Ronald D. Moore and David Eick are gods among men.
Back in 2003, the duo set out to resurrect Glen A. Larson's campy 1978 sci-fi classic 'Battlestar Galactica' by giving it an extreme makeover for the new millennium. Any project of such magnitude is always a bold and risky endeavor, especially after the numerous failed attempts in the past to rekindle the franchise.
The plan for the update was to retain the basic plot of a group of space-faring humans on the run from the deadly cybernetic Cylons, but inject it with a much more serious tone -- taking the production into an entirely different direction. The whole idea was a potential recipe for disaster, yet somehow all the stars aligned just right and Moore and Eick were in the zone. When they needed to zig they zigged, and when they were supposed to zag they zagged. These guys put away their targeting computers and still blew the Death Star to smithereens. The final result is what Time Magazine and countless others (myself included) hail as one of the best dramas on television. Ever.
Sometime in their history, a civilized planetary system consisting of a dozen tribes of humanity known as the Twelve Colonies of Kobol created a race of sentient robotic beings they called Cylons. The Cylons were built to make the humans' lives easier, but one day the machines had enough of slavery and rebelled against their masters. The uprising escalated into a war and then suddenly -- the Cylons vanished without a trace.
After forty years of silence the Cylons had become nearly forgotten relics of the past. The only person who seems to be unable to let his guard down is Commander Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos) of the warship Battlestar Galactica. On the verge of retirement, Adama is a seasoned veteran from the Cylon War and sadly his ship is in the process of being converted into a museum. But while he's still aboard the vessel he's the one calling the shots, which comes in real handy when word comes in that their homeworlds are being nuked. The Colonies are under attack.
With the vicious return of the Cylons, Adama makes the critical decision to put his old girl back into commission and protect as many survivors as he can -- which will include his estranged son Lee "Apollo" Adama (Jamie Bamber); his right hand man by day/drunkard by night Colonel Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan); the cancer-stricken Secretary of Education Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell); insubordinate hotshot pilot Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff); Chief Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas); Karl "Helo" Agathon (Tahmoh Penikett); Sharon "Boomer" Valerii (Grace Park); and the sniveling genius who is somehow connected to the assault -- Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis) to name a few. Decimated to near-extinction, there is a glimmer of hope -- and the driving force behind the fleet's survival is finding the mythical thirteenth colony called Earth.
There are many elements that merge together to transform 'Battlestar Galactica' into the exceptional series it has become, and one of them is the outstanding performances. Nobody is more perfect than Edward James Olmos as the steadfast Bill Adama, who serves as the anchor of the entire production. Olmos brings life to a character that is honorable and loyal if a little stubborn, and is able to make extremely difficult decisions. Sometimes he doesn't even need to say a word for the viewer to know exactly what's on his mind, and there are times where he delivers a line so callously it can actually send shivers down your spine. Likewise, Mary McDonnell is the ideal complement to Olmos, butting heads with him on occasion and often acting as the voice of reason. Her Roslin is a level-headed political woman, and her struggle with a terminal illness is touching and believable. Another favorite of mine is Dr. Baltar himself, James Callis, who creates a smart yet misguided soul that seems to have more luck up his sleeves than Han Solo. Watching him squirm out of dire situations is highly entertaining, not to mention the fact that his facial expressions are simply priceless. Every character is flawed in one way or another making them all interesting, and the entire cast contributes their own little pieces, adding humor, friction, drama, and more. In short, this ensemble is tough to top.
The show also thrives from its remarkable writing. 'Battlestar Galactica' may appear to be a sci-fi shoot-em-up on the surface, but Moore and company wisely focus on human nature and interaction before anything else, which builds the framework for a character driven drama at its core. Every topic you could possibly imagine is covered at some point -- politics, religion, racism, human rights, and in the wake of 9/11 even terrorism is dealt with accordingly. Each episode brings something new to the table and keeps the series constantly evolving with so many twists and turns that it never gets stale.
Another major difference in this reimagining is with the Cylons themselves. The Centurions have been given an overhaul with a more sleek and streamlined model (although the older clunkier versions still "have their uses" and show up on occasion), but we also learn that some Cylons now look and feel completely human. The first of these new marvels we meet is the seductive temptress Number Six (Tricia Helfer), who uses her perfectly crafted body to blend in and get what she wants. There are twelve different models of these human impostors in total and there are multiple copies of each, including sleeper agents totally unaware of what they truly are until they are activated. This new layer strengthens the drama and is part of what makes this series so riveting. It becomes abundantly clear that there are enemies among the fleet -- and not only does this curveball constantly keep viewers guessing, the genius of it is that it allows for even more complex and engaging storylines.
Not all of the creative liberties were welcomed with open arms, however. Many dedicated followers of the original series were outraged when it was revealed that some of their favorite characters had been given a sex change. Both Boomer (who is technically the merging of Boomer and Athena from the '70s show) and cigar-chomping Starbuck were now women. Some fans were so infuriated by this change they even vowed to boycott the entire production. Most came around eventually, but for those who didn't it's nobody's loss but their own. The problem with the old 'Galactica' was that it was male-dominated, limiting its options, and by creating more female characters it opened up a few more doors to even more possibilities. If the show had stayed true to form, I really don't think the series would have been such a hit and--next to the addition of human-looking Cylons--I personally think this is the strongest decision that was made for the revival.
The new 'Battlestar Galactica' began as a two-part event for the Sci-Fi Channel (which is now the ridiculously renamed Syfy). Ratings normally tend to drop off a bit for subsequent chapters of a miniseries as some viewers lose interest, but in this case the ratings skyrocketed for the second half -- paving the runway for four incredible seasons, two movies, and the upcoming 'Caprica' prequel spinoff. 'Battlestar Galactica' is the type of series that hits all the right marks, latches onto you almost immediately, and a pitch perfect illustration of television at its finest.
