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Battlestar Galactica - Season One

On Disc Four of this impressive five-disc set, in his commentary track for the episode "The Hand of God," series creator and executive producer Ronald D. Moore describes TV's new Battlestar Galactica as "a combat series about an anti-aircraft carrier in space fighting its foes." Then he expands this too-narrow summary by reiterating his view that this boldly written and conceived show is "a drama first, an action-adventure series or a science fiction series a distant second." And that still doesn't cover all the layers and tones spun into this addictively compelling and convention-busting series. When he reconceived Battlestar Galactica's original cheesy, adolescents-oriented 1970s incarnation, Moore gave an adult and sophisticated upgrade to the original's fundamentals. The utter decimation of humanity by the robotic Cylon race is still the starting point, but gone are the comic-book costumes and Abba hairdos. The hokey names such as "Apollo" and "Starbuck" are now only their characters' military call-signs. In this post-Lucas, post-Star Trek era, kitschy space opera has been replaced with gritty "you are there" realism. (The documentary-like handheld camerawork, even during space-fighter battles, is striking.) This thoughtfully bleak version takes its cues not from the tired conventions of screen sci-fi, but from our new generation of HBO-style serialized dramas. Some of the best writing currently on television makes this a challenging and intelligent show that fills its science-fiction bottle with intriguingly flawed characters, bare-knuckle politics worthy of the best "West Wing" storylines, and bar-raising standards of sex, suffering, sincere humanism, and other interesting choices all around.

First aired on the SciFi Channel, the twisty, meaty episodes on hand here include 2003's three-hour introductory miniseries plus the first season's 13 subsequent hours. There's not a clunker in the bunch. Each builds on its predecessors and pushes the intertwined storylines forward. It all kicks off with nothing less than mankind's twelve colony worlds nuked by the Cylons, and the survivors (fewer than 50,000) gathering their forces and setting the series in motion with gripping, often brutal forward momentum. In some episodes, simple survival is the propulsive thrust, as in "33," with an exhausted crew barely avoiding a relentless Cylon fleet. "Water" ups the ante by adding a new wrinkle to the survival problem — some Cylons can pass as humans, and at least one is a saboteur aboard the Galactica. Politics rears its head in "Bastille Day," which introduces the terrorist (or is he a freedom-fighter?) Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch, the original series' Apollo). Zarek's ratcheting grassroots popularity among the people, and the resulting conflict with President Laura Roslin (Mary McConnell, powerful in her signature underplaying), come to a head in "Colonial Day." Religious themes — such as the possibilities of a larger string-pulling mythos with arcane scriptural purposes, including the spiritual Cylons' devout concept of God's will — give a twist to a thrills-and-spills battle episode, "The Hand of God." The two-part season closer, "Kobol's Last Gleaming," sees the power struggle between the increasingly messianic Roslin and the fleet's military leader Adama (Edward James Olmos, terrific as the weariest of old soldiers) burst open toward civil war at the legendary birthplace world of humanity. There, a sacred relic brought to "the home of the gods" might help them find the semi-mythical lost 13th colony, known as Earth. When it first aired, the season's cliffhanger left us leaning forward on the couch with our jaws open.

Rather than your standard sci-fi black-and-white stock characters as unchangeable as Hummel figurines, we get a cast that's up to the job of exploring the ROYGBIV shades of human complexity. The old pros (Olmos and McDonnell) don't outshine the newcomers. Katee Sackhoff, as ace fighter jockey Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, is our vote for the show's breakout talent, if we had to pick just one. The sci-fi trappings are here in abundance, of course, and they sure look and sound cool. Hell breaks loose and things get blown up real good, and the close-quarters space battles evoke Star Wars without the stupid. Still, the genre fixtures are downplayed by the show's startling retro-tech look, which avoids terminal bafflegab, and by characters who behave, talk, and even dress like we in the audience do. Smart, unconventional editing gives it all a style and rhythm above the commonplace. Background musical scoring ranges from taiko drums and Celtic pipes to a sort of haunting world-music and a good imitation of Philip Glass. Beyond all that, though, this is the most straightforwardly post-9/11 show now on the air. This series about a genocidal war between humans and robots in space comes imbued with ruminations on patriotism, religious faith vs. secularism, civilian vs. military realpolitik, and our struggles with how far a society is willing to go in order to safeguard its citizens. Moore's acknowledged allegories give us slantwise looks at the aftermath of 9/11, the ostensible war on terror, and even Abu Ghraib. The parallels aren't simplistic and absolute, though the show's sci-fi "Wow, cool!" factor gets welcome gravitas from recognitions that would have been unthinkable before 9/11. As entertaining and engaging as it is, this new and grown-up Battlestar Galactica aims to do something greater than just tickle your inner child or add new action figures to your toy shelf.

*          *          *

The boxed set from Universal Studios Home Entertainment gives this highly rated and critically charmed series a worthy DVD release. The widescreen image (1.78:1, anamorphic) is first-rate, and it's supported by well-mixed, immersive DD 5.1 audio.

The three-hour miniseries on Disc One is identical to its previous standalone DVD release, preserving the same transfer and Ronald D. Moore's audio commentary, which he recorded before the series itself aired. (The other extras from that previous miniseries DVD are not in this set, so completists must double-dip.) New to these discs is Moore, sometimes joined by co-producer David Eick and director Michael Rymer, providing commentary tracks for nine episodes. Originally recorded as podcasts downloadable from SciFi.com, the tracks are dry but illuminating first-hand insights into the creative work Moore, his team, and the cast underwent as an episode takes shape onscreen.

Other extras include Battlestar Galactica: Series Lowdown (20 mins.), an entertaining promo with the cast giving us what's what and who's who in the show. Eight short — under ten minutes each — behind-the-scenes featurettes explore the show's growth from conceptualization to realization. ("Change is Good, Now They're Babes" is the featurette title we like best. And four more of these are available only at SciFi.com.) Deleted scenes (48 mins.) and a scored video montage of Sketches and Art (4 mins.) are also worth a punch of the Play button. It all comes in five slimline cases with a paperboard slipcase.

—Mark Bourne

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