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Starbuck leaves home to find it on Battlestar Galactica

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“The Farm” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired 8/12/2005)

The Cylons are the enemy. If Battlestar Galactica has a villain (and I’d say at this point in its run, it does), the Cylons are obviously it. They kill without warning, play mind games with the survivors, refuse to negotiate or discuss terms, and hide in plain sight. And as “The Farm” reveals, they aren’t content with simply murdering humanity wholesale. The Cylons are obsessed with making babies, and because they can’t reproduce organically, they’ve taken to grabbing women on Caprica, hooking them up to baby-making machines, and hoping for the best.

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It’s a monstrous violation, and we see Starbuck nearly fall into the trap, which makes it even worse. She’s one of our protagonists after all, a bad-ass hero who’s worth ten times anyone else in the fleet when it comes to fighting. Seeing her drugged and at the mercy of strangers is bad enough; realizing she’s being turned into a human science experiment at the behest of a bunch of god-loving machines is something else entirely. We’ve seen Kara emotionally vulnerable before, but this is the most helpless she’s ever been, lost in enemy territory, struggling against nightmares that have no real name. It’s harsh and mesmerizing, and not even a last minute rescue can complete erase the trauma of what she’s been through.

Trauma is an important idea for Battlestar Galactica. The show’s characters often talk about fate and destiny and prophecy, and these things all factor into the story in one way or another, but actual suffering, and the way that suffering shapes behavior, has a far more immediate (and to me, more interesting) impact. Crises can be resolved, at least for the moment, but the horrors linger. It can be a difficult effect to make this work in an ongoing drama, if only because post-traumatic stress isn’t always a dynamic or developing experience. Watching people endure misery is one thing; watching them mired in their grief for days, weeks, and even years after is another.

Thankfully (at least at this point) BSG has a deft touch, using the constant pressure of the Cylon threat to make sure no one’s sorrow can command all their attention. The way the fight breaks down each person in turn provides an opportunity to understand them at their most vulnerable, to see both the lies they tell others and the lies they tell themselves. It is difficult, if not impossible, to lie convincingly when you’re half out of your mind from terror and shock, and by forcing individuals to keep making life-or-death decisions in the middle of their angst, the writers demonstrate how easy it is for seemingly like-minded people to come to brutal disagreement.

With Adama back in command, there’s some hope that sanity will be restored to the fleet; he’s arguably the most trusted character on the show, a father figure to the men and women serving underneath him and a symbol for how to maintain sanity and compassion in the midst of a crisis. But while he takes charge easily enough, something’s off. He’s angrier than he used to be, and when Tyrol comes to him to beg mercy for Cally, the commander starts asking him questions about his relationship with Boomer. The questions themselves aren’t enraged (his anger only really seems to surface when he’s talking about Roslin), but he’s more open here than he usually is, and it’s unsettling to see him this philosophical with a subordinate.

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There’s an important line that comes up here too, one that I think underlines one of the show’s major ideas. Adama asks Tyrol if he was in love with Sharon, and he says, “I thought I was.” And Adama tells him that because he thought he was in love, he was in love. The idea that belief and reality are, in some situations, one and the same is an important one when it comes to dealing with the Cylons. It’s why Adama can’t quite shake what happened to him—not just a surprise assault, but an assault from someone he’d spent years trusting. Knowing she was a “machine” doesn’t erase those years, and the sight of Adama sobbing over Sharon’s corpse does more than any single line of dialogue to show that the war’s cost can’t be measured in casualties alone.

What makes this so complicated, and one of the reasons the show’s miseries rarely become stale, is the mercurial nature of the Cylons themselves. Well, not “mercurial,” exactly; to them, their behavior is consistent, but because we know so little about what drives them, their actions are often impossible to parse. The “farm” Starbuck discovers appears to be the height of absolute cruelty, the epitome of some of our darkest fears, and the Cylons decision to build and maintain human factories labels them monsters of the vilest sort imaginable.

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And yet there’s Helo’s Sharon who, believing she is in love with Helo, is in love with Helo. In explaining the farm, she tells Kara and the others that the Cylons are trying to following the teachings of the Bible, which tells them to be fruitful and multiply, and since they can’t multiply with one another, they turned to humans. It doesn’t justify the process, but it explains it, and suggests a thought process that’s fundamentally alien to ours, albeit in a way that’s still possible to remotely understand. The Cylons are Pinocchios, desperate to be real live boys and girls; but Pinocchios who have every reason to despise Gepetto, and who spend their time concocting grand and murderous plots to win the approval of the Blue Fairy.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though (and torturing a metaphor to boot). “The Farm” is a good showcase for Kara Thrace, showing her resilient and tormented, and ends with her, Helo, and Sharon heading back to Kobol to meet with Roslin. Lucky for her, Roslin’s made the bold move of going back to Kobol herself, and convincing a third of the rest of the fleet to join her, much to Adama’s disgust. Starbuck promises to return for Anders and the others, but for now, the sojourn on Caprica is at an end.

