NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “The Hand Of God”

 Ahh, Galactica, Apollo. Mission…accomplished.

Air Date: 03/01/2005

Director: Jeff Woolnough

Writer: Bradley Thompson, David Weddle

Synopsis: Facing a critical fuel shortage, the Galactica and her crew initiate an all-or-nothing military strike against a Cylon refinery. Apollo gears up for the biggest mission of his life, Starbuck rages at being left behind and Baltar faces the possibility that he really is an instrument of the divine.

Review

“Crisis of the week” style plot returns in “The Hand Of God”, but it’s rare that BSG would ever do it as well again. This is “the big mac”, as the production team apparently referred to it: the first season’s major stand-out set-piece episode, the one where the CGI budget has been funneled to and where BSG is out to make a very big splash.

Said crisis is a fuel shortage, with our first mention of BSG’s unobtanium, tylium, the miracle substance that allows for FTL travel. As Roslin says at the start, the Fleet is suddenly down to having enough of the stuff for just two more jumps, which seems like a bit much: the show is only getting around to mentioning that kind of shortage now? But we move past that quickly enough. What unfolds is a classic military operation story: an objective, some complications, a plan, a few twists and a suitable finale. I don’t want to go too much into that side of things because BSG is, as always, a bit more interesting from a character perceptive, but it suffices to say that “The Hand Of God” is a very entertaining bit of militaria science fiction in its meat and bones: the computer work sparkles, the production team does great in making sure the viewer is fully immersed in both the drama of the cockpit and the drama back in Galactica’s op room and the score for this episode is the strongest of the show’s run thus far, and would rarely be topped. The twists and turns in the way that the operation unfolds keeps you hooked, the general outline is simple enough that anyone can grasp it, and the hard work is done to make the explosion of joy at the conclusion one that makes the audience’s hearts beat just a little faster.

For Roslin, “The Hand Of God” is an episode where she begins turning towards a religious frame of mind, slipping even further from the coldly irrational person we saw at the conclusion of “Flesh And Bone”. I suppose hallucinations and prophecies will do that to you though, along with the effects of her drug use. Roslin resists a little bit in this episode, but by the conclusion she appears more comfortable than ever in embracing blind faith as a guiding point, perhaps inspired by what she sees happening on the Galactica: a military success that seems to have a bit of destiny in it. Of course, at this early stage it still may seem a little desperate, and a not-at-all unfamiliar act for someone who is terminally ill to perform.

Starbuck is still on the DL in “The Hand Of God”, but there is plenty for her to do otherwise. Where Apollo is straightforward and lacking imagination when it comes to planning the attack, Starbuck is “outside the box”, brought in specifically for her ability to think laterally. And she has to trust her brain over brawn this time, as the scene with the weights so painfully makes clear.

“The Hand Of God” is an episode where Starbuck spends her time bouncing off of both of the Adama’s in different ways. With Lee she feels an anxiety mixed with jealously: that he might not be able to get the job done, and is going to have to do it without her. The obviously unresolved feelings between the two accentuate that tension nicely, something we haven’t really seen since “Act Of Contrition”. It’s clear that, in flying terms, Starbuck looks down on Apollo, and that arrogance is something she has to try and combat here.

Enter Adama. I did love the scene in the third act where he gently dresses Thrace down when she muses on whether Apollo can carry the plan off: in telling her that she has to learn how to deal with not being in direct control, Adama both admonishes Starbuck but also reminds her that she is a leader, and she has to act like it on occasion. It’s a reminder that there really aren’t all that many officers left onboard Galactica – I think so far in the series we have seen eight (Adama, Tigh, Apollo, Starbuck, Kelly, Boomer, Crashdown, Gaeta) total, not counting Cottle – and the ones that are left need to step-up to the responsibility. It doesn’t matter if Starbuck wants it or not, and it’s time she realised that: “Welcome to the big leagues”. In a way I think that this thread is left dangled, as it needs Starbuck supporting Apollo a bit more in the middle of the operation to be really complete, but I guess the scene between the two of them at the conclusion is enough.

