[ Battlestar Galactica article from Future #6 (Nov. 1978) ]

ABC's Multi-Million Dollar SF Gamble: Battlestar Galactica

(cover: Behind The Scenes: What $20 Million Can Buy!)

by David Houston

Whatever historians hold in store for it, Battlestar Galactica is sure to remembered by many as the most extraordinary show ever produced by American television -- a phenomenon with more than its share of "firsts." Consider the legal fires out of which it arose, a singed but soaring Phoenix:

In early summer, 20th Century-Fox sued Universal Studios (MCA) for copyright infringement, claiming that Galactica was a flat out copy of Star Wars -- and was being advertised as such by Universal. An executive at Universal argued that this was like the first Western movie every made suing the second. "We're not losing any sleep over it," he said unofficially.

But someone at Universal was losing sleep, for within weeks Universal had announced their suit against Fox, claiming that their half-pint robot idea (R2D2) was a direct steal from Universal's Silent Running.

Around this time, George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, visited Universal, saw the first three hours of Galactica, and said he would not join Fox in their suit against it. Galactica creator Glen A. Larson reported that to Variety -- and Lucas felt obliged to inform Variety directly that he did think Galactica infringed on the prerogatives of Star Wars, but that since the property was owned by Fox, not Lucas, he couldn't be a party to the suit if he wanted to.

More paper bullets flew. Fox then sued Universal to prevent them from marketing Galactica toys and merchandise (since, Fox claimed, they were derived from stolen property); Universal countersued, asking Fox for damages because of a "violation of the California business and professional code."

Meanwhile, a theatrical version of Galactica -- pared down a bit here, beefed up a bit there -- based on the three-hour TV pilot, opened in Canada. And nothing happened. Except that money rolled in for Universal and everybody along the Galactica bread line.

At the same time, production on subsequent hours for television continued to roll at Universal Studios. With the multi-million-dollar suits hanging over them, the production company worked blithely away. (If Fox had won all its points in court, Universal would have been seriously crippled.)

Apparently no one knows exactly how much Galactica is costing. An average hour-long show of any other series seldom tops $300,000. The Galactica office announced a budget of around $7 million for their initial deal -- a three-hour pilot and two two-hour episodes. That averages out to $1 million per hour. On an average, that tops previous TV budgets. However, after completion of the first three-hour story, reputable sources were saying the budget had already topped $9 million ($3 million per hour); and Canadian publicity for the theatrical release claimed that Galactica was two years in the making at a cost of over $14 million.

An ABC-TV source said, "But you have to spread that out all over the place -- start-up sets, costumes and special effects for the whole series, special advertising and promotion for the theatrical release unrelated to TV costs. And if it's been two years in the making... well, maybe two years from the day it first crossed Glen Larson's mind." Larson is creator, writer and executive producer for Universal.

Actor Dirk Benedict (who plays Starbuck in Galactica) said it was his impression that, "They're spending so much money they're embarrassed to admit how much!" A single visit to one of the main Galactica sets easily indicates how Benedict got his idea. The electronics alone for the "bridge" of the starship cost a reported $1.5 million.

Actor Richard Hatch (who plays Captain Apollo -- he's sort of a "Luke Skywalker" to Benedict's "Han Solo") also mentioned the money angle. "Most companies have to continuously cut corners, settle for less than the best. Not Galactica." Hatch has been pleased and surprised more than once by the time-and-money-consuming care taken to reshoot a scene until it looks just right. "They know it's all the little places that count."

Back at the network, ABC executives just settled back and enjoyed all the publicity generated by the lawsuits. They people who bought Universal's new space fantasy were indemnified against loss and were not party to the legal warfare. Furthermore, when ABC saw the first half hour or so of the edited Galactica, the network quickly withdrew its offer to buy a three-hour and two two-hour pilots and told Universal to go right into weekly series production without every having shown a pilot. Thus, before the lawsuits had been settled, before the movie opened in Canada, and before the America public had seen a single minute of the epic, Galactica had moved into the planning of its eight- through-thirteenth hours of programming, and the two-hour dramas had been converted into two-part episodes, to be shown in consecutive weeks.

