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

I cannot allow Tom Zarek to be one heartbeat away from the presidency.

Air Date: 10/01/2005

Director: Jonas Pate

Writer: Carla Robinson

Synopsis: Roslin attempts to get the process of Colonial government going again by re-assembling the Quorum of Twelve, but finds her efforts stymied by a blindside from Tom Zarek. Apollo and Starbuck track a potential assassin, while on Caprica Helo and Sharon make a bid at getting off the planet.

Review

We’ve seen the military side of things triumph in “The Hand Of God”, so now it’s time we switched to the political. “Colonial Day”, as the similarities in title might indicate, can be seen as a sequel to the earlier “Bastille Day”, with both featuring a conflict between the authorities of the Fleet and Tom Zarek. More than that, it’s another sudden genre-shift for BSG which, having touched on a few different things thus far in Season One, now decides to try and pull a West Wing. The arena is the re-emergence of a Colonial legislature, and the crisis on the table is the selection of a VP: one can faintly hear the strains of Josh Lyman badgering Toby Ziegler in the set-up, with the episode featuring more than its fair share of Sorkin-esque dialogue (not so much walking-and-talking though). No Cylons, no fuel shortages, no life-and-death (kind of): just humans dealing with typical human factionalisation.

This part of the episode pivots around the three candidates who get put up. You have Zarek of course, the hard-left man of the people, who may (or may not) have some violent aims as his own endgame. I think Richard Hatch does a great job in this episode, better than he did in “Bastille Day”: here he has to make Zarek far more charming than he was in the middle of a hostage crisis, and largely succeeds. His speech to journalists about how the Fleet’s citizens are trapped in lives, society and culture that no longer has any basis in reality is brilliant really, showcasing him as the kind of visionary who poses a real and credible threat to the status quo. His first opponent, the well-named Wallace Gray, is a nothing character in contrast, in what I would deem the episodes major failing point: Roslin’s break with him doesn’t mean that much because we haven’t a clue who he is, and as far as I know we never see him again, which is odd.

Baltar though, who we will talk a bit more about in a tick, is the perfect response. He’s the epitome of the PR politician: a handsome man, personable, intelligent but able to deflect the possibility of being seen as elitist with speeches full of bland platitudes, gentle putdowns of political opponents almost tailor made to not cause too much of a stir and callouts to literal “Won’t someone think of the children?” soundbytes. In many ways, Roslin’s pushing of him, in the face of the obviously more capable but less politically acceptable Zarek, reflects a bit poorly on her, especially since she actually is dying. I think the crisis around the VP vote, while it could use perhaps a few more scenes to breathe a bit – perhaps they could cut out Ellen Tigh’s part of the episode – is done rather well, and there is a legitimate tension to the vote scene. It’s a good backbone to the episode, and the good execution justifies this turn to political soap-opera.

And of course Roslin is at the heart of the political soap-opera. She’s under intense pressure here, and I do think this is one of McDonnell’s best performances. It’s good to be reminded, in a way, that Roslin is a politician, and not just a crisis manager: here we get to see her politicking, responding to setbacks and winning through, all without resort to airlocks or Viper attacks. She can see that Gray isn’t working, and shows a political ruthlessness alongside the more regular ruthlessness that we saw in earlier episodes. Her dance with Adama right at the end is a moment to raise some eyebrows, but I can buy it just as a scene to let her get some relief from all of that pressure: the twin heads of the human race, acknowledging for a moment their ability to survive and remain standing.

The larger plot touches, as “Bastille Day” did, on the nature of the relationship between politics and terrorism, and how one interacts with the other in moments such as these. We can see the twin approaches in how Tigh, Ellen and Roslin all react differently to Zarek: Tigh with a militaristic disdain, Ellen with a self-serving manipulation and Roslin with a limited engagement meant to defuse and neuter. Roslin’s is probably the smartest way to go – it is statistically the best thing to do with terrorist movements if you want to actually stop them – but she branches away out of fear of what Zarek represents. This makes me all think of Season Four and Zarek’s actions during the coup two-parter, which I remember thinking undercut the character a fair bit: I look forward to reevaluating those episodes when the time comes.

Looking elsewhere, Apollo and Starbuck are having some fun in this episode, whether it’s spraying each with a house, beating up some mooks in a bar fight or brutally interrogating some guy. In some ways it is a bit of a weird dynamic between the two, obviously flirtatious, but lacking anything more substantial on that score until the very end of the episode. Maybe it is just because I know that the Apollo/Starbuck romance sub-plot is going to take a bit of a hiatus very soon, but it feels a little shallow to me here. Other than that, the Apollo/Starbuck stuff breaks up the episode nicely with a few action beats.

