Monday, July 6, 2015

Guest Review - Battlestar Galactica (a Rambling, Retrospective Overview)

Doug: We here at the BAB hope all of our U.S. friends enjoyed a nice Independence Day weekend. Our former Oregonian Edo Bosnar fills the scripter's chair today with a visual treat for those of us who loved all things Battlestar Galactica back in the 1970s.

Marvel’s other licensed space opera property: Battlestar Galactica (a rambling, retrospective overview)

All right, everybody, you’re not going to get any Team America reviews, at least not from me, but I can give you Marvel’s Battlestar Galactica, because in this case, I do have the entire run, even though – unlike the case of Team America – back in the day I only had the first few issues when the series was actually coming out.

The way I now have the entire 23 issue run of this series is kind of odd, by the way. I have the only two (so far) trade paperbacks that collect any of the series, published by Titan Books, called “Saga of a Star World” and “The Memory Machine.”

The first one collects the first five issues of the series, plus, oddly, issues 15 and 16. The second one collects issues 6-13. And Titan never released a book that collected the rest of the series. Because of their odd incompleteness, I wouldn’t have bought these normally, but a few years ago, while browsing on eBay, I stumbled across two different sellers, both in the UK, offering them with a starting price of one pound (or rather 99 pence) and no bidders. And both cited really (unbelievably) reasonable postage – I placed bids without even thinking, and acquired both of these books for less than $10 total (something to the tune of $9 and change). However, once I got them, I realized that I now had the driving need for the rest of the series, especially since they don’t include the stuff I really wanted: the last stretch of issues drawn, and also written, by Walt Simonson. So I eventually tracked down bought the missing single issues (14, 17-23) to complete the set. Anyway, sorry for the lengthy digression…

The first five issues are just straight-up adaptations of the pilot movie and the following two-part episode (you know: the one in which Jane Seymour’s character, Serina – spoiler alert! – dies at the end).

These were competently done as far as adapted stories go. Thinking about it now, they stack up pretty well against the far more popular Star Wars comics coming out at the same time. The art generally looks better – well, the art in issues 4 and 5, by Walt Simonson and Klaus Jansen, certainly does. Ernie Colon did the first three issues, and while I usually like his art, in these BSG books it often looks bit rushed and sketchy – in fact, in some places it looks like something drawn by an artist who’s still learning the craft.

Then, starting with issue #6, the series went into this long, meandering story arc that continued for a full eight issues, revolving around a device called the Memory Machine (hence the name of the second TPB). Those of you who watched and remember the original series, the story in the episodes immediately following the pilot movie saw the Galactica and the colonial fleet enter a starless void. In the show, they found the ancient planet of Kobol (allegedly the original home of the human race) at the end of the void, and that was it.

Not so in the comic book series, as they stay in the void after leaving Kobol, all the way until issue #13. I suspect that this may have had something to do with the ongoing TV series at the time – probably an edict handed down from the studio that none of the comic book stories could tamper or conflict with the show’s continuity.

And in fact, writer Roger McKenzie actually found a way to make travelling through a void work. First, Commander Adama is put out of commission right away, as he enters a mind-probe device, the aforementioned ‘Memory Machine’, to try to recall some hieroglyphs he briefly saw on Kobol which apparently revealed how to get to Earth. However, the device doesn’t work in a straightforward fashion: whoever enters it goes into this dream-like trance and starts vividly recalling all kinds of memories without any particular reason or rhyme (and there’s a monitor that displays these dreams on a screen).

This opens up an interesting plot-line. Since Adama chairs the Council of Twelve, basically the government of what’s left of the colonies, his decision to enter the memory machine leaves a power vacuum. A corrupt council member, Sire Uri (who was a minor character in the original TV series), exploits this fact to engineer a coup in the council and have himself elected president, and also commander of the fleet. An additional twist is that some henchmen acting under Uri’s orders damage the memory machine’s controls, which basically means Adama is trapped in it. It’s interesting that McKenzie introduced the idea of political drama and intrigues to Battlestar Galactica, something that, to the best of my recollection, never really came into play in the original series – but then became one of the prime drivers of the story in the more recent re-imagined Galactica.

