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Battlestar Galactica - Season 2.5

As American cable program schedules render the old-style TV "season" obsolete, or at least harder to pin down every year, let's not be shocked to see TV-on-DVD following suit. The SciFi Channel's Battlestar Galactica placed a three-month hiatus in the middle of its 20-episode second season. The good news is that during its hiatus this "sci-fi" cliché-smashing drama accumulated more critical acclaim from the mainstream press, which had been praising the series since its first season. Time magazine declared it the #1 show of 2005, and sources such as the Boston Globe and the American Film Institute ranked it on their Top Ten lists. From its vérité naturalism to its uniformly strong cast, all the way through to its musical scoring and overarcing mood of post-apocalypse existential desperation and hope, here's a series that has achieved a rare amount of attention beyond the usual fanboy (and -girl) circles.

The other news, however and predictably, is that this left dedicated viewers shelling out for two separate DVD box sets released months apart, "Season 2.0" (the ten episodes that originally aired during July-September 2005) and, continuing a naming convention we hope stops here, "Season 2.5" (the following ten, January-March 2006). The episode "Pegasus," the final climactic hour of 2.0, ended on the sort of cliffhanger that left viewers quivering in front of their TiVos with bit-chomping anticipation, and here with 2.5 we're pleased to report that its follow-through is worth the wait and then some. Afterward, though, the series occasionally stutters, for the first time, with a number of subpar outings, episodes that don't deliver the quality highs we've come to expect from Battlestar Galactica's pretty-much unbroken chain of excellence. Fans and the press noticed the drop-off, and one of the good things about this "2.5" DVD set is that the series' creator and executive producer, Ronald D. Moore, notices it as well. When appropriate, he uses his commentary tracks to take buck-stops-here responsibility for any perceived failures and to use them as opportunities for self-examination and constructive criticism. In so doing, we get a more candid look at the art and mechanics of TV production than we'd get from any typical "It's all great" gabfest. Besides, by the time you reach this set's final scenes, which upturn the very premise of the series, you're still glued to a show that isn't afraid to put its hooks into you and then, when you don't expect it, give them a hard twist.

A two-parter, "Resurrection Ship," concludes the Admiral Cain trilogy with two of the series' strongest episodes so far — loyalties get tested to the max, as do individual principles (personal and Constitutional) under the sometimes abused phrase, "a time of war." And that space-battle action is particularly satisfying. As the season's storyline builds and adds more and more layers, other worthy hours include "Scar," a special-effects feast that gives us the war from the perspective of the grunts, the Viper pilots out there taking and giving the fire. It's an episode that furthers the stormy evolution of Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff, still a standout in a powerful core ensemble) and newcomer fighter jock Kat (Luciana Carro, one of the best semi-regulars featured this season). "Downloaded" finally takes us to the enemy Cylon side of the battle line, with actors Lucy Lawless, Tricia Helfer, and Grace Park taking the lead in a surprising story that's bound to leave significant marks on Season 3. Likewise, in "The Captain's Hand," President Roslin, Commander Adama, and others wrestle with the moral, religious, and pragmatic sides of the abortion issue, resulting in a new plot point (the first successful human/Cylon hybrid) that's likely to become a major tentpole in the story's development from this point on.

On the other hand, those stutters mentioned earlier really come home in the noirish misstep "Black Market," which Moore in his podcast commentary track dissects as a disappointment, albeit an illustrative one. (The underbaked Apollo-Dualla relationship, which we have a hard time buying in the best of times, is too-conveniently dropped in this one.) The best thing about "Sacrifice" is guest star Dana Delany (where is the "China Beach" DVD set, anyone?) in an oddly lackluster story that could have done more with its depiction of how wartime trauma can radicalize otherwise ordinary civilians. In "Epiphanies," Dr. Baltar finds a cure for President Roslin's cancer that's straight out of the trite old "Star Trek" playbook, and we're just hoping it pays off big-time in the season to come.

Speaking of hoped-for payoffs, the two-parter that cliffhangers 2.5, "Lay Down Your Burdens," may prove to be a bold masterstroke spinning up the series for a knockout Season 3. Or does it jump the whole show over the jaws of a giant space shark? Either way, it got everyone's attention, and not just from the real-world familiarity of a heated presidential election won by false promises and manipulated hopes. Moore says that the new premise introduced here was inspired by Vichy France under Nazi occupation during World War II. But if the series we've enjoyed so far is any indicator, we shouldn't look to our history books for easy clues to where all these lost causes, flawed souls, and human (or humanoid) relationships are going, or to who will end up on the winning side, assuming that there will even be one by the time it all ends.

*          *          *

Whether or not we like the 2.0/2.5 strategy, Universal Studios Home Entertainment once again hands us a first-rate three-disc DVD set. As before, the clean, vivid high-def image comes in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with well-mixed wraparound DD 5.1 audio.

In the extras department, the big deal is the original five-act Extended Version of "Pegasus," which was cut for time during its original broadcast. It's a fuller story now, with some good connecting tissue added to the broadcast cut we have in the 2.0 box set. Executive producers Ron Moore and David Eick recorded a new "podcast" DVD commentary track for the Extended Version of "Pegasus." (The podcast for the 2.0 version featured only Moore.) Each of the other episodes' audio commentary originated as a podcast on the SciFi Channel's web site (www.scifi.com) during the week the episode aired. That immediacy, coupled with their informative and entertaining content, counts for a lot of their appeal. Moore and Eick recorded them under casual conditions at Moore's home, and their raw, unpolished, unscripted annotations more than make up for the low-fi, in-my-living-room audio quality.

Casualness also reigns in Disc Three's selection of seven short "Videoblogs" by Eick, who takes us behind the scenes to the sets, effects studio, script meetings, and elsewhere for an informal insider's view of the production. In his last one, "Sex, Lies and a Videoblog," Eick ropes actors Katee Sackhoff and Jamie Bamber into a jokey on-set meltdown that's not entirely "work safe." Sprinkled across the three discs are deleted scenes (totaling about 42 mins.) from most of the episodes. Marginalia here comes in the collection of R&D Logos (the cartoony animated "I made this" clips after each broadcast) and the usual list of trailers for other Universal product. It's all here in three slimline cases with a paperboard slipcase.

—Mark Bourne

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