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Battlestar Galactica regains its focus in two strong episodes

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“The Captain’s Hand” (season 2, episode 17; originally aired 2/17/2006)

Let’s all welcome the latest addition to the Battlestar Galactica cast: the great John Heard, playing the not so great (but a decent guy in the end) Commander Barry Garner. Best not to get too attached to him, though. Like every Pegasus commander before him, Garner pays the ultimate price. And if he leaves us faster than Cain or Fisk did, at least he gets to go out like a hero.


Not that he’s particularly likable before that. At times, Garner comes close to being a type the show has used before, a type that often crops up on television shows: the guest star who is less a character than a problem everyone else has to work around. (The original Star Trek was full of them.) He’s demanding, paranoid, and takes an immediate dislike to Starbuck, which are all good reasons to hate him. I mean, sure, that also describes Tigh, but seeing Tigh with Adama demonstrated that he wasn’t just an asshole. Garner has no foil. When Lee boards the Pegasus to try and mend the feud, Garner seems about as pissed at him as he does at everybody.

Thankfully, Garner has an arc; and while it may be schematic, that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. Yes, he’s a prick at first, and his treatment of Starbuck never softens, but Starbuck is a handful. More, the script (and Heard’s performance) give us a chance to understand just how thoroughly the character is in over his head, making a point that leadership isn’t simply about brains or competence. Garner is a gifted engineer, as we see in the episode’s climax, and it made sense for Adama to promote him. But leading people and making command decisions requires more than logic. You need faith in your own authority, and a feel for how things work, and Garner lacks both.


It’s an interesting idea, and one that feeds into something I’ve always loved about the show: the recognition that people, even smart, compassionate people who do the best they can with the information they have, aren’t always up to the task. In a way, it comes back to what Sharon said to Adama when he asked her why the Cylons hated them. Not that the human race doesn’t deserve to live, exactly, but that we take it for granted that our abilities and our leaders will ultimately be able to face every crisis, if their hearts are true and their intentions noble. And that’s simply not the case. Garner falls into a trap because he ignores his subordinates and trusts his instincts, and his instincts are wrong. It’s easy to blame him for the former, but the latter is hard to shake off.

While all of this is going on, Roslin is facing a new sort of crisis in her administration. A young woman named Rya stowed aboard the Galactica because she’s pregnant, and wants Doctor Cottle to give her an abortion. It’s something Cottle’s been doing for a while (god bless him), but Rya’s arrival generates controversy. She’s from the Gemenon colony, and they have very specific rules against abortion—they consider it a heinous crime. (Also, Rya apparently still “belongs” to her parents. Nice people, the Gemenon.) Roslin at first dismisses their representative’s claim, arguing that she’s fought for women’s rights for years and has no intention of stopping now. But she has an election coming up and can’t afford to alienate an entire community; and, as Adama points out, the number of survivors posted on her wall hasn’t been rising. She visits Baltar, and he tells her that the current birth/death rate, the human race will be extinct in 18 years.


It’s an agonizing moral dilemma, one that fits in well with crises characters on the show have faced in the past. What do you do when circumstances force you towards decisions that violate your deepest held beliefs? What happens when the tenets of civilization crumble and force us to reassess our values? Mary McDonnell’s performance is exceptional, as always. She makes Roslin’s transition over the course of the hour make basic sense, which is not as easy as it sounds. But then, the character is defined by her pragmatism. She has her ideals, but she’s also willing to put those ideals aside if it seems the situation demands it.

I’m not so sure the situation does, to be honest. I appreciate the idea of this; as a long time Trek fan, I always enjoy it when a science fiction show tries to deal with social issues through genre, and I think this one does a good job of being fundamentally pro-choice (it helps that Doc Cottle has been performing abortions; it’s hard to think of anything he does as immoral or villainous) while still trying to make a case as to why someone could decide to limit those freedoms. And I love the ending, when Baltar uses Roslin’s decision as a chance to declare his own run for the presidency. It’s such a perfect half-mad, half-calculated Baltar moment, self-interest masquerading as self-righteousness social, and knowing how infuriating it must be for Roslin to have such a hateful decision turned against her makes it all the more thrilling.


