Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Legacy of the Twelve Colonies Volume III: Battlestar Galactica... The Occupy New Caprica Movement

In the wake of 9/11, the Terrorist became the bogeyman de jour. One of the most defining characteristics of this new threat was their propensity for using suicide bombers. It's a difficult mindset to understand and one typically associated with the evil hordes threatening to kick down our front doors. So it was all the more striking for a sci-fi show made by Western Devils just a few years after the single most iconic terrorist act in modern history to empathize--quite effectively--with what amounts to a terrorist movement employing suicide bombers against the enemy.

Granted, Battlestar Galactica does give us more meat to sink our teeth into in terms of contextualizing the extreme measures the survivors of humanity are willing to resort to in order to fight back against their cybernetic oppressors than, say, nobodies favourite real-life assholes in al-Qaeda. At the outset of Season 3, we're presented with a scenario and point of view that makes such methods more easy to swallow, but that in itself is a pretty incredible feat considering the political landscape both then and now. Ask anybody in the Western world--especially residents of the good 'ol US of A--in the wake of the 9/11 attacks whether they could ever fathom what it would take for somebody to consider going to such extremes, and what few answers you would have been able to remember after waking up in the hospital three days later probably wouldn't have offered much insight into that sort of mindset. For most people living in modern times, it's a nearly unfathomable thought experiment. So to have it tackled in a mature and nuanced way in a sci-fi show about humanity's struggle against annihilation at the hands of usually pretty sexy murder-bots is a feat unto itself.

Like the entire series to date, Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica is focused on the moral issues of survival, but this time they take centre stage like never before. In a lot of ways, Doctor/President Gaius Baltar (James Callis) becomes representative of most of the overarching moral themes explored in Season 3. Baltar is perhaps the most engaging character of the series, because every time you're ready to hate his guts for his latest round of what-the-fuck-where-you-thinking, the writers bring in another element to switch up the perspective and create another grappling point of empathy for the character, to borrow a metaphor from the Metroid series. In the end, instead of being portrayed as a cackling villain, Baltar is instead presented as a nuanced character; a deeply flawed human being in extreme circumstances under threat from a hostile force doing whatever he can to survive.

In many ways, Baltar's story line forms the entire backbone of Season 3, where he's constantly being put into ethically compromised situations and forced to make split-second decisions, like whether to have a threesome with two incredibly hot robots in order to save his life. Tough call. The main issue at the beginning of the season is the occupation of New Caprica by the Cylons, where the then-President Baltar is forced to either cooperate with his new robotic overlords and transition the remaining human survivors into a new society ruled over by a Cylon bourgeoisie or be murdered on the spot and possibly face the deaths of even more of his fellow survivors. With both Battlestars Galactica and Pegasus having immediately hit the bricks as soon as the Cyclons showed up due to being undermanned and outnumbered, Baltar is left with little alternative.

President Hotdog... Just keep
biding your time, then slip
right in when no one's looking...
Later, with Baltar kept on as a puppet leader by the Cylons, he's forced to carry out whatever they want of him. Shit comes to a head when after a particularly effective suicide bombing by the human resistance at a ceremony for the New Caprica Police and the Cylons round up two hundred citizens believed to have ties to the resistance for summary execution. To make everything legit, the Cyons force Baltar at gunpoint to sign the official order authorizing the executions. Technically he did issue the order, but he also did it under duress. A lot is made of Baltar's decision to work with the Cylons, and it's kind of shitty that he does, but honestly, what other choice did he have? He can be noble and stand up to the Cylons, who will kill him, replace him with a new president, then get the new president to do whatever they want until he is uncooperative, and so on, until they work their way down the ranks and kill ever last man, woman, and child anyway. I know there are some people in the show and in the real world who would--and in some cases have-- express the sentiment that they would stand strong and never cooperate under some circumstances. But, of course, I'm going to call bullshit on that bullshit. I honestly don't think that the vast majority of people facing such a scenario would have reacted any differently, and who would fucking blame them?

