Battlestar Galactica 2×08 – 2×10

A flurry of Battlestar Galactica to catch up with my backlog.

Various uninteresting life events have got in the way of posting recently; my brother and his girlfriend came up to visit for the Great North Run last week, and since then we’ve been locked in tiling hell after a spur-of-the-moment decision to redo the bathroom floor. I must remember to multiply my estimates of how long DIY will take by a factor of three…

Obviously I haven’t actually seen any of these episodes, but uncannily if you play James Blunt’s top-selling album backwards you can hear the entire soundtrack to all three episodes, plus some extra material mostly concerned with worshipping the devil.

2×08 – Final Cut

There are certain ubiquitous story premises that seem to crop up again and again in TV drama. One such premise is showing Our Heroes through the eyes of a reporter or documentary format. Off the top of my head it’s a format that has been used in MASH, Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1, The West Wing, Homicide: Life on the Street and probably many others. It’s a versatile idea that can be shaped to any series because it’s a means of viewing familiar characters in a fresh way.

Final Cut is Battlestar Galactica’s contribution, and it’s a strong effort. Here, the focus is not on the final documentary but on the process of making the film, including some convincingly awkward and self-conscious reactions from the regular characters. Believability is stretched a little in having conversations continue even while a camera is being shoved up the participants’ noses, but Adama’s edict that the reporters be granted a warts-and-all insight just about excuses it.

It’s pleasing that the recent riot is touched on as a motivation for the story, as in the real world such an incident would resonate for months. The otherwise forgettable “nutter tries to kill Tigh” subplot is a means of making Tigh face up to his responsibility, and although he is (predictably) dissuaded from doing so by his wife, his nobler instincts reassert themselves when it counts. As always, when faced with a contained military threat Tigh handles himself with conviction.

Beyond that, the episode provides some character depth, including unusual moments in the spotlight for the supporting characters – Gaeta especially – and some lovely juxtaposition of interview footage with current events. Mostly this is disposable stuff, but highlights the extent to which the crew are on the ragged edge, especially the space battle shown entirely from the perspective of CIC (reminiscent of the famous scene in Patriot Games).

The episode closes with a couple of clever moments and one clunker. Adama’s praise for the documentary is dignified and welcome. Again, we see the juxtaposition of Tigh’s knee-jerk suspicion and Adama’s willingness to think a little deeper: although the two characters share a lot in common, it’s these subtleties that make all the difference in the quality of their leadership. Regrettably, Adama’s point is then hammered home by the schmaltzy narration. Not even the reprise of the original Battlestar Galactica theme (last heard in the mini-series) can save it. I’ll be charitable and assume it was intended as set-up for the final twist, but either way it was unnecessary. The twist itself is telegraphed but effective, and is most interesting in showing how little the Cylons know about Sharon’s situation.

2×09 – Flight of the Phoenix

If Final Cut showed a crew on the ragged edge, this episode reveals a glimmer of hope.

The strongest thread involves Chief Tyrol and Helo coming to terms with their relationships with two different, yet identical, cylon women. This is a subject which was necessarily sidelined in the recent story arc, and it’s given plenty of room to breathe here. The opening scenes of the Chief caressing Sharon’s fighter erotically say a great deal without words, something this show does very effectively in its teasers. Helo and Tyrol share complex feelings of love, regret and self-loathing which are mirrored in the way the crew treats Helo, and in the way Tyrol treats Cally. By the end of the episode Helo is reconciled with the crew, Tyrol is reconciled with Cally, and he’s even prepared to countenance speaking to Sharon #2, yet all this is handled in such an understated way that it never feels pat.

Tyrol’s creation of the stealth fighter is a lovely idea, albeit one which should have run for a few episodes rather then being rushed to completion here. The theme is explicitly one of hope, of living for the future and not the present or the past, and it works well right through to Roslin misting up at the end.

That the Chief does such an amazing job that the ship outperforms anything yet built by colonial technology does somewhat beggar belief. It’s a convention of TV that belongs on Star Trek and not here, but I’ll let it pass because another unconvincing standby of modern SF television, the evil computer virus, drowns it out. Not content with having the least logical virus attack in history a few weeks ago, we now learn that this same virus has been biding its time and is slowly taking over the ship. As is traditional, a good old-fashioned reboot fixes the problem. It’s probably best that I gloss over this plotline completely, as it also involves such skiffery as Boomer sticking wires in her hand and interfacing with the ship, not to mention transmitting a virus back to the Cylons seemingly off the top of her head. I realise there’s a great deal we don’t know about the Cylons, but this really does fail to convince.