The real beating heart of the episode is Adama and Apollo, even if it takes a little bit for that to become clear. We might remember that, at the end of “Part Two” of the Miniseries, Apollo attempted a forthright verbal reconciliation with his father, but Adama demurred. We come back to that slight awkwardness between them here, in the father essentially gifting his son a charm ahead of the mission and Apollo caught between appreciation at the gesture and unease at why it is required. But Adama, showcasing how excellent of a man manager he is in this episode, knows just how to approach Apollo. Starbuck needed reasoned, but firm, criticism; Apollo needs reassurance of a paternal nature, to know that his father, the most important person on the ship, knows that he can do it. Adama gives him that, and Apollo rewards him by reconciling with the Starbuck way of doing things, even if it wasn’t what he wanted at the start. Bamber is brilliant here, playing a different kind of heroic fighter pilot: the nervous, needs-to-get-out-of-his-head kind.

Playing a vital role – arguably the most vital role – in proceedings is Baltar and Head Six, who waft in and out of the episode at critical moments. Baltar is briefly straying back towards, ahem, heretical thoughts early on, but Six “snaps” him back to the apparently righteous path. I do think that Baltar appears to actually attempt to place his trust in God, but he’s still a scientist who is largely dependent on tangible evidence: the idea that God can speak to him through the random selection of a dot on a map is a bit outside of experience.

But Baltar does come around. The success of the mission, and of his “wild guess” is just too much of a coincidence for him to ignore. But more than that, the idea that Baltar might be the chosen instrument of God actually appeals to him, and to his massive ego. That’s the way to the heart of Gaius Baltar for an evangelical Six: not simple appeals for him to place his faith in a monotheistic deity, but to accept the role of a chosen one, because isn’t Baltar just that special? That sort of Christ-like feeling is going to lead to bad people.

Over on Cylon-occupied Caprica, things continue apace, with a fairly limited look at the ongoing adventures of Helo and Sharon. Sharon is clearly pregnant at this stage, at least in terms of TV Land – a woman throwing up always means pregnancy, though at least here Helo has the good sense to at least wonder if it might be radiation related – but more interesting is this constant “on the run” feel. Only a few episodes left this season, so not much more to do with these two. It’s a throwaway part of “The Hand Of God”, but I guess I can put up with it.

Though the outcome favored the few, it led to a confrontation at the home of the gods

Notes

-The title has obvious allusions to the Cylon monotheism and Baltar’s “wild guess”, but is also a nod to the original series, whose finale was also entitled “The Hand Of God”. It was a somewhat similar premise too, with the Galactica taking on a Cylon Basestar.

-Roslin sees a dozen snakes in a hallucination. Snakes of course are a recurring element in many religions – those associated with sacred tree myths, the cosmic variety, cults in Africa and the Middle East going back millennia – and can have a variety of different meanings: here, with the snakes seemingly representing the Twelve Colonies, it might be a commentary on humanity’s slippery nature?

-Boomer and Crashdown hit paydirt again, finding tylium when all others have failed. Coincidence? Or has Boomer had something to do with it again? If so it must be against her programming, because if it wasn’t she’d surely try and alert the Cylons before the operation.

-“Like staking out waterholes in the desert”: this is the second time Gaeta has said this line, after using it in “Water”. Odd that such a repetition made it in.

-Gaeta also mentions that the Cylons, being “this far from their homeworld”, need fuel as much as the Fleet does. This would indicate that Colonials know where said homeworld is, but that doesn’t really make much sense, seeing as how these Cylons don’t really have one.

-I love Adama in this early meeting: As Gaeta, Apollo and Tigh argue about what to do next, he makes a bold, decisive and memorable statement, that sets the whole episode up nicely: “We take the tylium from the Cylons”.

-Followed by one of the series’ best exchanges of dialogue. “If we fail?” “End of game.” “…So we don’t fail.”

-Starbuck’s advice board for the pilots has four bullet points of practical wisdom when it comes to flying a Viper, then #5 simply says “Pray”. Nice.

-Our first mention of Pythia and her prophecies here, but far from the last. This section certainly has a bit of a Moses vibe, in describing a person who will lead the people to the promised land but won’t ever actually set foot there themselves. The Greek Oracle at Delphi was dubbed Pythia in “real” life, so there’s some context too.

-Adama treats Apollo and Starbuck like unruly children at times in this episode, squabbling siblings who need a firm, guiding hand to set them right. Not sure he’d like what they will be up to later.

-Really nice sequence where Starbuck goes over the plan, getting around the perception of an exposition dump by presenting it as a briefing for the President. I love the board and the little models too.

-Adama compares the necessity of the operation to punching back at “the schoolyard bully”: “He’ll think twice about coming back again”. It’s a nice analogy, even if it is a weak cover for the idea that the Cylons won’t counter-attack if the mission is a success.