The memory machine plotline also gave Marvel’s writers an opportunity to delve into the pre-cataclysm past of the Galactica and its crew, as Adama recalls some of his earlier adventures. Of course, these were mainly filler issues, not written by regular writer McKenzie, but rather by Bill Mantlo (in issues 8 and 9) and Tom Defalco (issue 10). It was also during this arc that Walt Simonson also began either plotting or co-plotting, or so-scripting various issues (he took over as the series’ writer in issue #20).

By the way, a really interesting concept was introduced during this story arc: Scavenge World. This is an immense agglomeration of old space ships and other technological debris all bolted together right in the middle of the void. It’s inhabited by space-faring aliens of all sorts who love to latch onto any ship lost in the void and then rip it to pieces for spare parts. They’re led by a strikingly beautiful, yet ruthless and manipulative telepathic “queen” named Eurayle (who, like any self-respecting buccaneer, spacefaring or otherwise, wears an eye-patch). She, naturally, takes a shine to Starbuck, as she’s intrigued by the fact that he’s the only one who seems to be able to resist her telepathy (which includes mind-control abilities).

However, the memory machine bit did drag on, and letters pages in the subsequent issues (the ones I have as singles) indicate that quite a few of the regular readers were getting tired of it. That plotline actually winds down with a big dust-up at Scavenge World between the Galactica, a Cylon war fleet that had been stalking them in the void, and the denizens of Scavenge World itself. Adama finally emerges from the Memory Machine with the help of Eurayle’s telepathy; her price for this assistance is to demand that Starbuck remain with her on Scavenge World, as her “general” (but more like boy-toy). This is another interesting and unusual twist, as Starbuck is in fact absent from the series for the better part of five issues.

The next three issues (#s 14-16) contain done-in-one stories, although issue #14 has a bit of a denouement to the Memory Machine arc, since Sire Uri is formally convicted of treason and imprisoned – this one actually should have been included in the TPB. But the focus of the story is on my least favorite BSG character, Boxey (Apollo’s adopted son), who’s upset about the fleet leaving Starbuck behind and starts acting out. He ends up wandering into a room with a radiation leak, and almost dies. However, his robotic pet, Muffit, saves him at the price of frying his circuitry.

Issues 15 and 16, which, as noted above, are included in the first TPB, are quite possibly the best of the series. In the first one, the Galactica sends a search party to track down a distress signal with a colonial signature, which ends up being a derelict Caprican battle-cruiser. Boomer boards the craft, and finds it infested with gigantic mutated vermin, and there are human corpses everywhere. He eventually finds a woman about to die who explains how the ship got there; she also makes a shocking revelation.

In #16, the Galactica comes across a planet rich in minerals they need to replenish their fuel supply. However, they find a satellite in orbit which ends up being a Cylon beacon. The Galactica begins transmitting a jamming signal while a team of technicians goes out to disable the beacon. However, the satellite is booby-trapped, and it also triggers another defense mechanism, as a strange ship appears and begins strafing the colonial Vipers defending the tech crew. Apollo engages the ship in a dogfight and they both end up crash-landing on the planet. The pilot of the mysterious ship is an unusual Cylon, a prototype for a new, more intelligent and dangerous centurion that was left stranded on that planet with a ship incapable of interstellar flight, because the Cylons were afraid of their creation. Apollo eventually takes it out, but the epilogue indicates that it can reconstruct itself.

The reason I like issues 15 and 16 so much is not just the really well-told stories; it’s also because Simonson was just hitting it out of the ballpark with his art. It’s quite apparent that he was really having fun at this point, drawing really great action sequences, and designing really cool-looking ships and even a wicked, sword-wielding killer robot that would have been right at home in the now legendary Manhunter stories he did with Archie Goodwin.

The Galactica next comes to a lush planet which could be a plentiful source of food for the fleet. It’s interesting to note that the fleet will remain at this planet until the series ends with issue #23.

There’s a two-part story in which they learn that a type of fruit on the planet which gives off this pungent yet compelling odor turns humans into giant, Red Hulk-looking savages who eventually lose their minds (by the way, in a letter to the editor printed in issue #20, an irate fan who wasn’t too fond of the story used – very likely coined – the term ‘red Hulk’). The Galactica’s biologists later learn that this fruit can be treated and turned into a nutritional paste.

