Universal // 2003 // 4058 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski // July 28th, 2009
"All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again." -- Pythian Prophecy
True to Pythia's words, all of this had happened before, when Ronald D. Moore and David Eick took a '70s sci-fi series and began remaking it in 2003. Tuned up and ready for another spin around the universe, this old Battlestar proved to have a whole lot of fight left in her: the new Battlestar Galactica became a critically acclaimed smash hit and gave genre fans four breathtaking seasons. These four seasons -- including the miniseries that started it off and Razor, a TV movie aired between the third and fourth seasons -- are now collected in Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series.
A miniseries, a TV movie, and 73 episodes of perhaps the best sci-fi television series of all time. 4,058 minutes. Countless special features. 25 discs. All in one big frakkin' box.
Spoiler alert! This being a release of the complete series, I'll be discussing (you guessed it) the complete series.
Boiled down to its basics, this incredibly complicated series starts out as the story of human beings as an endangered species fleeing from terrifying predators. A race of robots, the Cylons, they had created and enslaved decades before had rebelled and gained independence from the humans, also decades before. As Battlestar begins, they come back for revenge with 12 models of human-looking Cylons, each with many copies, in addition to their shiny-robots-with-guns army. The Cylons nuke all the human planets and almost all of their military fleet, save for one ship: Galactica. With Commander Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos, Blade Runner) at the helm, Galactica scrambles to save as many people as possible and shepherds a small fleet of civilian vessels away from humanity's rubble and their Cylon pursuers. Even when not being fired upon by Cylon Basestars and Raiders, Adama has a host of problems to deal with: the Secretary of Education turned President, Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell, Donnie Darko), doesn't always support his military decisions; his dwindling supply of Viper pilots includes his estranged son Lee (Jamie Bamber, Law and Order: UK) and loose cannon Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff, 24); plus, the Cylon agents disguised as humans in the fleet are so darned hot that all the humans are having sex with them and divulging classified information! That's what happened to arrogant scientist Gaius Baltar (James Callis, Bridget Jones's Diary) when a Cylon agent known as Six (Tricia Helfer, Burn Notice) used him for access to the humans' defense network in order to pull off the nuke attack.
These plots and characters barely get us started, and over its four-season run Battlestar takes more twists and turns than we could have imagined back at the beginning, and adds dozens more interesting characters. By the end we've seen beloved human characters revealed as Cylons, Baltar the scientist has become Baltar the religious cult leader, Starbuck is some kind of ghost, the civilian government and the military are literally in bed together, Lee goes from Viper pilot to President, grizzly old pirate Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan) has scored with Six, and the humans and a Cylon faction are now working as allies. While a few of these plot twists didn't sit well with me, most of them were really earned by the writers and performers, who left us with very few dull moments, to say the least.
While it's impossible to do justice to the entire series in one review (and I'd encourage you to check out DVD Verdict's previous season reviews for more in-depth coverage), I want to hone in on just a few aspects that made Battlestar Galactica my (and many others') favorite sci-fi series:
The Central Mystery: Who's a Cylon?
Sorting the toasters from the humans is one of the great pleasures of watching Battlestar Galactica. With Cylon reveals nicely spread throughout the four seasons and a fixed number of models (12) that viewers know from the beginning, the mystery is well-constructed, refraining from the cheap and excessive thrills of too-frequent "_______ is a Cylon!" surprises. The writers often find clever ways to introduce new models, as when we first meet Cavil as a priest counseling Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), who worries he might be a Cylon. Cavil tries to assuage Tyrol's fears, and we get a snappy little dialogue that gets more and more ironic as first Cavil and much later Tyrol are revealed to be Cylons:
Tyrol: "But how do you know I'm human?"
Cavil: "Oh, maybe because I'm a Cylon and I've never seen you at any of the meetings."
Along with the thrills of the real Cylon unmaskings (with the quadruple reveal at the end of Season Three being the biggest highlight), we also get a number of red herrings. For a long time, it seems like Starbuck has to be a Cylon, given how mythically special and gifted she is, but she has a different kind of specialness, as it turns out. Then there's the most humorous fake-out, and probably the funniest moment in the series, when Roslin interrogates D'Anna about who the remaining Cylon models are:
D'Anna: "So you know about the Final Five?"
Roslin: "I know that they're supposed to know the way to Earth."
D'Anna: "But you don't know that you're one of them?"
[long pause with dramatic music as Roslin takes in this information]
Deanna: [giggles at her gullibility] "Look at your face! It's ridiculous."
Strong Female Characters
Girls kick ass. Never has the accuracy of this statement been more soundly proven than on Battlestar Galactica. With the help of some inventive gender-switches from characters on the original series, the new Battlestar creators fill this show to the brim with strong, complex women. The standouts, though there are several others, are Starbuck, Sharon, Six, and Roslin.
