pop culture | no politics
Author's Note: Having grown tired of what's currently available on TV I've decided to rewatch some of my all time favorite shows. I'm limiting myself to one episode per week in order to experience the storytelling as it was originally intended, which hopefully will preserve the thrill of having to wait a week to see what happens next. This article covers the Battlestar Galactica episode "33", which originally aired on January 14th of 2004.
The reimagined Battlestar Galactica got off to an unusual start. Rather than using a traditional pilot episode to introduce the audience to the characters and world, it launched with a mini-series that is essentially a pair of feature-length films. This was an extremely effective way to convey important information to the audience, and made it easy for them to accept what they were seeing on screen when the time came for the first episode of the show's inaugural season.
That episode is “33” and it’s one of the best in the entire saga, capturing many of the elements that make Battlestar stand out from the rest of the sci-fi crowd. “33” starts off by not telling but showing us the bleak state that humanity is in after the Cylon attack that drove the story in the miniseries. Both the civilian and military factions of the remaining fleet have been pushed to the brink of exhaustion by a relentless pursuit from the “toasters”, who are somehow tracking their human creators as they travel through space. No matter where the fleet jumps to the Cylons show up thirty-three minutes later, hence the episode’s title.
The opening scenes of “33” are beautifully tense which immediately put the audience on edge, even before we fully comprehend what is going on. There’s a heavy focus on clocks as we get the sense that time is running short for these characters that we’ve only just begun to know. Wall clocks and digital clocks race towards the thirty-three minute mark, all while the show cuts back and forth between the crew of the Galactica and the presidential ship Colonial One. The exhaustion on everyone’s face is juxtaposed with a quickly-diminishing hope that THIS might be the time the clock is allowed to move past the deadline without the killer robots showing up.
A lesser show would’ve fallen into a trap where dialog would be used to convey the direness of the situation, but Battlestar gets the point across by relying on its brilliant cast to express the hopelessness they feel. Characters yawn and are scatterbrained from not having been able to sleep in five days, pilots consume uppers and shake themselves awake inside their cockpits to avoid drifting off to sleep. These are people that know they’re facing extinction and have no other choice but to keep going, forcing themselves to stay awake in order to ensure the survival of their race. The desire to live versus the temptation to give up is a motif that is woven throughout the entire series, this is but the first of many hardships these characters will face over the show’s four season run.
The brilliant scientist Gaius Baltar, considered by fleet leaders to be one of the most indispensable members of what remains of humanity, finds himself under duress not just from physical and mental exhaustion, but also from the threat of exposure for his role in humanity’s downfall. In the miniseries we learned that Baltar was a pawn used by the Cylons to orchestrate a massive nuclear attack on multiple worlds, an assault that left less that fifty thousand human beings alive. Baltar had felt relatively that safe his unwitting role in the attack was covered up, but it turns out another member of the fleet might have some dirt on him.
Luckily for Gaius, the ship carrying his potential downfall has gone missing after the fleet’s most recent jump. The disappearance of the vessel Olympic Carrier also results in the Cylons not appearing at the thirty-three minute mark for the first time in 238 jumps, which leads both President Roslin and Commander Adama to suspect that the absent ship has been compromised by the enemy in order to track the fleet. While the loss of over 1,300 lives is devastating for an already-depleted population, the possibility that they’ve finally evaded Cylon tracking provides a ray of hope.
The Olympic Carrier eventually shows up though, and while the Galactica is able to communicate with them there’s no visual evidence that anyone is aboard. Even more troubling, there’s indications that a nuclear bomb is on the ship as it races towards the rest of the fleet at full speed, refusing all orders to halt. This forces fleet leaders to make a difficult decision without the luxury of having time to assess all the available options. One of the show’s greatest strengths is its ability to put characters in a position where they must choose between the lesser of two evils. In the mini-series the newly-appointed President Roslin must decide whether or not to abandon the portion of the fleet that’s incapable of faster-than-light travel, and in “33” she once again stands at a crossroad where she’s being asked to sacrifice some lives for the greater good of humanity. But this time she’s not forced to make such a heavy decision on her own, and after finding common ground with Adama (and some not-so-gentle nudging from Dr. Baltar) the decision is made to destroy the potentially-rogue ship.
Hotshot pilots Lee Adama and Starbuck draw the awful duty of shooting down the civilian ship, and while the latter is hesitant to pull the trigger she eventually follows the lead of her flight leader. A Cylon base ship arrives just as the clock hits thirty-three minutes from the Olympic Carrier’s return, validating the theory that the enemy was somehow using the now-destroyed cruiser to track the fleet through space and that its destruction was necessary.
The episode occasionally cuts to the recently-nuked planet Caprica and the stranded Helo, who willingly gave up the opportunity to return to the fleet because he felt Baltar was more important to the survival of humanity. We don’t spend a lot of time with him as he tries to survive on the now Cylon-infested world and at this point his story isn’t particularly captivating, but it will prove to be an essential element to the show’s success down the road. The episode closes with him being reunited with Boomer who the audience knows is a secret Cylon, a fact that he is unaware of at this point .
“33” is a forty-five minute clinic on how to write a tension-filled episode of television. It starts the episodic era of Battlestar Galactica off on a strong note, and while the show won’t always be able to reach the same height as this initial episode it serves as a tone-setter for what we can expect in the future. It’s a shining example of just how powerful of a show BSG is within the science fiction genre as it beautifully walks the line between fantasy and reality.