'Battlestar Galactica' is a tough release to judge visually. The series is often grainy and colors are heavily unsaturated in places, but this gritty washed-out look is the intended style of the filmmakers. On the first disc for each season, Ronald D. Moore gives a brief introduction touching on this subject plus there's a message on startup from Universal stating:
"The Blu-ray release of Battlestar Galactica accurately preserves the artistic intentions of the creators. The stylized visual elements within certain scenes are intentional and faithful to the broadcast presentation of the television show."
The point is that 'Battlestar Galactica' was never meant to gleam and sparkle, so as long as viewers keep this in mind and don't approach the Blu-rays expecting the crystal clearness of a show like 'LOST' for example, then I'm sure the majority will be satisfied with the results.
As an owner of the DVDs, one difference with the standard-definition releases is that the picture is so murky at times it really tends to hinder visibility into the backgrounds. The Blu-rays open things up tremendously, so much so that now I'd almost consider it an entirely new adventure.
The miniseries was captured on traditional film (as opposed to the rest of the series which was filmed via high-definition cameras), and it is slightly more problematic than the rest of the series but still a noticeable improvement over the DVDs. Black levels are darker, although they occasionally slip and lose some of their luster from time to time. Skin tones are realistic if a little soft, and details are crisper. There is some artifacting, color banding, minor crushing, and some edge enhancement, but generally speaking the miniseries easily blows its DVD counterpart to Kingdom Come.
Even better than the miniseries, though, is the series itself. The picture has been treated with artificial grain to maintain the grittiness and grimy feel, but the image is much tighter -- especially in the fine details of facial features and the outer hulls of ships. Colors are still bleak in some scenes, and now they are much richer overall. Whites can be intensely hot on Cylon-occupied Caprica as well as Galactica's Viper hangar, while black levels are deep and inky throughout. The series does suffer from some of the same imperfections previously mentioned in the miniseries -- however they are greatly reduced here and practically nonexistent in the last few seasons.
My only real gripe is with the excessive amount of digital noise. For instance, one camera angle might appear gritty and still pleasing, but the next shot writhes with a cloud of heavy mosquito noise, it's like the snowy interference on an old TV -- and all of the episodes seem to suffer a bit from this sickness. It's possible that this is due to the manipulation of the image's graininess, a side effect from compressing too many episodes on each disc, or maybe it has always been there and Blu-ray merely magnifies it. Who knows? I'm sure DNR haters will probably be tickled pink with this, but for me there are points when it becomes a distraction.
That being said, I love the rest of the 1080p 1.78:1 aspect ratio encode (VC-1 for seasons 1 & 3, AVC MPEG-4 for seasons 2 & 4) that is no contest for the DVDs and even improves upon the past HD DVD version. However, I would have easily bumped up my video rating another full star if the noise wasn't so inconsistent.
The box for 'Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series' comes with a slipcover listing the specs and supplements which incorrectly state Dolby Digital audio for the Blu-rays when the discs actually include DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks. I've always been impressed with the very immersive lossy tracks on the DVDs, but these new lossless mixes are vastly superior in every way.
The series is heavy on dialogue, and Universal has done a great job making it clear and well-prioritized. Sometimes it can still sound a bit distant and constrained, but that's just a very minor quibble and it doesn't really detract from the experience.
The rest of the soundstage is where the show truly shines. The mix is surprisingly airy and atmospheric -- using all of the speakers to their full potential. The rears distribute plenty of subtle effects, and one solid example of this is in the episode 'Bastille Day' with all of the background chatter and clanking aboard the prisoner transport called the Astral Queen. The dogfights between the Colonial's vipers and Cylon raiders commonly give the system a healthy workout, too. The series thrives on hard-driving bass as well -- from the Cylons nuking the Colonies, Adama's old girl firing her massive cannons, to the pulse-pounding percussions of McCreary's outstanding score. There's no question in my mind, 'Battlestar Galactica' is one of the best sounding shows on television.
All of the discs in this collection also include optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
If you aren't already sitting down as you're reading this review, now would be a good time to pull up a chair. Universal has included supplements on each of the twenty discs in this collection, so needless to say -- we're going to be here for awhile.
Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries:
Just for the sake of organization, I'm giving the miniseries its own little section here. However, all of this content is technically part of Season 1 on the first disc.
Battlestar Galactica: Season One:
Battlestar Galactica: Season Two:
Battlestar Galactica: Season Three:
Battlestar Galactica: Razor:
'Battlestar Galactica: Razor' is included in Season 4 on its own separate disc.
Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.0:
Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.5:
Call it a remake, call it a reboot, call it whatever you like, it still won't change the fact that Moore and Eick's interpretation of 'Battlestar Galactica' is a rare gem, and the prime example of a redo done right. The series is in a state of constant evolution, with so many layers and twists and turns keeping viewers firmly perched on the edge of their seats. Plus it helps tremendously that the production has one of the finest ensemble casts ever assembled in television history.
'Battlestar Galactica' has never looked or sounded better than it does on these impressive Blu-rays, either, and the comprehensive supplemental package (including multiple featurettes, hours of deleted scenes, audio commentaries for most of the episodes, and a few other surprises) pretty much seals the deal for any science fiction geek. Universal's clunky packaging may convince some to hold out for the more compact individual seasons inevitably down the road, but 'Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series' remains a top-tier release of 2009 and easily comes highly frakkin' recommended.