Starbuck makes his triumphant return in issue #19, which is another case of those damn banner ads ruining a fantastic cover (my personal favorite). Starbuck comes hurtling into the Galactica’s dock in a ramshackle craft that he found and patched up on Scavenge World. He realized it was an ancient human ship, of the type probably used by the inhabitants of Kobol when they first flew out to the stars. He thought – correctly, it turns out – that it may hold clues as to the course for Earth. There’s also this pretty well-done sequence of split pages in this issue, in which Starbuck explains to everyone how he left Scavenge World: he puts a positive shine on everything, while the panels on the other side show the reader what actually happened.

So of course, the none-too-happy Eurayle came storming after Starbuck, and once she and her henchmen find the fleet, there’s a showdown. Starbuck and Eurayle have a duel to the death in space suits, which Eurayle apparently wins, although when the issue closes, it’s revealed that it involved a bit of subterfuge devised by Apollo to keep Starbuck both alive and in the fleet while Eurayle saves face in front of her people.

The story in issue #21, written by Steven Grant and drawn by Brent Anderson, is a bit of an interlude that centers on Apollo’s sister, Athena (who was otherwise an unfairly neglected character in both the TV and the comic book). After passing through a wormhole, she gets stranded on a planet inhabited a powerful yet lonely alien creature who tries to create a paradise for her in order to convince her to stay. The outcome is rather sad, but this is a pretty solid SF story.

The series then wraps up with a really good story that started out as a subplot a few issues earlier: the main character is Jolly, a colonial warrior who was an entirely minor character on the TV show. Here, he takes center stage as he goes on an undercover mission to catch a ring of pirates who are somehow stealing food and other supplies – he does so in this rather outlandish outfit, which is supposedly how merchants from the Geminon colony dress.

It ends up that the richest people in the fleet, many of them good buddies with the disgraced and imprisoned Sire Uri, are behind it all. They created a hideout in Sire Uri’s ship, The Rising Star, where they live in the opulence to which they’re accustomed, while everyone else in the fleet has to live in cramped quarters and ration food. Again, this is a theme that was never really explored in the original show, i.e., social stratification and class warfare among the colonials, but which would later be a major aspect of the re-imagined Galactica. Incidentally, a rather harsh punishment is meted out to these malefactors: they’re exiled from the fleet  in their own little ship, and after the fleet departs its star drive malfunctions.

All in all, I can say that I really like Marvel’s BSG. It had its ups and downs, but for the most part it was solid, with some really outstanding individual issues. I’ve read it all the way through twice now, and it seems like the series really kicked into gear somewhere during the Memory Machine arc. Something just gels at that point (and the idea of Scavenge World is brilliant – it deserved its own mini-series at least). By now, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Walt Simonson, so I’m particularly fond of that last batch of issues, from about #15 onward, in which he did most of the art and took over as writer. Each time I got to the end of that last story, I found myself thinking, “Damn! I could read at least a dozen more issues of this!” And apparently some readers back then shared my opinion, as evidenced by this letter to the editor:

Just a few more thoughts on the TPBs: first, I really dislike the covers (which are posted above); they have that airbrushed quality that makes them look kitschy. And another point against them is the way the covers to individual issues are reprinted. Instead of simply being printed like the rest of the material over the full page, they are rather unattractively featured in shrunken and distorted form, often two per page.

Some points in their favor, on the other hand, are the short text pieces that provide some information on the show, the comics and other, ancillary aspects of the Galactica phenomenon – including brief introductions in both books by the original Captain Apollo himself, Richard Hatch. For the uber-geeks, there are even technical specs on all of the spacecraft: the Galactica, Colonial Vipers, the Cylon Raiders, etc.

The text on the various comic book versions of BSG makes the odd claim that Marvel’s series was actually meant to have a limited run, i.e., that the 23 issues had been planned from the start. I find this claim questionable, first and foremost because there are no indications in the editorial comments in the letters pages that this was the case. Otherwise, there’s also a text on the BSG merchandise, and I hope Karen and Doug don’t mind me including these here (because this is already a very image-heavy post) – mainly because I think BAB regular David B. will get a kick out of them.

UPDATE (1:30 pm CT) --

And... we have this gem, submitted by our very own David B!


Edo Bosnar said...

Gah! Doesn't matter how many times I proof-read these before sending them off, I always find stupid errors: the last part of the very last sentence should read: "...will get a kick OUT of them." Sorry...

