“Flight Of The Phoenix” (season 2, episode 9; originally aired 9/16/2005)

Welcome back to Battlestar Galactica reviews—again. When last we left our heroes, the band had gotten back together, and things were sort of good and sort of awful, as per the usual. Actually, they were mostly just awful. While it’s a structural godsend to have Helo, Sharon, and Starbuck back on the Galactica where they belong, Adama isn’t very comfortable to be in close quarters with a woman who looks exactly like (and shares memories with) the trusted ally who once tried to kill him. President Roslin is weeks away from death, supplies are running low, and everyone is over-worked and over-stressed with no end in sight. Sure, they have a better idea of where Earth might be, but that’s a long term goal, and when you’re mired in loss and failure, long-term goals aren’t much better than no goals at all.

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This is a grim show. We’ve covered that, right? This is a grim show that in many ways serves as a starting point for a whole genre of television: call it No Hope Theater, or the Cinema Of What Else Could Go Wrong Today. But that grimness can’t be constant, or else it loses its impact. Battlestar Galactica gets a good deal of its strength from its refusal to compromise in moments where most other shows would soften the blow. It presents a harsh situation in which people we like face overwhelming odds, and then it has the temerity to demonstrate again and again just what “overwhelming odds” actually means.

Yet that can’t be the whole story. Constant misery does exist in the world, but it doesn’t make for great television. And just by our natures, human beings will find a way to adapt and fight back for even the most lost of causes. In many ways, “Flight Of The Phoenix” is a calm before the storm, a respite before things fall apart once again. But even without knowing what happens in “Pegasus,” this is a critical hour for building our affection for these people, and for allowing that affection to safely take root. It’s hard to care for characters we know are going to be punished over and over again. In “Phoenix,” we see some misery, but we also see friendly faces getting a chance to light some candles in the middle of all that darkness.

Of course, before we can get there, we have to be reminded of just how lousy everything is. So: Sharon is stuck in a cell, which is at least better than her being shot on sight, and none of the pilots (apart from Starbuck) are happy with Helo because he’s been sleeping with the enemy. Tyrol is struggling with his own complicated feelings about Sharon’s real identity, and losing his version of her; it’s like a horrible break-up where your ex-lover bleeds out in your arms, only for her to show up again pregnant with someone else’s child. (We’ve all been there, right?) Supplies and ships are as limited as ever, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, a Cylon virus starts sabotaging the Galactica’s computer system, throwing out feedback loops and nearly murdering Kara and Lee with some bad air.

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So, things aren’t great, which is par for the course. The Cylon virus is a perfect set-up for an episode in and of itself; the clever ways it manifests, the threat it represents, and the way it puts a ticking clock over every choice is arguably more than enough sustain a full hour. But while the virus is the story’s main threat, it’s not the only plotline running. It might not even be the most important one. Tyrol’s decision to build a ship out of supplies on hand is what gives the episode its name, and the idea of finding hope in the unluckiest of places is the theme that holds everything together.

As clever as that Cylon virus is, what makes it compelling is in the decision it drives Adama to make. Smart as Gaeta and Baltar are, they can’t solve the problem quickly enough to stop it from doing major damage, especially not once Sharon reveals the Cylons’ real plan: the virus is primed to shut down every major system at the worst possible moment, leaving Galactica and the fleet vulnerble to attack. Adama has a decision. He can ignore Sharon’s warning and hope his men will fix the issue sooner rather than later. Or he can trust a woman he considers the enemy, a woman who looks exactly like the friend who once tried to kill him.

It’s great seeing him legitimately struggle with this—one of things that makes BSG work so well is that it allows characters we admire to make decisions we don’t agree with. We know that Sharon is, if not on the side of the angels, at least trustworthy enough not to want to get Helo and her baby killed, but Adama has both logical and emotional reasons not to trust her intentions. The fact that he struggles with this, even turning to Roslin for advice (an important indication of their growing closeness; it wasn’t that long ago that he tried to depose her), makes his eventual willingness to give Sharon a chance all the more meaningful.

