Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Legacy of the Twelve Colonies Volume II: Battlestar Galactica... Cross-Species Pollination and Burdens Laid Down

I like my television shows how I like my women: coherent, engaging, relatively free from plot holes, and benefiting from a strong narrative arc. Also, a healthy budget doesn't hurt either. Also, after diving into Battlestar Galactica, a love of cigars and fine liquors is also a plus. Also, strong doses of Katee Sackhoff are also basically a must. Being Katee Sackhoff is even better. Or maybe just a show about Katee Sackhoff taking names and kicking ass, or just kicking ass, or just doing whatever the fuck she wants to do because Starbuck is a fucking god.

After a strong start, I think it's safe to say that I did not find it too hard difficult to become completely immersed in Katee Sackhoff the world of the reborn Battlestar Galactica television series. As far as television sci-fi goes, it's hard to think of a real contender in recent years. It's as exciting as it is insightful, effectively dealing with moral, social, and political issues in a fairly nuanced way without any really definitive black or white answers, but more of a murky grey maybe flecked with, I don't know, whatever colour explosions are. Red and orange maybe. (I don't know, I've been watching a lot of Archer recently, and I totally can't help but read that last sentence in Archer's voice. I know, right?)

With Battlestar Galactica being, essentially and actually, a pot-apocalyptic narrative, one of the major tensions that Season 2 focused on was not any external threat, but the conflicts arising from the challenges of trying to maintain some sort of social order after having faced annihilation on a galactic(a) scale. If I may be so bold as to boil down the theme of such a complex narrative endeavour into a pithy little sound bite, I would have to say that the throughline for the season is the tension between maintaining order and the cost of maintaining that order. After the genocide of 99.9% of the (known) human race and being forced into an emergency situation of such dire proportions can't help but shed light on how arbitrary and tenuous social institutions sometimes actually are. Going into pure survival mode is not necessarily conducive to giving a shit about upholding social conventions that, in the new context, seem rather pointless.

This ongoing metaphysical tug-of-war is consistently highlighted throughout the season by the struggle of the military and civilian camps of the human survivors to come to a consensus on how best to approach their new and largely terrible circumstances. It becomes more obvious in Season 2 how different people are succumbing to the base survival instinct of every man and woman for themselves while others are still trying to impose some meaning and uphold social order for the greater good (The greater good.) like holding elections or going to the Cloud 9 spaceship for a typically disastrous and terrorist-filled evening amongst the drinking and dancing.

Season 2 can basically be broken down into three movements or phases: 1) Colonel Saul Tigh's (Michael Hogan's) command of the Galactica and President Roslin's (Mary McDonnell's) ongoing quest for more clues to the location of Earth; 2) The arrival of the Battlestar Pegasus and the fallout from this addition to the fleet; and 3) a few random episodes and the presidential elections.
You show me where in the frakkin' regulations it says
you need to where pants to command a Battlestar or
I'm going to show this bottle upside your frakkin' head. 

After Season 1 leaves off with Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) being shot and left in critical condition by Sharon "Boomer" Valerii (Grace Park), the fleet is left with the unenviable position of having Colonel Tigh taking command of the Galactica and by extension the military and by extension basically the fleet. Tigh also feels the burden greatly and makes some, shall we say, questionable decisions with some disastrous consequences that result in the deaths of several civilians during a food riot. Luckily, Ben Affleck wasn't around, so there were no dead hookers to be found. Tigh kind of adds to the shit pile by failing to adequately address the situation with maybe, oh, I don't know, an apology or at least an acknowledgement that maybe somewhere along the line, the system may have developed a kink or two and then declaring martial law.

There's a kind of disconnect between the military and civilian factions of the human fleet. The Galactica and her crew (including a full complement of rarely seen and hugely ineffective marines) are absolutely necessary for the survival of the fleet, and are on the front lines doing the fighting. But the moment shit goes bad, the military is immediately under fire. This isn't to excuse the actions of the soldiers with itchy trigger fingers who sparked the conflict but rather to consider the gas leak of desperation and hardship that had been building up to reach the flashpoint of riots and social unrest.