Starbuck is the most in-your-face about her ass-kicking credentials, and her hot tomboy persona is a real treat to watch as performed by Katee Sackhoff. Whether deftly maneuvering a Viper through a field of Cylon Raiders, frakking some guy, or punching her commanding officer in the face, Starbuck means business. And yet, Sackhoff also nails the scenes in which her character finally shows some vulnerability. It's totally engrossing to watch her face crumple as she confesses to her father-figure Adama that she was partly responsible for his son Zac's death, or to see her go through a protracted psychological crisis when she finds her own dead body on the planet they thought was Earth.
Grace Park's Sharon character is another of those tough-but-vulnerable Battlestar ladies who we can't take our eyes off. Park has to carry a lot of the show's emotional weight very early on as both Boomer, the human-raised Galactica pilot who's terrified she's a Cylon sleeper agent (and she is), and as Sharon, the Cylon-raised agent who falls in love with Helo on Caprica despite her mission objectives. She performs both rolls -- as well as subsequent incarnations of her Cylon model, Eight -- admirably and is probably the Cylon we most sympathize with during the course of the series.
Tough but vulnerable is great and all, but I sometimes prefer the just-plain-tough quality that Tricia Helfer brought to Six early in Battlestar. Nothing is more fun that seeing her intimidatingly gorgeous character tease and emasculate the loathsome Gaius Baltar. Though she does the more intricate and balanced incarnations of her Cylon model well, too, she's just perfect as the calm, controlled, and manipulative hallucination she plays in those first couple of seasons.
As President Laura Roslin, Mary McDonnell certainly doesn't have the muscle, the combat skills, or the young Hollywood body of these other three, but she more than makes up for it with other qualities. Wise but prone to uncertainty, soothingly maternal but hawkish when necessary, doggedly determined but susceptible to human frailties, Roslin is a wonderfully complex character, embodied deftly by McDonnell. She knows just how to play it when Roslin is thrust into this unthinkably great responsibility when all above her in the presidential line of succession are killed, and she never goes over the top when Roslin's power occasionally leads her character astray. It's fascinating to watch her squirm as she comes to the uncomfortable realization that she's an integral part of a religious prophecy, or to watch her slowly nurture romantic feelings for Adama, or to watch her do just about anything, really!
Politics in the Fleet
Though I sometimes find the political scenarios they set up problematic (Roslin would never rigidly outlaw abortion!), I love that Battlstar is willing to take time out from its fast-paced action to consider the nitty-gritty political implications that would flow from its premise. The series asks real questions about what the balance of power should be between government and military in times of extreme crisis, whether torture is ever justifiable or advisable, what the place of unions would be in a civilization that desperately needed skilled laborers to survive, and most importantly how we regard and treat our enemies in times of war. It's dangerous to make direct comparisons between politics in this fleet and politics here on 21st century Earth -- after all, we Americans today are not victims of genocide on the run from a hostile and militarily superior force! -- but it's thought-provoking to tinker with these issues within the world Battlestar creates.
Though the search for Earth was originally made up by Adama as a snap decision to give the fleet hope, it became an intriguing quest that structured the series. Along with figuring out who's a Cylon, viewers will also enjoy puzzling through how Battlestar's mythology interlocks with our own history. Why do the Cylons remember snippets of the song "All Along the Watchtower"? How did Starbuck get to Earth and how will she find her way back? Is the planet the fleet lands on in the middle of Season Four really Earth, and if so, what happened to it? These were all fun riddles to figure out, and each new clue brings excitement -- especially the spine-tingling final shot of Season Three in which we finally see our Earth with continents and lights at the city points.
I was pretty satisfied with the way this quest resolved when the fleet begand to colonize a prehistoric Earth in the series finale, though a few questions remained and the final scene's implication that we should fear overthrow by the robo-butlers we'll soon be building was a bit trite.
Stuff Blowing Up in Space -- As Seen By Handheld Cameras
From a visual perspective, Battlestar Galactica leaves little to be desired. With robust production values and a well-thought-out design scheme, the series is a joy to look at. Far from being one of the sleek, sanitized spaceships of most sci-fi, Galactica has an excellent lived-in feel rivaled only by Joss Whedon's Firefly. The scuff marks of the hangar deck, the clutter of the pilots quarters, Adama's old books, Tigh's half-empty bottles of booze -- all of these little touches make the sets feel inhabited and the characters feel three-dimensional. Also aiding in that project is the brilliant cinematography, with its gritty handheld style. Sometimes shows that use that technique too broadly or without narrative justification irritate me, but it always feels right on Battlestar, creating intimacy among the characters and intensity when stuff blows up in space. Oh, and a lot of stuff blows up in space, with pleasing action-y results.
