A DVD, A Tree, and BSG

Judging from the DVD section in my local Costco, the hot items to put under the Christmas spruce this year are boxed sets of a television series. Not just single seasons, but the whole magilla. You can get everything from the X-Files, complete with a Sing Along (the writers are on strike, but not the songwriters), to 24, with a Day Timer (11:00PM: Whip terrorists’ butts; 11:59PM: Leave on hiatus).

OK, just kidding about the Sing Along and Day Timer. But these sets are loaded, and you can spend literally, hundreds of dollars for them. Star Trek: The Next Generation, for example, will set you back close to $300, even with the deepest discount you can find.

But you can also make your own “boxed sets” by combining single season sets. And that’s sometimes the only way to go if a series is still running.

Take of our favorites around here. Battlestar Galactica, a vastly better and different show than its 1970s namesake, is arguably the best dramatic program on television. But it takes season-long breaks between seasons. For fans of the series, or would-be fans, the first 2.5 seasons are already on DVD (Season 1.0, Season 2.0, and Season 2.5—don’t ask). Season 3, however, which ran on the Sci-Fi channel last spring, won’t be out on DVD until early in 2008, just before the fourth and—sob—final season of the show airs.

But to keep fans of the show from terminal withdrawal waiting for the show to continue, the SciFi channel ran Battlestar Galactica: Razor last weekend—a new, two-hour BSG movie. It was also released this week, just a few days after it aired, as an Unrated Extended Edition DVD from Universal.

I knew the DVD was coming so I decided to wait for it. If SciFi’s telecast ran true to form, it’s video quality on cable was probably grim. The DVD had to be an improvement, and the lack of commercial breaks is an added bonus.

In addition to the broadcast version of the film, the DVD set also includes the extended cut (the one I watched), a commentary track, a preview of season 4 (not very revealing), and other bonus features. And if you buy it at Best Buy, you get a second disc which includes a good “Making if,” featurette.

More like two episodes of the show strung together than a movie, Razor takes us back to the invasion of Caprica by the Cylons and gives us more background on the Battlestar Pegasus, which played a major role in one of the series’ most compelling story arcs. The film fleshes-out the details of Pegasus’ escape from the initial attack and how it survived in the post-invasion chaos.

The plot jumps around in time quite a bit (perhaps too much), even flashing back to Admiral Adama’s experiences in the first Cylon war. There’s also a (slightly murky) story line about the Cylons’ first attempts to produce a human/Cylon hybrid.

There’s plenty of the character development here that the series is so good at, but Razor is also loaded with action. Along the way you’ll see some of the best special effects ever seen in televised science fiction. They will blow you away.

All of this is helped considerably by an excellent DVD transfer. Apart from some occasional noise, the video is pristine. It’s sharp, detailed, and holds up to scrutiny even on a big screen. This the best video quality I’ve yet seen from this show, short of its high definition reruns on UniHD.

Just don’t expect bright, cheery cinematography; that’s not what this show is about. It’s a dark vision, and that’s what you get here. You also get an almost obsessive use of the shakey cam—the one thing about the look of the show that I could live without.

The audio is very nearly as impressive as the video, with powerful bass, convincing but not overdone surround envelopment, clean dialog, and a great recording of Bear McCreary’s superb, percussion-heavy score.

Just one warning. Don’t buy this as a gift for anyone who hasn’t been following the show. You really need to watch BSG from the beginning to understand what’s happening. But Razor would make a fine gift for any Sci-Fi fan if you package it together with the boxed sets for the series’ first three (OK, 2.5) seasons. And with the whole series on hand, your giftee won’t need that Day Timer to keep things straight.

Postscript: Season 1 of Battlestar Galactica has also just been released on HD DVD—report coming soon.