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 "Bastille Day", which originally aired on January 21st of 2005.
Previously on Battlestar Galactica: A terrorist attack by an unknown assailant leaves the fleet’s water supply in jeopardy, but the discovery of a planet with drinkable water keeps hope alive. President Laura Roslin asks Viper pilot Lee Adama to be her personal advisor on military tactics, much to the displeasure of his father.
It’s a testament to Battlestar Galactica’s storytelling that we’re three episodes into the show and the Cylon nuclear attack that opened the series has become little more than an afterthought. The immediate survival of humanity has taken priority over any fantasies of revenge, which is as it should be given how mankind is now teetering on the edge of extinction. I’ve always loved how Battlestar is able to make the mundane relevant, to take ordinary things that are taken for granted and use them as effective narrative devices. We saw it last week as the fleet’s water supply was the target of an effective attack by the enemy, and “Bastille Day” will explore everything from criminal justice to loyalty to one's family.
The episode opens with Executive Officer Saul Tigh indulging in his favorite pastime as he searches for comfort at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. I find Tigh’s alcoholism so tragic and want him to be the leader I think he can become, but his inability to throw away this crutch continues to handicap his character growth. The camera does a fantastic job of showing us a hint of his panic as he sees his liquor supply quickly diminishing, just like the fleet had to search for a new water supply Tigh knows that he soon will have to seek out more booze. One liquid provides life while the other slowly takes it away, and Saul has a rocky road ahead of him when it comes to his drinking problem. The entire crew is aware that he’s an alcoholic and it’s painful to see them openly laugh at the man, even though we’re aware that he is ultimately the source of his own misery.
While bureaucracy has played a role in BSG from the start, this is the first episode where it really dominates the narrative. Even though water has been discovered there’s still the question of how the fleet, desperately low on manpower, is going to harvest it. The Adamas recommend using the passengers aboard the prison ship Astral Queen to get the job done, justifying the plan by pointing out that they were already sentenced to manual labor for their crimes and that they would simply be serving out that punishment. President Roslin is hesitant to sign off on this as she feels it borders on slave labor, but eventually agrees after Lee Adama suggests using a points system where the prisoners can work towards earning their freedom.
Lee takes a small group to the Astral Queen to negotiate with the prisoners, who are revealed to be led by Tom Zarek, brilliantly played by Richard Hatch who also appeared on the original version of Battlestar. Zarek is a well-known political prisoner that his fellow inmates look up to, and after he rejects Lee’s offer a riot breaks out which hands control of the entire ship over to the prisoners. Commander Adama and President Roslin follow the situation from the safety of the Galactica, and the decision is made to send a small crew of marines to end the uprising through use of force. Starbuck is chosen to be the crew’s sniper, being the “best shot in or out of a cockpit”, a self-assessment that Tigh begrudgingly endorses.
Meanwhile Lee finds himself in a one-on-one discussion with Zarek, confessing that he read the prisoner’s controversial book while in college even though it was banned. While it momentarily looks like the two might find the common ground needed to diffuse the toxic situation, Lee comes to realize that there will be no peaceful resolution as Zarek’s true intentions are revealed. His endgame from the start has been for Galactica’s marines to board and subsequently slaughter the rioting prisoners, the latest in a long line of political statements from the radical criminal. Zarek is willing to sacrifice his own life, and that of his fellow prisoners, in the hopes that their deaths will inspire the rest of the fleet to rise up against Commander Adama and President Roslin, who he feels don’t deserve the power they currently wield. It’s worth nothing that this discussion is actually between a pair of Apollos, as Hatch played the character in the original series.
Unfortunately for Zarek the situation spirals out of control before he gets to play the martyr as one of his fellow prisoners attempts to rape Specialist Cally, who fights back by biting the man’s ear off. In the confusion Lee is able to acquire a gun and shoot the potential rapist before turning the weapon on Zarek, launching into a powerful speech where he supports Zarek’s desire that elections be held. Upon returning to the Galactica both Roslin and his father verbally attack him for this, but the younger Adama points out that based on the past democratic system Roslin’s term would be up in seven months anyways, and that’s when the elections are to be held. Later on in private Roslin confesses to Lee that she has cancer, and fears that she might not be around to run for office.
I love the dynamic between the Adamas and President Roslin, Lee is essentially a child that two ideologically divorced parents are fighting over. And as it so often happens in life the child caught in the middle becomes the voice of reason due to their desire for neutrality, and the situation in “Bastille Day” shows how strong of a leader Lee Adama is while exposing both his father and the current president for having large blind spots. Lee will often find himself as the rope in a tug-of-war battle between these two, often forcing him to choose between loyalty to his family and what he feels is the right thing to do.
“Bastille Day” is a very focused episode, keeping most of the attention on the prisoner plot. It does take a handful of brief detours though, starting with an early trip back to Caprica to provide an update on Helo’s situation as he continues to work with the unknown-to-him Cylon Sharon. While this plot will eventually turn interesting it’s become frustrating due to the lack of emphasis put on it up to this point, it feels more like an annoying trailer playing before a movie we’ve been dying to see. The most interesting takeaway from it here is the discussion between a pair of Cylons observing Helo and Sharon, which provides some insight into the motivations for their attack on mankind. They accurately point out that they are humanity’s children, and that kids cannot truly mature until their parents are dead.
We also see the fallout of the events seen in “Water” through a discussion between Boomer and Tyrol, which comes across more like a recap than it actually advances the story. Afterwards Boomer is dressed-down by Tigh for her all-too-public relationship with Tyrol, who tells her to end it for good which will come into play later.
The only other thing worth nothing is a confrontation between Commander Adama and Gaius Baltar over the scientist’s inability to provide the Cylon detector he promised to create. The scene is brief but it does a good job of exhibiting Adama’s growing frustration and mistrust in Balar, although he does grant Balar’s request for a nuclear warhead he claims is needed for the project to be finished.