I’m going to continue my sci-fi musings with a thought I had while writing my impressions of Star Trek: Discovery. I want to share with you the story of the ultimate retcon, the retcon of all retcons…
OK – for those of you who didn’t read my last post – “Retcon” is when a TV/Movie set in an established universe RETroactively changes CanON, canon being the already-set, immutable laws of said established universe. For example, a character known to be an only child suddenly has a sister.
Many of my friends already know the show I’m discussing, simply by the title of this post (and that spectacular image above):
In the middle 1970’s, as producer Glen Larson created shows like The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, McCloud, and Quincy, ME, he worked up a story he called “Adam’s Ark.” Adam’s Ark was an ambitious tale about the survivors of a destroyed civilization making their way across the stars in search of a lost tribe of humans. He envisioned a series of telemovies, 3 or 4 of them across the broadcast year. But there wasn’t a lot of interest as he shopped it around, so he shelved it.
Then came Star Wars. And suddenly, his phone started ringing; people wanted to talk about this particular idea of his.
Universal Studios wanted to make it, ABC wanted to air it, so Battlestar Galactica was born, premiering in September of 1978. “Adam” became “Adama,” a warrior-priest in command of a great warship of the 12 Colonies of Man, who had been at war for 1,000 years (or “yahrens”) with a cybernetic race known as Cylons who, at the beginning of the story, had sued for peace through a human emissary, a member of the Council of 12 called Count Baltar – who ultimately proved to be a traitor, and the 12 colonies and their defenders were laid waste in an ambush and sneak attack. Adama’s Galactica was the only surviving battlestar – a massive machine, part carrier, part destroyer, close to a mile long – and with it he led what survivors could be gathered in a “rag-tag, fugitive fleet on a lonely quest: a shining planet known as Earth.”
Larson was meticulous in his world-building, taking inspirations from many cultures, both current and historic, to flesh out his universe. Production designs and character names leaned heavily on ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Indian themes, and he wove many aspects of “ancient astronaut” theories and his own Mormon faith into the culture of the Colonials and the universe they inhabited. The various colonies had their own languages and religions, and all walks of life and all kinds of people were represented in Larson’s universe. And he built well; as you watched, you knew these people were human, but not of Earth.
Sadly, neither Universal nor ABC knew what to do with what they had, so Battlestar Galactica only ran for a single season.
Now, you might wonder why I go into even this much detail, but it’s important to know the effort Larson put into his world-building, the detail to insure that his audience knew that these people did not come from here, but were “…brothers of man, who even now fight to survive, somewhere across the heavens.”
Because all of that was erased in the Ultimate Retcon…
The drama of Battlestar Galactica was not confined to the screen. The original production was beset with problems and corporate interference, which led to its cancellation. Despite that, it was still popular, living on in reruns despite having a fraction of the number of episodes usually considered necessary for successful syndication.
For years, people tried to convince Universal to bring it back, none more diligently than the late Richard “Apollo” Hatch, but to no avail (to this day, Universal is unable to properly manage a real franchise). Finally, in 2000, a sequel centering on a new generation was approved; in order to retain the rights to the property, Universal needed to mount a production of Battlestar Galactica. Scripts were written, sets built… The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 put a stop to travel and production, and by the time they could return to it, principle movers and shakers had to move on to other projects.
Universal canceled the production and destroyed the already-built sets, but still needed something they could call “Battlestar Galactica.” So they turned to Star Trek alum Ron Moore and horror producer David Eick. Moore proclaimed he would “re-invent science fiction” with his production of Battlestar Galactica (spoiler: he didn’t). What they did was throw away the original concepts, designs, and characters. All the carefully-crafted history and differing cultures first presented in 1978 were out the airlock. Rather than a war with beings determined to eradicate humanity and impose machine logic on the universe, humanity was destroyed by its own hubris, the Cylons having been created by the humans as a “slave race” who then return with a religious imperative to destroy their makers. After they have sex with them.
And the characters presented did not come from the original production; it wasn’t just the names that changed (“William Adama”) or were made into call signs (“Starbuck” was the name of Dirk Benedict’s character in 1978; it was the call sign of a promiscuous, insubordinate female pilot in 2003). No, the characters in 2003’s production were based instead on the characters in a little-known WWII movie called “In Harm’s Way.” Moore was quite proud of himself when he announced that bit of news, too. And there was nothing in these new characters that could be distinguished from anyone on any street corner in LA or New York. Their names could have come out of any municipal telephone book in North America, and they dressed in suits and ties, for crying out loud…
And it was dark in a way the original wasn’t. It was all negative. Hopelessness, lies, rape, murder, dysfunction after dysfunction… None of the nobler human sentiments were on display here, not the way they were in the original production. That’s not to say the original was sweetness and light, not by any means. But it showcased human resilience, ingenuity, perseverance, honesty, the strength of family and faith… Which they threw away with the rest of it.
The Ultimate Retcon. They only left the name intact.