Battlestar Galactica Versus Blake’s 7 (2008)

From our Time Trap regular, this one from Death Ray 11 on 1978.

Cheap and miserable UK TV clashes up against flashy and hopeful US goggle-fare in the battle of 1978’s SF giants…

If you like your TV SF a touch on the depressing side, then 1978 was a good year. Blake’s 7, now renowned as the most cynical of SF from a nation (and a Terry Nation) that excelled at creating flinty-hearted fables, came crashing onto the screens of the UK. Meanwhile, Battlestar Galactica, a distinctly downbeat offering for a US industry whose coin was optimism, pulled out of its Californian spacedock and fled across the stars. In one series, human free will was under threat, in the other the actual fate of the species hung by a thread. Despite production values that were, on the surface, light years apart, there was a distinct kinship in tone between these two distant transatlantic cousins. Both epitomised, in their own way, the spirits of the nation that produced them, and both created ardent fans who would campaign for years for the series’ reinstatement.

Battlestar Galactica‘s premise is now a classic: the deadly robot Cylons launch a surprise attack on the 12 Colonies of man, almost wiping out the entirety of the species. The survivors flee on the few craft remaining, under the protection of the last military ship, a Battlestar named Galactica.

The creator of Battlestar Galactica, maverick TV Producer Glen A Larson, was partially inspired by Erich Von Danniken’s influential, yet now largely dismissed 1968 book, Chariots of the Gods. Danniken  expounds on the “Ancient Astronaut” hypothesis, which maintains that Earth civilisation was given a helping hand by alien visitors. His evidence, much of it hokey, were religious traditions from around the world, ancient art that could be interpreted as depictions of extra terrestrials, and artefacts that could supposedly not have been constructed by our primitive forebears.

Larson took this quite a way in the original series and indirectly referenced the theory in the opening voiceover.  The helmets that looked like Egyptian headgear and other design nods did not survive the transition to the current remake, but other touches – the 12 colonies being names for the 12 signs of the classical zodiac, and the names of the Colonial gods being those of Greek and Roman myth, did.

But the biggest influence on Battlestar Galactica was God, as Larson was raised a Mormon. The story is essentially that of the Exodus, with Bibically-monikered Admiral Adama as an intergalactic Moses leading his refugee people across the stars to the promised land of Earth. Of course, it is obviously a western, too. Gene Roddenberry might have pitched his Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars”, but Battlestar Galactica literally was, with every ship in the ragtag colonial fleet a covered spacewagon, beset by mechanical Indians, and it finds another parallel in the the Mormons following Brigham Young west to Utah find a new home. As the new show would have it, “All this has happened before, all of this will happen again”.

Larson conceived of the original concept, “Adam’s Ark”, in the 1960s. This had humanity fleeing a shattered Earth. It was never made, but the advent of Star Wars in 1977 brought glossy SF to the fore, and the pilot, rewritten as Battlestar Galactica, was commissioned as a three-hour $14,000,000 mini-series, and it looked awesome. The effects, by Star Wars supremo John Dykstra, were of a quality that had never been seen before on television. Its fusion of American and ancient myth, pop-culture pseudo-science and good looks, riding on the coat tails of Star Wars, meant it was a smash hit. A weekly TV series followed.

Sadly, it was not to last. An inadvisable Saturday night timeslot, endless repetition of effects footage, difficulties in tooling the show’s ongoing plot for syndication and unoriginal storytelling led to a slide in ratings. Already unhappy with the $1,000,000 per episode cost of the show, NBC pulled the plug after just 24 hours of programming.

It left an impression. The original Battlestar Galactica had a mythical purity that the new version of the show, with its tricksy Gnostic philosophy, does not. But it also had a great many flaws, a lack of sophistication being chief among them. At its best it was great, so great in fact that two films were edited together from it and shown worldwide, at its worst it was space disco crap with a chimp pretending to be a robo-dog. Those are the twin legacies of Battlestar Galactica, and the negative one is perhaps justifiably the more widely remembered.

Blake’s 7 had a greater longevity, lasting for four series of 13 episodes each. Its far lower production cost helped.  Watch an episode of Battlestar Galactica now, and the effects still look the business (though sit through four episodes and you will see the same shots eight times), whereas people laugh nostalgically at Blake’s 7‘s wobbly sets, so much so that you could expect a certain degree of exaggeration, but away from the pretty funky main bridge of the Liberator, that’s exactly what you got. And sandpits, and disused factories… Though not inexpensive by Beeb standards of the day, to watch it now is to watch something that looks like people playing Blake’s 7 down the woods. It’s rammed full of arch dialogue, delivered in that mannered, projecting-to-the-back-row RADA manner that we Brits do so well.

