Thursday, August 5, 2010

Battlestar Galactica - Season 1 Disc 2 (Episodes 1 - 4)

So, now that I've finished the Battlestar Galactica miniseries and moved on to actual Season One episodes, I thought I'd come back and provide you with some early impressions. I'm still not sure if I'm going to cover my experiences over the entire run of the show, so we'll just have to see how it goes.

I'm not going into too much depth here, but I guess I'll take the first four episodes individually and in brief.


Wow, what a GUTSY move to start the series proper with such a breathless episode! If you remember, the Miniseries ended with the Galactica and its fleet of refugee ships making a faster-than-light (FTL) jump to a far-flung sector of space in order to escape the attacking Cylons. This episode occurs approximately five days later. Unfortunately, the intervening five days have NOT been peaceful for our heroes: they've been forced to make over 200 additional FTL jumps to avoid the Cylons, who keep showing up at each new location thirty-three minutes after each jump. As a result, the Galactica's crew is suffering from sleep deprivation, and it affects everyone from the command staff down to the fighter pilots, who have to take stimulants just to stay awake long enough to protect the fleet prior to each jump.

If you're wondering HOW the Cylons keep finding them, and WHY it takes them thirty-three minutes to do so, well, you'll be disappointed; we never learn, because that is not the point of this episode. The episode is about certain aspects of war: the terror of the unending chase, the uncertainty of escape, the intermittent boredom between attacks. And, more importantly, "33" (and the whole series to this point) is about the kinds of tough decisions one must make during war. 

When civilian ship the Olympic Carrier fails to join the fleet after a jump, the government and crew mourn the loss of her 1,000+ passengers, while questioning why the Cylon attacks seem to stop. But when the Olympic Carrier mysteriously turns up again hours later, ignoring official orders to stop and reading hot for nuclear weapons, the ship must be destroyed. Are any civilians still on the ship? Did they legitimately escape the Cylons, or have they been taken over? Was the Olympic Carrier really the ship that allowed the Cylons to track the fleet's movements, as suggested by both the increasingly-important version of Cylon Number Six inside Gaius Baltar's head and by the Cylons' reappearance shortly after the Carrier? Again, answers are hard to come by. BSG is confident enough to recognize that war asks tons of questions but rarely, if ever, answers them in a way that brings peace or closure to anyone involved.

This episode also introduces another recurring motif: President Roslin's whiteboard, displaying the number of "souls" still alive in the convoy and, for all anyone knows, all of humanity. It's touches like this that allow BSG to feel much more grounded than most space sci-fi TV. As many fantastical elements as there are, everything from the limitations of the ship to the shaky, often hand-held photography roots the show in a sort of reality and imbues all things -- good, bad, or indifferent -- with legitimate weight. This is why the fleet's first birth, signified by adding one number back onto Roslin's tally, feels like a victory in spite of the major losses required to ensure it could happen.

"33" is a fantastic episode, one that sets a very high bar for the rest of the series. The only slight missteps are the scenes with Helo, marooned on the occupied, radiation-stricken world of Caprica. These scenes take away from the intensity of the Galactica's peril, but are mostly justified by the need to keep Helo's story fresh in the audience's mind after he was last seen in the miniseries. Still, taken as a whole and as an introduction to the rules of the BSG world, "33" is tough to beat.


Another major peril faced by most war-torn nations is the deprivation of basic needs. Refugees everywhere must deal with shortages, making due with rationed food and water. This episode deals with this issue in a neat way, first by showing us how the Galactica has handled the problem so far, then by creating a crisis and pushing everyone to the limit.

"Water" takes nearly as many chances as "33," as the episode begins in media res with Raptor pilot (and unknowing Cylon) Sharon "Boomer" Valerii waking to find herself bloody-handed, wet, and in possession of armed explosives. Upon surreptitiously returning the detonator, she discovers that six others are also missing. Soon, explosions nearly destroy the Galactica's water tank, venting the majority of the fleet's water supply into space. Boomer and her on-the-not-so-sly lover, Chief Petty Officer Galen Tyrol, disguise her involvement in fear that she's being set up, while the command staff recognize that they're still not free of Cylon infiltration.

Opening in such a disorienting way, BSG displays a lot of trust in its audience. Some shows might balk at this, afraid of alienating new viewers, so kudos to BSG and the then-named SciFi Channel for being unafraid of risks. As if in tribute to this trust in the audience, the episode also focuses on trust.

The Chief trusts Boomer, in spite of all the evidence implicating her in the water tank sabotage. President Roslin and Commander Adama begin learning to trust one another, thanks in part to Roslin's trust of Captain "Apollo" Adama. Back on Caprica, another copy of the Boomer Cylon quickly gains Helo's trust, though we're still unsure whether this is for good or for ill. The Commander and the President trust Baltar to discover the hidden Cylons, not knowing just how badly he has been corrupted, And, most importantly, the Galactica's version of Boomer has to learn to trust herself. This episode's best scenes show her struggling to retain control of her body, first being physically incapable of reporting a positive scan for usable water, and later forcing herself not to detonate the last of the explosives hidden on her Raptor. Grace Park does well showing the character's struggles: What would it do to her self-identity if she were to find out what she really is? Is she even capable of suspecting herself?

I like that the show continues to play with the idea of trust and allegiance, with the two Boomers, with Baltar and his mental Number Six, and with Captain "Apollo" Adama playing both sides of the military/government divide. It's incredible how deeply some of these themes are ingrained already, only two episodes into the actual series.

