Returning in our hour of greatest need, Battlestar Galactica began its fourth and final season (depending on if you follow the Sci Fi Channel’s rather asinine nomenclature of a season that will essentially be split into two smaller ones) with a dull, seething roar. “He That Believeth in Me” wasn’t a slam-bang premiere, outside of its opening space battle, but it contained enough roiling tensions to hopefully placate fans who lost faith in the third season, during a long string of stand-alone “personal” stories that served to flesh out other aspects of the ragtag fleet and (in too many cases) bore hardcore fans to tears. While Battlestar is, in many ways, a post-genre work (it’s only tangentially a science fiction tale much of the time, and when things like technobabble pop up, they often infuriate), the very genre it belongs to carries with it a legion of fans looking to nitpick each and every thing about the show they passive-aggressively love (one poster on the Television Without Pity boards questioned how Starbuck could have heard of a Petri dish if she had not grown up on an Earth where Julius Richard Petri had invented the thing). To that end, Battlestar often feels like a show at war with itself and perceptions of what it’s trying to do, and the tug-of-war between its small, personal side and its operatic side that indulges in things like a complicated mythology involving lost colonies and bibilical references galore is occasionally what makes the show fascinating—when it’s not leading to things like last season’s poorly thought-out “The Woman King.”
Happily, “Believeth” came down on the right side of that ledger, offering up a heaping helping of space battle action to kick things off, then quietly downshifting to tell a smaller, more personal story of the emotional fallout from the big events that closed out last season (in brief, four members of the fleet discovered they were actually—gasp—Cylons and the presumed dead Starbuck returned). Among the big themes Battlestar has always wrestled with is the idea of personal identity. How much of yourself is predetermined by things beyond your control and how much is determined by your own free will? It’s a question that science fiction, with its alien hive minds and brainwashing agents, has always wrestled with, and Battlestar made much hay out of this, especially in its first season.
Written by David Weddle and Bradley Thompson, two of Battlestar’s surest hands at melding mythos with melodrama, and directed by Michael Rymer, one of those most responsible for the series’ now-famous docudrama look, what was most fascinating in the episode was the stuff focusing on the poor, beleaguered Gaius Baltar (James Callis, whose work—already great in the miniseries that functioned as the series’ pilot—improves even more with each season). While many fans will likely write this storyline off as completely tangential and a waste of time (as it doesn’t get to the heart of any of the series’ big questions), the storyline does strike at the heart of these themes of identity. Throughout the series, Baltar has been the most fascinatingly unpredictable character, a highly competent man who’s reduced to incompetence by the sheer magnitude of the guilt resting on his shoulders and the strange insanity (or is it?) of the Cylon manifestation living inside of his head. Largely spurred by the fact that always having Baltar just escape detection would grow wearisome and by Callis’ ability to play just about anything, the show’s writers have had him try on an unbelievable number of roles and guises. His latest guise is Jesus, which, when you think about it, sort of seems inevitable.
What’s fascinating is how being cast as a holy man makes Baltar, for once, realize just how terrible of a person he’s been. He’s danced around this notion in the past, but his innate knack for self-preservation kept him from getting too introspective. Now that he’s essentially free and easy (and living with a harem of beautiful women while he, apparently, invents monotheism, no less), he has a moment to realize just how much damage he’s done to everyone around him and just how much he’s bumbled through life, a very lucky man so far. As he prays over the dying body of a very sick little boy (asking God to take him instead of the boy), Callis imbues the moment with an impressive tragic weight. He’s not Jesus, really; he’s much too flawed and imperfect for that. All he really wants is a sort of finality he knows won’t be coming. Instead, even as he’s assaulted in the bathroom by a man whose son’s death was Baltar’s fault, he’s saved by a most likely deus ex machina. And as all of this is going on, the Number Six (Tricia Helfer) in his head is feeding him the lines he needs to get through everything with the harem girls and acolytes. Throughout the series, Head Six has clued Baltar in to things that seem as though he shouldn’t have known them, to the point where it now seems as though Battlestar is putting God himself back into the question of predestination vs. free will. Did somebody up there choose Baltar to be a prophet? And is there any way he can shirk that duty?
The fallout from last season’s finale was also well-handled, particularly as our four newly-revealed Cylons dealt with their new identities. While an early scene where an activated Tigh (Michael Hogan) put a bullet through the forehead of Adama (Edward James Olmos) was too obviously a worst-case-scenario hallucination by the Cylon-despising Tigh, a later scene where Roslin (Mary McDonnell, clearly relishing a return to the center of the action) and Adama talked over whether or not Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) was actually a Cylon after her improbable return was terrific. While using the dramatic irony of having Roslin and Adama commenting on Cylon sleeper agents in a room full of them, including Tigh, Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) and Tory (Rekha Sharma), might have seemed a bit obvious, Rymer used the framing of the shots to his full advantage, situating the six actors in the scene (Jamie Bamber’s increasingly too-heroic Apollo was the other) in a fascinating manner where he could cut from a beautifully composed frame of all six actors that played up the Cylons’ anxieties to three separate two-shots that further exacerbated these anxieties. In particular, seeing Tyrol, staring into space in worry, half of him offscreen (one is tempted to say it’s the not-yet-activated Cylon half) while Roslin nattered on about the great threat of not-yet-activated Cylons encapsulated two very separate forms of dread.