Love Among the Senior Set
Forget Six and Baltar, Sharon and Helo, Starbuck and Lee (forget that one, especially!) -- where the sparks really flew and the emotions ran deepest on Battlestar was among the 50-and-up crowd. Parceled out in shining little gems of scenes throughout the series, the romance between Bill Adama and Laura Roslin struck the show's most moving emotional chords. Starting out as uneasy partners in safeguarding the last of the human race, they had tremendous disagreements (including Adama staging a military coup and throwing Roslin in the brig) before they grew to respect each other so thoroughly. When the humans settled on New Caprica, one of the few bright points in that disastrous project was the opportunity these two no-longer-leaders had to explore their incipient romance. The dream they hint at there of building a little cabin and enjoying life together doesn't quite come true, as the cancer-ridden Roslin finally makes it to Earth but then dies there with Adama before they can build that little cabin. It's a bittersweet, tearjerker moment that brings their story to a cathartic close -- sweet only because of the time they did have together and because Roslin lived long enough to see the fleet find Earth. Years in the making, this relationship was a great accomplishment for the series, and especially for the phenomenal actors, Olmos and McDonnell, who bring to life wonderful moments like this one when they're reunited after a stressful separation in Season Four's "The Hub":
Adama: "Missed you."
Roslin: "You too."
[they hug emotionally]
Roslin: [whispers] "Love you."
Adama: "About time."
Incidentally, I also found the lovely, slightly romantic friendship between Adama and Tigh to be another emotional touchstone of the series. Their devotion to each other is moving in its durability, even recovering from the revelation that Tigh is and has always been a Cylon.
It's highly impractical, but such a cute and inventive little production detail -- and so consistently executed!
There's lots more to praise, but for fans wondering whether Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series is worth purchasing, let's address the set itself. The first thing everyone should know is that this release simply repackages the discs of previous, single-season releases into one big set rather than creating or adding discs of its own. This means that technical presentation and extras (with the exception of the Cylon action figure) are identical between the single-season sets and this collection, so it doesn't seem worth an upgrade if you already own all the seasons. If that's your situation, you may want to think about the Blu-Ray complete series release, as it features some exclusive extras and, presumably, improved picture and sound quality. Note that the post-series prequel Caprica nor, of course, the upcoming Battlestar TV movie The Plan, slated for release in Fall 2009 -- so "complete" only goes so far in this collection's titling.
What you get with Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series that's different from the single-season sets is, of course, the packaging, which actually left me pretty underwhelmed and confused. Clearly, the designers were aiming for something unique and space-age, because we get this giant cube with a minimalist design on the outside -- just the series logo and a creepy red Centurion eye peeking out -- whose top portion slides up to reveal photos of the cast and access to the discs in the middle. The discs are housed in four small cardboard cases with velcro-seals that fit into the four sides of the cube when you slide up its top. This means that there's a big hollow central column doing nothing in the middle and that the disc boxes only take up about 1/3 of the space inside this unnecessarily giant packaging. That might be fine if you love Battlestar enough to let its set tower over all the other DVDs on the shelf, but the real problem comes inside the four season boxes. When you lift the velcro-sealed flap, you'll be dismayed to see that the discs are crammed into flimsy cardboard slots inside, making them frustrating to extract and increasing the odds of damaging them in the process. Hence, Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series is an unfortunate case of form over function in packaging -- and I wasn't even that crazy about the form! The Cylon action figure that comes with the set, though, is a fun bonus. He's lightweight and a bit hard to pose, but nicely detailed. If you can get him to stand up, he'll guard your giant box of BSG well.
I'll again refer you to DVD Verdict's individual season reviews for more detailed analysis of technical presentation and extras on each of these sets, but here's a brief overview:
In terms of how the show looks and sounds on DVD, Universal has done a great job with these discs. The audio mix is consistently rich and exciting, whether its immersing you in dogfight between Cylon and human spaceships or pounding out notes of "All Along the Watchtower" as four new Cylons figure out who they really are. Video quality is strong throughout, but naturally improves a bit over the course of the series with Season Four appearing noticeably sharper than Season One. If you're not into those purposefully-grainy aesthetics, you won't like Battlestar's look because dense grain abounds in a very intentional way that, in my opinion, contributes to its raw intensity. Black levels and color saturation are very good throughout, rendering the series' mostly dark palette nicely.
With special features, these discs are loaded up with goodies -- and, again, we seem to get more and more as the series progresses. Here's a breakdown of the major extras:
* Commentaries: These tracks are plentiful throughout all four seasons, with at least one and occasionally two commentaries on about 90% of the episodes. For fans, it's fascinating to hear the show dissected in this much detail. Series creator Ron Moore does a great job providing such detail as the most frequent author of these tracks. His comments are insightful, lively, and refreshingly candid, as he's willing to critique some of the choices the writers made over the years (like making Baltar a bit too clownish early on) and admit to flying blind on some of the complicated story arcs. Moore is sometimes joined or replaced by writers, producers, and directors, but there's a surprising shortage of cast commentary on all of these sets. Olmos (also a director), as much as I love him, almost proves why when he does a solo track on "Islanded in a Stream of Stars" and pretty much just sits back to watch the episode, once in a while throwing out lavish praise for just about anyone who worked on the show. Still, I would have liked to have heard from more of the people in front of the camera as well as those behind it.
