I started re-watching Battlestar Galactica recently, one of my all time favourite shows, and something struck me about the first episode “33”.
For those not in the know, “33” finds the fleet, the last of the human race, being relentless hounded by their Cylon pursuers, who find their coordinates every 33 minutes like clockwork, forcing the colonials to go without sleep in a seemingly endless cycle of jumping from one location to another as they try to figure out how the bad guys keep finding them.
It’s a really good episode, with a lot of good storytelling in it. “33” manages to fit a lot into its running time: the obvious plot about the 33 minute windows, President Roslin dealing with the decreasing human population, Baltar and Six getting into religious issues, a potential thorn in Baltars side coming to ferret him out, Starbuck and Lee dealing with fatigue and so on and so forth.
The episode comes to a head when the fleet loses a ship, the Olympic Carrier, in a jump, leaving it behind. They’re all heartbroken about the loss, until the next 33 minutes come and go without sign of the Cylons.
45 minutes after that the Olympic Carrier shows up again, claiming that the Cylons simply didn’t attack them and that they’ve rejoined the fleet after fixing their engines. Adama smells a rat, and orders the clock reset. Sure enough, the Cylons arrive 33 minutes later.
We come to the finale and here’s what we are presented with: The fleet is jumping away, with the Olympic Carrier still a way off from the main group. It suddenly ceases communications with the fleet and speeds up, ignoring hails and warning shots fired by Starbuck and Apollo. We’ve come to a fateful decision, one to be taken by Adama, Roslin and Apollo: should the Olympic Carrier be destroyed? It is acting extremely suspiciously, the Cylons turned up after it did and it can’t adequately account for its absesnce. On the other hand, there are supposed to be over 900 people onboard, a big number when less than 50’000 people remain.
It’s supposed to be a gut wrenching decision, one that will haunt everyone involved. Only, it isn’t, or at least, it shouldn’t be.
Because the fleet suddenly reads radiological devices onboard the Olympic Carrier. It has nukes and they weren’t there an hour and a half ago. It’s steaming, full speed ahead, towards the fleet and is ignoring communications.
Sorry, that isn’t a debate. The second they read that nuclear signal, it’s over. Destroy that ship, and you shouldn’t lose any sleep either. It has very plainly been taken over and stocked up on WMDs by the Cylons who are using it to attack you. There is simply no other viable explanation. It’s a Trojan Horse, one that has failed. Even if you wanted to, you have no time to board it, in the face of the local Cylon threat.
Only, it is still played up as a gut wrenching decision. Apollo and Starbuck hesitate to open fire, and are disgusted with themselves when they do. Roslin is haunted by the decision. Lee later brings it up in the Season Three finale, as an example of a potentially illegal act he committed.
It’s a cop-out for me. That radiological alert ruins that episode and makes all of this soul searching later a crock of bullcrap. If the colonials had made the same decision without that alert, then you have a moral dilemma. That would be the colonials making a big decision, one that could haunt them later, as they would have lacked sufficient proof that there was no innocent civilians onboard (later episodes play this idea up, with the characters ignoring the radiological alert. It’s like it got ret-conned).
Instead, we got an alert that confirms beyond any doubt that the ship is an enemy vessel. The writers tried to have their cake and eat it too: giving their characters an ethically grey area to ponder over and affect them for ages, while giving them an obvious “get out of jail free” card in the eyes of the audience. We won’t feel disgust or question that decision, and we won’t feel negatively towards he supposed heroes, because we know they made the right call. They get to crucify themselves, and gain our pity fr it.
According to DVD commentaries, they actually wanted to feature movement through the ships portholes, indicating life, but the network vetoed the move as it would have made the conclusion “too dark”. That’s all well and good, and a legitimate excuse, but it doesn’t forgive “radiological alert”. Perhaps that was pushed on the show by the network as well, but that simply shifts the blame for this drama-killing moment to them. Moreover, writers insistence of life aboard the Olympic Carrier, in episode notes and the like, doesn’t help much, since it doesn’t appear in the actual show.
I don’t like it at all. An opportunity for real moral questioning was brushed off here with those two words. It’s very surprising, given the direction Galactica would go on to take, that the creators made this choice.