The line that jumped out at me in this pair of episodes occurs at the end of “Colonial Day,” when Commander Adama and Laura Roslin are sharing a few quiet moments after a tumultuous few days. “Politics,” he observes to her. “As exciting as war; definitely as dangerous.” She responds: “Though in war, you only get killed once. In politics it can happen over and over.”
Then he gives her a hard, triumphant look. “You’re still standing.”
She acknowledges it, nods back. “So are you.”
Then they dance, which is wonderful, but let’s dial back to the power of this scene with these two people, this moment of union between two unlikely survivors of the Cylon Holocaust, who have unexpectedly found themselves the patriarch and matriarch of the human race.
If you’re not a ’shipper of these two, romantically, Battlestar Galactica sort of demands that you’re at least on board with the friendship of grudging trust and mutual responsibility these two develop over the course of the show. It’s hard not to root for them throughout the series, as they’re thrown into sudden leadership positions in the middle of unimaginable stress. But they’re also terribly flawed—and as the series goes on, loath to let go of the control that was so ignominiously shoved upon them. Especially the second or third time watching these episodes, it’s clear just how wrongheaded they sometimes are—how even when their intentions are good and their hearts are in the right place, they are tending in the totally wrong direction.
Which makes them a little like parents, naturally. And though Laura Roslin is more prone to making the broader mistakes about letting go, that might be because Commander Adama is actually a parent, although by his own admission, not a very good one.
One of the things that I think is brilliant about BSG is the experience it so carefully cultivates for its viewers—Battlestar Galactica isn’t just storytelling, it’s an immersive world with a different set of rules. It has what so much genre fiction relies on: The escapism of a different world that isn’t bound by the same ones as our own. It’s that feeling when you put down a book and sort of wish you could just live inside it; that the story would never end, so that you don’t have to come to grips with your own reality.
But for all that Battlestar Galactica is about creating that escape from reality, it’s also about poking holes in the very idea of escape—in the notion that it’s better anywhere else, or that we, as humans, are better anywhere else. And one of the ways it does this, I think, is by managing our investment in and relationship to Commander Adama and President Roslin. You kind of have to learn to let go of clinging to them—just as they have to learn to let go of taking care of the fleet, every hour of every day. It’s this process of maturation that is a lot like what most of us do with our own parents, and it is not particularly easy.
In some sense, both “Hand Of God” and “Colonial Day” are about Adama and Roslin being the excellent leaders they are—Adama guides his fleet to a military victory, and Roslin maintains her political administration’s power through an unexpected vice-presidential election. But both victories involve them ceding ground, or admitting their deficiencies: Roslin has to jettison her chosen candidate for Gaius Baltar, after Tom Zarek threatens her position, and Adama risks his fleet (and his son!) on an out-of-the-box, terrifying plan from Starbuck. They end up still standing—but nothing stays still for very long, does it? The universe keeps shifting underneath their feet, and after a moment of standing your ground, it naturally seems more sensible to dance.
“Hand Of God” is one of the better war stories Battlestar Galactica tells, purely an action story from start to finish. It’s so suspenseful by the end that the eventual success of Galactica’s fighters is a painful kind of relief. And without that feeling of intense investment, it’s not a particularly important episode—the military victory’s stakes are drawn up and settled within the episode, and most of the character interactions follow along well-established lines.
But damn, that investment does it—and it works, even after watching it several times. I got literal chills rewatching this episode—particularly from Dee repeating Adama’s commands in such recognizable, dramatic language for the Viper pilots. Somehow the fact that she’s making it real for those pilots risking their lives is what made it land for me. (“Strike one, tear ‘em up.”)
“Hand Of God” is Battlestar’s version of every flight-action film, whether that’s Star Wars or Top Gun or everything in between. The story can be reduced to the success of failure of one flight battle, and the tension between what is planned and what really happens—what the commanders say the pilots will do, and what they actually do—is where the episode draws a lot of its forward momentum. I admit that I was getting mostly shades of Top Gun, because so much of “Hand Of God” is about Starbuck and Apollo’s relationship (Maverick and Iceman, man), but BSG makes a huge reference to Star Wars with the whole, “We have to go through this specific narrow mineshaft in order to reach our goal!”
