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Television Review

A treat for fans of 'Galactica'

In 'Battlestar Galactica: Razor,' Michelle Forbes plays Helena Cain as a dragon lady with a deep need for revenge. In "Battlestar Galactica: Razor," Michelle Forbes plays Helena Cain as a dragon lady with a deep need for revenge. (CAROLE SEGAL)
Email|Print| Text size + By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / November 23, 2007

A show like "Battlestar Galactica" is hard on its fans: Between bouts of intense love and feverish speculation, you mainly have to wait. The last season ended in March. The next one won't start until April, at least. Slowly, the hours tick by.

So the two-hour movie "Battlestar Galactica: Razor," which premieres on SciFi tomorrow night at 9, functions mainly as a fortified snack, to tide over the viewing faithful until the show's fourth and final season begins. It's also an unapologetically insider affair: A casual viewer would probably be lost in the eddies of backstory and mythology. (For the most intense fans, SciFi offered a series of preview screenings in movie theaters around the country earlier this month. And of course, "Razor" will soon be available on DVD.)

For the benefit of the masses, here's as quick a "Battlestar" background lesson as I can muster: Somewhere far away and possibly long ago, a race of renegade robots called Cylons launched a sneak attack on human civilization. All that remained was a smattering of civilians and two military "battlestars." One, Galactica, was led by a grumpy father figure named Bill Adama, played in the series by Edward James Olmos. The other, Pegasus, was helmed by a paranoid megalomaniac named Helena Cain. Michelle Forbes plays her deftly as a dragon lady with occasional bouts of regret.

The story of the Pegasus played out in the series' second season, and - like most of "Battlestar" - was rife with allegory. Adama represented the messy, democratic approach to life in a state of war, Cain the cruel efficiency of military dictatorship. In the end, the humanists won, and Cain was killed by a Cylon that her crew had tortured.

So "Razor," which is about Cain and her legacy, plays out as an extended flashback, sometimes filling in background about her command, sometimes shifting forward to the days just after her death. Though most of the regular "Galactica" cast is represented - including Katee Sackhoff's Starbuck, alive and well - the plot centers largely on Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen), a character we've never seen before. She's a young, tough officer who becomes Cain's protegee but later regrets some of the more dastardly orders she's followed. She has the trademark look of female crew members on this show: steely gaze, sullen pout.

The plot is fairly predictable - Redemption 101 - with images borrowed liberally from "Aliens" and, briefly, a "Star Trek" film. An extended razor metaphor, which gives the movie its title, feels particularly forced. But a rabid fan will find a lot to love. We get some useful backstory, which sheds insight into both the particular skills of the Cylon known as Number Six and the depth of Cain's need for revenge. We get the series' trademark special effects, most of them excellent. We get some references to the original 1970s series that will cause fits of glee in the ComiCon crowd. And we get an ominous prediction about the final season that, alone, is worth a two-hour investment.

The real reason to watch, though, is to spend a little more precious time with those "Battlestar" characters, who remain among the most complex and interesting on TV. I challenge anyone to find a better assortment of strong women, pouting notwithstanding, or a series that takes a bolder approach to casting. (In the original series, Cain was played by Lloyd Bridges.)

Flaws and all, the movie demonstrates the traits that make "Battlestar" so much better than the mainstream TV networks' attempts at science fiction - or really, much of anything else. I get especially melancholy thinking of NBC's new series "Bionic Woman," which was created by "Battlestar" executive producer David Eick, and also stars Sackhoff as a bionic woman gone bad. The possibilities are there, but the series feels impossibly bland, those trademark "Battlestar" shades of gray erased for mass consumption. It's too bad. The masses don't know what they're missing.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to viewerdiscretion.net.

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