Given the extreme nature of their situation, it's understandable why many people came to rely on the military to protect them and guide them when circumstances dictated. It's also understandable why they were reluctant to make any further sacrifices or concessions in order to pay for those services. After the annihilation of the majority of the human race, the survivors are hanging on by a thread. After having lost so much, they are understandably reluctant to give up even more. There is a lot of frustration and anger built up, and since they can't take it out on the the true target, the cybernetic Cylon aggressors, it gets redirected towards an attainable target.

There's a certain set of opposing forces at play that serves as the heart of Battlestar Galactica's second season. During one episode that at first seems kind of out of place, an intrepid reporter by the name of D'anna Biers (Lucy Lawless) is given free reign to interview the Galactica crew and eventually produces an exposé of sorts (before it's revealed that Xena is a frakking Cylon) about the good men and women in the service. At the end of the mini-documentary, and despite the fact that she's only there as a Cylon spy to check on a half-human/half-Cylon lovechild, Biers actually delivers a pretty poignant monologue highlighting the difficult balancing act that members of the Galactica crew have to manage on a daily basis because of the extreme situation in which they find themselves:

"I came to Galactica to tell a story. In all honesty I thought I knew what that story was before I ever set foot there: how an arrogant military let their egos get in the way of doing their jobs, safeguarding the lives of the civilian population. But I found out that the truth was more complex than that. These people aren't Cylons. They're not robots blindly following orders and polishing their boots. They're people. Deeply flawed, yes, but deeply human too, and maybe that's saying the same thing. What struck me most is that despite it all; the hardships, the stress, the ever present danger of being killed, despite all that they never give up. They never lie down in the road and let the truck run them over. They wake up in the morning, put on their uniforms and do their jobs. Every day. No pay, no rest, no hope of ever laying down the burden or letting someone else do the job. There are no relief troops coming, no Colonial Fleet training new recruits every day. The people on Galactica are it. They are the thin line of blue that separates us from the Cylons. Lt. Gaeta told me a remarkable statistic; not a single member of Galactica's crew has asked to resign, not one. Think about that. If you wore the uniform wouldn't you want to quit? To step aside and say, 'Enough! Let someone else protect the fleet?' I know I would. But then, I don't wear a uniform. Most of us don't; most of us never will. The story of Galactica isn't that people make bad decisions under pressure, it's that those mistakes are the exception. Most of the time, the men and women serving under Commander Adama get it right. The proof is that our fleet survives. And with Galactica at our side, we will endure. This is D'anna Biers, Fleet News Service."

There are opposing forces as the dire nature of their situation demands certain sacrifices but the toll of what has already been lost is almost too much to take let alone add to. This same tension comes into play later in the season when President Roslin issues a presidential order outlawing abortion. Her thinking is that if humanity has any hope of long-term survival, they're going to need to start frakking and producing offspring like a certain long-eared mammal. Perhaps rightfully so, the pragmatic concerns of perpetuating the race might outweigh the maintenance of certain liberties in the short term. Or maybe not. It's one thing in theory and another in practice. The question becomes whether it is a price that one is willing to pay: short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Unfortunately, that's a tough sell in even the best of times.
I'm going to die surrounded by the biggest
idiots in the galaxy.

Roslin, as fanatical as she seems at times, is a great leader because she is willing to make necessary sacrifices. In the wake of the Reign of Tigh, President Roslin goes forward with her search for the mysterious 13th Colony, Earth. After discovering another mythic planet, Kobol, which is part of a religious prophecy that is said to be a signpost on the way to Earth, Roslin defies Commander Adama and ends up splitting the fleet based on her unflinching belief in a set of holy scriptures and a long shot of finding a planet that may not even exist. (Luckily for Roslin, the holy texts in their culture seem to have more substance to them than any that exist in ours, which isn't too difficult a bar to overcome, but still.)

Roslin, still dealing with the cancer that has plagued her since the beginning of the series (but before it is magically cured by magic blood from a human-Cylon hybrid baby) is willing to risk quite literally everything  in order to give her constituents a chance at hope for a future. In a sci-fi universe comprised of such fantastical elements, a self-sacrificing politician with little regard to her personal well-being in order to serve the voting public unflinchingly and for zero personal gain might be the most unbelievable thing in Battlestar Galactica.

