40 years ago 'Battlestar Galactica' debuted — and George Lucas sued

Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict in <em>Battlestar Galactica.</em> (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict in Battlestar Galactica. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

A long time ago — Sept. 17, 1978, to be exact — in a Hollywood far, far away, TV producer Glen Larson cracked the code for how to bring a Star Wars-size spectacle to the small screen with the series debut of Battlestar Galactica. Produced by Universal and premiering on ABC, Galactica follows the titular spaceship on its journey across the cosmos, transporting the human survivors of an apocalyptic attack in a distant galaxy to the mythical planet Earth, while their enemies, the robotic Cylons, give unrelenting pursuit.

Boasting a budget that was only $4 million less than George Lucas’s space opera (a reported $7 million versus $11 million) and a runtime that was almost a half-hour longer (148 minutes in its original airing versus 121 minutes), Galactica’s pilot episode, “Saga of a Star World,” made a ‘Forceful’ showing in the ratings and launched a sci-fi brand name that’s endured across four decades through additional TV shows, comic books, and video games. More important, Larson forced the usually forward-thinking Lucas to play catch up; two months after Galactica premiered, Star Wars made its initial foray into television in the form of The Star Wars Holiday Special — a legendary disaster that kept the franchise off the airwaves until the mid-’80s.

Larson’s success was something many in the industry had been trying to achieve since Lucas rewrote the rules for the movie industry in the summer of 1977. Paramount, for example, redoubled its efforts to get its own space-based franchise, Star Trek, out of dry dock, fast-tracking a new TV series that soon morphed into a feature film. Meanwhile, Larson — whose résumé at that point included shows like Alias Smith and Jones and Switch — reminded the powers that be at Universal about a sci-fi story he had pitched them back in the late ’60s called Adam’s Ark about a Howard Hughes-like recluse who assembles a group of Earth’s finest minds and blasts them into the cosmos to avoid a looming terrestrial apocalypse. At the time, the studio had little to no interest, but as Larson recounted in a 2009 interview, that changed practically overnight when kids across the country started talking about lightsabers and X-wings. “Star Wars comes along,” he said, “and every network desk has scripts on it.”

According to J.W. Rinzler’s book The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas himself wound up in possession of Galactica’s pilot script when Universal sent a copy to his office in the fall of 1977, alerting him to what they were working on. It’s not as if the project was a total surprise to the filmmaker, of course. After all, the studio had already employed two key Star Wars collaborators in the preproduction process: concept artist Ralph McQuarrie and Industrial Light & Magic co-founder John Dykstra, who had had a falling out with Lucas during production.

Cylons from <em>Battlestar Galactica.</em>
The robotic Cylons were the primary villains of Battlestar Galactica. (Photo: Universal Pictures/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Meanwhile, Larson had tweaked the original Adam’s Ark premise so that his futuristic “ark” began its journey in space rather than on Earth. He also tweaked the title to incorporate that all-important S word. In fact, the 500-page draft that landed on Lucas’s desk was titled Galactica: Saga of a Star World, and that title was just one of the things that the filmmaker objected to. As McQuarrie is quoted as saying in Rinzler’s account: “It was a problem for George, because they had an emperor, stormtroopers, rocket fighters; they had a lot of things that figured in Star Wars, and it was beginning to look like a Star Wars rip-off.” For his part, Dykstra fessed up to certain similarities in his work on both properties. “The effects were the same, and maybe I feel guilty about that,” he admitted in Dale Pollack’s seminal 1983 biography, Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas.

Seen today, “Saga of a Star World” bears the obvious influence of Star Wars, particularly in the Dykstra-choreographed interstellar dogfights pitting the Galactica’s Viper fighters against the Cylon Raiders. It’s also hard to miss how Dirk Benedict’s roguish flyboy, Starbuck, swaggers around like Han Solo’s second cousin, or that Cylons are just shinier, clumsier versions of Stormtroopers. At the same time, the ensuing four decades have allowed both franchises to develop individual identities — to say nothing of mythologies — that make any similarities now seem superficial at best. Nowadays, it’s much more interesting to talk about how Larson’s own Mormon faith, as well as books like Chariots of the Gods, are reflected in Galactica rather than whether Richard Hatch is doing a Mark Hamill impersonation.

The good ship in <em>Battlestar Galactica.</em>
The good ship in Battlestar Galactica. (Photo: Universal Television/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

That definitely wasn’t the case in 1978, however. Lucas and 20th Century Fox were concerned enough about how Battlestar Galactica could affect the fortunes of Star Wars to file suit in June of that year, three months before “Saga of a Star World” even premiered. The director explained his reasoning for taking the show to court to Rinzler in The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. “People felt something like Battlestar Galactica was a television version of Star Wars; it was the same thing and they tried to sell it like it was the same thing, as if I had made it. Not only does it upset me because I didn’t think the quality was very good, but it also upsets me because, if I wanted to do a TV series of Star Wars, I couldn’t. They’ve already spoiled the television market.”

To make the case that Larson had ripped off Lucas, Fox’s suit highlighted 34 similarities between Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars. Some of their points do carry aesthetic weight, like the observation that Galactica’s ostensibly futuristic technology is made to look distressed and worn, much like a certain “bucket of bolts” in Star Wars. And then there’s the casino planet that the Galactica visits midway through “Saga of a Star World,” which evokes memories of Tatooine’s scummy cantina. On the other hand, other complaints are so broad as to feel like sour grapes, such as the argument that “the central conflict of each story is a war between the galaxy’s democratic and totalitarian forces” or “the climax consists of an attack by the democratic fighter pilots on the totalitarian headquarters.”

Dirk Benedict
Dirk Benedict as the Han Solo-like Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica. (Photo: Universal TV/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Ironically, Fox’s court case against Universal outlasted the initial lifespan of Battlestar Galactica. While “Saga of a Star World” was an unqualified ratings success, viewership steadily dropped as the season went on, budgets shrank and kids realized that daggits and Pyramid weren’t satisfying substitutes for droids and holochess. Galactica aired its 24th and final episode in April 1979. During the following year, a California district court dismissed Fox’s claim (which the studio promptly appealed) as well as the premiere of the short-lived (and truly awful) sequel series, Galactica 1980. Jump ahead to 1983 — the same year that Return of the Jedi brought Lucas’s original trilogy to a conclusion — and the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, reversed the lower court’s decision, remanding the suit for trial. Ultimately, neither Lucas nor Larson saw the inside of a courtroom: The two studios resolved things out of court, and both franchises headed into a wilderness period as their creators respectively moved on to other things.

But neither stayed gone for good; in the late ’90s, Lucas returned to Star Wars full time, first via the controversial “special editions,” followed by the even more controversial prequel trilogy. Larson, on the other hand, handed the Battlestar Galactica keys over to Star Trek veteran Ronald D. Moore, who, in collaboration with David Eick, devised a darker, grittier version of the series that was practically the anti-Star Wars. (That Peabody-winning show ran from 2003 until 2009, and left a profound pop-culture imprint in a way the original could only dream of.) Despite being linked together early on, these days the two franchises are traveling on opposite trajectories: just as Star Wars is preparing to head back to live-action television courtesy of Jon Favreau’s upcoming series, Galactica is eying an all-new feature film, with Lisa Joy and Francis Lawrence most recently attached to write and direct respectively. (Larson passed away in 2014.) It’s just further evidence that you can’t keep a good Battlestar grounded, even if your name is George Lucas.

Additional reporting by Gwynne Watkins

The original Battlestar Galactica series is available to purchase on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.

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