The Cautionary Tale of Galactica 1980: A 40-Year Retrospective
As told by an idiot with sound and fury, signifying a reflection of sci-fi’s need for fan service and failure to learn from its checkered past.
If you believe Glen Larson, Galactica 1980 originated from an impassioned letter that he wrote to all three networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS), advocating for a television movie to conclude Battlestar Galactica. It was a course of action the venerable television titan had never before undertaken. Not only had Galactica hemorrhaged tens of millions of dollars from ABC and Universal, but also, in no particular order: secured the scorn the likes of enfant terrible Harlan Ellison, been tacked with a frivolous lawsuit from Star Wars’ owners Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox, and resulted in the carnage of burnt-out cast and crew in the mad rush to get episodes out to air.
Faced with such adversities, Larson’s propitious epistle was said to have earned a last minute reprieve for the saga. Rarely had science fiction shows been resurrected in such a fashion, unless you account for the questionable fandom folklore regarding Star Trek’s resurrection circa 1968–69, and so work began on closing out Galactica’s saga. As one would expect, it involved finding Earth.
Except the damage had been done: the majority of Galactica’s standing sets, including the venerable and pricy “Core Command” (a.k.a. bridge) set, had been scrapped or repurposed for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The same fate befell many of the props and set decorations, for they had been repurposed for either Buck Rogers or the Battle of Galactica, a part of the Universal Studios Tour. Furthermore, the original cast and crew had been set adrift, searching for (or having already secured) other gigs. Time had not been kind to Galactica for things move fast in Hollywood, a land where time is money.
Necessity being the parent of invention, Father-Creator Glen Larson retooled the concept: he set the story 30 years in Galactica’s future, otherwise known as “present day” Earth circa 1980 C.E., and the Colonials now had time travel technology gifted by Dr. Zee, an archetype of Star Trek’s Wesley Crusher. And, like Moses of old, Adama lead his people to Earth — but could not enter it for he had sinned: he had nearly lead the Cylons to Earth.
The pilot for 1980, “Galactica Discovers Earth” asked: “What if Earth couldn’t defend against the Cylons?” Moreover, the damning question: “What if the Cylons merely used the rag-tag fleet of survivors as a means to find more humans, so that they can wipe us out entirely?”
Their inept execution notwithstanding, these concepts bore merit. Ham-strung by an allegedly restrained budget and a “kid friendly” time slot, the series faced numerous hurdles that could likely have been overcome by more skilled and able craftspersons. Thus, 1980 is known for eschewing its past in favor of ham-fisted “educational beats” for our singularly-dimensional “fish out of water” heroes, the “Super Scouts,” and lamentations on Arnie’s meatballs.
Ironically, the final episode of 1980 to air, the self-explanatory “The Return of Starbuck,” demonstrated Larson’s rare aplomb for writing “big picture” storytelling concepts and became a fan-favorite episode — due in no small part to what today is referred to as “fan service.”
In further retrospect 40 years hence, 1980 harbors many of the concepts realized in Ron D. Moore’s re-telling of Battlestar Galactica, in addition to other concepts expanded upon in current day science fiction that eschews “shiny futures” for pathos and unrelenting self-reflection.
So, in no small part, you may thank 1980 for the following:
- “Blue-sky” science fiction as a means to tell stories under budgetary constraints, see: Eureka, Caprica, Continuum. (Otherworldly science fiction is still an expensive endeavor, exemplified by Syfy Channel-cum-Amazon Prime’s The Expanse.)
- Ham-fisted advocacy of social justice story-telling, see: “Space Croppers.”
- Worship of children in televised science fiction as either miracle workers or “the future.”
- Machines creating human-like infiltrators of their own. Not a new genre concept, but it is not only used in Ron Moore’s Galactica, but also in various genre entries including Stargate, Terminator, et al. As far as Galactica was concerned, the “Cylons look like us” concept originated from “The Night the Cylons Landed.”
- Demonstrating that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Where 1980 was concerned, the series spiraled out of control in much the same way its predecessor had: it begun as a made-for-TV-movie only to be picked up as a series mid-production, and was then unceremoniously cancelled for financial reasons. (“All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.”)
- Robots using religious motivations for destroying humanity. Cy explained that Cylons viewed humans as “evil” in “The Return of Starbuck.”
- The growth of Adama’s facial hair in order to denote the passage of time. It was used to greater effect in Moore’s Galactica, denoting the “one-year jump” in “Lay Down Your Burdens, Part II.”
- The use of fan service to repair rifts in fandom following the implementation of damaging story decisions, exemplified by The Mandalorian, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and Star Trek: Picard.
For something that would have — should have — been largely forgettable, Galactica 1980 endures even today, having earned its dubious place in the history of televised science fiction as both wisdom and warning. It has earned its place as a poster child for good intentions gone awry. Of course, how future genre creators make use of Galactica 1980’s painful lessons is still to be determined.