Thursday, June 6, 2013

"Battlestar Galactica" - "33"

Spoilers for "33" after the jump:

I've always thought of Battlestar Galactica's first season as the show at its most basic, and I mean that as a compliment. This is a series with a fairly extensive mythology, but you'd never know it by looking at most of these early episodes. But even later in the show's run, when the mythology becomes more dense, the major idea at the heart of it always remains fairly simple: desperate people trying to survive. It's an idea that BSG's strongest episodes tend to come back to time and time again. And "33", unquestionably one of the show's finest hours ever (some would point to it as the finest, and I'd have a hard time disagreeing), is essentially a concentrated and brilliantly crafted 44 minute dose of that idea. More so than perhaps any installment the series ever produced, it's BSG stripped down to its most vital elements.

This is an episode that breathes and sweats desperation at every turn, as the fleet attempts to survive a series of Cylon attacks occurring in 33 minute increments. Freed from the need for much exposition by the phenomenal plot and character groundwork that was laid by the miniseries, Ronald D. Moore's script simply drops in on the action on the fifth day of these nonstop attacks, initially without explaining much of anything. Before we're even made aware of exactly what's happening, images of sleep-deprived pilots and that constantly ticking clock provide immediate context as to the Galactica crew's state of mind. They have been fighting off their own extinction—by jumping away at the last second every time the Cylons appear—well over 200 times, with almost no opportunity for sleep in between. "We're getting slower", remarks Adama as they prep for their 237th jump, which occurs just in the nick of time.

And so they are. "33" conveys the crew's exhaustion largely through a series of brief and masterfully terse scenes. Adama cuts himself with a razor while shaving, then forgets whether it's his or Tigh's turn for ten minutes of sleep. (It's Tigh's, but the XO lies, saying, "If the old man's so tired he can't remember, then it's his turn.). Dualla forgets she already gave Adama a fuel report. Starbuck argues with Lee about his leadership style, which he responds to by laughing and saying that "I'm glad I'm not working for you". This exchange is actually quite amusing: a bizarre yet natural tonal shift from the tension that characterizes much of the episode. At the same time, it's still very much the exhausted and pointless back and forth of two people that are still standing somehow, but won't be for very much longer if they don't get a respite. And all the while, clocks—a constant presence in the episode, though they're only actually on screen for a few seconds—keep ticking away: a constant reminder of the fleet's dwindling reserves of time, energy, and hope. They're starting to lose people too, as human error begins to take its toll.

After the loss of civilian ship the Olympic Carrier (seemingly due to said human error), however, the Cylon attacks stop. But later the ship reappears, claiming to have had trouble with their FTL drives. Initial joy and relief, however, quickly turns into suspicion as Adama puts the ship on alert and orders the clock restarted, having immediately realized the possibility that the Cylons could be tracking the ship. This brings us to another frequently recurring element of BSG: weighty (and morally fraught, even if in many cases it was the only decision to be made) decision-making. We witnessed this, of course, at several points during the miniseries, among them that brilliant scene of Roslin being forced to abandon a number of ships incapable of FTL jumps, and Tigh making a decision that resulted in the deaths of quite a few of Tyrol's crew members. And it doesn't go away as the show becomes a weekly series.

Just the opposite, in fact, as in "33" it's almost the sole focus of the episode's final minutes, as opposed to just a couple of scenes (pivotal and powerful though they are) among dozens. With this far narrower focus, everything from the Olympic Carrier's reappearance to its destruction is basically one long and suspenseful lead-up to the inevitable (but still agonizing to all involved) decision to destroy it. The looks on Starbuck's and Lee's faces as they carry out the order say it all. It appears as though the ship has no one aboard, it's carrying nukes, and it's refusing all orders to stop. But what if they've misjudged the situation? They can't know for sure, and they never will. But that's what fighting to survive can mean in this universe: making decisions under less than ideal circumstances. Starbuck, Lee, Roslin, and Adama may not sleep well for quite a while, but the Olympic Carrier's destruction means that they will at least be able to sleep. And that's the best they can do.

All of this is phenomenally gripping, as are the scenes of Helo fighting to survive on Caprica, which are every bit as tense as anything happening about Galactica, and end on an intriguing note (as he's saved by another copy of Boomer). Also quite compelling is Gaius's situation and the way it ties into the situation with the Olympic Carrier as he discovers that someone aboard the ship apparently has information that could lead to his role in the initial Cylon attack being discovered. As he waits in terror for his fate to be determined, Number Six tries to bring him around to her belief in God's will, eventually convincing him to repent—he's willing to try anything at this point—just before the ship is destroyed. I'm sure we'll be talking more about BSG's religious elements as the show moves forward, but for now it's just interesting to see that the Cylons actually have their own faith, that they're fervent believers, and that their conception of God is very similar to the conceptions of most monotheistic religions in the world today. In other words, they're not as different from human beings as one might initially think (at least in terms of faith).

If neither of the two non-Galactica stories ultimately quite measure up to the main narrative of "33" in terms of overall impact, that's not because there's anything wrong with them, but simply because this stands out as an especially strong episode of a great series: streamlined, focused, and consistently intense in a way few shows (heck, at times even BSG itself during its later years) have managed to equal. Look at the weariness on Laura Roslin's face as she calmly says "next crisis?". That's this episode (and this show) in a nutshell: a bunch of weary people making their way from crisis to crisis. A new baby being born is a nice moment of earned sentiment to end the episode on. But make no mistake, it's merely a brief light in the darkness for these characters, who will be facing plenty more arduous situations and tough decisions in the episodes to come.

Other Thoughts

- The opening credits are haunting, largely thanks to the at once soothing and chilling melody that plays over them, and the way the general serenity (albeit of an eerie kind) gives way to an intense series of brief images from the episode shown in rapid succession. Just a beautifully crafted sequence in every way.

- Starbuck's "What?" when Tyrol stares at her after that conversation with Lee got a huge laugh from me. I'm starting to think I may have underestimated the amount of humor this show contains. (This episode also features Gaius trying to carry on two conversations at once: a time-old sitcom staple that, while not hysterical, delivered a few chuckles here.)

- This Was Television recently did a terrific roundtable discussion about this episode. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend checking it out, as it puts my meager review to shame.

- There won't be a review next week, as I've got a lot of stuff going on, and won't have the chance to write much during the next week. See you in two weeks to discuss "Water".

Grade: A

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