by D. C. Fontana
Against the backdrop of a star field, five great battlestars move impressively in fleet formation. The gutteral rumble of their mighty engines produces so low a bass, that the throb can almost be felt. They carry a colonial peace delegation and the hope of their planets toward a rendezvous with aliens that will end a long war. But further out in space, two young pilots on patrol discover a wall of enemy attack fighters driving toward the unsuspecting battlestars. The aliens have launched a treacherous dual attack on the fleet and on the twelve human planets which have been left virtually unprotected. Torpedo lasers lance across space; sleek silver star fighters peel off into dogfights; the battlestars fight desperately to save themselves -- and that's only the first half hour of the new Glen Larson productions Universal Television series for ABC -- Battlestar Galactica. The premiere episode will be a three-hour movie for television, followed by two two-hour episodes, and thirteen one-hour episodes.
Glen A. Larson, Executive producer and creator of the series, took time from his hectic production schedule to talk about the show and the people workin on it, among them producers Leslie Stevens (Outer Limits, The Invisible Man) and John Dykstra.
"Leslie is the supervising producer. He was involved with me primarily in the early stages prior to production and is now concentrating on seeing that the second one is ready to go when we finish this one. In terms of active participation day to day, it's myself, John Dykstra, and the director. John functions as my right arm in terms of execution, runs the whole special effects wing, and handles vast amounts of the areas on the stages. You get a lot of special photography on the stages, and he also concerns himself with all the first unit photography, design and execution of some of the vehicles, all of the weaponry."
Industrial Light and Magic has done, and will continue to do, all the special effects until Universal has its own plant, which should be by the end of summer. Currently, they have leased ILM and run it under the name "Universal 57".
One wall of Larson's office is dominated by beautiful framed Ralph McQuarrie drawings of Galactica production designs. Larson explained that McQuarrie did many of the designs that will be seen and was with the show from the beginning.
"The first people I hired were John, Ralph McQuarrie, and Joe Johnston (Star Wars effects illustrator.) John helped advise me as to some of the people he considered extremely helpful; he had discovered a lot of them. We have the understanding that if they have a commitment to get involved with Star Wars II following this, we will release them at that time if that becomes their decision."
Of the initial three shows, Larson has written the first, Stevens the second, and Michael Sloan the third. Richard Colla (The Questor Tapes) directed a large portion -- half to two-thirds -- of the premiere episode, with Alan Levi finishing the picture. Levi will also direct the second show. They have a solid cast peopling the ships and worlds of Battlestar Galactica -- Lorne Greene, Richard Hatch, Dirk Benedict, Maren Jensen, Ed Begley, Jr., Herb Jefferson, Jr., and young Noah Hathaway, as well as guest stars Jane Seymour, Lew Ayres, John Colicos, and Ray Milland.
Stu Phillips is composing the music, but Larson began his career in the music business and also get involved in this aspect of the show. The general feeling of the music will be big, sweeping, and classical -- not because of 2001 or Star Wars, but because Larson feels the show is extremely biblical.
"It's Genesis. it's about the origins of Man, and our whole theme and the subtle influences on the costuming, a lot of these things, bear a strong resemblance to The Ten Commandments or things of that sort. it's basically the concept of all the human cultures in space having evolved from a mother planet culture.
"As we find our people, there are twelve colonies, twelve separate planets; and interestingly enough, some of the names are Caprica, Sagittaria and ten other very familiar signs. They have been fighting a thousand-year war against some non-humans who are bent on the extinction of the human race because of their inablility to subjugate the humans and force them to serve this larger non-human entity. In fact the humans are destroyed. They lose the war in a treacherous trap (not unlike a Pearl Harbor.) They think they're going to sign a peace agreement, and at the point they are annihilated. The last survivors set out across the star systems to search for a thirteenth colony that they know of only through ancient records. Much as we sort of know of the existence of something called Atlantis in our dispensation, they know of a thirteenth colony. That colony is known as Earth. And I would say that we don't really know whether they find it a thousand years from now, or whether they found it a million years ago and they're us.