-Baltar loves showing off, as we can see from the look on his face as he starts spouting about the “enthalpy” of refined tylium. The smirk gets wiped away when he realises he needs to actually demonstrate something practical.

-Baltar takes a “wild guess”, despairing that God didn’t speak to him. But, as has been said, God rarely speaks in actual words. Still, it’s interesting to see Baltar attempt to commune with the divine.

-I do love that scene with the weights. Adama is just the man to realise that it isn’t enough to tell Starbuck she can’t go: he has to demonstrate exactly why she can’t.

-Apollo asks Starbuck is she thinks he can pull the mission off. Sackhoff delivers a pitch perfect “I’m saying the right things but have no belief in them” sentiment when she replies “Of course I do. You’ll be fine.”

-On Caprica, Sharon starts throwing up. Man, that was quick.

-The lighter is a nice touch, introducing more firmly the larger Adama family. “Joseph” as a name sort of stands out in this universe though.

-In this Adama/Apollo scene, we get the first strains of Bear McCreary’s “Wander My Friends”, one of the most noteworthy pieces of music to come out of the show. It’s in the style of an old Irish ballad, bearing more than a passing similarity in its tune to “The Minstrel Boy” (especially the Black Hawk Down version) and having lyrics in Irish. But they come later.

-Apollo attempts to make a connection with his father, by promising to bring the lighter back. Just as with other such attempts, Adama shuts it down: “You better, or I’ll kick your ass. It’s a good lighter”.

-I called it the ops room, but the first thought I had in my head when watching where Starbuck and the President watch events unfold was a battle bridge, in the style of The Next Generation. I think the official title is “War Room”. It’s another nice detail, like the observation room.

-Love that brief shot of the flight deck and Cally chewing gum intensely, just waiting for something to do. It added to the sense of nervous tension nicely.

-The first engagement is a brief one, and sees the Viper’s engaged given the run around. The secrecy about the larger parts of the mission helped this scene, as it seemed like the choice to abort was a real and genuine one.

-They keep things simple on Galactica, but it is remarkably effective. You can get plenty of tension through some figurines of Vipers moving slowly towards some figurines of civilian ships.

-Something that might nod towards the future is the look in the eyes of Dee as she relays a message to Apollo, expressing an emotion we might call concerned or worrisome. Were they planning that relationship even that far out?

-There’s a very awkward camera swivel at one point during he mission, as we pan across the ops room’s table. In an episode where the camerawork is generally quite solid, it stood out as a clumsy moment.

-The second engagement of the mission is a proper space opera set-piece, the first such one we’ve had since the Miniseries I would say. Its really good too, with a simple set-up of a bombing run, and an intractable problem in the form of Cylon AA defences.

-McCreary’s drums and horns work up some magic for these segments too, in the first instance of what will be a recurring motif that would see its purest expression in “Storming New Caprica”.

-Apollo’s jaunt into the bowels of the Cylon refinery has obvious allusions to the run on the second Death Star in Return Of The Jedi, if perhaps not quite as dramatic.

-That explosion of joy upon successful completion of the mission is great to see, a really well-earned cathartic expression. I especially liked an overwhelmed Gaeta putting his hand between his arms.

-Roslin and Starbuck even get in on the act, sharing a hug. These two are about to be part of a mutiny after all, better start building to it.

-“Wander My Friends” erupts into full glorious life at the conclusion, and it a banger. And, as far as I can tell, it actually gets the Irish right. It should I suppose, seeing as how the singer, Lilis Ó Laoire, is a Donegal-born sean-nos (“old-style”) veteran of Irish song. The lyrics are an exhortation for friends to continue a journey, while remembering those “who have gone from us, like the mist of the green mountain”.

-A nice bit of set-up and pay-off: after Boomer teases Crashdown over an ensign that clearly has a crush on him, said ensign wraps herself around Crashdown at the conclusion.

-I wonder how many cigars are left in the Fleet. A good few less after the ending of this episode. Apollo looks really wrong with one.

-“Though the outcome favoured the few, it led to a confrontation at the home of the Gods”. Really hanging a lantern on the upcoming finale there, but it is a nicely foreboding line.

-I wasn’t kidding about Baltar and the Christ metaphor, with him adopting a crucified pose in the episode’s last shot. It was a little on the nose.

Overall Verdict: An excellent episode of BSG, well worth waiting for, and the perfect response to the somewhat disappointing story that preceded it. Full of great action married to effective character drama, this is certainly one of the show’s top-notch episodes.

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

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5 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “The Hand Of God”

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