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Tyrol’s quest to build a new ship lacks the stakes of the virus storyline, but it’s just as satisfying. As various other characters first express disapproval, and then ultimately come over to the Chief’s side, the plot mirrors Adama’s in showing the necessity of hope even in the direst of circumstances. Both Adama and Tyrol take a leap of faith; Adama in trusting someone he has every reason to despise, and Tyrol in doing something he must know going in will be incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible. Both are ultimately rewarded for their actions, but the rewards is perhaps less important than the willingness to take the risk in the first place.

Those risks are necessary both from a character standpoint and a narrative one. To have people constantly bowed under the weight of despair is to shortchange the variety of human emotional responses; worse, from a writer’s perspective, it can make for dull, unengaging storytelling. There’s a place for constant misery, but it’s probably not on television (even The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones have moments of levity), and the sight of Tyrol’s deck crew slowly coming around to the Chief’s plans is endearing enough to make up for several hours worth of infighting and sorrow. Tigh even gets in on the act, and the final scene, with Roslin dedicating the new ship named in her honor, is one of the sweetest, happiest moments in the show to date. It’s good to remember just what these people are fighting for before the next horror arrives.

Stray observations

  • Tyrol’s decision to finally visit Sharon in her cell is a more complicated scene than the ship christening, but just as moving. For all its grief and death, there’s a surprising amount of optimism in the series’ core; if not about life, than at least about possibilities of forgiveness.
  • Roslin’s fake out with the champagne bottle gets me every time.
  • I love Starbuck’s immediate willingness to fly the new ship. It’s the same impulse that has her attacking the woman who insults Helo. If optimism is a core element of the series, than Starbuck is its main avatar: reckless, prone to anger, but forever willing to stick her chin out for a friend.

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“Pegasus” (season 2, episode 10; originally aired 9/23/2005)

So here’s the other reason “Flight Of The Phoenix” is so important: it gives us a new status quo for “Pegasus” to blow up. The first half of the season has been about slowly pulling everyone together, forcing various groups to get over their differences and build something stronger as a whole. In “Pegasus,” these new found alliances—tenuous and fragile as they are—get put to the test when the Galactica finds out they aren’t quite as alone in the universe as they thought they were. It’s a brilliant hour that demonstrates most of the show’s strengths: complex, smart character work, narrative tension, and an unparalleled ability to build slow-burning conflicts into bonfires without ever showing the strain.

The episode also features Michelle Forbes as the tough-as-nails Admiral Helena Cain. Forbes has the unenviable job of creating a hardass whose transition from tough-but-fair to absolutely ruthless needs to be gradual enough to maintain plausibility, but fast enough to fit inside a single episode. It’s not that Cain actually changes over the course of “Pegasus,” but our understanding of her does, and Forbes has to make it believable that Adama and Roslin would trust her even as their instincts scream otherwise. She does this very well. So well, in fact, that it’s possible to still see her side of things even when she’s ordering the execution of Tyrol and Helo for (accidentally) murdering one of her men. She does what she does because she truly believes she has no other choice.

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Which is one of the reasons “Pegasus” works so well: that’s the same justification that drives the behavior of all the other characters we’ve come to love over a season and a half. The ends-justify-the-means approach hasn’t taken complete hold of Galactica, but it sure as hell has a foothold, and that ruthlessness was initially one of the show’s main hooks. Here were people willing to do whatever it took to survive, and if that meant sacrifice and moral compromise, so be it. The fate of the species was at stake, which left little time for ethical debates.

Then Cain and the good ship Pegasus comes along, and Cain has her own ideas of “ruthlessness.” Ideas like shooting subordinates who refuse to follow her orders, even if those orders put men and women at risk based on faulty assumptions. Ideas like press-ganging civilians into military service because resources are scarce. Worst of all, ideas like torturing and raping a Cylon prisoner (one of the Six models), presumably for information, but also just give her men a way to occupy their time.

This is hard, brutal, and largely indefensible stuff. As dark as the show has been in the past, the Pegasus offers a chance to see what Galactica might have been like without the guiding influence of Adama and Roslin at the helm. Even at their most desperate, no one we’ve come to care about has gone this far. It’s hard to imagine Adama shooting an officer for refusing an order, and as willing as Roslin was to throw a Cylon out an airlock, there’s a difference between execution and torture.

