TV on DVD for 12/29/09 – Galactica Actual, plus Tara, Glee and Family Guy in space

Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series (Universal) – Yes, I’m aware that this oddly designed box set is not new this season. It was actually released in the summer but I only received it while working on the MSN “Best of 2009” DVD and Blu-ray list. And while it didn’t make the list, it’s one of the best TV shows of the decade and, for all the issues with the packaging, still the best way to get the entire show in one cost-effective swoop.

Battlestar Galactica

Forget the original clunky, kitschy 1980s sci-fi series. This series is more than a revival, it’s a creative, clever, and compelling rethinking of the show. The drama about the human survivors of an intergalactic massacre on a deep space wagon train search for the mythical plant Earth is reborn with a new generation of Cylons (a robot race originally created by humans who declare war on their creators) and a fascinating new command dynamic. In place of the paternal guidance of Lorne Greene is Edward James Olmos as Commander Adama, an old-school Battlestar commander in an archaic ship, and this time he’s sharing power and responsibility with a civilian President (Mary McDonnell), much to his crusty frustration. And there are other inspired reinventions: Baltar (James Callis), an absurdly evil and short sighted villain in the original, is a tormented scientist tricked into becoming a traitor and haunted by a phantom Cylon sexpot (Tricia Helfer), and the swaggering hotshot pilot Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) is a cigar-chomping, rule-breaking girl who looks like she could kick Dirk Benedict’s ass around the galaxy and back.

The show kicked off with a 4-hour “mini-series” that is more of an extended prologue, all set-up and little actual story, establishing this new generation of Cylons and the distinctive command dynamic of the show, as well as the low-tech approach to the spaceship sci-fi genre: Galactica is an archaic ship, the oldest in the fleet and the only one without the new computer upgrades. That very technological disadvantage is what saves it from the Cylon attack as they take over every computer and massacre most of humanity in a blitzkrieg attack. But the show really kicks to life in its first episode proper: “33,” where the tireless Cylons dog the fleet with strategy designed to dispirit and exhaust the humans. The first season confronts issues that the original never did: food, water, fuel, supplies, and the stress of battle on a rag-tag fleet with archaic ships and a finite supply of fighter ships and pilots. It also finds fascinating drama in the clash between civilian and military authority (the season ends on an astounding act that can only be described as a military coup), in the increasing complexity of the Cylon endgame (they are no monolithic villain, as conflicts within reveal), and on the metaphysical layer of prophecies, visions, and religious evolution.

The second season opens with old-school Battlestar Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) tossing the civilian President (Mary McDonnell) into the brig and a crisis of command when Adama is shot by a Cylon agent and his troubled second in command, the alcoholic Col. Tigh (Michael Hogan), stumbles over the challenge of leadership. Later, Michelle Forbes swoops in as an authoritarian fleet Admiral with another surviving battlestar and crew who has little use for civilians or the journey to Earth. The third season opens with most of humanity in a Cylon prison camp on New Caprica, where Baltar is a puppet President carrying out Cylon orders, a threadbare resistance movement runs a guerilla war against overwhelming firepower and a skeleton fleet tries to build a big enough strike force for a return engagement. The cast is grounded for only the first few episodes but the residual tensions—feelings of betrayal, accusations of treason, survivor’s guilt, and blind, unfocused rage—reverberate through the entire season as they flee the Cylons in search of the promised land. And by the fourth season, one-time villain Baltar becomes a messiah, or at the very least a holy prophet, our soft-speaking President resorts to dictatorial measures to quell dissent and military career man Lee Adama (Jamie Bamber) becomes the advocate for civil rights. Meanwhile a civil war is erupting among the Cylon race, the newly “revealed” Cylon sleepers in the Galactica fleet face an identity crisis and the final conflict seems inevitable, especially when they reach journey’s end to find… that it’s not.

This is, simply put, the best science fiction series around and one of the smartest and most compelling shows currently on TV. It finds drama in philosophical difference and emotional damage transformed into human conflict and thrives in the atmosphere of moral ambiguity, spiritual mystery and survivalist reality, which is only enhanced by the down and dirty production design. And don’t tell the Christian conservatives, but in the gospel according to Battlestar Galactica, a race of robots are destined to bring the one true God to the multi-diety human race.

The box set features the complete run of the show, including the original mini-series and the off-season Battlestar Galactica: Razor telefilm, a rewind story centered the first mission of the Battlestar Pegasus after Lee Adama is given command, with flashbacks that fill out the story of what the Pegasus was up to between the Cylon blitzkrieg and the reunion with the Galactica. Michelle Forbes returns for the flashback scenes to show the journey of Admiral Cain from military officer to ruthless guerilla warrior, but it’s a new character who takes center stage for the this drama: Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen), a Pegasus officer haunted by her actions under the command of Cain. (Note: this came out before the show’s direct-to-DVD postscript Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, which is not a part of this set) And it, of course, features all the commentaries, featurettes, video blogs, mini-sodes, deleted scenes and extended episodes of the earlier releases and they are meaty supplements. For pure fun, “What the Frak is Going On with Battlestar Galactica?” is a breakneck recap of the entire series in eight minutes, with rapid-fire deadpan narration filled with droll asides.

The discs are collected in four paperboard cases with Velcro clasps, slipped into slots on each side of a rather sizable cardboard cube with also comes with an articulated plastic Cylon robot model, which is kind of cool and kind of geeky. The impressive looking packaging of this collection, however, turns out to be a poor design in practice. Lift the top of the cube to access the cases and you find flimsy paperboard folders holding the discs in a staggered sleeve so unstable that it collapses in on itself when you try to grab a disc. The housing itself is mostly empty space, but at least you can take the cases out and line them up on your shelf. There’s also a Blu-ray release, which I have not had the opportunity to review but appears to share the same flawed packaging.

New to DVD this week are two shows I did not receive in time to review before heading off for Christmas holiday: United States Of Tara: The First Season (Paramount), with Toni Collette as a wife, mother, and career woman with multiple personalities, and Glee: Season 1: Road To Sectionals (Fox), which collects the episodes so far of the hit series about high school kids singing their hearts out. Also new for the holiday season: Family Guy: Something, Something, Something, Darkside (Fox), the second in what looks to be shaping up as a trilogy of Star Wars parodies featuring the cast of Family Guy.

For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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