Until the time of the expansion of the ABC-Universal deal, all special effects had been under the supervision of John Dykstra, who also served as producer for the three-hour pilot. Universal leased Dykstra's company, Industrial Light and Magic, and temporarily called it "Universal 57." Dykstra had created the history-making effects of Star Wars and, regrettably, this probably amounts for some of the claim that Galactica looks like Star Wars. The spaceships, aliens and other miniatures and special effects were all different, but Dykstra's design and photographic style were omnipresent.

Dennis Muren (who photographed effects for both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) thinks the Galactica effects are in many ways better than those of Star Wars. Muren said it took Industrial Light and Magic almost the whole of Star Wars' shooting time to master their new equipment and techniques. "Two dozen shots in Galactica," he said, are "as good as the three or four best shots in Star Wars."

It seems safe to assume that never before in television history has one series spent so much of its budget on special effects; nor has the importance of special effects previously led to the effects man becoming made overall producer to insure artistic integration of the work. Following the completion of the three-hour pilot (and the stocking of a vast library of special effects which are to be used repeatedly) Dykstra was relieved of producing duties. Larson then hired another science-fiction luminary to be his principal producer -- Leslie Stevens, who was the fountainhead of The Outer Limits. (Stevens is also assisting Larson on Universal's other new space fantasy, Buck Rogers.)

Dykstra continued to concentrate on special effects -- more stock shots and the individual effects needed for each show. From persistent reports, however, it seems likely that by the time these words are read, John Dykstra will no longer be associated with the project. It is expected that Dykstra will be offered the opportunity to continue as head of special effects, and that he will turn it down -- as soon as the seventh hour of his original commitment is finished.

As Dennis Muren puts it, "Galactica is a labor of love, and we're getting paid for it; but it will be nice to get on to other things." For Muren, "other things" includes special effects photography for Star Wars II, which begins this fall at a new installation in San Francisco. For Dykstra, "other things" probably means moving into the sphere of full motion-picture production (not just special effects.) He and associate Robert Shepherd are currently shopping for scripts and novels- to-convert for the first of their productions. (Star Wars II will be overseen by Brian Johnson, who did effects for Space: 1999.)

Regarding Dykstra's departure from Galactica, an ABC spokesman said, "In any case, his credit will always appear, as creator of Galactica special effects."

Galactica is unusual -- and unusually expensive -- on many levels, other than special effects. The cast of ten regulars, including highly- paid Lorne Greene, should be compared with the casts of three or four "in" shows like The Rockford Files, Baretta, Quincy, and Project UFO. And take not of the location shooting -- Egypt, for instance, where a second-unit crew went to photograph the ruins at Luxor to represent the crumbled civilization on the planet from which all human life in the galaxy has migrated. This second unit was busy at a time when Galactica was already tying up five of Universal's biggest sound stages.

And the armies of exceptionally fine consumes come from exceptionally expensive Jean-Pierre Dorléac, a world-famous designer.

Symphonic scores are not unique to television, but Galactica's sweeping music by Stu Phillips was recorded by the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- in the young tradition established by John Williams' Oscar-winning Star Wars score. Larson claims he would have used a symphonic score anyway, though, because he sees Galactica as myth and Biblical allegory, very classical at its literary core.

"I started to cry when I first heard the score," Larson said; "it's so beautiful." Larson's earliest career -- before he became a TV writer and then a producer -- was in the music business. (He was one of the Four Freshman.)

Once all the charges of copyright infringement and the other legal elbowing have subsided, and once other modern space fantasies like Buck Rogers, Star Trek -- The Motion Picture, Starcrash, and Flash Gordon have come out to keep Galactica company, it will be more evident that Galactica was innovative in many ways all its own -- not the least of which is its courageous, almost carefree use of funds in the hope of bringing to the public a TV fantasy of unparalleled quality. And some of the daring can be seen in things that neither zoom, blast, flash, or explode.

When, since the days of the Untouchables, have we seen such exciting wholesale slaughter on our livingroom screens? And it happened during the very season when the networks have been bragging that at last they have censored physical conflict from the screen. The full extent of the ramifications of a successful Galactica on TV programming is yet to be seen -- but it will certainly be interesting to watch.