“Escape Velocity” is probably one of those episodes that most of the diehard Battlestar fans will hate because it’s a little strange, the feel of it is rather hazy and, well, not a lot actually HAPPENS in it. It’s very definitely one of those episodes that exists solely to set up future episodes and to create plot points and/or red herrings that will keep those following the storyline guessing as the series plays out. The episode also focuses on the weird mysticism that has always permeated the series, and it deals with the painful birthing pangs of monotheism. In some ways, it feels like more of a thinkpiece than an episode of a very plot-driven series. I really liked it, all things considered, but if you hated it, I don’t blame you. It kind of drifts about like a fever dream or a vision rather than just getting to the point already, though it builds to a memorable montage, filled with portent. And now that I troll the TWOP boards to read fan reactions, I see that most everyone else was on its wavelength too, so, once again, my fandom radar is way off.
The episode was written by cult-TV vet Jane Espenson (author of one of the most popular blogs in the TV-writer-o-sphere) and directed by series star Edward James Olmos. Olmos’ last directorial effort, season three’s “Taking a Break From All Your Worries,” was a terrific hour of television, full of religious iconography. “Escape Velocity” isn’t as good, but Olmos again does his best work with the religious material, suggesting he has a knack for the strange wonder of the divine. The best sequence in the whole thing is when Baltar (James Callis) stands before his followers, as well as Lee Adama (Jamie Bamber), and delivers a monologue about how because everyone is loved by God and God cannot love the imperfect, we are all, therefore, perfect. Battlestar’s religions have always been disappointingly earthbound, but the Baltar sect seems to be pursuing some weird combination of Gnosticism, Quakerism, New Age mysticism and some of the writings from apocryphal gospels like The Gospel of Thomas (that revelation comes courtesy of a commenter at The Onion’s A.V. Club).
One of the things that’s always been most frustrating about Battlestar’s portrayal of the religious life of the fleet is that it doesn’t seem nearly as deep as the series’ portrayal of military or political life. Even that episode last season that delved into the world of the working man got deeper into the minds of those folks than the series has ever gone into notions of religiosity. That’s, perhaps, unsurprising. Television has always been uncomfortable with religion, usually consigning its religious personalities to kids programming or Sunday morning. Religion is either used ironically (wherein a very logical and scientific character is revealed to be a devout Catholic or something—paging Dana Scully) or as a way to mock. Occasionally, you find a character like Battlestar’s priestess Elosha, who is sincere in their religious faith but mostly just used as plot window dressing, but TV usually holds religion at arm’s length, a little frightened by it. The old Parents Television Council argument that Hollywood hates religious people is completely inaccurate; it would be more accurate to say that Hollywood just never knows what to do with them.
That’s also been true of Battlestar over the seasons. Tonight’s episode revolves around an attack on Baltar’s sect by a group calling itself the Sons of Ares. In an attempt to both protect against future attacks and persecute Baltar, President Roslin (Mary McDonnell) limits the number of people who can assemble at any given time, essentially depriving Baltar of his harem (the episode strongly implies that pretty much everyone knows the secret location Baltar was spirited away to last season, so the rigmarole surrounding that plot point largely seems useless now). Later, as Lee leads a protest against her among the members of the Quorum, others bring up how her new law could limit meetings of those who believe in Mithras. At another point, Baltar interrupts one of the more common religious ceremonies on the ship and yells loudly about the various gods and goddesses, pointing out how unworthy of worship they are. All of this is well and good, but it feels sort of like a stone skipping along the surface of a much deeper reservoir of emotion and subject matter. It’s good that the series is tackling the problems inherent in the emergence of any new and compelling religion (and establishing that Baltar, in spite of himself, has a great deal of religious intelligence, which has, perhaps, largely come to him in the form of his vision of Six), but it would be all the better if we had some idea of what these people actually believed and what, exactly, might be believed by a group like the Sons of Ares. I’m not sure having the group literally believe in the Greek gods and goddesses is the best move (although this is what the series has always implied). The Cylon version of monotheism is so different from the monotheism we’re aware of that making the polytheistic humans so, well, Earth-y is a bit disappointing.