Abe Lucas said...

*Sigh* Where do I start with my comments? Well, first, thanks for the spot-on review of this series, Edo.

I have all the floppies of Marvel's BSG--bought 'em decades ago at a used book/CD/record store for $1.00 each--in order to replace the partial run I had at first publication when I was a kid.

Your review contains more enthusiasm than I could ever muster for either comics or BSG the series. I have bad associations with the series since it aired on Sunday nights so the horror that was school was always present in my then-young mind, but also because it just wasn't very good. Oh, cool space ships, actors with great speaking voices: Lorne Greene, John Colicos, Jonathan Harris, and whoever the guy was who spoke into a running box fan to get that Cylon voice, but the series was dire. No levity and everything oh-so very serious.

The comic fared just as poorly: sludgy inks, endless and unwelcome "Memory Machine" storyline etc. The brief moments of quality you covered were just that: brief. Way too little of Starbuck, and Apollo was always so deathly dull. The most interesting concepts were what the Marvel creative team brought to it: Eurayle, the ahem, expanded, role for Sire Uri, the Cylon Mark III (wish there had been more decent illustrations of it!), and the somewhat epic battle in issues #11-13. I liked what you liked and didn't like what you didn't like. ;)

Marvel's BSG, while hamstrung by creative edicts from the show's bigwigs, fared little better than Marvel's contemporaneous attempt at Star Trek and yet I still have them both. There's more nostalgia associated with Trek since I read those quite a few times, despite their iffy quality. However, the characters in Trek were imo infinitely superior to the cardboard cut-outs that were the BSG cast, and Marvel, despite being Marvel, couldn't make the BSG characters any better, because there was simply "no there there." It would have been soooo much more interesting if Simonson had been allowed to craft the kind of stories that he would later create in Marvel's much better Star Wars comic, to say nothing of his magnificent run on Thor.

Anonymous said...

The modern 'Battlestar Galactica' was much better but I did like the Cylons in the original show.

david_b said...

Edo, wonderful overview today.., I would have thought the BSG comic would have aspired to some regretful level of obscurity, but luckily you saw to giving it a great review, my humble thanks.

I recall not liking BSG Universe at first glance, seeing it as simply 'star-wars-on-tv', which to sponsors and those studio execs reaping the merchandising profits AND to the A-B-C Network striving to top the other networks, that's all it was. Cardboard characters, repetitious space effects, that-cute-kid (ghhaaaaahh). I started enjoying it in it's later half when they started adding second- and third-level characters, more story-arcs, essentially becoming more than the sum of it's parts.

As with other studio properties (Logan's Run, Trek, SW), Roger McKenzie had limited scope to maneuver story-wise, but he did had some characters which would have proven interesting. I didn't collect the early movie adaptation issues, but did enjoy the last 5-6 issues focusing more on Jolly, Athena and Boomer. That was a smart move, since Larson needed the creative reins on the series mainstays, secondary characters are ripe for exploration. That Athena story was quite sad, yet well written. Depicting Jolly as that 'huge smuggler' was a bit over-the-top (looking quite towering over Apollo..), but then again, this was the comics approach. I wasn't reading Thor at the time, so this was my only connection to Simonson's art. Some was his typical sketchy fodder, but some facial caricatures were quite succinct. Some ideas, like a Jolly-Athena romance could have been explored and since you barely saw the characters on screen by that time (Maren Jensen was effectively written out..), it would have jelled just fine, and fans would have enjoyed it.

As C.K., mentioned, the characters weren't all that well-drawn out on screen (one reviewer denoted them as the 'Pepsi Generation' of sci-fi, probably collecting salt-shakers or jogging in spare time...., sheesh..), but Hatch came across the strongest. In fact the primary reason the kid (Boxey) was retained was because Hatch knew he was guaranteed more empathetic, fatherly-caring scenes (as in series like 'Family', 'Eight Is Enough' and other ABC fare at the time..) if Boxey stayed on the show. Smart thinking.

As the show was cancelled at that time, like most new fans I had hoped the comic series would continue (and there was actually a Bullpen comment on one letters page stating as such..); alas, ultimately sales was the key factor and Marvel probably needed to focus on other titles rather than stick with a comic whose basis had since been cancelled.

Doug said...

