After its nauseatingly tense premiere, Battlestar Galactica ratcheted back the drama in the second episode of its third season, “Exodus, Part One.” Penned by David Weddle and Bradley Thompson and directed by Felix Enriquez Alcala), the episode sported two of the season’s biggest action sequences (twin sieges, one pinning down the human resistance, the other obliterating Cylons who intended to execute 200 human dissidents). But the bulk of the hour that was quieter than expected, as various characters prepared for a battle to free the humans from the Cylon occupation and retake their place searching the stars for Earth.
In particular, the show chose to highlight its vast company of female players. Science fiction is a genre that traditionally draws a lot of attention from men (hence the term fanboys). Though it does draw a number of women, they have to forgive a lot; science fiction movies and TV programs traditionally confine females to one of two roles, the damsel in distress or the object of lust (sometimes both). While literary science fiction has grown beyond this (thanks to a wide variety of female science fiction writers, from Ursula K. LeGuin to Connie Willis), theatrical films often cling to the old pulp roles, plus the odd variation on Princess Leia (James Cameron excepted). On television, things are worse; even a character as resourceful and intelligent as Scully on The X-Files found herself in peril more often than her male partner.
Not so on Galactica. The women are often just as good at piloting their spaceships as the men (and Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck is frequently referred to as the best pilot in the fleet). Humankind’s female president, Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) fights hard to keep a line drawn between civilians and the military, but she also has no compunctions about doing what’s necessary to save her species. The Cylon women range from seductresses to assassins to seers. Even the human-Cylon hybrid that may spell the future of both races is a baby girl.
Despite the show’s embrace of female characters that defy the usual stereotypes, the premiere was a heavily masculine affair, shunting women to the sidelines while the men blew themselves up, planned a rescue mission and suffered under the weight of the occupation. This week Galactica righted the balance. We started with Callie (Nikki Cline), a character who seemed underdeveloped in the past, but who came into her own in in the first two episodes of this season, becoming a wife and mother while remaining a fiercely independent woman who taunts her captors and flees for her life at the first opportunity. From there, we saw Roslin stepping in for the absent Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos, who spent the episode preparing for the rescue mission) and helping the resistance plan its retaliatory strike against the Cylons to give the Galactica a window of opportunity while also setting in motion a plan to protect the aforementioned hybrid’s adoptive mother. Sharon (Grace Park), the Cylon who’s been won over to the human side, put her new allegiance on the line, infiltrating some sort of Cylon bank to get spaceship ignition keys to get the humans off New Caprica, then ensuring her own escape by shooting D’Anna Biers (Lucy Lawless, showing sides that were never hinted at on Xena) in both kneecaps.
The only woman who didn’t kick ass was Starbuck herself, still trapped in her weird domestic hell, now trying to bond with her child. Sackhoff’s performance has always had an element of vulnerability, and she’s delving into that aspect more deeply as Starbuck contemplates the child she has been told is hers. Sackhoff doesn’t need to come out and say that Starbuck is having second thoughts about spending the rest of her life in the military; we can see it in her eyes. Even Amanda Plummer turned up as a seer whom D’Anna was guided to in a dream (which was so desaturated that it nearly suggested an outtake from Sin City). While D’Anna has been confined to the backgrounds of most episodes, tonight’s installment established her as the first Cylon to have what appears to be a prophetic dream, and the first to question the monotheistic faith of her people.
The scene with Plummer and Lawless might have seemed uncharacteristic of a series that’s enamored with the trappings of “hard” SF (the space dogfights even conform to the laws of zero gravity physics). But it was consistent for a show that has always embraced mysticism rather matter-of-factly. We’re allowed to believe that Roslin’s visions from season two were genuinely prophetic, and Plummer’s seer clearly knows things she logically couldn’t have known about. The Cylons treat the human-Cylon hybrid as a kind of savior, and, indeed, her blood does cure cancer. And so on. Even in this latest episode, in one of the few scenes set aboard Galactica, we got a sense of just how deeply the culture of the humans is imbued with religiosity as we saw what appeared to be a quasi-blessing for the warriors headed into battle. Perhaps, on a show that is obsessed with others and otherness, Galactica is suggesting that religion is the unknowable, unthinkable twin of science—separate magisteria, as Stephen Jay Gould says—offering up answers when science falls short.
At the same time, Galactica is coming under fire in some quarters for seeming to suggest that its depiction of the humans’ resistance to the Cylon occupation comes close to validating the Iraqi insurgency. This latest episode broadened the show’s worldview; beyond Iraq, there were visual and narrative echoes of Vichy France and the former Soviet Union (the firing squads that opened the episode and the images of New Caprica’s near-prison camp conditions reminded me of the works of dissident writers in the former USSR, such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn). However, it’s worth noting that while Galactica is allegorically inclined, it is not simplistic. The parallels are slippery enough to avoid saying, directly, that the insurgency in Iraq is a good thing (and, what’s more, some of the show’s most sympathetic characters condemn the use of suicide bombers). What the series seems to be suggesting instead is simply that when humans are oppressed, they will rebel, and when they do, no one should be surprised.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark. For more writing on BSG, see the sidebar at right.