One other subplot worth mentioning is Roslin learning that she has weeks, not months, left to live. It’s impossible for me to imagine that she won’t survive this somehow, but the exact mechanism is bound to have pivotal story implications so I can’t wait to find out more. For now, her returning the book to Adama speaks (if you’ll pardon the expression) volumes.

2×10 – Pegasus

The title says it all, although I have only the vaguest memory of the original series’ episode concerning the Pegasus (released theatrically in the UK as Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack. I remember it well. Ah, those were the days).

As always, the new show takes the old premise and gives it a fresh spin, but in this instance the result is disappointingly by-the numbers. When Cain’s XO tells the horror story of her brutality then laughs it off, I was pleasantly surprised; it seemed that the episode was slyly playing games with our expectations. Unfortunately we’re given no reason to doubt Tigh’s assertion that the XO was telling the truth, which leads us inexorably to the episode’s conclusion in which every one of the Pegasus’s officers seemingly turns out to be arrogant and ruthless. This is disappointingly two-dimensional for such a nuanced show. At the very least, I would have preferred it if Admiral Cain hadn’t proved such a martinet so quickly. It remains possible part two will undermine some of our assumptions, so we’ll have to see.

Fortunately a lot of the nuance is put back by Adama’s conflicted reaction to Cain’s arrival. From the start he looks like he doesn’t know whether to be pleased or crushed, a reaction mirrored by Roslin later in the episode. He claims to accept the chain of command, and makes an admirable show of doing so, but it’s clear that he’s become used to doing things a certain way. It’s equally clear that Cain’s uncompromising view of the Cylons is very dfferent from Adama’s, whose feelings are far more complex and morally grey. This is underlined by the treatment of the Cylon prisoners, and by the incident which leads Tyrol and Helo to their court-martial.

We do see some complexity to Cain. She is originally willing to give Adama free reign, and her assertion that he’s lost objectivity has some truth to it. His dissolving of the independent tribunal last season comes back to haunt him, as indeed it should, and Cain has him bang to rights in a lot of areas. Even her judgement on Helo and Tyrol, though shockingly stark, pays lip service to the appropriate deliberation. Thus it’s with some ambiguity that we see Adama launching an attack on the Pegasus. On the one hand, it’s hard to suppress a cheer, but on the other this is at least as questionable a decision as dissolving the tribunal.

After weeks of Baltar on twitchy auto-pilot we at last get something more meaty for him to do. His monologue to the captive Six is disconcertingly honest (apparently), and his concern for her is genuine. The spectral Six’s reaction is no less interesting, and this whole storyline taps into the running idea that Cylons are as complex emotionally and psychologically as the humans. There are a host of potentially riveting ways this could develop.

Lastly, Michelle Forbes as Admiral Cain is an excellent casting decision. Not just because she’s a lot easier on the eye than Lloyd Bridges, but because she’s a great actress who doesn’t get enough good roles.

EDIT: I’ve only belatedly realised that Pegasus has evoked some strong reactions for being derogatory towards women. For example, the use of attempted rape as a mechanism to motivate male characters, etc.

While I understand all those points to a degree, I don’t agree. This is a show which has always devoted large amounts of screen time to central characters who are strong and complex women: some good, some evil; some strong, some weak. The female characters often proactively drive the storyline.

My personal impression is that the story and themes of this particular episode are largely the same as previous episodes, and are therefore intended to be gender neutral. If anything this episode is uninterested in the genders of the characters, and much more interested in issues like the abuse of power, and the ongoing examination of the nature of the Cylons and humanity’s attitude to them. We’re supposed to be repelled by the Pegasus crew’s attitude towards the Cylons as less-than-human. We’re supposed to think that Cain has gone off the deep end (just as the original character played by Lloyd Bridges did). Baltar is obsessed with Six and is placed in a situation where he’s forced to confront his feelings for a Cylon. He may be sexist, but then he’s always been sexist, but what’s of interest is that he’s showing compassion for a Cylon. That’s good drama.

I do agree that possibly the way the two Cylon women are portayed tips too far into stereotypical images of women-as-victim. I can see that argument. But I think that it is not the intent. It’s an open question whether Boomer should have been physically strong enough to overpower her two guards, since we’re unclear about the exact nature of Cylon strength, but it sees to me that the intent was far more likely to be a) plot contrivance to get Helo and Tyrol into a situation of being declared traitors, and b) to show that Sharon is as open to psychological trauma as any human.

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