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Universal Studios Home Video presents
Battlestar Galactica: Season One (2003-2004)

"The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. They look and feel human. There are many copies. And they have a plan."
- opening titles

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: January 26, 2006

Stars: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis
Other Stars: Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Michael Hogan, Paul Campbell, Aaron Douglas, Kandyse McClure, Alessandro Juliani, Nicki Clyne, Tahmoh Penikett, Richard Hatch, Sam Witwer
Director: various

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (sexuality, scenes of war, euphemistic cursing)
Run Time: 12h:36m:00s
Release Date: September 20, 2005
UPC: 025192792823
Genre: television


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A AAB+ A-

DVD Review

Though Star Trek: The Next Generation was the first show I really loved, when I watch it these days, it feels so much like a missed opportunity. The majority of the episodes are plot-driven, or based on gibberish techno-babble or space anomalies, and the characters are basically unchanged from week to week, and even series to series (aside from obvious cosmetic differences and acting ability, is anything that different about the crews of the Enterprise D and Voyager?). Some great stories carry less weight because the characters are never allowed to evolve (even Data, who strived for years to be human, winds up turning off his emotions once he gets them, because the writers weren’t able to write him as Data otherwise).

Which is probably why I enjoy the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica so much. Here is a series set in space that’s a character-based drama first, and a sci-fi action adventure second. It tells the story of the struggling survivors of humanity’s holocaust at the hands of the Cylons, machines created to do man’s bidding, now the instrument of his destruction. All that’s left of the 12 Colonies is a fleet of spaceships sustaining 50,000 souls, watched over by Galactica, an antiquated military vessel scheduled to be decommissioned before the Cylon ambush that opens the series. They're now humanity’s only hope for the future, running from the Cylons and hunting for the mythic “13th Colony”—Earth.

I have no attachment to the late 1970s series that shares the same name and premise, and I have to say, I was somewhat dumbfounded to the early fan resistance to this “re-imagining,” with internet message board alight with controversy over the apparent sacrilege (Cylons created by men instead of aliens? Male characters become female? The horror!). After all, from what I’ve seen of it (perhaps two dozen episodes), the show plays like a dumbed down Star Wars. The effects are admittedly great for the era, but the actors all come off like cartoons from Saturday morning serials. And while I understand the power of nostalgia, and I’ve liked my share of really bad TV, Battlestar has—had—such a great premise, it would be a shame to see it wasted on a series so inconsequential.

In place of Trek’s enlightened beings, we have flawed, fallible, real people. Instead of the hermetically sealed bubble of a too-perfect future, we have one that feels gritty, live-in, believable. I’m not saying the old way of doing things is bad—its obviously a different aesthetic, and Gene Roddenberry’s creation has endured for 40 years—but the new Battlestar is more visceral, more exciting, more daring. The stories aren’t just elaborate space age metaphors (though they are that, too); they have all the immediacy and realism of The West Wing or ER. Except, you know, in space, and with evil cyborgs and the occasional explosion. Executive producer Ronald D. Moore worked on Trek for ten years, and wanted to try something new with Galactica. He certainly succeeded.

The 13-episode first season is preceded by a three-hour miniseries (included on this DVD set) that sets the stage. We meet our characters—I hesitate to call them “heroes,” a label that belies their complexity. There’s William Adama (Edward James Olmos), commander of the Galactica, who was days from retirement before the Cylons destroyed the rest of the fleet. He’s got a distant relationship with his son, Lee “Apollo” Adama Jamie Bamber), an ace pilot, and with the brash, bull-headed flying ace Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff). The senior Adama’s second-in-command is Col. Tigh (Michael Hogan), depressed, anti-social, and an alcoholic. Oscar-winner Mary McDonnell plays Laura Rosland, Secretary of Education for the 12 Colonies, and thrust into the role of president when everyone else in the line of succession is killed.