As it turns out, a lot of survivors from the Twelve Colonies would. Baltar would find little sympathy with Colonel Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), a man who finally justifies his existence after two seasons of mostly stumbling around like a drunken imbecile. This pasty old white guy turns out to be a badass motherfucker who barely bats an eye at... losing an eye as part of an interrogation. It's one of those, he's-an-asshole-but-he's-our-asshole situations. Tigh is a cantankerous old fuck, but he definitely doesn't lack the courage of his convictions. As the not-so-secret leader of the human resistance on New Caprica, the Colonel is one of the masterminds behind the suicide bombings. But he doesn't relish the notion. He sees the bombings not as a necessary evil but as a matter of duty in a continually escalating conflict. As part of an oppressed population, Tigh sees his mandate as disrupting the enemy's machinery to the maximum extent possible: to cause them the most trouble so that they expend more resources and are left weaker.

Former-Then-Reinstated-President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) also has a difference of opinion with Baltar's course of action. After recalling seeing Baltar on Caprica before the Cylon attack with who she now knows is Cylon model known as Number Six Cylon (Tricia Helfer), Roslin's righteous fury is ignited. To the max. She has no qualms having him tortured for information, suppressing the distribution of his memoir, My Triumphs, My Mistakes, that he smuggles out of prison a chapter at a time, putting him on trial for crimes against humanity, or posting those pictures of him drunk at the office party on Facebook. Throughout the whole series, Baltar has been a complicated character and has made what seemed like some pretty questionable decisions, but Roslin's quest for vengeance still doesn't sit well for some reason.

It's actually Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) and Lee "Apollo" Adama (Jamie Bamber) who end up as serving as the moral centre of the human survivors. Helo is given much more room to develop this season, and I ended up liking his character a lot more than I did previously. There are two instances in particular where he really steps up to the plate, or whatever the frak the equivalent sports metaphor would be from the game of pyramid.

During an outbreak of a potentially deadly virus, one group of refugees aboard the Galactica, the Sagittarons, have cultural objections to / suspicions of certain modern medical practices, and they start dying off at a higher rate than other refugees. Helo becomes convinced that the doctor primarily responsible for the outbreak is somehow implicated in their deaths, and sticks to his guns even in the face of Admiral Adama's (Edward James Olmos) and every one else's instance that this doctor is above reproach. Helo manages to stand his ground in the face of some "strong suggestions" and direct orders from his superior officers and social pressure from most everyone else involved, up to and including the President of the Twelve Colonies. It helps that he's vindicated by being right, but the fact that he was willing to stay true to what he believed to be true in the face of those kinds of social pressures is admirable in and of itself.

The other instance where Helo's light shines a little brighter is when the survivors of humanity are given the opportunity to wipe out the Cylons via the weaponization of a virus that's found to be particularly deadly for their cybernetic foes. Helo is one of the few to argue against this course of action, maintaining that despite the Cylon's initial (very nearly successful) attempt to exterminate humanity, it doesn't warrant committing an act of genocide themselves. This stance is further complicated by the fact that most human beings do not recognize the potential personhood of the Cylons, often derogatorily referring to them as "toasters," as well as Helo's own personal biases what with being in a committed relationship with (and having hot robotic sex with) a Cylon who's proven herself to be humanity's ally. Despite Helo's objections, Admiral Adama and President Roslin decide to go ahead with the plan, only to have it fall apart at the last minute due to a case of sabotage, Beastie Boys-style. Despite Helo obviously being the agent of this particular act of sabotage (and in so doing earning the right to wear his very own '70s-style sweet-ass mustache), Admiral Adama grudgingly lets him off the hook, clearly relieved in some way from having to make that kind of decision no matter what the situation. Helo not only caused some of the top brass in the fleet to reflect upon their moral stance, he also prevented the show from ending rather abruptly, which ended up being a good thing (so far...).