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Stray observations

  • Starbuck and Anders slept together, which was pretty much inevitable.
  • Trying to build support among the fleet, Zarek asks Lee to publicly denounce his father. He tries, but can’t manage to finish his statement. While isn’t a form of trauma, exactly (Lee can’t completely betray Adama because he loves the old man), it does fit in with how the show treats loyalty and betrayal as more than just ideas. Lee’s ability to rebel against Adama doesn’t completely invalidate their connection. That’s a concept that will come up and again; characters repeatedly break each other’s hearts, but the break is rarely, if ever, permanent.
  • So, we get a new Cylon this week: Dr. Simon. He’s pleasant enough, in a creepy sort of way.
  • “Did someone break your fingers, Kara?” There’s more backstory here that we don’t get, as well as a repeat of the intimation that Starbuck has a “destiny.” The implied abuse (I honestly don’t remember where the broken fingers came from) is more interesting than the vague mysticism, although that could be personal preference.
  • We also learn a little more about why Sharon and Helo were set up. The plan was for Sharon and Helo to fall in love, which would hopefully help her get pregnant. They did, and she is, so I guess someone’s getting a raise. (It’s such a murky situation, isn’t it? Sharon has apparently turned on the other Cylons, but since every one she kills will just download itself into another copy, how do you know her decision is real? How do you know it’s not just another ploy?)
  • “You’ll see her again, Chief.” -Adama to Tyrol, about Boomer.

“Home (Part 1)” (season 2, episode 6; originally aired 8/19/2005)

All right, so about that mysticism.

Religion is a key part of Battlestar Galactica. It was also a key part of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Ron Moore’s other major science fiction opus. On DS9, the faith of the Bajoran people was never dismissed out of hand as hypocrisy; not was it treated as a generic conceptual glue to hold together various elements of plot. There was a complex, and surprisingly intricate, mythology, one with tenants and a backstory that ultimately had serious ramifications in the show’s on-going storyline. The effort didn’t always pay off, but it was still impressive that the show’s writing staff went as far as they did with the concept.

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BSG doubles down on the idea. Roslin’s late in life conversion to, if not fanaticism, than at least evangelism, is a key part of who she is, and while the show has its skeptics, nearly everyone believes to some extent. Which isn’t surprising; while the near extinction of the human race isn’t explicitly cited as a deciding factor, that’s one hell of a big fox hole our heroes are all stuck in. But what’s even more interesting is how the show repeatedly suggests that these beliefs are based on something tangible. It’s an element of borderline fantasy in an otherwise stridently sci-fi-centric series, and the mix generates an uneasy tension.

“Home (Part 1)” finally gets Roslin, Starbuck, and the Arrow of Apollo down on Kobol, although there’s a fair amount of shouting before their journey begins. When Starbuck catches up with Zarek’s ship, she’s got the new Sharon in tow; Lee freaks out (understandably), and Roslin, after negotiating a temporary peace, orders Sharon thrown out of the airlock, because apparently once she finds a killing method she likes, she sticks with it.

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It’s a dangerous thing, to start pulling in sympathetic Cylons so early in the game, especially when she looks exactly like the last sympathetic Cylon we had; it could, in theory, look like repeating yourself. But the connection between the two Sharons works to the show’s advantage. We know intellectually that this Sharon is different from the one Cally shot days before, but we’ve come to see this actress in a certain light. Grace Park does a decent job distinguishing between the two, but given how long the pregnant Sharon was pretending to be the other Sharon, the emotional attachment is hard to ignore. Basically, we can have a Sharon Cylon who we root for (more or less) as a separate entity from the others, and it doesn’t rob those others of their creepiness, or make them seem like anything less of a threat.

Sharon manages to take her way into a stay of execution by promising to show Roslin how to find the Tomb of Athena on Kobol. One of the smartest ways the show uses religion is by having the Cylons—who are, as the humans keep reminding us, machines—be every bit as devout as the human believers, if not more so. It prevents Roslin and the others’ faith from becoming an easy way to distinguish one side from the other, and adds an extra layer of obscurity to the Cylons’ true intentions. If they were simply another artificial intelligence hellbent on exterminating organic life, they’d be frightening but straightforward. They want more than that, though, and an enemy driven by faith is presents a different set of challenges.

