Thursday, February 21, 2008

Distorted Reflections in a Razor

WARNING: SPOILERS (spoilage factor: about the same as that thing you’ve got in that Tupperware container in the back of your fridge… you know the one… no, not that one, the other one, the one with the hairy blue mold starting to grow out around the edges of the seal. About that spoiled.)

Picking up from my general review of “Battlestar Galactica – Razor” a few weeks ago, I want to take a deeper look at an interesting motif that runs through the entire movie – the idea of mirrors. The razor is a thing that can cut, but we can also look at its side and see reflections, though in this case Galactica and her crew are not mirrored exactly in Pegasus: smudges of blood distort the faces staring back at them. Look deep enough and the distortions take on funhouse mirror proportions.

On the surface, the Colonial warships are twinned. Galactica and Pegasus are both battlestars. Both have been engaged in heavy combat against the Cylons. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Galactica is vintage and very much a manual model, while Pegasus is larger, more heavily armed and has a significant amount of automation. Galactica plays a shepherd’s role, defending its fleet of civilian ships. Pegasus, on the other hand, has played an offensive role (pun intended) since the Cylon annihilation of the Colonies, and moreover has been a pirate ship used to prey on Colonial civilian vessels and was thereafter alone until it encountered Galactica’s fleet.

Moving along to a meatier comparison, we can see that Galactica’s senior officers all have shadowy reflections.

Admiral William Adama is older, a veteran of the first Cylon war. He’s soft-spoken and reflective, secure in himself and commands the respect of his crew through intelligence, sound judgment and trustworthiness. While he’s had his ambitions in the past (in fact, from at least one BSG episode flashback he’d expressed a willingness to use political connections to get a command), he’s learned from experience and is mature enough to recognize when to be content with his lot. He has grown to see his duty of protecting the Colonies to be the same as ensuring humanity’s survival by protecting the civilian fleet.

Admiral Helena Cain is young (for a senior officer in the military) and was an orphaned child survivor of the first Cylon war. She also is intelligent, but makes quick decisions without looking back, is hard and cruel and commands her crew through loud forcefulness and intimidation (the frequent displays of the knife are more than just the restless Helena looking for something her hands can toy with, it’s also an overt threat and supremacy display to those around her) and ultimately lethal enforcement that would make a Roman legate proud. She’s ambitious (as we’re told in the season 2 episode “Pegasus” – with Adama noting that she’d used connections to assist her quick rise through the ranks) and determined to be in absolute charge. Her idea of protecting the Colonies is to continue to wage an aggressive campaign against the Cylons and win by any means necessary. We also see a cruel streak in Cain early on when she torments the newly arrived Kendra Shaw for her own amusement. This viciousness and insecurity explodes out of control later when she executes Colonel Belzen with his own gun when he refuses to order an attack against a vastly superior Cylon force (which, as we later learn, caused huge loses to the Pegasus fighter squadron despite Cain’s victory – as Belzen had warned).

Towards the end of “Razor”, while talking with Apollo, Adama as much as acknowledges that Cain was a kind of dark mirror of himself, explaining that it’s not wise to jump to quick judgments about her decisions and actions because it was difficult to know what he would have done had he been alone, without Apollo, President Rosalin and the others to hold him accountable and remind him of his responsibilities to protect the civilian fleet.

And yet, his attempt at fairness and balanced perspective underscores how different he and Cain really were. Cain made no attempt to see things from Adama’s point of view when she began taking apart his command. She didn’t hesitate to brand him a traitor and threaten to respond with deadly force when he insisted on the return of Tyrol and Helo and dispatched a rescue mission.