"I've always been interested in the possibilities, by virtue of the size of some of the things they've found on this planet and beneath the ocean -- the size of rocks and roads and pyramids -- that there could have been more than one culture having found this planet and evolved over a billion ears. The surface of Caprica, for example, is very pyramid oriented in the architecture and styling. The flight helmets on our pilots are very Egyptian oriented. They look very much like the Sphinx headress in design and are really fascinating. Our wardrobe is truly wonderful. Jean-Pierre Dorléac -- he's done a brilliant job, I think. The costuming of the period feels both modern and old at the same time, and our warriors are just handsome.
"The enemies of our people are the Cylons, who dominate an Alliance of beings, and they don't like humans. Annihilation, total extermination, is the order of the day. Our people are betrayed by a sort of Judas Figure. The picture even opens with a Last Supper kind of meeting, and one amongst them (Count Baltar, played by John Colicos) has betrayed them. He had expected that he would be allowed to rule the remnants of these people, and is rather suprised to find that he misunderstood." Larson grins as he sketches the Cylon leader's explanation to Baltar," 'No, no -- none of you are to survive. That includes you.'"
"It has a rather effective beheading scene. Standards and Practices has looked at this thing and not known quite what to say about it. I guess it woud be that you can't take... Holocaust and say, 'we have to make the Germans nice guys.' It's a bit of an epic -- it is an epic, and it has to have the scope and sweep of genocide and those things in it. Otherwise, it isn't what it is; it doesn't have that scope and feel and foundation."
Judged on the twenty-minute presentation film of scenes from the premiere episode, the prodution standards are high -- much higher than any television show yet seen and nearly in the Star Wars class. The axiom of television quality is, "all you need is time and money to do it right." ABC and Universal have wisely given Galactica plenty of lead time and a reported million dolars an hour because something of a "going figure" but in all likelihood, the series will not average out at that price. "It's as if we start of to make the first Western, and we have to build a Western street, get a committee to design a horse, guns, sidearms, vehicles... the price would be enormous. Normally, these things get spun off a movie so at least the big nut is absorbed. But it's not in this case, so a tremendous amount of money has to be amortized across the first seven hours." (Apparently to help with the amortization, Universal is releasing the first episode as a theatrical feature worldwide -- except for the U.S. - in July. It will appear on American television some time in September.)
"Galactica's standing sets, mockups, and props are being built with an eye toward realism as well as eye-catching beauty." Larson's pride and enthusiams were evident as he described them. "We have a full-sized mockup of these fighter ships, and the damn thing looks like it could fly. You look at the wheel base on it; they're made out of aluminum casters and it's gorgeous. They don't build anything halfway. And the bridge of the Galactica -- there's three million dollars' worth of real space electronics on there, all the Tektronix equipment there is the real stuff they use to monitor heart and lungs and all those things in space. There's not a phony light on that bridge. It's all real. And even the flight equipment was given to us -- donated or whatever -- from Boeing and American Airlines. I mean, the damn thing could fly. It's light years ahead of what's been before. As a matter of fact, the things we have in our shuttle are one generation newer than the ones in the actual space shuttle that they've been testing -- same manufacturers.
"One of my biggest concerns is the aliens... how to make them right, and how to make them look right. The only problem we've had so far is one of the creatures that we have called the Ovion, and they're hard. It's got four arms; we're actually using prosthetics that they've used at UCLA to work with.
"We're going at the rate of two or three pages a day, which is just unheard of in television. It's usually ten. So it's not as if we're rushing it, but I can't believe the high level of execution we've had so far. Our standards are so high that if one little thing falls a little short, I get upset with it. I don't want it to look plastic; I want it to look organic, and creatures are the one area I hope we can find some solution to. We have to find some young genius who's going to come in and make up some interesting people for us. We have some of the guys around who did some of the Star Wars stuff, too; but that was all done low lighting levels and carefully controlled. To really do an episode where you're concentrating on those kinds of things is tough. But it's one of the problems of this area, and we have to deal with it."
