It’s shocking, at the tail end of this episode, when a brief conversation between Tigh and Starbuck drops reference to the fact that the events of the miniseries have only taken up a day in the timeline of the show. Starbuck and Tigh got into an altercation merely “yesterday”; it’s been a lifetime since then.
As the miniseries draws to a close—and it did so without promising a season of television to follow, let alone four—it’s the upside-downness of the world as our characters know it that pervades every scene. So far in the show, the characters are able to go through the motions of their day-to-day duties, falling back on the time-honored combination of military training and adrenaline. But it’s beginning to sink in: The rules of the game have entirely changed. Humans have turned from oppressors into survivors; they are now openly and actively fleeing.
Battlestar Galactica upends the war narrative in two crucial ways: One, it makes the good guys the losers, as I discussed a bit last week. The remaining members of the human race are running away from their solar system as fast as they can, and there’s little dignity or romance in that—it’s just the animal instinct of survival. Two, it makes the bad guys look identical to the good guys—so much so that a doctor cannot tell the difference, and only Gaius Baltar’s (possibly made-up) blood test for synthetic compounds can tell the difference.
Both of these things together bring to bear one of the biggest questions of the series, and one that the second half of the miniseries addresses unflinchingly: What does it mean to be human, anyway? Stripped of our biological uniqueness and our primacy over living things, what’s left?
“Show us a little humanity,” pleads the captain of the botanical cruiser over the radio, as Colonial One prepares to abandon them to a Cylon attack. “It’s not selfish, it’s human,” Billy assures Laura Roslin, as she confides that she hasn’t been able to stop thinking about her cancer diagnosis. “What kind of people are you?!” screams Aaron Doral, suspected Cylon, as Colonel Tigh and the crew of the Galactica purposefully maroon him in Ragnar Station. And the collected Six, Five, and Eight Cylons concur that they have to pursue and eradicate the humans, because otherwise: “They’ll seek revenge. It’s in their nature.”
Insofar as Battlestar Galactica is really a story about us, the audience—as every artifact of pop-culture is—one of its primary tensions is in attempting to understand the basic stuff of human existence. Knowning humanity’s great flaws and its great virtues, what is it that makes us us—and is it worth saving? It’s the same question Commander Adama asked in the first half of the miniseries, and it’s one that the audience is forced to ask again and again.
And no one else in the series forces the audience to question whether or not humans are worth saving than Gaius Baltar. Last week, I mentioned I don’t like him—but to be exact, he makes my skin crawl because I recognize him. I don’t like him viscerally because he’s a little too real; critically, though, he is fascinating. He’s the cockroach side of humanity, personified—pure survival, stripped of morality and altruism.
The reasons why I am put off by Baltar—his grasping self-absorption, his disinterest in achieving anything higher than survival—is exactly why Six is drawn to him. He is a specimen of sorts to her—an example of humanity that wholly and effortlessly doesn’t care about any of the things that are so important to her: God, love, the right thing to do. “We should really make a pattern of your brain pattern,” she says, caressing him, captivated. Where the other humans in the fleet would see someone lower than themselves in Baltar, Six sees something pure: “clarity of spirit,” “not burdened by guilt, or conscience, or regret.” And when she tells Baltar that she loves him because he’s a survivor, it has the sting of a backhanded compliment.
Battlestar Galactica puts Six’s fascination with Baltar’s selfishness in the same episode where other characters are repeatedly pushed to consider their own selfishness: President Roslin has to make the decision to jump through hyperspace instead of saving a convoy she created and offered her protection to; Starbuck shoots out of the sky to save Apollo from certain death with a maneuver that is probably not, strictly speaking, physically possible. The Galactica leaves an a suspected Cylon alone to die. And in the midst of an awful lot of destruction, a few people find each other, and make out, and create wild, romantic hopes for the future.
Indeed: The scene where Billy comes to ask Dee out while Commander Adama, Colonel Tigh, Lee, and Gaeda are all discussing strategy is crucial to and emblematic of the entire series. It’s beautifully shot, for starters—alternating between the two plot threads with enough detail to offer up the connection without outright stating it up until the very end. It also provides a glimpse of Battlestar Galactica’s focus, which is always equally invested in the drama of interpersonal relationships as it is in the drama of the survival of the human race. And in this scene, it also shatters the dichotomy—because the two issues are one and the same. Billy’s crush on Dee is just as significant as the Galactica’s plan for moving forward; it’s survival of two different stripes. It’s humanity of two different stripes. Adama, in that moment, is recognizing that humans are made up of people, and humans all want the same dumb things (food, water, shelter, someone to bang and hopefully also snuggle with). The personal is the political; now go start making babies.
In fact, this scene is the heir to two earlier scenes. They’re back to back, earlier in the episode: the drawn-out tragedy of the civilian ships without FTL drives, complete with requisite shots of girl playing with rag doll; and the colonial fleet reuniting with the Galactica, sending several pairs of lovers into each others’ arms. Neither is a great scene—it’s kind of a Sophie’s Choice of your particular flavor of cheesy melodrama. The first is portentous and has serious horror-movie strings; the second is subtler, sweeter, and unapologetically ‘shippy (guess which one I like). They both sort of seem like snapshots of entirely different stories—here’s mounting, portentous tension and the ultimate betrayal we all face in the numbers game of life; here’s a bunch of people kissing each other and/or looking longingly into each other’s eyes.
The point is, neither, on their own, is really the point. As I discussed a little last week, the miniseries has its flaws, as it settles into the rhythm of learning how to tell the story of this show. One potentially deliberate decision is holding these two spheres apart from each other until that moment in the end, where Adama suddenly blurts out that humans like Dee and Billy need to have babies, and Tigh asks sardonically, “Is that an order?”