Interestingly, BSG’s normal goal of complicating the black-and-white dynamics of war narrative end up getting shelved: The bad guys, in this episode, are irrefutably the Cylons, which makes it very easy to get wrapped up in the story of the battle. There’s also just great attention to detail here, with the terror of the pilots in their individual cockpits, the language of fighting in space (“Weapons free, by the numbers, people”; “Target acquired, tone and lock, firing”), and even, I thought, the visual effects of the show. They’re not exactly life-changing, but BSG’s VFX isn’t either distractingly good or bad, and that means it does exactly what it needs to.
I have a pet theory that the producers of the show determine that the actor who says “Previously on Battlestar Galactica” at the beginning of the episode is a tell for which character they think is central to the episode’s story. So for “Hand Of God,” it’s Jamie Bamber, and that makes a lot of sense—because this is one of Lee Adama’s better episodes, on the whole. It makes sense, if the old man and the President are mom and dad, that some of the crucial heavy lifting on how to feel about them would be done by characters on the show acting as child-surrogates. Starbuck and Baltar do a lot of it in different areas of the show; Lee has the advantage of actually being someone’s kid.
And in these early episodes, Lee seems to be one of the characters the show is pinning its hopes on—he’s literally the hot one, the American hunk here to save the day. I think the show wants to deconstruct him, too, but you have to make sure that your audience believes a character is a hero before you pick him, and the idea of heroism, apart into tiny pieces.
Or? Maybe there’s some other goal here—which is making sure Apollo is in even the same general league as Starbuck, because their romance is pushed really hard in these two episodes (swoon). A lot of their friction in “Hand Of God” comes from mingled fear for themselves and each other, oh and toss in some self-loathing, too, sure, why not. It’s convenient to blow up at someone you trust implicitly with your feelings in the middle of a very tense standoff; Lee and Kara seem to have no hard feelings about it afterwards, even if all of what they say to each other is true, basically.
It’s also a strong episode for Adamadrama with Lee and the Commander, as a lighter is passed back and forth and some intense things are said about Apollo dying or not dying, as he sees fit. For me, the dad feelings are a lot to process, and the music cue never quite sits right—but I know most other people are into it, and if there’s any episode that’s going to make that work, it’s this one.
But mostly what works for me is Lee just sitting there, terrified, in his cockpit, trying to not frak up this very crucial mission (and therefore the fate of the entire human race). Luke Skywalker doesn’t sound like he’s hyperventilating with fear; Maverick doesn’t sound unsure of himself. Lee is all of those things—and it’s in stark contrast to Starbuck, who seems to never experience fear or self-doubt in the cockpit. But then, that’s what they fought about: Lee isn’t a hero, and he never will be, even though he looks like one. He doesn’t have that crazy passion that keeps Starbuck afloat. He’s never going to make it look easy, the way she does. But he can pull through in a tight spot—which is pretty good, and you know, only human.
Mary McDonnell, meanwhile, gives us the opening “previously on” for “Colonial Day,” and indubitably, that is Laura Roslin’s episode. It’s a swift gear change, from the war machine to the political machine, and to BSG’s credit, it goes whole hog—shifting the setting from the gloomy interiors of Galactica to the artificial sunshine of Cloud 9 and moving from the drama of the war narrative to the dark comedy of a political one. Because “Colonial Day” is funny, very funny, and part of the humor is that the joke’s on us, as humans, that we do this to ourselves. There are no Cylons threatening the fleet in “Colonial Day”—secret or otherwise. Boomer is in her bunk for the entire episode, no raiders pop up in the area, and no copies of Six or Two or Five have infiltrated the proceedings. “Colonial Day” is just about how people suck—from the factionalism that divides an already beleaguered fleet to an assassination plot that leads to a security crackdown.
The Colonial Gang is one of the funniest cold opens this show has attempted, and one that introduces the phrase “power-mad schoolteacher” to our lexicon, for which we should all be grateful. The whole episode has slightly farcical elements—because it takes place on a ship that simulates a planet, it’s possible to forget the Cylons for a moment, and instead imagine our characters in an alternate timeline where none of that happened. Starbuck and Apollo, for example, play security detail, which has got to be the least useful expenditure of their time—and Baltar is conveniently nominated to be Caprica’s delegate, putting him in the room for a crucial second. But on the other hand, it gets them into the story—and gives us a glimpse of what they’re like when not at war. Baltar is all kinds of charisma and sexual energy, sleazing his way in and out of camera appearances and journalistic pants. Lee and Kara are kids with a day off from school, then cop-partners solving a case, then kids again, when one sees the other at a dance. Ellen and Zarek meet each other on the plane of master manipulators, playing each other for the fun of it, setting the stage for a bigger game. And everyone cuts loose a little, on the dance floor on election night.
