NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “33”

Yes, we’re tired. Yes, there is no relief. Yes, the Cylons keep coming after us time after time after time. And yes, we are still expected to do our jobs!

Air Date: 18/10/2004

Director: Michael Rymer

Writer: Ronald D. Moore

Synopsis: Endlessly pursued by Cylon forces who appear every 33 minutes, the Fleet is pushed to the breaking point. Baltar is again confronted with the idea of a higher power taking an interest in his survival while, on Caprica, Helo attempts to survive on his own.

Review

We open the series proper with a banger of an episode, with more than one person I know saying it is the series’ best. “33” is not a story that is concerned hugely with character arcs or relationships drama – with one notable exception, to be discussed – but still provides a richly engaging story with what is left of humanity as a whole as the subject of the arc. In “33” we see that remnant in the Fleet at their very limit, physically and emotionally, and there is a lot of drama to be mined from that idea, of weakness brought about by sheer exhaustion.

Sleep deprivation as the crisis is the last thing you would think would be coming after the Miniseries, but here it is. You can feel that sense of fatigue, whether it is the obvious desire for sleep or a slip into near-mania from different characters, and it does give “33” an incredible sense of tension throughout. This is humanity, all that is left of it, at the breaking point, and it isn’t going to take all that much more to force that break. This also speaks to the larger overall theme of the show, of man vs machine: the Cylons can keep coming and coming, apparently lacking humanity’s need for rest.

But there is more to the weariness of the Fleet than simple lack of rest. In scenes like Dee approaching the erstwhile wall of remembrance or Roslin despairing over the drop below 50k, the grief that is being felt is immediately palpable, adding to the sense of heaviness and dread that pervades the whole episode. In a way that I think future episode and deasons sometimes struggled with, “33” really does imbue in the audience the same kind of feelings in the audience as these characters are feeling.

And yet in the darkness, there is also hope, as the episode’s brilliant closing scene makes clear. After the drudgery, tension and terrible decisions that need to be made of the previous 40 minutes, we do need something to hang onto, and BSG provides it in the form of Roslin’s “We need to start making babies” line coming to its first fruition. It is something that I think BSG does not always get credit for, the manner in which it can inspire hope despite all of the death, pain and misery.

In-between, there is a lot of course. The never-ending appearance of the Cylons really magnifies them as a threat, the pilots on edge allows for some inter-crew disputes, the CIC crew reaching the very limit with terrible consequences, the scene setting for the future Adama/Roslin conflict and then the closing drama of the Olympic Carrier all carry “33” along, with Moore’s script-work as good as it would ever be on the show. It is somewhat amazing that “33” is able to include so much, and yet in many ways say so little in terms of character growth or relationship evolution. All of that is to come, with “33” more concerned with setting the scene of the universe and hooking the audience in fast with the nature of the crisis on display.

The big exception is Baltar and “Head” Six of course, who provide “33” with more of its weightier themes and more dialogue-heavy scenes (and some badly needed brightness and colour inside Baltar’s head, which contrasts so brilliantly with the grim reality). Getting to see those two go back-and-forth on topics like the rationality of loving someone like Baltar, or the necessity for repentance before the forgiveness of sins (which, in the moment of said repentance, seems to transfer to Roslin and Apollo, as the two plots are effortlessly combined), is a treat. I don’t think that BSG will ever again have an episode so singularly focused on a single relationship, but given how vital Baltar/Head Six is in terms of the overall narrative, I think that this kind of zeroing in is to be applauded.

In terms of this relationship, the Miniseries touched on the idea but “33” plants it firmly, that a higher power is actively involved in Baltar’s existence now, since the coincidental events mount up rather fast (and, in my opinion, makes a mockery of people complaining years later of the “God did it” heavy finale: God’s been involved since day one folks). Baltar’s peril, in both the threat of this potential exposer of his sins and the threat of the Olympic Carrier to his physical self, adds a great spice to the episode, as we get to see him try and worm his way out with words, and then his erstwhile conversion with Six: Callis is doing some of his very best work in this episode. It’s remarkable how his role in the finale, with him having to literally say the words “I repent” before finding salvation from the threat of the Olympic Carrier, is just as tense on Apollo having to decide whether to open fire on the same ship or not.

