By Les Chappell, Heather McLendon, Anthony Strand, J. Walker, and Cameron White
Season 1, Episode 1: “33”
Original airdate: January 14, 2005
Les: And so, after ten voyages into the vast unknown, our space opera roundtable comes to a close. We’ve traveled across the farthest reaches of space, boldly gone where no man has gone before (twice), traveled through warp speed and wormholes, from present day to the 25th century to the 30th century to three million years in the future. We’ve encountered the oddest creatures the universe could throw at us—giant praying mantises, bearded hermits with the voice of Underdog, godlike beings with awful fashion sense, Space Irish, SPACE VAMPIRES—and come out all the stronger. And we’ve spent time with the crews of the Enterprise, Jupiter 2, Starbug, the TARDIS, Moya and Galactica, and seen just what makeshift families are forged at the ends of the universe.
For our final journey, I wanted to select something that reflected all of these aspects we’ve explored, and also a show that was more contemporary so we could see how these themes have evolved into present day. For that reason, the remake of Battlestar Galactica was the most obvious choice*, as it’s inarguably one of the most well-respected and influential sci-fi series of the last decade. It’s also a show whose specter has hung over much of this roundtable—our visit to the original Battlestar was colored by impressions of how it squandered a premise with a lot of potential, and the themes of Ronald D. Moore’s writing heavily informed much of our discussion of The Next Generation. So discussing it seems like the ideal coda, and the obvious choice was to start at the near-beginning with the series pilot “33,” a universally praised installment and one that Moore himself dubbed his favorite episode of the show.
*The other obvious choice was Firefly, but Noel has threatened to quit This Was TV if we ever write about that show. And he helps keep the lights on, so we respect that decision. For the moment.
On the surface, there’s plenty of similarities between the original Battlestar and the remake: both shows share the premise of the survivors of human colonies fleeing the devastation of an cybernetic alien race called Cylons, several of the characters have the same names (Adama, Apollo, Starbuck, etc.) and the design of the new Galactica and Vipers are aesthetically similar to their predecessors. Tonally though? They’re worlds apart. I talked in our original Battlestar discussion about how I was disappointed by the lack of any consistency, but there’s no such lack here: this is oppressive, crushing dread across the board. The threat of the Cylons isn’t some distant ghost story, this is an enemy breathing down the colonial fleet’s neck at every turn, a threat you can literally set your watch to as the episode’s title refers to just how many (0r how few) minutes they have before the Cylon fleet swoops down upon them again. Our previous space opera subjects have found themselves in dire straits before in a series of crashes and abductions, but this is devastation on a new scale. The Romulan fleet and Crais’ ship were imminent threats, but they were still being piloted by beings who could be tricked or reasoned with. The Cylons have no such Achilles’ heel, they are simply an ever-present threat that will either eradicate the fleet or wear them down after 237-plus jumps.
I reviewed the second season of TNT’s Falling Skies for The A.V. Club last year—a show which currently has BSG alums Remi Aubuchon and Mark Verheiden as its showrunners—and there’s a lot of similarities between this and Falling Skies at its best moments. Both shows share the sense that despite the horrific circumstances and constant threat of death from a faceless foe, there’s a need to keep moving, and the survivors discover an odd sort of rhythm and comfort in the tension. I enjoyed the little moments, such as when Starbuck’s* chewing out Apollo to be more of a hardass, only for the two to start giggling at the end of her speech, or Adama and Tigh wearily discussing the current state of affairs and the choices of command. And on the other side of things, it managed to convey the toll of the war with some subtle yet very effective scenes, such as Anastasia trying to find her missing loved ones and heading out to post a picture, only for it to gradually pan out to reveal just how many people have done the same thing to little effect. Most meaningful for me personally was the fact that President Roslin keeps the count of the fleet’s population on a whiteboard, almost identical to the one I have in my cubicle. In this world, resources are so sparse, and the casualty count changes so readily, this “primitive” technology that remains their best option.