One of the alien problems arleay solved with humor and imagination is "Muffit II". During the enemy attack on Caprica, a young boy's daggit (a Benji-like dog) is killed. To help ease the child's loss, a robotecist on the Galactica builds a droid daggit named Muffit II after the original pet. It is covered with synthetic fur and has what looks like pliable metal at the joints, and its movements are accompanied by a soft electronic whirr. When Muffit II sits, cocks its head to one side, and swivels its ears in response to the boy, R2D2 can move over and accept comapny in the hearts of the audience.
High as the production quality promises to be, it can only sustain audience interest for a short time unless there are interesting characters involved in intelligent, entertaining stories. Larson understands this; he went into producing because he believes in being able to execute his own scripts and bring them to realization on screen. he began by producing It Takes A Thief. He produced McCloud for seven years and was nominated for Writer's Guild awards and Emmies for "The New Mexican Connection"and "The Barefoot Stewardess Caper." "The New Mexican Connection" won an Edgar from Mystery Writers of America. he developed The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries and created Alias Smith And Jones, Switch, and Quincy, as well as Battlestar Galactica.
Larson has obviously given a great deal of thought to the kind of stories he wants to tell on this series. "I don't want this to become monster-of-the-week. I really want some good people stories. It's very important to us to try and make the country comfortable with science fiction. As successful as Star Trek is in syndication and as popular as it is with a very avid group, there's still a large section of this country that isn't very comfortable with science fiction. I think Lucas made them more comfortable in that he didn't spend a lot of time worrying about a lot of the rules. That doesn't mean you have to ignore science, but there is a whole aspect here of telling people stories and not worrying about umbilical cords or weightlessness.
"Truly, it's an interesting concept to talk about those frontiers of space in terms of the people and not just philosophical concepts. I think there should be interesting probes into all kinds of philosophies, but I also believe interesting people stories could be wonderful, too. I'd like to see the show concentrate on exploring a lot of our relationships and hardships and things that they've got to deal with in these environments. And hopefully along the way, maybe there'll be some good philosophical discussions. We really do have to think hard, though, about not letting it get off. I don't want it to get to be just an action-adventure where there's no substance, nore do I want it to get to be so wholly philosophical that we lose everytbody by just standing around talking about everything."
Asked if he read science fiction himself, Larson replied, "I've read some, but I'm certainly the least well read in it among people who've taken on something like this. But I think that may be an advantage in many ways. I think I can be a greater mediator when people come into talk to me about stories and areas and things.
"You know, I've had the kind of shows -- It Takes A Thief is one -- where it was so slick and so neat, it did great in the big cities, but we lost them out in the country. And I've seen how, if you can get the right kind of heart and people values in, you can pick up the Nielsens out in the country, in the bread belt. I think I can apply those principles.
"At the same time, I'd like to get a neat coalition of people, some who are really avid science fiction, some who are not, and get a marriage going -- people who could protect us on the concepts and on the technical and factual aspects so we don't violate all the rules in ways that would be turnoffs to people who care about those details -- and at the same to represent my daughter, who says, 'I don't like science fiction'."
"Battlestar Galactica is probably the bigest science ficiton project ever mounted for television. The fact that ABC placed an order for thirteen hour episodes on the basis of a twenty-minute film presentation taken from the premiere show indicates the network has confidence in it and will back it strongly. Certainly the enthusiasm, intelligence, and talent of its makers in prodigoius. It now remains to the audience and the Nielsen ratings to decided whether or not it will be successful.
(Glen Larson and Leslie Stevens will also be involved in the production of the Buck Rogers limited seires for Universal and NBC.)
Battlestar Galactica has been the best chance of any form in history to really make people nationally comfortable with science fiction," says Glen Larson, producer of ABC's upcoming blockbuster teleseries.