Even if I wanted a deeper examination of the religious world of the fleet (and always have), most of the rest of the religious stuff is surprisingly interesting and deep. The episode opens with a monologue from Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) as he mourns the passing of his wife, Cally. The monologue’s insistence on the many gods of the human religion and their very human flaws contrasts nicely with Baltar’s closing monologue, which is both a strangely open-minded view of God and exactly the kind of self-centered religion that Baltar would come up with. In the midst of the episode, we once again see Roslin’s complete intolerance for religious views outside of her own scope, one of the nice ways that the show has gradually undercut the days when Roslin’s every fundamentalist utterance eventually led to the right answer. Now, Roslin uses her faith mostly as a way to strike back at Baltar, and Lee can see through it. If Battlestar’s portrayal of religion has often been less deep than its portrayals of other aspects of fleet life, this episode goes a long way toward righting that balance, suggesting that religion sustains many on the fleet and that leaders can use that religion for various means of exploitation, even if they don’t quite know they’re doing it. (And, while we’re at it, how concerned would a society of under 40,000 people REALLY be with civil liberties? I realize that the show wants to present an oblique spin on current events much of the time, but the sheer scale of the holocaust that opened the series occasionally makes these moments feel a little silly.)
The religious thread runs throughout the episode, but the other storylines all focus on the three newly revealed Cylons on board the Galactica, forcing themselves to deal with what their lives have become. The most intriguing thread follows Tyrol, coming to grips with the death of his wife rather poorly and seemingly feeling an odd mixture of relief and stultifying grief. A terrific scene in the bar, written perfectly by Espenson and showing Olmos’ easy comfort with the show’s cast, revolves around Adama (Olmos again) and Tyrol discussing how to deal with grief. Tyrol, who had earlier been reminiscing about working with his wife before sending out a ship he had improperly repaired, almost leading to the death of Racetrack, launches into an angry, vindictive monologue about how little he misses her, about how relieved he is to have her gone. There is truth in some of the words, but also the sense that Tyrol is pushing too hard to deny the various things that make him human, to accept who he actually is. The monologue about Cally is a particularly astute piece of writing—when Espenson has Tyrol describe her as having a “boiled cabbage stench,” you get an instant snapshot of exactly who she was and the moments when Tyrol was completely sick of her. Douglas in general is terrific in the episode, which makes good use of his everyman quality to portray the way self-knowledge and grief can intersect in a sort of suicidal spiral.
Meanwhile, both Tigh (Michael Hogan) and Tory (Rekha Sharma) are dealing with their Cylon-ness by examining the intersections between pleasure and pain. If the religious thread running through the episode is a little underwritten (in a good way in most scenes), the stuff about how we learn through pain is a little overwritten, even if these moments are prelude to the return of Kate Vernon as Tigh’s wife, one of the best characters from the series’ first three seasons. The quick switches between Vernon and Tricia Helfer’s Six are well-done, even as the discussion turns literal too quickly (I kept longing for Tigh to just spit out that he was a Cylon; having no one find out about the four new Cylons feels a bit like a retread of Boomer’s predicament in season one). And while I’m glad that Tory’s been given something to do and while Sharma’s playing the hell out of it, Tory’s embrace of her bad self is a little too cliché, a little too much like exactly what you’d expect to happen. It’s good that Tory’s realizing the truth about herself has opened her up to a world of new possibilities (I particularly love how taken she is with Baltar’s new creed and how it absolves her for her own existence), but having her play this so literally and vampishly is not the most interesting choice that could have been made here.
In the end, though, the episode belongs to Olmos, who takes all of these elements and the strong script and brings them to a dread-filled life. If he doesn’t get a chance to do as many instantly iconic images as he did in “Taking a Break,” he is still doing interesting things like tossing tiny jitters into extreme close-ups (though that’s in the Battlestar directorial bag o’ tricks) and shooting the assault by the Sons of Ares at odd angles. The editing keeps things suitably off-edge too, tossing random shots of the Sons racing through the halls as Tory and Baltar share an intimate moment. And that final montage brings everything together, opening with Baltar being beaten by guards who won’t let him into his home, standing again and again being beaten, controlled puppet-like by the Six in his head (the shots of a limp Baltar seemingly floating in mid-air are the strongest and strangest in the episode), then delivering a sermon intercut with the members of the fleet whom the sermon applies to. Even Lee seems impressed as he also appears to realize just how much of it is more self-serving bunk from a man who’s been peddling it for years. That dread permeates the episode, which occasionally feels like a gnawing vision of an uncertain future. Battlestar is at its best when we sense that the end is nigh, and this episode has that feeling in spades. The world of Battlestar isn’t ending in a bang or a whimper; it’s ending in a haze of discontent.
Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) randomly pops up in one shot tonight, which probably threw anyone who’d never seen the series before (not that any of those people are watching at this point), but her appearance seems designed to keep pushing the “Starbuck is the last Cylon!” theory. I’m still not buying it, but a recent rewatch of a few season two episodes has led me to believe that the real Starbuck really is dead and that this Starbuck was grown from the egg harvested from her back then. I’m sure I’m not the first to come up with this theory, but that’s your random speculation for the week.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.