But will these Cylons be able to override their programming? Or is that programming so much a part of them that to even try would be useless? Circling back to those ideas of identity, the episode put such questions up front, as the four gathered in a room to talk about what they needed to do to keep their fleet from falling at their hands. Earlier, Starbuck’s husband Anders (newly-promoted series regular Michael Trucco) had an encounter with a Cylon centurion in the midst of a frenzied space dogfight, who apparently scanned him, found him to be of Cylon origin and called off the attack (another convenient deus ex machina?). So while there’s some benefit to being one of the final five Cylons, clearly the others also argue that a switch could be flipped at any time and lead to mass chaos. Tigh bets, however, that self-knowledge is the key. Now that they know they’re Cylons, they can step up and change and fight against their programming. Surely, though, it can’t be that easy. What everyone’s circling around and afraid to directly confront (only Apollo, in the guise of questioning whether Starbuck is a Cylon, actually even asks it) is the idea that being a Cylon doesn’t really change you, if you’ve already got your allegiances. Athena (Grace Park) has switched sides, fighting for the humans, so isn’t it possible for others? Time will tell.
Finally, there’s Starbuck, who finds her return to the fleet greeted with incredulity. While she thought she was gone for only a few hours (after finding Earth, she made a hasty return), the fleet informs her she’s been gone for over two months (as a side note, one of Galactica’s bigger problems is how poorly it explains that its events are occurring over the sweep of months, not just weeks—the late series Rome and AMC’s Mad Men occasionally have similar problems). Suspected by almost everyone of being a Cylon and taken in a direction she knows to be away from Earth, Starbuck goes a little more bugnuts than usual (which is good—Sackhoff plays desperate and crazy well), desperately trying to hang on to the path to Earth before it escapes from her head, like a good song she heard on the radio. While Starbuck is often on the periphery of the episode, she’s a constant reminder of the real dangers and uncertainties the fleet faces, and the question of whether or not to trust her (particularly in light of a bit of prophecy from the TV movie Razor that says she will lead the human race to its destruction) will weigh heavily on the rest of the season. Indeed, the cliffhanger (another sequence marvelously staged by Rymer) features her telling her husband she’d kill him if she found out he was a Cylon after he says he’d be OK with her being one (there’s that dramatic irony again), pistol-whipping him until he tells her where Roslin is, then using a grenade to blow open that room. She enters, wreathed by smoke, seen from Roslin’s perspective as a hazy angel of death (I love the grim little smile McDonnell wears during this sequence, as if she’s been expecting this all along), ready to force Roslin (at gunpoint, if need be) to turn this fleet around.
“He That Believeth in Me” was one of those episodes that raised more questions than answers, allowing fans to muck about in the series’ larger storylines for a little while and wonder if series creator Ron Moore has a point to all of the mysticism and religious stuff he’s been piling on over the course of the series (it remains the least-explained element of a series that has actually been pretty concrete so far). Moore will rather cheerfully admit that he and his writers are making a lot of this up as they go along, but so much of the series has hung together so far that I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
It certainly helps when they’re able to do things like the sequence that opened “Believeth,” where the newly-revealed Cylons ran around, wondering if they would be the next to betray their friends, even as out among the stars, the humans and Cylons did battle and Apollo wondered if this was really the real Starbuck (so did Roslin and Adama, as Roslin tried to get everyone to ignore Starbuck, saying it was a Cylon trick. Marvelously tense and filled with special effects that are, hands down, the best on television, the sequence was a great example of how deftly Battlestar blends personal and political intrigue with outright action when it wants to. The series often then leans more toward the former in individual episodes, but that’s, on the whole, a good thing. Battlestar succeeds where many others have failed because it’s less concerned with what these people can do in a space battle and more with what personal issues and identity crises put them in that situation in the first place.
Random speculation will be the order of the day in the comments section, I hope, so here are some grossly uninformed guesses as to the answers to various questions. Firstly, I think the Cylon god will prove to be the one, true god, but it will be one of those things like in Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question,” where “God” is an artificial intelligence or something, so the series doesn’t drift too far into mysticism. Secondly, I think the final Cylon will be proved to be Apollo’s wife Dualla (Kandyse McClure), the better to eventually get Apollo and Starbuck together to end the series. Thirdly, I don’t think Starbuck’s a Cylon (obviously), but I also think the Cylons have something to do with her return. And finally, I really have no idea what to make of the human-Cylon hybrid babies and their importance to the narrative (since there are two of them now). Think I’m off-base? Have your own ideas? Spout off in comments.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.