I also have to give some props to the “Cylon Occupied Caprica” storyline, which despite having barely three minutes, still manages to come out with a compelling three act structure. We have a simple, but effective, action beat in seeing Helo alone fighting Cylons, then we see his efforts undone when he is captured, before he is finally “rescued” by a character I am going to call “Sharon” for the moment. It’s brief, but it gets across all that it needs to get across in what I think is little more than two minutes of screentime total. It’s a great sidebar to the “action” in the Fleet, and has an intriguing set-up right from the off.

Of course, I can’t close off without mentioning the glaring issue at the heart of “33”, that I have written about in more detail elsewhere. Network interference prevented the decision to down the Olympic Carrier from being the heart-rending morally iffy decision it really should have been, no matter how much characters subsequently agonise over it, with the “radiological alarm” the biggest cop-out. It does hurt the episode a fair bit in my estimation, or at least its finale, which is why I don’t rank it as the best BSG came up with. But still, “33” is up there.

You know what to do. No mistakes, and let’s make it to 238.

Notes

– According to Moore, there was no particular reason for the titular time between Cylon appearances, other than it being long-enough to allow for very basic functions while being short enough that it would leave the characters facing immediate peril at a constant rate.

-We open on a ticking clock, which is such a recurring motif that Christopher Nolan could have directed this episode.

-I like how the issue that the Fleet is facing is showcased without overt explanation early on, with the exhausted looking crew and pilots, with their deployment without any sight of enemy, and with Baltar’s, ahem, stressed reaction.

-“Maybe this time” is a great recurring line throughout the episode, signifying the fatigued desperation of the Fleet.

-Adama’s lingering concern and own fatigue is well exemplified by his quiet “We’re getting slower”.

-I generally like BSG’s opening titles, which stand out in comparisons to some other other shows in the genre. The theme needed some correcting from this episode though.

-Some people hate the previews that occur at the end of the opening titles, deeming them a little spoiler-ish. I never minded them too much myself, they work well enough as a teaser. I note that some releases edit them out entirely.

-A deleted scene explains the significance of the picture in the briefing room, which depicts a Colonial soldier on his knees in the face of the Cylon attack. Entitled “Lest we forget”, it’s meant as a BSG version of a famous 9/11 image of firefighters raising the American flag.

-The wall of remembrance is a brilliant idea, that really gets across the scale of the tragedy that has engulfed what’s left of humanity. The idea that any of the pictures will actually do any good in terms of finding people is laughable, but it’s easy to see it becoming a method of united grief.

-A similarly brilliant idea as a visual cue: the survivor count. Roslin having the number on a blackboard in her Colonial One “office” is a stroke of genius, and the scene where Roslin must reduce the number to below 50K is heartbreaking. Later on in the shows run they would incorporate the count as part of the opening titles.

-“I always did worry he was onto us” says Six. The questions mount as to whether she really is just in Baltar’s head, or is a representation of the women he knew on Caprica.

-Meanwhile, on Caprica…it’s a bit of a surprise initially to be back on the colonies, and the initial plan was for Helo to be MIA after the Miniseries. The decision to let us explore his fate grants Season One a great sub-plot.

-Interesting framing, the way that Helo executes the Centurion, and I do mean “execute”. I feel it was very deliberate thing, made to emphasise the inhumanity of Helo in the act and the humanity of the Centurion in receiving it.

-Colonel Tigh is a crotchety mean-spirited guy, so it’s important to give him his “Save The Cat” moment so we know he isn’t all bad. Here it’s giving up his scant ten minutes of sleep to Adama when the Commander can’t remember whose turn it is. “If the Old Man is too tired to remember, it’s his turn”.

