The Moral Compass of Battlestar Galactica: Remembering Richard Hatch

One of my earliest science fiction memories is the battered and well-loved VHS of the Battlestar Galactica movie that sat in our local video store. It was unlike anything I’d seen before: massive and epic and grim. The music was great, the ships were incredibly awesome and, occasionally, there were colossal space ants. I watched it over and over and, when the TV show hit the repeat circuit in the UK I did the same thing with that.

Starbuck was the coolest, of course, but other members of the cast held my attention, too—not the least of which was Apollo, played by Richard Hatch. He was dutiful and calm, the straight man to every single one of Starbuck’s jokes but, despite that, he held your gaze. It took me a while to figure out why, but when I did it was clear as day…

He was a good guy. A man of principle and honour and compassion in a universe that had precious little use for any of those things.

It’s tempting to read too much into the original BSG, like any text, but there’s some really interesting symbolism woven into those early episodes. I vividly remember the Viper pilots arriving on Caprica after the attack and trying to help whoever they could find. They looked…knightly; the best and brightest of the Twelve Colonies simultaneously embracing their status and horrified by how little it helped. It’s all there on Hatch’s face, too, showing us Apollo not as a dashing and heroic pilot but as a man already broken by one loss struggling to accept the sheer scope and trauma of a second one.

And he persists, and manages it. He helps whoever he can, gets his people moving, and gets them off-world. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s the best he can do and that’s the best anyone can hope for. He’s got a crew, he’s got a job, and he keeps everyone flying. I’m not saying Mal Reynolds and Apollo would be close friends, but they’d damn sure share a long-suffering nod across a bar. (This being the original BSG, the bar itself would probably be run by the evil papier-mâché disco ants from that original TV movie). All joking, and tropes of 70s and 80s TV aside, Richard Hatch’s work as Apollo was as impressive as it was underappreciated. He was the moral compass of the series and, even when dealing with stereotypical plot points like the death of new wife Serina, Hatch was able to find the emotional honesty at the centre of the character.

It’s especially interesting comparing his early work as Apollo with the roles of both Zarek and Lee Adama in the reimagined series. Hatch’s Tom Zarek is compelling and, bluntly, uncomfortable to watch these days. The political terrorist-turned-outsider-turned-insider-turned-terrorist is a lightning rod for almost all BSG’s most interesting—and many of its least successful—elements. And his introduction maps surprisingly closely to that scene in the original series on Caprica. There, we see Apollo realise he can’t help everyone. Here, we see Zarek realise he can’t help everyone unless the entire system is burned to the ground and rebuilt from scratch (with him at its head). Both men are wrong, but they’re wrong at entirely different ends of the spectrum: Apollo is bound by duty, Zarek is unbound by anything other than his own desire for power.

richardhatch-zarek

And yet, both men also stick to their internal narratives. One of the most interesting moments of the original series comes in the final episode: Apollo is called on his reckless behaviour by fellow pilot and sort-of partner Sheba who tells him he’s effectively trying to commit suicide by Cylon. It’s a fascinating moment and one that hints at a level of emotional complexity much of the rest of the series doesn’t touch. Apollo’s a good man, but he’s also one who’s blind to his own failings, especially when those failings are advantageous for the Fleet as a whole but destructive for him personally.

In stark contrast, Tom Zarek knows exactly who he is and is fully prepared to use his strengths in any way he can to survive and gain power. It’s only when both men are called on the weaknesses of their perspectives that they wake up. With Apollo we, unfortunately, don’t really get to see the consequences of that. With Zarek, we explore his path across almost every side in the war and his acceptance of his eventual death. The final irony there is that Zarek dies in a rebellion waged against Cylon technology being installed on Fleet ships. The man who defined his life as a struggle for radical change goes to his grave having resisted that exact thing. Tellingly, he clearly meets his end believing that he was the hero of the piece all along.

Which brings us to Lee Adama, a man caught in two distinct shadows. He’s not only trapped by the reputation of his father within the show, but also by the pressure of audience expectations based on the original series. Lee is one of BSG‘s most interesting figures, a buttoned-down precision aviator who is also a roiling cauldron of emotion. Like his predecessor on the original series, he volunteers for every mission he possibly can. Unlike Hatch’s original Apollo, he lacks the serenity of his relationship with the elder Adama, and the need to not just prove himself to, but surpass, the Old Man is a huge part of his early role in the series.

Until he meets Zarek.

Still in shock from the destruction of the Olympic Carrier, not to mention the functional annihilation of his culture, Lee Adama isn’t just looking for a fight—he’s looking for a fight that he can win. The functional press-ganging of the prisoners, Zarek’s demands for an election, and the fact that Roslin’s term is up inside a year provide him with the tools to do just that. The old Apollo saved everyone he could; the new version of Apollo breaks the rules to try to save even more. Even then, it isn’t enough. But it’s a start. The fact that this start is inspired by Zarek, a role played by the original Apollo, makes it all the sweeter. This Apollo is angrier and less centered, but has that same unshakeable moral core. It doesn’t stop him from doing awful things, but it does stop him from excusing them. And that, as much as anything else, makes him a good man, too.

It’s always dangerous, even insulting, to judge a decades-long career on just two roles, and Hatch’s career was always more than his turns on BSG. But those two roles, and his massive influence on the reboot’s version of Apollo, provide a fascinating set of bookends not only for his own work as an actor but for the way heroes are portrayed in modern genre fiction. Hatch’s Apollo was a good man in spite of it all; Jamie Bamber’s Apollo was a good man because of it all. And Tom Zarek told himself he was a good man so that he could sleep at night; sometimes it was even true. All three are vital pillars in the ongoing evolution of how male characters are allowed to face and truly explore their emotions. That evolution is much further along, and much easier for later actors, than it ever would have been without Richard Hatch. He’ll be sorely missed, but the changes his performances inspired will be a legacy that will last for decades to come. Thank you, sir.

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

5 Comments

Subscribe to this thread