Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: “Battlestar Galactica: The Remastered Collection” and “The Definitive Collection”

Any successful pop-cultural item will inspire its share of pretenders. Few pop-cultural items—hell, few items—are as successful as Star Wars. Most of the pretenders that drifted from the debris of the exploded Death Star have been lost to sci-fi geek history: Starcrash, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Last Starfighter, Krull, etc. Although it initially lasted a mere single season from 1978-1979, Glen A. Larson’s “Battlestar Galactica” has had surprisingly active legs. It first returned in 1980 for a short-lived, little-loved run as “Galactica 1980”. More significant was its 2003 Sky TV/Sci-Fi Channel remake that spawned a critically acclaimed mini series and four-season run. In terms of philosophical complexity, Ronald D. Moore’s remake trounces Larson’s military-glorifying/pacifism-mocking cartoon. The thing is, the twenty-first century “Galactica” isn’t much fun.

Not that the original “Battlestar Galactica” begins with an explosion of fun. In fact, the series’ first episode is unrelentingly violent and tragic as a space president (Ray Milland) disarms his space navy, making way for an invasion from the axis-of-evil Cylons, who wipe out nearly everyone who isn’t aboard the war ship that gives the series its title. In contrast to the president—whose clashing two-dimensions are buffoonish pacifist and selfish materialist—is the Battlestar Galactica’s Commander Adama (Lorne Greene), a kind and thoughtful man who believes good and evil are black and white and the best way to solve a problem is to shoot it in the face. His goal is to find Earth, a place where his war-torn crew might find some refuge and peace. Good luck with that.

Getting past the series’ depressing viewpoint that peace is a goal of fools, the opening of “Battlestar Galactica” is seriously gripping drama. The devastation the Cylons rain down has genuine gravity, and when characters we’ve barely known for twenty minutes die, we miss them because the survivors really mourn.

Still, “Battlestar” is best when playing with the cuddlier toys in the space opera playroom. The archetypes are straight out of Star Wars—lovable rogue, earnest hero, wise old man, weird creatures, villains that look like the offspring of Darth Vader and a stormtrooper, a mascot that look like the offspring of Chewbacca and R2-D2—but they work here because the cast is good, and as lots of former late-seventies children will attest, the Cylons are nightmare material. Plus, there are moments of admirable humanity, such as when a boy is adopted following a tragic plot development that costs the series one of its biggest stars and most interesting characters. There’s also plenty of Lucas-style running and shooting and pseudo spirituality, as well as cinematic special effects (courtesy of Star Wars-vet John Dykstra in the three-part pilot episode) and superb music (courtesy of Stu Phillips).

The series was radically different when it returned in 1980. Greene and Herbert Jefferson, Jr., were the only original cast members who returned, and Jefferson was only around for half the new episodes.  Thirty years have passed since the events of the first season, and most of the other original crewmembers are dead. Jefferson’s Boomer gets a few white streaks in his hair and Greene’s Adama gets a nice beard to indicate the passage of time. The new main characters are Captain Troy (Kent McCord), the original’s young “Boxey” now all grown up, and Lieutenant Dillon (Barry Van Dyke). These guys don’t exactly exude charisma, but they aren’t terrible, and you know, neither is “Galactica 1980”. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it good, but I like the premise in which the crew has finally found Earth and must now assimilate, and its more overtly camp approach is good fun, especially in the three-part series opener. The guys fly around on motorcycles, travel through time to spar with Nazis, turn invisible, and befriend an aspiring journalist (Robyn Douglass) who joins their crew. “1980” also ends with one of the entire series’ best hours, in which Dirk Benedict’s Starbuck returns for a one-off episode that softens the show’s hard-line stance on good and evil. I don’t think “The Return of Starbuck” was intended to be the last episode of “Galactica”, but it was a nice way to go out, even if its last-minute quasi-religious hoo-ha is totally daffy.

“Battlestar Galactica” comes to blu-ray in two multi-disc sets, both of which contain the original series and “1980” in their entirety with HD picture. Grain is healthy—a bit heavy at times, particularly in special effects shots— but heavy grain is preferable to light noise reduction as far as I’m concerned. Blemishes and scratches come and go, but they aren’t excessively intrusive.

The big difference between the eight-disc “Remastered Collection” and the eighteen-disc “Definitive Collection” is that the former features the series in newly framed widescreen while the latter contains it in both reframed widescreen and its original broadcast aspect ratio. The series makes the transition to widescreen fairly well, though the picture is not as crisp as that of its full-frame cousin. The widescreen frame does not lose a ton of vital information on top and bottom and there is a smidgeon of extra on the sides, but since a huge part of its appeal is nostalgia value, I imagine a lot of viewers will choose to watch the full-frame episodes they remember from their childhoods. “The Definitive Collection” includes the two-hour cut of the pilot trilogy released in theaters outside the U.S. in 1978. This is the same blu-ray available since 2013.

Both sets also include a selection of SD extras culled from the 2004 DVD release. There are three hours of deleted scenes spread across each disc of the original series, and a neat 45-minute documentary that catches up with numerous members of the original cast. They keep things light, mostly focusing on the difficulties of shooting with limited preparation, the uncomfortable makeup, and the romantic crushes that developed on set. There’s no mention of “Galactica 1980”, the copyright-infringement lawsuit 20th Century Fox waged against the series, or the militaristic philosophy at all. In a short interview, Glen A. Larson does go into the show’s religious aspect quite a bit, and though he is a Mormon, a lot of his ideas about God and aliens are surprisingly similar to the ones behind Kubrick’s 2001. Additional short featurettes on the Cylons (mostly about how the stuntmen fell down a lot in those costumes), Muffit the robo-dog (played by a chimp), Phillips’s music, and the process of remastering the show for blu-ray (the only new extra, and the only one exclusive to the widescreen set) round out a pleasing package.

Get “Battlestar Galactica: The Remastered Collection” and “The Definitive Collection” on here:
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