galactica” garnered critical acclaim and an audience that went beyond the niche of sci-fi because it was so darned good. In her 2007 best-of-TV roundup , then-Chicago Tribune critic Maureen Ryan, who said the show was “in a class by itself,” notes, “There’s nothing like a good “Battlestar” plot twist to make your head spin, but the ‘holy cow’ moments aren’t the main point (though they’re one heck of a tasty side dish). But the show and its twists and turns are grounded in deep curiosity about human nature, and how contradictory and confounding it can be.”
Moore and Eick’s version of “Battlestar Galactica” arrived in the form of a miniseries in 2003, and instantly began converting its own fans. My own recollections of the era tell me that fans of the original were skeptical, but willing to open their minds to this version of BSG that wasn’t, after all, what they’d been campaigning for all this time.
Some fans, to this day, hate the new version for its darkness and the fact that favorite male characters became female – the bromance between Starbuck and Apollo, a key element of the original show, for example, was eliminated when this version turned Starbuck into a cigar-smoking, swearing, unrepentant woman. Others love it for what it is and call it GINO – Galactica In Name Only – or NuBSG.
David Eick, in a 2007 interview with the press, said, “The response the show has generated, with the amount of press that we’ve gotten and the acclaim and the awards the show has gotten – it’s been gratifying and very surprising. I think I speak for David and I when I say at the beginning of the whole process we believed in what we were doing and thought, ‘This is going to be good, we can really make a good show here – but I don’t think we really anticipated we’d be getting a Peabody [Award, in 2006] and we’d get those kinds of accolades. That, then, is just really icing on the cake of what’s been really a wonderful creative experience.”
New fans welcomed the more modern sensibilities and feel that the show revitalized the science fiction landscape on TV. Lisa Wolfson, a fan from College Park, Maryland says, “The new show is just a different animal. It’s very inward-looking. The sci-fi aspect is not just about where we’re going; it’s constantly questioning the choices that shape our reality. And the funny thing is that all of this misery and doubt occurs in this sort of idealized society without barriers of gender or color…I think in that sense the new show was giving us a standard to live up to, and a lot of people responded well because that was what they wanted to see.”
But whether original fans like the new one or think it’s a blasphemy of sorts, what can’t be disputed is that this series has generated a huge following of its own, along with a couple of spinoffs. Each of the actors has his/her own community of fans, which keep in touch through social media and other avenues. When I talk to fans, and cast members, they throw around the word “family” a lot.
Leah Cairns, who played Racetrack in the re-imagined BSG, admits to forcing herself to watch the 2003 miniseries after she was cast during the first season, then getting immediately sucked in – before she even made it to the couch. She watched the rest of the pilot from the floor. Cairns also says that she was inspired by a fan-fiction story about her character’s feelings for Helo (played by Tahmoh Penikett) to add depth to her on-screen backstory.
She says, “I knew so little about ‘Battlestar Galactica’ – so, so little. And I also didn’t know that it’s very well-known that the best fans in the world are sci-fi fans. But I didn’t know that when I auditioned and I didn’t think about it when I got it. And it wasn’t till much later that I understood what that meant. I feel like I have a very firm grasp of that now…There is such a community of sci-fi fans that doesn’t exist in other genres. I feel like, especially after going to conventions, that we often talk about the ‘Battlestar’ family, and that family extends itself to fans, and there’s just a comfortable, comfortable feeling when you’re among your family. And the dedication that the fans have to the show, and to the actors, it’s just kind of mind-blowing to me.”
This was made very clear when Cairns met a fan named Amber Greenawalt at Galacticon 3, whose daughter Savannah’s plight touched a chord because it reminded her of her own niece, Seattle.Cairns decided to help start a fundraising campaign for the two girls, who weren’t getting the support they needed.
Her email to her fellow cast members got her a supportive email from Olmos within 45 minutes that said he was going to post on social media immediately. Mary McDonnell followed an hour later, saying she was doing an interview on the Hallmark Channel and wanted to bring attention to the girls’ plight. Every single cast member followed, and the fans responded. Within a few weeks, thousands of dollars had been raised. Cast members and fans from a dozen countries ultimately participated in the campaign, in an international walk that was also the brainstorm of a fan, and in other events to help the little girls with rare, life-threatening disorders.
Cairns can’t speak about this outpouring of love without emotion. “It was totally overwhelming,” she says. “And the fans just keep going. I keep getting contacted by other fans that are like, ‘I’m setting up a booth at a convention, send me some headshots, I’ll sell them for the girls!’ ‘Send me more information!’ ’We’re going to have a clothing swap soiree!’ and it just – it’s a family. I don’t really know how else to say it. And the gratitude I have for the ‘Battlestar’ fans is so huge, I could never thank them enough. And maybe that’s why I’m so keen on doing conventions, it’s my way of giving back, and it’s such a teeny-tiny way. It’s a beautiful community.”