Adama and Cain also reacted completely differently to three key challenges:

Both advocated torture of Cylon prisoners to get information. But when Adama sent Starbuck to deal with Leoben in season 1, the intent was to gather information and dump him out the airlock if he wouldn’t give information or if he posed a threat. Boomer was merely put in a cell and questioned. And when the sick Cylons were taken from the infected Base Star that was found adrift, the intent was to interrogate them (until someone disabled the air filters and killed them, thereby preventing interrogation). With Adama, there is always the clear sense that there are limits to what he will permit during interrogations. While Leoben’s treatment is rough, it certainly could have been a lot worse. There is no indication that Galactica’s crew tortured Boomer at all. And the Cylon prisoners, while shackled in custody and put on a control collar in transit, were allowed to keep their clothes and did not appear to have been abused prior to their murder. And when he heard that Cain’s men had raped Boomer, Adama had the decency to go to her to express his regrets (although it did take the doctor to be blunt with the apology). Cain, on the other hand, is brutal to the extreme in her handling of prisoners. When her lover/lead civilian technician Gina is discovered to be a Cylon agent, Cain instructs Lieutenant Thorne to utterly break and “humiliate” the prisoner. (Humiliate is not a word in Adama’s vocabulary or one even implied in connection with his treatment of prisoners.) We know that among his horrific methods, Thorne employed vicious beatings and rape, deprivation of food and clothing and encouragement of other members of the crew to participate and initiate torture on their own. Some may point out that not only were the Cylons the enemy and inhuman to boot, but that Cain was acting out of revenge for Gina’s emotional betrayal of her. But encouraging Thorne to be so completely destructive in his methods was totally beyond the pale. To someone of her experience, it should also have been obvious (as Baltar pointed out in season 2) that this degree of torture was non-productive in terms of acquiring information – it was totally personal on Cain’s part. And if she didn’t expressly dictate the finer details of every action that Thorne took, there’s no way Cain was unaware of what he did. To allow Thorne to follow through with his torture was to encourage it. To allow a monster like Thorne to even be on her vessel, let alone be an officer, is inexcusable. Moreover, she unleashed him again when she heard Boomer was being kept aboard Galactica. Cain is every bit as culpable as Thorne and the other vicious crewmen who brutalized Gina and Boomer.

We then need to examine how the two leaders treat civilian fleets. After the attack on the Colonies, Adama had initially planned on leaving the refugee fleet within what he believed was the protection of the planet Ragnar while he left to continue the fight. Adama later reconsidered and decided to take the fleet away from the Colonies, agreeing with Rosalin that ensuring humanity’s survival was more important than waging an unwinnable war of revenge. Adama continued to play shepherd, defending the civilian fleet and standing by it, even during the split with Rosalin. It would have been especially easy at that point to leave the slow, unarmed civilian ships to their fate, but Adama stuck by them. Faced with her own group of civilian tag-alongs, Cain chose rather to turn on her own people (adding a pointed biblical metaphorical angle to her last name) – people she was sworn to protect. She didn’t even consider leaving them intact or in a safe harbor… Obsessed with her guerilla war against the Cylons, Cain turned pirate and preyed on a civilian fleet, plundering their “useful” crew and passengers, ordering the deaths of the family members of protestors, stripping the ships of FTL drives, fuel, weapons, supplies and any other materiel she wanted and then leaving the vessels adrift.

Cain’s monstrous treatment of prisoners and her own civilians is extreme enough to warrant charges of war crimes and indicates that while there are superficial comparisons to be made between her and Adama, they are worlds apart.

The third example of where the two differ is in their development after the end of the first Cylon war. Through flashbacks in “Razor”, as well as the previous seasons of BSG, we see that Adama has had his share of close calls during combat, but has also had challenges after the war (job dissatisfaction, divorce, the death of a child, problems relating to the surviving child, the annihilation of his people). Despite all of the difficulties, he is reflective and seems to have faced life, matured and preserved his humanity. Cain’s tendency towards viciousness almost begs the question as to what she was like before her family was killed in the war. Regardless, she was most certainly damaged by the experience of seeing her family massacred by Cylon centurions. The experience seems to have left her focused on survival at all costs, protection of herself first and becoming as hard and sharp, as much a razor, as possible. In seeking to become the ultimate weapon so that she can never be killed by the Cylons, she has, in effect killed off her own humanity and become a Cylon. Worse than a Cylon, in fact, given that we’ve seen Boomer and #6/Caprica/Gina display emotions beyond hate and show compassion towards some humans.

