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

I need a free hand. The authority to follow evidence wherever it might lead, without Command review.

Air Date: 22/11/2004

Director: Rob Hardy

Writer: Jeff Vlaming

Synopsis: After a suicide bomber infiltrates the Galactica, a tribunal exposes lies and causes rifts on the ship. On Caprica, the Cylons advance their plan to manipulate Helo.

Review

In “Litmus”, an episode I have written about before in terms of its comparison to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Drumhead”, BSG suddenly takes a wild turn and becomes a courtroom drama. The events that it depicts could easily have been converted into an episode of JAG. It’s a risky move, genre-shifting like this for a once-off, but it is one that I think Rob Hardy and Jeff Vlaming pull off, in one of the meatier episodes of the first season.

There’s a few things to parse through here, and the first I want to come to is the Boomer/Tyrol relationship. We haven’t seen much of anything between the two since “Water”, but their relationship dominates “Litmus” though they only really share two scenes that bookend the episode. It comes down to the value that the two, but especially the Chief, place on the relationship. He’s already bent over backwards to protect Boomer in “Water”, and the negative impact that their love has on him is demonstrated again in “Litmus”, with Tyrol showing a willingness to flat-out lie on her behalf over and over again. It’s a one way street in many ways, brought out by the distance that Vlaming’s script has Boomer and Tyrol keep throughout the episode. Contrast that with the unending loyalty of the deck crew to Tyrol: they too lie, but it comes from a more understandable and, ultimately, almost positive place.

Things escalate to the point where Tyrol has a realisation, and forms a final opinion on the value of the relationship: not enough. The break-up scene, in the same place where the too were cooing over each other at the beginning of the episode, is a powerful one, where I think Tyrol really comes into his own for the first time, refusing to advance the tryst and rejecting Boomer’s effort to reconcile. Just as on Caprica, a weighty question remains about how much Boomer actually loves Tyrol, how much their coupling was a result of her dormant Cylon programming, and how what Tyrol has done for Boomer in the past may effect events in the future.

The meat of the episode is a larger examination of how valuable the truth is in times like these, at least in terms of how much we’re going to do to get to it. The tribunal scenes are intriguing as numerous characters are asked awkward questions they can’t easily answer. The rot onboard Galactica can be seen in two ways: in how quickly lies are told and then exposed, and in how vehement Hadrian pursues her cause (more on that in a second). I’m not sure where exactly BSG comes down on the question on whether the tribunal is a worthy pursuit or not, but the answer appears to be in the negative: it quickly becomes a perverted thing that is every bit the “witch hunt” of Roslin’s fears.

Adama’s solution is to shut it down and then finger Socinus as the fall guy, albeit with a light enough punishment. Such an ending produces mixed feelings: after all, the military unilaterally closes a civilian investigation when the CO doesn’t like the questions he’s being asked. But then again, we’re in a situation where the human race is at an extinction point, and Adama’s pragmatic acceptance of such odds is what wins the day. Tyrol is ultimately just too useful to Galactica to be punished traditionally, so Adama comes up with a unique censure of his own to make the point. In the circumstances we can accept this, but the lingering doubts over Adama’s autocratic sensibilities remain, and produce continued unease. Ronald D. Moore has specifically stated he has no answer for how we are supposed to look on this, and that’s fine.

On Hadrian, she is a bit of an enigma in this episode. Jill Teed (who will show up in the canon twice more in different parts, weirdly enough) can’t really get across what needs to be gotten across here, which is unfortunate, because Hadrian is the lynch-pin of the whole affair. What we see is a Marine who goes from investigating who messed up in allowing a suicide bomber access to a critical area to taking a metaphorical swing at the top of the chain of command, and we never really get to understand why. And there is room in the events of “Litmus” for us to understand: after all, one of Doral’s victims is noted as being “a Marine guard” of an armoury, so with just a little elaboration that could have been framed as a very potent motivation, given the esprit de corps of the American variety.

Instead, Hadrian seems to just get hooked on pursuing justice, to the extent that we can describe her actions in the second half of the episode as a bit of an unhinged, and illogical, power trip. Her decision to put Adama on the stand, and then to stray close to accusing him of treason, is extreme enough before one considers what it is Hadrian is trying to accomplish. I suppose for me the character is vital enough to the episode that she could have used just a bit more time to make us fully understand her, and this is the key flaw of “Litmus”.

Perhaps we could have done without that Baltar/Thrace interaction – it doesn’t really come to that much as I recall – or maybe even the Baltar/Six stuff, though that sub-plot remains remarkably entertaining, with Helfer showing some teeth in “Litmus”. There are a few other bits and pieces that stand out as well, most notably the advancement of character for Adama, shown here as a man with a hard set, but complex, principles. His background as coming from a legal family is outlined here in a nice scene, and it’s cool to see set-up for Season Three happening already.

