And Pants to Match

March 27, 2009

Chronicles: The best scenes of Battlestar Galactica

When I plowed through the first 3 years of Battlestar Galactica on DVD, I found that I appreciated it in a way I didn’t usually appreciate TV shows. I had blown my way through other series before that, particularly 24, and that was usually because the plot compelled its way forward. The moments I remember from a show like 24 are the big plot moments, those times when the show turned on an ear or delivered a huge payoff. But not Battlestar. Now that its over and I think back over the show, the moments that stick out are far more diverse and often far more subtle than that. So in order to talk about the way BSG told its story, I’ll use a blog convention – the top list. In this case, mere scenes, or perhaps more accurately sequences. I sat down and just spat out the important and moving scenes that stuck out to me, and by sheer luck it totaled 15, a good number with which to form a list. I have no desire or ability to number these – they often hinge on each other and the plots are interconnected. So I will place them in chronological order. Here goes:

They take out the Olympic Carrier (33): The very first episode of the show (after the miniseries) and we see how dark and disturbing this show is willing to be. Not only are they on the run, tired, and terrified, but they will do whatever it takes to survive. Even if that means killing 1000 of their fellow citizens in a desparate hope that they will simply be left alone. The music for this scene is among the series’ best.

Baltar visits Boomer (Kobol’s Last Gleaming: Part 1): As if we didn’t know what a twisted person Gaius Baltar was yet, this scene certainly put the stamp of certainty on it. Has BSG ever given us a creepier scene than this?

Baltar: Life can be a curse as well as a blessing. (his voice becomes more intense) You will believe me when I tell you: there are far worse things than death in this world.
Boomer: So you’re saying…?
Baltar: No. No, no, no. What I say…is meaningless. Listen to your heart. Embrace that which you know to be the right decision.
(They look at each other as Six regards Baltar with a look of complete incomprehension, then Baltar stands and kisses Boomer on the forehead before walking out of the bunkroom. Seconds later there is the sound of a single gunshot from inside.)

Still skeeves me out.

Kara sees Boomer on Caprica (Kobol’s Last Gleaming: Part 2): To be honest I haven’t seen this scene in a long time; I haven’t rewatched all of season one in over a year. But this was the very first scene which popped into my head when making this list, because it dealt with perhaps the most overriding theme of that first season – identity and cohesion, and the mental side effects among people who are living with the knowledge that there are spies among them. My vivid memory of this seen is this: after fighting a bloody one and one battle with Six, Kara is wiped out physically. In the distance she sees Helo, confirming he is still alive, and then sees Boomer – her friend. But her friend no longer. In that moment Kara realizes her pilot compatriot is a Cylon. By herself many jumps away from her fleet, the sheer psychological insanity that would wreck upon a person absolutely floored me. Maybe the scene itself does not overtly show how that revelation would screw with Kara’s mind, but it has always stuck with me as though a string had just broken in the mind of Kara Thrace.

To the airlock (Home Part I and Taking a Break From All Your Worries): My first and only cheat, these are two scenes from two different episode. But they have the same structure and in many ways evoke the same utter fear: Laura Roslin turning into a monster with icewater in her veins, a side of her we rarely see. When she orders Athena (not yet named) to be tossed out an airlock the moment she boards Galactica, there is truly no way of knowing if it will happen. The writers had made it pretty clear they were willing to kill anyone, and with the abundance of Eights around, there was no particular reason to think Athena would survive.

When Gaius Baltar is being dragged through the halls in his way to the airlock, it’s a little more obvious that its merely a way to make him talk and they aren’t actually going to kill him. But god help me if it isn’t just as terrifying. The dizzying direction, the frantic fear in the cries of Baltar, and the absolute indifference by President Roslin is unflinching.

“I’m getting my men” (Pegasus): The story of the Pegasus and the arrival of Admiral Caine was probably the most operatic story arc in Battlestar. A conflict enters, tensions rise, the music flairs, the climax comes. That was essentially the story of the Pegasus, with little lasting plot impact other than the macguffin of a new ship and the very real impact on the characters. And it was a truly great arc. The storyline had 2 points of great tension sandwiching a rising climax. The tensions were the rape of Athena and the aborted assassination of Admiral Caine, and they both worked beautifully (in the horrific way that disurbing and powerful film is beautiful). But the climax was Adama, refusing to let Caine kill his officers:

