February 6, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: "Blood on the Scales"

"This was a hell of a ship, once."

Ladies and Gentlemen, I was wrong.

Not about the show's overall lack of forward momentum mind you, but about something a bit more significant, at least to the show's overall mythology. But more on that later. First let's discuss my overall sense of "Blood on the Scales", the final episode of the civil war/mutiny arc started in "A Disquiet Follows My Soul" and continued in "The Oath." As last week's episode showed quite clearly, Ron Moore and company certainly know how to stage a rousing action sequence. This week's episode is no different, and, if possible, the action continues at an even more furious pace.

With the mutineers in control of both the military and civilian governments as the episode begins, much of the early conflict relies on the difference in philosophy between head mutineers Felix Gaeta and Tom Zarek. While Zarek sees the coup for what it is, a power grab, Gaeta sees the mutiny as a means to pursue the much more elusive concept of "justice". This difference is most apparent in the way the two men deal with their enemies. Whereas Gaeta seeks to justify his actions by trying Adama for "war crimes", Zarek delivers his message to the Quorum through the more definitive method of summary execution. Though Gaeta's "trial" is nothing but a sham, it does give the show's producers the opportunity to bring back fan-favorite (and lover of phantom cats) Romo Lampkin as Adama's defense counsel. Unfortunately the appearance is largely wasted save for one scene where the character (as is becoming habit in the Galactica universe) gets to prove the old adage that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword (or assault rifle as the case may be).

The larger conflict takes up much of the episode's second half, with virtually every major character taking at least some small part in taking back the ship. From Lee and Starbuck's military invasion, to Chief Tyrol's "Die Hard"-esque run to the Galactica's FTL drive, the show does a good job in giving everyone a role to play. (The sole exception to this is Baltar, who I discuss in greater detail below). Even Roslin gets to convey her rage while lamenting the thought of losing her dear Adama. Though this is the sole note that she's been allowed to play over the last two episodes, it's a note she plays well.

And all this plays out like the conclusion to a great action movie. Unfortunately, in some ways it's an action movie that we've all seen before. The execution fake out, the freeing of captives, the deadly writing utensil, heck, even the lead "bad guy" having a crisis of conscience right before the end. But the episode does deliver. As an action piece separate from anything else in the series, I would have to say that the "Oath"/"Blood" combination ranks right up there with the best the show has to offer. That being said, I am most definitely of two minds on this one.

On the one hand, everything I said above is true. The episode is a standout both in action and in tension, and the beats played by both Zarek and Gaeta seem true to the characters we have come to know over the years. On the other hand, however, my concern that the show was using this "civil war" arc to effectively stall for time seems to have been vindicated. As I stated last week, the show could have avoided this sense of stalling by making sure that there was a real impact to be felt from the mutiny. While one could argue that this episode features just such an impact with the loss of Gaeta, Zarek, and the Quorum, I feel quite differently.

In the middle of this episode, there is a scene where Roslin manages to communicate with the fleet and tells them not to spin up their FTL drives but instead to stay with the Cylon baseship. We are told that 10 of the 35 remaining ships in the fleet follow Roslin's instructions and are prepared to stay behind. Gaeta's response to this is essentially to say "good riddance" and leave the problem ships for dead. Aha, I thought. This is the impact I have been seeking. This mutiny is going to split the fleet, and the world of Galactica will never be the same. Humanity will be down to it's last, precious few, and the stakes will be higher than ever. Alas, Chief Tyrol made sure that that was not to be.

So what effect did all this have? None really. Roslin and Adama maintain their positions of power. The fleet remains the same. Sure, we're down one political body, but I suspect that it will be easily replaced. At the end of the day, the mutiny arc served exactly the purpose I had feared. It certainly feels like the fleet is in exactly the same position it was in at the end of the stellar "Sometimes a Great Notion." Next week, play this little game as you watch. Outside of a few instances which I would expect will address the events of these past few episodes, see if you can't imagine the episode taking place immediately after the Ellen reveal at the end of "Sometimes." My bet is that it won't be that hard.

So at the end of the day, Galactica delivered a tremendously fun and exciting mutiny plot line that didn't advance the plot of the show much if at all. Was it worth it? I strongly suspect that Ron Moore and company wanted to pay off the civilian/military plot lines that had been simmering for the entire run of the show, and they felt that now was the only time they had to do it. Truth be told, they might just be right. I just wish that they could have made the arc seem less like treading water. In my humble and completely un-expert opinion an opportunity was missed by not having the events of these past few episodes bear a greater impact on the fleet or any of the main characters.

Now, didn't I say something about being wrong...

Quick Thoughts:

A Dying Leader - "And the lords anointed a leader to guide the Caravan of the Heavens to their new homeland...the new leader suffered a wasting disease and would not live to enter the new land." Back in my review of "Disquiet", I made reference to the fact that I have never believed that Laura Roslin was the "dying leader" foretold in prophecy to lead her people to the promised land. She was just too easy an answer. For the last little while I had believed that leader to be Baltar, a religious man who would be persecuted and killed just before leading his people home. With the new emphasis on Baltar being a fraud
(more on that below), he would seem to be out of the running. So who is the leader? Or should I say, what is?

First, a step back. Over the course of the summer and winter, many Galactica fans were having fun with the question of just who was the final Cylon. Names like Gaeta, Cottle, Zarek, and, yes, even Ellen were bandied about in an effort to identify a secondary character who could serve the role. One of the more interesting hypotheses during this time, at least to me, was the notion that perhaps Galactica herself was the final Cylon. No one could really make the theory fit, of course. The Galactica, after all, is just a big aircraft carrier in space, but the symbolism of having the title "character" of the show serve such an important function stuck with me. As it turns out, the symbolism was right, it was just applied in the wrong place.