While Cain may be a reflection of Adama on some level, it is only in a cracked, smudged and distant mirror.

There is another Adama who has reflections aboard the Pegasus. There are three more commanders appointed to lead the ship in the wake of Cain’s murder by Gina/#6, the last of whom is Lee. Apollo begins his stint aboard Pegasus with an introductory speech where he tells the crew he’ll respect Cain’s legacy but that things will be changing. While he may hold the same position aboard the ship and like them he came by the job because of the death of his predecessors, his speech (and his later elaboration to Kendra Shaw) is about as clear a statement as you’re going to get that he’s measured himself against the others and found all of them wanting. Shaw also makes a quick, cutting comparison, noting Fisk (Cain’s second in command after she killed Belzen, later promoted by the elder Adama after Cain’s death) was corrupt and Garner (the former chief engineer promoted by Adama after Fisk’s murder) was an incompetent leader. In about as much of a contrast as she’s willing to give, Shaw acknowledges that Lee appears to be a step up from Fisk and Garner, but throws the shadow of being a daddy’s boy in the face of her new boss. Lee proves to be a worthy commander of “the Beast”, as his battlestar is nicknamed, making prudent decisions for the good of his crew and proving generally successful in tactical situations. He also differs significantly from the other commanders in that he doesn’t get killed – though he does ultimately destroy the Pegasus, thereby putting an end to the dark mirror of Galactica.

At the centre of “Razor” is Lieutenant (and later, Major) Kendra Shaw, and it is through her usually cold (though sometimes when she wouldn’t want us to see it, frightened) eyes we see most of the story. Coming aboard Pegasus as an ambitious young officer, she goes from the object of Cain’s torment to, in the wake of the Cylon attack, the Admiral’s protégé. When Lee arrives, she’s been busted to KP duty for insubordination and she’s shocked to discover that he wants to promote her to XO. Over the course of the “present” half of the movie’s plot, Shaw collides with Starbuck on a regular basis and we discover that these two women are perhaps the closest reflections of all, so similar they make each other uneasy to the point of hostility. And yet there are still differences that point to cracks in Shaw as a mirror, no matter how subtle the flaws.

The similarities between Shaw and Starbuck are fairly obvious: both are young women and career military. They are both the daughters of strong mothers. Both are (for the most part) exceptionally good at their jobs and have risen to the challenge of living under near constant battle pressures in the wake of the Cylon attack. And both have a high degree of respect for Cain’s decisiveness and fearlessness in battle.

Each has a record of insubordination. While there are subtle, yet important, differences between the nature of their insubordination, the similarities are greater. Shaw’s is new-found – she is like a teenager discovering she can be sullen. Her backlash against new authority stems from her having put Cain on a pedestal as some sort of invincible war goddess, from not seeing the Admiral for what she was (Except, perhaps, unconsciously, thus explaining the depth of her anger that fuels the insubordination?). Having become demoralized after Cain’s murder, Shaw is exposed to replacement commanders who are either corrupt or incompetent (and thus not worthy of replacing Cain on the pedestal – if that were even possible) and she lashes out, resulting in successive demotions until Apollo arrives, recognizes her talents and takes her under his wing. Starbuck, on the other hand, has a long history of insubordination predating her collisions with Colonel Tigh. Like Shaw, Starbuck’s anger takes aim at superiors she views as weak – people unworthy of occupying the pedestal. Where Kara differs from Kendra is that Starbuck seems to have never worshipped someone on a pedestal – from what we know of Starbuck’s abusive mother, who, in being violent, demonstrated she was unworthy of that position, Kara most likely grew up believing that no-one deserved to be placed in a superior position for fear they’d abuse it. In fact, her love of Bill Adama, a replacement father as well as commanding officer, seems to have grown out of a realization that some people can earn the right to a higher position with total loyalty and obedience by showing their skill and ability to rise to the challenge, rather than simply demanding respect for the mere office of authority. It is as though Shaw and Starbuck are passing each other going different directions on the highway of hero worship and insubordination.

