Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Battlestar Galactica" (2003) Season One [blu-ray]

"Battlestar Galactica" (2003) Season One [blu-ray]
Starring Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell and Katee Sackhoff
Developed by Ronald D. Moore and David Eick

The Cylons were created by man, to make life easier on the Twelve Colonies.  They rebelled.  They evolved.  Then they returned, and slaughtered the human race.  "Battlestar Galactica" is the story of the roughly 50,000 survivors of the human race as they abandon their savaged homes in search of a mythical refuge, the legendary 13th Colony called Earth.  On the run from the Cylons, low on supplies and morale, the last remnants of humanity struggle to maintain their civilization.

They are protected by the last military vessel to survive the onslaught, the Battlestar Galactica, commanded by William Adama, who claims to know the secret location of Earth.  Among his crew are some of the best of the Colonial Fleet, including wild hotshot pilot Lt. Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, Cylon sleeper agent Sharon "Boomer" Valerii, "Hot Dog" Costanza and Lee "Apollo" Adama.  On the civilian side, the fleet is led by former secretary of education Laura Roslin, elevated to President after the rest of the government is killed in the Cylon apocalypse.  Her close advisor, Dr. Gaius Baltar, a scientific genius, hides a dangerous secret: that he was an unwitting agent of the Cylons and allowed them to get through Colonial defenses.

This disparate group of individuals must find a way to get over their incredible differences, find new resources and fend off Cylon attacks at every turn - from without and from within.  With the revelation that the Cylons now have human forms, the game opens up to all kinds of stories mirroring post-9/11 terrorist paranoia.  This is where "Galactica" excels - It is not simply a show about killer robots and space battles.  Though its action sequences can be epic and enthralling, they are not all that common.  Instead, "Galactica" manages to straddle many genres, exploring all kinds of stories from political intrigue, conspiracies, prophecy and religion, and relationships.

Storylines build from episode to episode, creating a dense tapestry of story and relationships that, I won't lie, are simply too complex to relate here.  I could talk all day about what the characters go through in just this shortened first season.  Just know that the drama is intense, the production first-rate, and the writing top-notch.  There are some hiccups, but otherwise, you'd be hard-pressed to find a finer television series anywhere.  The cliffhanger that ends the first season is a shocking, incredible moment that will have you reaching immediately for the first disc of Season Two.

Starring mostly no one you've ever seen before (save for Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell), the cast is pretty much superb.  Olmos gives a smoldering intensity to Adama, while McDonnell brings a graceful intelligence to her Laura Roslin.  The two of them have incredible chemistry together, and their scenes often crackle with great energy.  The big surprise of the cast, however, is former model Tricia Helfer as "Number Six", a gorgeous human model cylon who appears both as a number of in-the-flesh copies, and as an apparition only in Baltar's mind who guides and tests him.  Helfer displays incredible range, and displays intelligence far beyond what her leggy blonde looks might imply.   Tom Zarek, a sleazy politician/terrorist, is played by Richard Hatch, who played Apollo in the original 1978 series.  Although publicly opposed to the reimagined series at first, Hatch not only came aboard and changed his mind, but integrated himself deeply in the show's mythology and created a character fans loved to hate.

I also have to take a moment and say something about one aspect of the show that people may not expect: the music.  Scored by Bear McCreary, the musical scores for each episode of "Battlestar Galactica" are practically works of art in themselves.   Given incredible artistic freedom to explore new sounds and themes, McCreary manages to create a musical identity for "Galactica" that's just incredibly fun to listen to, and quite unique for a television production.  If you're at all interested in film scores, or just plain good music, seek out the five soundtrack albums (seasons 1-4 and "The Plan/Razor").

The included episodes are:
"Battlestar Galactica" (miniseries, parts 1 and 2)
"33" - With the Cylons attacking every 33 minutes, the human survivors fight sleep deprivation and for their lives to escape.

