Thursday, August 12, 2010

Blogging Battlestar - Selling Revelations and Wounds

It's been a while since the last installment in my Battlestar Galactica rewatch - not quite as long as a BSG mid-season break, but it's certainly time to get back on the trail to Earth. Tonight, we'll be discussing "Epiphanies", "Black Market", and "Scar".

In "Epiphanies", Roslin's long battle with cancer appears to be over. She lies dying in Galactica's medical bay with Adama, Billy already grieving her imminent loss and not enjoying the prospect of having to usher Vice-President Baltar into power. But Roslin isn't handing over the presidency yet. When she's lucid, she's focussing her attention on Sharon and her baby; when she's drifting in and out of dreams and delirium, she mentally replays a walk in Caprica City's marketplace where she now realizes she saw Baltar with Six.

As much as the new memory of Baltar and Six bodes ill for the scientist down the road, it's actually very trivial compared to Roslin's waking determination to kill Sharon's unborn baby. There's something just plain mean and vindictive about Roslin on her deathbed looking at the prospect of something new and strange coming to life and deciding that she has to drag it into the darkness with her. Implaccable in her hatred of the Cylons, she claims she's worried about the threat the hybrid child will pose to the future of humanity. They have no idea what it will act like or where its loyalties will lie, and on top of that, the ship's doctor says there's something weird about the baby's blood. On the surface, for just an instant, removing the potential threat of the hybrid by aborting it sounds reasonable, if harsh. But that's a red herring. At this stage of the game, we can see through Roslin's pretense and see it for the spite that it is. Fact is, there's nothing new about the presence or potential threat of this baby - Roslin and the others have known about it for weeks (or is it months) since Starbuck and Helo returned to the fleet with Sharon (and her baby). When the President first sees Sharon, she orders the Cylon blown out an airlock, baby or no. The only thing that stops her is Sharon's offer of information. If Roslin would have ordered Sharon's execution (and thus the baby's death) then, or immediately after the fleet left Kobol to continue searching for Earth, the decision would have been harsh, but she could have fairly justified the move as protecting humanity. But she didn't kill the child then. Nope. Roslin not only let Sharon survive, but allowed her to keep her baby over the ensuing weeks or months. Obviously during all that time, she didn't see the baby as enough of a threat to the survival of humanity to order its abortion. And so changing her mind on her deathbed is entirely arbitrary. It is jealous. It is vindictive. And it is massively short-sighted.

As a teacher, Roslin should know only to well the malleability of young minds. Roslin, more than anyone, should be exptected to understand that there is an opportunity to ensure that the child is raised to align itself with its human side. If later in life it turned on humanity, then it could be dealt with like any other traitor or criminal. It's strange that she doesn't recognize that in this respect, the hybrid poses no greater threat than any human child who could grow up to conciously choose to collaborate with the Cylons, or become an extremist committing acts of terrorism against the government for not doing enough to root-out the Cylons. She won't allow that like any human child, the hybrid could choose to become a productive and happy member of human society. And for someone to rule as President to not recognize that positive potential in a child is simply tragic. For a human being to make their last act in life the arbitrary order of a child's death, this is a sad waste of a last choice and final action.

What's also unpleasant to witness is that Adama goes along with it. Is it grief over Roslin's impending death and a desire to comfort her by giving her anything she wants that makes him go along with the order? Is it his own hatred of the Cylons, or his continued distrust of the Eight model? In any case, going along with the decision to end Sharon's pregnancy is something that's troubling to see in Adama for a couple of reasons. First, it ignores the loyalty Sharon has demonstrated, leading them to the Tomb of Athena on Kobol, giving information about the Cylons, helping to purge the Cylon virus from Galactica's computers and turn it back on an overwhelming fleet of raiders, etc. It's curious that Adama can't see that by killing Sharon's baby, he'll not only be setting a precident that loyalty is worthless, he'll be losing Sharon as a tactical asset. He's also ignoring the hybrid baby's potential to be an asset as well. Granted, no-one knows anything about how the baby will turn out, except that it has unusual blood, but certainly there's an opportunity to cultivate the hybrid child as a military asset if it proves to have any abilities beyond that of normal humans, if only it is raised right. And if it turns out to be hostile, Adama's people have proven quite capable of subduing and imprisoning Cylons, so a renegade hybrid would be no exception.

But worse still for Adama, his decision to go along with Roslin's order, his statement that Helo will have to sit back and allow his unborn child to be killed, is grotesquely hypocritical given the fact that the Admiral is a father. Adama is asking Helo to accept something that he sure as hell wouldn't accept himself. He proved that quite pointedly back in season 1 in "Act of Contrition" and "You Can't Go Home Again" when he prolonged the search for Starbuck well beyond the point of reason because he cares for her like a daughter. In fact, at the end of YCGHA, Adama even says that if Apollo had been the one missing, he would never have given up the search. In short, Adama, as a father, will do anything to protect his children. And yet, somehow, he's trying to tell Helo to do otherwise. Does Adama actually believe that this is even reasonable? If not, why the pretense? Why not just give Helo a pitying look and slap him in irons right away instead of going through the show? And yet he does. And he should know better.

Luckily for Sharon, Helo and their unborn baby, the ever-maligned and increasingly twitchy (as the prospect of having to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership of the fleet with a disrespectful admiral in tow grows nearer) Baltar discovers that there's something about the baby's blood that aggressively kills cancer cells and turns this into a treatment that saves Roslin's life (for the time being, anyway).