There are other important similarities: both women are suffering from some degree of addiction – Starbuck: excessive alcohol use; Shaw: some kind of injected drug. The scene where Starbuck reveals herself to Shaw in the kitchen when both are serving their addictions is a life moment where we see two people missing an opportunity to bond – rather than acknowledging their similarity and sharing their pain, there is the standoffishness of two alley cats climbing out of separate dumpsters and stalking past each other on the way back out to the street. Both women seem to be suffering from some sort of mental illness due, in part at least, to the constant stresses of living under siege (not to mention dealing with whatever other mental baggage each drags along). Their addictions further underscore the prospect of mental illness. Shaw’s lessons at the hands of Cain have caused her to withdraw from human contact and repress her emotions. She’s also clearly trying to wall-off any kind of guilt about her role in the murders of the civilians in Pegasus’ short-lived civilian fleet. Starbuck is a risk-taker to the point of being deliberately self-harmful and suicidal.

The two share another key aspect: both play the role of partner or back-up to Apollo and neither wants to share that position, especially with the other. Shaw is the first officer of Pegasus and is extremely territorial when it comes to dealing with outsiders. While she may have to put up with Apollo as her Commander (though she has a growing respect for him), it’s her ship and she won’t have anyone else strutting around doing as they please or bucking the chain of command (especially when that bucking means going around her, directly to Apollo) or otherwise acting in a manner she disapproves of (meaning acting differently from her, and more importantly, differently from what Cain would have mandated). Shaw is definitely jealous that Starbuck has this kind of access to Apollo and disrespect for authority or conventional behavior. For her part, Starbuck is Apollo’s long-time friend, wingman, and secret true love and figures her rightful place is fighting at his side. Never one to respect the chain of command, Starbuck has no qualms about going right around Shaw (or through her if she thinks Shaw has made a bad call) and straight to Apollo. The rivalry between the two escalates to the point where the two are snarling at each other in the hanger after Shaw nearly kills Starbuck (possibly deliberately) by directing the ship’s defensive fire on an inbound Cylon raider tangling with Starbuck. Shaw even grimly warns Starbuck of harsh penalties aboard Pegasus for disobeying or disrespecting a superior officer (implying that she’s not above adopting Cain’s policy of immediate capital punishment). The tension between the two women is still there when they go on the strike mission against the renegade Cylon basestar.

There are also, obviously, many differences between the two, starting with their names – which is to say the nature of their names, not merely that their names are obviously different. Kendra Shaw’s name is straight-forward and rather plain. Aside from her changing rank, it’s the only moniker she goes by. Kara Thrace, on the other hand, is also known by her callsign “Starbuck” – a name that (aside from the Melvillian connotations) seems to imply something larger or more mystical than a regular name would. But even her last name, Thrace, harkens back to the ancient Mediterranean empire in a time of conquest and bronze-age heroes who stood out from the crowd. The fact that the fighter pilot is known by both her name and her callsign allows her to switch identities after a fashion – Starbuck tends to be her public face of hard-drinking, harder-fighting bravado, where Kara Thrace seems to be the name for her personality when she’s in her more vulnerable moments. Kendra Shaw, on the other hand, is always simply Kendra Shaw – one name with no other signature to hide behind, something that might contribute to her need to create her frosty wall to isolate herself from others and hide her pain.

Their different jobs are also in-line with their diverging personalities. Shaw is a bridge officer aboard a battlestar – a job that requires her to function as a cog in a larger machine. Though she has some decision-making powers, she is responsible for ensuring the successful operation and survival of the larger organism that is the ship. Starbuck, on the other hand, is a fighter pilot who, while she is necessarily a member of a team of pilots, can and does –also out of necessity during dogfights - also function as an individual.

The two have obvious differences in the faces they present to the world. Shaw is frosty and still while Starbuck is explosively emotional and tends to be in motion.

