NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Three: “Dirty Hands”

We’re on strike.

Air Date: 25/02/2007

Director: Wayne Rose

Writer: Jane Espenson & Anne Cofell Saunders

Synopsis: Tyrol is asked to lead an intervention when the tylium refinery ship is unable to maintain its supplies to the Fleet, but soon finds himself turned by the appalling conditions he discovers there. Baltar smuggles pages of a book into the Fleet, which inflames simmering tensions.

Review

“Dirty Hands” is another “life in the Fleet” episode to an extent, and uses that opportunity to give us a larger commentary on Colonial society. I don’t think that BSG will ever be as nakedly political in terms of issues of class divides as it is here, as several characters contemplate the idea of being stuck: Seelix being denied the opportunity to become a pilot to begin with, then onto the more general idea of people in the Fleet being stuck in their roles and finally on an ingrained imbalance in the status of the haves and have-nots, an argument carried by Gaius Baltar of all people. And the picture painted is not pretty, between Cally’s personal commentary on how a person’s birthplace seems to have a large impact in where they end up in the military hierarchy and our time spent on the refinery ship, a place where child labour, shoddy safety standards and a denial of basic rights has become commonplace. We haven’t seen this before, but it was an inevitable consequence of circumstances I suppose.

Having looked in on all manner of political issues – patronage in “Colonial Day”, abortion in “The Captain’s Hand”, elections in “Lay Down Your Burdens (Pat One)”, pardons in “Collaborators” to name but a few – here BSG has a look at unions and strikes. The episode does a decent job at presenting the issue from both sides: the refinery workers have been pushed to the brink in unsafe environments and are routinely ignored when everything is working fine, but the fruits of their labour are vital to ensuring the continued survival of the Fleet. They can’t just stop working, but at the same time they can’t just keep working either. Roslin is right to point out that other ships in the Fleet are hardly a paradise either but the issue of the refinery strike cuts to the heart of the class divide in the Fleet. Even when Roslin allows for a new round of conscripts to fill the gaps onboard, none of them appear to come from Colonial One.

Which leads to a strike, which borders on a mutiny. In fact, it pretty much is a mutiny, at least in terms of Galactica: the Chief is telling his subordinates not to obey orders. The episode perhaps doesn’t explore this whole thing as much as it could have, but it would have been a fascinating examination of how life onboard Galactica has fundamentally changed. It’s no longer just a military ship after all, it has couples and children and a daycare. As was pointed out in “A Day In The Life” just before, the people on Galactica can’t keep acting as if nothing has changed. Tyrol’s strike, and his willingness to both lead it and extend it to Galactica, is very telling of this shift in sentiment.

Right in the middle of all of this is Tyrol himself of course, and if “Dirty Hands” is about one character in particular I suppose that it has to be Tyrol. He really is on the edge of the knife, and in more ways than one: divided in the moment between his duty as a member of the Fleet military and his own humanity (ironically) in the face of what he see’s on the refinery, and divided between the person that he was on New Caprica and the person that is trying to be now.

I think the episode does a pretty good job with Tyrol, essentially making him the fulcrum that the labour dispute turns on. It takes a while for Tyrol to break, as we come to understand that he does have respect for the military chain of command and the fact the the President is in charge, even if that makes him a cog in a machine that is happy to let people with one arm work on the flight deck. He even goes so far as to essentially utilise psychological torture to get what he wants from Fenner in one very disturbing scene. But every man has his limits. In another case, not long past “A Measure Of Salvation”, of the torturer being as damaged as the victim, Tyrol reaches his last straw and, inspired by the galling words of Baltar, steps back into the shoes of a union boss.

In a perfect world we might have gotten the space to see more of the third act – with the right work, “Dirty Hands” could have been a two-parter actually – but I liked enough of what we saw. Even here Tyrol tries to walk the line, keeping a CAP in the air and trying to reason it out. He comes up against some, shall we say, stern opposition in the form of Adama, and we’ll get to that in a moment. Here we see a man who is forced to prioritise things in a manner different to what he is used to, and the #1 thing is his wife and family, above the strike and above the military. In the end Tyrol still gets what he wants fundamentally, which is a very weak part of “Dirty Hands” – again, more below – but overall I think this episode is a very good showcase for the character and for Aaron Douglas.

But forget about all that, we have to talk about the Fleet’s leadership. I don’t know if the axis of Roslin and Adama has ever been depicted in more negative terms in a single episode. Roslin is very much a tyrant here, in so many ways: casually ordering people to be arrested and imprisoned for reading a book she doesn’t like; dismissing with an arrogant wave of her hand concerns related to unsafe working conditions and child labour in the same; having prisoners be strip searched in front of her. Nearly every stage of “Dirty Hands” for Roslin is a showcase in her overstepping her bounds, and even when she adopts a more reasonable posture – such as when she advises Tyrol that families are having to pass on their skills to children all over the Fleet, and the refinery can’t be an exception – she still comes off as uncaring about the little people. I suppose the episode needs that antagonist force, but it still comes as a bit of a shock.