But there’s something fundamentally shallow in the logic here. Roslin treats the need for abortion rights as though it’s something you can turn off by criminalizing it; as though the women who were getting abortions will now just shrug their shoulders and have kids. She’s not solving a problem so much as turning hundreds (thousands?) of innocents into would-be criminals. Hell, Rya was willing to jump ship to see Cottle—that’s not a shallow need, and it’s not one that’s going to go away once the laws change. There are ways to encourage humans to have more babies. Offer incentives for children, make it a social obligation to breed—none of these are ideal, and nearly anything you do will rob women of some of their autonomy, but social pressure is probably preferable to criminal action.

The problem is that this is a complicated issue, and the show doesn’t really have time to spend multiple scenes debating it. Instead, it’s turned into a parable: see how far these people have fallen, or see what extreme situations will force your hand. That’s fine as far as it goes, but as an advocate for women’s rights, Roslin should’ve known better. It might be that the show is subtly arguing that this is a mistake, that she’s betraying her principles without considering the consequences, but it ultimately plays out like a painful reminder of what our heroes have to sacrifice to keep humanity going. That’s the downside of parables; they’re essentially shallow.


I suppose I should also mention Lee here, who gets his first chance at real command when Garner flies the Pegasus into a Cylon trap. He does well, and Adama’s decision to place him in charge after Garner’s death seems reasonable enough. Kara’s detective work was fun to watch, if only because it’s something we rarely see anyone on the show do much of (“Black Market” doesn’t count), and the last scene between her and Lee is a reminder of how complicated their relationship is, and how Lee doesn’t really understand much of anything. It’s also a reminder of how great Katee Sackhoff is at conveying complex emotion—the look on her face when they embrace is heartbreaking.

Stray observations

  • The two big ships have nicknames now. Pegasus is the Beast, Galactica is the Bucket.
  • I would’ve liked to have had a little more time to see how Garner’s command was going—he’d created a strong “us versus them” mentality, and we only get to see a bit of that in action. I’m also curious as to how the Pegasus crew is dealing with so many command losses.
  • The space battle is awesome. I mean, they nearly always are, but I’d feel guilty if I didn’t mention it.

“Downloaded” (season 2, episode 18; originally aired 2/24/2006)

One of the struggles I have with this show is that I’m never quite sure what to make of the Cylons. Part of that’s intentional; the humans are, for the most part, our perspective characters, and since they don’t get what the Cylons are on about, we shouldn’t really either. But it’s also the Cylons’ weird moral authority. Villains who gloat and mock the good guys are easy enough to parse, but while the Cylons have committed outrageous acts of evil, they’re rarely openly cruel. They seem so confident and reasonable that it’s possible at times to forget their sins. It’s like watching a version of The Terminator where every so often you wonder if Skynet doesn’t have a point.


That can work to an extent, and I love the uneasy peace that’s been made with Sharon on board the Galactica. Roslin doesn’t trust her, Adama doesn’t know what to make of her, but it’s gone beyond the point of just shooting her in the head. The idea that there might be some sort of negotiation between the humans and the Cylons seems impossible, considering what the Cylons have done. And yet the show dares to suggest that it might be necessary. That’s a bold direction to go in, and it’s one that needs to be earned. A relationship between two mortal enemies can’t simply happen, especially not without admitting the horrors one has committed upon the other.

One of the reasons “Downloaded” is so great is that it offers a possible way forward, as well as finally giving us an extended glimpse into the life (and death, and rebirth) of the Cylons. Much of the episode is spent on Caprica, as we follow Six and Boomer as they struggle to reintegrate with their own kind. Both have had extensive dealings with humans, and both have found themselves changed by those dealings. The changes have made them in many ways a threat, and for the first time, we see serious dissension among the ranks, as the precious Cylon unity is threatened by the development of individual identity.