The community that built up around both “Battlestar Galactica” shows has had mutual benefits for both cast members and fans. Friendships have been forged, alliances created, conventions staged.
Marcel Damen, an architect from the Netherlands who helped run Galactica.tv, first got connected when he stumbled upon the website for Dennis Miller, an actor from an early episode called “The Gun on Ice Planet Zero.” He sent Miller an email, and was talking on the phone with him a day later. He went on to collect concept art, conduct in-depth interviews with lost cast and crew members, and later helped to organize the 2008 Galacticruise and Galacticon 3. Today, his expertise means he’s still contacted by fans about his work in the fandom.
Mike Egnor, Damen’s partner on Galactica.tv says that that “Star Wars” was the first movie he saw in theaters, and he watched “Star Trek” reruns on TV – but couldn’t really relate to any of the characters. Then BSG came along. “I could relate to these people and their struggles, and was instantly hooked,” he says. He credits the show for inspiring him in a love of science that turned into a career as an environmental engineer.
Sarah Rush, who played regular cast member Rigel on BSG in 1978 as one of the last contract actors with Universal, now counts fans among her friends (and is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met). She says, “I would say I have met very special people who have become friends and have truly enriched me. But also, because I’m still plugging away as an actor, people have been so supportive of me and that has really, really touched me. I would definitely say that this circle of friends has enriched my life. It’s very humbling, and it’s really a privilege.”
Many fans I talked to expressed how special it was to be able to make an instant connection with strangers that lead to life-long friendships. Diane Rinella, a novelist from San Francisco who attended the Galacticruise, says, “By the time I walked off that ship, I had made friends for life. There is something special about getting kindred spirits together. It puts your head in a different space and gives you an instant comfort level with a relative stranger that you would not normally get. Letting your guard down is enlightening.”
Over the years, fans have been able to meet at events such as the 25th anniversary Galacticruise in 2008 that Rinella attended, along with Galacticon 3 in Houston, and conventions around the world. Like the conventions, the fans come from all over.
And the families of the original and the re-imagined have clearly merged over time. In the beginning, the split was dramatic. When the reimagined series came out, cast member and fan Aaron Douglas, who played Galen Tyrol, was kicked out of online fan groups simply because he was part of the new show.
Cairns says, “When we first started there was a bit of a division. I met a lot of fans of the original that were just not okay with the reimagined version and I definitely notice less of that. They can separate that they were two completely different shows, in two different times, serving two different audiences.”
As with any family, conflicts and arguments crop up. Mostly recently, this happened with Galacticon 4, a convention held this summer in Seattle that, in many people’s eyes, was grossly mismanaged. At the last minute, a good number of the guests who were actually cast members or otherwise involved in BSG (either the new or old ones) ended up being dropped. Much of the blame, whether deserved or undeserved, falls upon Daniel Allen, a fan who took over the bsg.com website and fell into organizing conventions such as Galacticon 3, which was held in Houston last year. He admits he made mistakes, but also says he’s been soured by an experience that wasn’t totally his fault. Even so, he appears to have the deepest respect for BSG fans.
“The thing that makes BSG different is they’re extremely dedicated to what they’re doing. They most all of them are friends with each other, most all of them are friends with the actors, so it’s a very tight community, and that’s what makes it so much different than any other fandom out there, that closeness. They can also be a very unfriendly crowd, as well. That’s what makes them kind of special, they are a very tight group….It’s like that with any family,” he says, admitting that he might be the black sheep in the BSG family right now.
AN ENDURING LEGACY
It’s clearly this feeling of community which explains why BSG fandom has lasted for so long. The devotion of fans has stood the test of time. They’ve loved it for decades. And they know one another. When I ask them whom I should interview, they all name the same people.
It’s a small fandom, to be honest. You don’t see a whole lot of people at Comic-Con wearing Galactica warrior uniforms. There are no ready-made costumes that you can buy at the local Target. But when a group does show up at a sci-fi convention as Cylons, you can bet they create a sensation. They get stopped and asked for pictures by many fans who might be wearing gear for another franchise, but still remember. (If you’re interested in BSG costuming, you can visit http://blackstarsquad.proboards.com/.”)
Long says, “We are a close-knit group, but it’s a smaller fan base than, say, ‘Star Wars.’ I think we are, as a smaller fan base, more loyal to our show than they are. It’s hard to find anyone that has as much passion as a ‘Battlestar Galactica’ fan.”
