Ron Moore and David Eick’s Battlestar Galactica re-imagining has been around long enough to negate the need to embellish upon its greatness. We all know it rocks. Check that; it frakkin’ rocks. It’s the best thing to happen to science fiction television since Firefly, and even that pales in comparison. But as much as tuning in for new episodes on Sci-Fi Channel can be the highlight of any given week, peering at them through standard-def letterbox while high-def masters remain useless on a shelf somewhere has been painful to say the least.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment, an HD-DVD exclusive studio, has finally dipped into their vault and delivered Battlestar Galactica in high definition. Unlike the majority of previous television shows released on either HD-DVD or Blu-ray to-date, Universal passed on the most recent previously concluded season three, and started at the powerful beginning fans have been clamoring for, the mini-series and season one. Although the total package is mostly a tossed salad version of the previously released season one DVD set, this is the best looking and sounding presentation yet.
Cracking into the HD-DVD season one box set is, at first, full of anticipation and excitement. These emotions are quickly crushed by confoundedness and frustration at what must be one of the most ill-conceived multi-disc packaging jobs yet. The outer slipcover is flimsy plastic susceptible to stress marks; in the case of mine, already having them before I tried to remove it for the first time. Under the slipcover reveals an accordion/paper snowflake-like arrangement of the discs pressed onto sticky rubber knobs residing on flimsy cardboard stock. Thankfully my discs were all still attached and none were scratched, as some people have reported. But getting the discs on and off the sticky knob sounds as bad as it is. Universal needs to take a step back and revisit the Heroes: Season One HD-DVD packaging before considering this route ever again.
Everyone is curious to know how Battlestar Galactica: Season One looks on HD-DVD compared to the network telecast or even the re-runs in 720p on Universal HD. The VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer from the original 24 frames-per-second high-def master is the best looking of the bunch, but not by leaps and bounds. Black levels aren’t quite as deep as expected for a show set in outer space. Detail on the ships and characters are a step up from the standard DVD, but not by significant leaps and bounds.
Part of this lack of “punchy” high definition can be attributed to intentional digital image manipulation by the show’s creators to match mankind’s desperation and grittiness of Battlestar’s universe. Tinkering with contrast, intentional grain, “black crush,” brightness, and color saturation results in a noticeable unevenness. A quick cut from one scene to the next can introduce manipulation that degrades the image quality to only a hair sharper than the standard DVD, which then switches back to a much sharper image just as quickly.
Apart from intentional image degradation are multiple occasions of what appears to be a few isolated moments of compression artifacts. I haven’t had time to watch the entire season yet, but there are scattered moments of minor blocking and artifacting throughout the first several discs. They’re apparent enough to stand out when not necessarily looking for them, so I can only imagine how videophiles will rip into each and every episode’s sometimes, but not always, questionable video transfer.
The 5.1 channel audio mix benefits from jumping from Dolby Digital, as offered on the standard DVD, to lossless Dolby TrueHD. With more space and ultimately more information at its disposal, the TrueHD mix is fuller and deeper than its predecessor, most notably during combat and when the score is played in the forefront. Again, like the video, the improvement is not overwhelming; but it’s enough to pick up on and be thankful it was included at all.
Most of the special features materials offered in this HD set are leftovers from the standard DVD release, presented in ugly letterbox 1080p, the same as they were on that DVD. Disc one contains most of them, starting with a slew of Deleted Scenes (20:00) ranging from extended dialogue to additional special effects sequences in animatic form. Eight Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes (1:03:12) are playable as one documentary that neatly ties together the two Battlestar series, reflects upon re-imagining the series, and answers questions about the jump from mini-series to a full-blown series. This is must-see material for anyone who skipped it the first time around, so much so that Universal re-used a large portion of it in U-Control.
Rounding out the repeat extras is a short Sketches and Art (4:00) montage set to the fantastic Battlestar Galactica main score, and insightful geek-fulfilling Episode-Length Commentary Tracks on every disc by either Ron Moore by himself, or Ron and David Eick together.
New material, from a certain point of view, is mostly found in a pair of U-Control features exclusive to the mini-series: Encyclopedia Galactica and Picture-In-Picture. Encyclopedia Galactica is a fun facts-finding tool defining the characters, locations and vehicles featured as the mini-series moves along. The main image shrinks about 20 percent, with the new open space taken up by a series of thumbnails that, when clicked, bring up the information. While many of the descriptions are obvious, refreshers on the colonies, Kobol and even previously unknown background information makes this feature worth checking out.
The picture-in-picture material isn’t quite as fun, as all the material has been lifted from the featurettes and “massaged” via editing to fit into distinct segments of the mini-series. This may be a more dynamic and appropriate way to view the material, but it’s redundant and completely passable if the featurettes have already been recently watched.
Other now somewhat standard Universal HD-DVD features include bookmarking, My Scenes clip making, and web-connectivity via registration for access to, at the time of this review, a small handful of trailers and TV spots from other Universal HD DVD releases.
What’s unbelievably bothersome about this high profile release is Universal has cheaply tossed it together much like Chief’s crew patches their Vipers. The packaging is of a quality you’d expect from a street vendor bootleg. The ported special features are still letterboxed. Half of the “new” HD features are actually re-used material from the aforementioned ported features. And the image quality, while intentionally tinkered with, could still be sharper with fewer compression artifacts.
Despite miscues, this is still the new Battlestar Galactica in high definition. It still frakkin’ rocks. And if this is the only way Universal could feasibly get Battlestar Galactica: Season One to us without having to wait another year or longer, then I’m willing to — for now — bite my tongue and accept it. So say we all.
- Score: 8.4