In terms of major developments going forward, there are quite a few in this episode (including more than a few shots that become iconic, as they’re incorporated into the opening credits of the show). There’s Roslin getting Adama and the rest of the military to agree with her that humanity’s main goal now is survival. There’s the Galactica making its first FTL jump past the Red Line, into uncharted deep space. There’s the appearance of serendipity so fortuitous it feels like magic: Baltar lashes out at someone who asks too many questions, and considers accusing that person of being a Cylon, and then he turns out to be a Cylon anyway. Baltar and Six get the full force of the show’s spiritual and philosophical ruminations, at least at first—their relationship is a playground for a tangle of ideas, blurring into a gray area that challenges every identity category the show introduces. And as Six (or the version of Six that is in Baltar’s head) gives him clues on how the Cylons are killing the humans so well, we begin to see the real anguish of Cylons who think they’re humans—the PR publicist version of Five, Aaron, and of course, Sharon Valerii herself—the woman we call Boomer.
But what I really want to talk about is Starbuck. Because for all that Gaius Baltar represents a side of humanity that we’d all rather forget about ourselves—the self-preservation at all costs, the narcissism, the inability to love—Starbuck is the light. She’s selfless to the point of self-destruction; she speaks truth to power regardless of the cost. She hurls herself at danger, and it’s only then that she’s truly happy, truly alive. (Katee Sackhoff makes the most of those scenes in a Viper cockpit, which must have been filmed alone in a dark room—she’s so engaged and alive you can believe that she’s flying.) She’s fervent, surprisingly: We hear her pray for Lee’s soul as she prays for everyone else that was lost on the Galactica. She is rendered speechless for a moment when she sees that Lee is alive, and that is one of the few times, ever, that Kara Thrace is at a loss for words. She’s blunt and brave and daring and smart. She confesses her sins and speaks her mind. She unfolds the photo in her locker, remembering both the Adama brother she killed (in her mind) and the one that she saved (indubitably). And funnily, the same things that Six says about Baltar could be true for Starbuck, too: She has her own clarity of spirit.
There is more to humanity than just survival, but it’s always in question, in Battlestar Galactica, if that other stuff is going to make out of this war alive. The question isn’t if we’ll inherit Gaius Baltar—we know we will, even if he doesn’t, because the man could and does survive kingdom come. The question is whether we’ll keep Starbuck, too, and everything she means for us.
Commander Adama and President Roslin are often the two characters tasked with carrying perspective, when the rest of the cast is caught up in their personal drama. Both are natural leaders who understand the requirements of human nature, even if they don’t always know which way they’re steering the ship. Roslin offered up some realness earlier in this episode, when she firmly told the survivors that the war is over, and they lost. Adama offers his own realness at the end. Not in his speech, as stirring as it is; it’s all false, and we learn that it’s false at the end. But Adama knows something else about humanity—it’s about not just survival, but also hope. No wonder he loves Starbuck so much—Starbuck, who feels the joy of being human in the midst of tragedy, who has no happier moment than hurtling to near-certain death.
In the midst of death, life. And little flashes of joy.
“Morning, Starbuck. What do you hear?”
“Nothing but the rain.”
So say we all:
- Original airdate: 12/9/2003
- “The lesson here is not to ask follow-up questions.”
- Lest we forget, this series is also very funny. I knew exactly what was going to happen, but I still laughed out loud at Lee’s reaction to Starbuck barreling her Viper directly at him.
- Six theme count: 4 [It’s still pretty right now, but eventually, this sound cue grew to drive me insane (which makes it hard to pay attention to Gaius/Six scenes). As a coping mechanism, I’m taking a tally of the number of times I hear it in an episode. I love almost all the music in this show. This one just got repetitive.]
- Speaking of music: The score during the second of the cheesy scenes—when all the couples make out—is honestly gorgeous. It reminded me a little, in its rich bass notes, of the score to the videogame Braid.
- Adama speech count: 1 (but what a one!)
- In case you didn’t know this, the language the priests sing is Sanskrit, filtered through a vocal styling that makes it sound a little like Jewish prayer songs. In this episode, Elosha chants some version of this mantra (which is not the same one that is in the credits of the series). Meanwhile, over in borrowings from Jewish traditions: the scrolls, the 12 tribes, the 13th “lost” one, the name “Elosha,” which evokes the prophet Elijah.
- The 360 shot around Laura Roslin and her advisors is super annoying. That whole scene failed for me, though, so perhaps I’m nitpicking.
- “I’m sure I wouldn’t remember me, either.”
- Pet peeves with how it all turned out (spoilers ahead): Secret cylons and random angels aside, my biggest issue with the way the series ended was that it somehow threw Battlestar Galactica into the past, instead of the future. Earth is a myth for these people, implying that we’re looking thousands of years into the future. The finale asks us to believe that somehow humans came to Earth, left it, and then came back again through millennia of time and space before spawning us. It’s just, a lot.
- “Life here began out there.”
- “It’s good to be wrong.” “You must be used to it by now.” “Everyone has a skill.”
- My response to Adamadrama this week is simply: #dads.
- Office of the XO: Your requests have been heard. Next week, “33” will get its own review, and then I’ll do two episodes a review for the rest of the season. Might as well start the series off right.
- And now it’s your turn: Last week I asked for favorite characters and got a lot of great answers. This week: Who’s your Battlestar crush? (This is such a hard question, but I think I land on Chief Tyrol. Lee is handsome, but… so frustrating in every other way. Of course, realistically speaking, I would never turn down Starbuck.)