The show follows the adventures of the survivors of an alien invasion that destroys their solar system's twelve planets. Barely escaping the holocaust, hundreds of people band together aboard a mammoth space colony/ship named The Galactica. The craft's crew heads ot to look for their mythological sister planet., Earth, and proceeds to encounter fantastic exploits among the stars. But the Galactica is kept in constant danger by the relentlessly pursuing Cylons, the evil aliens who wish to entirely obliterate the human race.
Universal Studios, Battlestar Galactica's producers, and ABC are making every possible expenditure to insure the series' sucess. Filming the program's pilot cost nearly eight million dolars - a budget rarely spent on any movie. Comparable finances are being allotted to Galactica's weekly episodes, making it the most expensive television show every produced.
Battlestar Galactica evolved from a concept Glen Larson created a few years back, entitled Adam's Ark."
"Adam's Ark was sort of about the origins of mankind in the universe," explains Larson, "taking some of the biblical stories and moving them off into space as if by the time we get them to Earth, they're really not about things that happened here, but things that might have happened someplace else in space. It was influenced by Von Däniken's 'Chariots of the Gods' and some of those things."
Despite Larson's keen interest in the project, Adam's Ark was turned down by the networks.
"Science fiction was a difficult sale to television, because even with the success of Star Trek in syndication, it really was not that big a smash on network television -- maybe scheduling had something to do with it, but nevertheless, there's a narrow band out there. Close Encounters and Star Wars certainly helped us with Galactica, in terms of being able to get our foot in the door."
Even before these films' successes, Universal considered producing a science fiction TV series.
"Some three years ago, the studio was working on a space concept about a Wagon Train in space which had some aspects that were similar to what I wanted to do. It was basically about Earth people looking for something, which is the traditional way to go. Universal was ripe by the time I came in to see them for what essentially was my concept.
"Adam's Ark helped bring a focus into what my concept had been. Ultimately, Battlestar Galactica is my original idea refined down to where I now have fixed on what my point of view is on how all humans throughout the galaxy proably evolved from some mother colony."
When Universal finally gave Larson the go-ahead on Galactica, he started assembling his production staff. Glen knew that a key ingredient to his series' projected success would be the quality of its effects. The producer was tremendously impressed by Star Wars, and set out to hire the film's effects supervisor, John Dykstra.
"I recognized John's contribution to Star Wars for what it was," says Larson. "I happened to catch John right after he steped off the plane from his vacation. Filming Star Wars special effects had John and his people on a marathon, and he had just gone off to unwind. His last hours working on the film were nightmares. I caught him and we talked, and we hit it off together. He's been an enormous help. I also brought John into the other side of the picture -- not just special effects, but to help on the production end so that we could realy have a collaboration. I had a lot of things I wanted to do, and we were really able to get together."
Glen had a good track record in telvision, including the hit series It Takes A Thief and Switch. But his newness to science fiction could have causd a problem. To help alleviate the situation, Leslie Stevens was hired as Battlestar Galactica's supervising producer. Stevens proved his ability with the genre while producing the sixties' outstanding SF anthology serires, The Outer Limits.
Larson and company quickly got to work. Glen wrote Galactica's three hour pilot, which will air in September as a special. Leslie scripted the second two-hour film, which will tentatively appear within the following week. The third two hour segment, currently being written by Michael Sloan, will probably be aired as Battlestar Galactica's weekly one-hour series debut, as a two-part episode.
These seven hours should be some of the best material ever produced for TV. But what problems will Larson face keeping Galactica fresh, week after week?
"We've come up with some terrific scripts. We are going to do basic people stories. It's not going to be a hardware show in the sense that we are not going to just spend time with pyrotechnics and blowing things up. We'll have much more space technology than any show that's ever been on television. But I don't want it to become a case of one holocaust after another. We can show our cast exploring new frontiers out there, and it doesn't have to be monster of the week. We can talke about man really dealing with elements out there, and technology will merely be part of his life."
