Rest in Peace, Richard Hatch, the original Captain Apollo

2017 seems to be determined to continue where 2016 left off by slowly killing off the heroes of our youth.

The latest casualty is actor Richard Hatch, who died yesterday aged 71. Richard Hatch was best known for playing Captain Apollo in the original Battlestar Galactica and a character named Tom Zarek in the reboot. File 770 has a tribute, while Bleeding Cool collects tributes and rememberances by friends and colleagues.

The original Battlestar Galactica is (unfairly IMO) dismissed these days, but it looms large in my personal SFF canon. For back in the 1980s, growing up in Germany with three TV channels and parents who felt that buying a VCR or getting cable TV was a waste of money, there was very little in the way of filmic science fiction, especially if you were deemed too young to watch what SF films there were in the cinema. The original Star Trek, Raumpatrouille Orion, Time Tunnel and Space 1999 had all been rerun sometime in the late 1970s/early 1980s and eventually became hopelessly entangled in my memory. The Third Programs, haven for weird and offbeat programming back then, would sometimes broadcast 1950s B-movies or old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. Very rarely, you could also see SF movies on the two main TV channels, usually late at night and inevitably the dystopian SF films from the 1970s. And even those were not safe from criticism. A TV broadcast of Logan’s Run caused a protest storm in Germany in the mid 1980s, because the film was deemed ageist and allegedly violated human dignity. Uhm, that was kind of the point, but I guess even dystopian SF went over the heads of the usual pundits back then.

And then there was Battlestar Galactica. One of the three public TV channels had somehow acquired the rights and broadcast the pilot as well as the edited together feature film versions of several of the episodes (I didn’t see the series proper until a couple of years later) in a late Saturday night slot. And though it was well after my bedtime, I snuck out of bed and watched. And was promptly stunned and so riveted to the screen that I literally bled onto the floor. If you look closely, you can still see the stain, long faded by now, on the carpet in my parents’ living room.

Of course, it wasn’t Star Wars. Even as a kid I knew that much. However, Battlestar Galactica was as close to Star Wars as you could get (intentionally so), if you didn’t have a VCR and could neither rent nor buy videos. And while Star Wars would never be on TV (some administrative bigwig said so in an article I clipped from the TV Guide) and we would never have a VCR*, Battlestar Galactica was as good as it would get.

I think those who sneer at the original Battlestar Galactica have no idea what TV science fiction was like pre-Star Wars. Even the better made shows like Star Trek or Space 1999 looked distinctly cheap, the sets obviously spray-painted cardboard, plants and spaceships obviously dangling on strings. We looked past those deficiencies, because we had to as SFF fans who needed their fix. Battlestar Galactica, however, was lightyears away from that. The pilot looked almost as good as Star Wars, and indeed many of the same people were involved to the point of lawsuits. And coincidentally, Battlestar Galactica was the most expensive TV show ever at the time, a record that was only broken in the early 2000s.

Battlestar Galactica was also remarkable in other ways, because the pilot violated any story expectations you might have. It starts off with Dirk Benedict and pop star Rick Springfield, who were obviously destined to be the stars of this show, since they were – like – famous (and considering I saw the pilot a couple of years after it originally aired, both Dirk Benedict and Rick Springfield would have been even better known by that time). But then, about ten minutes into the show, Rick Springfield’s rookie pilot is dead, killed by the Cylons while on patrol. Another five minutes and most of humanity is wiped out as well.

In this age of grimdark entertainment, where Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are killing off lead characters left, right and centre, the first fifteen minutes of the original Battlestar Galactica aren’t particularly remarkable. But to audiences back in 1978, killing off the supposed star (though Rick Springfield’s Zac is a classic redshirt lead, a character who looks like they’ll be part of the main cast, only to get killed off in the pilot) and most of humanity (as well as Boxey’s dog, the original Muffet – and we all know what a no-no killing dogs is on US TV) within the first fifteen minutes must have been utterly shocking. And coincidentally, the reboot completely bungles those shock moments by keeping Zac’s death off screen and reducing the destruction of the twelve colonies to a series of explosions on a planetary surface seen from space.

Of course, the survivors of the twelve colonies pick themselves back up again – much faster than I did in front of the TV, in fact – form a rag tag fleet and set off in search of Earth, the Cylons always hot in pursuit. At this point, it also becomes clear that the real star (disregarding Lorne Greene for now) of Battlestar Galactica is not Rick Springfield’s Zac, but Zac’s older brother Apollo as played by Richard Hatch.