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On a more personal level, Kara and Lee have a couple moments here that suggest their friendship is about to hit some rocky ground. When Kara arrives on Zarek’s ship, Lee kisses her in greeting, and she gives him a look. Later he tries to get her to talk about her experiences on Caprica, and makes the mistake of telling her he loves her—he says it matter of factly, like it’s just something between friends, but she zeroes in and mocks him for it. The two have different expectations for their friendship, and it’s possible that difference has been building for a while. Kara is clearly making a decision to stop things from going further. Maybe its her relationship with Anders, maybe it’s just that she doesn’t want to change what she already has with Lee (who is almost embarrassingly terrible at this stuff). Whatever the specific motivation, this is the first serious awkwardness we’ve seen between these two, and it’s only going to get worse.

Back on the Galactica, Adams is dealing with his own problems: namely, he’s furious at what he considers Roslin’s betrayal, and he’s decided to cut all ties with the ships that returned to Kobol. It’s a petulant act masquerading as a logical one, and once again, it’s the limitations of these characters that make them so compelling, the way figures we’ve been taught to trust are capable at once of being wise and foolish, sometimes in the same scene. Adama is a father figure, the kind of authority we want in our own lives, and Edward James Olmos radiates warmth and good judgement every second he’s on screen. But that doesn’t prevent him from letting emotion outweigh good sense. It’s hard to blame him for it too much either. In the end, a lecture from Dee that reminds him of what really matters; whatever his problems with Roslin (and his son), the fleet can’t split apart. Regardless of their differences, there aren’t enough people still alive for any of them to be considered expendable.

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Also on the Galactica, Baltar gets his only real scene this week, as he watches the ship’s crew come and go and contemplates his place in the universe. Thanks to a little light torture, he knows there are eight Cylons left in the fleet. (Admittedly, Boomer could’ve been making it up; but since that’s a dramatic dead-end, it’s better to assume Baltar’s theory about her subconscious was correct.) So far as I can tell he’s the only human who knows this, which gives him some power, but not enough to do anything about it. Baltar and Six’s philosophical discussions sometimes feel like their own separate series, but it’s an enjoyable diversion nonetheless; as though Six has decided that the only way to redeem humanity is to win over a man who represents some of its most embarrassing flaws.

After some intense negotiation, Roslin and the others descend to Kobol, where Sharon demonstrates her superior knowledge of scripture. The Cylons aren’t just religious, they’re more committed to their faith, which must be infuriating to the human devout; the Cylons haven’t just murdered millions, they’ve also taken on the beliefs of their victims as if they had every right to do so. We’ll have to wait till the second half of the two-parter to see what the Tomb looks like, but this episode still makes time for a Cylon attack and the death of Elosha, and gives Sharon a chance to prove her worth.

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Before they set off for Kobol, Elosha warned that there would be a price paid in blood. Her death could be the confirmation of that cost, or it could simply be a coincidence; while the show doesn’t leave everything up in the air, it still allows for the unknowable. It has to. Turning religion into a powerful, undeniable force in the universe can make for some fascinating conflicts, as we’ve seen. Turning it into fact makes people into machines, and there’s already enough of those.

Stray observations

  • Another reason Adama’s line about “belief” is so important: the human protagonists go out of their way to repeatedly dismiss the Cylons as machines. The label makes them something less than an opponent—this isn’t an enemy of equals, it’s a technical problem that needs to be exterminated. But if the Cylons consider themselves living, thinking beings, doesn’t that mean they are?
  • Zarek has a buddy, Meier, played by the great James Remar. The two of them come up with a plan to kill Lee on Kobol, this assuring Zarek a position as leader of the armed forces under Roslin’s administration. I think this is the first time the show has gone out of its way to show Zarek as a villain, and it’s slightly disappointing; while it was implied earlier that his primary motivation was self-interest, having him be so open about it makes him less interesting.
  • The episode makes sure that Adama’s poor decision making has a practical impact; he promotes a man to Lee’s old position, but the guy is too inexperienced. No lives are lost, but it’s an embarrassment nonetheless.
  • Sharon’s pregnancy is a great way to get around the usual lack of stakes when it comes to Cylon death. She can download her consciousness into another body, but not her womb.
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