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DVD Review: Battlestar Galactica Season One

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Suffice it to say that the recent release of Battlestar Galactica: Season One is one of the best television-related DVD sets I’ve seen in a long time. Not only are the season’s thirteen episodes lovingly enshrined on five discs, but they included the 2003 miniseries that launched the re-imagining of the 1978 show and also added a host of extras. Bottom line: if you like science fiction, you should be off picking up Battlestar Galactica: Season One. And if you don’t like science fiction, why are you still here, and should I really be talking to you?

The show, which is broadcast on the Sci Fi Channel, is routinely described as the “best science fiction show on television” by many critics. To my way of thinking, it should simply be described as one of the best shows on television, period, because trotting out the “genre card” is such an expression of an otherwise dismissive elitism regarding science fiction. Why do I say this? Simple. To audiences somewhat unfamiliar with the length and breadth of the genre, it often gets marginalized as a genre which focuses almost exclusively on the images of robots, rockets, and ray guns.

Which isn’t to say that Battlestar Galactica doesn’t feature some of those very things. But we have to remember that by its very definition, “science fiction” is simply a speculative genre which considers the impact of emerging science and technology upon society and the individuals which comprise it. Ray guns are only the beginning of science fiction; there’s much, much more at play. Science fiction is frequently a mind-bending genre which allows for free rein in philosophical discussion. The worlds imagined by science fiction authors are frequently based on newly fabricated rules, the cultures they explore are often alternate visions of our own. Whether in the context of space operas, dystopian nightmares, cyberpunk or more, science fiction affords us the opportunity to re-examine what it really means to be human in the face of technological advancement and our ever-increasing separation from the natural world.

The new Battlestar Galactica adopts the same basic storyline as the short-lived original. After years of constant warfare with their rebellious robotic creations, the Cylons, the 12 human colonies brokered a peace which has itself now lasted for a number of years. The Battlestar Galactica is a relic of the old Cylon wars, in which the Cylons were capable of infiltrating the computer systems of other ships by way of their computer network. As such, the Galactica’s computers are not networked together and the ship features many other things which might well seem antiquated. As the 2003 miniseries opens, the Galactica was about to be mothballed and turned into a floating museum, with its aging commander, Adama (palyed with steely-eyed determination by Edward James Olmos), reassigned to other duties.

The Cylons, however, have other plans. They’ve managed to infiltrate the colonies’ defense systems and they launch a sneak attack that destroys most of the colonies and virtually all of the human fleet. All that is left are the Galactica and its “rag-tag fleet” of refugees. The former assistant education secretary (and newly minted president of the colonies) Roslin, played by Mary McDonnell, assumes civilian command of the fleet. Together, she and Commander Adama collect those survivors they can and embark upon a quest to find the mythical “thirteenth colony,” the planet simply called Earth. Of course, as they are about to discover, the Cylons have other plans – and unfortunately, some of them now are virtually indistinguishable from humans.

The producers of the new show took some daring chances and broke rank with the mythology of the old show. First of all, by making the Cylons, or a portion of them, human-like in appearance, they increased the stakes, not only dramatically but philosophically as well. They changed Dirk Benedict’s flamboyant Starbuck into a woman (played with brash aplomb by Katee Sackhoff) and added a layer of familial tension betwen Adama and his son Lee (the “Apollo” of the original show). And they chose to frame some of the discussion in terms of the negative side of humanity – all of the paranoia, suspicion, selfishness, and the like that can characterize our existence.

The season opens with the episode called “33,” in which the Galactica and its fleet must make a “jump” through hyperspace in an effort to avoid their Cylon pursuers – who each time manage to find them and force another jump. It’s a tense, taut episode; the pilots grow testy and rely on artificial stimulants to stay conscious, while paranoia threatens to affect command decisions.

Other highlights include “Flesh and Bone,” an episode in which Starbuck must interrogate a human-like Cylon who was discovered aboard one of the ships in the fleet. Their resulting cat-and-mouse mental games, including a discussion of the distinctions between humans and machines, was quite tautly written and performed. The same episode also highlighted some intriguing metaphysical discussions.

Of course, no sci fi show would be complete without a few action sequences, and Galactica aims to please. Episodes like “The Hand of God” ably showcase a host of special effects that make the original look like a performance put on by a couple of neighborhood kids in their garage.

The narrative of the episodes in the first season are loosely organized around three primary thematic components. First of all, we have the ongoing efforts to elude the Cylons. Second, we have the role of Dr. Gaius Baltar (played with slimy self-serving histrionics by James Callis), one of the colonies’ top scientists, who just happened to betray them to the Cylons – if only by accident. Baltar’s efforts to conceal his own culpability, together with his interaction with the version of Number Six (a gorgeous Cylon agent) who exists only in his head, provide both a bit of gratuitous sexuality and a measure of comic relief. The final leg of the show’s three-part base is found in the ongoing adventures of a pilot named Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) who was left on the colonial planet of Caprica during the original miniseries. Helo doesn’t realize the extent of his peril, but he his on the run from the Cylons (or so he thinks) with a fellow Galactica piolt named Sharon (Grace Park). Unfortunately for Helo, Sharon is actually a Cylon agent – and there are a number of them wearing the same face.

As is noted during the opening credits of each episode, the Cylons “have a plan.” We’re not told exactly what it is – but overshadowing everything in the series to-date is the sense that things may well be proceeding largely according to their expectations. The show’s first season demonstrates a solidly consistent quality, and none of the episodes demonstrate much of the uneven nature of many shows in their first year of production. Overall, the show features some of the most dynamic characters and engaging political drama on television today. The cast consistently offers up nuanced, understated performances which stand in contrast to the usual bluster and scenery-consumption of many space operas. And Richard Hatch, the original Apollo, even makes a couple of guest appearances. The cliffhanger of an ending sets the stage for an equally impressive (not to mention disfunctional and combative) second season.

There’s really so much to be impressed with here. Not only is the show great, but the DVD set itself is also well designed. For anyone who didn’t catch (or hasn’t caught) the original miniseries, it is included here, along with eight featurettes which cover all aspects of the series, from production design, visual effects, and both plot and character development. There’s also the commentaries, originally presented as podcasts on the Battlestar Galactica website, which offer considerable insight into the creative process. If you haven’t caught up with one of the best shows on television – and, yes, the best science fiction show on television – well, Battlestar Galactica: Season One is probably the best opportunity yet. Highly recommended.

Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.

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