Edo --

That typo is on me as much as it is on you. I'm not a very gracious host for these guest posts if I don't take the role of editor as seriously as I should. And I didn't. I put your post together at a time when I had something to do on the back end of that task and just never got back to proofread it. I only previewed it to check on the image lay-outs.

My apologies, sir! It has been corrected on the main post.


Dr. Oyola said...

Great Job, Edo!

I appreciate all the art samples!.

BSG #14 was the only one I ever had, that I remember. I was not a fan of the show (I remember thinking it'd be a rip off of Star Wars - and when I sampled it I realized it didn't matter it was bad either way).

The remake had promise, but had serious weak points, including the ending. How you can mess up the idea of religious sexy robots is beyond me. ;)

I'd love to see a new comic reboot that takes the basic concepts and creates a whole new story.

Edo Bosnar said...

Geez, Doug, quite apologizing - considering how long this post has been sitting on my desk (so to speak) in some form or another, it should have at least been spotlessly copy-edited...

C.K., on Simonson getting to craft stories as he liked, that's pretty much what I meant when I said I wouldn't have minded seeing at least a dozen more issues or so. It just would have been cool to see what he would have done had he been allowed to go crazy with the Galactica "toys," since by the time the comic series ended I think that horrible Galactica '80 show was also winding down - so there would have been absolutely no ongoing TV production even conceivably constricting potential stories.
As for the original show, at the time it was on, I really, really liked it, as did all of my school friends. But then later, as a teen, when I watched the reruns (I think two episodes were often stuck together and shown as Saturday or Sunday afternoon matinees on local TV stations), I thought most of it was pretty average to bad. A lot of wasted potential, as the basic idea and characters are actually quite good. That's why I like Marvel's comic series: it seemed like the potential was actually being put to good use.
By the way, David, the idea of an Athena/Jolly romance is interesting, but in those last few issues, it seems apparent that Jolly was going to hook up with Medea, a former aide to Sire Uri who saw the error of her ways and started covertly helping out the good guys. Oh, and also, the BSG series folded almost 2 years before Simonson took over the writing & art on Thor...

Edo Bosnar said...

*after slamming head into desk several times* ... And I once more demonstrate my general sloppiness (which is getting really embarrassing at this point, as part of one of my jobs is proofreading): I meant to tell Doug to QUIT apologizing...

david_b said...

Thanks Edo, I didn't mean to incur that Simonson was simultaneously drawing Thor and BSG.., I just never collected Thor much, so I didn't know of his work outside of BSG. Thanks also for the reminder on Medea, it's been years since I cracked open one of those floppies.

On a BSG sidenote, I'm still attending the Galacticon 4 celebration in Seattle in 20some days, most of the original cast (and notables from the reimaged series) will be on hand. I've completed my Colonial Warrior uniform AND am having this popular UK customizer make me a few figure with my image. A splendid Xmas gift for the family, as it won't even be available at SDCC. It's THAT exclusive.

(..Autographs are extra of course..).

Anonymous said...

I never read the BSG comic...I think I watched the show, but I can't actually remember any episodes. I DO still have a couple of BSG Activity/Puzzle books, though.

Mike Wilson

david_b said...

Edo, apologies (added to Doug's earlier ones..) for adding my whimsical vintage BSG figure card, just thought it would add to the spirit of BSG merchandising you ended your wonderful post with today.

I'm having a few made for the family for gifts and will showcase at my costume panels I'm hosting in Seattle, as earlier mentioned. I told the customizer to make my headsculpt 'heroic and dashing..'.


"...Whaaaat, doesn't everybody at BAB have their own MOC action figure....??"

Redartz said...

Edo- another fine review! I watched the first few episodes but never really got caught up in the show. Never picked up the comics either; my loss as Walt Simonson and Klaus Janson are up at the top of my list of favorites.

Incidentally, don't knock yourself over the occasional proofreading error. I just submitted a review, and again I had to send it twice. Why? Because I sent the email without adding the attachment file...face in the palm.......

Edo Bosnar said...

Ha! Yet again, no need for apologies. Although, I think it would be even cooler if you were wearing one of those Galactica warrior helmets.

Karen said...

