name of Terrence McDonnell is familiar to BG fans as the series co-story
editor and co-author of the episodes Fire in Space, Murder on the Rising Star, and Take
the Celestra, as well as the unshot script Two for Twilly. With his writing
partner Jim Carlson, McDonnell joined BG in September of 1978, after the series
had already aired seven episodes.
McDonnell and Carlson became a team almost by accident. According to McDonnell, they wrote an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man together in 1975, ...and before we had a chance to go our separate ways they said, heres another one, and then after we finished that one they said, Well, were starting this Bionic Woman show and we want you to write one of them, so we kind of became a team.
There had been no story editor for BG before the two writers joined the production team. To find out what they were capable of, on their first day of work series producer Don Bellisario asked that they write the first act of a script he suggested should be a Patton in Space pastiche. The next morning Bellisario liked what they had written and asked them to do act two. Their script was not used; some fans have claimed that Glen Larson stole the idea for Living Legend from Carlson and McDonnell but in fact story credit for the episode was attributed to Ken Pettus, the episode aired very shortly after Carlson and McDonnell were hired, and this obviously was an idea the production team had been kicking around. It is very likely that preliminary drafts of Living Legend already existed at the time Carlson and McDonnell wrote their treatment.
Contrary to what one might expect, story editors McDonnell and Carlson had little input on scripts that they did not personally write, but they did add memorable touches to other screenplays. For War of the Gods Glen Larson needed a good name for the lead guest character, and they came up with Iblis, the Islamic name for Satan, figuring that the name fit perfectly and wouldnt instantly give the game away to a Western audience (Muslim viewers must have exchanged knowing looks!). Later, Don Bellisario needed a special weapon for his Borellian nomen in The Man with Nine Lives, and they developed the idea of the laser bola, figuring that was a kind of weapon a desert-dwelling, not particularly technological race might come up with. They also created the Colonial game of Triad, first seen in War of the Gods. McDonnell explained ...what I originally wanted to do was have them enclosed in like an acrylic rectangle, and basically basketball in weightlessness, so you can bank it off the ceiling, but of course it was cost-prohibitive, you couldnt shoot it. That was changed even before we went into story. It was discussed....This would be so great! Yeah, it would be great, but we cant afford it! So if in a hundred years from now somebody actually comes up with it, you heard it here first!
There has been controversy about the episodes Fire in Space and Murder on the Rising Star which Carlson and McDonnell wrote. An earlier BG screenplay by Michael Sloan was also titled Fire in Space and people have wondered how it was adapted to become the two separate episodes. McDonnell was able to clear up any misconceptions fans might have had. He revealed, I never saw the original Fire in Space. I found out later that it was a two-parter in which the fire didnt even start until part two. They wouldnt give us a copy to look at, they didnt want us to be influenced by it. We wouldnt have been influenced by it anyway, but for whatever reason they didnt want us to see it. Glen gave us the basic thrust he wanted on that story, and so we just kind of used what he wanted to get the thing off the ground and running. I liked that particular episode because there were a lot of things going on in it. It kept moving...unfortunately, I wish they had shot our ending. McDonnell remains dissatisfied with the ending of Fire in Space, as he and Carlson had written a far more dramatic one in which, rather than having Apollo drift off into space rather anticlimactically because a ladder rung breaks, the two warriors were frantically trying to place the charges to extinguish the fires aboard the ship as another wave of Cylon kamikazes closed in! Evidently ABC did not like that ending, and one of McDonnells major regrets is that ABC prevented the Cylons from being really dangerous because of demands for script changes like that one. The filming of Fire in Space was exciting. McDonnell recalls, I remember being down on the set more on Fire in Space than on any script practically that Ive ever written because of all the stunts that were going on, when the bridge would blow up and when they flew Dirk and Richard at the end when they were out on the hull, they flew them from suspension wires and that was very cool to watch. Fire in Space resulted in a nomination for the NAACPs Image Award for the writers; of course the episode featured Terry Carter and Herb Jefferson Jr. in strong roles.
As for the later Murder on the Rising Star, McDonnell said, Later, my partner and I came up with an original idea about a murder, and Glen told us to go write that. I had no idea that there was a fire and a murder in any single script. Apparently the use of Michael Sloans name in the credits of Murder on the Rising Star was for legal reasons only. McDonnell remains not entirely satisfied with Murder, which was written under tremendous pressure. We were told on a Wednesday to write that particular script, we didnt even have the story worked out, and it had to be in mimeo at 7 oclock on Friday morning, and we stayed at the office and wrote all Wednesday night, all Thursday, all Thursday night, and Friday morning. In spite of the pressure, Murder on the Rising Star brought McDonnell and Carlson a Peabody Award.
McDonnell commented that when he and Carlson write they often have someone already in mind for a particular role, as that helps them with the dialogue. Having worked with actor Brock Peters on an episode of Six Million Dollar Man, they had him in mind when they wrote the role of Sire Solon in Murder, and of course Peters was cast in that role when the episode was shot.