Adama: [Cain has not given Tyrol and Helo the courts martial that she promised she would, and has sentenced them to death. Adama argues over the radio] You told me they’d get a fair trial. What kind of trial could they have possibly had?
Cain: I assure you I heard them out. I weighed their statements against those of the guards and I took into consideration their service records and commendations. It was a difficult decision Commander, but I dare say it was a fair one.
Adama: They have the right to have their case heard by a jury!
Cain: I am a flag officer on detached service during a time of war. Regulations give me broad authority in this matter.
Adama: [to Tigh] Launch the fighters.
[to Cain] You can quote me whatever regulation you’d like. I’m not going to let you execute my men!
Cain: I highly suggest you reconsider that statement, Commander.
Fisk: Admiral, Galactica is launching Vipers and a Raptor.
Cain: Commander, why are you launching Vipers?
Adama: Please arrange for Chief Tyrol and Lieutenant Agathon to be handed over to my marines as soon as they arrive.
Cain: I don’t take orders from you!
Adama: Call it whatever you like. I’m getting my men.
Cain: You are making *such* a mistake!
Adama: I’m getting my men!

Perhaps the most “HELL YEAH!” moment in the history of BSG, and certainly the most up until that point in the show’s history. The biggest rival to this moment will come later on in this list.

“We’re on the side of the demons” (Occupation): The first episode of the New Caprica arc and we’re left with absolutely no illusions of what’s going on. Rarely will you see a TV show turn its own heroes into villains – or did they? The completely understandable transformation of Saul Tigh into a terrorist is both distiurbing and understandable, and the two short speeches he gets to make are among the most poetic parts of Battlestar.

Tigh: You see, little things like that, they don’t matter anymore. Fact, not too frakking much really matters anymore. I got one job here, lady, and one job only. To disrupt the Cylons, make them worry about the anthill they stirred up down here so they’re distracted and out of position when the old man shows up in orbit. The bombings, they got the Cylons’ attention, they really got their attention. And I am not giving that up.
Roslin: We are talking about people blowing themselves up.
Tigh: You know, sometimes I think that you’ve got ice water in those veins. And other times, I think you’re just a naive little school teacher. I’ve sent men on suicide missions in two wars now, and let me tell you something. It don’t make a godsdamn bit of difference whether they’re riding in a Viper or walking out onto a parade ground. In the end, they’re just as dead. (pauses) So, take your piety, and your moralizing, and your high-minded principles, and stick ’em some place safe until you’re off this rock and you’re sitting in your nice, cushy chair on Colonial One again. (stands) I’ve got a war to fight.

Baltar signs the death list at gunpoint (Precipice): One of the types of scenes Battlestar is best at are those when you see horror and you see terrible decisions being made, but you realize that you probably would have made the same decision. While the signing of the Death List comes back at the end of the third season, it was the in-the-moment do this or die tension which made this scene absolutely perfect. We didn’t need a speech by Lee Adama in the courtroom 20 episodes later to make us realize what was happening – we know it in the moment.

Adama to the rescue (Exodus Part 2): Has there ever been a better action sequence in television than when the Galactica jumps into the atmosphere above New Caprica? No. There has not.

Baltar’s accent (Dirty Hands): The soul of Gaius Baltar. No commentary is needed or even helpful, as the heart and soul of the scene is all in the brilliance of James Callis’ acting as he recites this dialogue with Galen Tyrol:

Chief: I’ve known people from Aerelon. You don’t sound anything like them.
Baltar: I don’t sound like I’m from Aerelon?
Chief: No.
Baltar: Well, you know, I take that as a particular compliment. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always founds the Aerelon dialect to be particularly hard on the ears. Something about the consonants that scrape the back of the throat. Of course, I should know an awful lot about my native tongue — I spent hours on end trying to overcome it. Do you have any idea how hard it is for a ten-year-old boy to change the way he speaks? To unlearn everything he ever learned so that one day, one day there might be the small hope that he might be considered as not comin’ from Aerelon? Maybe — I don’t know — Caprica. Caprican. Oh, to be Caprican. The seat of politics, culture, art, science, learning. And what was Aerelon, just a drab, ugly rock condemned to be the food basket for the Twelve Worlds. And that’s how we were treated: like servants, like laborers, like working class. You know, you’d have fitted right in there, Chief. Lots of men who liked to work with their hands and, uh, grab a pint down the pub, and finish off the evening with a good old-fashioned fight. Oh yes, I left Aerelon after my eighteenth birthday. I turned my back on my family, on my heritage. All of them. ‘Course it doesn’t matter, that. They’re all dead now. So…

Adama cries over his ship (Maelstrom): A short scene with no words. Starbuck has just died and William Adama is in his room. His mourning reaches the surface and he breaks his ship to pieces. The setting of this scene is a reminder to an earlier time we see Adama and his ship, as he speaks to Dualla, expressing his emotions upon seeing Athena and having to confront a copy of the woman who shot him:

Betrayal has a powerful grip on the mind. It’s almost like a python. It can squeeze out all other thought, suffocate your emotion until everything is dead except your rage. I’m not talking about anger; I’m talking about rage. I can feel it. Right here, like it’s gonna burst. I feel like I wanna scream. Right now, as a matter of fact.

