“Scattered,” (season 2, episode 1; originally aired 7/15/2005)

Saul Tigh is good at his job. He’s a drunk and a bastard and, at times, the sourest sack of shit in the galaxy, but as Executive Officer, he enforces the old man’s orders and keeps the crew in line. That’s necessary, and he should be commended for it, no matter how hard he is to like.

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The problem is, Saul Tigh isn’t great at his job. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, because most human beings aren’t geniuses; most of us do the work in front of us, and we have good days, and we have bad, and that’s fine. That’s because we aren’t working to protect the last vestiges of our race against an implacable foe. We aren’t fleeing genocide, and we aren’t the target of borderline mystical monsters who can mimic our form, sabotage our machines, and break us down piece by agonizing piece.

So: it matters that Saul isn’t a genius in a way that it doesn’t matter how, say, a certain reviewer taking over the reins from a much loved other reviewer is in no way going to live up to her legacy. (Hi! I’m not Sonia. Sorry about that.) It matters because if Saul makes a mistake, if he pushes someone too hard or allows his various prejudices to obscure his vision; if he, god forbid, shows up to Ops with a few fingers of scotch in him, people will die. People dying pretty much always matters, but here, each death makes it that much harder for the survivors to rebuild. Each death means whoever is left is one step closer to being wiped out completely.

Am I being hard on poor Tigh here? I imagine someone already rushing to the comments to defend him, because he makes a lot of smart decisions in “Scattered.” Desperate as he is to get Adama back on his feet, Tigh gives the go ahead for an emergency jump, which delays Doc Cottle’s arrival on the Galactica. When Gaeta comes up with a plan to track the missing colonial fleet (lost because of a dropped communication before the emergency jump), Tigh decides to risk it, against Captain Kelly’s angry advice. The plan works, the day is saved (or at least disaster forestalled a little longer), and Adama survives. Tigh even praises Gaeta for his work, in a fashion.

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It’s not that Tigh deserves specific censure (at least, not this week). It’s more that his arc in “Scattered,” as he flashes back to memories of Adama when both were younger men, points towards one of the series’ most important themes. Tigh doesn’t want command because he knows he isn’t suited for it, but thing is, none of the main characters on this show are suited to their roles, even the ones who are great at what they do. None of these people are equipped to handle the monumental task of saving the human race because no one is fucking equipped for that. The horror and beauty of Battlestar Galactica is how it eulogizes our endless, eternal failure to be gods. It’s a show that puts its heroes through excruciating scenarios and offers them forgiveness, but not mercy, when they fail to rise to the task. We root for Starbuck and Apollo and Roslin and Adama and Tigh and, yes, Baltar, and the rest, even as we know they’ll suffer and lose and make endless mistakes, and that those mistakes will have consequences. They are heroes; they are also flawed, reckless, idiot humans, and the show’s refusal to let either side drown out the other is what makes it so compelling.

In case you haven’t already figured it out, welcome to the return of TV Club’s coverage of Battlestar Galactica. We’re picking up at the beginning of the show’s second season with plans to push through to the end of the third, which should make this review run a bit of an oddity; less a comprehensive take than a kind of critical caulking designed to hold the season one and season four reviews firmly in place. But maybe that’s fitting. At its best and worst, Battlestar Galactica had a cobbled together live-wire vitality that few other shows, genre or otherwise, could compete with. That vitality led to extraordinary heights of craft and empathy, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t also a fair number of lows. While never a ratings juggernaut, this is a series with a huge impact on the modern TV landscape, both in its execution and themes, and in its failures. To put that another way: the Lost finale isn’t the only reason viewers demand that showrunners plan everything in advance.

Which is a shame, honestly. As confused and tiresome as the Cylon mythology gets, Ron Moore and his writing team’s willingness to more or less fly by the seat of their pants is a large part of what makes the show so thrilling to watch. “Scattered” is at once chaotic and tightly controlled, keeping track of the multiple storylines established in the first season finale in away that’s never predictable, but just as importantly, never robs any one storyline of momentum. The show’s rhythmic, measured editing made an impression when it originally aired, and it’s still effective even now when the tricks have been copied by half a dozen lesser programs.

