Welcome to the first TV Club write-up of Battlestar Galactica. But don't get too cozy, because this'll be the last one for a while: the show, notorious for its long breaks between seasons, won't be back until next April. To tide over all of us diehard fans, Ronald D. Moore and his crew have given us a series of quickie "minisodes" followed by this TV movie, Razor, which aired in the post-turkey doldrums and promised to tantalize us with details about the next and final season of the show.
I count myself as a diehard fan, and if you're reading this, you're probably right there with me. Our ranks are dwindling, as long breaks, dud episodes and the long stretches of Season Three have culled the casual fans from the herd. Now, I didn't buy into the show back when it started: skimming through the mini-series, I found it strange, stylized and slow. Okay, they're taking that silly sci-fi show with the robot dog, and they're adding hot blonde robots? Do they think I'm that cheap?
But as Season One went on, I slowly got hooked by this rigorously constructed and relentlessly mopey world they'd made. The 9/11 and War On Terror subtext kept me intrigued–not so much because politics equals great television, but because the show was having so much fun playing out these scenarios and experimenting with our worst fears. The characters never faced an easy call, and their mistakes were as fascinating as their victories. Or to put it another way, people watch 24 to see Jack Bauer torture the bad guys; I watch Battlestar Galactica to see the characters torture themselves. Feel free to run that through a Myers-Brigg test and let me know what you get.
So to get back to our between-season fix: did anyone else think that those "Flashback" minisodes were one of the best things ever to happen on this series? Remember the old Battlestar Galactica– a show full of adventure, and shoot-outs, and dudes in robot suits monotoning the phrase "By your command"? Believe it or not, Moore remembers it too. If you caught the minisodes when they ran on the Sci-Fi channel this fall – or if you watched them online–you got to see a young William "Hsker" Adama on his first mission, as he wins a fierce dogfight, tades shots with a Cylon at 30,000 feet, and lands on the set of a slasher flick. (When he's leaning against that mysterious tub of water? It would've been disappointing if a hand hadn't reached out and grabbed him.)
Those quickies form the prelude to Razor, the two-hour movie that takes us back to the most depressing storyline on an already bummer-laden show: the story of the Battlestar Pegasus. Anyone who was watching during Season Two will remember when the Pegasus showed up and gave us a nihilistic military culture inured to rape, torture, and survival just for the sake of it.
We've already heard bits and pieces of the Pegasus' story, but Razor retells it from the perspective of its crew. We get to see the Pegasus survive, through a lucky network outage, the Cylon attack that kicked off the series. Admiral Helena Cain (Michelle Forbes) pulls together the crew the only way she knows how: by rallying them around the mission–even though they don't have much of a mission left. And things steadily go from bad to worse, as Cain embarks on ill-conceived guerilla attacks, pillages helpless civilian vessels and even shoots her own Executive Officer dead for disobeying an order.
The Pegasus is the evil twin of the good old Battlestar Galactica, an example of just how wrong a culture can go when it has nothing left but force. To take a lose-lose question from the last Democratic presidential debate: Which is more important, human rights or national security? In the world of Pegasus, there are practically no humans left to have rights, and nothing left to fight for but security. Our friends on the Galactica can loll around arguing over the fine points of elections and trials; the crew of the Pegasus just wants to survive – 'til they die fighting.
But here's another way to look at it: Pegasus has a weak leader. On a human scale, Cain makes a compelling character because when the war starts and humanity's routed, she doesn't know what to do. A stronger leader could take the charismatic, hopeful route that Galactica's Commander Adama nailed. But Cain doesn't have the chops. She can't play mom the way Adama plays dad, and she doesn't have President Laura Roslin getting in her face and telling her that the war is over and it's time to make babies. When she gives her big speech to the crew, the one that tells them they have nothing left to live for but vengeance, we're supposed to find it uninspiring; when the crew goes along, they're surrendering to their basest instincts. And as Cain's decisions get worse and worse, she clings to them even harder. She doesn't have the skill to change course.
Razor starts off strong – and then it starts taking shortcuts. When the Cylon agent on Pegasus (a Model Six, played by Tricia Helfer) is revealed, did they really have to expose her by letting another Cylon of the same model show up and blow her cover – as opposed to letting the crew figure out on their own that she was the most obvious suspect? This Six is a civilian on-board the ship and, coincidentally, sleeping with Admiral Cain. That should make what happens to her in the brig even more troubling. Yet the movie barely sells their relationship, giving them one stilted scene together before the jig is up. This turns her into nothing but a plot device: neither embraced, suspected, nor abused on-screen, she's only here to be tossed aside.
