Thursday, August 12, 2010

Battlestar Galactica - Season 1 Disc 3 (Episodes 5 - 8)

Apologies to any of you who were waiting for my thoughts on this next set of BSG episodes; I intended to do this earlier (and in somewhat greater depth than I will here) but, as so often happens, life (and my Mad Men-recapping duties) got in the way, and by the time I was ready to write this up, the next disc was here and ready to be watched. So, to avoid overkill, I'll take it a little easier this time around. Early next week, I'll write up the last two discs in one go (since the two-part season finale is split across them).

On a personal note, you should be aware that my taste in TV shows earned props from a real estate agent who appeared unannounced while I was watching this disc... though he may have just felt bad about finding me PJ-clad and mid-breakfast.

With that out of the way, on to the episodes:

"You Can't Go Home Again"

This episode is the second half of the two-parter we started last time, the very-Christian "Act of Contrition." But while that episode dealt mainly with atonement via self-sacrifice, this one seems to deal with letting go of guilt and of those we've lost. Commander Adama's inability to let Zak go has haunted him, and also directly led to the confrontation with Starbuck which spurred her suicide mission. Then, his guilt over this confrontation -- as well the near-familial bond both he and Captain Apollo share with Starbuck and, through her, the late Zak -- causes him to put the entire fleet at risk to bring her back.

"You Can't Go Home Again" functions, in some ways, as a counterpart to BSG's recurring theme of tough decision-making. Where in past episodes Commander Adama praises Col. Tigh for making the right call, regardless of difficult consequences, here he ignores Tigh's advice and continues searching for Starbuck well after their best indications would suggest that she's run out of air. Only after the President reminds him of this, and reinforces the danger that everyone else is in, does he call off the search. There's no room for sentimentality in a war, and sometimes that means losing essential parts of your humanity to insure the greater good. Sometimes one must be allowed to die so that others might live (not Christian at all, is it? :-P)

Of course, Starbuck isn't dead, and the rest of this episode focuses on her tribulations on the surface of a dusty moon. She's battered and beaten, but not defeated, eventually escaping the planet via the recovered "body" of the Cylon ship she shot down. These scenes highlight Katee Sackhoff's chief strengths as an actor -- her physicality, toughness, and hidden sensitivity -- even while playing like a familiar trope of sci-fi movies. That said, the method by which she returns to the fleet in her captured ship without being destroyed had me charmed. This show's brilliance so far this season has been in its ability to take a sci-fi premise, load it with deeper meaning and real-world connections, yet still create enjoyable, emotionally satisfying space-action stories. This episode, not by any means the most memorable of the season, is still a perfect example of why this show works.


The most troubling thing about terrorists is their invisibility. You can have a watch list, with generic descriptions of known offenders, but they can look just like us and slip through security. They can even BE us, or at least people we think we know, willingly or unwittingly supporting destructive agendas. Terrorists use sudden violence to create uncertainty and manufacture dissent. The Cylons' new human forms, revealed in this episode to the civilians of the convoy, make the parallel clear: we've seen the enemy, as the saying goes, and it is us.

"Litmus" is the most obviously War on Terror-themed episode to date. After a Cylon suicide bombing on the Galactica nearly takes out the military command, the entire fleet starts looking for someone to blame for the lapse in securty. Adama empowers the Master at Arms to begin a military tribunal, which quickly becomes a kangaroo court. The flight deck crew brings suspicion on the Chief by covering for his continuing tryst with Boomer, each testifying to different lies. When one of them takes the fall for this and lands in the brig, it's clear that terrorism turns personal loyalty into a liability. Even Adama comes under criticism, which eventually leads to the termination of the tribunal. The worst part is that, of course, Boomer again escapes detection despite her obvious role in two separate acts of terrorism now, though the end of her relationship with Chief Tyrol pushes her even further down the spiral of doubt and self-incrimination.

"Litmus" seems to be questioning whether any security methods could ever rout out the Cylons (and, by extension, terrorists), taking care to point out that for security and freedom to coexist, innocents will fall and bad things will sometimes happen. This episode really gets all of the mileage it can out of beating us over the head with its War on Terror metaphor, to its detriment. But it does raise interesting questions about justice and responsibility within the fleet. Perhaps we agree with Adama's decision to place himself above suspicion and shut down the tribunal, but are we meant to believe it was the "right" thing to do? I'm not so sure.

"Six Degrees of Separation"

As you know, I've never been the biggest fan of the "Baltar's internal Six" conceit. I've always found it too easy, and not good for much aside from a few laughs -- laughs which wear thinner with every time the writers go to the well with this gimmick. But this episode helped justify the conceit by casting a little doubt on just how "internal" Baltar's Six is. In the past, she has claimed to operate outside the jurisdiction of the rest of the Cylons. But this episode, and the way the Cylons continue to manipulate Baltar and the people around him, shows that there must be something more going on here.

In short, Baltar's version of Six disappears from his head just as a copy appears aboard Galactica and accuses him of treason. When Gaeta invalidates that Six's evidence later in the episode, she disappears from the ship and reappears in his head. Either the mental version is capable of taking physical form, or the "implant" is communicating with other Cylons around the fleet; other explanations would be too coincidental from a writing perspective. Either way, kudos to the writers for coming up with a way to make me think about -- and better of -- a plot device I'd never liked.

