When the producers of Battlestar Galactica said they wanted to examine the life of the civilians in the fleet, I pictured episodes like the one that aired Sunday night, “Dirty Hands.”
The episode’s focus was the grunt workers who keep the fleet running by refining fuel, and the voyage into their refinery, basic as it was, was fascinating, shot in a style reminiscent of those famous photos of men constructing skyscrapers and working in mines during the 1930s. One of the things that has prevented Battlestar from taking us into this world in the past is its steadfast resolution to avoid technobabble, something that sunk many an episode of Star Trek. Certainly we wouldn’t buy that these massive spaceships run on gasoline or anything like that, so it’s necessary to come up with a cheat like tillium (the fuel used in the episode), but once you introduce such an element, there’s a temptation to explain how it fits into everything, how it’s processed, how the spaceships fill up and so on. Battlestar got around this by keeping everything deliberately vague, as if we were citizens of the Battlestar world and would already know what was going on, as we might when watching a documentary on how gasoline is made.
The episode, written by Anne Cofell Saunders and Jane Espenson, and directed by Wayne Rose, was also wonkier than usual for the series. “Dirty Hands” introduced the idea of Baltar (James Callis) writing something very similar to Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book,” its title (“My Triumphs, My Mistakes”) likewise paralleling Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle,” of course). The book appears to be a manifesto for a pseudo-communist ideology—or, at the very least, an instigation to class warfare. Since Baltar has usually been portrayed as a sniveling weakling who takes the easiest possible road in every possible situation, it doesn’t seem likely that the writers are suddenly siding with him. But the introduction of a plotline where the rich (admittedly, through circumstances beyond their control) are keeping the poor underfoot, insisting they work seven-day work weeks while never rising above their station is bold to say the least, even if the episode ended a little too conveniently (more on that later).
Thrust into the middle of this is Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), always the show’s steadfast blue-collar soul. Douglas is a good actor, but he’s rarely given much to do. This season has been kinder to him. His character has been a freedom fighter, a harried husband and a man trapped in a leaky airlock. The writers, seemingly more attuned to what Douglas is capable of, have made him a strong moral center of the show this season, roughly an equivalent to Tahmoh Penikett’s Helo, though not as idealistic. Tyrol is more interested in getting into the middle of things and getting his hands dirty, and Douglas plays him as a man who takes life as it comes. A highlight of “Dirty Hands” was watching Douglas work his way from the very lowest rungs of the fleet (in the refinery) to negotiating labor settlements with the president (Mary McDonnell). One of the flaws of Helo’s episode a few weeks ago (and a flaw only now apparent after seeing Tyrol’s episode) was that Helo, as good a character as he is, didn’t feel wholly at home outside of the military scenes. Tyrol moves more easily between class strata, and that made him the ideal character around which to center an episode about the classes pressing against each other.
“Dirty Hands” was also incredibly frank in how it portrayed scenes from this class struggle. In particular, the show embraced how, oftentimes, our destinies are determined by which parents we’re born to. It’s not that any good, democratic society aspires to this (and Tyrol persuades the president of this point rather easily, simply because she wants to believe in the idea that anyone can become anything), but economic realities do get in the way. Furthermore, Battlestar takes place during wartime, and the domestic issues of workers’ safety and better conditions are pitted against the desire to keep the fleet war-ready, especially with only a handful of people who know how to do the jobs required. The stuff in the refinery and among the mechanics was so good that the few off notes seemed particularly discordant. The introduction of child labor (in the form of an 11-year-old who knew everything there was to know about the refinery) felt stilted, as if the producers really wanted to show what the price of unchecked capitalism was instead of letting us put it together for ourselves. Similarly, the introduction of the teenager who was enlisted as a farmer and ended up injuring (or losing) his hand in the machinery seemed too obvious a way to show us how trying to make everything fair can backfire. But for the most part, the scenes among the workers were very good, gritty and shot through with a sense that things could erupt into violence at any moment.
Once again, the acting in the episode was a highlight. McDonnell made the most of the scenes where she debated Tyrol. The dialogue could have been too West Wing-ish in another actor’s hands, but McDonnell made interesting choices, tossing off long lists in an offhand manner and offering up sly little smiles. Her grin directly into the camera while Baltar was being stripped was both terrifying and a nice way to undercut the moment. Callis also acquitted himself well. While the idea of Baltar writing a pamphlet full of communist ideology that sweeps through the fleet’s working class was a little ridiculous (mostly because it seemed sort of odd that anyone would listen to Baltar, though, hey, Hitler was imprisoned too), but Callis sold the idea that Baltar’s imprisonment put him in touch with his inner regular Joe. Particularly impressive was a scene where Tyrol came to Baltar in a moment of self-doubt and questioned him about how he could ever claim to have been from a farming colony when his carriage and voice obviously suggest being from a wealthier colony. Over the course of a long monologue, Callis talked about Baltar’s childhood, then completely shifted his voice to a low, guttural sound with Cockney influences to show the background he consciously trained himself to not emulate, the camera slowly zooming in on his mouth. It’s a bit of an acting trick, to be sure, but coupled with a strongly-written monologue, Callis made the most of it.
Unfortunately, the episode ended a little tritely. After raising all of these issues and examining the clash between the upper and lower classes (with Tyrol as a functional middle class representative), the episode proceeded to the only point it really could—a strike, with Tyrol in the lead. From there, it almost seemed as if the writers had to back off of the story and points they had raised, so as to better conform the episode with the overall arc. Tyrol was put in jail, and after Adama (Edward James Olmos—making the most of a few scenes) threatened to kill his wife, he backed off of the strike. Still, Adama and Roslin were willing to listen to him, and he began negotiating better deals for the workers (nearly all of which Roslin agreed to without much complaint). Following that, Seelix (Jennifer Halley), a mechanic who longed to be a pilot and kicked off the episode’s themes of yearning for a station above the one you’re in, managed to enter the pilot training program, after having been rejected. She left the mechanics, all smiles, and the decided impression was that everything was completely fixed.
This denouement felt rushed and cut against everything that the rest of the episode was about. It was as if the writers got to a realistic, but not easily resolved place and then couldn’t figure out a way to close it all off in time. In some ways, this was similar to the genocide episodes from earlier in the season, which also raised some big issues, then closed them off a bit too cleanly. “Dirty Hands” was better than those episodes, but the ending left a bit of a sour taste. Hopefully, the lives of the workers won’t be completely forgotten. Whatever it is they do with tillium, I want to see more of it.