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That, really, is the key: showing that there is an endpoint for leadership that refuses to allow for mercy, and that endpoint is tyranny. There’s enough humanity in Forbes’ performance, and in the extremity of the situation, to keep this from being a simplistic good versus evil fight. Adama and the others aren’t perfect heroes by any stretch of the imagination, and in some scenes, Cain’s judgement, and our reflexive resentment of it, can feel almost petulant. The fact that no one can live up to her standard is one of the things that makes her so dangerous a threat. You’re so busy trying to justify yourself that you don’t consider the system you’re trying to appease is irredeemably flawed.

Still, by the time Adama launches a Viper assault against the Pegasus, it’s clear which side we’re on. That’s another point in the episode’s favor. One might have expected a longer build up to the confrontation. Adama spends most of the hour with every seeming intention of obeying his superior officer’s commands, no matter how much he might disagree with them. It’s possible to imagine this drama unfolding over several weeks, as a myriad of small injustices build to a boiling point. Even Cain’s decision to separate the crews sounds like a status quo shift that will have long lasting implications.

I can’t remember if it does, but regardless, whatever peace exists between Cain and Adama at the start of the episode is gone by the end. It’s a rapid escalation, especially when seen through the lense of modern serialized drama, but one that feels entirely natural given the circumstances. Almost from the first moment Cain and her crew arrive on board the Galactica, things start going wrong. Tigh hears horror stories from the Pegasus’s current XO; Starbuck finds a group of pilots even more arrogant and dickish than her; and Baltar makes the horrifying discovery of just what Cain considers proper treatment of a prisoner of war.

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That last is the most immediately disturbing of Cain’s crimes, and also indirectly sets up the chain of events that lead to Adama turning on his superior officer. The sight of a familiar face beaten and broken in the name of “justice” (or something like it) is awful enough to get past even Baltar’s defenses, inspiring him to a rare moment of emotional honesty. The knowledge of what Cain’s men are willing to do for information then leads to a sense of real danger when we learn that Cain has ordered them to interrogate Sharon. This danger is what drives Helo and Tyrol to fight back, and the sight of Sharon held down on her bed as her interrogator takes off his pants is as dark as the show has ever been.

It’s also… well, let’s not say “problematic,” because that’s a whole other thing, but the attack on Sharon, and the brutalization of Number Six’s duplicate on board the Pegasus, does lead to the only real problem with the episode. Namely, two different women are assaulted, and both those assaults are framed entirely by how they affect the men in those women’s lives. In the case of the Cylon on the Pegasus, that’s easier to understand, given that she’s near catatonic, but it’s a little disappointing to see Sharon turned into a victim without even a chance to see her reacting to Helo and Tyrol’s arrest. This doesn’t ruin the hour, but it is weirdly noticeable. The threat of sexual violence isn’t an easy narrative tool to use effectively, and while I’d say “Pegasus” more or less works as is, the sudden horror of seeing Sharon nearly raped is closer to exploitative than was maybe necessary.

That aside, this is a great entry, one that adds to the show’s lore in ways that don’t overburden it, and provides a new, unexpected kind of threat. For the longest time, our heroes’ fondest wish has been to find more survivors like themselves. But they’ve come far enough on their own now that they’re no longer the people they were at the start of the journey. Survival forces change whether you realize it or not, and Cain and the Pegasus will allow the Galactica to define what they’ve become, for better and worse.

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Stray observations

  • Whatever problems I may have with the plotline, seeing Baltar legitimately give a damn about something outside of himself is a legitimately great scene. Baltar on the original Battlestar Galactica was a Cylon sympathizer and irredeemable bastard, and the remake keeps finding interesting ways to present this Baltar’s treasonous behavior. Sometimes he’s working against other humans because he’s trying to protect himself, and sometimes it’s arrogance; sometimes it’s simply a mistake. But this may be the first time caring for a Cylon seems like the path back to finding his soul.
  • I love how Tigh doesn’t buy the other XO’s “I was only joking” line. The man has a keen nose for bullshit, most likely because he’s spent a large part of his career shoveling it himself.

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