My younger self developed an immediate crush on him (and indeed it is striking how many of my early crushes appeared in SFF of some kind). Not only was Richard Hatch stunningly handsome, his character Apollo was also everything a hero should be, suitably dashing and brave and noble and loyal and kind. Indeed, what probably attracted me most about Captain Apollo was that in a time when most heroes were loners, Apollo was a family man. He is close to his father Commander Adama and to his siblings Athena and Zac with Starbuck** almost a surrogate brother. After the destruction of the Twelve Colonies, he also finds a family of his own, when he takes Boxey, a traumatised little boy, under his wing and falls in love with and eventually marries Boxey’s mother Serina. Serina dies soon thereafter – another thing that simply did not happen on TV in those days to characters who weren’t one-off love interests and especially not to characters played by Jane Seymour (what was it about the original Galactica and killing off characters played by then famous actors?). After Serina’s death, Apollo suddenly finds himself a single father and it doesn’t matter at all, neither to Apollo nor his family, that Boxey isn’t his biological son. Even as a young girl, I realised that Apollo wasn’t just stunningly handsome, he was also the sort of supportive partner and loving parent you should seek out. Come to think of it, Mikhail from my In Love and War series was probably influenced at least a little bit by Captain Apollo.

And of course, the new Battlestar Galactica had to mess up that most important aspect of Apollo’s character as well. The new Apollo, now called Lee Adama, is estranged from his father over the death of his brother Zac. Coincidentally, this was when my Mom stopped watching the new Galactica, maybe fifteen minutes into the pilot, because “This would never happen. The real Commander Adama would never have allowed himself to grow estranged from his son like that. Can we switch this crap off now?” In the new Galactica, there is no Boxey and there is no Serina. Lee Adama is just another of TV’s many unattached white men, who later enters a relationship with a female bridge officer and pines after Starbuck who’s female now, so it isn’t even canon slash.

In the old blog, I expounded my views regarding the new Battlestar Galactica at length, but most of those posts are lost to time now. Here is one that survived. In short, I disliked it intensely, because it took away everything I had loved about the original Battlestar Galactica and replaced it with grimdarkness and faux relevant discussion about the war on terror, the legitimacy of the president and religious debates, so many religious debates. Oh yes, and the new Galactica was also grossly sexist, erasing all the female characters from the original and giving its new female characters only one of three storylines: Get pregnant, get tortured and raped or get breast cancer. In fact, I disliked the new Battlestar Galactica so much that I referred to it as “Battlestar Craptastica” and got into fights with people I considered my friends about it (I quickly learned that they weren’t). You know how some Star Wars fans hate the prequels so much that they accuse George Lucas of having raped their childhood? That’s how I felt about Ron D. Moore and the new Battlestar Galactica.

Coincidentally, I also predicted at the time that in ten years, the new Battlestar Galactica would feel more dated than the old one, because it was so focussed on what were considered the issues of the day in the US/UK in the early 2000s. The people who liked the new Battlestar Galactica and called it the best show on television vehemently disagreed, of course. However, time has proven me right. Because the mantle of “the best show on television” was passed on to The Wire, Homeland, Breaking Bad and whoever has it these days (Westworld, maybe?). As for the new Battlestar Galactica, when was the last time you heard anybody discussing that show? It still gets invoked occasionally to advertise a new space opera type show as “the next Battlestar Galactica“, which usually reduces my desire to watch said show to near zero. I still haven’t watched The Expanse, because everybody was so eager to compare it to the new Battlestar Galactica. But the world has changed since the new Battlestar Galactica first aired, the thinly disguised “ripped from the headlines” plots that once made the show feel so relevant seem quaint now.

I think I watched maybe five full episodes of the new Battlestar Galactica altogether, though I fell asleep halfway through one of them. I do remember tuning in when Richard Hatch showed up, because I wanted to know what he looked like. Even at sixty, he still was handsome, much more handsome than Jamie Bamber who played the new Apollo. Coincidentally, I have also forgiven Ron D. Moore for ruining Battlestar Galactica, since he has done a really good job with adapting Outlander since then. I never really held a grudge against any of the actors involved, especially since many of them have done good work elsewhere before and since.

That’s not to say that the original Battlestar Galactica was without problems, cause it certainly had more than its share. And in fact, I suspect that if I had been older when I first saw it or hadn’t been so starved for any kind of SF, I probably wouldn’t have loved it as much as I did.