*Even going off only one episode, I’m a huge fan of Katee Sackhoff’s reinterpretation of this character. Remake Starbuck would kick the shit out of original Starbuck.
The episode’s central ethical quandary, the fate of the Olympic Carrier and its passengers, further serves to hammer home the Ronald D. Moore themes so many of you brought up when discussing “The Defector.” All signs point to the fact that Roslin’s decision to order its destruction is the right one—its refusal to acknowledge orders, the presence of a nuclear weapon, the immediate appearance of the Cylon fleet behind them—but that doesn’t change the fact that Starbuck and Apollo are potentially executing over a thousand innocents. The galaxy of Battlestar Galactica is one that is dark and full of terrors, one that demands harder decisions than simply leaving Dr. Smith behind and one where sticking fake eyes to your chins isn’t going to earn you even a temporary respite. And when a celebration comes, as when Roslin adds one more number to the population in learning a baby was born during the battle, it’s with that bittersweet acknowledgement that you pay a price to survive in this universe. A dark, gripping and wholly excellent hour of TV.
I’ll leave discussion of other elements—Baltar and his hallucinations of the lady in red, Helo’s solo adventure across the forests of Caprica—to those of you who may be more familiar with the rest of the series and know what context they fit into. Instead, I’ll simply close by saying what a pleasure it’s been to embark on these journeys with all of you, a fine crew if ever there was one. It’s been fun and informative seeing just how many interpretations of space and space exploration there are across the television landscape, and I’m sure I’ll be sampling plenty more episodes of each series in the weeks and months to come.
Well, maybe I’ll watch a little more Battlestar first. Just one more episode.
Cameron: I’ve always loved the first line of Battlestar Galactica’s infamous title sequence: “The Cylons were created by man.” In one sentence, the show encapsulates the core idea of all great sci-fi stories: that humans are the cause of their own problems. It’s manifested literally in Baltar, who is haunted by the memory of the woman he fell for back on Caprica (henceforth known as Head!Six, as it’s a #6 humanoid Cylon that only he can see) and more abstractly in the ethical dilemma at the climax of “33.” After all, ethics are just as much a human invention as robots; the only difference between the Cylons and the humans in this episode is how self-assured the Cylons are in their goal and how disproportionately lost the human survivors feel. Having to sacrifice 1,345 souls for the sake of humanity gives a decidedly darker twist to Spock’s “needs of the many” speech from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In fact, Sci-Fi had to ask RDM and David Eick to make it less ambiguous whether or not there were still human beings on board the Olympic Carrier. There’s still a flicker of a shadow in the window when Apollo looks over, because it was never meant to be an easy decision to pull the trigger.
The sci-fi extends even to the weariness of the characters in this episode. Apparently talking to himself, at one point Baltar says, “There are limits, you know. To the human body.” Edward James Olmos spearheaded some serious method acting for this first episode. Not only did he look up all the effects of sleep deprivation, but during the shooting of the episode, he and most of the cast began depriving themselves of sleep in order to fully recreate the effect for the audience. (Care was also taken to ensure that a different symptom of sleep deprivation was acted and captured on-camera to avoid repetition.) The overall effect is that, even as characters begin to pull back from the situation and make hard decisions, there’s still a tiredness to their voice and face, the struggle of surviving weighing them down so much that their souls are laid bare. Even Helo, trapped on the recently-nuked Cylon-occupied Caprica, has to take anti-radiation meds, and like his cohorts on the Galactica, he’s been chased relentlessly for six days. There are unquestionably limits to the human body, and they’re all on display in “33.”
There’s so much more to talk about with this show, layers and layers of storytelling to pick apart and examine in closer detail. But I’ll leave off here simply by saying that I’ve watched “33” probably a hundred times now, and it remains a powerful example of televisual storytelling, from the special effects (this is the prettiest space has ever looked in all of our roundtable episodes) to the music (Bear McCreary’s attention to detail in his scores and his integration of the score with the story is what makes him one of the best composers working today) to the acting (this is one hell of a cast, no doubt about it) to, of course, the writing.