I asked McDonnell why Karibdis refers to Baltar as Commander Baltar in Murder. McDonnell laughed and replied, I saw that in one of your magazines that you sent me (in the BG Unsolved Mysteries article reprinted on this site). You guys are like hawks when it comes to that stuff! He continued, Honestly, I dont remember. It could have been a simple mistake on our part in writing it. Unless he was...is he called Commander Baltar anywhere in the rest of the series? Told that he was not, McDonnell concluded, Then its probably the writers mistake and we should have caught it. In fact...you know, Don could have gotten the script and tweaked it too. And basically because Baltar commanded one of the Cylon ships, it would have been logical just to put in commander. Thats the best I can do for an answer. McDonnell added that if they had had a bible to go by, it would have been a lot easier to keep things consistent.
Dealing with ABCs Standards and Practices department was a continual trial for the writers. According to network rules, in the 8:00 PM timeslot in which BG aired there could be only five to seven incidents of violence per episode. Unfortunately, this worked in a rather bizarre way. As McDonnell explained it, in Celestra there was a firefight in the landing bay of the ship, and every time they cut away to another shot and then returned to the firefight, it was considered a new incident of violence in spite of the fact that it was the same, ongoing firefight. A different factor that had an effect on Celestra was the series budget. One shot McDonnell really wanted to do was a scene at the very end during the funeral of Commander Kronus which would have showed his coffin slowly drifting away into space. McDonnell commented, As far as I know it would have been the first space burial on film, (preceding the funeral and space burial of Captain Spock in ST II by several years) but unfortunately there wasnt enough money left in the budget that week for the necessary SFX work.
The idea for the script Two for Twilly actually came from ABC, which suggested than an episode broadly based on the 50s Alec Guinness film Captains Paradise, in which Guinness character is a sea captain with wives in two different ports, might be interesting. Carlson and McDonnell then wrote the episode, which featured a character who had wives on two ships of the fleet (actually three, as the amusing tag scene revealed). Twilly reached the point where actors were reading for the guest parts (McDonnell recalls that Jamie Lee Curtis read for the role of one of Twillys wives), but there was conflict with ABC over rewrites and the episode was finally not filmed although McDonnell believes it might well have been shot had there been a second season.
Another script Carlson and McDonnell had a hand in was I Have Seen Earth, by Steve Kreinberg and Andy Guerdat. They rewrote it fairly extensively, with, according to McDonnell, actor Jack Elam in mind for the lead role of Jaspar, the crusty miner, and it was a definite candidate for a second-season episode.
When Carlson and McDonnell joined the series, they were handed a stack of various story ideas that had been bought or submitted, mostly to show them what not to do, but, interestingly, with the exception of I Have Seen Earth, they never had a chance to look at any of the earlier, unshot scripts like Beta Pirates or, of course, Sloans Fire in Space. One of the story ideas that McDonnell remembers was called The Krik Catcher, by David Caren (sp?), which, McDonnell said, was about these little insects this guy was catching, like termites...I cant remember how it worked, I remember it being sort of interesting, but they didnt want to do it. He added that one reason he and Carlson never saw any of the earlier material was because any new show goes through a kind of birthing process where the direction of the show will change and all of a sudden youre not going to be doing this kind of a story, youre going to be doing this kind of a story, and so I think thats why these stories werent used. But I Have Seen Earth was one that we could use to continue on in the direction the show was going.
The unshot scripts Showdown, which would have featured the infamous Land Probes (the flying motorcycles later featured in G80), and Mutiny, were familiar to McDonnell, but only as titles. They were on the production list, he revealed. But I never saw the scripts, it was like they were abandoned before we came on board.
Apparently at least one idea from Beta Pirates almost turned up later in the series. Told that Beta Pirates was about pirates in space, McDonnell commented, ...they wanted to do a space pirates story, and I had a great idea for it, for the ships these space pirates used, they were different from anything I had ever seen before. But they wouldnt go for it.
A fascinating plot development McDonnell revealed concerned the character of Athena. Asked if hed heard any of the rumors that an early draft of Living Legend killed her off, he said he didnt know if that was true, but apparently a storyline was discussed in which she would be killed and her spirit would return in the body of a man!
McDonnell revealed that there was surprisingly little interplay between the members of the production team regarding script developments, as Glen Larson and Don Bellisario made most of the major decisions themselves, but the actors took an interest in what was being done. We had lunch with Richard and Dirk a couple of times and (they) were always very, very eager to help and make suggestions and we always took that seriously and tried to accommodate what they wanted in the context of the show because we felt that they knew the characters, they knew what they would and wouldnt do and if something might be good or not good. Lorne came up to us the first week we were there and said, I dont need a lot of dialogue, but what I want to say, I want it to be important. Amusingly, McDonnell revealed that when they visited the set and Lorne Greene approached, they quickly headed the other way because of the actors tendency to pontificate.
Since most of their work was done in the production offices and they normally visited the set only about once a week, McDonnell has few anecdotes about the actors to share, but one actor he recalls with affection was Fred Astaire, who portrayed Chameleon in Man With Nine Lives. I remember that Fred Astaire was a total gentleman and a complete professional. He was just superb to work with.