While the original Galactica certainly made laudable attempts at worldbuilding and at presenting a society that was alien, yet recognisable, those attempts often fell flat when the characters landed on a planet that was clearly the Universal backlot dressed up with Christmas lights (quite literally in one of the “space western” episodes) in the cheap filler episodes. And indeed, I find that I often skip the backlot filler episodes, when I watch my Battlestar Galactica DVD boxset.

As with many TV shows pre-1990, the internal continuity is often messy, though the original Galactica at least attempted to have some sort of internal continuity and a plot arc, when that sort of thing was still extremely rare. In spite of the fine actors, both regulars and guest stars, emotional scenes often fall flat. I think I grieved more for Zac and Serina than their respective families. And Boxey grieves more for his dog, the original Muffet, than for either of his biological parents. As it was, my mind often filled in the emotions that were lacking – I did this with cartoons, too. I even wrote fanfiction about Zac somehow surviving and desperately trying to rejoin his family.

The politics of the new Battlestar Galactica were blatant and often hugely problematic, which infuriated me, because I didn’t recall that the original Galactica had much in the way of political content at all. This is wrong, because rewatching the original Galactica as an adult, it’s obvious that it was full of politics and just as problematic as the old one. For starters, the original Galactica is very much an anti-disarmament polemic. The anti-disarmament message in the original Galactica is as blatant as the “war on terror” parallels in the new one. After all, the initial Cylon attack happens just after the Twelve Colonies have signed a disarmament and peace treaty. And indeed, Soviet journalist Melor Sturua got the message just clear and criticized the original Battlestar Galactica as “anti-Soviet hysteria”. Meanwhile, my younger self totally failed to see any of this, because a) the Cylons really were a threat, unlike the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, which I mostly associated with East German relatives, who sure as hell were no Cylons and not remotely threatening, and b) the idea that anybody could be against nuclear disarmament was absolutely inconceivable to me, since everybody was against nuclear weapons (the 1980s were the time of the great anti-nuclear weapons protests in West Germany) except for a handful of politicians and most of those were probably manipulated by a tiny number of genuinely evil politicians.

The anti-disarmament message is front and centre in the original Battlestar Galactica, but there is another problematic political message to be found in the show. For in the original Battlestar Galactica, the military as represented by Commander Adama and Colonel Tigh is inevitably right, whereas the civilian government as represented by the changing rooster of veteran actors who make up the Council of Twelve, is inevitably wrong. Interestingly, this is one of the few aspects of the original that the new series kept, though here the conflict between the military and the civilian government is reduced to a conflict between the characters of the new Commander Adama, as played by Edward James Olmos, and President Laura Roslin, as played by Mary McDonnell. Come to think of it, the original series also moved in that direction towards the end of its run by contrasting Commander Adama with a female member of the Council of Twelve, played by Ina Balin. They made a very shippable couple.

But in spite of its problems, the original Battlestar Galactica remains highly watchable and entertaining even almost forty years after it was made. A large part of the reason are the likeable characters (unlike the new series, where absolutely no one was even remotely likeable) and the actors who played them who managed to smooth over many of the problems. And Richard Hatch as Captain Apollo was very much the heart of the original Battlestar Galactica, along with Dirk Benedict’s Starbuck and Lorne Greene’s Adama (extra shout-out for Terry Carter as Colonel Tigh, who was always my Mom’s favourite).

Richard Hatch also showed up in other TV shows during the 1970s and 1980s. I vividly remember him playing a creepy stalker who harrasses Connie Seleca in an episode of Hotel. And of course, he also starred in The Streets of San Francisco, after Michael Douglas left. But while I was always happy to see him on TV, I knew next to nothing about Richard Hatch, the person. According to the tributes and obituaries, he seems to have been as nice a person in real life as he was on screen as Apollo. He also was an acting coach and teacher, which is probably why you saw less of him on TV after approx. 1990.

So rest in peace, Richard Hatch, the one and only Captain Apollo.

*Indeed, both happened within approx. three years. We got private television via our aerial, the Star Wars films finally came to German TV and we also finally got a VCR.

**The producers obviously expected female viewers to fall for Starbuck, but while I like both Starbuck the character and Dirk Benedict, the actor, I never found him remotely attractive. Coincidentally, I felt the same way about Dirk Benedict’s other famous role, Templeton Peck a.k.a. Face from The A-Team, whom I once again liked, but never found remotely attractive.

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