If there’s a shot that Battlestar Galactica deploys more skillfully than any other, it’s the close-up—specifically tight shots of minutiae that convey a sense of faux-verite. Galactica’s third season premiere, the two-hour “Occupation/Precipice,” opened with a series of shots that focused on nothing but physical processes, cropping faces and other identifying features out of frame. In rapid succession, we saw sex, the preparation of a bomb, preparation for prayer, a hand positioning models of ships on a battlefield like so many chess pieces and the agony of an isolated prisoner. The emphasis on physical process continued throughout the episode: cutting meat; disguising one’s identity through method of dress; fitting the wires into a bomb; scrawling a name on a death warrant; stroking the cheek of an infant. Galactica invariably asks what, exactly, makes us human; this episode went out of its way to remind us that for all of our lofty ambitions as a species, we are also made human by the tiny things we do to stay alive—eating, dressing, making love.
Fitting, then, that the two-parted revolved around a growing resistance to the Cylon occupiers who invaded New Caprica, the new home of the humans, at the end of season two. As the humans ramped up their efforts to regain their freedom (resorting at the episode’s midpoint to a campaign of suicide bombing), the Cylons struggle dto crush the resistance, finally resorting to stealing away suspected insurgents in the dead of night and dragging them into the countryside to be executed.
The Cylons, who last season seemed to be drifting toward some version of “live and let live,” have perhaps been corrupted from within by dangerously fundamentalist elements (Cavil, played by Quantum Leap’s Dean Stockwell, the latest in the show’s long list of SF series veterans, articulated this point of view, saying that the humans needed to be taught God’s love—through fear if necessary). As the situation spiraled out of control, extremist elements on both sides prevailed, turning the hard-nosed Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan) into a demon of vengeance (complete with newly acquired eyepatch) and forcing puppet human president Gaius Baltar (James Callis) to sign away the lives of 200 humans.
Although it cross-cut between at least seven different narrative threads, the premiere somehow managed to avoid disorienting the viewer. As scripted by Ron Moore, one of the series’s masterminds, and directed by Sergio Mimmica-Gezzan (a longtime first assistant director for Steven Spielberg), the two episodes rarely let the tension slack, instead gliding from one gut-wrenching situation (Baltar’s confrontation with Mary McDonnell’s ex-president Laura Roslin) to another (Starbuck meeting the girl her Cylon captor claimed was her child). Galactica has always alluded to recent events; the premiere played on images from news coverage of the first two years of the Iraq war (prisoners in hoods, night vision footage of people being captured).
But the resistance storylines weren’t the only narrative threads unspooled. In particular, the Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) storyline underlined the psychological threat of the Cylons: the daring pilot was reduced to pleading with her captor to cut her meat for her. Perhaps kept alive by one Cylon’s misplaced love, Starbuck veered dangerously close to Stockholm syndrome, even as she tried to understand the daughter she didn’t want and didn’t know she had (the shots of the child were desaturated, making seemingly matter-of-fact images of a two-year-old at play seem oddly menacing). She killed her captor, yet he still returned at the end of the day; she might as well have been trapped in a sitcom penned by Eugene Ionesco.
Meanwhile, on board the Galactica, Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos) and his rotund son (Jamie Bamber, in a fat suit that wasn’t always convincing) sparred over whether it was worth risking the rest of the human race to return to New Caprica and rescue those stranded on its surface. Both men looked beaten down by a turn they couldn’t have foreseen. Adama’s decision to recruit the Cylon Sharon (Grace Park) to liaison with the humans on New Caprica made strategic sense, but it also caused dissension in the ranks. Yet she was still inducted into the the human army, her boyfriend telling her that “Symbols matter” as Mimmica-Gezzan cut to a close-up of two pins affixed to her new uniform.
Not every element worked. In the past, Moore has shown a fondness for subverting the cliche of the rousing war movie speech (the speech in the pilot miniseries where Adama wondered whether humanity was worth saving remains a series highlight). But the speech Sharon delivered to Adama about how he needed to forgive himself wasn’t on the same level as previous Sharon/Adama scenes (which formed the thematic heart of certain episodes). The actors pulled it off, and the direction—which relied on some unusual two-shots—made it compelling, but the language was a tad too psychoanalytical and undercooked. Similarly, Roslin’s exposition near the top of the episode seemed too obviously designed to get newbies up to speed and nearly halted the story in its tracks. But these were minor flaws in an otherwise excellent premiere.
The concept of “allegiance” reverberated from start to finish. While Sharon sided against her species, several humans started working for the Cylons on New Caprica’s surface, taking jobs with the new human police force, earning the scorn of everyone from Roslin to Tyrol (Aaron Douglas—whose character is the most compelling “regular guy” in a series filled with them). All these elements led back to the same basic question: does loyalty matter more than survival? Galactica’s willingness to pose such basic questions is what makes it so compelling. While the war and action elements are well-done, the series transcends genre when it traps its characters and—by extension, its audience—in moral quagmires. Is it acceptable to use suicide bombers, and risk killing civilians, if it distracts the Cylons from an impending rescue mission? If a man has a family, is his primary allegiance to them or to the society he’s sworn to protect? By continuing to despise the Cylon enemy (with reason), are people like Adama and Roslin, who are both excellent leaders, obstructing meaningful attempts to coexist peacefully with the enemy? How are the Cylons different from, say, Cavil, when he advocates random executions? Can two civilizations comprised of such frail beings even live together?
Its that frailty that resonates throughout the episode, caught in extreme close-up: hand wiping the blood spilled from a slain enemy off a floor; a man clutching at prayer beads and asking for success in his mission to kill people who aligned themselves with the wrong side; fingers on a keyboard typing a message sent into space on the slimmest of hopes. On Battlestar Galactica, both humans and robots are made of flesh and blood.
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.