Monday, 20 November 2006

Battlestar Galactica - The Second Series (2005-2006)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 31st August 2006.

Battlestar Galactica Season 2Excellent, as opposed to just plain good, films or TV series, are rather like the London 87 bus: you get nothing for a great long stretch of time and then all of a sudden a bunch show up all at once.

This week has seen the superb '9 out of 10' Crash and Odd Man Out released, but if I were only allowed a single 'must have' on DVD it would have to be this - the full second series (twenty 45-60 minute episodes), of Battlestar Galactica. And selling at a bargain price too!

I must admit I came to the series late. A remake of some third-rate 70's TV version of Star Wars didn't initially appeal, what with all those images of Lorne Greene and THAT hair from the original series. But buzz and continual critical acclaim (and a co-worker who forced the initial mini-series on me) forced me to investigate, and it became very clear, very quickly that this was a series with 'quality' stamped all over it. If you know and like The West Wing, Nip/Tuck, Lost, The Sopranos or any other of those Emmy award-winning drama series - well here's another one to add to the list.

For me there are strong reminders of Farscape in the series - a uniformly excellent cast, exceptional writing talent, an edgy shooting style, and a refusal to bow to the demands of syndication by actually have an ongoing series that assumes you've been following all along instead of never having anything change week-in, week-out. Of course this 'ongoing' story arc can prove problematic, as the cancellation of Farscape proved, but fingers crossed, not yet! Alas, the show also shares the invented 'four letter word beginning with f' that Farscape introduced to appear more adult - here it's 'frack' instead of 'frell' - but I guess a series has to have some irritations to survive. And it's not just a Farscape knockoff - unlike Doctor Who which had the temerity to steal not only the whole of the Farscape ship interior for the 'new' TARDIS interior, but even stole the show's logo as well - there is genuine originality here too. If you haven't caught the show then you're missing out on one of the best drama shows being made today. Notice I say 'drama' and not 'sci fi', because the truth is that Battlestar Galactica simply uses the medium of sci-fi to tell its stories, rather than becoming enslaved to the genre the way so many ongoing sci fi series of the past have done with the law of ever-decreasing returns becoming very obvious very quickly.

Amazingly the series has ramped up more episodes each season, without quality suffering. Season 2, the longest season yet, maintains the quality throughout, and when even the weakest 'filler' episodes can outshine the best of recent Star Trek series like Voyager and Enterprise you know the show's got a lot going for it. Season 1 played it for shocks a lot of the time - the old 'you think you know what's coming next but we're going to totally mess with you' trick - and yet managed to stay fresh. Season 2 is more of the same, and yet one never feels one is being given a gimmick, or being stalled in answering the main questions the way one is with shows like Lost which start with a strong series, and then totally lose the plot in the second and third years. Battlestar Galactica's second year (its third if you count the mini-series - which we should) is, if anything, even better than its predecessors.

Battlestar Galactica screencap

What I really like about the show is the way it is happy to introduce sensational new characters - as this season does midway through, with the introduction of a female captain of a new battleship, the Pegasus - only to have them written out immediately their immediate purpose to the plot is served. Weaker shows would have such strong characters appearing week-in, week-out until they become former shadows of themselves. And what other series would take risks the way Battlestar Galactica does with its story lines? Can you imagine any other show suddenly jumping forward a year in time half way through its season finale? Touch wood, the risks all seem to pay off, and long may they continue to do so.

The special effects on the show, given its limited budget, are nothing short of astounding, and the tone throughout is gritty, dirty and realistic. When the robotic cylons show up they look amazing - there's no cheap 'it doesn't quite come off' CGI work here, the way there is with each and every episode of Doctor Who. There is a lack of humour, which some have criticised the series for, but if the alternative is endless 'farting aliens', 'chav' and 'ipod' jokes at the expense of suspense and belief, then I'm all for the 'joylessness' of it all. The series' real strength is the way it provides political and social comment on current events, through its portrayal of an alternative society. There's comment on 9/11, Bush's Miami elections and the US/Iraq situation sprinkled liberally and intelligently through this second season. The downside is that this, unlike Trek and Who, is not a show for kids - it's far too adult for that.

The DVD is excellent value, but suffers from comparison with its Region 1 counterpart (which was split into two half seasons). The States get the originally 'truncated to fit the schedules' episode of the mid-season finale and an extended 'what we wanted to show' version too. We get just the extended version. That's not too disappointing, but the 'bonus disk of extras' is. The 'bonus disk' only features deleted scenes from the first half of the season, with nothing from the second ten episodes. The same is true of the commentaries - we get most of those that were made available on the US 'first half of season 2' release, but nothing from the second half (which is released in the States in a week or two). These are available separately for download over the internet, but there is plenty of room here to have included them on the disks, and invariably the hard core fans are ignoring the inferior Region 2 release, and going for the Region 1 release instead.

If you haven't caught up with this show, which isn't shown on terrestrial TV in Britain, then you owe it to yourself to catch it on DVD, but start with the mini-series, which is still available. If you start with this season, or even the first one, you may be confused as you're effectively starting the main story part-way in.

Too many well-written shows get sacrificed on the high altar of 'insufficient advertising revenue and viewing figures in the States'. Touch wood, Battlestar Galactica has not yet succumbed to that fate, although it is still a cult show, particularly in Europe where it's only available on cable and DVD. Do yourself a favour and check the series out - there's a reason why so many fans have found themselves staying up all night transfixed for 'just one more episode before I go to bed'. If you check the series out from the beginning, you won't be disappointed - that's a promise!

Battlestar Galactica

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