The biggest departure from the original series is the Cylons' nature; now, instead of a host of clunky toasters there are more advanced models that look and feel human (some don’t even know they aren’t). Like Sharon “Boomer” Valerii, who spends much of the first season coming to grips with what she suspects is her true nature. And then there’s Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis), the slightly crazed, eccentric genius who unwittingly gave up the secrets of the colonies’ defense system to Number Six (Tricia Helfer), a Cylon sex model (she’s not bad, she’s just built that way). Now on the run with the rest of the survivors, Baltar is accompanied by a vision of Six only he can see. Is she some sort of computer chip implanted in his head? Is he crazy? Well, yes, he’s crazy—Callis plays him twitchy, slightly unhinged, and darkly hilarious—but is he hallucinating?

Season One takes place in the days and weeks following the Cylon attack, as the humans struggle to make a new way of life while the Cylons hunt them down. In the challenging 33, which opens the season, the entire fleet is losing it after days without sleep, as the Cylons attack every 33 minutes, and Adama is forced to make a difficult decision about a suspicious civilian ship that may be leading the hunters to their prey. Episodes like Water and Hand of God see the fleet dealing with problems a lesser series would ignore, as the crew hunts for water and fuel. The late-season Colonial Day tackles the delicate political balance between the military and the government as the survivors elect a sort of congress.

These larger stories play against a backdrop of smaller human drama and character interaction. And always lurking in the background are the Cylons—in a side story set on one of the bombed-out human colonies, a lone soldier, Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) meets up with another “Sharon,” and through their interactions, the Cylons’ plan for humanity is slowly revealed, a plot colored by religious overtones (the Cylons believe in one true God, while the humans are polytheistic).

It’s hard to pinpoint why the show works as well as it does. Perhaps because episodes aren’t pigeonholed into one specific genre—Season One includes everything from a survival story (You Can’t Go Home Again), to a whodunit (Litmus), even a farce (Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down). The writing is pretty sharp throughout, with good dialogue and a general absence of exposition and technobabble. The special effects are pretty amazing, a take-off on the iconic designs from the 1970s series, but rendered in CGI with physicals that feel totally believable.

The production has a gritty, documentary feel, even the special effects, which are "shot" with a jumpy, hand-held effect. It's a bit of a contrivance, but the props all recall old 1940s military equipment as a sort of emotional shorthand. It's a good thing—if we're not ogling futuristic communicators, we can pay more attention to the smart storytelling and uncompromising character development.

You could call Battlestar Galactica a sci-fi show for people who don't like sci-fi, but I think that's selling it short. This is sci-fi as it could, and should, be. Not a genre piece that's loved despite gaping flaws that turn off the non-geek viewer, but a top-notch drama all the way across the board. The futuristic stuff just makes it that much cooler.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Shot in HD and presented in anamorphic widescreen on DVD, Battlestar Galactica’s transfer is feature-quality all the way, and an accurate representation of the show’s stylized look. Many scenes utilize color filters, intentional grain, crushed blacks and high-contrast whites, and these details stand out even more on disc, thanks to a transfer free of aliasing and edge enhancement.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The DD 5.1 track is everything you’d expect from a space series. The front soundstage presents dialogue clearly and sound effects with panning and strong directionality, and the surrounds offer support for the score and handle the whoosh of engines and the rattle of gunfire during action sequences.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 76 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring House: Season One, Sliders: Season Three, Earth 2: The Complete Series, Cleopatra 2525: The Complete Series, Las Vegas: Season 2, Revelations
12 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
8 Featurette(s)
Storyboard
10 Feature/Episode commentaries by executive producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, miniseries director Michael Rymer
Packaging: Thinpak
Picture Disc
5 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extras Review: Battlestar Galactica has a top-notch selection of bonus material, but it's still a bit of a disappointment, and here's why: After the miniseries originally aired, Universal released it on DVD with a nice collection of extras, including a commentary, a long reel of deleted scenes and a making-of. Of that material, only the commentary has been ported over, so if you want to see the deleted footage or the documentary, you have to hang on to the old disc. If all that material had been included as well, I could safely call this a near-perfect set. As is, it's great, but incomplete.

Still, what's here is, as I said, very nice. First of all, there are commentary tracks on nearly every episode (nine of 13) from executive producers Ron Moore and/or David Eick (joined by a director here and there). Some are taken from Moore's “podcasts" that were posted to the Sci-Fi website as the shows aired, but there are also four that are new. Each track is funny and informative, with a lot of candid discussion about what does and doesn't work and a glimpse at the overarching goals of the series.

