NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “Bastille Day”

Now, you’ve said the truth: freedom is earned.

Air Date: 01/11/2004

Director: Allan Kroeker

Writer: Toni Graphia

Synopsis: With the Fleet needing a workforce to replenish their water supplies, Apollo is sent to the prison transport ship Astral Queen to lobby its convicts. But when their leader, the infamous Tom Zarek, takes over the ship, a critical hostage situation erupts.

Review

“Bastille Day” is probably, with regret, the first BSG episode that I would describe as just above-average. That might sound like a bit of a strange criticism, but its more of a recognition that not everything the show was coming out with could be an absolute slam dunk. “Bastille Day” has all of the elements present to be a five star showing, but it’s hamstrung by trying to do too much in too little time, which dilutes what it is trying to get across, even though it introduces a critical character to the rest of the show and lands on some very hard theme.

The first issue may be that we are now straying into a procedural plot structure, with the latest “Crisis of the Week” being the hostage taking on the Astral Queen after the hydration issue of “Water”. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this structure, it just already feels a bit samey, with the grand space opera narrative of the Miniseries already falling into a Star Trekian “What’s going wrong this time?” feel. The trick is to make sure that the episodic plot is great of its own accord, and that there is an overarching narrative to be fed into to a least some degree. The episodic plot is OK but has problems, not least that Tom Zarek as a political agitator isn’t very fleshed out: Toni Graphia is trusting in the audience to fill in a lot of the blanks here themselves, with Zarek really only getting a single scene to elongate his philosophy properly. The second aspect of what the episode needs to do is a good bit better admittedly, with the inevitable explosion between the Adama and Roslin taking shape in the midst of the crisis.

“Bastille Day”, to me, is all about control and freedom. From a physical perspective, the episode revolves around Zarek’s men taking control of the Astral Queen and taking the Galactica crew prisoner, in the pursuit of their own freedom. From a character sense, it revolves around Apollo standing up for himself and establishing himself firmly as his own man, Presidents and Commanders be damned. The interplay of this is good enough, with Zarek turning the screw to a certain extent, but it’s refreshing to see the usually straight-laced Apollo, still suffering the stress of the Olympic Carrier, finally snap a bit and decide that his father’s dismissiveness and the President’s brusque rebuffs to democracy simply aren’t good enough. He’s a man looking for some manner of release from the dobuts of his past actions and a sign that whatever society they are building in the Fleet will be worthy of the ideals he holds very close to him: Adama in the first instance and Roslin in the second instance drop the ball on helping Apollo with those problems, opening the door for a much more radical figure to try and get its hooks in.

That new figure is Richard Hatch’s Tom Zarek who, even if I feel “Bastille Day” isn’t the absolute best introduction to the character, is still potentially a mine of plot drama. Perhaps some of this is driven by hindsight, knowing how the Zarek plotline will end, but I did find him fascinating, a would be freedom-fighter who gives a pretty speech about how the survivors of the holocaust must now blaze a new liberal path to the future, but who then demonstrates what I might call a Padraig Pearse-esque blood sacrifice mantra and a large self-centred ego trip. Hatch I do feel is limited enough as an actor, but I think he pitches Zarek pretty well, and proves a decent foil to the more traditionally idealistic Apollo.

In the end, Apollo finds a solution and takes back control, over both himself in the role of a son and a subordinate in the military, and the democratic rights of the Fleet. Neither human representation of the divide, in Adama and Roslin, is especially pleased. But we don’t really care: this episode shows Apollo able to cut the Gordian Knot, end a hostage crisis and ensure the future of democracy, and all without mass bloodshed. We’ve seen him as an effective, confident character before of course, but this is a step-up and in a way works as a bit of foreshadowing for the role he steps up to play in the last season.

I can’t proceed without also giving some time to the really shocking moment, even for BSG, that pops up late in the episode, and precipitates the final crisis. “Bastille Day”, very late-on, introduces the possibility of male-on-female assault and, while never being truly explicit, sexual assault into its narrative, with one of Zarek’s men threatening Cally. It’s not an unworthy thing to introduce – there’s good dramatic possibilities there, with Zarek having to confront the idea that his band of brothers aren’t the paragons he’s trying to make them out to be – but here, as with so much else, it feels sort of thrown-in and under-developed. Rape or attempted rape as a plot point should never ben something that just crops up out of nowhere on a TV show, and here mainly as an inciting incident for the resolution of the the hostage crisis. One can’t help but feel that it was a late addition to things, meant to, for lack of a better term relative to the seriousness of the idea, spice things up. It does that, and I do appreciate seeing the intended victim able to fight back and not be passive, but I’m not sure if adding a sexual assault to the general peril of the hostages was truly needed.

