Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Season 4, Episode 4, "Escape Velocity"

When the prophet Zoroaster popularized the concept of monotheism 2500 years ago, the world wasn’t exactly torn apart in a blizzard of religious confrontation. Thanks largely to Cyrus I, the Persian King of Kings who accepted this strange new belief with magnanimity and urged his subjects to do the same, monotheism existed peacefully alongside the Vedic gods of antiquity. If there’s one thing to learn from the tumultuous events of “Escape Velocity”, the fourth episode in Battlestar Galactica’s fourth and final season, it’s that monotheism’s emergence on the ragtag fleet is going to be a much messier affair.

The nexus of “Escape Velocity” was very obviously Gaius Baltar’s disturbing vein of monotheism clashing with the powers that be, and as with monotheism here on Earth, it seems that Baltar’s message is ultimately destined to win out. For that, Baltar has had an unlikely (and unwitting) ally in Laura Roslin, whose transparent attempts to destroy him, whether by trial in last season’s finale, or by politicking this week, have essentially created a sympathetic figure where once stood the most loathed person on the fleet. Roslin’s hatred for Baltar has long surpassed the boundaries of rationality, considering she amnestied everyone on New Caprica and remembers him before the holocaust only in fevered images. Coupled with her increasing inclination to totalitarianism, Roslin’s detestation of Baltar has twice pitted her against Lee Adama, who, despite being consistently re-drawn as a character, has usually acted as the fleet’s conscience. Baltar’s big speech enumerating his new ontology, however influenced it was by his own personal hallucination (the Six in Baltar’s head has always assured him he was destined for something bigger, and, with the phantom shirt-tug, she’s now taking active steps to ensure he fulfills that destiny), was only possible because Roslin’s blustering moral certitude provoked Lee to action, as it did during Baltar’s trial. If Ronald Moore is setting up Lee to be the Hatfield to Roslin’s McCoy, as many fans are predicting and the events of “Escape Velocity” suggest, it’s going to be difficult for Roslin to win that feud, and even more difficult for fans to actively root for her. Such a sweeping and believable shift in audience loyalties—imagine watching in seasons 2 or 3 and actively cheering on Baltar to get one over the stoic Roslin—is a tribute to Moore’s impressive narrative acumen, and gives faith that the show can’t help but go out strong, unlike The X-Files, say, or Buffy.

Not much else happened in “Escape Velocity” but not much had to: it was a time for these characters, having gone through so many changes of late, to take some time to reflect. A bewigged and haggard Roslin dropping hints about the funeral she wants; Tigh finally acknowledging he needs to come to grips with Ellen; Tyrol accepting he settled for the best of limited options. A weaker show might founder in such introspective seas, but Battlestar Galactica seems to thrive in them—the series’ best moments (“Scar”, “Unfinished Business”, “33”) have always focused more on the journey than the destination, and “Escape Velocity" continued that tradition.

One other thing. I was getting annoyed by the constant visual tricks that this season seems to be foisting on us (Tigh shooting Adama in the eye in the premiere, Tyrol hearing Adama berate his child as an abomination, Tigh seeing Ellen in Caprica-Six) before I realized it was probably just a manifestation of the cylon projection system described in season 3. That brings up some interesting metaphysical questions, though: are these hallucinations wish fulfillment? Can the four control those images? These are the things that I should really stop thinking about.

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