Otherwise, the episode picks up where the previous episode left off, dealing with the heavy suspicion and distrust the Cylon infiltration has caused. Adama and President Roslin are all-too-ready to condemn Baltar, locking him without a trial and preparing to destroy his nascent Cylon detector out of fear that it might be something more sinister. But when Batar is freed, the Cylons' mastery of manipulation becomes clear: by exonerating Baltar, they've made it difficult for anyone else to accuse him ever again, thus freeing one of their most valuable assets from suspicion. This also facilitates Baltar's conversion to the Cylons' monotheistic faith, as they credit god for a situation that they, in reality, put together. Again, the parallels to fanatical sects is apparent -- the more you manipulate someone's reality, the easier it is for you to impose your own reality upon them.

"Flesh and Bone"

The "ticking time bomb secenario" is often invoked in War on Terror discussions, cited as a situation where conditions favor the use of torture in the name of the "greater good." "Flesh and Bone" dramatizes this concept, pitting Starbuck against a captive copy of the messianic Cylon Leoben Conoy, who claims to have hidden a nuke somewhere in the fleet. But while, in real world situations, there is no question about the "humanity" of even the worst terrorist, BSG tackles the tricky subject of just what makes a person a person.

The Cylons essentially consider themselves ensouled beings in their own right, regardless of originally being man-made and, for all intents and purposes, machines. They feel pain, even if Starbuck suggests they could stop that if they'd only turn that "software" off and accept their nature as machines. But either way, the question of whether or not it's right to torture Cylons haunts the background of this episode. When Starbuck repeatedly submerges Leoben's head in water, the parallel to the real-world waterboarding dilemma couldn't be more apparent. I'd argue that the episode suggests that torture doesn't really work: Leoben only reveals that there is no bomb once Roslin arrives and treats him nicely. Even then, he sows the seeds of doubt by warning Roslin that Commander Adama is a Cylon.

Also in "Flesh and Bone," we get a bit more information about prophecies, "visions," and religion in general. President Roslin begins to see things, having a dream about Leoben before the copy has been discovered. Leoben also displays a certain amount of foreknowledge in addition to his usual religious mish-mash. He predicts, with confidence, that the fleet will find Kobol and that Kobol will lead them to Earth. He even manages to get Starbuck, his torturer, to pray for his "soul" after his execution. But these themes will be developed even more in the next set of episodes (I know! I cheated), so we'll talk about them then.

Random Thoughts:
  • The Helo/"Boomer" storyline:
    • We make slow but significant advances, here, over these four episodes. I like the way that this subplot begins laying the groundwork that even Cylons can change. "Boomer" is originally meant to seduce and entrap Helo for as-yet-unrevealed reasons. But she succeeds too well; she's able to see and feel his genuine love for her, and after they have sex, she returns his feelings and helps him escape.
    • As I've noted, I'm largely un-spoiled over this section of the plot, so I'm pretty intrigued by how things are unfolding.
    • That said, I'm still a bit annoyed by the imbalance between this subplot and the main story on Galactica. I can't help but wonder if this would feel better told in a different way instead of getting five to ten minutes out of each episode.

  • I was bothered a bit in this stretch of episodes by the way that main characters sometimes perform duties outside of their ken. I mean, would you really send your best fighter pilot to interrogate a prisoner, or wouldn't some other sort of troop make more sense? I mean I get that you'd want your main characters involved in most episodes -- and it's a common thing on this sort of show -- but STILL.
  • Knowing even what little I do know about the disappointed reaction to BSG's series finale, and in particular to the role religion plays in it, I guess I can only wonder why anyone would be at all surprised. The show's been very mysticism/religion-friendly from the start, so (to this point) a "god-did-it" ending doesn't seem so far out of line. Either way, I still find the religious stuff to be pretty all over the place.
OK, no more for now. We'll talk about the last five episodes sometime next week, at which point I'll decide whether it's worth keeping these BSG posts going. Be seeing you!


    1. Yes, exactly! There's nothing thematically incongruous about the ending. It has some understandably annoying narrative problems (which I didn't mind), but theism is a major issue from the very beginning. I suspect a lot of the problem people have with it has to do with losing the thread of the story by watching the show in spurts. Also, there's a fair amount of simple anti-religion ninniness.

    2. @AmSci

      Yeah... it's the same reason I wasn't upset about LOST's ending. For one thing, it was only a little bit of pandering to religion, and for another, it's not as if a little bit of mysticism is out of place on a show about a MAGIC ISLAND.

      Does it annoy me, as an atheist? Sure, a little... it's frustrating that "faith" is so often praised as-is with little context or reason. But not every show I watch has to validate my worldview. Plus, if a show deals explicitly with the faith/religion question throughout its run, it's virtually guaranteed to hit it at the end. You can't pretend to be blindsided.

      Still, it remains to be seen what I think of the BSG finale. That's a few months away, at minimum, judging by my current pace :-P