Promises, Promises (Torn / A Measure of Salvation Reviewed)


Image courtesy Galactica Station

When we last left our heroes, the rag-tag fleet was busy regathering itself after its escape from Cylon occupation, and things weren’t all going smoothly. It’s close quarters on Galactica now after a year of near-emptiness, and bitterness over the occupation, especially over collaborators, simmers very close to the surface.

However, another division is about to materialize. As represented by the broken Tigh and Starbuck, those who suffered the occupation are also expressing their bitterness over having been abandoned by the fleet when the Cylons came to New Caprica. And some on the fleet, such as Starbuck’s replacement, Kat, are wondering if that bitterness isn’t misplaced. Tensions between the humans are growing.

As for the Cylons, they’re still at a loss over what to do with Baltar (though nobody has pointed to D’Anna and said “well, you invited him on board, he’s your pet, so you house train him!). The Cylons do have a renewed sense of purpose, however. They’ve decided they want to find Earth and make it their home. Baltar can help them with that, and to save his skin he volunteers what information he has. This sends a Cylon basestar to the Lion’s Head Nebula and its pulsars, where they discover a human artifact. Is it a beacon leading the way to Earth? Or does the deadly disease it unleashes on the Cylons indicate a more sinister purpose?

Early last week, after reviewing Doctor Who’s The Girl in the Fireplace, a commentator asked me when my review of the latest Battlestar Galactica would be up. I gave an excuse that, since Torn was part one of a two-part story, I’d hold off until I saw part two.

Truth to tell, I’d taped the episode because it was the last day of my mother-in-law’s visit. I did hold off on watching the tape until yesterday so as to ease the wait between episodes, but the only reason I called the episode, named Torn, part one of a two-parter, is because my friend Dan did so in his review. Turns out, it really wasn’t.

Yes, Torn and A Measure of Salvation do share storytelling duties on a key plot thread, but Torn’s tale is far, far more about Starbuck and Tigh’s descent into a well of self-pity and bitterness. Kara in particular is a minefield of hurt, rebuffing the attempts by Casey and her mother to contact her. At least, however, she knows how dangerous she is, but that doesn’t stop her from backing up Tigh when the colonel sows dissention amongst the ranks of Galactica.

It is the last five minutes of Torn that really makes the episode. It is a powerful scene when Adama lays down the law, and the director is content to let the acting giants Edward James Almos, Katee Sackoff and Michael Hogan carry things. These scenes that follow cement the episode’s quality, as Tigh and Starbuck go in two different directions. The heartbreaking scenes of Starbuck hacking her hair short (a neat mirror of Adama shaving off his mustache at the end of Exodus, Part 2) and accepting a hug from young Casey are punctuated by the emotional devastation of Tigh retiring to his quarters and drinking himself into a stupor. There is no better collection of scenes in Galactica or, for that matter, anywhere.

This isn’t to say that the rest of Torn wasn’t worthwhile. Far from it. The Baltar-Cylon storyline kicks into high gear as the Cylons gain a new sense of purpose with their intent to look for Earth. Why are they doing this? My theory is that they want to find a human colony with no history of interaction with the Cylons, so they can have a clean break, and a chance to live in peace, unlike what happened on New Caprica. The discovery of the human artifact in the Lion’s Head nebula and the disease that strikes adds a strong undercurrent of mystery to the episode.

And there are many instances in Torn where I say (or even shout) “thank you!” to Ron Moore. A couple of weeks ago, I wondered about the five remaining unknown models of Cylons, and worried that the writers might unveil a few in an increasingly unrealistic conceit. Ron Moore defied that, and grabbed this plot point by the horns. The statement that the five remaining models “aren’t talked about” hints at any number of plot developments that should interest the reader, with the immediate effect that Baltar wonders if he himself is a Cylon. Have these five Cylons been boxed? Did they object to the attack on humanity?