This episode won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form for damn good reason.
Heather: Les mentioned that the specter of BSG has hung over a lot of this roundtable’s discussions. It’s true, and it’s happened for good reason. BSG is one of the smartest, most sophisticated and most complex sci-fi shows on television. Hell, it’s one of the most intelligent and compelling shows. Period. BSG exists in the gray territory of ethics and moral ambiguity. That is its home, and one of its greatest assets as a television show. There are no easy answers—as evidenced by the decision in “33” to destroy a civilian ship—and characters flit from exhibiting courage, heroism and sympathy in one episode to manipulation, weakness and visceral egoism in another. Self-preservation—as a race and at the individual’s level—brings out the best and worst of these characters. It’s breathtaking to watch.
One of the greatest feats of “33” is its ability to continue a story that had started on television nearly a full year earlier, and it neither loses its strength nor includes superfluous exposition. In fact, there is very little exposition from the mini-series that aired in December of 2004. “33” aired in October of 2005… and it just charges forward with an emotional energy and force that contrasts and, thus, magnifies the physical exhaustion of the fleet.
We receive little pockets of knowledge, and yet we don’t know where they’ll lead: Baltar sees and converses with Number Six (when no one else can), Sharon “Boomer” Valerii is a sleeper Cylon and unaware of the fact, Helo unknowingly plays into the hands of the Cylons back on Caprica when another copy of Boomer rescues him. These little puzzles remind me of the first two episodes of Lost: there is enough mystery to keep the viewers in suspense without being overbearing or grandiose.
Religion plays a major role in BSG, and it’s present in “33,” although an anemic form of it. It’s interesting that Moore juxtaposed Baltar’s “repentance” scene with President Roslin’s decision to destroy the Olympic Carrier. Number Six implies that if Baltar acts in a way that benefits the Cylons (and therefore God’s will), his life will be spared. This cause-and-effect perspective on religion comes across as manipulative and cruel under the guise of grace.
Number Six’s devout faith and her cause-effect relationship to the divine echoes that of fatalism or Christian fundamentalism. And yet, there is enough space given to viewers to wonder whether the Cylons use the divine—their “one, true God”—as a vehicle to obtain their own wishes and objectives. This is particularly true of the repentance scene in “33.” The entire notion of faith, creation, and obedience becomes further muddled when one remembers that humans created the Cylons. In many faiths, the creator being is the divine god(s). Yet we are reminded time and again that the humans in BSG are anything but godlike. They have their own gods. It’s enough to make a theological student salivate.
I find the religious themes throughout BSG to be some of the richest and most fascinating. Especially as the series progresses, the Cylons’ relationship with God (and the humans’ relationship with the gods of Kobol) splinter into elaborate nuance. Doubt and reexaminations of beliefs push certain Cylons and certain humans to release their tight grip on what they “know” and entertain the possibility of new and unknown. To adapt the title of the 14th-century anonymous work on Christian mysticism, many characters act, interact and respond amongst an interstellar cloud of unknowing.
Anthony: You guys aren’t wrong. I don’t disagree with anything said above about the quality of the show. It looks beautiful (that shot of the jump is one of the most visually striking things I’ve ever seen on TV.) The little touches like Roslin’s whiteboard really give the world a lived-in feel. The decision to blow up the carrier is genuinely devastating, especially Apollo’s weary, defeated delivery of “I pulled the trigger. That’s mine.” And Katee Sackhoff is amazing. That scene where Starbuck and Apollo go from growling to giggling is probably my favorite moment in the entire episode. So just about everything is in the episode’s favor. It’s a really brilliant hour of television.
But watching it, I have most of the same problems I had with it the first time I tried to watch BSG (and gave up after the miniseries and two episodes), way back in the fall of 2009. The bleakness really is overwhelming. The sense of exhaustion is so palpable that I absolutely feel like I’ve been awake for 132 hours along with the crew. I know that’s the reaction I’m supposed to have—that Moore wants me to feel like I’m being attacked every 33 minutes—but it’s so depressing and miserable that I just can’t stand. So while I respect what the show is trying to do (scratch that. What it *is* doing), I have very little interest in watching it happen. BSG is so well-made that my gut emotional reaction is to avoid it forever and never visit that horrible place ever again.