The same goes for the star of the film, (, a rising officer on the Pegasus who learned a little too well from Cain. Her journey from square to hard-ass is a good watch but kind of weightless. Battlestar Galactica has never been kind to one-off characters– remember that guy from "Hero"? No? That's okay, it doesn't really matter. Shaw is convincing as a soldier who gave herself so fully to military necessity that she forgot how to make it off the battlefield. She's become as hard as a "razor," an interesting enough analogy. But does it mean anything for the series? Right before Shaw's blown sky-high, we realize that she's only here to listen to a warning about what's going to happen in the next season, and that's the one bit of news here that keeps the real story moving forward. And as for the memory of the Pegasus, well – Adama pretty much boils it down to one trite message: There but for the grace of the Gods go we.
(About that big revelation: we find out that Starbuck is the "herald of the apocalypse" – so when Season Four kicks off, we shouldn't trust anything she says. Except the revelation comes from some crazy old Cylon. So should we believe it? Moore and the writers have left themselves so much wiggle-room here that they might as well have said Starbuck is the ice cream man.)
While the first half of Razor fills us in on the Pegasus, the second-half focuses on the present-day Galactica–scratch that, the Season Two Galactica; did I mention there are three levels of flashbacks going on here? Anyway, that story kicks off when Adama sends the Pegasus on a search and rescue mission to find a few scientists. That mission leads to a skirmish with a bunch of old-school Cylons who are protecting an abandoned experiment: a "hybrid," the first model of Cylon that looked like a human being – or specifically, that looked like a human being soaking in a tub of goo. This is the macabre experiment that young Adama stumbled on during the minisodes, at the end of the first Cylon war, and now it seems he's found it again: the hybrid and its cadre of old centurions, floating around the galaxy, looking for enough human parts to help it finally get out of the tub.
Here's where the story fell flat. The mission to take out the hybrid is supposed to give everyone a shot at some character development. But while bad-ass Starbuck and bad-ass Shaw spend the movie slowly circling one another, we don't learn anything about them we didn't already know: Starbuck is tough to impress, and Shaw has a tough time impressing anybody anymore. We see Apollo on one of his first missions as the Commander of his own ship, learning how to exert his authority under his father's watchful eye. But those moments feel forced: his decision-making – for example, about whether to nuke his Cylon target even though Starbuck and the rest might still be aboard – feels like a plot contrivance, a cheap way to ratchet up the tension rather than a close look at his decision-making process. Compare all this to the first season's "The Hand of God," where we watch an entire mission go down mainly from the perspective of the characters back on the Battleship, pushing little models around a table and praying they made all the right calls.
It's also not clear why Adama decides to risk one of his two battleships on a search and rescue mission for a handful of scientists. Yes, he knows the scientists will be sliced, diced, and used for parts by some crazy Cylon hybrid. But still, you don't have to be Admiral Cain to know that you can't save everybody. And anyway, the Cylons have gotten away with worse: remember all those human farming experiments back on Caprica, where the Cylons tried to breed with humans? Some guy is probably still sitting there with a robot stuck on his penis, and Adama's not losing sleep over that.
As for the action: the return of the old-model Cylon centurions becomes exactly the "boo-ya" moment that Moore and team intended. But does anyone else think the centurions lost something by being computer-animated, with the same smooth, artificial movements as the new models? Would it have killed them to put some guys in suits again?
One "close call" leads to another, and the worst is the one that takes out Kendra Shaw: the squad has to leave a nuke on a Cylon ship - but the remote detonator doesn't work! What are they going to do! Shaw heroically sacrifices herself, maybe making up for all the awful stuff she did on the twisted Battleship Pegasus – and then she helpfully walks right back out of the show.
Can we go to Earth now?
- In the minisodes, could they have found a better actor Edward James Olmos' younger self than Nico Cortez? That husky voice, those bright blue eyes (Olmos' eyes are blue, right?)... Even the acne scars ring true.
- The mystic side of the show comes up when the Cylon hybrid intones, "All this has happened before–and will happen again." Moore has promised to explain some of the mumbo-jumbo and prophecies during Season Four; let's hope he makes good on that, because the Cylons started running out of mystery around the time we learned they liked naked tai chi and old Bob Dylan songs.
- The nostalgia doesn't stop with the old-model Cylons: witness Starbuck's meta-moment when she blurts, "Ain't it grand when a plan comes together" – a reference The A-Team, which co-starred the old Starbuck, Dirk Benedict. (And no, I didn't catch that on my own.)
- Trivia point: back when the new Battlestar Galactica went into development, fans of the old franchise dismissed it as "Galactica in Name Only" (or "GINO"). That's why, when the Model Six on Pegasus showed up beaten, raped, and catatonic, the writers called her Gina.