Battlestar Galactica Diary

After a month overseas, I’ve been playing catch-up with Battlestar Galactica, especially since the much-touted, game-changing episode “Maelstrom” is airing this Sunday, kicking off a five episode arc to conclude the season. So here’s some thoughts on the four episodes I’ve missed, and they’ll be followed soon by a Lost catch-up after my viewing buddy comes over tonight.

SPOILERS for season 3, episodes 13-16: Taking A Break From All Your Worries, The Woman King, A Day in the Life, and Dirty Hands.

Taking A Break From All Your Worries

It’s been a wildly uneven season for Galactica thus far, and this episode encapsulated everything that’s still great about the show and everything that’s wrong. The Baltar interrogation storyline was vintage Galactica, intense and provocative. However, I cannot convey how tedious I find this Starbuck/Apollo soap opera. I’m all for relationship sagas, but their story has so little depth and nuance that it jars horribly with the show’s more subtle characterisations. If the consummation of their long dance around each other had been restricted to the flashback episode earlier this season, it would have packed a punch. That was a strong episode that took them to a place the show had been itching to visit yet explained how it couldn’t continue, yet I was crestfallen to see the two pashing in secret two episodes later. Their spouses, Dualla and Anders, could make the quadrangle more interesting, but alas, their reasons for tolerating the unspoken betrayals have never been satisfactorily elucidated. Galactica has almost always managed to weave relationships seamlessly into its broader mythology and thematic tapestry, but this one has stuck out like a sore thumb. Perhaps later events will redeem all the attention it’s received, but I suspect that this was still a case where less would be more.

Thankfully, James Callis and Baltar more than compensate, as he is interrogated for information about the Cylons’ plans. But we know he knows nothing, so the drug-induced delusion he is eventually put under yields further probing of Baltar’s self-preserving, victimised psyche rather than vital intelligence, except this time, Adama and Roslin finally learn what Baltar has been experiencing from the start of the show. Whether they give a crap isn’t really clarified.

Edward James Olmos directs these scenes with a great eye, employing water tanks, extreme close-ups, and various other claustrophobic techniques to help us empathise with Baltar’s paranoia. James Callis deserves massive kudos for his performance this season, and this episode is the highlight. If anyone in the cast deserves an Emmy (as criminally unlikely as the academy rewarding this show is), it’s Callis. Baltar’s furious conviction in his own lack of culpability is breathtaking to behold.

However, what the hell were Adama and the bloody President doing interrogating Baltar personally?! This was so wildly implausible that it initially took me out of the episode. While it’s very satisfying to see McDonnell and Olmos confronting Callis after so much build-up, it should have been reserved for one-on-ones rather than shoehorning them into intelligence gathering. And sadly, the two leaders seem to hold back their emotions when it comes to Baltar, maintaining control throughout. This may be deliberate in order to convey their utter disdain for him, but it’s not very satisfying, as Baltar’s crimes should be eliciting more from Adama than clinical strategising. Conversely, Gaeta’s reaction is extreme and out-of-character. The Galactica crew consistently take the law into their own hands, and for once it would have been nice if words had carried the drama throughout.

But still, it’s an episode with great moments that lays some groundwork for the immediate future.

The Woman King

Oh lordy. A lot of people shit on season 2’s “Black Market”, but this officially marks the worst episode of the series to date, which is a shame since it showcases the underused Helo (Tahmoh Penikett). Despite the intricate world of the fleet that the show has constructed, Galactica is finding it very difficult these days to tell stand-alone stories. The core episodes, such as the New Caprica arc that opened the season, have raised such a high bar and are so resolutely non-formulaic that problem-of-the-week episodes should be beyond these writers. Because Galactica has always been such an organically plotted series, the need to introduce hitherto unseen guest characters and fleet problems is almost unavoidably awkward.

In “The Woman King”, Bruce Davison plays a civilian doctor that we’ve never heard of before and the Sagittaron colony is established out of nowhere as so religiously fundamentalist that they reject all medical treatment. As Helo tries to manage the refugees now staying aboard Galactica, the story becomes a killer doctor tale where Davison is revealed as a racist murderer seeking to eliminate the pesky Sagittarons and free up the medicine. Yes, in a season with the carefully judged, plot-device free New Caprica stories, it’s come to this.