Les, maybe you just wanted to make that Portlandia reference (Editor’s note: I did. Guilty as charged. – Les), but when you say that you want to follow up this episode by immediately watching another episode (which would be the one where we watch the soul-crushing minutiae of finding clean water for 50,000 people), I almost feel ill at the thought. I can’t imagine subjecting myself to two of these in a row. It’s not that I need my TV to be all laughs and sunshine all of the time, but I really do need some amount of levity. This is a show where the lead-in to the opening credits is Number Six’s assertion that the humans are inevitably going to make a mistake, and it just keeps getting darker from there.
It sounds like you kids are having fun. So say you all, and I wish I could join you. But I’ve tried it twice now, and it just isn’t for me. I’m afraid I’ll always be the guy over here in the Olympic Carrier, counting down the minutes until I’m sacrificed so the fandom can get on with their lives.
J.: When we were discussing which episode of BSG to cover, I noted that “33” was the most “Battlestar Galactica” episode of Battlestar Galactica. On the first page of the series bible, Ron Moore writes, “The key to the success of this series is to never, ever let the air out of the balloon—the Battlestar Galactica lives in a perpetual state of crisis, one in which the Cylons can appear at any moment, and where terrorist bombs, murders, rebellions, accidents, and plagues are the unfortunate routines of day to day life. There are no days for our characters, no safe havens, nothing approaching the quiet normal existence they once knew. They are on the run for their very lives.” No single hour of the series sums up that edict better than “33.” The interesting thing is that that darkness was always there in the very premise of the series; what’s shocking to me is not how dark this show is, but how not dark the original series is. This reboot follows a natural progression from what is already a pitch-black concept.
Anthony, it’s completely fair to be turned off by BSG‘s oppressive pessimism. Reading through that series bible—which can be found online—it’s clear that Moore wanted to write THIS IS NOT STAR TREK on every single page. Having spent over a decade writing for various Trek franchises, he was clearly rebelling against Gene Roddenberry’s peace-and-harmony vision. He may have overcompensated. (In fact, after a few episodes, Sci-Fi executives complained that the show was too dark and requested that Moore include a scene in which the characters were having a party, to lighten the mood. Moore complied in “Act of Contrition,” which opens with a party on the hangar deck… in which there’s a terrible accident that kills thirteen people. They stopped asking him to lighten the mood after that.) But Moore’s other goal is stated clearly in that bible: he wanted to make a science fiction series that would be taken seriously. As we’ve seen in this roundtable, sci-fi television was all too often a dumping ground for cheap, cheesy programming aimed at children; Battlestar Galactica wants to be The Sopranos in Space.
This is probably the fifth time I’ve watched “33,” and it’s still astonishing. Obviously, it followed a very successful miniseries, but it’s still amazing to see a world this fully realized in the very first episode. You guys have done a good job pointing out the highlights—Apollo and Starbuck giggling at each other is fantastic—but what struck me this time is the brilliant use of the Cylons. Aside from Six, who only appears in Baltar’s head, we never see a Cylon. There are are no terse negotiations, there is no witty trash talking of the sort Picard traded with Tomalak in “The Defector.” They simply are, an unstoppable foe whose menace is matched only by their precision. The show would obviously spend a lot of time with the Cylons in future episodes, but they’re never more terrifying than in “33.”
Thanks to everyone who’s followed along with our space opera roundtable. We’ll be taking some much-needed shore leave next week, but the roundtable discussion will return the week after that with a brand-new topic. For our next round of shows, we’re going to enter the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage, with a look at the great secret agent shows of television history. Our lineup will be announced next Thursday, March 28, for everyone who wants to follow along, and we’ll be undertaking our first mission on April 3.