Battlestar Galactica will be television's first totally believable science fiction series. Complete alien civilizations and galaxies will be created by tremendous use of special photographic processes. Galactica's technical work is being generated at Industrial Light and Magic, John Dykstra's in-house SFX studio where Star Wars opticals were filmed.
Galactica incorporates a lot of scope," says Dykstra, "which is not unusual for television shows, but it incorprates the scope of space. Star Trek and Space: 1999 had to limit some of the range of their shows by virtue of the cost to go on location or to make alien envornments that were really quite large. We've tried to incorporate some of our special effects techniques to get the same scope that you would have on location, without having to go there."
Many of the people who served on John's Star Wars staff are also working on Battlestar Galactica. Cameraman Dennis Muren, who made the full length feature Equinox while still in high school, is eagerly awaiting Galactica's premiere.
"The SFX is way beyond anything you've ever seen on televiion," says muren. "It is much more on the level of the work in Star Wars -- and even beyond Star Wars. The effects won't dominate the seies, but they'll add a lot of interest to it, because you've never seen so many SFX shots before in a TV show. The opticals make the show seem commplace and add a lot of credibility to it. The procucers are obviously not cutting away from the effects or writing around it. Everything that you want to see in a science fiction show, you're going to see.
ILM has constructed a couple of dozen beautiful miniature spacecraft, to be shot as the Galactica's rag tag fleet and the Cylon's warships. The Galactica, which is supposed to be two to three miles long, has been built down to scale as a detailed, 7 foot long model.
The miniatures will be filmed by the Dykstraflex, a special computerlike camera system designed by Dykstra and Al Miller for Star Wars.
"The Dykstraflex is a motorized animation camera," Dennis explains, "that shoots continuously. The camrea runs by motors and is very flexible and very movable. By programming the motors -- telling the motors which motor should work, speed up, or slow down -- we can make the camera do virtually any motion we want. What we do is photograph a spaceship, and the motion is created by the camera, instead of the model."
The comparisons between Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars, Star Trek and other science fiction shows are inevitable. But Glen Larson feels that once his series debuts, Galactica will establish its own standards.
'"Battlestar Galactica is quite different. When it comes to who are characters and what our story is, I would have to say that if you were trying to compare Shane to Gunfight At The OK Corral, you'd say, 'Yes, they're both westerns,' but I doubt if you'd find many parallels beyond that.
"Visually, you can't compare to Star Trek anymore, because Star Trek had an establishing shot every week and that was about it. Galactica has gone light years beyond that.
"The only valid comparison is to Star Wars, because in going to Industrial Light and Magic and John, you are talking about the latest generation in space technology in terms of motion picture making. Therefore, there have to be similarities because you have the same artist involved. John has a certain touch in terms of how he and some of his guys do things. However, that technology is now somewhat indigenous to all the young filmmakers. For example, Universal also does Buck Rogers (NBC's new series), and we've got Future General (Close Encounters, Silent Running) working on that. They're similarities there. John and I have bent over backwards in trying to avoid the obvious."
To replace science fictions standard laser gun fire, Dykstra innovated a strobe efffect.
"We used electronics to provide a flash that is synchronous with camera," says John. "It's really asynchronous, but it turns out that it gives you a flash on about three frames. Originally, our concept had been to try and make it look lik a laser by using filtration, which really wasn't quite successful. Although what we have now, in conjunction with an auditory thing that sounds like a laser firing, works out pretty well. It gets away from the animated laser look, which is what we wre trying to avoid -- to avoid being a duplicate of Star Wars.
"There'll be lasers from the fighter craft. That will be very similar to the effects we used in Star Wars. Perhaps there will be lasers in the battle itself, but one of the limitarions is time, and we have significant amounts of gunplay, so to speak, between the Cylons and the humans. in order to complete all those scenes in time for our air date becomes a problem. So we tried this other method, and I think it works. It's credible, but I suppose it would have been nicer to come up with a new Rotoscope technique (an animation process), but time just doesn't allow us to do that.