And yet this series held audiences spellbound, and with good reason. The story, which pitted idealistic escapee Roj Blake against the totalitarian Galactic Federation with nought but a bunch of criminal ne’er-do-wells and an alien spaceship to aid him, was a coal-dust black mix of Robin Hood, and The Dirty Dozen. It was a two-fingered salute to authority, a parallel to contemporary trade unionist civil disobedience. It was tatty, it was grim, the seven’s position was hopeless. It was fit for a Great Britain that, in the wake of a biting recession, did not feel so great anymore. As time marched on, Thatcher came to power, the workers began to rumble and the police took on the unfamiliar aspect of repressors of dissent, Blake’s 7 only became more relevant.

Unlike Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7 had no tinselly space bars, and it rarely resorted to stock story types (see episode four, “The Lost Warrior” and episode eight, “The Magnificent Warriors”, for predictable Battlestar Galactica cowboy offerings. Okay, so everybody else, including Roddenberry, had occasion to resort to this cheap trick, but that’s two cowboy episodes out of a meagre run of twenty). And it did not patronise the female audience. Battlestar Galactica‘s most positive female archetype was the worried mother, while in episode two, “Saga of a Star World, part II”, there are some truly jawdropping female caricatures paraded across the screen when the crew must reluctantly train a bunch of glammed up secretaries and typists to pilot vipers. But hey, in the end it turns out that the laydeez can fly spaceships as well as look good.

That’s all right then.

Blake’s 7, in contrast, was full of strong characters of both genders. Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce), chief baddess, is one of SF’s most memorable women, powerful, svelte and seductive.  But despite Servalan and her sidekick Travis’ wicked natures, Blake’s 7 did not resort to the stark black-and-white of Battlestar Galactica – at one point the American show even had the devil make an appearance – in Blake’s 7, all the characters skate a thin moral line between right and very, very wrong.

There was an internal tension to Blake’s 7 crew that Battlestar Galactica could never match, with its paternalism and cornbread heroes. This friction, especially between Blake (Gareth Thomas) and Avon (Paul Darrow) held Blake’s 7 audiences spellbound, there was the real possibility one of the crew would turn on the others. And there were no eager guest stars with “expendable” written across their chests in Blake’s 7, the characters who died we cared about. Indeed, what other mainstream SF series has destroyed its entire cast? The brutal finale helped the show live vividly in the national consciousness for years, and though it shocked the nation, the benchmark set by the earlier series meant that it was not entirely a surprise. Contrast this with the US/Christian moralising of Battlestar Galactica. Family, sacrifice, the frontier spirit, striving for a better life, good triumphing over evil – these were the hallmarks of Battlestar Galactica. Though it looked a lot cheaper, though it was more mannered, Blake’s 7 felt more real, especially when viewed under the harsh light of Cold War skies, so real that 10 million Brits tuned in to see their heroes die.

Both shows are about the simple hope of survival. But in the British show, the hope of success for our heroes was utterly extinguished. But Blake’s gang went out like Dick Turpin, an inspiration to us all. For crushing our spirits in a most enjoyable way and stiffening our drooping upper lips, we award Blake’s 7 the higher respect. Blake’s defiance was the defiance of the British individualist, something we could do with a lot more of in today’s nannied isle. So listen up Larson, you can keep your Sunday school robo-chimp-dog, we’re going with British miserabilism!

Bringing Battlestar and Blake Back

There have been several attempts to bring these two shows back from the dead, quite unadvisedly, in some cases…

Before Ronald D Moore and David Eick finally succeeded in resurrecting Battlestar Galactica, there were four other major attempts. Battlestar Galactica: 1980 was the only one that made it to the telly. This had the eponymous vessel arrive at our home years after setting out. Realising that Earth was too far behind technologically to help, a now bearded Adama opts to secretly send two viper pilots on super motorbikes to drop hints to struggling scientists and bring we Earthpeople up to Cylon-battling speed. It was an awful kiddification of the franchise, full of paper-thin moralising, and most of the cast were gone. One of the new characters was the super-intelligent Dr Zee, a sort of cosmic milky-bar kid, included to make the show appeal to the 8-10 year age range the show was aimed at. Not even the return of Starbuck in the imaginatively titled “The Return of Starbuck” (a spin on Hell in the Pacific) could save it, and it was axed after 10 episodes. Interestingly though, the series did introduce an advanced humanoid Cylon, something we’ve since become very familiar with.