Bearing in mind that part of the flashbacks for “Epiphanies” was Roslin dealing even-handedly with a labour dispute, and we realise this is a different Roslin to one that we have seen before. Yes, she had a prisoner executed in “Flesh And Bone”, but that was a Cylon terrorist. Yes, she’s had people arrested in the past, but for much better reasons than this. You can call it an inconsistency in character, but I do feel like BSG has done an alright job since “The Eye Of Jupiter” in tracing this path, one motivated by the presence of Baltar in the Fleet, a man that the President wants revenge on, and getting that revenge is clouding her judgement in other areas.

Adama may be worse though. He joins in with the President in terms of dismissing the refinery issue, though at least he has the motivation of sheer military necessity: they need to be able to jump the Fleet if the Cylons show up, and the strike endangers that possibility. Fair enough. He heads a military machine that tells Seelix she’s too vital in her current role to become a pilot. Even with the possibility of demoralisation and disenfranchisement with the role, this is understandable. But the whole scene at the end has always been bizarre to me. For Adama to threaten the Chief with the summary arrest and execution of his wife – a member of the crew he has previously show no small measure of fondness for – if he doesn’t relent on the strike has always seemed like too much. Yes, Tyrol’s actions onboard Galactica specifically are a bit of a mutiny for sure, but this is Adama: the same man wracked with guilt over what he allowed happen to his crew in “Unfinished Business”, the same man whose obsession with the idea of crew as a family motivated his actions in episodes like “You Can’t Go Home Again”, the same man who just had to go back to New Caprica in “Exodus (Part One)”, and damn the cost. Here it all flips around, with the Admiral ready to shoot a member of his crew for the crime of being married to the person he has an actual problem with. You can wave this away by saying that Adama is just bluffing I suppose, but I never thought so myself.

Where “Dirty Hands” really falls down is in the solution it presents to the crisis. Things get extreme in the episode: an innocent kid gets his arm mangled, military discipline breaks down among the deck hands, the Admiral is seemingly close to having members of his crew executed and, oh yes, the socio-economic divides within the Fleet have never been more obvious. In truth I would have been happy if “Dirty Hands” didn’t have much of a firm ending for most of these problems, because there is no satisfying solution to most of them really. But instead the episode chooses an all too convenient route on everything. The strike comes to an end (thanks to Tyrol discussing the matter over drinks with the President!), with some vague plans outlined for shift changes among different people in the Fleet, that we will never see anything of as far as I am aware; Seelix gets what you can only describe as a token promotion to flight status to keep the deck hands convinced that they aren’t stuck in a dead end; the Admiral and the Chief are apparently just going to move forward like Adama didn’t nearly murder his wife; and the socio-economic problems of the Fleet are brushed under the table, as fast as Roslin can smile and nod to Tyrol’s work share proposals. Having done a pretty decent job at unfolding plot-lines of significant complexity in terms of their potential outcomes, “Dirty Hands” waves it all away in the last few minutes, and the issues concerned are never really going to dominate the narrative again as far as I am aware. That’s an unfortunate way to end things, especially considering the extreme changes of character that we see in Roslin and Adama.

That just leaves the stuff with Baltar of course, which could be an episode all of its own. The former President is in the midst of a serious re-imagining, presenting himself as something close to a Marxist revolutionary, exhorting the proletariat of the Colonial system to rise up and overthrow their bourgeois masters. “Dirty Hands” introduces for the first time the idea that Baltar might be more than the most hated man in history, that he actually has a following within the Fleet, desperate to find anyone they can place against Roslin as a political opposition (which, in line with my thoughts above, does not seem to actually exist). That’s a fascinating development really, and one that feels very true: and if there is one person who can manipulate the unhappiness of people who are tired of the kind of events “Dirty Hands” depicts elsewhere, it’s the same man who rode a similar resentment to the highest political office in “Lay Down Your Burdens (Part Two)”. Its spread fast too, with Baltar already having adherents all over the Fleet’s military and important systems.

Which brings Baltar into conflict with Roslin, again. For all of his increasing power in the eyes of the downtrodden, Baltar is still a prisoner and still subject to the kind of degradation that naturally comes with such things. Roslin wants her pound of flesh, and the idea of Baltar being out from under thumb in anyway is not something she is going to be happy to allow: her manner in making this clear to Baltar, wherein she subjects him to the humiliation of a strip-search, is another mark against her in terms of what we might call her moral compass, which seems to have gone out the window when it comes to Baltar. Baltar, for the moment anyway, stays strong, and only sees his position of sort-of-power get more re-assured by his conversation with Tyrol.

