Rebooting a classic series is no easy task. Originally conceived in the late '60s, the first 'Battlestar Galactica' was eventually greenlit in 1978 after the theatrical success of films like 'Star Wars.' It became a popular sci-fi staple that won a People's Choice Award for Best New TV Drama Series -- however, fandom didn't hold the sway it does today and ABC cancelled the show after a mere 18 episodes. Fast-forward to 2003. Producer Ronald Moore brokered a deal with Universal and the Sci-Fi Channel to create a re-imagined version of the classic short-lived series. His version would significantly change the face of 'Battlestar Galactica,' but promised to still please fans of the original.
The new 'Galactica' chronicles a civilization of humans spread across planets known as the Twelve Colonies of Kobol. The colonists created the Cylons, a race of robotic workers that rebelled and warred with their masters. After forty years of peace, the Cylons have managed to develop humanoid Cylons -- beings that are indistinguishable from real humans. These sleeper agents infiltrate the colonies and help launch an attack that wipes out nearly every soul. A lone battlestar designated the Galactica survives the ambush and retreats. Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos) begins the hard task of leading a small fleet of commercial and residential ships that also escaped. He assembles a ragtag crew that includes his son Lee (Jamie Bamber), his second-in-command Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), a ballsy viper pilot named Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), and a shady doctor named Gaius Baltar (James Callis). Side by side with the new president of the colonies, Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnel), the two use their military and political prowess to lead the remnants of humanity in a search for a mythical thirteenth colony legend calls Earth.
Since it debuted as a miniseries in 2003, many critics have praised the show to the extent where they often sound like Sci-Fi Channel marketing employees. They regularly praise the series' dark tone, bold allegory, and above all else, its deft writing. It has picked up dramatic Emmys and garnered a respectable cult following -- many have declared it to be the finest sci-fi series of all time while others have called it the best series on television. So what makes the new 'Battlestar Galactica' so special? In my opinion, just about everything.
First and foremost, the show develops a relentless tension that's simply unmatched in television today. I have to give a lot of credit to the actors involved here -- they don't simply deliver the stocky performances we've seen littering sci-fi for so many years. Instead, they inhabit their roles to the point that it's easy to forget you're watching a group of fictional characters. Their relationships are weaved throughout the story and trust is constantly called into question -- some characters grow stronger, some are devastated by what they find about themselves, and others don't live to decide either way. Even those in minor roles make survival seem like a dream in the face of countless odds.
The cast is exceptionally talented. I'm not sure how series creator Ronald Moore assembled such a diverse, nuanced group of actors, but there are literally no weak links in the chain. Olmos and McDonnell are phenomenal -- they bring a quiet pathos to their roles, establishing conflicting ideals which have to be resolved on a regular basis. Sackhoff and Bamber are forces of strong-willed nature in their own rights, continually dancing between their personal feelings and their commitment to duty. But it's Callis's dark portrayal of the sniveling Baltar that really adds weight and the threat of betrayal into the mix. He haunts the shadows like a sweet-tongued Iago at every turn. But make no mistake, this is no typical villain. His self-interest and self-loathing play against each other to reduce the man to desperate means and opposing inspirations.
Every great story has great conflict fused into its bones, but 'Battlestar Galactica' makes internal and external conflict its mainstay. Characters clash, races fight, class warfare erupts, friends question friends, and many question their own identities. As it stands, the humans are as much of a threat to their own survival as the Cylons are. My favorite thing about these explorations is that it all feels so incredibly relevant. The stories incorporate many of the themes and questions our society has faced in this new millennium. There are ongoing examinations of terrorism, religious fundamentalism, democracy, monotheism, propaganda, self doubt, and governmental bureaucracy. The show is political and pertinent, but it never passes judgment on any of its subjects -- even its villains are given room to breathe with sympathetic characteristics and motivations.
Visually, the show's no slouch either. The futuristic world of 'Battlestar Galactica' is more 'Blade Runner' than 'Star Trek,' but it never fails to elicit a gut response. The scale is convincing, the CG space battles are thrilling, and small details make the universe of 'Battlestar' feel appropriately lived in. Unlike other sci-fi shows, scenes that take place on planets don't feature locations that resemble sets. The only thing that stands out to me are the shiny CG renditions of the robotic Cylons, which occasionally seem disjointed from the rest of the production.