"Bastille Day"

And speaking of trusting the audience, I wonder how hard it was to convince the SciFi Channel bosses to air an episode-cum-civics lesson -- set on a space-prison ship! -- so early in the series? And it's a dense episode, too, touching on the validity of forced prison labor, questioning whether there's ever justification for "terrorism," examining the importance of keeping the military separate from the police, and much more. This episode again deals with unanswerable questions and seeming no-win situations, although Captain Apollo negotiates a very difficult situation with aplomb, here.

I'm also intrigued by the role Apollo has come to play, especially given how little I liked the character in the miniseries (focusing, as it did, so heavily on his daddy issues). Oddly enough, Fritz Lang's Metropolis keeps coming to mind. There, the city fathers (the "head") exploit the underground-dwelling workers (the "hands"), while both are duped by a humanoid robot and her mad scientist mastermind (not such a strange reference after all, now that I think about it!) At any rate, it's only when the two sides can be brought together by a mediator (the "heart") that the city's problems can be solved. Increasingly, it looks as though Apollo will be playing the "heart" to Roslin's "head" and Commander Adama's "hands." Here, he brokers a (mostly) non-violent end to the prisoner stand-off AND makes the right call regarding the need for fair, free elections. This plays on Apollo's namesake, the Lord of Kobol Apollo, who was a "healer." It will be interesting to see how this healing conceit plays out.

Otherwise, I don't have a ton to say about the episode. The prison stand-off scenes are tense and well-executed, and original BSG alum Richard Hatch is fine as the prisoners' radical leader, but short of digging through historical reference points (something for which my notes and memory are both insufficient), there's not much I can add. I should say, though, that I am enjoying the way that BSG takes its time answering important questions, dedicating separate early episodes to finding water, retrieving that water, and (in the next episode) to replenishing the military from within. This patience is a sure sign of a confident, well-planned season.

"Act of Contrition"

I have yet to return to BSG's religious themes, largely because I'm still not entirely sure what the show is trying to say. I can see the developing conflict between the Cylons' zealous monotheism and Humanity's relaxed polytheism, but it's all a bit slippery to this point and I'd hate to speak out of turn. However, I suppose I have to touch on these concepts a little bit if I'm going to talk about an episode called "Act of Contrition" and involving a guilt-filled attempted heroic sacrifice.

This episode deals with the repercussions of an accident on the flight deck which results in the deaths of thirteen pilots. That this occurs by sheer chance in the midst of a celebration is hardly accidental, from a writing perspective: wars are messy and full of accidents, and celebrating even small victories carries a big risk.

As a result of this accident, hot-shot pilot Kara "Starbuck" Thrace must face her guilt and attempt to carve unseasoned civilians into pilots capable of defending the refugee fleet. As we learned in the miniseries, Zak Adama (Commander Adama's son and Apollo's brother) was Starbuck's student at flight school. They were engaged, and because of their relationship, Starbuck passed Zak when he should have failed basic flight. She believes his subsequent death is her fault, and has been nursing her guilt, mostly in secret, ever since.

This episode has a very Catholic feel to it, with Starbuck "confessing" her sins to her father-figure, Commander Adama. When he is unwilling (or unable) to forgive her, she attacks a rogue group of Cylons almost entirely on her own and is forced to eject, plummeting to the surface of a strange world alongside her ruined fighter and that of the final Cylon ship. This "act of contrition" is left unresolved, as this is the first episode of the series to end with the dreaded "To Be Continued..."

"Act of Contrition" takes similar narrative risks to those seen in "Water;" the episode starts in the middle of Starbuck's crash and is filled with disconnected flashbacks and memories. Like so much of the series so far, it seems to be about the perils of being a living, feeling human being faced with the brutality and horror of war. Katee Sackhoff is wonderful as Starbuck, and Edward James Olmos deviates from his standard, gruff-voiced characterization, doing well with Commander Adama's barely-concealed sadness and anger.

While I'm aware of some things that are to come (I'd be a fool if I thought this were truly the last we'd see of Starbuck), I don't know how this particular scenario plays out, so I'm very eager to see what happens next.

Random Thoughts

  • I know I haven't said much about some of the secondary characters on the show. I suppose that's because, for a serialized show like BSG, these characters are allowed to develop slowly and at their own pace, and will grab the spotlight (or not) in due time. I will, however, single out Michael Hogan's work as the consistently-enjoyable XO Colonel Saul Tigh. I DO know that there's a whole lot more to come for Tigh, and I'm anxious to see how it plays out, but for now I like his gruffness and sense of humor. He makes a good foil for the typically over-serious Commander Adama.
  • I also have to admit that I'm still not a huge fan of the "internal Number Six" gimmick. On one hand, it's a good way to give us the psychology of at least one self-aware Cylon without taking away much of the race's mystique or "other"-ness. On the other hand, it still feels like a bit of a cheat, though I admit chuckling a bit at the way others perceive Baltar's interactions with this invisible entity. I just hope the whole thing is going somewhere useful
  • Speaking of "going somewhere useful," I do hope that the Helo subplot (about which I know next to nothing) is worth the occasional digression from the main story. So far, progress is slow, but there's some definite potential, especially in the budding sexual tension between Helo and his Cylon companion. But as this is currently the sole subplot taking place away from the fleet, the balance does feel a bit off.

Anyway, that's all for now. I actually ended up writing waaay more than I thought I would; hopefully I can reign myself in a bit better in the future. Depending on the next batch of episodes, I may do a shorter write-up about any carried over themes, or I may end up recapping each episode as I've done here. We shall see...

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