Image courtesy the Battlestar Galactica Fan Club

The first episode of the new Battlestar Galactica series, 33, starts just days after the events of the mini-series pilot. The rag-tag remains of the human race have not escaped the Cylons. Every thirty-three minutes, on the dot, the Cylon fleet appears, and the humans have to quickly calculate the next FTL jump and get the heck out of there.

As the Battlestar completes its 237th consecutive light-speed jump, and all the crew members on board are in their 120th hour without sleep, things are to put it mildly getting a little frayed. The crew all have hefty growths of facial hair (I could say “even the women” here, but this is not the place for the joke — this episode is quite serious and downbeat), are performing their duties on autopilot. FTL engines are starting to pack up. Each time the Cylons reappear, everybody is cutting things more and more fine. All are wondering just how much more of this they can take.

Number 6 continues to taunt and tease Baltar, the President is keeping a morbid headcount of the remaining human race (it dips below 50,000 in this episode) and, on “Cylon Occupied Caprica”, Helo (last seen given up for dead after sacrificing his seat to allow Dr. Baltar to escape) is struggling to stay alive, pursued by very creepy and very cool Swiss Army Cylons, while the planet descends into nuclear winter.

I must admit, the phrase “Cylon Occupied Caprica” gave me pause. I mean, why bother? The Cylons have shown no interest in sending in occupation forces or enslaving the survivors. But after watching the episode, it became clear to me that the Cylons weren’t occupying Caprica so much as mopping it up. This is one more element of what is possibly Battlestar Galactica’s greatest strength: its acknowledgement that space is very, very, very, very big. If the Cylons were operating in the Star Wars universe, one big bright beam from a Base Star would be enough to render the planet Caprica into an asteroid belt, but the Star Wars universe is fantasy masquerading as science fiction.

In the Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons are limited to nuclear weapons. They have enough firepower to destroy every human habitation, but they don’t have the firepower to strip the planet’s surface. So, to pursue the human race into utter extinction, they send in the Cylon stormtroopers to pick off every last survivor. This is the same “in space, no one can hear your engines” realism that makes this new Battlestar Galactica stand out from most television science fiction.

33 maintains the grit, the intensity and the character that made the pilot miniseries so great to watch. There are wonderful moments between the regulars in between the tension. Starbuck and Apollo in particular spar in interesting ways, with Starbuck bucking against Apollo’s authority, and then turning around and telling him to shore it back up. Then there is the joking comment that, since Boomer is handling the lack of sleep better than anybody else, that “she must be a Cylon”. Heh. Yeah, they’re joking now. There’s also a moment in Dualla’s search for her family and friends that hits a little close to home after the events of 9/11, with the corridor walls packed with the photographs of missing loved ones.

The episode also continues the miniseries drama of forcing its characters to make hard, gut wrenching decisions on who lives and who dies. However, as the climax approaches, 33 magnifies what could be the greatest weakness of the miniseries pilot. As this might be a serious imperfection to an otherwise flawless show, let me explain and hope that somebody in charge is out there listening to me. Note that major spoilers follow:

After Jump 239, it’s discovered that one of the ships, a passenger cruiser, didn’t make the jump. Coincidentally, the ship happened to be carrying an acquaintance of Dr. Baltar who had just been about to reveal evidence of major treachery during the Cylon attack. Since Baltar’s ackquintance is gone with the ship, Baltar continues his streak as the luckiest S.O.B. (forgive my language) in the history of television.

But hold on: thirty-three minutes pass, and no Cylons. Forty-five minutes pass, and no Cylons. Just as everybody breathes a sigh of relief, a ship jumps into view. It’s the passenger cruiser, having miraculously escaped the Cylon onslaught. While everybody is singing praises or prayers, Captain Adama realizes there’s more to this, raises high alert and resets the clocks. The tension tightens as we realize that the Cylons were obviously tracking that ship. Will the fleet have to destroy it or leave it behind, sacrificing the 1,300 passengers on board? Apollo, Starbuck and Boomer are dispatched to warn the ship to stay away from the fleet.

And here is the second time that the television show leads the characters to a hard, dramatic decision… and then lets them off the hook. In the miniseries, one of the strongest moments is when Baltar tries to keep secret his treachery while drawing attention to a Cylon device by falsely accusing a civilian of being a Cylon. Although the crew have no definitive proof that the man is a Cylon, they still have no choice but to throw him off the ship and leave him behind in an abandoned space station. Gritty drama. That drama is subsequently undercut when again Baltar is shown to be the luckiest S.O.B. of television, and the civilian is revealed to actually be a Cylon.

As Apollo, Boomer and Starbuck head over to the passenger liner, the audience is prepped to wonder if 1,300 people are going to be sacrificed — on a hunch — to protect the remaining 47,972. Except that the writers choose that moment to undercut that tension by having the passenger carrier charge, previously unseen nuclear devices arm, and Apollo spy an empty ship behind the exterior windows.

The story, which had been so good up to that point, missed its opportunity of achieving perfection by not showing hordes of passengers pressed against the windows, screaming for mercy. The hard decision that was promised was suddenly not nearly so hard. The drama not nearly so intense.

I am disturbed that this amounts to the second time in a row that the show’s writers have pulled back from the intensity they could have achieved. Shame on you, guys. You’re writing for what may be the best new television series of the year, a series that has already wiped out billions beneath nuclear clouds and is promising to show the limits of the human condition. Now is not the time to get timid.

Still, as the third episode of an ongoing series, 33 succeeds in maintaining the intensity of its truly remarkable pilot episode. A lot of arcs were established, a lot of mysteries laid, and a lot of characterization displayed. The actors are comfortable in their roles and are delivering top notch performances. Mary McDowell caps things off with her tearfully joyful reaction to the news of the birth of a baby, and the increase of the human headcount by one.

The rest of the season still looks to be very good indeed. I only complain about this minor point because the show’s standards are just so high.

Battlestar Galactica Trivia

  • Did the episode’s title, 33, appear on the Space showing of this episode? If not, this is interesting. In the British version of this series, there was no “previously on” montage and no episode title appeared. In the American version, Sci-fi Channel planted on an episode title and created a montage to bring new viewers up to speed. Space gave us the “previously on” montage, but may not have given us an on-screen episode title.
  • Hey, hey! Ron Moore blogs about Galactica!

2004 Canadian Blog Awards Results

Kudos, kudos, kudos to Robert McClelland for effectively running the 2004 Canadian Blog Awards. Whether it was his management or some other factor, his little event became more than just a popularity contest. The Canadian political blogging community, left and right, took the time to endorse candidates and explain in detail why. It was a nice bout of publicity all-round.

The full results are here. I’m pleased to announce that I won second prize in the Best Non-Political Blog category, not far behind the venerable Bacon and Eh’s. Thanks to all who voted for me.

I’ll do a proper write-up of the results and comments on the winners in my next post.

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