I had the strangest dream that I wasn't fucking sexy
murder-bots, and you weren't there, and you weren't there...
Apollo likewise stands his ground in the face of seemingly impossible pressure from his friends, colleagues, and family. Sure, he is shown cheating on his wife early in the season with long-time sexual tension partner Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) (which, due to my personal predilection regarding both the character and the actress, I can't really admonish him too much myself), but when shit goes down, he's also another guy you want on your side. When Baltar finally rejoins the human fleet after having to survive by enduring torture, divulging secrets about potential clues to the location of the Thirteenth Colony AKA Earth, and having cybernetic three-ways that include Lucy "Xena" Lawless, he is immediately imprisoned and put on trial for the role he played in the Cylon occupation of New Caprica with the foregone conclusion by virtually everybody involved that he's going to be found guilty and summarily executed.

In the ensuing social upheaval, Apollo resigns his commission and then moonlights as one of Baltar's defence attorneys (alongside a charming, smooth-talking Irish rogue, because reasons). At first it's a matter purely of principal, ensuring that due process is followed, and carrying on his grandfather's legacy of judicial awesomeness. But as the trial goes on and he buts head with former allies, including his father, Admiral Adama, and President Roslin, he starts to get an idea of exactly how murky the waters that he's chosen to swim out to really are. Even though he doesn't particularly like Baltar, he sees the case as representative of larger moral issues at play, and his speech when he's called to the witness stand himself in a twist fit for the highest calibre courtroom drama is the perfect summation of the themes running through the series so far and especially Season 3. In fact, it might be one of my favourite pieces of writing on the entire show to date (up there with Picard's speech about civil liberties from the TNG episode "The Drumhead"):  

Did the defendant make mistakes? Sure. He did. Serious mistakes. But did he actually commit any crimes? Did he commit treason? No. I mean, it was an impossible situation. When the Cylons arrived, what could he possibly do? What could anyone have done? Ask yourself, what would you have done?

What would you have done? If he had refused to surrender, the Cylons would have probably nuked the planet right then and there. So did he appear to cooperate with the Cylons? Sure. So did hundreds of others. What's the difference between him and them? The President issued a blanket pardon. They were all forgiven, no questions asked. Colonel Tigh. Colonel Tigh used suicide bombers, killed dozens of people. Forgiven. Lieutenant Agathon and Chief Tyrol. They murdered an officer on the Pegasus. Forgiven. The Admiral. The Admiral instigated a military coup d'├ętat against the President. Forgiven. And me? Well, where do I begin? I shot down a civilian passenger ship, the Olympic Carrier. Over a thousand people on board. Forgiven. I raised my weapon to a superior officer, committed an act of mutiny. Forgiven. And then on the very day when Baltar surrendered to those Cylons, I, as commander of Pegasus, jumped away. I left everybody on that planet, alone, undefended, for months. I even tried to persuade the Admiral never to return, to abandon you all there for good. If I'd had my way nobody would have made it off that planet. I'm the coward. I'm the traitor. I'm forgiven. 

I'd say we are very forgiving of mistakes. We make our own laws now; our own justice. And we've been pretty creative in finding ways to let people off the hook for everything from theft to murder. And we've had to be, because... because we're not a civilization anymore. We are a gang, and we are on the run, and we have to fight to survive. We have to break rules. We have to bend laws. We have to improvise. But not this time, no. Not this time. Not for Gaius Baltar. No, you... you have to die, because, well, because we don't like you very much. Because you're arrogant. Because you're weak. Because you're a coward, and we, the mob, want to throw you out of the airlock, because you didn't stand up to the Cylons and get yourself killed in the process. That's justice now. You should have been killed back on New Caprica, but since you had the temerity to live, we're going to execute you now. That's justice. 