Meanwhile, the plot on Cylon occupied Caprica continues to get a shot in the arm in “Litmus”, with another look at how the Cylons are trying to manipulate Helo. Every scene here, and there are a few for a change, are eye-catching of their own accord: the secret observations of a desperate Helo; Helo’s choice to go north or south, a “Crossing the Threshold” if I ever saw one; the beating Sharon volunteers for; and the set-up of the “rescue”. Things are brought together nicely here, and there is a genuine fascination in being aware of the cage being constructed around Helo even as he flails around in ignorance of it. The value of truth is part of that plot-line to, and eventually Sharon is going to have to weigh that decision.

He either lied the first time, or he lied the second time. And it doesn’t matter. He’s guilty, and he’ll pay the price.

Notes

-The title of the episode presumably refers to a litmus test, a method of discovering the acidity of something. In this context, as it is often used, it presumably refers to attempting to discover the true nature of someone.

-Tyrol’s gooey words to Boomer feel a bit off to me, as he starts waxing lyrical on “…the curve of your lips, the way your hair falls, how you smell…”. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy to talk like that in such moments, especially when their previous talk was more along the lines of “Shut up sir”.

-Something the episode doesn’t really answer: why was a party of civilians coming onboard the Galactica in the first place? Presumably there would be a good few reasons why this might happen – seeing the doctor, getting trained up on skills necessary to the Fleet, even enlisting – but it would have been nice to know just on what excuse Doral got onboard.

-Nice heroic moment for Adama, or maybe we can call it a short distance from stupidity: when Doral reveals that he has a suicide vest, he tries to stop him from detonating it, but gets dragged to safety by Tigh.

-Later episodes will make clear that Cylon’s believe that suicide is a sin, even if they will just be resurrected in a new body. I’m not sure how that tallies with what Doral does here; in later episodes, a Cavill copy will ascribe Doral’s actions to simple stupidity, but it perhaps points to the idea that Cylon adherence to their religion is more pick-and-choose than Six’s would like.

-Act One certainly starts with an horrific bang, with the still-living victims of the suicide bombing screaming in pain in the med-bay. Talk about grabbing your attention early.

-Sgt Hadrian – no first name – is the Master at Arms of Galactica, which gives her authority over security on the ship, so her role here as the main investigator is not too unusual. I mentioned before the lack of named Marine characters, and I think Hadrian might be the only one in the show’s run.

-Hadrian has a very surprised look on her face when Adama grants her the “independent” tribunal, obviously not expecting to get her way. There’s a sign there of how she views Adama, that plays into her later treatment of him at said tribunal.

-The brief scene where Tyrol finds the deck crew attempting to get a working still going might seem like an intrusion on the main story, but I think it is vitally important: the drama of the episode revolves around how far the deck crew are willing to go for Tyrol, and that is a bit of a two-way street: his acceptance of the still and muttering of “Children…” are indicative of the nature of the relationship there.

-It’s cool seeing the Cylon interplay on Caprica, as roles get more firmly established. Six doesn’t seem to like Sharon very much, and Doral is aloof and cold.

-Weird how all three of them are just watching Helo from the edge of a building though. All he has to do is look up slightly and he’d see them.

-What is it exactly that Roslin wants? She demands that some manner of blame gets apportioned, but also warns against a tribunal. Does she want Adama to just pick someone? In a way that is how the episode ends I suppose, but it’s odd to hear Roslin be the one to shoot down due process.

-I do love the montage of Hadrian interviewing Tyrol and the deck crew, and four completely different stories emerging of what he was doing at the time of the bombing, Rashomon style. You could contrast that with the Tyrol/Boomer stuff too, in that the deck crew are too well-meaning and naive to arrange a common story, while the Chief and Valerii actively lie with forethought.

-I was struck on this watch by the seriousness of the announcement Roslin gives, on the humanoid nature of the Cylons. It’s depicted as a “My fellow Americans…” moment, but it’s ultimately about killer robots in skin suits, and for me a faint sheen of ridiculousness did shine through.

-It’s interesting seeing someone like Tyrol, who up to now seems to have had little regard for the formalities of rank – after all, he’s engaged in a sexual relationship with a superior officer – pulling rank on Hadrian vicariously through Crashdown. For those interested, if we were to follow the US Naval system that BSG partly bases itself on (the rest taken from the original series ranks), Tyrol as a Senior Chief Petty Officer is one rank above Sergeant First Class Hadrian, though because they are in separate branches it should not be taken as meaning Tyrol is Hadrian’s superior exactly.