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Most obviously, there’s Tigh’s elliptical flashbacks in the opening sequence, giving us pieces of a memory whose true contours won’t become evident until much later on. The cuts to the past, to a younger Adama and Tigh (check out that hair!) are disorienting and confusing, but never distracting. The intrusions into current events feel like a natural part of the scene, like the backbeat of a song, and the shortness of each recollection, and the way they spin back on themselves, means we get an impression of what Tigh is experiencing almost subconsciously.

That immediacy is so critical to making each storyline work—the show is so goddamn good at getting you inside its characters heads. (One of things that’s striking about re-watching it is how opaque the Cylons initially are, for obvious reasons.) As infuriating as Tigh can be, I can’t find it in me to hate him, because I understand him. Just like I understand the rest of them. The doesn’t make them predictable, or boring, but it does encourage empathy and investment, which creates fascinating paradoxes when multiple characters are at odds with each other, which is pretty much constantly. That whole “lack of mercy” thing I was talking about above? It extends to moral choice—there are rarely if ever “right” answers on BSG, and that ethical murkiness, combined with a very real attachment to the people advocating every side, makes for something that’s challenging, engaging, and richly moving.

All right, this is getting out of hand (I promise these reviews will calm down in a week or two). Before we get to talking about “Valley Of Darkness,” it’s worth mentioning the other major storyline in this first episode—Chief Tyrol and his firsthand experience of the inadequacies of command. (There’s also Starbuck dealing with Sharon 2 and Helo back on Caprica, but I’ll save talking about them for the next episode.) On Kobol, the survivors of the crashed ship are struggling to stay alive, and one of them is near death. Because of a mix-up, the small group leaves one of its two first aid kits as the crash site when they move into the forest, and to hold off Crashdown’s freak out, the Chief volunteers to lead a quick trip back to the ship. He takes Cally and Tarn, the guy who forgot the kit in the first place, and everyone has a fun adventure until Tarn is shot and killed.

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It’s almost comically grim. The only thing that would make it worse is if Tarn only had two days to retirement. But it’s brutal to watch it unfold. The scene where Tarn gets shot, everyone is friendly and joking and you just fucking know it’s about to happen—and yet it takes an extra second or two for the bullets to hit. When they do, Tarn holds on long enough for the Chief to risk everything to carry him to safety, and then he dies. Like so much of the show’s tragedy, this one comes with a few extra turns of the knife, just to make sure it leaves a mark. (And it doesn’t get better in the next episode, when Tyrol and Cally get back to the others.)

Yet somehow, the episode avoids complete despair. This, too, is a hallmark of the series, and one that later adoptees of the “Worst Case Scenario” approach to narrative would often miss. The Chief is despondent, but the group is still alive, and Baltar’s bopping around in the background having visions and serving as a weird sort of subtextual comic relief. Starbuck loses her ship, stranding her with Helo on a planet teeming with killer toasters, but she still gets a punchline out of it. (“Bitch stole my ride.”) Roslin is locked in the brig, victim of an apparent military coup (or however you want to describe it), but her guard still asks her to pray with him. These connections exist, and life continues, even in the face of overwhelming destruction.

Then there’s Saul Tigh, the poor bastard doomed to know his limitations. As mentioned, he makes the right choices to get the Galactica through the current crisis, and even better for him, Adama survives those choices. The old man is unconscious and in critical condition, but he’s not dead yet. And Saul needs him to survive. Those memories that have been swirling around him the whole episode, both of them come back to Adama: the first is Adama telling him he’d pulled strings (with his wife’s help) to get back into the Colonial Fleet; the second is a drunken Saul, about to burn his military commendations, getting word that Adama has gotten him reinstated. Those memories, combined with what we already know about Saul, paint a picture of a man who can only exist successfully on a very narrow frequency. He needs the discipline of the military, and he needs Adama to lead him, and even with those things, he’s not guaranteed happiness. It just gives him a place to stand.

