I was just watching a few minutes of the original “Battlestar Galactica” series, and because I’m a nerd, I noticed that the displays and panels in the Vipers were full of English text. Because I’m a really big nerd, I started to wonder what that means in the context of the series as a whole.
There was a big deal made about the season 3 finale’s choice of music — it’s supposed to be some momentous sign that the colonists haven’t just been following a myth, and they really do have some kind of connection to Earth.
But modern English is all over the place in “Battlestar Galactica.” Some of it you have to have for dramatic impact:
So you can say that they’re just auto-translating whatever language the colonists speak into a version of English that exists thousands of years later. Which is fine, but they’ve also got it in places where it doesn’t matter — in badges and logos, books, and plastered on the side of the ship. The only real attempts at indicating they’re a truly alien group of people is that they’re still polytheistic (very cool), and that they cut the corners off all their paper (I still don’t get that).
The only reason I would’ve noticed any of this at all, is because another franchise already tackled the “problem.” I can still vividly remember seeing The Empire Strikes Back for the first time (Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, represent!) and every little detail just blowing my nine-year-old mind. When Luke is arguing with R2-D2 about flying to Dagobah, all of R2’s speech is translated onto a screen in the cockpit:
There’ve been dozens of documentaries and making-of promotions about the Star Wars movies and how they put insane amounts of effort into production details. But it still impresses me that they thought to invent a language not just for the aliens, but for the main characters. All as a reminder that the story is taking place you know where and you know when.
But I also remembered something from the first movie — I’m not sure how, because I was only six years old at the time. But this has still stood out in my mind just as clearly as any of the other memorable images:
That’s from when Ben Kenobi disables the tractor beam, and apart from the numbers on various displays, it’s the only bit of English text in the whole movie. (There are letters and numbers that flash on Darth Vader’s screen during the final battle, but they’re fuzzy, hard to make out, and aren’t there long enough to read).
The reason I’m only embarrassed to recognize this kind of thing, instead of being completely ashamed, is because I know I’m not alone. The special edition of the movie, in addition to the Greedo nonsense, wacky Jabba, and that damn shockwave, added this:
The same text, now in Basic. (Yes, the common language in Star Wars is called Basic, sometimes called Galactic Standard. You think after all this I’m going to pretend I’m not enough of a nerd to know that?)
I’m not sure if it was changed for the 1978 theatrical release, or if it was just put in for the “special” edition. But still, somebody involved in the production cared enough about creating an alien universe that they put in that detail. And they were thinking of this kind of thing as far back as 1979. Obviously, world-building alone can’t save a movie — the Star Wars prequels had insanely detailed concept art and production design — but I think it’s part of what makes the movies classic.
In case it sounds like I’m faulting the new “Battlestar Galactica” for not doing this, I’m not. They had more hours of content in their first half-season than all of the Star Wars movies combined, and having to constantly translate everything would’ve just been nerd-wankery that would’ve gotten in the way of the story. Their sets are just as detailed, like with Tigh’s fighter squadron logo hanging on the wall, or the minor but ingenious touch of writing “NO STEP” on the Viper bodies just like on a real aircraft. Especially when you compare it to the original series, which pretty clearly all took place on sparse sets somewhere in a Los Angeles studio. The reason the new series has so much resonance is mostly because of the writing, but also because at every step in the production, they’ve treated it as part of a real story that’s really taking place in a real world. Right down to the sparse sets on the Cylon basestars, which seem so alien because they look like they were filmed somewhere in a Los Angeles studio.
Plus, the production designers for “Galactica” realize how to make the civilization non-Earth-like exactly where it counts. A big part of that is the music, which they’ve chosen from the beginning to be foreign and vaguely mystical-sounding. Just like Star Wars wouldn’t have worked as well without the classical space-opera soundtrack, BSG has a constant subtle reminder that you’re watching an alien civilization with an alien religion. So the reason the song from the season finale worked so well at “breaking the fourth wall” and throwing everything off balance isn’t because it’s the only connection to Earth that we’ve ever seen, but because it’s the only pop song we’ve ever seen.
And because I’ve been taking so many screenshots, here’s one from “Battlestar Galactica” where you can totally see Starbuck’s nipple: