NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Two: “Flight Of The Phoenix”

After what we’ve been through, it would be very easy to give up, to lose hope. But not here. Not today.

Air Date: 16/09/2005

Director: Michael Nankin

Writer: David Weddle and Bradley Thompson

Synopsis: A combination of fatigue and low morale sweeps Galactica, as a Cylon virus embedded in its systems threatens disaster. Tyrol embarks on a project to build a new fighter.

Review

Having broadly hinted at the situation in “Final Cut”, “Flight Of The Phoenix” brings us to the breaking point for the crew of the Galactica. There is only so long that a group of soldiers can stay in a combat mode before they shatter, only so long before the fear, tension, drudgery and lack of hope for survival take their toll. That’s where the Galactica crew is in this episode, and it’s a painful thing to look on.

In many ways the crisis of the week, in this case the Cylon “logic bomb” is a secondary thing. It’s a deadly danger of course, and I like how the potentially devastating power of it is built up slowly with some great set-pieces, most notably the brush with oxygen deprivation that Apollo, Starbuck and Hot Dog have. But it’s not the real crisis. The real crisis is the sense of hopelessness that is pervading among the Galactica crew. A card game here, a drink there, that’s all they have in terms of downtime, the only thing staving off thoughts of being a missile hit away from death and oblivion. The stark way to put it is, despite the expectation of finding Earth, the Colonials have nothing to look forward to except more of the same. Adama is one of the first to enunciate what he’s seeing in the crew, and he has sympathy but he also has no answers. Just as the Cylon virus has insidiously buried itself into Galactica’s systems, so has that sense of nihilistic depression buried itself into the beating heart of the ship. You can solve one of those problems, but what about the other?

It would be easy for “Flight Of The Phoenix” to proceed as a similar piece to “Final Cut” or “33” with a lack of character focus, but instead the episode decides to go all in on Tyrol, and to a lesser extent Helo. The Chief is certainly more interesting though. Since coming back from Kobol in “Fragged” and losing Boomer in “Resistance”, he’s a bit of a lost soul, going through the motions of his work with all the look of a man who is emotionally dead on the inside. The way he dismisses the broken Viper as irretrievable is not something we would have thought the Chief capable of. but it reflects his own attitude towards his existence: desperately looking for some manner of healing, a redemption, a miracle, and finding nothing.

And it all comes back to Boomer. Here Tyrol outlines that he and her had plans to muster out of the military and build a life together in the Colonies; such a dream has not only been taken away, but been exposed as a lie from the get go. Tyrol can’t connect with others anymore: he brawls with Helo for no good reason (well, acting on an external representation of his own self-hatred based on a contrasting love of a Cylon, but it’s not a good reason for a fight), he is dismissive of Cally upon her return, and when the deckhands don’t immediately jump on-board with his new build, he angrily rejects them. The betrayal of Boomer is a rotten seed in the characters heart, and it will take something very big for him to approach dealing with that negativity in a healthy manner. That very big thing is the Blackbird, but we’ll get to that in just a bit. Completing it propels Tyrol to the realisation that he has to find some manner of positive closure with Sharon Valerii, and the circumstances exist where he can find that: the closing shot of the episode is a significant personal development for Tyrol, as he takes that step.

Helo and Sharon get a lesser amount of time in the episode, but have no less of an important part to play. Both are looking for some kind of acceptance from the rest of the Galactica crew: Helo wants what he had before the Miniseries but isn’t getting it from pilots who look at him like some sort of enemy collaborator, and Sharon remains just a thing in a cell. It was always how it was going to be, but it’s still a little hard to watch. Caprica was meant to be the difficult part.

Agathon’s part in things extends only to early and late scenes, with Sharon having a bigger role in the larger crisis. In the manner she tackles the Cylon virus, Sharon really exemplifies how humanoid Cylons straddle the line between biological and synthetic: carrying all of the fears that come with facing a life-and-death situation, yet also able to directly interface with technology. This is the first example of something we will start seeing a lot more of next season, but for now it’s just a resoundingly strange, and rather unnerving, sight to see. Indeed, the whole episode is about biological interaction with the mechanical, from Tyrol’s scrapping of the damaged Viper to Sharon taking on the virus in this manner.

Sharon saves the day with the virus, and while Adama is quick to have her put back in the cell, it’s clear that some manner of greater understanding has been reached between them: after all, she’s just returned, in “Kobol’s Last Gleaming (Part Two)”, to the very site of Boomer’s assassination attempt, and there were even guns pulled, but she proved her worth and rescued the ship. On the other hand, Helo gets a relatively small, but important, redemptive moment, grasping the solution to the Blackbird hull quandary, and getting credited for it too. The two have a ways to go yet, and events in the next episode are going to dramatically escalate the tensions inherent to having Sharon as a prisoner, but the roadmap to acceptance has been laid down.

The final crisis of the episode is well-constructed, insofar as it deals with a familiar threat – the Cylons are coming to kill us all – but adds this very new perspective to it, with the real battle being between Sharon and the unseeable virus, and in the hearts and minds of the Colonial military. Adama, after turning to Roslin for advice in a manner we could not have foreseen earlier this season, is forced to place his trust in Sharon, a delicious drama all of its own as he contends with both rational and irrational reasons for not doing so. The strange goings on in the CIC, along with the unforeseen formation flying of the Cylon Raider fleet, also make sure that the finale of “Flight Of The Phoenix” could never be called dull or something we have seen before. The end result is great too, coming after a brilliant set-piece of tension with Adama going as far as pointing a gun at Sharon’s head: the pilots get to release all of that pent up negativity and frustration against an enemy that can’t fight back. “Payback time” indeed, and while this might be a drop in the ocean when it comes to Cylon military strength, seeing the Vipers rip through the force is still a powerful cathartic moment, one fully earned after the misery we have seen earlier.

Of course the real meat and bones of the episode is not in any of that, it is in the Blackbird. It’s genuinely quite nice to see the crew of Galactica gradually coming together over the thing, expressing skepticism of Tyrol’s project but then diving headfirst into its construction nonetheless. The scene where we see people from all over the ship – the deckhands, pilots, even CIC personnel – working away at the thing is one of the best of the episode, as the sense of a true team effort becomes clear, wiping away, at least in part, Tyrol’s single-minded obsession as the driving force, a way to use the negative energy he was trying to use in fighting with Helo for a better purpose. It’s not enough to just survive, to keep forging on day to day, there has to be some kind of outlet, something to live for. The Blackbird, at least for a time, provides that for the Galactica crew, the kind of mental health boost that was as required as the turkey shoot. Moreover, it helps connect the audience to the characters once more: here, we get to see them as more than just punching bags for a universe that seems to have it in for all of them, we see them as people who need respite, and rejoice in whatever kind of one they are able to find.

It comes down to some of the last lines of the episode. Tyrol refers to the Blackbird as “an act of faith”, while later Adama posits that he could come to an arrangement with Sharon because “we both wanted to live”. On the one hand, we can see the Blackbird as an expression of the crews faith that there is more to their lives than the daily drudgery, that there may be better things to come, and that, yes, they do want to live. And on the other, Adama makes a leap of faith with Sharon, and a once unbridgeable gap between them is no longer as unbridgeable. The crews’ struggles are not insurmountable, and the divide between human and Cylon seemingly isn’t either. BSG is a grim show, and rarely balks from showcasing that grimness. But here, once again, those little bits of light shine through as good people get rewarded for their positive actions.

Lastly we have to mention Roslin. She gets the worst news possible from Cottle here, facing, at most, a month of life left. In only a few scenes Mary McDonnell takes us through a decent small arc for Roslin with great skill and nuance: receiving the news, stoically attempting to settle her affairs in minor ways, and getting a powerful emotional moment with the reveal of the Blackbird’s name. Facing into the crisis of the Pegasus in the next three episodes, Roslin has given BSG a weighty personal drama to go with it, and it’s something to look forward to.

I don’t even know why I’m mad at you. My Sharon’s dead. That thing in the brig, that isn’t Sharon.

Notes

-The title comes from a book, with two film adaptations, about the survivors of a place crash in the desert who build a new aircraft out of the remains of the crashed one.

-This is the first time in the directors chair for Nankin, who has been all over, but far from the last: between BSG and Caprica we’re going to see his work 11 more times.

-Love that opening shot of the Cylon attack force in their initial formation. Looks like a scary group of machines to be facing.

-It’s so awkward seeing Helo’s attempts at ingratiating himself with the new crewmembers falter. That denied handshake from Duck, it’s rough.

-Tyrol feels the shattered Viper more like a vet than a mechanic – in fact he later uses a horse metaphor to describe its terminal condition – and such things make you think back to Boomer treating the captured Raider like a pet in “Six Degrees Of Separation”. How far away from the revelation were they fixing Tyrol up to be a Cylon?

-Cally is given a heroes welcome by the deckhands, with literal banners in the background. I can’t remember if the show really deals much with the aftermath of what Cally did from her perspective, but it doesn’t seem like here.

-It’s a brilliant visual symbol for how routine and crushing life on Galactica has come that Racetrack knows what cards Starbuck has because they have tell-tale signs of wear and tear. Even this meaningless diversion is having the joy sucked from it.

-“I just want it to end” is a line that you can read a lot into. Later in the shows run, hopelessness will lead to suicides but so far the lid is being kept on that.

-Man, Starbuck proper slams Racetrack into the table when she insults Helo. We never see any comeback from it either a sign, perhaps, of the breakdown of discipline onboard Galactica.

-A few new characters pop up in “Flight Of The Phoenix” for the first time, namely Figurski the deckhand and Duck the pilot. Duck will have a much more prominent role to play in future events.

-Tyrol really goes for the jugular with Helo, referring to Sharon’s unborn child as “that freak in her belly”. Even for a man with his bad mental health, it’s a vicious line.

-Also interesting, in light of Six’s words to Baltar on the topic in “Resistance”, how Helo is affronted on Tyrol’s use of the term “toaster” in reference to Sharon.

-The subsequent fight is a brutal affair, that stops just short of murder. It reminded me of the infamous Johnny/Peter fight from The Room in a way, in the manner in which Tyrol could arguably be collared for attempted murder, but Helo just lets it wash off of him.

-For the first time since it started being included in the opening titles, the count remains the same.

-I love Alessandro Juliani’s delivery of “It’s not an excuse sir, it’s a frakking fact!”. Seeing Gaeta break under the strain is very telling, given his usual manner, and Tigh is left speechless. Also great is Adama’s understandingly quiet response of “Mr Gaeta…pull yourself together”.

-When Tyrol shows the deck crew what he has been working on, Jammer outlines the various difficulties and declares “It’s frakking impossible”. There’s a lot of subtext in that statement, and it isn’t about the thing that the Chief is building. “Flight Of The Phoenix” has a good script.

-Give Donnelly Rhodes some credit for his one-scene appearance here. The look on his face at the start of the scene is more than enough to tell us the news he has for Roslin is very bad.

-Apollo, Starbuck and Hot Dog do some target shooting at print-outs of Boomer’s head. Is there a printing shop somewhere in the Fleet that has done these?

-I love Apollo and Starbuck getting the giggles at the shooting range, and I only wish the reason why wasn’t shown beforehand with the oxygen meters, it would have been much more effective, to cut to that after, so the audience could be more suitably unnerved by their behavior.

-That whole set-piece is a great “little crisis”: a unique set, problem and resolution, and all in around 90 seconds. I love how Apollo and Starbuck have to work together to fire off the decisive shot too.

-I always laugh at the term “Cylon logic bomb”, which seems like such an over-the-top title, but logic bombs are a real thing, malicious code that enacts its functions when certain preconditions are met.

-We don’t see much of Baltar here, save for a couple of scenes where Gaeta is really the more important presence. Also might be the first episode without any sight of Six? Helfer had some scenes, but they were cut.

-Apollo and Dee are getting a bit closer than is professional in a hand-to-hand combat class, with the two almost nose-to-nose before Billy arrives. Poor Billy, I remember being so heartbroken for him. How can he compete with Lee?

-An important thing to sell the danger of the Cylon virus: when Sharon sees the code, she freaks out, like the ship is about to explode any second.

-When pressed by Tigh, Tyrol struggles to get the words out about the fighter project, and in so doing reveals his own sense of frustration, hurt and hopelessness: “I gotta try…that ship, the work, that’s all I’ve got left.”

-Tigh mentions owing the XO of another ship a favour, and I do like the idea that the XO’s of the Fleet have their own little club.

-I always love that, without a word, Tigh takes some of Tyrol’s moonshine as a payment for his support on the engine issue.

-Roslin gives back the book Adama lent her in “Water”, which I think is such a great story-telling choice to get across her attitude at the time. No elaboration is given, but Adama must know what such a gesture means.

-You know things are getting bad when Baltar, usually so intimidated by Tigh, is letting him have it when pressed:  “I’m sorry, do you want to survive this one or not, Colonel?”

-Sharon takes a guarded stroll to the CIC, with the journey very much a deliberate mirror to the moment when Boomer was killed. This time there is less in the way of a jeering mob though.

-I love the succession of looks Sharon and Adama get in CIC, that go from baffled to outraged then back to baffled.

-Man, that Raider fleet is huge, and for the first time the devices come off as mostly mechanical in their strange “X” formation. Indeed, before they go offline the opposing forces are coming at each other like we’re witnessing some kind of naval battle. I don’t think there is ever again such a depiction of Cylon tactics?

-In terms of the their plan, all those Heavy Raiders make you think they planned to board Galactica, presumably to capture Sharon.

-Also, there are too many Vipers in that shot, over 40. Galactica shouldn’t have more than 30 pilots.

-The destruction of the Cylon fighter fleet is dubbed by the creators as “the Great Cylon Turkey Shoot”, and takes its inspiration from the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944. There, Japanese aerial attacks on an American fleet suffered hugely from opposing planes and anti-aircraft fire, to the extent that the engagement came to be informally known as the “the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”.

BSG doesn’t skimp on the effects for said turkey shoot, with the biological parts of the Raiders spilling out into space with gusto. Very vomit-inducing.

-The Blackbird in flight is a beautiful thing: nimble and twisty to the point of being hard to control. It’s a shame we’re only going to see a few episodes of it.

-“Kara, are you OK?”. Great delivery on this one from Bamber, who makes Apollo sound like Starbuck is far more than just a pilot to him.

-I do like that the people who worked on the Blackbird all sign it. It’s a very nice personal touch, in establishing common ownership.

-The reveal of the name of the Blackbird is a very nice moment, and perhaps the fullest sign of the reconciliation between Roslin and the military after the earlier schism. The President is more than just that political role of course, and its fitting that the crew might seek to honour her this way.

-Man, that bottle of sparkling wine must be pretty valuable, considering the circumstances.

-Helo gets his handshakes at the end of the episode, bringing us full circle. A nice moment, even if the crew getting over his connection to the Cylons perhaps happens a bit too fast.

-I like that we don’t see the Tyrol/Sharon conversation at the end of the episode. Tyrol reaching out to make that connection is enough of a resolution really.

-There’s a question mark over the time frame of this episode. It must have taken weeks for the Blackbird to be built, but that passage of time isn’t made clear at all. Usually BSG episodes take place over a day or two, so “Flight Of The Phoenix” is a bit of an aberration in that way,

Overall Verdict: Where “Final Cut” struggled with a general crew narrative, I think “Flight Of The Phoenix” is able to nail the idea a bit more. Yes, Tyrol is the main character in most respects, but the episode captures a good story arc for the Galactica as a whole, with a well-balanced dichotomy between the life-and-death stuff with the Cylon virus, and the more intangible plot-line in regards the Blackbird. The two episodes between the schism arc and the Pegasus three-parter could easily have been throwaway affairs, but “Flight Of The Phoenix” is an excellent effort, that continues to add to the list of great episodes for Season Two.

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8 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Two: “Flight Of The Phoenix”

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