And they have grown in different directions as a result of the influence of their mentors. Cain tried to forge Shaw into a razor (a metaphorically violent process involving the application of heat and pressure) – has tried to make Shaw into a weapon capable of destroying the enemy without thought or emotion. Ostensibly an attempt to make Shaw clone of the Admiral. An attempt – to some degree successful – to erase the person she was before, in favour of Cain’s ideal. Aboard the Galactica, it’s clear Adama has always accepted Starbuck as-is. When he’s offered her opportunities outside of her experience or even comfort zone as a fighter pilot (such as the flight instructor assignment or the planner for the attack on the tylium mine asteroid), he done so with the knowledge that Starbuck is actually perfectly suited to those jobs once she’s learned to adapt her skills to them. What is truly significant in these radically different mentorship roles is the outcome on the personalities being guided. When Cain forges Shaw into a razor, we can’t help but think of that James Earl Jones line from “Conan the Barbarian” that weapons alone are ineffective – they must be wielded by someone and thus on her own, without someone like Cain to command her, Shaw’s use as an officer is limited and the effect on Shaw’s personality is limiting. Starbuck on the other hand, because of her independent personality and Adama’s fostering of this trait, is a person who engages in the fighting, not a thing used for fighting. Perhaps some of the mutual dislike between the two stems not only from not wanting to be around someone with similarities, but also because Shaw may be jealous of their intrinsic difference – jealous of the fact that Starbuck is more than she herself is able to be.

Lastly, we see a deep difference in the moral core of the two women (and this is something directly linked to their mentoring) – their ability to carry out orders to kill civilians. In “Razor”, Cain gives the order to kill the families of civilians aboard the Scylla and the other refugee ships who refuse to be conscripted. Naturally, the civilians refuse and protest. Shaw fires the first shots. She kills the first innocent civilians. She does not protest or even question the morality (or legality) of the order, rather, she allows herself to become Cain’s weapon to be used against their own people. In the season 1 episode “33”, Starbuck and Apollo are ordered to destroy a civilian transport that is likely being used as a weapon by the Cylons and may or may not have civilians still aboard. Starbuck balks at the prospect of destroying a ship that could be full of innocent civilians. She argues against it and appeals to morality. In the end, Starbuck does break down and obey, firing on the vessel, but, importantly, only after Apollo has initiated the attack and has put shots into the ship. The fact that Starbuck not only hesitated, but questioned the morality of the order and refused to fire first marks a fundamental difference between the moral fiber of her personality and that of Shaw, who was willing to act on orders, regardless of how immoral or unlawful.

An image we are presented with frequently in “Razor” is that of Shaw staring at the blade given to her by Cain. Certainly she is reflecting on herself during these moments, but one wonders if she sees a reflection in the razor, and if so, what does she see?

The last mirror image of note in “Razor” is one so distorted as to be funhouse mirror in proportions. In the latter half of the movie, we’re presented with a lone ship, its commander and crew, on the run from the Cylons. Sound like a familiar refrain? The renegade basestar with its prototype Hybrid and crew of intelligent and self-aware Guardian centurions is presented to us as a twisted reflection of Galactica and Pegasus. In fact, the similarities are in many ways more interesting than the obvious differences.

The Guardian ship is fleeing because its Hybrid – the first Hybrid - is considered by the Cylons to be a failed experiment (despite the fact that this Hybrid seems to be far more lucid than his younger sisters aboard the other basestars) and its crew of intelligent centurion models are an obsolete design (new centurions built to be bigger and tougher with onboard machine guns, but without any self-awareness that could risk a revolt against the humanoid models who use them like slaves). This rogue group of antique Cylons is therefore obviously in the same boat as the humans who are hunted by the modern machines that have labeled them as dangerous, inferior and unworthy of existence.

