2008 is the 30’th anniversary of the ABC television show Battlestar Galactica which was eventually re-made into an award winning Sci-Fi Channel series. Here is the complete history of the Viper, the iconic fighter ship from my favorite TV series of all time.
One of the design criteria for the Viper would be a "compact" configuration, easy to produce as a full-scale set piece, yet projecting a feeling of power. This was achieved with admirable results, at a diminutive length of 27 feet the Vipers huge intakes and exhaust nozzles left no doubt that this was a high-powered combat vehicle. Sporting stub wings reminiscent of the X-15 or F-104 Starfighter and a long rakish nose, this design also featured simple to build shapes that helped keep construction budgets down. Built as miniatures first, they also presented certain challenges to the studio construction department.
The Colonial Viper underwent numerous changes from its original concept to its final design. Ralph McQuarrie’s original concept was so different from the final Viper that it was reused as the "Thunder Fighter", the Earth Directorate Starfighter used in Glen Larson’s other space series, Buck Rogers.
This initial concept by McQuarrie is very similar to the Star Wars Y-Wing.
The full-scale plywood "Thunder Fighter" used for filming the 1979 TV Series Buck Rogers from Cloudster.
With the industry changing success of Star Wars in the mid ’70s Universal was looking to barrow on that success for the small screen. Initial artwork was so similar that George Lucas sued to prevent it’s production claiming that it stolen 34 distinct ideas. Universal countersued claiming that Star Wars had borrowed robots and other themes from it’s 1972 film Silent Running and earlier Buck Rogers serials. After a very long development the series borrowed from the aircraft carrier theme, Star Wars and early ’30s serials for a new "Space Opera’. With a large cast, cutting edge special effects and complicated sets the show was the most expensive television series to produce for it’s time.
The basic Viper design was represented both in Ralph McQuarrie artwork and concurrent paintings by Frank Frazetta.
Initially Battlestar Galactica’s creator Glen Larson envisioned Battlestar Galactica as a series of made-for-TV movies (a three-hour pilot and two two-hour episodes) for the ABC television network. On September 17, 1978, the uncut 148-minute pilot premiered on ABC to spectacular Nielsen Ratings. As the series progressed, the ratings began to decline, even though the show still consistently won its coveted Sunday evening time slot. Although each episode had a budget of about $1 million, the show reused so many special effects shots due to budgetary constraints that many critics derided it as "overplayed into tedium."
Similar to Star Wars plastic models in Battlestar Galactica would be attached to a motion control armature for the filming of multi-pass effects shots. This process was very expensive and to save costs special effects shots were constantly recycle for the TV Series.
Surprisingly, the smallest and least detailed spaceship in the entire series was the one most often on the screen. The Viper model was small (as evidenced by the foam the model is resting on).
Two versions of the full scale Viper mockup were built for filming. The first, was the full scale complete version used for showing launch crews working around the fighter. The second contained only the cockpit and upper details of the fighter. This allowed two actors to be concurrently filmed without requiring two full scale fighters to be built. The full scale mockup, built primarily of plywood, was built on operational wheels that allowed it to be rolled from one location to another with relative ease. When it had to be taken over obstacles, it was lifted with a crane and set in place.
For many years the full scale Viper mockup languished in semi-outdoor storage behind one of the false front buildings on Universals Studios "New York" street back lot. Then came a fire that burned down that portion of the back lot and it is presumed that the Viper went with it. It is also possible that it was scrapped even before the fire, like so many of the other studio "spaceships". See more from Cloudster.
Here is my own version of starship dimensions for the Battlestar Galactica Universe. For more scale mockups like this you can see Starship Dimensions and Dan Carlson’s amazing version that cover major ships from throughout the sci-fi world.
Ships from the original series in 1978 and re-imagined series including it’s multiple vipers. The re-imagined series even included an original series viper located in a museum on the aging and Battlestar Galactica due to be retired from active service. There are several online resources for technical details including: the online Battlestar Galactica Manual and the Battlestar Wiki.
These are the actual blueprints used to create the large-scale Viper from the 1978 Original Battlestar Galactica series.
Despite attempts to revive the series over the years, none came to fruition until it was re imagined in 2003 by Universal Television in association with Sky1 and the Sci-Fi Channel with Ronald D. Moore and David Eick as the creative forces behind it. Edward James Olmos stepped into the role of Commander Adama. A weekly new Galactica series followed, premiering on Sky1 in the UK and Ireland in October 2004, and on Sci-Fi in the U.S. in January 2005.
The Re-Imagined series had two versions of the Viper, including the Viper Mark II (below) and a newer version that replaced it the Mark VII. The new series had pilots with realistic looking pressurized helmets which were scrapped in the original series to film them more easily. In the new series the older Mark II’s although outdated proved less vulnerable to Cylon’s hacking into their systems. Full scale mockups were again built with plywood but tedious stop motion filming of miniatures was replaced with CGI in the new series.
A viper Mark II and Viper Mark VII (lower) from the new Battlestar Galactica series.