The rest of the extras are found on Disc 5. Behind the Scenes is an eight-part making-of with a running time of just over an hour using the “play all" option. From Miniseries to Series (08m:30s) is a basic introduction to the series, with cast and crew discussion their initial impressions of Season One after the episodes were filmed but before they aired. Fans should expect “a hard-hitting drama that happens to be science-fiction," Eick says. Good call.

Change is Good. Now They're Babes. (07m:28s) focuses on the cast changes from the original series. Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck) and Grace Park (Boomer) discuss the fan reaction when they were cast in roles formerly played by men, and Eick and Moore talk a bit about the genesis and purpose of sexy Cylon Number Six, played by Tricia Helfer.

Cylon Centurion (05:28) focuses on the decision to make the Cylons a little more complex in the series' new iteration, not only the creation of humans, but an evolved breed looking to understand humanity as well. Talk also focuses on the physical re-imagining, and the decision to go completely CGI to construct them.

Future/Past Technology (07m:41s) focuses on Moore's decision to ground the series' production design in the reality of now, concentrating on the story rather than the “wow" factor of, “so that's what a door looks like." Notes one of the production designers: "If Adama wants Earl Grey, he has to boil water." Also, in the future, people HATE paper with corners. They cannot abide it, it seems, and the property master explains why.

The Doctor is Out (of His Mind) (07m:42s) focuses on Gaius Baltar, the first season's breakout character and primary antagonist. A “pathological narcissist," Eick says, Gaius provides a lot of fodder for the writers, not the least of which is related to his interaction with Six, the Cylon seemingly living inside his head. He's becoming used to the presence in his head, the actor James Callis offers. "He's becoming more comfortable, I suppose, with the idea of being bonkers." Apt.

Production (09m:07s) covers the “snotty" look of the show, in the words of cinematographer Steven McNutt—it takes a lot of artifical aging to ensure the series looks gritty and grimy despite the fact that it's shot in crystal clear HD. The “sci-fi documentary" style is also discussed, and how it grew out of Moore's boredom with the way the various Star Trek are filmed in a very static, controlled fashion. The piece also covers stunts, makeup and the costumes, and, as the wardrobe department's Glenne Campbell notes, "because everyone is running for their lives, they didn't grab a lot of clothes when they left."

Effects (08m:53s) focuses on what visual effects supervisor Gary Hutzel says is an attempt to avoid "sci-fi visual effects." The attempt, once again, is to ground all of the action in some kind of realistic mindset, to find the purpose behind every effect and explosion, to fit in with the series' documentary feel.

Epilogue (08m:09s) basically offers a justification for reviving the series, via comments from Moore, Eick, and the majority of the cast. I liked Mary McDonnell's observation the best: "The reasons... it succeeded had very little to do with its sameness or difference to the original... It's exciting to try and bring something new to people. What happened with us was exciting because we didn't end up trying to do something new, as much as we ended up trying to do something real."

There's yet more behind-the-scenes info in the Series Lowdown documentary (20m:20s), which aired on the Sci-Fi Channel before the season premiere. It's pretty much a promo piece encouraging you to watch, but it also includes a lot of good interview snippets with the cast and writers, and a funny segment toward the end where the actors answers fan emails.

A gallery of deleted scenes (48m:21s) includes a significant amount of cut footage from 10 episodes. Most of it is good, character-based stuff, and worth watching, particularly the 17 minutes cut from the two-part season finale, Kobol's Last Gleaming. Finally, there's a four-minute animated gallery of production sketches and concept art.

In terms of presentation, many of the extras are presented in anamorphic widescreen, and all are subtitled (save the commentaries). The discs are housed in five slim cases that fit into a shiny silver sleeve. It was also originally released as a Best Buy exclusive with no extras but the deleted scenes (and sans the pilot episode), so make sure you don't accidentally buy that one.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

A serious-minded drama first and a sci-fi adventure second, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica is the antithesis of its charming but utterly goofy namesake. It's also one of the best, most intelligent programs on television, and if you aren't watching it just because it’s about spaceships and robots, then you’re missing out. And also, what's your problem? Spaceships and robots are totally awesome.

 


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