From this admittedly limited glimpse at the Guardians’ existence, it would seem that these Cylons might be following a survival strategy similar to that of Galactica - run from the Cylons and avoid direct battle whenever possible in order to preserve lives and limited resources, engage the enemy only defensively, and if offensive measures are called for it is usually to acquire vital resources. We can see that this is likely based on the Guardians’ position when discovered by the humans and by their behavior with the Raptor capture and the eventual battle with Pegasus. The fact that the basestar is on its own deep in unknown territory indicates the Hybrid and Guardians understand they have a better chance of survival by running from the other Cylons than they would lurking around their home territory or the Colonial worlds. This clearly puts them in the same boat as Galactica. In capturing the Raptor with its crew and the scientists who’d chartered it, the Guardians’ only interest seems to have been in harvesting them for biological resources to sustain the Hybrid. Had they wanted to mine the Raptor’s computers or torture the prisoners, they could (if they had the mentality of the modern Cylons) have gained enough information about the position of the fleet that they could have mounted some sort of offensive. Rather, they seem to have behaved like the Colonials at Kobol or the ice planet or the tylium asteroid (after they took it and pillaged the easily available ore, it is unlikely the fleet actually stayed around and prospected the asteroid as much as they could have if the threat of being found by the rest of the Cylon fleet was not so great) or the algae planet – intent on grabbing resources and running rather than trying to get into an extended conflict. In fact, the Guardian attack on the Pegasus seems to be more of a case of the battlestar blundering into the Guardians’ territory and the robots reacting defensively. This would seem to be born-up by the fact that the Guardians don’t appear to try to pursue Pegasus or use the Raptor’s data to locate the fleet for another attack. In fact, the next (and last battle) in the movie, comes at the end when again, the Colonials come knocking on the Guardians’ door and the machines try to fend-off the attack.

In terms of leadership, the basestar and its Guardians are more akin to the Pegasus and her crew. Adama leads Galactica through trust and mutual respect. Cain rules the Pegasus with force, demanding total, unquestioning obedience by virtue of her rank. The Hybrid is worshiped as a god by its Guardian crew. In this way, the Hybrid is the ideal that Cain aspires to. Cain still has to insist on loyalty and obedience where the Hybrid does not – he just has it. Cain presides over free-thinking human beings and tries to forge them into unfeeling weapons – into machines. The Hybrid’s crew are fighting machines, but they maintain wills of their own and yet in so doing they are still willing to do every bidding of the Hybrid (which is not even totally robotic like them). One can imagine that if Cain was still alive at the time of this encounter and had bothered to give the matter any thought, she probably would have been deeply jealous of the Hybrid. It is likely though that she would not see the sad irony that while she tried to dehumanize her crew, her enemies, the Cylons, were working to make themselves – more importantly, their leaders, more human.

The Guardian basestar is also like Pegasus in that it is a ship tragically alone and ultimately doomed. Is this because they both represent outmoded ways of thinking – that they cannot survive because they represent the drive to force things to become that which they are not, or to destroy all that is different? Galactica, on the other hand, represents a collection of many different people working together for a common goal, not merely in spite of their differences, but in respect and even celebration of them.

At the end of “Razor” the Hybrid repeats the litany we have heard previously from some Cylons: “All of this has happened before. And all of it will happen again. And again. And again. And again…” It is here where the mirror metaphor running throughout the movie is truly brought into words – the repetition of events echoes the reflection of images. But as with endless reflections in mirrors facing each other, the farther out the reflections go, the more blurry they become. The image of Galactica and those aboard her becomes distorted when reflected back as Pegasus, and even more so as the Guardian basestar. It is also a story where the mirrors get shattered. Shaw dies. We know already that ultimately Pegasus is destroyed. And the finale sees the renegade basestar nuked. In superstition it is bad luck to break a mirror. But here, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Here, Galactica is freed - from reflections that weren’t quite true, that were fractured. It is freed from the threat the Hybrid and its minions could have posed and it is free from the dark legacy of Admiral Helena Cain and the divisiveness it created. Because the mirrors are shattered, there are no more false reflections (both external counterparts and internal self-examinations) that could cut into the perception of the self and bleed away survival.

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