When I ask BSG loyalists why they loved the show so much, they often start by talking about how old they were when the show started. They were kids or teens in their formative years. They developed their first TV crushes on Apollo, Starbuck, Athena, or Sheba. They wished to be flying among the stars saving their people in a heroic way that’s much more black and white than the muddled morality in today’s media landscape. Sure, classic BSG would be considered cheesy by current standards – but the themes of good versus evil, destruction and rebirth, human hubris and courage, and the determination of the human spirit, will always be in demand.
For fans of the new series, the show was simply great television – deep, profound, and, as Wolfson says, “a bit of a philosophical roller coaster.” Its excellent brought people together, and introduced many to the franchise. She says, “I think there’s a correlation between the longevity of the show and the tenacity of the fan base; this great piece of art inspires a really deep-seated loyalty in its fans, and it really spreads outward from those involved with the show to the fans. We stick together.”
Hatch, who always appears to understand the pulse of GBS fandom, notes that the original show appealed to a much more general audience when it aired on ABC in the ‘70s. But, by the time fandom began to manifest again after the advent of the Internet, the base had been winnowed down to a smaller, more dedicated set of fans. These fans still remain, and their ranks have now been swelled by the fans of the second series. “I’m on the cutting edge,” he says. “I’m out there, I’m all over the world. I know the fans who come to the conventions and come to my panels….’Battlestar’’s always going to come back – it’s just a great story that hasn’t been fully told yet. These shows have a heart and soul that touch people of every generation.”
THE FUTURE OF BSG
Today, there are mixed opinions about what the future of BSG holds. As far back as 2009, Bryan Singer was attached to yet another version of “Battlestar Galactica,” but Variety reported in 2014 that a newly re-imagined version of the story is in development without him at the reins. This big-screen version is said to be a totally new take on the story, and no one seems to know yet what the Cylons will look like or how closely the story will resemble either of the two previous incarnations.
While the newer fans are still vocal, still attending signings, still campaigning for two sick little girls, and have formed a close-knit community, the original fan series group remains a strong force. They feel that they have to stay vigilant because they never got the closure they wanted. Long says, “It was a good show that didn’t have an ending.” Yet most fans don’t think there’s enough momentum for them to get closure on the 1978 version. Even though there’s a new “Star Wars” out there, breaking records with a combination of old and new cast members – exactly what many old-school BSG fans say they want.
In fact, many fans I talked to believe that Universal only looks at the commercial reasons for reviving the franchise, and don’t care about staying true to any mythology or characters. The old-school folks tend to believe Universal never quite “got” the fans. Damen says, “Universal followed its own path. After DeSanto and Singer tried reviving in 2001, the studios had no problem by going into a totally different direction by re-imagining it with Moore and Eick, even though this upset many of the original fans. The whole Starbuck-as-a-woman angle was a slap in the face for most original series fandom, yet the studios only saw it as a great publicity stunt.”
Fandom for BSG is at a lower ebb than in years past – at least, that’s the belief of most fans I’ve spoken to. Some say that the recent Galacticon 4 troubles have fractured the fan base even more. But, despite everything, love for the show clearly still out there, and still ardent. Hatch believes that it’s just in the low point of a cycle. He says, “I’m out there all over the world. I know the fans that come to these conventions, that come to my panels. There are always people that give up about everything. If there’s a problem, they give up….That’s fine. But you have fans that appreciate Battlestar on another level, and they’re always going to be dedicated fans. And Battlestar is always going to come back. It’s a great story that hasn’t been fully told yet.”
Wolfson agrees, saying, “I think those of us who love the show and the actors and each other are still properly engaged….Some very new fans or fans who just weren’t that involved may have drifted away, but I know the core of the fandom is alive and kicking.” After all, it doesn’t take organized events to show appreciation for a series like “Battlestar Galactica.” While the fans love to celebrate BSG together, she says, they also do it elsewhere, “all the time, and in many different ways.”
But there’s one thing that both sets of “Battlestar Galactica” fans and the series have in common. Egnor says about the show, “I think it lasted so long because it gave a message of hope.” In fact, the entire story of the ragtag, fugitive fleet trying to escape the Cylons and rebuild humanity on a planet that may or may not exist hinges upon that one emotion. It’s also the story of the fans, campaigning and working toward a revival and a conclusion that may or may not ever happen, and banding together to give hope to two little girls.
So say we all.
Helen Angela Lee is a freelance writer, editor, and social media junkie from the Chicago area. She loves Marvel superheroes, iced tea, and Zumba, and is looking for a Neko Atsume expert who can instruct her on how to attract more cats to her yard.