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Enter the Languatron

The dictionary defines a “languatron” as “a Colonial device that acts as a translator, capable of translating speech in real-time.”

No, wait. That’s not the dictionary. That’s the online Battlestar Wiki, which takes jargon from the television series Battlestar Galactica and translates it into English for people who don’t live in their parents’ basements.

There have been two television series bearing the name Battlestar Galactica, and the languatron only appears in the first episode of the first series, broadcast for the first time on ABC television, September 17, 1978. It was the same night that President Carter signed the Middle East peace agreement, which really ticked me off as a kid, because it cut into Battlestar Galactica’s three-hour pilot. I mean, yeah, peace is great, but I was ten years old. I was much more interested in watching things blow up.

The series came on the heels of Star Wars mania and was dismissed by many as a direct rip-off, which even prompted George Lucas to file suit against Universal Studios for copyright infringement. (He lost. That may be the only time he’s ever lost anything, other than the Star Wars Holiday Special.)

Galactica’s premise was rather bleak for 1970s network television – a race of killer robots called Cylons all but exterminates twelve planets filled with billions of people, and the handful of survivors set out to find the lost 13th tribe of humans, which, according to myth and legend, settled a planet called Earth.

That was kind of cool, until they brought the show back two years later as Galactica 1980, where they found Carter-era Earth where they meet Wolfman Jack and discovered that Cylons could be killed by microwave ovens. But that’s another issue altogether.

Back to the languatron.

In the pilot episode of Galactica, the brave young warrior Apollo is looking for a lost little boy, and he consults with some weird-looking bug people called Ovions to find him. Since these bug people have latex rubber faces and mouths that don’t move, they speak with clicks and buggish noises, which filter through Apollo’s languatron to tell him the kid is fine and not to worry about the fact that the Ovions are secretly kidnapping humans and placing them in cocoons so that these bug people can eat them all for Sunday brunch. (Actually, they didn’t tell him about the whole “cocoon-brunch” part, but he figures that out later. The bug guys did, however, say the kid was fine, which makes me wonder why they didn’t eat him as an hors d’oeuvre.)

That was the languatron’s big shot at stardom, its only moment in the sun. It appears in a single shot as a small metal box with a mesh screen and the word “LANGUATRON” spelled out all in caps, like so:
The languatron

In fact, the languatron itself doesn’t really figure into this story much.

Languatron, however, does.

I’m shifting gears here. From here on out, Languatron is no longer a fictional translation device; he is, by all evidence, an all-too-real person. It’s very unlikely that this Languatron uses that name in real life, but given the amount of time the guy spends online, it’s very unlikely that real life figures into his equation at all.

I’ve never met Languatron in person, but I first bumped into him online in 1999, when I went to work for a public relations firm back in Washington D.C. I was hired as a Senior Associate for this firm’s Technology Practice, which sounds very exciting if you overlook the fact that the client I was hired to manage went bankrupt a week before I showed up and pulled their account the next day.

So, just starting out on this new job, I had absolutely nothing to do and all day to do it.

Under most circumstances, I very much enjoy not having anything to do. I can usually fill the time with naps and good books and too many potato chips. But this circumstance was different. I had to be at work every day by 8:00 AM in a shirt and tie, sit in a cubicle and do nothing and try not to look like I’m doing nothing. I had to keep this up for nine hours – one hour for lunch came as a welcome diversion – and it just about killed me.

I knew this couldn’t last, and that either I would find a new job voluntarily or forcibly, once this company recognized that paying me to surf the Internet aimlessly wasn’t helping its bottom line. I eventually found one and left three months after I started, but in the meantime, I occupied my days with discovering all the silliness the World Wide Web had to offer.

Aimless surfing offers a number of interesting diversions. You can find anything on the web – recipes, death threats, bad poetry, blogs about William Shatner’s toupee, rude noises, pictures of goiters, and people with opinions on anything and everything. Internet politeness is strongly discouraged. Those who attract the most attention are those who crank the whole thing up to 11. On the Web, the President of the United States is either the Source of All Truth And Light Who Vexes Those Who Do Evil, or he’s the scum of the earth who ought to go play on the freeway off ramp and put us all out of his misery.

Negative folks get a lot more bandwidth than the positive guys, too. Regardless of who the president is, the Off-Rampers outnumber the Truth-and-Lighters by about a 1,000,087,936 to one, give or take. And that’s not just true of politics. In fact, I discovered it was even true of Battlestar Galactica.

In 1999, even though the original show had been off the air for over two decades, original series star Richard Hatch was pushing the idea of the revival. Hatch played Apollo, the guy with the original languatron who talked to the Ovions. To my knowledge, he is no relation to the Richard Hatch who appeared naked on Survivor and then went to jail for tax evasion, but back in 1999, I’m sure that Apollo Richard Hatch envied Naked Richard Hatch’s show biz career.

Hatch had mortgaged his own home to finance a movie trailer for his proposed vision of a Galactica revival. Titled Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming, it picked up twenty years after the original series left off, with the human survivors still on the run and fighting for their lives against a newer, deadlier form of Cylon. It featured appearances by several of the original series’ stars, and those who saw it at comic book conventions were giving it standing ovations. I didn’t see it back then, because he didn’t have the rights to put it up on the Internet, but it has since surfaced on YouTube, and, even after more than a decade, it’s surprisingly unawful.

Hatch had a host of partisans who had taken to the Internet to convince Universal Studios that they should let sell or give the Galactica copyright to Mr. Hatch so that he could have his way with it and bring back Galactica to the masses. Most of these people were congregating on the Battlestar Galactica bulletin board owned and operated by Universal’s SciFi Channel – now called, inexplicably, the SyFy Channel – and I had a good time following the discussion.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before I joined in.

To be continued…

Reintroduction: Part II
Angry Young Languatron

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