Collectives are hard to write about dramatically, and given the limited number of Cylon bodies (the episode doesn’t introduce any new models), it makes sense that the show would typically avoid spending too much time with them as a group. It’s hard to make all those duplicate actors distinct. But “Downloaded” manages it by spending most of its time focused on Six, Boomer, and D’Anna, who serves as a stand in for the Cylon perspective. She’s the one who hooks Six up with Boomer, ostensibly to help Boomer integrate back into society (Boomer’s still clinging to her human identity), and she represents the collective that ultimately wants both women’s memories “boxed,” which is, barring the destruction of a resurrection ship, the closest the Cylons have to death.

The conflict then becomes about Six and Boomer trying to figure out a way to outsmart D’Anna, and what that would mean for both of them. During the final scenes, after Anders sets off a bomb that traps all four of them together, Six realizes that genocide is a sin—that for all their belief in God, their assault on the human race was evil, no matter how they justified it. There’s something bracing about the clarity of that understanding. It allows for a future in which not all Cylons are mysterious, terrifying destroyers. On a show like this, which works hard (if imperfectly) to allow everyone a point of view, this is a necessary corrective. The Cylons are scarier when they’re just monsters, but they need to change if they’re going to remain interesting for the run of the series.


Maybe my favorite creative decision in the entire episode is the fact that the freshly resurrected Six has her own Baltar; like the real Baltar with his constant imaginary companion, this Six has someone offering her advice, pointing out her failings, and pushing her to be more. The logistics of it all would seem to imply that both constructs are illusions created by the troubled consciences of estranged lovers, but logistics doesn’t really enter into how entertaining it is to watch a confused Six struggling to deal with a preternaturally calm Gaius. Both actors take to the role reversal beautifully, and it’s a treat to see them on Caprica, only to cut back to the Galactica and watch the imaginary Six freak out over Baltar’s inability to protect Sharon and Helo’s child.

As solutions to an impossible problem go, Roslin giving the baby up for anonymous adoption is at once clever and slightly cowardly, at least in narrative terms. It means Roslin and Adama don’t have to turn into baby killers, which is a relief, but after all the time we’ve spent hearing Roslin fret over the baby’s impact on the fleet, it wouldn’t have worked to have just let Sharon have her kid, or even to keep it on hand for study. Yet by giving her away to someone we’ve never seen before, with specific contingencies that make it possible we might never hear about the baby again, makes the plotline feel like a lot of build-up for no real pay off.


Still, it’s a storyline in which every decision makes sense, and which finds a way to have good people doing something awful for reason that are hard to argue with, so that works. And really, this one is all about events on Caprica, and Six and Boomer finding their voice. Boomer especially; Six is the protagonist of the hour, but Boomer has been through so much shit that it’s a relief to see her getting a chance to stand up for herself. And there’s something marvelous in the idea that the Cylons did their jobs too well when they made a sleeper agent. Humanity is a virus, and we are catching.

Stray observations

  • I honestly can’t remember if the baby ever comes back. (Does a quick Wikipedia check.) Huh.
  • Sharon and Boomer are Eights. D’Anna is a Three.
  • “I don’t make suggestions, Mr. Baltar. If I wanted to throw a baby out an airlock, I’d do so.” -Roslin is no longer having any of Baltar’s bullshit. Although he is being somewhat sincere at this point. One of the more fascinating implications of this episode is the possibility that his version of Six is actually just his subconscious trying to reach him; the idea that Baltar does have depths, even if those depths have to be expressed in religious terms, is fascinating, especially considering how often his Six has beaten him up. There’s a part of Baltar that isn’t very fond of himself.
  • I love all the relationships on this show, but my favorite might be Baltar and Six. I just like the two of them together a lot.

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