NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Three: “Occupation”

Colonel, come o­n. I’m not gonna hold this door open forever.

Air Date: 06/10/2006

Director: Sergio Mimica-Gezzan

Writer: Ronald D. Moore

Synopsis: Four months after the Cylon arrival, New Caprica suffers under an occupation marked by torture, imprisonment and death. A Resistance attempts to fight back whenever they can while, in the Fleet, Adama struggles to plan a rescue mission.

Review

And so Season Three begins for real. “Occupation” doesn’t take very long to get into the meat-and-bones of the ideas behind New Caprica and the Cylon presence there, and it is impossible to look at in any way other than one that takes into account the political reality of the real-world at the time. In October 2006 the United States was around three-and-a-half years into the Iraqi occupation, dealing with “insurgents” who liked to plant bombs next to vehicles, enact assassinations and even send people into buildings with explosives strapped to them. The subtext of “Occupation” isn’t very hard to make out, and is one of the more effective ciphers for the period that I have ever seen, though it may over-egg it a tad by the conclusion (see below). It may be blunt to say, but it takes the Iraqi situation and it flips it for a western audience: the ones we identify with are now the suicide bombers fighting for their liberty, with BSG refusing to kowtow to easy avenues or answers.

We got a taste for it in “The Resistance” but now BSG really lays into the insurgency/counter-insurgency debate. In the battle for the hearts and minds of the human race we have all the staples: bombing of military targets, the provoking of outrage, torture of prisoners, disappearances, a civilian government of no power, an occupier with no real clue what they are doing, Quizling police and guerrilla’s with no clear idea of where the line should be. The Cylons step into the part of so many foreign invaders trying, flailingly, to make nice in the aftermath before making the same mistakes as others have made. They are blind to the plain, simple reality that you can’t enforce a better way for Cylons and humans to live together at the point of a gun: only Cavil seems to fully realise that, happy to lean into an extreme military solution of reducing the human population to “a more manageable size”. The others, caught between loving rhetoric and harsh practicality, have produced a quagmire where cooperation is preached on the one hand but humans are subject to sometimes bizarre physical and psychological torture on the other.

The insurgency itself is hardly the flat-out protagonist we might have expected it to be. It’s led by a man who seems to have seen part of himself killed by the occupation thus far, and has no compunction about sending people to their deaths as suicide bombers. We can understand the reasons for Duck’s willingness to do what he does, but it’s impossible to eliminate the queasy feeling: western values have long abhorred the idea of such self-sacrifice, and it’s impossible to reconcile the human/Cylon relationship with what we have seen every year for so many years in certain parts of the world. Tyrol’s unease, yet acceptance, is our unease, yet acceptance. We want humanity to be victorious, to escape New Caprica, but Moore and BSG do a brilliant job in making us question just what the cost is going to be for that goal, in lives lost and lines crossed. “The Resistance” seemed to ask “What would you do?”, but “Occupation” is screaming that question at us.

The human character that seems to represent the Resistance the most is Colonel Tigh, whose mental state in terms of calling these kinds of shots can certainly be questioned. Our opening look at him is of a seemingly broken man: physically mutilated, emotionally battered and the psychological plaything of the same Cylon model that is having sex with his wife. He’s not the guy who should really be making the big decisions for the Resistance – any one of Anders, Tyrol or Roslin could maybe fulfill that role better – but dictates of rank appears to still count for much (not that this should mean much really: just remember his role as a leader from “Scattered” to “Resistance”). Part of the brilliant disquiet of “Occupation” is seeing those insurgent tactics and knowing that the man in charge of them probably isn’t in his right mind, further adding to the moral quandary.

Both Tigh’s are trapped by Cavil. Saul is at first in a very literal sense, cringing away from his jailer in a way that really does a great job of welcoming us to the reality of Cylon occupation. But he’s also trapped in another way, so scarred by what he experienced in captivity that he thinks there’s no alternative to arranging a suicide bombing. Ellen Tigh is trapped also: we only see two scenes of her, but what we see is a woman desperately trying to save her husband, and using the only thing she thinks she can use in order to do it. There’s some very juicy drama to be mined from what she’s done to free her husband, and another delicious layer to the complex quagmire that is New Caprica.

Having only been introduced to us a few episodes ago, in “Occupation” Cavil steps up to become BSG’s main villain. The show hasn’t had a singular one of those as of yet, the role instead fulfilled by the Cylons as a whole, but it is most definitely Cavil now. What we see of him in “Occupation” really makes that plain. There’s his torture, physical and mental, of Tigh. There’s his extortion of sex from Ellen Tigh. There’s his threats to reduce the human race, as stated, “to a more manageable size”. Cavil, removed from the constraints of a Cylon religion that he does not believe, doesn’t buy into the occupation as an exercise in, well, humanitarianism, instead representing a coercion policy that flies in the face of other Cylons’ conciliation.

Cavil really is a great manipulator. We’ve seen that trait in the Cylons before, most obviously with Six but also with him himself in “Lay Down Your Burdens (Part One)”, but Cavil’s penchant for turning the screw is something else. There’s a glee in him as he mocks Tigh’s scratched calendar, and as he lets him twist in the wind over his release. Another (or maybe the same?) model has sex with Tigh’s wife, then casually reveals that Tigh is already in the process of being released. Later he mocks other Cylons’ religious scruples, with the tenor of a man far above it all, looking down and laughing at the simpletons. He enjoys power, the feeling of superiority, and isn’t afraid to show it.

The show needs this kind of presence going forward I think, especially as the Cylon models will be playing a bigger part than ever. Moreover the seeds for the eventual division of the Cylons are being planted here, with Cavil outing himself as a Cylon who despises aspects of his own kind: in referring to the conciliators as “delusional machines”, we see both an insult and a repetition of something we have seen before in “Lay Down Your Burdens (Part Two)”, where Cavil associates being a Cylon with being a machine, not just another form of human. The lines are already being drawn: Cavil’s, Doral and arguably Biers’ on one side, Six’s and Sharon’s on the other. No sign of Simon here, which leaves one other one. But he’s enacting his own manipulation.

The sub-plot involving Leoben and Starbuck, the former trapping the later in a twisted game of house, is really disturbing stuff, that feels almost out of nowhere in the context of the rest of the episode. It’s a natural continuation of the events of “The Farm”, and “Flesh And Bone”, with Thrace yet again made the subject of Cylon efforts to use her in some fashion. But where on Caprica those efforts had a clear enough end goal, here things are much vaguer: Leoben claims to be in love with Kara, and wants to basically box her into loving him back. His vision is really warped, a sort of unpalatable mix of religious mania combined with the unmistakable whiff of internet nice guy: he gives Starbuck a house, food, a refuge from the violence happening outside, and expects love, and it’s implied a sexual connection, in return. We’re back to the Cylon obsession with love then, but here it’s a whole new layer of creepy, and only made creepier by the manner in which Leoben can literally be killed over and over again without success.

Sackoff has only a handful of lines here, but “Occupation” is hers from an acting standpoint. The sense of control she exerts over every action early on, with that sudden viciousness in stabbing Leoben transitioning nicely into a calm ingestion of dinner, is very palpable, but it’s just a mask. Her resistance and solidity can only go so far, and when Leoben comes sauntering back into the apartment again she breaks for a bit, screaming in despair at the situation she finds herself in. Just like “The Farm” subsequent real-life events make me re-appraise this plot-line. You know what I mean: the greater openness in discussing male-on-female emotional and physical violence, the examples of men keeping women captive in the fashion that Leoben does, hell even the rise of what we could call “incel” culture all spring to mind nowadays. In the end, even if Leoben isn’t trying to turn Starbuck into a broodmare, he’s treating her like an object, a machine even, that he thinks just needs the right sequence of input to do what he wants. And it will get much creepier.

The episode chooses to only go to the Fleet in the third act, which is good for placing the emphasis on New Caprica, but not so good for Moore’s stated reason, in trying to ratchet up tension with the idea that Adama isn’t coming back, something no viewer was likely to buy. In a series of quick vignettes, we get a really strongly made impression of how dire things are in the Fleet, with the same sloppiness that was evident in the “One Year Later” portions of “Lay Down Your Burdens (Part Two)”, now mixed with a miserable tension. Everyone, from deckhands to the Admiral, is under the worst kind of pressure, and proving incapable of dealing with it: the biggest personification of it is Lee, a mess physically and mentally, but it’s his father who is the biggest focus.

Adama is at sea here. He’s left his best friend on New Caprica, along with the rest of humanity. His son is an obese malcontent, at least in his eyes. The crew aren’t capable of doing what he is asking of them, and seem increasingly unhappy with their commander. No wonder then that the Admiral turns to someone else, someone he isn’t commanding, for succor. The idea that Adama and Sharon could have formed the kind of bond that we see in “Occupation” does seem a bit of a stretch, and I would like to see maybe some flashbacks that establish how it happened, but it is perhaps enough to say that Adama, lonely as his ship becomes increasingly depopulated, turns to the familiar, or at least seemingly familiar.

It’s with Sharon that we get a better sense of what’s eating away at Adama, which is a poisonous mixture of anger and guilt. Anger at himself for having been more than a little responsible for humanity settling on New Caprica in the first place, guilt at running away. He’s misplacing the anger onto others, not unlike the way he tried to pretend there was still a war worth fighting in the Miniseries, or how he tried to pass off his refusal to accept reality over Starbuck in “You Can’t Go Home Again”, or the way his trauma was bounced onto others in “Home (Part One)”. It’s a recurring character flaw in Adama, and in all those instances he needed a good talking to, from a female character (Roslin in the first two, Dee in the third), before he could begin to snap out of it. Sharon provides that talking to this time, simply reminding the Admiral that he needs to forgive himself. Connecting with the Resistance provides the spark of hope as reward for this realisation, and leaves us on the edge of our seats for how these two points in time and space will develop their narrative alongside each other going forward.

You’re gonna hold me in your arms, you’re gonna embrace me, you’re gonna tell me that you love me. I’ve seen it.

Notes

-A blunt title for this one, which goes for the jugular early regards what allusions the episode is trying to make.

-Along with the following episode, “Occupation” constitutes Mimica-Gezzan’s last directorial role with the series.

-We open with flashing lights that give us a disorientated feel to start with. BSG likes its book-ends, and we will come back to this.

-The opening confluence is far more obtuse than others the show has done, like that which opened “Kobol’s Last Gleaming (Part One)” but I think does a decent job of showing us where people are without much in the way of words: Tigh imprisoned, Starbuck playing house, Ellen using sex, Anders/Tyrol planting bombs and Adama tired and angry.

-The thing that struck me visually was the intense focus on objects, be it an eye bandage, a fork, a detonator, a model Raptor. The camera wants you considering these things, and my impression was of them as ciphers for the emotions of the characters: Tigh’s blindness to his brutal actions, Starbuck’s calculation, Anders’ desperation, etc.

-The music for this opening is an Armenian-language piece sung by Raya Yarbrough dubbed “A Distant Sadness”. It incorporates some familiar notes and instruments that we will be hearing throughout Season Three.

-Adama’s frustration boils over as he flings the model Raptor around the ops room. We won’t see him again for a while, but it’s enough to get the picture.

-I love Cavil putting on a pair of sunglasses to talk to Tigh, only calling greater attention to the glaring lights the Colonel is being subjected to.

-The apartment constructed for Starbuck and Leoben is the same set as her home in “Valley Of Darkness”, and is essentially just a nicer version of the same. More mind games there.

-Leoben makes sure to list the food he is serving Starbuck. The two had an interaction over food in “Flesh And Bone”, and a Doral used fruit juice as a prop in “The Resistance”. Does this indicate a Cylon attachment to food that is notable, perhaps a way to associate themselves with humanity and, well, not being machines?

-Ellen Tigh seems to only ever have sex the aggressive way, and I’ll admit I could have done without hearing Dean Stockwell’s personal brand of sex noises.

-Even in letting Tigh go Cavil can’t resist some more playtime, leaving the door to the cell open almost like a tease, before coaxing the Colonel out. You can feel the conflict within Tigh as he weighs the risk that’s it’s another mental assault.

-The PA announcement playing when Tigh leaves the prison uses the curious phrase “New Capricans” – Does that include Cylons? – before closing with the amazing phrase “We’re all in this together”. Just as much as it is with corporations responding to COVID nowadays, it means precious little.

-Leoben is like a love/sex-starved guy – actually, he is just that – who has been imagining for so long what he would say to his beloved that it sounds rehearsed and phony coming out of his mouth. “You look so lovely tonight” causes revulsion in us.

-A dying Leoben tells Kara “I’ll see you soon”. Her bravado maintains itself on this occasion: “Take your time”.

-No survivor count in the titles, so it will be a few episodes before we know the toll of the New Caprica occupation.

-It’s been 134 days since the Cylons arrived.

-Roslin’s diary makes the point about how difficult it is to fight Cylons the traditional way: “It’s not enough to kill Cylons because they don’t die”.

-The administration running things is the “Cylon Occupation Authority”, which is probably a bit too close to the “Coalition Provisional Authority” to be seen as anything as remarkably unsubtle. Even the Cylons weren’t as bad as Paul Bremer though.

-Despite the Cylon’s claims that they are here to bring “the love of God” to humanity, there is little indication of any attempted religious conversion in “Occupation”.

-I love Cavil’s speech about needing a new direction, ending with the concise, deadpan first step of “Let’s execute Baltar”.

-Stockwell knows just how to make a line memorable through delivery punctuation: “We round up the leaders of the insurgency, and we execute them, publicly. We round up at random groups off the street, and we execute them, publicly.”

-The human police force really do look super fascistic, with their uniforms calling to mind the Vichy Milice. Oh, and there’s Jammer, confirming his turn in “The Resistance”.

-Roslin says it is Mars Day in her monologue: this seems a bit of an anachronism, as Mars is the Roman name for Ares, the Greek equivalent the Colonials should presumably be using.

-“Occupation” briefly gets very “All The President’s Men” for Tyrol’s unnamed source, seen only in silhouette, which I’ll admit was a little jarring.

-One thing on that, I always felt it a little silly that no-one in the Resistance seemingly suspects Gaeta is the source, enough that they might check it out later before certain actions are taken. Whomever it is would have to be very close to the seat of power, and Gaeta is a former military officer.

-Tyrol and Cally share a moving enough scene, where she muses on how one day he just won’t come back. As with “Lay Down Your Burdens (Part Two)” I did feel like this stuff needed more time to land properly.

-Tigh plays the unfeeling badass when talk turns to his missing eye, masking the trauma: “The eye is gone. Ripped it right out o­nto the floor. Picked it up and showed it to me. Looked like a hard-boiled egg.”

-There was a scene filmed where a Doral shoves a hot poker into Tigh’s eye socket, but Moore wisely decided leaving that to the audiences imagination was the better call.

-A line drilled into my head by its repeated use in advertising for the season: “There’s no boundaries for the Cylons, there’s no boundaries for us!”

-Anders’ anger about the departure of the Fleet is a good plot point, but rapidly revealed to be misplaced, as everyone realises it’s a screen for his pain at Starbuck’s disappearance.

-Keith Rennie and Sackoff are able to craft a pretty decent tension between Leoben and Starbuck, that borders on the sexual without ever becoming anything we could call titillating.

-Leoben really goes for the metaphorical jugular when he suggests Starbuck join him in the bedroom instead of staying next to his corpse: “Either way, you’re spending the night with me”.

-Love that pull-out shot as Starbuck screams at the bars. Very horror genre, but it worked. Good time to note a deleted scene where Starbuck attempts suicide by slashing her wrists.

-Our first look at Adama, post-prologue, is him having to pick up equipment from the hanger deck floor, which was a nice continuation of the sloppiness we saw previously.

-Helo tries to be reasonable with Adama, stating that the pilots have run the op 16 times. “Next time will be 17” replies a practically snarling Adama.

-Apollo has only gained weight since the Fleet fled New Caprica, which begs the question where he is getting the food from.

-I love Bamber’s “What the frak do you want from me?” after his initial pitch to the Admiral goes nowhere. He can only muster the thinnest veneer of respect before the anger and bitterness comes flooding out.

-We get right to the crux of the issue of Adama’s opinion of his son, and the Fleet in general, when he describes them all as “weak and soft”. He’s not just talking about the weight.

-Adama doesn’t hold back, his disgust having built to the boiling point: “Get your fat ass out of here”.

-We don’t see all that much of Roslin in “Occupation”, but what we do see is effective: the one-time Moses despairing that 200 of the people she was meant to lead are happy to throw their lot in with the enemy.

-The episode has to rapidly sum up the events of “The Resistance” to explain Duck’s willingness to become a suicide bomber, but does it well enough. Still better to watch the shorts though.

-Another advertising line played ad nauseum at the time. “Some things you just don’t do Colonel, not even in war”.

-Sharon’s cell has gotten significantly cushier in the last 16 months, with a couch, a tea set, et al.

-Adama says “I don’t do guilt”, and is about as convincing as Apollo when he later complains about being called soft.

-Sharon is blunt with Adama, in just the way he needs. The Fleet, and humanity in general, needs him to “find a way to forgive yourself” if they are to survive. They don’t have time for anything else.

-Apollo eats walnuts, but unlike his father’s behavior with the same foodstuff, Lee just looks slovenly. Soon after he puts his feet up on a table. This is a changed man.

-Like Sharon with Adama, it’s Dee who’s the female voice in Apollo’s ear, explaining why she thinks he is in his current state: “You lost your war Lee”. But then, now that he has one again why is he only gaining weight?

-The signal Raptor is a neat idea, and it adds a little tension to the episode wondering if the Resistance is going to make contact.

-The message that the Fleet relays to the Resistance is brief but memorable, ending with some words bound to stir the heart: “Have hope. We’re coming for you.”

-Adama can barely hold it in upon hearing word of the Resistance’s existence. “It’s gonna be OK. It’s really gonna be OK”.

-Duck’s appeal to the Gods is interesting, considering his apparent atheism in “The Resistance”. We can see that as a consequence of what happened in the shorts, but also a recognition that suicide bombing rarely occurs without religious entanglement.

-I like how when Gaeta comes in to grab Baltar for the graduation Six says “Good morning” but Gaeta can only bring himself to give her a brief, awkward look.

-Gaeta’s dash to the drop-off point adds a nice bit of non-violent kinetic action to the episode. The percussion heavy track that goes with it is “Precipice”, an ancestor of other music we will hear in a few episodes.

-One thing that might be sort of missed here but is important to note for future events in Season Three: Gaeta really wants Baltar dead. Discovering just why is going to be interesting.

-Duck looks at himself in a broken mirror before he heads out, which is perhaps a little heavy-handed as a visual metaphor.

-He is stopped by a centurion on his way to the bombing, and I’ve never been quite sure what this scene is meant to accomplish. Is it meant to be a reflection on Duck, now more of a weapon than a living thing?

-Duck’s last words tie into “The Resistance” and his newfound faith: “I’ll see you soon Nora”.

-We end as we began, with flashing lights, only this time with a pile of bodies added to the picture.

Overall Verdict: “Occupation” probably can’t be counted as one of the great stand-out episodes of the show, with a narrative that is really just a quarter-told. But I find it an effective and engaging introduction to the New Caprican occupation, with some deep character drama for Tigh and Adama, some very warped stuff with Starbuck, and a place for Cavil to take on that higher tier antagonist role. In many ways it is all just scene-setting, but this is something the episode does well. But now that the scene is set, it’s time to get into the hard stuff.

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12 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Three: “Occupation”

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