This case... this case is built on emotion, on anger, bitterness, vengeance. But most of all, it is built on shame. It's about the shame of what we did to ourselves back on that planet. It's about the guilt of those of us who ran away. Who ran away. And we're trying to dump all that guilt and all that shame on one man and then flush him out the airlock, and hope that just gets rid of it all. So that we could live with ourselves. But that won't work. That won't work. That's not justice; not to me. Not to me.

The Joker in Christopher Nolan's seminal film The Dark Knight remarked to Batman at one point that people are only as good as the world allows them to be. As a matter of principal, Batman was right to argue that people are able to transcend their circumstances and do the right thing regardless. But the kind of chilling thing is that the Joker was sort of right. The willingness to and ease with which we adhere to moral principles is directly proportional to social stability and quality of life. It's easy to stand tall when you've got governmental and social systems in place, including a police force, a judicial system, and a penitentiary system in place and all of the accompanying infrastructure that these social systems imply. In the face of a more anarchic system where issues of survival are a much more prominent, moral fortitude is that much harder to maintain. Ethical behaviour is a civic duty to be sure, but it is in some senses a luxury.

When faced with the possible end of their existence and/or their race, the human survivors of Battlestar Galactica engaged in a lot of questionable behaviour. In addition to suicide bombings, there were some human beings who "defected" and joined the New Caprica Police, a security force working directly for the Cylons during the occupation responsible for maintaining law and order. They were seen as traitors by some, but likely saw themselves as performing a necessary role to ensure their survival by cooperating. After the colonists were rescued by the Adamas, a secret tribunal was established to covertly try, convict, and execute all known Cylon "collaborators." At one point in the season, President Roslin butts heads with different factions among the human survivors related to the right to unionize and the chance for individuals to pursue careers outside of their increasingly caste-like social spheres. These are all complicated moral issues, but when put into the context of pure survival, the "right" answers become more complex and elusive.

At some point, there comes a point when a decision has to be made as to whether simply surviving is enough. When we come to such a crossroads, there are no easy answers, but as we have proven time and time again, it is possible to transcend our circumstances. We can overcome or succumb. As always, dear reader, the choice is yours.

So say we all.

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As a postscript, I do feel like I have to address a few other issues with Season 3. First and foremost, this season needed more Starbuck. She had a great progression this season, what with her imprisonment and the Cyclons mindfucking her with her not-daughter through to her apparent death and subsequent pseudo-resurrection. She's given a couple of moments to shine, like her emotionally charged boxing match with Apollo or the flashbacks to her mother, but I felt that the focus of the show definitely shifted away from Starbuck since the first season. Although this has offered the opportunity to shine the light on some other previously less-developed characters like Helo, well, let's just say I'm never in favour of including less of Katee Sackhoff in anything.

To run with Starbuck's reappearance after what was portrayed as a pretty definitive death, the next season will almost certainly focus on whether or not Starbuck is actually a Cylon, which I'm kind of on the fence about. Along with Starbuck, the audience is also led to suspect several other crew members of being sleeper Cylon Agents, including Colonal Tigh, Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), Samuel Anders (Michael Trucco), and Tory Foster (Rekha Sharma). It seemed like a weird play on behalf of Ronald D. Moore et al., and even stranger using "All Along the Watchtower" as the mysterious music that only they can hear leading them all to each other and to the conclusion that they are all Cylons. It just doesn't seem as organic as some of the earlier reveals, and if any or all of the five of them turn out to be Cyclons, it won't feel as earned for some reason.

Overall, Season 3 is a fine continuation of form. There was a bit of a wobble it seemed in Season 2, with some episodes that felt like they were losing a bit of focus, but I have faith that despite the mixed reactions that I've heard the conclusion of the series seems to engender that I will be one of those who rides the wave right until the very (potentially bitter) end.

My thoughts on previous seasons can be found by clicking thusly:

Battlestar Galactica Season 1

Battlestar Galactica Season 2




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