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Saturday, December 20, 2008

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA 4.0 -- DVD review by porfle

When the original CATTLECAR--excuse me, "BATTLESTAR" GALACTICA came out back in the 70s, I was among those who regarded it as nothing more than a candy-coated piece of sci-fi dreck. So when the Sci-Fi Channel came out with this jazzed-up remake a few years ago, I stayed away, recalling that old line about a silk purse and a sow's ear. Well, I couldn't have been more wrong. After watching this BATTLESTAR GALACTICA 4.0 four-disc DVD set, which covers the first half of the show's fourth and supposedly final season, I could frakkin' kick myself for not being glued to the TV set from the very first episode.

Simply put, this series kicks major ass on every conceivable level. Surely one of the finest series ever produced for television, it might even be the best weekly sci-fi series of all time. Every aspect of the show--acting, writing, production values, special effects, music--is consistently excellent. The show's producers, Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, have somehow managed to combine riveting adult drama with the best elements of pure space opera.

As in the '78 version, the story begins in a distant part of the galaxy where a human civilization known as The Twelve Colonies is decimated by an attack from the Cylons. Less than 35,000 humans survive, escaping into deep space in a ragtag fleet of ships protected by the battlestar Galactica under the leadership of Admiral William Adama. Their goal is to reach the fabled planet of their race's origin known as "Earth" before the pursuing Cylons can destroy them.

The Cylons consist of both robotic warriors and several series of humanoid clones which are essentially immortal, since they can download their shared consciousness into new bodies whenever necessary via an immense spacecraft known as the Resurrection Hub. Much of the fourth season's drama revolves around a civil war between the more warlike Cylons and the ones who wish to end hostilities with the humans, while a small group of these humanoid Cylons, known as The Final Five, actually live and work aboard the Galactica and until recently were unaware that they weren't human.

Meanwhile, Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos) and President Laura Roslin (DANCES WITH WOLVES' Mary McDonnell) struggle to maintain military control over the fleet rather than hand it over to a group of civilian politicians headed by Vice President Zarek (original '78 castmember Richard Hatch). Religion plays a major role in the stories as well, with one-God proponent Gaius Baltar (James Callis) and his worshipful followers clashing with polytheists who maintain belief in Zeus and other gods. ("Gods damn it!" is a commonly-heard expletive on the show, second only to the ubiquitous "Frak!")

A major event which really sets the fourth-season storyline into motion is the disappearance of fighter pilot Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) during a battle with the Cylons. After being declared dead, she and her "raptor" ship suddenly turn up several weeks later, both without a scratch. Starbuck insists that somehow she's been to Earth and now knows the way back, but no one believes her at first--in fact, she's suspected to be a Cylon replicant. Eventually, however, the ultimate fate of the entire fleet will depend upon the knowledge that has been mysteriously implanted in her mind.

Having missed out on all the previous episodes, I had to piece together much of what goes on during this season on the fly. But it was definitely worth it. There's a wealth of intense human drama, not to mention political and religious intrigue, all interlaced within a rock-solid story arc featuring a fascinating cast of characters. The plight of the Final Five is especially compelling as they deal with the shock of discovering that they're not human and the constant fear of being revealed as "alien." The growing romantic relationship between battle-weary leaders Adama and Roslin is explored, and made more poignant by her terminal cancer. And the conflict between the warring Cylon factions is full of surprises.

As space opera, the series often reaches epic proportions. The battles between human and Cylon forces are depicted with some mouth-wateringly good CGI--not as sharp and weighty as model work, but with a sweep and grandeur comparable to STARSHIP TROOPERS and the opening sequence of STAR WARS III: REVENGE OF THE SITH--while the potentially distracting use of Shaky-Cam is handled well, giving the battle scenes a somewhat documentary feel. The show also boasts top-notch production design and excellent sets that create a believably realistic atmosphere.

Old pros Olmos and McDonnell head a fine cast that also includes BAND OF BROTHERS' Jamie Bamber as soldier-turned-politician Lee "Apollo" Adama, Tricia Helfer as the beautiful and mysterious Cylon known as Number Six, Michael Hogan as Colonel Tigh (who is not only Adama's most trusted officer but also a member of the Final Five), and the great Dean Stockwell as Cylon leader Brother Cavil. Another welcome presence is Lucy Lawless in an awesomely cool turn as D'Anna Biers, a Cylon who becomes the focal point of an intense standoff between the opposing forces which will determine the outcome of the entire saga.

In addition to the ten episodes in this set, the first disc contains a stand-alone movie called RAZOR which stars Michelle Forbes as Admiral Helena Cain of the battlestar Pegasus. Forbes, who played Ensign Ro on "Star Trek: The Next Generation", is outstanding in this gripping tale of a ruthless commander who resorts to terror and the execution of civilians to ensure the survival of her ship and crew. Both the broadcast version and the unrated extended version are included.

Each disc also contains numerous bonus features--commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes docs, deleted scenes, trailers, minisodes, podcast commentaries, video blogs, and more--offering hours of added material. The visual and sound quality are fine, with 1.78:01 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.

As a longtime sci-fi fan, and especially as a diehard Trekker, I enjoyed the hell out of this set and will definitely start seeking out more of them. Although BATTLESTAR GALACTICA 4.0 ends halfway through the fourth season--to be continued in 2009--it does come to a satisfying conclusion. I can't wait to see the rest!

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