The only person who doesn’t is Roslin, of course. Heavy is the head on which rests the crown; the president can never relax, not when there’s less than 50,000 humans left and someone tried to kill her just a few hours earlier. Not when she knows she’s dying, and she just put a charlatan in place to succeed her when she’s gone.
My favorite thing about this episode was just watching various shades of expression cross Roslin’s face: From listening to the Colonial Gang wireless talk show and plotting her approach to the meeting…
To the withering stare she trains on Baltar when he seconds Zarek’s nomination:
It’s reductive to call Laura a power-mad schoolteacher—but not that reductive. She comes out of nowhere to seize control, and though it’s thrust upon her more than anything, she also doesn’t really trust anyone else with it. In “Colonial Day” she does an awful lot of dirty work to make sure that no one can get in her way—and though that dirty work is all part of a day’s work in politics, she’s certainly not one to shy away on principle, or give up, or assume someone else knows better. And sometimes that makes her wrong. But it’s impossible to deny her power. After getting shamed by her colleague Wallace— “I never thought you’d fit in with the bare-knuckled, backstabbing politicians. I guess I was wrong”—that moment with Adama is a moment where someone isn’t afraid of her, doesn’t think she made the wrong decision, is willing to accept her for who she is right now.
And a lot of the relationships in this pair of episodes hinge around acceptance: Starbuck and Apollo trying (and mostly failing, but it’s cute) to accept each other’s multitudes; Six accepting that Baltar will stray; Adama and Roslin coming to terms with each other. So of course, a major relationship experiences a major breach—Helo and Sharon, on Caprica, when Helo runs into another copy of Eight and realizes the woman he loves is a Cylon. That’s going to require some radical acceptance. Let’s see how it goes.
So say we all:
- Original airdates: 3/11/2005 and 3/18/2005
- Survivor count: 47,878, according to the whiteboard behind President Roslin in “Colonial Day”
- Six theme count: 2 (I think. Surprisingly restrained.)
- Adama monologue count: 1. The lighter hand-off. Cue Adamadrama Irish music.
- From the scrolls of Pythia: “And the Lords anointed a leader to guide the caravan of the heavens to their new homeland. And unto their leader they gave a vision, numbering serpents, two and 10, as a sign of things to come.”
- Look, I love tactics meetings as much as the next girl, but why on Kobol would the Galactica plan a three-dimensional space battle on a two-dimensional map? Doesn’t this rule out, you know, a whole dimension?
- Commander Adama teaching Starbuck how to be a good commander is pretty adorable, and an excellent encapsulation of the surrogate-parent relationship. She: “I never wanted this kind of responsibility.” He: “The Cylons never asked what we wanted. Welcome to the big leagues.”
- Opening lines of The Colonial Gang: “We’re on? Frak, we’re on!”
- “Me in a dress is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
- If you’ll notice, in the background of Adama and Roslin talking at the end of “Colonial Day,” Starbuck is dancing with Gaius, and Lee is fidgeting and pacing, staring at them both. YOU KIDS ARE TRYING TO KILL ME.
- Gaius and Six are in a little bit of a bubble throughout “Hand Of God,” but it interested me that Gaius is trying to actually save the human race, for once, although Six points out this might be part of the Cylon plan, too. Either way, it’s definitely part of God’s plan, as Gaius realizes, looking up towards the heavens at the end. “I am an instrument of God.” Aren’t we all, Gaius? Aren’t we all.
- Speaking of Gaius, these two episodes are just James Callis looking handsome:
- And, well, you knew I wasn’t going to be able to let this go without a detailed play-by-play of Lee and Kara at the dance, right?
- Office of the XO: As you were. Next week is the season finale.
- And now it’s your turn: Are you an instrument of God? Look, we’re a few months into reviews, and this is a theological show. Gloves are coming off. Me, I have taken some solace in believing I am. It’s what sustains me when everything seems to be going to shit. But all opinions are valid, and I am curious what you guys think.