Sunday, July 25, 2010

Blogging Battlestar - A Bird on the Wing

This installment of the ongoing review of Battlestar Galactica involves an episode about dreams coming true: "Flight of the Phoenix".

"Flight of the Phoenix" is an interesting choice of title. The most obvious interpretation, and probably most likely, is an allusion to the mythical firebird rising from the ashes of its own destruction and taking flight into new glory. Certainly the way the episode plays out, it would appear the fortunes of the fleet and our main characters might fit with this - for the time being at least. In the most literal sense, the phoenix is made manifest in the construction of the blackbird stealth fighter. The episode begins with the Chief inspects a crippled viper in the hanger and comes to the frustrating conclusion that it's a write-off. He's later inspired to build a new type of fighter, and slowly the blackbird comes together, built from the salvaged bits and pieces of wrecked vipers, cast-off materials, and unwanted engines and chunks of other ships. Piloted by Starbuck (who, later in the series, becomes a phoenix of sorts herself), the blackbird is initially a wild thing, difficult to control. Even when Starbuck grows comfortable at the reigns, the fighter is like a creature of myth - slipping in and out of notice in the blink of an eye and only reappearing to Apollo and Galactica when its pilot wants it to.

The Chief has his own phoenix-like transformation in this episode. Since the beginning of the series, Tyrell has lost his civilization (or, what he currently believes to be his civilization), his lover, his dignity (especially during the bombing tribunal), members of his deck crew, and successively with each battle, the ships he's been tasked with maintaining. The blackbird give him purpose. It is a chance to stretch his imagination, to be innovative, and to build something new and useful, rather than simply trying to maintain things which are decaying. It's a source of pride for the Chief and his crew of knuckledraggers in building something that hadn't been done by the fleet's aero-space engineers back when the Colonial civilization existed. This is one of several transformations the Chief will experience over the course of the series, but for now, it's one that allows him to fly high for a while.

Meanwhile, this episode offers another chance for Sharon to rise from the ashes of Boomer's betrayal. As a Cylon virus chews its way through the guts of Galactica's computers while hundreds of raiders bear-down on the fleet, Sharon offers the best chance for the Colonials to turn their fortune around. Sure, Adama's right when he tells the President that Sharon helped to wipe the virus and bounce it back to infect and incapacitate the oncoming Cylons (in a scene reminiscent of Winona Rider's android interfacing heroin junkie-style with Father, the ship's computer in the craptastic Alien Resurrection) because she wanted to ensure the survival of herself and her child. But there's obviously something more to it than that. Sharon actually cares about reintegrating with the people of Galactica. As poorly as they've treated her, she's rising above the mistrust, threats and imprisonment and taking a stand on their behalf. This doesn't earn her a ticket to freedom, but it's a start.

And that's because there's another rebirth going on here, the rebirth of trust, or at least the hope of trust, between Adama and Sharon. The first moment is when Adama has Sharon brought to his cabin to talk about more than just how the virus works or Cylon weaknesses; his first question is "Why do the Cylons hate us so much?" He's trying to understand them. It's not an order either, it's a question. That question, that attempt to gain understanding, is what will eventually pave the way for Adama's (grudging) acceptance of the Cylons as people in the fourth season, and people that he can have peace with, live side-by-side with, and ultimately trust. It's a trust that begins with this conversation with Sharon, where he might still have the urge to strangle her for Boomer's betrayal, but it's an urge he's now able to surpress and look beyond. This is built-upon at the end of the episode when he understands that Sharon has turned the virus on the in-bound raiders, leaving them completely vulnerable to Galactica's vipers. There's a look that they exchange when he realizes this. It's a look of respect, a little gratitude, and a trace of trust. He sends her back to her cell, but that look is Sharon's first glimpse of freedom.

But the other possible interpretation of the episode's title might be that "Flight" refers to something fleeing, and that the hope for the possibility of a rebirth might have left. Looking at the overall series, we know that the construction of this new toy and this giving the Cylon bully a black eye by knocking down a couple of hundred raiders isn't the fleet's rise to a new glory. On the contrary, it marks the beginning of a very dark period where they're soon faced with the threat of Admiral Cain, where they're led astray by the false hope of New Caprica, and where the crew of Galactica will become embroiled in the Zarek-Gaeta mutiny. To be sure, there are victories along the way, but this society is a long, long way from rising from its ashes.
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