The virus that ravages the Cylon basestar also produces several moments of creep. The scene where Baltar strangles a black-haired Number Six to keep her quiet is terrifying. The cliffhanger of Sharon (Athena) arriving and seeing the dead Cylon basestar promises interesting things for the story to follow.

For the most part, A Measure of Salvation delivered on that promise, even though the Starbuck and Tigh stories were set aside. That said, I was surprised by how willing A Measure of Salvation was to sacrifice some of the more interesting potential plot developments of Torn. Chief among these was Baltar’s decision not to report his discovery of the human probe to the Cylons. At the end of Torn, this was a dramatically strong move, not only because Baltar appeared to start to pursue his own agenda, but that Caprica Six almost immediately discovers a photograph of the object, and doesn’t appear to tell the Cylons about it, suggesting she has an agenda of her own…

…except, next episode, we learn that she does tell the other Cylons about it, and they’re understandably upset at Baltar. So Baltar’s bold move instead becomes a stupid one.

Likewise, the disease unleashed by the artifact presented many dramatic possibilities at the end of Torn. Was it deliberately set to infect those who followed? If so, how did they know about the Cylons, several hundred years before the Cylons were born? Later in A Measure of Salvation, the mystery deepens since Doctor Cottle identifies the disease unleashed as a virus that the humans developed an immunity to, a couple hundred years ago.

Given that the artifact dates from the exodus from Kobol, which was three thousand years ago, this means that, when the device was set, it was as deadly to humans as it is to Cylons. So, why was it set? Did the thirteenth colony not want anybody from the other twelve colonies to follow them to Earth? Does this have anything to do with the mysterious conflict that forced the humans off of Kobol in the first place? For a moment, there are a lot more questions than answers, and all sorts of interesting directions the series could have taken.

…except that Doctor Cottle later decides that the infection occurred accidentally. Basically, one of the humans who left the device sneezed, and the humans just happened to develop an immunity that the Cylons did not. This explanation does not make much sense since most biologists would tell you that whatever energy that gets transmitted to the Cylon’s resurrection ship would be unlikely to carry a pathogen unless it’s been specifically made for that purpose.

So, despite possible questions about Earth’s relationship to the twelve other tribes from Kobol, A Measure of Salvation really comes down to a question of “we have this biological weapon we can use against the Cylons. Should we use it?” Which is an interesting debate, wonderfully presented by Helo, Adama and Roslyn, but a fraction of the dramatic punch that Torn offered.

Torn is a fantastic episode, driven by the performances of Katee Sackoff and Michael Hogan, and by the mystery offered by the dead Cylon baseship. A Measure of Salvation misses Starbuck and Tigh terribly, but it also misses the interesting questions raised by the episode before it. As a result A Measure of Salvation is simply a competent Battlestar Galactica episode, better than most other things on television, but something of a letdown after the promise of Torn.

Battlestar Notes

  • Brother Cavil (Dean Stockwell) was nowhere to be seen in this episode, though the producers were kind enough to give us some stock footage to remind us that he is still a part of the power structure. It was also interesting to see Callum Keith Rennie participate in the debates amongst the other six Cylons. While the actor’s new-found availability in the series was welcome (he was conspicuous by his absence through much of season two), it bring down the suggestion that his isolation in the first four parts of this season was a sign that he had gone rogue, although a line here and there in Torn suggests that the other models don’t entirely trust him, as he’s too religious.
  • Interesting to hear the irritation in Roslyn’s voice at Adama’s rather casual attitude to the fact that the plan to use the Cylon prisoners as a trigger on a biological weapon was, essentially, sabotaged. Is she losing trust in him?
  • I had great difficulty hearing what Sharon said to Helo when he told her about the plan for Cylon genocide. I should have copied the episode with closed captioning on, as I fear I miss about a quarter of the dialogue with it off. What did she say? Did she say that she considers herself with the humans and is okay with a genocidal attack on her race?
  • Anybody notice that Doc Cottle is wearing a fleet uniform?
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