Of course, this is also a very important Baltar episode. Through him, we see that time-worn mixture of politics and sex that is so often part of fictionalisation of government, with “Colonial Day” taking off essentially as “Baltar’s Hall Pass”. Head Six’ apparent indifference to Baltar having relations with whomever he wants adds a fascinating dimension to her character, since it is very much only “apparent”: the moment she says it you can see the anger and hurt in her eyes, like it was a test that Baltar immediately fails by not repudiating the opportunity. Baltar might be a smart guy, but he isn’t wise: instead he luxuriates in being back in the public spotlight for the first time post-holocaust, gleefully taking the chance to get in front of the mikes (good to be reminded that there is no TV in the Fleet, we’re back in a radio-centric media machine) and back “in” other things as well.

Of course this, combined with Baltar’s disdain for politics, means that he can also serve as some much needed comic relief. Callis brings the energy of “Six Degrees Of Separation” into every scene that he is in, whether he is hiding the fact that he is banging a journalist in the men’s bathroom, or diplomatically trying to paper over his initial description of Wallace Gray in one of BSG’s funniest moments ever. This helps to cover over the slight contrivance that is Baltar’s sudden rise in fortunes, though it was inferred in “Six Degrees Of Separation”: from having an, unintentional, hand in the downfall of the human race, he’s now a terminally-ill heartbeat from becoming President of the Colonies. Not a bad months work from Head Six, and we see the way she works in the way Roslin approaches Baltar: it’s always appeals to ego with him, and it seems to always work. That’s Gaius Baltar, happy to dance to someone else’s tune, as long as they praise his intellect beforehand. Head Six’ obvious displeasure when Baltar brushes her off at his coronation party – and boy oh boy is she going to be annoyed early on in the next episode – shows that Baltar isn’t on as firm a footing as he thinks.

We do have to mention some of the problems with the narrative though, before we move on. Where “Colonial Day” has some problems is in the finer details of its plot, that BSG makes no effort to elaborate up later. Who was Valance and why was he bringing a gun onto Cloud 9? Did he really have no connection to Zarek? Who killed him? And why, if not Zarek? Was Ellen Tigh involved? What’s up with the people she wants her husband to meet? It feels like outside of that main narrative, “Colonial Day” was an episode where a lot of dangling threads were created, without any clear idea, seemingly, of what to do with them.

Cylon occupied Caprica provides the episodes end-point, as Helo and Sharon reach the crisis point. It’s somewhat heartbreaking seeing Sharon try and lamely convince Helo that humanoid Cylons might have emotions, with Park selling the conflict she has really well. It culminates in the truth coming out decisively, with Helo – manipulated, battered and bruised Helo – seemingly snapping and just pelting it in the absence of anything better to do. His panic, disbelief and mental breakdown are portrayed excellently, and things are set-up nicely as we head into the finale of Season One.

Politics is the only thing more boring than blood samples.

Notes

-The title is a reference to the Colonial version of Independence Day of course.

-Cloud 9 is a neat idea for a ship, allowing outdoor locations within the Fleet. All it needs is that simple bit of over-exposure – not unlike Cylon-occupied Caprica – to make the point that it isn’t terra firma.

-The Fleet appears to have a political journalism podcast in the form of the Greek Chorus-esque “Colonial Gang”, who have somehow even managed to get their own merch in the form of branded microphones.

-Interesting to see Roslin lay down the law to Adama on how Zarek is to be treated, basically ordering the Commander not to bar him from traveling. I suppose it is more of a civilian matter than military.

-Zarek’s words on being a voice for the voiceless is matched, visually, with the sight of someone packing away a gun. I suppose there couldn’t be a more obvious metaphor for potential political violence.

-Baltar expresses astonishment that he has been selected to be Caprica’s Quorum representative, which begs the question as to how they are selected. Was there a vote? If so, who voted? Any other nominations? The journalists indicate they are appointed as most are supporters of Roslin, but how was Zarek picked then? Does every colony work differently?

-Starbuck claims that there are “a thousand places for a sniper to hide” on Cloud 9, which seems a bit of a stretch: it doesn’t appear as if the interior park is all that big, and a sniper is hardly going to dangle off the dome without being seen.

-The hi-jinks between Apollo and Starbuck are a nice, brief, sidebar to the larger tension of the episode, and continues to point to the increasingly familiar relationship between the two. That’s going to get a bit awkward at the start of the next episode.

-Ellen and Zarek share a moment early on, in the first of three slightly baffling scenes featuring her. Just like her and Baltar, her and Zarek are a good pair. Actually Baltar and Zarek are also teaming up later. Now there’s a menage a trois I don’t like picturing.