There are plenty of other examples in the episode of control, freedom and the nature of free will being played out. One of those is what is rapidly becoming a growing list of scene-stealing performances from Baltar and Head Six, with Six deciding that her charge is getting a bit too, ahem, “willful” when it comes to his activities on the ship. She literally puppets him at one stage, telling him exactly what to say to Adama in order to get his hands on some plutonium, and Baltar is, appearances to the contrary, rather happy to be led. The debate between free will and fatalism is at the heart of many religious discussions, and BSG leaves it up in the air here: one of my favourite moments is Six giving Baltar an out, by telling him to make up the second part of his speech himself, which is duly does. Is the idea his, or someone (or something) elses? Given the nature of how things progress, I’d have to go for the former, with Baltar frequently the subject of tests of his faith and abilities: “God” in this universe isn’t one to put words in human mouths.

Tigh is also a peculiar focus of the episode, with scenes that bookend the narrative featuring him (that in itself is odd, and is line with some odd cutting from plot-to-plot in the second act). He too is in the balance of control, in terms of his own addiction and in terms of trying to exert it on others, whether it is Starbuck or Boomer. In the first he’s decidedly out of control, in the other he’s projecting his own weaknesses on others. Starbuck’s own brand of control, in the form of her temporary leadership of Galactica’s pilots, is much more loose, a reflection of her own approach to life. In the end, the interactions of Tigh and Starbuck with each other and others is very tertiary to the narrative, and perhaps unwarranted: it’s potentially fruitful enough in terms of character drama that it could use more time, and limiting it to less than five minutes total in the episode does a disservice to the characters.

We can’t finish off without a word on Helo and Sharon on Caprica, notable mostly for the conversation between a Six and Doral, on the inherent nature of parent and child relationships. Parents have to die for children to come into their own” remarks Doral, and in this he is also commenting on the nature of control, attempting to excuse the morality of the Cylons seizing control of their own destiny from humanity. Helo and Sharon themselves are barely in the episode, and their scene does smack a little of “We need to have at least one scene with them” and, like above, is not really warranted, adding to the feel that “Bastille Day” is filling itself up unnecessarily.

I believe in those things. You can have them too.

Notes

-The title of the episode might seem apropos at first, but France’s national holiday commemorates the people storming a prison from the outside, not prisoners taking it over from the inside.

-The way that the crew react to Tigh, a bit drunk albeit not too drunk, is very telling: with wearied familiarity. On this viewing I did find myself remembering that, in-show, it’s only a few days removed from Tigh making a decision that killed a good portion of the deck crew, but I’m fairly sure it’s never brought up again. You’d think this would be a good moment for an angry Tyrol to remember it in some ways.

-The Adama divide is well and truly evident here, as the Commander gives his son some not-so-subtle criticism on siding with the President over his military commitments. Some of the writing is a mite predictable here – “That’s why you haven’t picked one yet” Adama intones, when Apollo says he wasn’t aware he had to pick a side – but again the ground is being laid for whats to come.

-A few ret-cons have taken place to make this episode workable. One is that the Astral Queen is now a dedicated penal ship, where before the prisoners were just in the cargo hold of a liner. The number of convicts onboard the Astra Queen has jumped from 500 to 1’500 from dialogue in the Miniseries (Paul Campbell’s Billy is actually re-dubbed in the “Previously On…” clip). Another is that the prisoners are now on their way to parole hearings, having previously been on their way to a penal station.

-Man, that Astral Queen set is cheap as hell. It’s obviously just an industrial building where they have chosen very carefully what to light. In this case it’s Vancouver’s Port Mann Power Station, which you might recognise from a bunch of Stargate: SG-1 episodes.

-I do love Zarek’s introduction, it’s very cleverly done in terms of appearing just stage-managed enough that it’s an invention of Zarek’s ego, but still off-the-cuff enough that we can buy the performance. “We respectfully decline” is a nice welcoming line too.