-The tribunal doesn’t help itself from accusations of being a witch hunt in look: the dimly lit room, the raised dais of the judges, the isolated chair for witnesses, Hadrian’s shark-like circling. All an intention of the production team I am sure, but I did feel it was over-egged.

-I would bet all the money in my pockets that A Few Good Men was what was in the mind of Hardy for this episode, and not just because of the military setting: the way that cross-examinations take-place and the nature of the finale all echo a bit of Aaron Sorkin’s film (except instead of getting Adama to snap and betray himself, Hadrian is the one who messes up).

-Odd moment where Tyrol exercises his right to not self-incriminate, and Hadrian declares this will be viewed as, essentially, an admittance of guilt. Umm…

-On Caprica, Helo’s choice is depicted rather well I thought, even if the Cylons outline it in blunt terms verbally. North and south, safety or Sharon. It’s good that we see Helo go the “wrong” way first (and see Six’s taunt towards Sharon), just so Helo isn’t portrayed as a total paragon.

-Starbuck and Baltar share some awkward flirting in the medbay, and I suppose the point might be to say that Baltar isn’t quite the all-conquering ladies man that he thinks he is, minus his wealth and trappings. Neat visual effect with the shadow of Head Six though, and I also liked the quick cuts between the two of them walking side-by-side in a hallway, to Baltar alone talking to himself, to them walking side-by-side again.

-“Don’t make me angry Gaius…you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”. I don’t know how that line made it in, it seems like such a bad joke in retrospect. But hey, Head Six does seem to exist a bit out of time, so maybe she’s a Hulk fan.

-The scene where a Six beats Sharon is brutal, and the real evidence of the antipathy between the models. The cold lack of emotion in the moment gives way to a certain amount of rage from the Six, and it will be interesting to revisit that relationship as we go forward.

-Adama gets called to the tribunal by a slightly nervous looking guard. Olmos gives him the hardest of hard stares: “Let’s go”. Shivers, let me tell you.

-The combat scene between Helo and the Centurion looks a little bit better than the previous one, probably because of the dark surrounds, and I did like the little hints that the machine wasn’t actually ever going to kill him.

-Adama is all about the death stares in this episode, but gets a few back from the civilian members of the tribunal, which I thought was a bit odd. The camera zooms up on their faces and all.

-I do love Adama’s own way of dealing with what he deems to be impertinent questioning on why the Tyrol/Boomer relationship was permitted to continue: “I’m a soft touch”, combined with a withering stare. Hadrian’s annoyance at the same comes as much from the answer as it does from the tittering tribunal, undercutting the authority she appears to be revelling in a bit too much.

-As Hadrian blusters, Adama exudes a more quiet authority, as he matter-of-factly orders the tribunal closed and Hadrian arrested. It’s interesting, and perhaps a bit convenient, that he is barely challenged in the process.

-“Make your choice son”. Olmos knocks it out of the park late in this episode, and I loved this moment, where the Commander trusts that the crew of the ship will have his back when the need is great.

-And Sgt Hadrian was never seen again, mentioned briefly only in Season Two’s “Valley Of Darkness” as leading a group of Marines against the Cylon incursion. Maybe she died in the process.

-You know damn well that Adama has given a great deal of thought to his solution to the problem, balancing that pragmatic streak with the need to send a message. Tyrol looks like a flailing lunatic in comparison to the Commander’s cold, steely demonour: “Somewhere in this there’s truth: care to take me too it?”

-Our first proper glimpse at Adama’s model ship here. It calls to mind just how that kind of sailing would have worked in the Colonies: after all, they were supposed to have gotten there in spaceships.

-“You’ll have to walk out on that hangar deck every day, knowing that one of your men is in the brig because you couldn’t keep your fly zipped.” Oh my God what a line. What a put-down. Amazing, one of my favourites in the whole series.

-“You keep my planes flying. I need my planes to fly”. Olmos’ delivery of this line, with a wearied, pissed-off resignation at the circumstances, couldn’t be more perfect. It’s clearly something Adama is meant to have been thinking about the entire episode.

-Tyrol unloads his anger and grief on Boomer in the final scene. “We are not worth that” he says, putting the final valuation of their relationship against one of his men being in the brig. It’s a great scene, between Tyrol’s emotion and Boomer’s icy response.

Overall Verdict: “Litmus” has that one key flaw that stops it from being a truly stand-out example of what BSG can offer, in the form of Hadrian and her shallow presentation. But other than that it is a tour de force for Douglas, Park, Olmos and Penikott, advances the Tyrol/Boomer plot nicely and continues the build towards the civil/military rupture at the end of the season. After a few dicey episodes in a row, BSG has come up with a few very solid ones in a row, and I don’t see that trend stopping.

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

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