-In truth we don’t get to see much of Starbuck and Apollo in this episode ahead of their key part in the finale, which makes their bickering in the hanger bay all the more notable. At this point it is definitely an “old married couple” vibe, but the show would change things around quickly enough as I recall.

-I’ve always loved those shots of Cylon missiles streaking towards the Galactica just before it jumps. Really adds to the impression that the Fleet is teetering on the edge of disaster.

-Kandyse McClure did the very best with her sections of the Miniseries, and firmly establishes herself in this episode as one of the best of the supporting cast. The way that her Dee reacts to losing one of the Fleet, too tired to properly express horror, was fantastic, and as for her standing alone amid the hall of remembrance, that’s a show-stealer.

-I have a bit of time for Alessandro Juliani’s Gaeta too in this episode too, as he is the only person to stick up for Dee at that critical moment.

-Great contrast between Tigh’s speech in the CIC, which is stirring enough really, and the uncaring exhausted reaction from the crew is great. Adama’s final addendum, quiet and to the point, is also very affecting.

-“OK. Next crisis.” Great line, and it’s one I often use in work myself.

-I do love when Head Six turns on the menace. She’s committed to turning Baltar to her beliefs, but is militantly religious in her own right. Her hand at Baltar’s throat is the perfect image for this.

-In the larger scale of things, Six’s namedrop of reproduction is almost forgettable, what with the genocidal peril and all. But this central pillar of BSG’s story does start here.

-Adama and Roslin share a nice conversation, but one where Adama has to make clear that he’s making a military decision, and just informing her. That military/civil co-operation is setting the stage for the main crisis for the end of the first season.

-According to Apollo, Boomer is “holding up better than anyone”. It’s a somewhat clumsy bit of foreshadowing really, but I guess it is forgivable.

-“If the crew likes the XO, he isn’t doing his job”. Adama and Tigh have a good relationship, and I like the delineation of their roles on the ship here. Reflects something about military life too. I think the USMC calls it the “hard hat”?

-“33” does make you wonder just what “God’s” plan is, or what he/she/it is responsible for. Is this force behind that doctor finding out about Baltar? Is it behind the loss of the Olympic Carrier, and then its return? Does it compel Apollo to open fire on the Carrier once Baltar repents? Or is it, at this stage, just a grand strong of coincidences?

-Love Baltar’s outburst as the crisis with the Carrier becomes clear. He gives a great show at appearing like an eccentric, unhinged genius. I suppose because he is one really.

-Also very telling, Baltar’s line when Billy says they should “thank the Gods” that Baltar is there. “God’s got nothing to do with this”. God, not Gods.

-Apollo’s decision is open fire on the Carrier, as mentioned above, may not be entirely his own, at least if you buy into the “God did it”. Or maybe it is free will. Either way, it’s the hard choice of the episode, or at least would be without the radiological alarm.

-Gotta admit, I hate the CGI explosion for the Olympic Carrier. Looks rubbish in my opinion. The budget was being held back for later.

-“Are you alive?” An interesting recurring line for the Six who captures Helo. Is that the same one from Armistice Station?

-Adama and Apollo share a late scene where they muse briefly on the topic of responsibility. Apollo accepts it for the Olympic Carrier, overriding his father’s feelings. That too is scene-setting for later in the first season.

– “33” has a lovely ending, with the first addition to the count, in the form of a baby born on the appropriately named Rising Star. Roslin’s joy as we fade to credits is a pitch-perfect way to end things.

Overall Verdict: BSG starts it’s serialised run very strongly, even if the episode lacks much in the way of traditional characterisation. A lot of great plot hooks have been left dangling, and the stand-alone story of the episode was excellent. It’s unfortunate that “33” was undercut in the way that elements of its finale were framed, but it’s otherwise one of the best episodes of the show total.

To read more entries in this series, click here to go the index.

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8 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “33”

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  2. WorldbyStorm says:

    Fantastic episode. One of the best IMO.

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