-Of course, we have to mention Richard Hatch’s return to the BSG universe as Zarek, a fitting reward for his work over the years to keep the franchise going. As I said, I don’t rate him super high as an actor, but he’s not terrible in anyway.

-The debate over Zarek is laid out in stark terms by the back-and-forth between Billy and Dee. It is a tad lazy here too, the script, that is very quick to use the words “freedom fighter” and then “terrorist”, stopping just short of adding “one man’s”.

-Caprica City is looking suitably bare and over-exposed in that one scene. It is, of course, really Vancouver, the entertainment industries consistent home away from home.

-The takeover of the Astral Queen happens a bit too quick and a bit too easily really, just as the Marine takeover does later. The episode just doesn’t have time for it to be anything but rushed.

-We get the return of Boxey here, and I think this is one of only two scenes remaining for him, playing a sort of mascot for the Viper pilots. Love the grim exchange between him and Tigh: “Where’s your Mommy?” “Dead, where’s yours?”

-“Speaking of falling off”: Starbuck can see right through Tigh to the heart of his weakness, which might explain why he is so confrontational with her.

-Another person who can see right through people is Adama with Baltar. The Commander has little time for Baltar’s musings on art, or in his twitchy persona: “Where’s my Cylon detector Doctor?”

-Brilliant performance and direction from Callis as he parrots Six at a critical moment, moving his head to stare at her – at nothing essentially – between the words “nuclear” and “warhead”.

-Billy and Dee is a subplot the writers obviously want to put a good bit of time into, but I do think it breaks down a bit here with their sudden bickering. Billy comes across as thoroughly unlikable, lecturing Dee on her own background, and the later, quieter, scene where they talk Dee is a bit too subservient for my liking.

-Boomer and Tyrol get a scene to keep things ticking over, added to by Tigh’s sudden decision to tell Valerii to break it off. On my first viewing, and today, I’ve always wondered at the sense of it. Yes, Tigh is trying to exert control as stated above, but doesn’t he remember Adama’s comment on Dee and Billy? “They better start having babies” probably should apply to everyone.

-“Galactica has a few Marines left”. BSG has space for pilots, ops staff, deck crew, even some engineers later, but throughout its run I’m not sure there is ever a truly substantial representative for the Marines in its narrative, I mean in a multi-episode sense. Even here, Starbuck is the one in charge of them. Back when I was a GM and did a few BSG games, that was something I went to for plot, since it was a relatively blank canvass.

-Apparently Cally actually was supposed to be raped and killed in the original script, but Nicki Clyne’s performance, and worries about network opinion, got the character a reprieve.

-I’ll give “Bastille Day” this though, I do like the climax, where Apollo walks the line between being a solder and being a Presidential representative, as well as the line between warrior and healer, as Zarek put it. He squares the circle, and comes into his own a little bit. Bamber’s “You can have them too”, in regards democracy and freedom, is the best delivered line of the episode.

-Zarek’s tears as he realises how close he came to dying were interesting, indicating a character who really had resigned himself to death, and now suddenly feels foolish for not considering there was a way out after all.

-I do love Apollo’s speech to his father and the President, basically reminding them that the law is the law, and that means an election (and the brilliant rejoinder that he only gave Zarek what he was going to get anyway). The varying response of Adama and Roslin is important too: she climbs down a bit quick enough, but not “Zeus”.

-“You sound like a lawyer”. Given plot points related to the larger Adama family that will crop up in the third season, that is a very pointed line.

-“He’s lucky that’s all I bit off”. That got a laugh. Whatever about how her post-BSG activities have come to define her much more than the show did, Nikki Clyne is another supporting cast member making a significant impression.

-Roslin’s confession to Apollo is, to use the word again, very interesting. It’s a mark of the level of trust apparent between them, and the weight that is on Roslin, that she wants to share this secret.

Overall Verdict: BSG stumbles just a little bit with “Bastille Day”, a 6/10 level episode that had plenty of ambition, but perhaps too much, seeking to include more than it could adequately account for. It’s not bad by any means though, and establishes plot points and characters that will be used to good effect later. Nothing is perfect, and looking forward to seeing how quickly the show gets back on course.

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

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6 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “Bastille Day”

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