In that scene it was rage. In this one it was grief. And Olmos has never been better.

“And if I die today that’s the man I’ll be” (Crossroads Part 2): Perhaps the finest and proudest moment in the life of Saul Tigh. Whatever reservations I might have about the way this particular plot development developed over the course of the series, this scene itself is masterfully shot and acted, and the musical backing as the four go back to work in the midst of battle, and as the vipers shoot out into space, is just tremendous filmmaking.

Tyrol spits on the grave of his wife (Escape Velocity): Perhaps this is my most personal favorite, something most people will not share. Much like the scenes I have already mentioned involving mental anguish, Tyrol was the character I most felt for.  Ever since Boomer died and he married Cally, I’ve always felt that Boomer has hung over Chief’s head. They almost never address it, so maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see, but he’s clearly not the same guy after season 2. There’s lots of reasons for it, no doubt, but I think Boomer is a big one.

Tyrol and Boomer started their relationship before the attacks. He wasn’t limited to a fleet of 40,000 people to choose from, and they were clearly *really* into each other. When they broke up in season 1 after Tyrol was sick of being chided and covering for her, Boomer was *devestated*. She did not take it well. Cally? Well, I think she relied on the chief, and she admired him. But I don’t think she ever loved him in the same way. And lets not kid ourselves – in a relationship, it doesn’t just matter how we feel about the other person, it matters how they feel about us just as much if not more.

I genuinely don’t see Chief’s outburst as merely emotional venting or pure anger. I think he has been having these thoughts for a very long time, basically since the beginning. While we got a taste of it in Flight of the Phoenix, by season 4 the regret is all-consuming; he didn’t just lose Boomer, he now realized he lost her for *no reason*. First, he’s now also a cylon, and secondly, his freaking friend and coworker, Helo, gets to be with Athena. Are you kidding me?!

Maybe Tyrol isn’t the kind to kill himself, and maybe he isn’t ever the kind to let emotions get the best of him. So we just sort of accepted him moving on from Boomer and starting a new life. But I don’t think we can pretend that losing Boomer wasn’t utterly horrific, and marrying Cally was anything but settling. We know it. He knows it. He’s never forgotten it. And even though BSG almost never showed what was going on in Tyrol’s head for all 4 years, we did get a very, very occasional reveal. In season 3, Lee asks Tyrol at a bar if he ever thinks about Boomer, and Tyrol very obviously lies and says “no”. And then we go another year before getting this scene. It’s imagining what went on in Tyroll’s head all the times we *didn’t* have these scenes which really makes it work.

Tigh reveals he’s a cylon (Revelations): Perhaps the last great moment for Saul Tigh, and one of the only great moments for him in the 4th season. I was never a fan of making Tigh into a cylon, and I think in retrospect it was a really stupid decision which led to very little dramatic upside. But the choice to make him a cylon did create two natural scenes to let Tigh shine – the scene where he finds out, and the scene where he reveals it. The scene where he finds out is already listed here, and is a great one. So is this. From the absolute fear of revealing his shame to the palpable joy he gets in having an answer to his friends problems (even if it means is “flushed out an airlock”), Michael Hogan sells this scene to absolute perfection. The sequence which follows, as Tigh stands stoically waiting for death while Adama breaks down in his bathroom is merely icing on the cake.

Dualla’s story concludes (Sometimes a Great Notion): Eventually hope runs out. Disappointment followed by horror followed by tragedy followed by disappointment. Over and over again, it eventually gets to be too much. Battlestar had never had a character commit suicide before, though the Boomer/Baltar scene obviously dealt with it. But eventually it had to come up – depression gets the best of us all. And what’s most unsettling about this scene and this decision made by Dee is that I don’t think any of us can really say she made the wrong choice. Eventually it has to end. This scene takes the place of the final scene of Revelations – while it was dramatic to see Earth in its charred and broken form, it was more important and ultimately more powerful to see what happens next.

“It stopped” (Blood on the Scales): The scene where Felex Gaeta meets his end must be paired with the scene before it, as Gaeta and his nemesis/friend Baltar sit down for a cup of coffee after an unsuccessful mutiny. It is the combination of those scene, and Gaeta’s haunting last line, which makes us come to a disturbing comfort – sometimes people have to do what they think they have to do, and even die for it, in order to end the pain. It’s not a new lesson, but its one BSG has dealt with very well. While Gaeta’s end came from trying to change his world and failing, other characters on Battlestar had to come to the same self-immolating end, though often with much less fanfare.


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