Reviews

Battlestar Galactica: Season 4.0

This show has undeniably advanced and changed the landscape of dramatic television.


Battlestar Galactica

Distributor: Universal
Cast: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Tricia Helfer, Katee Sackhoff
Network: NBC
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2009-01-06
Amazon

Having long ago shrugged off the tired and often laughable clichés associated with science fiction programming Battlestar Galactica stands firmly amongst the select few shows on television whose proclamations of greatness are actually merited. With an ardent fan base consisting of cultural tastemakers, critics and the general public championing its cause Battlestar Galactica has defied classification and set new standards for how quality television is defined. Whilst it may forever be lumped under the genre of science fiction -- and suffer the ignominious dismissal of such labeling -- Battlestar Galactica has undeniably advanced and changed the landscape of dramatic television.

Over the course of its four seasons Battlestar Galactica has emerged as one of the most demanding and thoroughly intelligent programs in production. A byzantine mythology, layered plot lines, evolving character studies and metaphysical ruminations rest at the heart of this series. Its deft ability of incorporating multiple and seemingly disparate genres (sci-fi, action-adventure, soap opera, political drama and, yes, comedy) into an appealing and engrossing whole is a testament to the creator’s vision and the strength of its writers, producers and actors.

A running joke associated with Battlestar Galactica has always been that it’s the perfect science fiction show for people who hate science fiction. Clearly Battlestar Galactica fulfills its sci-fi obligations with explorations into the struggle between man and machine, the post-apocalyptic odyssey of space and the interminable quest to locate a permanent and stable home. Yet, by not relying on the usual tropes associated with the genre -- namely fancy gadgets and dazzling but ultimately hollow special effects -- the show’s creators are continually forced to mine the depths of their imaginations to tell the absorbing stories of this hobbled fleet and its rag-tag crew.

Budgetary limitations have actually saved the writers from getting lost in space and, instead, focused the series’ attention on more intimate and emotionally involved subject matter.

Reliance on ideas rather than props have allowed the show’s creators to build an environment where big, complex subjects like war, violence, power, politics, race, religion and class can be explored in tandem with quieter reflections on (equally thorny) ideas such as duty, love, morality, personal identity and the nature of humanity.

The central, introductory premise of the series -- the escalating war between humans and the rebel Cylon robots they created -- is (relatively) straightforward. Engineered to be mechanical slaves and thoughtless soldiers the Cylons evolved into sentient beings, rebelled and mounted an uprising against the humans, which resulted in the deaths of billions through a nuclear attack. Battlestar Galactica begins as the remaining 50,000 human survivors of this attack recover and look for safe harbor. The fleet charged with navigating a course toward the 13th Colony (i.e., Earth) and evading the Cylons is the Galactica, an old-war horse of a ship that is as bruised, battered and wearied as the people it houses.

Season 4.0 picks up from the prior season’s stunning revelation that four of the most loyal and dedicated members of the Galactica crew are in fact Cylons, members of a special sleeper set who have been awakened for an as of yet undetermined purpose. As these four individuals battle internally with conflicts of identity, betrayal, truth and loyalty a fifth, unidentified sleeper Cylon remains hidden amongst the fleet. These first ten episodes continue to focus on themes related to the humanization of artificial intelligence, the self-created destruction of man and the inherent struggles and dichotomies that arise therein.

Having announced that the fourth season will conclude the series Battlestar Galactica’s creator, Ronald Moore, and his writers have managed to steer the show back to its narrative foundation. With a renewed sense of purpose and enthusiasm season four is more cohesive and creatively invigorating than the third installment of the series, which often felt disjointed and needlessly didactic. That said, however, many of the episodes featured in Season 4.0 more frequently tease than reveal substantive information and can often feel like filler for the show’s big reveal in the series finale later this spring. Hopefully, the back half of season four will be as strong as the final episode of this set’s installment, which finally saw the Galactica and its crew arrive at their hoped-for destination only to discover their long quest and seeming achievement comes burdened with heavy cost.

As with any long-running serial television program, it’s difficult to maintain consistency of tone and theme over the course of a show’s run. Battlestar Galactica has fared far better than most shows in preserving the integrity of its central story and the journey of its characters. Even when individual episodes don’t live up to the show’s overall promise, the cast and crew somehow manage to prevent the series from faltering outright by infusing their work with an inspired verve and energy that always makes for compelling television.

One of the perceived barriers and the complaint most often lodged against Battlestar Galactica is the intricacy of its overall narrative arc. This is not a show that can be jumped in and out of, week by week. With multiple storylines, dense narrative histories and a rich cast of complex characters Battlestar Galactica is a series that all but demands active participation and cognition from its audience. Thus, there is really no such thing as a casual fan.

There is great investment on the part of the Battlestar Galactica audience that, as a result, can sometimes feel exclusionary to those circling on the periphery. While it may be true that this most recent release on DVD will not call out from the store shelves to be picked up and viewed by the masses, it would be a shame for those interested to feel any sense of prohibition at arriving at the series so near the end. Yes, you may have to start back at the beginning and, yes, it will take longer to feel a part of the fold, but anyone who has ever seen this show can testify to the rewards of such an investment.

With each release of this series on DVD comes both excitement and grumbling from Battlestar Galactica fans. Enthusiasm for the chance to delve further into the show’s mythology with repeated home viewings, and irritation that the powers that be (the producers, studio suits and various other corporate Cylons) seem insistent on extracting every last penny from our well-worn pockets. Their habit of splitting an individual season into two parts forces fans to shell out twice for a DVD set that should really only be packaged once.

In what must surely be a tacit mea culpa for this money-hungry tactic, the show’s creators are smart enough to include a host of extras in the boxed set. Special features on Season 4.0 include: an extended and unedited version of the stand-alone companion film Razor, behind the scenes featurettes, deleted scenes, video blogs and podcasts that offer great insight and analysis into each episode.

Let’s be real, though, there is virtually no argument that can be raised that would stop Battlestar Galactica fans from devouring this DVD set. And, really, who has the strength to wage war against one of the best shows ever made? Certainly not me.

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