I didn't have much interest in a rebooted 'Battlestar' until the immense buzz convinced me to give it a try -- it only took two episodes to hook me in. If you've put off sampling the series before now, find a few hours and discover the show for yourself. It's definitely one of the best and most challenging shows on television. I can barely contain my anticipation for the fourth season when it debuts in March next year.
The HD DVD version of 'Battlestar Galactica' features the original three-hour miniseries and all thirteen first season episodes. These include "33," "Water," "Bastille Day," "Act of Contrition," "You Can't Go Home Again," "Litmus," "Six Degrees of Separation," "Flesh and Bone," "Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down," "The Hand of God," "Colonial Day," and "Kobol's Last Gleaming Parts 1 and 2."
The HD DVD -- Vital Disc Stats
The six-disc set is one of the worst packaging jobs I've ever encountered. The set is encased in a flimsy plastic sleeve that houses an inner digipak constructed of rickety cardboard panels. These panels unfold outward from a central spine to reveal the discs. Each disc is held firmly in place by a small rubber circle mounted in the center of each panel.While I appreciate the diagonally trimmed corners on the inner box (a direct nod to the shape of books in the 'Battlestar' mythos), the resulting construction lacks some basic necessities. First off, the discs aren't supported in plastic trays -- they simply "hover" above their individual panels on the rubber hubs. Second, the entire package feels like it could break or rip at any moment. Finally, removing the discs requires a clockwise twisting motion that isn't described in any instructional text in (or on) the package. Attempting to pry any of the discs off their spokes would be a grave mistake that will only result in unnecessary stress on the disc.
The packaging doesn't have the asthetic confidence, practical functionality, or polished appearance of the 'Battlestar' standard DVD sets. Looking at my shelves, my eye is drawn to the HD DVD version of 'Battlestar' for all the wrong reasons -- it looks sad and clunky next to my crisply packaged high-def collection. Mark my words, the design and housing of this HD DVD set will lead to unnecessarily damaged discs and tattered packaging.
Most distressingly, four of the discs included in my box set have long tangential scratches (circular grooves) that make the back of the affected discs look like someone drew a rippling water pattern with a pocket knife. Some of the scratches are so deep that I could slip my fingernail into the crevices. Message boards are cluttered with similar complaints -- apparently this is a common issue with this set. The problem would appear to have emerged during the manufacturing of this set, as the surrounding cardboard panels are too smooth to have caused the damage and there isn't anything else present in the packaging that could have cut the discs in this manner. We don't know how widespread the issue is at this time, but we'll be sure to report further information as we receive it.
Our own Josh Zyber sent me his thoughts on the packaging as well -- I thought you'd find the second opinion beneficial:
"My copy of the BSG box set finally arrived. This is truly the worst packaging any video disc product has ever been stuck with. Not only are there serious dents and creases in both the plastic shell and the cardboard digipak, but several of my discs have prominent scratches. Trying to pry the discs off their rubber hubs is a nightmare in itself. I damn near snapped one of the discs in half before I came upon the idea of twisting them off."
The episodes are presented with an underwhelming 1080p/VC-1 transfer that fails to distinguish itself very well from the already problematic HD broadcast. Worse still, the overall video quality doesn't look much better than it does on standard DVD. From the very first episode, I was shocked to find the image cluttered with light source noise, minor to moderate artifacting, and obvious color banding. If I only had to deal with the show's use of heavy grain, I could overlook the gritty picture and chalk up the roughness to directorial intent. But the frequency and diversity of noise in this presentation is a problem I'd expect to find on DirecTV, not HD DVD.
To make matters worse, the transfer also fumbles some key fundamentals. The darkest areas of the screen aren't always pitch black (resulting in space scenes that lack depth), contrast is unreliable, and fine detail isn't sufficiently improved when compared to the HD broadcast and the standard DVDs. I did a few side-by-side comparisons between the HD DVDs and DVDs and found too many scenes that looked depressingly similar. There's still a noticeable difference between the two, but it isn't as apparent as the comparisons I've made when examining higher tiered HD DVD transfers.