"In terms of the practical aspect of it, a hand laser of some kind would probably be a pulse laser, in which you really wouldn't really see a projectile. it adheres a little more closer to the reality of the situation. Excitement-wise -- I really don't know. Quite frankly, I'm kind of lukewarm on animated lasers anyways."
Dykstra has also devloped a new way to create lightning effects.
"We're generating our own lightning made basically of large testler coil, which we will photograph at high speed to achieve certain effects. It will be like the lightning you saw in Frankenstein, except that we're going to multiple pass it, and do some superimposition or color enhancement on it. We'll end up with not simply finger lightning, but some further manifestation of that. It's a little more exciting and there's more color to it. That will be used hopefully in our second show, or at the end of the first."
Complementing Battlestar Galactica's incredible special effects is a fine cast. Lorne Greene (Bonanza), Richard Hatch (The Streets of San Francisco), and Herb Jefferson (Rich Man, Poor Man) head the series' regulars. Jane Seymour (Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger) guest stars in Galactica's plot.
Glen Larson realizes that good actors and effects cannot create a successful program without superior stories. Battlestar Galactica's format promises to disappoint no one.
"Some of the stores are about a couple of our young guys who go off on scouts to try and see which way to go with the Galactica," says Larson. "They'll land on planets and encounter various adventures. Some of the stories will take placed totally within the Galactica's rag tag fleet, because there is an enormous number of people up there. We can met new ones each week, with various conflicts and problems that go on within the Wagon Train in the sky. There are combinations of how we'll operate."
The Cylons will also be an important part of the series.
"There will always be the element of the Cylons chasing the humans," Glen continues. "If you remember The Fugitive, Lt. Girard didn't have to show up every episode in order to keep the heat on. There is that threat of a highly mechanized civilization that has evolved very far along in terms of their mechanized state and their omnipotence in the universe. What the Cylons' alliances are, we don't know. The humans can't trust anyone, because of sphere or are just basically sympathetic to the aliens. We don't have to have the Cylons in every episode. On the other hand, we are going to have that threat showing up quite often."
After Battlestar Galactica's first seven hours comlete filming, John Dykstra will probably leave the show to pursue other projects. With John's help, Universal has commenced construction of their own effects plant to generate technical work for both Galactica and Buck Rogers. The Studio will be run by Universal's opticals personnel and effects artists currently being developed by Dykstra. Other technical footage will be extracted from the material produced for Battlestar Galactica's initial installments.
"It's not settled that I'm leaving," says Dykstra, "that's discussion at this point. even if I do leave the series, I'll probably still be working on it as a consultant. It just depends on what Universal's feelings on the thing are."
Battlestar Galactica will maintain plausibility by accurately portraying its scientific elements. The show's producers understand that good SF contains crediblity.
"The Galactica's bridge has over three million dollars worth of actualy space technology equipment," says Glen Larson. "All of the Tektronix equipment you see there is the actual heart, lung and pulse monitoring systems used by our astronauts. The flight control deck was provided by Amiercan Airlines, NASA, and Boeing. it's one generation beyond the new space shuttle -- beyond what they've installed in that shuttle.
"I would hope that we can have a high level of scientific efficiency. An awful lot of what you deal with out there is conjecture anyway. What I want to avoid is that we don't fill up the show with pure conjecture, and forget people. I think we can have a balance of both."
Battlestar Galactica could be the television series that science fiction enthusiasts have dreamed of for years. The necessary essentials for producing a good show are evidence by Galactica's talented producers. Whether or not the program is finally well done will be discovered when it debuts in September.
"If we blow Battlestar Galactica, finalizes Larson, "I think we'll have taken a giant step backwards for science fiction. We've got a truly rare opportunity to really open up that frontier and talk about what could happen out there in space. It doesn't have to be all robots and flying machines. The one thing I try to do in any show I'm involved with is bring in an element of humor and human predicament.
"If we can not make it just one esoteric concept after another, as has been done in other science fiction shows, I think we'll have a good series."