The episode is trying to make a point about whether inconvenient traditions should be respected in desperate times, but the Saggitarons are so implausibly backward and the doctor’s solution so extreme that any wit the discussion may have had is thrown out of the window. Plus, the resolution is far too stilted, with Helo vindicated purely because Doc Cottle was tired before and didn’t bother to do as he asked. The disbelieving characters then support Helo far too openly and readily – even the stubborn Tigh, who, of course, naturally considers the guest star of the week an old friend, thus Helo had even more to fight through…

It may he ham-fisted, but it’s not all bad. We get some long overdue insight into Helo, and Penikett clearly relishes the opportunity. Things get a little meta when Helo suggests that people see him solely as the Cylon’s husband, which is indeed what he’s been lately. This episode goes a little way to pushing past that, especially as we see he and Sharon fight for the first time since getting together, adding a nice dose of realism to their quite idyllic bond. Hopefully he continues to get something to do.

A Day in the Life

This one screams ‘missed opportunity’. Adama recalling his failed marriage could have been a superb character piece and a tour-de-force for Olmos, but it never comes close. Adama’s issues and anxieties are just laid out for us by his wife in a series of pseudo-flashbacks where she essentially voices what he cannot. We’re not able to infer anything, particularly because Olmos chooses to play this so low-key, partly because he’s preoccupied with the B-story.

Due to a cock-up sparked by Galactica’s rough shape since the battle above New Caprica, Cally and Chief Tyrol are trapped in a sealed room with a tiny hull breach, and the crew must rescue them by venting them into space and catching them with a raptor. Like all the couples on the show, these guys have been having problems, with the Chief reverting to his unmarried, pre-New Caprica self too much for Cally’s liking; she feels that she and their baby are being neglected. Cue a tie-in to Adama’s own regrets about not being there for his kids, the Chief realising what he’s been missing due to near-death experience, blah blah. Galactica seems to have lost so much of the subtlety that was its hallmark, at least temporarily. Even the dialogue seems weak these days – what’s going on?

It does conclude with a great scene between Olmos and McDonnell where they very gently imply their attraction and perhaps even love for each other, but that their responsibilities prohibit them from acting on it, despite the evening they spent together on New Caprica. Although we saw nothing happen besides an intimate conversation, it now occurs to me that this episode too doesn’t rule out the possibility that perhaps they did embrace the change that the new planet offered. Hmmm…. Anyway, it’s a great little scene and a long-awaited one. These two actors are class acts and they deserve Emmys, blah blah, not gonna happen etc etc.

Well, I have one more stand-alone before “Maelstrom”, and perhaps that headlong plunge into the core story again (if I interpret the buzz correctly) will restore the show to fighting fitness again. Looking at these episodes though, I must say that the shorter, 13-episode order for next season is looking very promising. As great as seasons two and part of three have been, they never matched the taut efficiency of the first.

Dirty Hands

Now this is more like it. Only two episodes after its worst stand-alone episode yet, Galactica delivers one of its best. Eschewing plot devices and stock storylines for a terrific political exploration of the practical ramifications of the ‘rag-tag fleet’, “Dirty Hands” is smart and thought-provoking. What a relief.

The refinery ship that produces the fleet’s fuel has demanded better working conditions, so Chief Tyrol is sent to try and assess the problem. Some workers are being spurred to action by chapters of a book that Baltar is writing from prison, smuggled out and proclaiming the class disparity in the fleet, calling for action. Once he understands the infringements that are taking place, the Chief instigates a fleet-wide workers’ strike.

Like “The Woman King”, “Dirty Hands” asks what measures should be taken in wartime to ensure stability and survival, one of Galactica’s frequent preoccupations and a natural outgrowth of its apocalyptic premise. But instead of a corny killer doctor and a wholly disbelieving majority, more realistic plotting and motivations can be found. Plus, it’s gloriously textured. One tremendous scene features Tyrol asking the imprisoned Baltar what he hopes to achieve, and while his conviction in his newfound revolutionary beliefs is still in question, his arguments about the divisions within the fleet are canny and unnerving, as if we as viewers have been putting up with the subjugation by happily following the exploits of Our Heroes. And Baltar and Roslin face off again as she orders him searched for pages from his book. In a season where certain characters have been sidelined or saddled with poor storylines, Callis has emerged as the crown jewel of the show. Sure, he has the meatiest material on the page, but he’s delivering it amazingly.

The downside to “Dirty Hands” is that in the script’s quest for moral relativism, Adama and Roslin are portrayed as far more extreme than we have come to expect. Although this can be justified by the central problem of the story – the desperate need for a functioning fleet – watching Roslin coldly reject the Chief’s concerns and, worst of all, Adama threatening to shoot Cally for mutiny if the strike is not averted, doesn’t ring true, even in their trying times. Sure, it all comes good at the end, but the balance is sadly not maintained, perhaps due to a desire for a tense climax.

Nonetheless, this is the kind of insight and timely subject matter that Galactica has drawn praise for yet has been largely absent since New Caprica. I’m now much more confident as we head into the final stretch. Bring on “Maelstrom”…

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