Roslin then puts off the execution order for the baby. How convenient. It gets a second chance because it gave her a second chance. You really have to wonder if the baby's blood was a cure for some other disease but not cancer, if it could cure someone else in the fleet who was dying rather than Roslin, if the President would have given the reppeal. Somehow I doubt it. When it comes to what's good for other people, for realizing potential benefits to others, Roslin doesn't have the best track record. It would certainly be good for Helo, who everyone recognizes as a good man, to keep his baby and raise it to be a good person. It would be good to let Sharon keep her baby, thus keeping her as a valuable tactical asset to increase the fleet's chances of survival. But that doesn't matter one whit to Roslin. Keeping the Cylon raider as a military asset for the fleet would have been a good thing, but instead Roslin incites Starbuck to mutiny and theft (putting Starbuck's life and career at incredible risk) to have her chase back to Caprica on the basis of a drug-induced vision. Yeah, Roslin sure cares a lot about what's good for other people. It's pretty clear that as petty as her deathbed death order for the hybrid was, her decision to allow it to live is just as much a matter of self-interest rather than a consideration of others or the greater good of humanity, or simply of what's right.

But amidst all of this, it's important to remember that these deep character flaws are what makes BSG so well-written. These are, in general, likeable people, and yet, like everyone, they are in some ways, to varying degrees, dislikable (to the extent that this was the point in the series when my wife decided - on her own, no help from me - that she really dislike Roslin and found watching her scenes unpleasant), and as such are complex and believable human beings. This ain't your shiny, plastic, one-dimensional, hand-holding Colonial fleet of 1979, kids!

What's also really noteable about this episode is the scene near the end where Baltar opens the letter that Roslin left for him in the event he had to take over as President. Is it hateful or especially vicious? No. Is it condescending? Yes. But it is well-intentioned. I'll give Roslin this: she's trying to give Baltar helpful advice that will hopefully give him the opportunity of being a better leader than he would be left to his own devices. She's just ham-fisted about it. The problem is, Roslin's self-righteousness has just made an enemy of Baltar. It's worth noting that early in season 1, Baltar emphatically told imaginary-Six that he was on no-one's side. Now he's taken sides. Maybe not anything formal or with allies, but he's certainly now firmly against Roslin, and this will become full-blown in the next couple of episodes when Roslin openly tells him she wants him to step down, with Baltar responding that he'd never cared for the VP's job before, but he does now. If Roslin had handled things with more diplomacy, with more finesse, with better timing, she might have been able to ease Baltar out of the picture, rather than creating the monster that would eventually defeat her in the election and tie the Colonials, to their regret, to New Caprica and Cylon rule.

"Black Market" is a change in tone for BSG story-telling that gives the series some nice variety. Rather than a science fiction action series, or political drama, or survival story, it now turns to film noire mystery: Who killed Commander Fisk? It spreads into a larger investigation into the black market and criminal element within the fleet. In the course of his investigation, Apollo discovers something more horrible, it isn't just murder, theft, smuggling and an underground economy afoot, the gangs (headed by a mob boss played, in a truly great, mellow performance, by Bill Duke) are selling children into sex slavery. Apollo immediately puts a stop to the human trafficing, but allows the black market to continue (with some restrictions), recognizing that the fleet needs its services.

But like any good film noir, this episode is also an investigation into the mysteries of the protagonist. In this case, we're able to peer a short way through the grey fog of malaise that Apollo's been living through lately. We see that in addition to being subject to compounding stress as a fighter pilot, being disillusioned about some of the decisions that have been made by his superiors and the glimpses he's had into parts of these people (including his father) he'd rather not have seen, and pining because he can't have Starbuck, he's also carrying around a heft amount of guilt for childishly running away in the past from a relationship with a beautiful, nice woman who was carrying his child. It's clear this relationship has come back to haunt him when, seeking solace for not having a relationship with Starbuck, Apollo started seeing a prostitute who has a child. Worse, it seems likely that Apollo's "relationship" with the prostitute, his transferring of his past relationship onto his current business transaction, is adding to his guilt - on some level, though he denies it at the end, he probably does realize that all he's doing by seeing the prostitute is substituting for something he gave up. No wonder he seems to be sleep-walking through the season, and especially this episode. And as we'll come to find out, it will be a long, long time before Apollo is fully happy.

Lastly, "Scar" is a story of duels between aces.

Galactica's pilots, specifically Starbuck and Kat, pit themselves against Scar, the Cylon's raider version of the Red Baron.

Starbuck and Kat in turn fence with each other, as Kat disrespects and undermines Kara's leadership and declares that she's the best pilot and will be the one to take down Scar. The thing that bugged me about this angle of the episode is that normally, I don't like Kat as a character (she's realistically written, it's just that I don't like her attitude and probably wouldn't like her if I were to meet someone like her for real), moreover, I don't like how she goes about trying to take down Starbuck, 'cause it's bad for the squadron, but at the end of the day, she's right: Starbuck has gotten sloppy and perhaps shouldn't be in charge.

And it's also a duel of Starbuck against her self. Mounting stress, guilt over leaving the survivors on Caprica behind, disillusionment with the fleet's leadership, being emotionally torn between Anders and Apollo, and a host of other crises are wearing Kara down and driving her continually towards self-destructive behaviour. Indeed, at the end of the episode, there's a moment where Kara is quite prepared to allow herself to be killed. She abruptly pulls away from that, but by no means is the last time she's in this emotional pit of despair. There won't be a resolution to Starbuck's duel against herself for a long time.

Finally, one very brief part of the episode that was also interesting in its own way was when Sharon was telling Starbuck about Scar. What a chilling glimpse into the Cylon mindset to learn that death and resurrection to them are learning opportunities. The ultimate in pain-avoidance training, knowledge and experience preservation, and skills improvement. We learn that this is a significant factor in the hate that's been burned into Scar, but it also raises questions about how the experience affects other Cylons, especially the human models.

Stay tuned for more of the BSG rewatch in the days ahead.

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