* Featurettes and Video Blogs: Though there are fewer in the first couple of seasons, we start to get a steady stream of these type of extras after that and they provide a delightful and creatively constructed look behind the scenes of the series. Many cast and crew faces grace these extras and I really got these sense from them that this was a gracious and welcoming set where the people making the show really cared what the people watching the show thought, and endeavored to provide them with lots of access to the production. Eick is a particularly funny and animated host for the video blogs, as when he jokes about the "penis lantern" set elements on Battlestar Pegasus or reflects wistfully about the end of the series and "the last time IÕm ever gonna sit on this set, the last time IÕm ever gonna touch this ass..."
* Webisodes: We're treated to all ten parts of "The Resistance" webisodes that played on SciFi Channel's (now SyFy) website between Seasons Two and Three, which are worth watching, though naturally were more exciting back when we were waiting with bated breath for new episodes. On the Razor disc we also see minisodes of young Bill Adama as a Viper pilot. It's fun to hear the actor portraying him simulate his gravely voice in these! Unfortunately, we have to debate that "complete" label again because the webisodes "The Face of the Enemy" that sat between the two parts of Season Four are not included in this set.
* Deleted Scenes and Extended Episodes: A plethora of deleted scenes and a few considerably extended episodes give us even more of Battlestar goodness, though as with any extended versions, one usually understands why the shorter cut was chosen for broadcast. "Unfinished Business" in Season Three, is a good example. Despite the interesting flashbacks to New Caprica, the tedious boxing competition frame story got even longer in the extended cut.
The set also features trailers for (then) upcoming seasons and a gallery of sketches and artwork from Season One.
Along the course of Galactica's long journey to Earth, the series was bound to stumble a few times, and it did. Apart from occasional stretches of dull episodes (especially right after the fleet escapes New Caprica), I've got a couple of specific gripes:
Ellen Tigh as the final Cylon
The final Cylon is some flirty old boozehound who we haven't seen for two seasons? Really? Maybe this revelation wouldn't have been such a bizarre let-down if it hadn't been hyped by SciFi channel and by the writers as such a major plot point. My disappointment aside, I've got nothing against Kate Vernon, who played the role well and did a lot to make up for the oddity of this plot point.
An Overwhelming Lack of Gay People in Space
Battlestar proved itself to be a show that took on political issues directly -- including those of religion, race, class, and many others -- and yet its only acknowledged LGBT character was a harsh war criminal lady who was sleeping with a Six model in Razor. I laughed out loud the first time they showed Starbuck making out with a guy and spent the first few hours of the series fully convinced that it was just a matter of time until we saw her in bed with a woman. How sadly wrong I was. Though it's not a point of major critique, I think it's a shame that such a thoughtful, well-written series with a pretty progressive audience would miss the opportunity to create any interesting LGBT characters and storylines.
Parts of the Ending
Though perhaps I didn't watch intently enough, I felt like the writers missed a few loose ends in their task of making all of Battlestar's intricate plots come together for the series finale. Why did the Cylons know "All Along the Watchtower" as if from their childhoods if this whole story takes place before recorded Earth history? How exactly did the "all of this has happened before / will happen again" cyclical prophecy pay off? It felt like anything that didn't quite work was hastily discarded with some religious explanation, using the existence of God as a deus ex machina, especially with Starbuck's character. Add to that the flashbacks that were a bit too meandering and loose, and the final scene in present-day New York, and this finale was a bit weaker than it should have been -- despite hitting some great emotional notes.
There's a cute moment in Ron Moore's very early commentary tracks from Season One when he jokes about how the eventual Battlestar DVDs will contain every scrap of footage ever shot, take up 55 discs, and weigh 25 pounds. Though this set is considerably lighter with half the discs, seeing its gargantuan form on my DVD shelf makes me realize how close he was to the truth and makes me glad that day is finally upon us.
Though "all of this has happened before," this 21st century version of Battlestar Galactica is so good that it's hard to imagine any of "this" happening again. Whether you pick up this set, the Blu-Ray version, or fill out your collection with the individual seasons, it's a must-own series.
Not guilty. So say we all.
Review content copyright © 2009 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 4058 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Extended Episodes
* Episode Commentaries
* Deleted Scenes
* Video Blogs
* Art Galleries
* Cylon Action Figure
* Official Site