The next serious attempt came from Richard Hatch (the original Apollo and Tom Zerek in the reimagining) in 1998. He invested a considerable sum of his own cash in a showreel trailer for Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming, a series that would discount Battlestar Galactica: 1980. Although it drummed up a lot of fan interest, it was ultimately unsuccessful.

Larson tried again with Todd Moyer in 2000, the guy behind the movie version of Wing Commander, to get a Battlestar Pegasus movie off the ground (Larson, at this time, did not have complete rights to the show, and was forced to go with the Pegasus). But this was probably intended as a spoiler to an unconnected Fox revival led by Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto. This miniseries came closest to realisation, though it would have significantly differed from the original, featuring Transformers-like Vipers. It was due to go before cameras in 2002, but was delayed by the 9/11 attacks. Singer had to drop out due to his X-Men 2 commitments, and it too folded.

Over here, there has been a equal fan clamour to bring Blake’s 7 back, but aside from two audio dramas, nothing as yet has materialised. The BBC was behind one of radio efforts, which starred much of the same cast and was set between stories. The other, a series of 36 five minute episodes, was produced by a company named Blake’s 7 Enterprises, which bought the rights to resurrect the franchise and was to make both a TV movie and an animated series, with a rogues’ gallery of spin-off novelists as scripters. Life on Mars producer Matthew Graham has also said he has had discussions about a remake attempt. Though the success of Doctor Who makes a Blake’s 7 revival more likely, whether any of these projects have any real chance of occurring is, at the moment, anyone’s guess, and we have heard that, for the time being at least, the BBC is not commissioning any more science fiction.

Perhaps the closest we’ll get soon is the in-development BBC series Outcasts, which is about a band of convicts sent to terraform a planet. Not Blake’s 7, but its ideas, a bunch of criminals forced to make moral choices, come from the same gene pool.

Blake and Battle Facts
  1. Blake’s 7 creator Terry Nation was the man behind the Daleks and Survivors.
  2. Other Mormon influences in Battlestar Galactica include “bonding” for marriage, the Quorum of Twelve, and the planet Kobol, which is an anagram of Kolob, a astronomical body near where God is suppose to live in Mormon mythology.
  3. The FX budget for Blake’s 7 was allegedly £50 an episode.
  4. The fighters in Glen A Larson’s Buck Rogers were rejected designs Dykstra for the Colonial Vipers.
  5. 20th Century Fox took Universal to court over Battlestar Galactica, citing 34 similarities between it and Star Wars. Universal countersued, saying Star Wars had ripped off ideas from Silent Running and the 1940s’ Buck Rogers. The lawsuits were dismissed in 1980 as being “without merit”.
  6. Gareth Thomas returned to the final episode of Blake’s 7 only on the proviso that the character was decisively killed off.
  7. Cowardly Villa (Michael Keating) appeared in 51 of the Blake’s 7 52 episodes, more than any of the other characters.
  8. The Galactic Federation in Blake’s 7 can be viewed as a dark mirror to Star Trek‘s Federation. Even the logo of the show resembles the Trek Federation logo turned on its side.
  9. In spin-off fiction, the Federation is described as having arisen from an Earth ruined by nuclear war.
  10. Muffit the Daggit II was played by a chimp called Evolution, or Evie, for short.
  11. Jonathan Harris, Lost in Space‘s Doctor Smith, played the IL series Cylon Lucifer in Battlestar Galactica.
  12. Patrick McNee performed the voice over at the beginning of Battlestar Galactica, played the voice of Imperious Leader and performed Count Iblis, who is revealed to be a Satan-like character, in two episodes.
  13. According to legend, Blake’s 7 was due to end with series three, but was recommissioned by the head of drama on the night of the last episode as he had enjoyed it so much.
  14. Dick Durock was the man in the Imperious Leader costume.
  15. According to Battlestar Galactica: 1980, the Colonials have no fingerprints and different blood types to we Earthlings.
  16. Starbuck is named after a character in Moby Dick.
  17. The footage of a Cylon attack in Battlestar Galactica: 1980 comes from the 1974 film Earthquake!
  18. There is no apostrophe in the original Blakes 7 logo.

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