-The handshake drama would appear to have its basis in whether Yitzhak Rabin would shake the hand of Yasser Arafat during the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Maybe that was a tad more dramatic though.

-Brilliant image of Baltar almost asleep when serving as Caprica’s representative.

-“She’s been eyeing you all afternoon”. “Well, she’s only human”. Cocky, arrogant, thinks-he’s-God’s-gift-to-women Baltar is well and truly back.

-Six might be giving Baltar a bit of a sexual pass, but she isn’t screwing around either: “I have your heart…I can always rip it out”. We believe her too, figment or no figment.

-Zarek is obviously a little prescient, metaphorically speaking. In his speech calling for a VP to be appointed, he warns against the possibility of a military dictatorship: which is exactly what is going to happen in a few episodes.

-Here’s an interesting question: does Six lift Baltar’s hand when she calls upon him to second? Or is he doing it himself? Just how much control, physically speaking, does she have over him?

-“Colonial Day” lets us see the reality of “politics” in the Fleet, which seems to come down to a lot of horse trading, whether it is crew to fix CO2 scrubbers, or getting more water rations. It’s all parish pump stuff really, as they would say in my country.

-What would any TV show with pretensions of being exciting be without a bar fight? This is a pretty great one, and I liked crutched-up Starbuck gently knocking the bottle into Apollo’s hands.

-On Caprica, Helo is finally starting to figure it out, and it is about time. Sharon’s clumsy response to his theories, where she starts nattering about how maybe humanoid Cylons can experience love, showcases her own desperation with the lie she is caught in.

-What would any TV show with pretensions of being exciting be without an interrogation scene? Apollo and Starbuck lay it on thick, but get nowhere: their threats of summary execution are a tad uncomfortable, given that they are supposed to be opposed to Zarek.

-Meanwhile, at the bar, Ellen schmoozes with Zarek, talking about how she wants to ensure her place, and then her husbands place, in any new order. I’m not exactly sure why Ellen is cozying up to Zarek: after all, Adama will always have more guns.

-Valance’s death is…confusing, for a lot of reasons, and it’s something that the show will never explain. Given how it happens right after the scene with Ellen and Zarek, I always got the feeling that she was meant to be involved, but how?

-A potent visual, as Roslin tries to decide how to proceed with the Zarek situation: she’s surrounded by military as she ponders what to do next. Zarek has a point.

-Baltar’s speech really is the sort of thing that I have heard come out of hundreds of politicians’ mouths over the years. Here, I do focus on that putdown of Zarek as a convict: nasty enough to leave a mark, but gentle enough that Baltar couldn’t be accused of going too far.

-Gray’s enforced retirement is a brutal scene. Our only glimpse of the man so far has seen him be personable and soft spoken, so when he spits acid at Roslin for her betrayal it really stings. Roslin is left standing alone, a good image for the scene.

-Callis still doing great work with the comedy timing. “I’m voting for your man Gray. Though he is really Grey…t. Really great!”

-“Now… now I’m going to give you an exclusive”. What a line, considering it’s a lead-in to having sex in a toilet cubicle.

-A burst of saxophone greets the announcement of Baltar as VP, and man that was jarring for this TV show.

-Starbuck cleans up nice, as she warned Lee. Sackoff does look stunning, and Apollo’s dumbstruck look is very buyable.

-The closing scene is full of some interesting dancing pairs, like Gaeta and Boomer, Tyrol and Cally, etc. It’s a shippers paradise. Also, Apollo paces while Baltar dances with Starbuck…

-Thinking off it, with Adama, Tigh, Apollo, Starbuck, Gaeta and Boomer all on Cloud 9, who’s running Galactica? Captain Kelly?

-Adama and Roslin, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. More seriously, the two at this point seem to share an appreciation for the other, in that they both back each other up: I think Adama is the only person in this episode who doesn’t second-guess Roslin in some way.

-Seriously, that last conversation between Ellen and Tigh is just bizarre: it feels like part of the dropped Crimson Tide sub-plot from “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” that somehow made it into another episode.

-First look at the Cylon “Heavy Raider” here in the episodes finale. It will have a critical importance in a few episodes as I recall.

-Just as earlier, we get another quick fire montage on Caprica as Helo figures some things out. I don’t think it is super necessary myself, not if you are paying attention: the previous episode already showed Helo figuring stuff out, and that was enough.

Overall Verdict: “Colonial Day” is an enjoyable episode of television, where BSG is able to craft an engaging political drama while maintaining the often-violent edge that the show has exhibited so far. It’s an episode with a little bit of everything – action, drama, comedy, dialogue-heavy narrative pushes, reality-bending revelations – and in terms of setting up the two part finale that comes next, I think it does a creditable job.

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7 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “Colonial Day”

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