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It’s a messy, impossible way to live, but it’s better than being dead, which is what Battlestar Galactica is all about.

Stray observations

  • Didn’t even mention poor Boomer. She’s locked up and apparently has no memory of shooting Adama. Saul hits her a few times and almost shoots her, and it’s fascinating to see a scene like this where it’s possible to sympathize with both sides. Saul comes out looking the worse of the two, given that we know a little more about what’s going on in her head than he does, but it’s not a matter of simply dismissing him as a monster and moving on.
  • I love how Baltar exists on his own separate plane from everyone else. Partly this is his frequent conversations and visits with the world’s sexiest Snuffleupagus; partly it’s the secrets he has to keep from just about everyone besides Six; and partly it’s James Callis’s bug-eyed performance, which serves as a break from a whole lot of frustrated and terrified people. That’s not a criticism.
  • From my notes: “Kelly is a dick.” I stand by this. It’s one of the few borderline off elements in the episode. This isn’t, strictly speaking, his first appearance on the show, but there’s no nuance to him at all. If it had been revealed later that he was just a physical manifestation of Saul’s rage, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

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“Valley Of Darkness” (season 2, episode 2; originally aired 7/22/2005)

I’ve got this standard criticism: if an episode is trying to tell a story that depends on claustrophobia, it’s a mistake to cut away to other characters that aren’t operating under the same restrictions. The instant you remind the viewer that there’s still a world away from all those darkened corridors and locked doors, you risk losing the tension you’ve worked so hard to build, and you kill the pacing besides. Focus is a critical aspect of TV writing, and it’s one that rarely gets the attention it deserves, especially these days when the glass teat is awash with heavily serialized shows that mistake rolling continuity for purpose. There’s nothing quite so frustrating as watching a brilliant premise squandered for no good reason.

I open with this because “Valley Of Darkness”’s main thread has a brilliant, claustrophobic premise. Last episode, when the Galactica jumped back to its previous location to determine the location of the rest of the fleet, the ship fell under heavy Cylon fire. One Cylon ship—a strange ship that didn’t look much like anything Lee had seen before—got through the fighters and crashed into the battlestar. In the rush of everything that was happening, no one thought to look into this until after the Galactica made the jump to catch up with the fleet. The moment of triumph at bringing everyone together is short-lived when a Cylon virus knocks out the ship’s power systems, and when it turns out that strange Cylon ship was carrying old school Cylons on board, and they’re now working their way through the Galactica, killing anyone they find.

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That is a great way to kick things of: Tigh and the others in Ops trying to track the Cylon threat by word of mouth, Lee moving through the bowels of the ship with a group of soldiers, hunting the enemy with limited ammo and terrible sight lines, and Roslin trying to make her way to the safety of sickbay without getting caught in the middle. There are clear stakes (Tigh realizes early on that the Cylons are planning on exploiting systems in the ship to vent everyone on-board into space), heroes with varying abilities doing their best to stay alive, and plenty of opportunities for confusion and darkness.

Yet that’s not all that “Valley Of Shadows” is. The episode also finds time to go back to Kobol, and see the even sadder ending to Chief Tyrol’s efforts to retrieve that damn second First Aid kit. We check in on Baltar, who dreams of rescue and of what happens when another human finds a hybrid baby, and we head back to Caprica, where Starbuck and Helo make a pitstop in Starbuck’s old apartment. Few of these storylines have much suspense in them; the Chief’s is the saddest, but Baltar’s dream is more eerie than suspenseful, and the trip to Starbuck’s old digs is damn near close to a lark. Going by my usual expectation, this should be a disaster; or at the very least, it should be a frustrating exercise in stop-and-go pacing.

It isn’t, though. That’s the strange thing. “Valley Of The Shadow” works, and works well, and I didn’t even realize that it was breaking what I consider a fairly important rule until I sat down to write this review. By all rights, cutting away from the Galactica should be ruinous, and yet each individual element of the episode works together to achieve something bigger, even if those specific storylines aren’t directly connected.