The Galactica herself has always been "a leader" guiding the caravan of the heavens (the fleet) towards it new homeland, but it wasn't until this episode that we had any inkling that it might also be suffering from a "wasting disease." After Chief Tyrol succeeds in disabling the ship's FTL drives in this episode, he notices something. In one of the episode's stranger moments, the camera pans up the side of a wall torn to pieces. The shot lingers for more than a few meaningful seconds before cutting away with no further explanation given. What are we to take from this? I don't know for certain, but I think it's a good bet that whatever caused those cracks in the engine room evidence a "wasting disease" that will ultimately bring her down. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have our dying leader. Expect to see her lost before the end.

A View from Afar - It's interesting to think about the perspective that the average ship of the fleet must have had on the events of these past three episodes. As I pointed out last week, I didn't think that Roslin's appeal was all that persuasive to a miner floating between the Galactica and a Cylon baseship. In this episode, that same miner gets hit with multiple wireless calls from Galactica and the baseship with the leadership of the fleet coming apart at the seams. What's happening, and why? It can't be clear on the average ship. I would have liked to see the show deal with this angle a bit more, but admittedly the more important action was taking place on Galactica.

Loyalists - The scene where Adama is freed from his executioners is an interesting one, as is the scene where he takes command back from Gaeta and Zarek. Both scenes feature "mutineers" who knowingly went along with the coup because they felt that Adama was leading the fleet into danger. What should Adama do with these people? He can't rightly depend on them to follow his orders, particularly when he instructs them to escort the Cylons around the fleet. But he can't summarily execute all of them either. It's a quandary, and one that I suspect is a very real one in our world where these kinds of transitions of power occur. I would love to see how this is handled by Adama and the senior crew, but I expect that this will fall somewhere in the cracks between this episode and the next.

An Army of His Own - Now, far be if for me to criticize a really cool set piece scene like the one where Adama and his army of loyal followers take back command of the Galactica, but where in the world did these people come from? All through "The Oath" the show's producers made special effort to show that Adama was essentially on his own. In fact, his solo escorting of Roslin and Baltar with only Tigh, Starbuck, and Lee makes no sense if he has this much support on the ship. Even if I accept that this support existed, which I am willing to grant for a little bit of TV magic, how did these people find out exactly when Adama was "taking back the night." We didn't see any scenes in which any of the main cast were tasked with drumming up support across the ship, so how did these people know? Ah well, I'm just nitpicking. It was a cool scene.

Baltar, Baltar, Baltar - Well, this was not the direction that I had hoped the powers that be would take my beloved Baltar. He was faking his religious devotion the whole time? Really? Like when he offered to give his life to God if that random cultist's boy might live? Like then? Oh well, perhaps Baltar's desire to stop running in this episode evidences some real growth for the character. Growth that actually does result in him believing his religious teachings. I just don't know what to do with him anymore (and I don't think that the show runners do either).

Frantic Roslin - I know that many out there will praise Mary McDonnell's performance in this one, so I may have to be the lone voice of dissent. Outside of the very end of the episode, I found her shrill, almost frantic portrayal of Laura Roslin to be verging on the edge of hysterical. This was not at all the strong female president that she had embodied over the past four years. Instead, it was a frantic woman on the verge of losing her man. The problem is that I just don't think that's the way the part was written. When Roslin tells the Cylons to move their ship into the fleet, and later when she talks about Adama, these are scenes in which she should be conveying all of the vast reservoir of strength that we know that her character possesses. Instead, her line reading of "Do It!" when trying to convince the Cylons to move their baseship exhibits nothing but hysteria.

Whither Anders? - Now, this might have gotten left on the cutting room floor, but didn't anyone else find it odd that with as much time as was spent on the fact that Anders got shot, we didn't see him ultimately rescued or killed? It just seemed to be an odd editing artifact in an otherwise really well produced episode. I suppose we can assume that he was rescued when Romo went back to help Starbuck, but that seems like an odd assumption to make. Since the rest of the plot lines of the episode were pretty neatly resolved with the execution of Gaeta and Zarek, it seems unlikely that we'll ever see Anders' trip from that hallway to Doc Cottle's. Oh well.

It's my Deus in a Box - What was the box Leoben used to break the wireless blocking? Were we supposed to recognize it? The show certainly seemed to be highlighting it in a way to indicate recognition, but if I've seen it before I certainly don't remember it.

Risk of death - This is almost certainly a function of the fact that we know that the show only has a certain number of episodes remaining, but wasn't the sense of tension in this one palpable? I mean, I spent the middle section of this episode trying to determine whether the show could finish its run without Admiral Adama. The strange part is that I came to the conclusion that it could. With only six episodes remaining, I could totally envision an Adama funeral, the rise to power of Lee (or perhaps more symbolically, Tigh), and the impact that such a death would have on the fleet. In my opinion, this just further establishes the benefits of having a set time frame for a show.

For a long time I have been espousing the adoption of the kind of short-form series that is so popular in Europe and Japan. These shows tell a complete story over one or two seasons, and if they continue it is usually with "sequel" seasons taken place with entirely new characters in the same universe. This has many advantages including allowing the producers of the show to tell a complete story, and the one we see here, allowing the producers to make the audience feel that even main characters are in mortal peril. With they manner in which Galactica was "canceled", and the deal ABC struck with Lost, I think we are beginning to realize some of those advantages here in America. It's been a long time coming, I say.

1 comment:

  1. I am trying a new strategy this week...read blog first, watch show second. I cannot WAIT to see this "dying leader" bit!! I wonder if I will even notice it happening. What awesome connections you made. You never cease to amaze me!