“The Passage,” the penultimate episode of Battlestar Galactica’s 2006 run, was both a throwback to the series’ more action-packed first season and an attempt at rehabilitating a character who was mostly invented to be a thorn in the side of the regulars. It succeeded at the former and almost succeeded at the latter, though it took a strong final monologue from Edward James Olmos’s Admiral Adama to rescue that plot point. All in all, a solid stand-alone, inching the show’s mythology forward a bit while returning to the feeling of imminent doom that was Season One’s stock-in-trade.
The plot finds the fleet running perilously low on food. To get to the algae neeeded to compress into precious protein bars, the ships must pass through a highly irradiated star cluster. The military pilots, already weak from hunger, are told to pump themselves up on stimulants and chaperone the civilian fleet through five trips to and from the planet on the other edge of the star cluster. (They are able to jump in to the danger area, then jump out later, but they can’t go on their own and leave the civilians unprotected). The episode revolved around this exhausting mission, and the cast’s ragged performances were a nice reminder of just how raw things can get for the denizens of the fleet (since Season One, there have only been a few episodes where the characters struggled to acquire the materials for fuel and life-sustaining essentials, probably because there were only so many ways to retell that story without seeming repetitious).
The end of all things has always hovered over Galactica; indeed, the series is often at its best when we’re reminded of just how necessary every life is to the continuation of the human race. (I often miss President Laura Roslin’s whiteboard that tracked the population of the fleet, even as it always seemed to trend downward.) As the show has gone on, though, the nuclear apocalypse that kicked it off has necessarily receded further into the background. Characters started having children (bumping that whiteboard count up ever-so-slightly), the portrayal of the Cylon civilization deepened, and the writers grew more interested in pursuing the series’ underlying mythology. It was nice, then, to see an episode that focused on one of those essential survival questions again (though it seems unlikely that Adama or Roslin would let the food situation get that dire before seeking a new algae source), especially as it called back some of the most vivid Season One elements—the exhausted pilots holding themselves together with drugs and minimal sleep, the interest in the role rank plays within the pilots’ dynamics, and the reapppearance of the wall of photos honoring those who died in the Cylons’ opening attack.
If “The Passage” seemed to view now-familiar elements with fresh eyes, that might be due to the fact that it was written by a non-staffer—longtime TV writer Jane Espenson, whose career spans everything from Dinosaurs to Jake in Progress (though she is best known for her five season stint on Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Like many freelance episodes, it felt like an attempt by someone not in the inner circle of writers to capture what they liked about the show while steering clear of outright fan fiction. For the most part, Espenson and director Michael Nankin succeeded.
Working against all this was the fact that “The Passage” was, of all things, Kat-centric. Luciana Carro was strong in the role, but Kat has always been underwritten, conceived as a younger, better foil for Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck in the Season Two episode “Scar.” (Kat appeared several times prior to that, but her storyline in “Scar”—also directed by Nankin—is easily the most remarkable thing about the character so far.) Kat was brash, cocky and gratutiously challenging to Starbuck, her superior; the audience knew nothing about her and plenty about Starbuck, so it was only natural that we would side with Starbuck in the end. Kat made more appearances after that, but, for the most part, she was a one-episode wonder (if an irritating one).
“The Passage” unexpectedly turned into a Kat story roughly halfway through its first act. (Though, perhaps, we should have seen it coming; Espenson’s blog urges fledgling TV spec-writers to pin the plots of spec scripts to under-utilized recurring characters.) Over the course of the episode, we learned that Kat used to be a drug runner; overhauling a minor character’s background isn’t a big deal (it’s riskier when it’s done to a major character, as it was with Apollo in “Black Market”), but giving Kat a dark past is just this side of being a completely unbearable groaner. Much of “The Passage” felt like those episodes of Lost where we learn plenty about the past life of a character we hadn’t spent much quality time with before, only see them killed by the episode’s end. Sure enough, Kat died, purposefully taking on more radiation than she could handle in an attempt to keep pushing ahead, burn away her past as another woman and save a civilian ship. She lied about her radiation level by swapping out the badge showing she had absorbed too much with another badge that indicated she hadn’t, thus ending a career that started in one lie with another. (As Starbuck said, “You lied your way into the company of good people.”)
The Kat storyline felt somewhat forced, but it was redeemed by two final scenes—Adama sitting at Kat’s bedside and talking about how he always wanted a daughter (advancing the idea that he has hyper-personalized those who serve beneath him, despite attempts to distance himself in the last few episodes) and Starbuck pinning Kat’s photo to the wall of the dead and missing. It felt wrong to have Starbuck come around completely on Kat, but Sackhoff played the scene well. “The Passage” suggested that a whole life, even one rife with wrongdoing, can be redeemed by an in-the-moment good deed. While this is sketchy from an ethical point of view (if a mass murderer saves a life, does that absolve him of former crimes?), it’s an interestingly democratic idea that advances Galactica’s expanded focus this season; it implies that any character can be the hero, and every character’s story is worth telling.
The Cylons returned this week after being mostly AWOL from the past two installments. The scenes on board the basestar continue to be technically intriguing; the dissolves and that haunting piano score redeem some clunky dialogue. And the show’s mythology took another step forward with a well-acted scene in which Baltar (James Callis) and D’Anna (Lucy Lawless) visited the hybrid who powers the Basestar (Tiffany Lyndall-Knight). D’Anna’s chasing of the identity of the final five Cylon models (by endlessly killing herself) is a nifty metaphor for addiction (and not one you’ve seen a million times already), and her drawings of what she remembers from the land between life and death are devolving into obscure darkness, like schizophrenic artist Louis Wain’s famous cats.
Finally, a word on the special effects. The visual effects team on Galactica, thrice nominated for Emmys now, never calls attention to itself, but the scenes set inside the star cluster must have been tough to compose on a television timeframe, and they all looked completely convincing within the show’s universe. The team has yet to win an Emmy (losing last year to, of all things, Rome), which executive producer David Eick attributes to the effects not being horribly obtrusive. Here’s hoping that this episode, filled as it was with stunning vistas and starships jetting through them, will land them that elusive prize.