Despite one of his first actions after his return to command being to declare Roslin's presidency defunct and denounce her, Commander Adama soon changes his tune. He swallows his pride for the greater good (The greater good.), and when he informs the command crew of the Galactica that he's "Putting the family back together," it's one of the most poignant moments of the series so far, and beautifully simplistic in its execution. Adama and Roslin are flawed people to be sure, but at this point their dynamic as the surrogate mother and father of this ragtag family is made abundantly clear. And even though mom and dad may throw down every once in a while, and even say some shit that they may (or may not) regret later, at the end of the day, they have their "family's" best interests at heart. There's another particularly poignant moment that stood out when Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) rallies himself and the crew of the Galactica out of their funk by building a new Viper star fighter and they christen it "Laura" in honour of President Roslin (though it is usually referred to thereafter as the Blackbird).

The throughline of family is also emphasized by the subplots involving Starbuck and her interactions with some human survivors on Caprica (one of the former Twelve Colonies devastated by the Cylon attack) and the burgeoning relationship and subsequent lovechild off Boomer and Helo (Tahmoh Penikett), who finally make it back to Galactica. Boomer is locked up for most of the season, but this gives her actor, Grace Park, the chance to really Hannibal Lector it up. Boomer, Helo, and their child serve as the catalyst for a great deal of the plot, and their, shall we say, unconventional relationship serves as the perfect companion thematically to Adama and Roslin. Despite their ongoing distrust of Boomer due to the fact that she was part of the race of cyborgs that decimated humanity, she is perhaps the most emblematic of the very family they hope to forge.

I make no secret of the fact that Starbuck is my favourite character on the show, and I was kind of disappointed that there was less of a focus on her this season. She does get a decent arch, though, as she sort of finds her place with one Samuel Anders (Michael Trucco), one of the survivors on Caprica (lucky bastard). She's instrumental in helping Roslin locate Earth and rescuing the Caprica survivors, but the Myth of Starbuck is taken down a notch or two, which as a fan of the character was both intriguing and painful to watch. By the end of the season, though, she begins to find herself again due in large part to her marriage (What the frak?!?) to Sanders. (Yeah, totally thought her and Lee Adama (Jamie Bamber) were going to end up together. And I think so did he at one point.)

This dynamic is then brought into clear focus and simultaneously threatened in the second phase of Season 2 with the arrival of the battlestar Pegasus, captained by Ensign Ro Laren Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes). As the ranking military officer, Admiral Cain assumes command of what remains of the military, and basically the rest of the fleet. Now, Commander Adama seems like he doesn't even know what the definition of fun would be if it took off its panties and sat right on his face, but next to Admiral Cain, he seems like frakking Charlie Sheen.

I would cut your balls off, if you had any.
Cain epitomizes the other end of the scale, where not only is she willing to do whatever it takes and then some to ensure the survival of herself and her crew, but she's willing to do it with gusto and with no respect for basic human decency. Where Roslin and Adama are willing to put themselves in harm's way and take on the burdens of leadership for the good of the people they are leading, Cain uses brute force to impose her will on others, sacrificing others for her own ends. The difference between self-sacrifice and human sacrifice becomes frighteningly apparent when the true depths of Cain's methods are revealed, including murder, the torture and gang rape of a Cylon prisoner and leaving a small fleet of unarmed and undefended human survivors to their fate after stripping their ships for spare parts.

In terms of whether or not Admiral Cain is willing to pay the price for the survival of the species, the answer is a resounding "Yes." But not only will she pay, she'll give you a twenty percent tip and a reach around, if by "reach around" you mean "gun to the face." Cain's hard-nosed, some might say psychotic, approach to survival is great, as long as you happen to be part of her crew and a) are just as psychotic as her and b) don't piss her off. Admiral Cain and her crew of ultimate badasses represent the other extreme when it comes to balancing the cost of survival against that very survival itself. If the Galactica and the rest of the fleet were unwilling to run a bit of a social deficit in order to facilitate the survival of the human species, then Cain and the gang have completely bankrupted themselves.