A highlight of McDonnells rare visits to the soundstage was the spectacular bridge set. It was actually always fun to go down on the set because the bridge was very cool, and they had I don't know how many tape machines running at any one time so that all of those TV monitors would project something different. So you actually felt like you were on a working spacecraft when you were walking around on the thing.
Asked which episodes he believes BG could have done without, one McDonnell cites is Greetings From Earth, a feeling shared by the vast majority of BG fans. Interestingly, Greetings may have been intended to be a pilot for a possible BG spin-off, a series that would have been more family-oriented, more kid oriented, but it was horrible, just horrible. Glen is not a bad writer by any means, but Glen is not a comedy writer, and both Jim and myself come from comedy backgrounds. Were comedy writers who can also write drama, and we can write it well. Comedy writers can write drama, drama writers cannot necessarily write comedy. And so Glen had comedy in that thing, but it fell horribly flat. The theory some have had that Greetings From Earth and the other two Terra episodes stemmed from ABC boredom with the Cylons is apparently not true; McDonnell suspects that Glen Larson had seen the writing on the wall regarding likely cancellation and was trying to salvage something from the series. Indeed, there are intriguing similarities between Greetings and the later G80.
Most fans have noticed that BG was very uneven in quality; one week there would be a grandiose, SF-oriented episode, and the next week there would be a rather small, more ordinary episode. McDonnell revealed the reasons for this: The super-epic Glen would do would be a two-parter, major special effects, and then all of a sudden he used up not only the budget for this week but half the budget for next week, so now we dont get any special effects. And then on top of that he also started the Buck Rogers production, so the special effects crew were busy doing stuff for Buck Rogers, so the only special effects you could do were library stuff theyd already shot. So thats why you get a dichotomy of quality in what was up on the screen. And also, the effects house could only do X amount of effects a week because there wasnt that much time, so if you had a script with an awful lot of effects, well, you had to cut back or accommodate some other way. There was at least one script, or maybe two scripts that we did where they could only do a few effects so they said, basically, take as much as you can from stock.
Carlson and McDonnell only heard of BGs cancellation after theyd finished work on the first season. Asked if there was specific planning underway for a second season, McDonnell said that most planning was being done by Larson and Bellisario; McDonnell said hed never heard the rumors that Larson was going to bring Cain back in the second season, but indicated hed have been surprised if he didnt. They were not involved in what McDonnell refers to as Galactica PUH! 1980, and McDonnell is proud not to have been!
Fans have often lamented the lack of good documentary material about BG, and it was interesting to learn that McDonnell almost had the opportunity to supply that lack. I had been contracted in 1984 to write a book called the Battlestar Galactica Handbook, and I had one year to do it, and I got put on an animated series where I was story-editing and writing almost all the episodes, 65 episodes. And I had three weeks to go, and I had all this information...and I hadnt even started it, so I called my agent to try to get a three-month extension and they wouldnt do it. McDonnell said that the book would have included behind-the-scenes stories, as well as information on storylines and scripts that had not been used.
Asked what he would do differently if he could go back and do the series again, McDonnell said the first thing hed do is take Standards and Practices out of the picture. Clearly, he lays much of the blame for the series failure squarely on ABC. As to what kind of stories he might do, he said, I would liked to have done some psychological stories. Not as deep as Star Trek would do, because Star Trek does what Star Trek does, and it wasnt that kind of a show. He also added that more special effects would have been nice, but said, There is one kind of nice thing about doing a show like Galactica. Pretty much anything you can think of they can do, because of the effects. You can really use your imagination.
Interestingly, though active in Hollywood since the end of the series, McDonnell had never heard of any of the rumored efforts to revive the series until last April (1992). I heard about it from a group on Prodigy, which I had just joined, and I denied it when it first came on, no, I would have heard that, it would have been in the trades, it would have been somewhere. And then it came out that no, Richard was working on something. That was the first Id ever heard of it.
Asked if hed like to do BG again, McDonnell said enthusiastically, Oh, in a heartbeat! It would be fun...not only would it be fun, I know the characters. Not only do I know the characters, Ive got a great sense of story and action...and I wouldnt have Standards and Practices involved. I could do whatever the hell I wanted to do, and make the Cylons a real threat, if youre going to use the Cylons. Oh yeah, Id love it. He also remains pleased that he had the opportunity to work on BG. I am glad I did it. Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to write that kind of stuff.
And McDonnell remains proud of his work. At the time I felt that we were at times doing something real good. Not all the time...but we were thinking, theyre still going to be watching this twenty five, fifty, a hundred years from now...at least theyre still watching them fifteen years later!
McDonnell and Jim Carlson have worked steadily since the end of BG on everything from drama series to sitcoms to animated shows. On the art of combining scriptwriting and compromise, McDonnell had this to say: Its often been described that writing a script is like being a carpenter, and they want a box built and we say, OK, here, well make you a real nice box, and they say, well, but we want this and this and this, and we say, Well, thatll be sticking out of the box and they say, we dont care, thats what we want to do, so you write it. Within the context of what they want, you do the best job you can.
©1999 by Susan J. Paxton <
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