Thursday, November 22

‘Battlestar’ Goes Boldly Into the DVD Universe

Source: The New York Times

Fans of the television series “Battlestar Galactica” are familiar with the frightening chrome mechanical monsters known as Cylons, seemingly bent on the destruction of humanity. But the force behind a two-hour episode on the Sci Fi Channel this Saturday night is the DVD, the equally shiny disc.

The episode, “Razor,” marks yet another step in the complex, fast-changing relationship between DVD sales and cable broadcast. The episode would not exist except for the promise of selling it on DVD just days after it is shown on television.

The move is part of a trend. Already there have been instances of DVD sales reviving canceled television series, like Fox’s “Family Guy,” which sold so well that it was put back on the air. And “24,” also on Fox, began selling DVDs of its four-episode season premiere earlier this year, the day after it concluded. But such tactics are still rare.

“Usually it’s the other way around,” said Gary Newman, co-chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, partly because it takes weeks or even months to manufacture the DVDs, so they often cannot be ready for sale so soon after broadcast.

But in the case of “Battlestar,” a series following the survivors of an apocalyptic attack on their home planets by rebellious robots, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, the NBC-Universal unit responsible for DVD sales, approached the Sci Fi Channel about the possibility of creating a stand-alone episode first. That provided the time to produce a DVD to be released on Dec. 4, just days after the broadcast.

Perhaps most important, the home entertainment division offered to pick up part of the cost. So the show’s creators, not surprisingly, jumped at the chance to put something on the air in the hiatus between the season finale in March and what is billed as the final season, beginning in April 2008.

“It seemed like an interesting opportunity,” said Ronald D. Moore, the show’s executive producer. But, he added, the story to be told in the stand-alone episode had to fit tight constraints.

“Because we ended the third season on a cliffhanger, there was no way there could be a home video release that could stand alone and also work in the continuity of the show,” Mr. Moore said. “It had to be something that took place before the Season 3 cliffhanger.”

So the show’s writers returned to a story whose conclusion viewers had seen, at least in a sense, producing a kind of parallel prequel. The extended episode follows the Pegasus, a sister battleship to the show’s Galactica, which also survived the attack that opened the series. The episode revisits that moment and follows the Pegasus over time, exploring how the brutally difficult decisions of its commander render the ship increasingly dysfunctional.

The episode also visits an earlier conflict between humanity and the Cylons. Those machines were portrayed in the first “Battlestar” television show, which ran for just one season more than 25 years ago, when special effects were far less, well, special.

The Cylons then were actors in clumsy Tin Man-like suits, a far cry from the frightening killing machines, augmented by computer imagery, familiar to viewers watching the new series. Mr. Moore said it was important not to make the earlier generation of machines less frightening than the latest one, which includes models that look human.

“We wanted them to feel a little more fearsome,” Mr. Moore said. “The first Cylon war is known as something really scary.”

The extended episode also manages to raise questions about a surprise development in the final episode of the last season, casting a different light on one critical character’s claim to have found a way to lead surviving humans to Earth, the fabled planet they seek.

While the “Razor” episode may not draw new viewers, Mr. Moore said, it is a stand-alone story, and the hope is that loyal fans will want to own it along with other episodes of the series. The demographic group most stereotypically associated with DVD purchases is young men, and the viewership of the Sci Fi Channel is 57 percent male.

“‘Battlestar’ is incredibly successful both domestically and internationally in terms of DVD episodes,” said David Howe, executive vice president and general manager of the Sci Fi Channel. DVD sales are especially important for shows like “Battlestar” that are intensely serialized, meaning that a casual viewer might have a hard time understanding a random episode. That makes the series less inviting in syndication than, say, “Law & Order.”

“You can’t strip them from all scheduling in a way that allows people to dip in and out,” Mr. Howe said.

Sci Fi also took the unusual step, for a television show, of screening “Razor” in movie theaters in eight cities around the country this month. Mr. Howe said the screenings, sponsored by Microsoft, led to lines “around the block” at participating theaters, two of them in Manhattan.

As with many television shows, production of the “Battlestar” series is hobbled by the writers’ strike. The first half of the forthcoming season is unaffected, Mr. Howe said, but the second half could be delayed.

That also means that the answer to the big question hanging over the series — will the survivors find Earth? — may hang in the balance.

Mr. Moore offered only a hint on that point: “I think we’ll get to someplace that might be Earth.”

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