Survival isn't good enough for Admiral Cain. In fact, she doesn't really seem to give a shit about the long-run at all, much to President Roslin's dismay. In fact, she seems hell-bent on singlehandedly wiping out every Cylon ever, even if it puts the rest of the survivors in unnecessary risk. Her Ahab -esque obsession almost brings her to blows with Commander Adama and the Galactica crew, which most likely would have been disastrous considering that the Pegasus is fifty years more advanced and her crew has about seventy percent more deranged asshole content per capita.

It is only Admiral Cain's murder at the hands of the escaped Cylon prisoner that she and her crew had systematically sexually and physically abused (Irony!) that saves shit from really coming to a head. After that point the fleet and the show seem to be adrift a little bit. I'm not sure whether it was intentional on the part of showrunner Ronald D. Moore et al., but the meandering feel of the last third of the season matched the state of the human survivors. Their civilization in ruins, they've been left wandering among the stars in search of some hail Mary (or whoever the frak the people of the Twelve Colonies might hail) planet that may not even exist dogged by an enemy that attacks from within and from without and trying not to tear each other to shreds. It's hard enough on a regular day to try and settle on your life's purpose let alone when you can't get medication for your sick kid because of the rise of the blackiest black market ever.
So, if I tell a Cylon to go
frak himself...?

It's only the issue of a presidential election and a (mostly) habitable planet that helps people to focus again. Roslin still seems intent on leading her people to Earth, but the election is ultimately won by none other than Gaius Baltar (James Callis), the jittery scientist who was indirectly responsible for the Cylon's quick victory and who is constantly being guided by his hallucinated (or not?) Cylon girlfriend. Throughout this season, Baltar became a simultaneously more sympathetic and despicable character. He's obviously a very troubled, tortured man, but he keeps making choices that make me want to strangle the shit out of him, like equipping a Cylon-led human "underground" movement with an armed nuclear weapon, which, of course, has predictably disastrous consequences later on.

Perhaps it is because of his deep, deep flaws that the character is more accessible. It's easy sitting on the sidelines to say what we'd do in extreme circumstances, but the fact of the matter is that most of us would succumb like Baltar instead of rise to the occasion like the typically heroic Lee Adama. Even when Lee gets his own noir episode getting sucked deeper into and eventually making a deal with the burgeoning black market and avenging the death of his hooker girlfriend, he still adheres to a code of honour. Or Laura Roslin, who attempts to do the wrong thing for the right reasons when she tries to rig the election so that Baltar--who she rightly suspects of nefarious and clandestine deeds that have been detrimental to the survival of the human race--is kept out of power. Eventually, though, she can't go through with it, despite the fact that it's becoming painfully obvious to everybody around him that Baltar is up to some shit.

Eventually, Baltar does replace Roslin as President of the Twelve Colonies, and true to his word (for once), he facilitates the settlement of the random planet discovered by chance by a random patrol, despite the misgivings of several parties. Even though it was impossible to predict shit would hit the fan, with Baltar it's all but guaranteed. Granted, the characters in the show can't benefit from the insights of dramatic irony, but it must be becoming increasingly apparent that Baltar has the uncanny ability to transmute the most precious metals to their basest forms. When the Cyclons show up at the end of the season and take over the human settlement, New Caprica, it was all but a given. I can only assume that Admiral Adama and his skeleton crew left aboard the Galactica will return in Season 3 to rescue those left behind, but, who knows? Moore might take a radical approach and just kill off all of humanity in the second episode and just drop the mic and leave.

The final two-part episode of the season was titled "Lay Down Your Burdens," which is an appropriate title for such a thematically dichotomous season. Laying down one's burdens is a direct reference to Biers' documentary monologue, which was kind of summed up the core themes of the season. Taken in one context, laying down your burdens means relieving one's self from the stress of responsibility whether temporarily or permanently. It's being selfish in the best possible way. Taken this way, it's about letting go of whatever it might have been that was weighing you down so that you can move forward unhindered with the proverbial weight lifted from your shoulders.

But taken another way, laying down your burdens might also be interpreted as giving up. As abandoning anything that has has any meaning or significance.

But anything worth having has to be worth fighting for. Sometimes, the burdens we carry around are necessary ones. Life isn't all peaches and blow jobs. Sometimes being a fully functioning member of society means doing shit that doesn't necessarily benefit you directly. Sometimes it means doing shit that nobody wants to do but needs to get done.

So say we all.  


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