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The key, I think, is that events on Kobol and Caprica never feel less pressing or vital than what’s happening back on the Galactica. This shouldn’t be true, given how events have played out. While Lee and the others are locked in a life or death struggle that could decide the fate of the entire human race (once the Cylons kick the humans off the ship, they can turn their guns on the rest of the now defenseless fleet), nothing the others are doing has the same immediate consequences. The group on Kobol is under attack (although that attack isn’t really consistent), but if they die, they’re the only ones who will suffer. Starbuck and Helo are trapped on a Cylon-controlled planet, but they don’t deal with any visible threat at all, and while Starbuck and that damn arrow are supposedly the key to finding Earth, that’s prophecy, and prophecy by its definition doesn’t deal in the immediate.

Yet the consequences don’t matter, because each segment reminds us that this is a storyline with greater concerns than what’s happening right now. As cool as the fight against the Cylons aboard the Galactica is, it’s just a small piece of a much larger puzzle, and being reminded of the rest of the pieces doesn’t diminish its importance; it contextualizes it.

If the first season was about the survivors of the Cylon attacks coming together and forming a tenuous bond in the face of certain death, the second season starts with everyone—well, it’s right there in the premiere episode’s title, isn’t it? Where it used to be just poor Helo floating out on his own, now there are multiple factions adrift, and none of them are stronger for the separation. The first season did such a great job of showing how crucial it was for everyone to work together that it makes the act of cutting between multiple storylines on disparate locations a kind of suspense generator in and of itself. The structure informs our concerns for the characters by reminding us over and over how scattered they are, which makes it that much more important that we know exactly what’s going on with them. In a lesser show, cutting away from an intense plot serves as a break in that intensity. Here, everything that’s happening is part of that intensity, even if the specific events don’t directly connect.

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This can lead to powerful juxtapositions as well. The trip to Starbuck’s apartment is a minor event. None of the Cylons (human models or otherwise) show up to shoot at anyone, neither Starbuck nor Helo break down or throw out any embittered monologues about their history. We learn Starbuck paints; they listen to a recording of her dad playing piano; and they leave in Starbuck’s jeep. This is compelling because Starbuck is compelling, and because it’s fascinating to learn more about where she came from, and what might be driving her. But looked at from a structural perspective, these scenes serve as a kind of lyrical breather between the more intense sequences on Caprica and Kobol, a change in tempo that maintains a flow while avoiding monotony.

Did I mention there were giant killer robots in this that can only be taken out with explosive rounds? Because there’s totally that too. Pretentious analysis aside, “Valley Of The Shadow” delivers on complex and simple pleasures. Each major storyline has a beginning, a middle, and an end while still pushing forward the season’s overall plot (which right now is “we have got to get the band back together”), creating a sense of progress that demands you keep watching. The Cylons are temporarily defeated, Lee makes an awesome shot, and Billy and Dee kiss. There are few shows I can think of that teach the importance of small victories as well as this one.

Stray observations

  • The Billy/Dee arc is adorable. It’s especially nice to see Billy’s clumsiness with a gun isn’t held against him for long. In a way, it makes him more likeable. He’s like a defenseless, well-meaning puppy.
  • We’ll talk more about Baltar and his visions in a future review, but it’s fascinating how the show is already working to build sympathy for the Cylons; there’s Baltar’s vision of Adama drowning the baby, as well as Sharon’s behavior back on Caprica, and Boomer’s confusion on Galactica. It’s a neat trick to make you care about the bad guys, and it’s especially neat how, so far at least, this hasn’t diminished the Cylons as a threat.
  • “I’m fighting because I don’t know how to do anything else.” -Starbuck
  • Chief gives the dying Sorcinus the lethal injection of morphine himself. I sometimes think that Tyrol is the saddest man in an ensemble full of sad people, and moments like this are part of the reason why.
  • “The Cylons have a way of making us all look like idiots.” -Starbuck

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