A very excellent review today Edo. Although I was a fan of the original show when it first came on, I never really got into the comics. I think like others, the novelty of the show quickly wore off (especially Galactica 1980 -ugh) and beyond the cool designs for the ships and costumes, there wasn't a whole lot of 'there' there. It seems like the comics did a better job fleshing things out.

Someone -I think it was David Gerrold -pointed out that the whole concept of Galactica had our heroes running from the bad guys, which didn't seem particularly heroic, nor was it a message of optimism. At the very best, I suppose, you could spin it as an underdog facing a bully. But I think it's true, it never came off quite right. When the "re-imagined" series appeared, they pretty much sold it on the 'gloom and doom' premise, and by the 2000s, our culture was used to entertainment that was decidedly downbeat.

Colonel Bolter! Holy cow, that's neat! We expect a full report -with PICTURES -from the con! ;)

Edo Bosnar said...

Karen, Gerrold made a good point, although I would add that the original concept had a built-in message of hope, since they were headed to Earth. However, in that regard, the 'doom & gloom' atmosphere of the reimagined series made more sense. For the most part, I thought it was initially a really well-done and engrossing series. But as Osvaldo noted, it had some problematic aspects. The main one - and I should note I've never seen the last season - is that somewhere along the way it seems like the story went off the rails. Those last few episodes of the penultimate season, what with the Cylons who don't know they're secret Cylons in the colonial fleet and Starbuck's apparent resurrection had me scratching my head, and thinking that the show's writers were just making crap up as they went along. Still, nothing could be worse than Galactica 1980...

Karen said...

Hi Edo, I suppose there was the hope that they would find Earth some day, but in the meantime, it did seem like they did a lot of running from the Cylons! Although they did win battles here and there, so it wasn't like they were completely without some victories along the way. But the stories and characters always felt pretty weak.

On the other hand, the revived series had great storytelling and characters and I enjoyed it for several seasons, until -as you point out -it seems like the writers didn't know what to do any more. The whole Starbuck-is-an-angel thing was completely nuts, and I didn't care for the hidden Cylons, and that ending...ugh. The first few seasons were very solid but it really petered out as it went on. I find that's true of a lot of shows -maybe they don't have their endpoint planned, or they change it to keep certain actors around, or they just keep going past their expiration date. Better to go out on top.

Martinex1 said...

Edo thanks for a great review of the series. Now I am most interested in the 21st issue to see what happens to Athena in the interlude issue.

Like others, the original television series seemed so slow paced to me. I was always eager for the cylons to just show up. I think Karen has a valid point; the protagonists seemed so passive and so defensive. The family stuff also seemed overplayed to me. It felt didactic. They were always reminding us or pontificating about family, instead of showing it. Hard to explain, but everything seemed too talky.

I have no idea what Galactica 1980 was... I assume a follow up series. I don't recall it at all.

But the basic concept seems like a diamond in the rough. And comics seem more able to depict space battle and effects that 70's television could not. It is interesting that comics could add characterization to minor characters that an hour of television could not. It would have been interesting comparatively if the Marvel creators would have been able to really cut loose.

david_b said...

I'd agree with Karen, I of course read the same David Gerrold column in Starlog.

Eh, he's a bit of a shmuck but did have some engaging ideas, I remember that big public cat-fight in those issues as well between him and William Nolan (?) about Logan's Run..? Seemingly issue after issue for a few months, annoyingly.

I recall he thought even less of Galactica than he did of Space:1999. As for Martinex1's comment on family, you have to view it through the eyes of when it was made.

As mentioned, 'Family', 'Eight is Enough' were strong family shows, and ABC wanted family fare. It was just the genre in which it was made and what ABC wanted.

Also, it was done in the flavor of 'How the West Was Won' and all the other big-time limited series was back then, that was the initial deal made for Galactica, hence it was only designed to be three 2hr movies. No further thought was given to characters or stories.

When ABC quickly decided they wanted it a weekly show, there was no preproduction planning for an entire series. Not to mention all effects work done at that time; there were a few shows which had 'wet prints' edited because the effects were done as late as 12hrs prior to being on the air.

Sooo, creatively, eh.. I'd still give it a pass.

Anonymous said...

My most memorable moment from Battlestar was from the pilot movie....

I guess they were ripping off the Star Wars cantina scene, but the band here were a bunch of black women with multiple sets of eyes! SUPER CREEPY, and I was just a little kid then, so it freaked me out.


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