Fortunately, the transfer isn't a complete failure. There are many instances where detail does look much better than the DVD -- notice the intricate lines on the Galactica, the sharp ships in each dogfight (particularly when fighters turn in the distance), and more subtle elements like on screen text and uniform textures. Colors also benefit from the high-def treatment -- the bleached palette feels more stable and alive on HD DVD. The primary hues of explosions and tracers even have a realistic glow that makes them feel more dangerous than they ever have before.
Overall, I can't help but feel slighted. The transfer may have merit, but the abundant technical issues make each episode resemble a recording of an HD television broadcast. In my opinion, the recent Sci-Fi HD presentation of 'Battlestar Galactica: Razor' looked almost as good as the first season HD DVDs. That, my friends, is a sad state of affairs.
(Note that there is a small visual difference between the mini-series and the regular season episodes. The mini-series was shot on film for its 2003 television premiere and the official season one episodes were shot in HD for the 2004 television season. However, the difference is negligible and both presentations suffer from the same technical flaws.)
'Battlestar Galactica' features a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track that finally gives the set something to brag about -- a mix that bests the DVD sound for sound. This release also includes a thinner Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix, but it's encoded at 384 kbps (the standard DVD Dolby track has an audio bitrate of 448 kbps).
Dialogue on the TrueHD mix is crisp and weighted in the central channel, spreading to the surrounds when necessary and massaging enough LFE support into the lines to provide the on-screen tension with suitable weight. The surrounds are engaged mainly for ambiance in the Galactica, but the tiny retro rockets on the fighters also hiss within each speaker. Dogfights provide the most stirring soundfield experience -- the ships accurately drift around the soundscape and the swift channel pans are smooth. However, the best thing about the TrueHD mix is how aggressively it reproduces the show's engaging soundtrack. It features stable strings and heavy drums to set a pulsing rhythm to all of the militaristic action and human drama. The unique orchestration includes obscure instruments like a Japanese biwa and Middle Eastern melodic lines, but their sounds are reproduced cleanly. To top it all off, stretches of LFE-laden percussion dominate the soundfield and provide a truly rousing element.
Still, the audio could sound even better. For starters, the dogfights, flagship battles, and shoot outs don't quite pack the robust oomph I was expecting. I know most of the battles are intentionally muffled to reflect the vacuum of space, but when the camera shifts inside the cockpit and onto the Galactica, the impacts should be thunderous. Dynamics are pretty good, but the mix could be heavier when it thumps its low-end chest and lighter when the track's nuances appear. It also doesn't help that 'Battlestar Galactica' is actually a quiet show compared to most sci-fi series. I already mentioned the audible style of the space battles, but the show also spends its time focusing on characters and conversations -- the bursts of chaos are few and far between.
In the end, the TrueHD track on each episode still sounds really good. The source material may be more subdued than newcomers may expect, but the mix handles each scene with respect to deliver an experience that bests the standard DVD audio.
(Note that we've also received complaints from readers having issues with the TrueHD audio. While I didn't encounter any technical hiccups, some people have encountered a MLP 2.0 track playing instead of the TrueHD mix, while others have encountered audio synch issues in random episodes. Whether these issues are a product of the release or the variety of scratched discs on the market is unclear at this time.)
The HD DVD version of 'Battlestar Galactica: Season 1' includes most of the supplemental content that appeared on the standard US DVD edition. Much of the UK exclusive DVD material is still MIA. The only US feature that isn't included is a 20-minute featurette called "The Series Lowdown" -- however, bits of this bonus are scattered throughout the exclusive Picture-in-Picture video commentary that I'll discuss in the next section.
As a series, I can't recommend 'Battlestar Galactica' enough. Unfortunately, this HD DVD release is a mess from top to bottom that should be rented and evaluated long before it's purchased. Even if you get an undamaged case with unscratched discs and manage to avoid the random audio discrepancies people are encountering, you'll find a release with questionable video quality that suffers from artifacting and other technical problems. The only upside is an improved TrueHD audio track and a healthy collection of supplements. Still, this remains one of the most disappointing HD DVD releases I've reviewed and a real letdown for 'Battlestar' fans everywhere.