"Water" - Suspicions about a Cylon agent in the fleet begin to rise when Galactica's water tanks are sabotaged, and most of the fleet's drinking water is vented into space.

"Bastille Day" - While trying to secure prisoner labor to mine an ice planet for water, Apollo and several others are taken hostage by the dangerous terrorist Tom Zarek.

"Act of Contrition" - After revealing a secret about the death of Adama's son, Starbuck crashlands on a barren world after an encounter with the Cylons.

"You Can't Go Home Again" - Adama and Apollo risk the fleet to find Starbuck, stranded on a barren world and running out of air.

"Litmus" - A Cylon suicide bomber detonates himself aboard the Galactica, forcing Roslin to reveal the truth about the Cylons to the public.

"Six Degrees of Separation" - Baltar is accused of helping the Cylons destroy the Colonies.

"Flesh and Bone" - Starbuck is ordered to torture Leoben, a Cylon who claims to have planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in the fleet... and to know Starbuck's destiny regarding Earth.

"Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down" - Colonel Tigh's wife, Ellen, resurfaces, creating chaos and paranoia aboard the ship.

"The Hand of God" - Low on fuel, Adama and Starbuck plan a daring, desperate attack on a well-guarded Cylon base.

"Colonial Day" - Apollo and Starbuck attempt to thwart a plot by Tom Zarek to assassinate President Roslin.

"Kobol's Last Gleaming, Part 1" - The fleet finds Kobol, the legendary birthplace of humanity, and Roslin begins to believe that she may have a destiny prophesied in the holy scriptures.

"Kobol's Last Gleaming, Part 2" - Roslin convinces Starbuck to go against Adama's orders, forcing a political confrontation between the government and the military while a crashed raptor crew remains stranded on Kobol, on the run from Cylon forces.

The presentation on the blu-ray disc is quite excellent, an upgrade on the standard DVD editions in every way possible.  The new edition of the "Complete Series" set features the standard retail boxes inside of an outer slip-case instead of the more elaborate set that came out last year.  Unlike the original DVD sets, none of the seasons are split up into halves.  Seasons Two and Four, previously split into 2.0, 2.5 and 4.0 and 4.5 sets are now in Season Two and Season Four boxes.

Visually, the series looks fantastic.  While grain can be an issue, it's entirely on purpose.  The show is shot on high definition digital video, and tweaked afterward to often look gritty and dirty, which includes grain and flicker, which can vary greatly between light and heavy depending on artistic intent.  Otherwise, detail is fantastic.  Textures come alive, especially skin and costumes.  Onscreen text is much clearer and easier to read, and stray hairs become all the more obvious.  Where the visual presentation really excels, like many other blu-rays, is in the colors.  Whether its the blown-out oranges of nuked Caprica, the intense green grass of Kobol, or the inky black of space, the color on the blu-ray is incredible.  This show will never look better, and it looks pretty frakkin' amazing.

The pilot miniseries that takes up the entirety of disc one, however, doesn't fare as well.  Shot on film instead of HD video, for whatever reason it just doesn't come across as clearly.  Colors are more subdued, and detail doesn't pop quite as much.  This could lead one to think that, perhaps, the blu-ray set won't be all that great.  But things pick up considerably in the first proper episode of the series, '33' on disc two.  The opening shot, a closeup of Baltar's dirty face, shows incredible detail and clarity.  The difference between the two are clear as day during the "previously on..." segments that mix clips from the miniseries and later episodes.

On the sound side, the HD sound mixes blow the DVD sets out of the water, as well.  The percussion-heavy (and, again, utterly amazing) musical score comes through loud and clear, but never drowns out the dialogue.  Booming explosions, gunfire, shouting, ambient sound effects are all amazingly reproduced, and come at you from all angles if you've got a surround system. 

"Battlestar Galactica" is one of the best television series ever.  You can't go wrong with this blu-ray set, which presents the show in excellent high-definition video and sound, and is loaded with all the special features from the original DVD sets.  This is an upgrade in every possible way, and I can't recommend it enough.