It’s there that we get something really fascinating, with a glimpse into the background of Baltar that we very rarely get to see. He’s a farmboy in reality, albeit one that didn’t much like farming, and who worked as hard as he could to escape from such a place: a place of lower-class workers who had no thought for politics, culture, science, art. In essence, the very people that Baltar is now trying to become a figurehead for, in a way. It’s a twisted irony, as twisted as the moment when Baltar chooses to settle back into what we are led to believe is his original accent. He’s a man full of deceits, double-dealing and betrayal, yet he seems dead right about the Fleet’s “emerging aristocracy”: this trial is going to be fun.

If you hear the people, you’ll never have to fear the people.

Notes

-The title makes one think of “Black Market” of all things, and the claim from Phelan that everyone in the Fleet is down in the mire together. It was originally “Our Enemies, Ourselves”.

“Dirty Hands” was originally very different: instead of the refinery as the cipher for Fleet inequality, it was going to be the Sagittarons, with Dee as the go-between instead of Tyrol. It would have involved ships of the Fleet firing at each other, and Adama finding a solution by giving Sagittarons their own ship. Interesting idea, that would have been a nice companion to “The Woman King”.

-Rose was the director of “The Resistance” webisodes, and has been an assistant director elsewhere. This is his first proper episode.

-The music at the start is a section of “Dirty Hands”, a very twangy piece of mood music.

-It’s a miracle there aren’t more accidents on the flight deck, given how so much is going on: basic repairs, refueling, laundry, teaching, pilots going to and fro, aircraft launching. The start does a good job of creating that feeling.

-Seelix isn’t in the mood for Tyrol’s pep talk, having to get back to some “important laundry”. It seems especially demeaning for Seelix to be stuck in this role, given her part in the New Caprican Resistance.

-I love the shot of the careening Raptor heading straight for Colonial One, and the sudden cut away. Just dramatic enough.

-The count is up two, presumably two births.

-Adama and Roslin share some really clunky exposition dialogue here, as he tells her the casualty figures on Colonial One. Real “Your father, the king” vibes.

-…”you’re always welcome in one of my beds…in a manner of speaking”. Oh err madam.

-Roslin is surprised that Adama has “a hint of hope” in his voice about the road to Earth, but even a man as secular as Adama can’t ignore what has been put in front of him.

-The President’s attitude to Fenner can be summed up by three words any Irish person with political interest will recognise as the call of an upper-class uninterested in fixing problems: “Labour must wait”.

-Her reaction to Fenner quoting from Baltar’s book is pretty shocking in its authoritarianism: Fenner is arrested immediately, by the military, on her say-so alone. The charge is “extortion and interrupting vital services during a time of war” but the truth is that the President is just annoyed that Baltar is gaining traction.

-I do love the title of Baltar’s book: My Triumphs, My Mistakes. Talk about the perfect mix of apologetic with faux-humility.

-And it is “the book”, a descriptor that I would imagine is a nod to the similarly described The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984.

-Cally’s parroting of Baltar brings us to the phrase “ruling class” and the introduction of class warfare to BSG. The words sound unnatural coming out of her mouth, but that might be some latent sexism on my part.

-Adama, at least, doesn’t mince words, telling Tyrol that Fenner has been arrested because he “pissed off the President”. That’s not much of a reason.

-Certainly a bit of Abu Gharib about the way Baltar is treated in the strip-search scene, but he maintains his dignity much better than you would expect. In the end Roslin looks much worse.

-It’s perhaps a bit sordid, the way that Head Six throws her hand down Baltar’s pants in this moment. What’s the point? Does she think he’ll look better erect if the President goes that far?

-The interior of the refinery ship, with the cavernous, empty, warehouse for tylium, is a good way to emphasise the problem afflicting the Fleet. It goes well with the production line, which strikes the right mix of grimy, unpleasant and dangerous looking.

BSG hits the Victorian feel of a child-staffed industrial age with the introduction of Milo, who is only missing the cockney accent.

-It’s just the angry words of a surly teenager, but the “The Admiral can kiss my ass” comment really struck me this time around. It’s easy to forget that the military is not beloved by everyone, as seen in “Final Cut”.

-The divide between Tyrol and Adama is achingly clear when the Chief describes conditions on the refinery ships as equivalent to “slave labour” and the Admiral’s dismissive response is simply “Don’t be absurd”.

-Followed up by the President snidely dismissing the Chief altogether: “”Uh uh, we’re done”.

-Nice call back to Cylon abuse of power on New Caprica here, as one of the detainees has what you can only describe as a psychotic episode in Galactica’s brig. It wasn’t just the main characters who suffered.

-“Whatever you say boss”. Tyrol has briefly transitioned from underclass to top tier, but it isn’t a respected transition, that’s for sure.

-Tyrol’s pitch for Roslin focuses on the unpleasant possibility that the Fleet could be in existence for decades, so the problem of pre-destined work assignments is very real. But she’s just not hearing him.

-Roslin’s manipulation in response is genius really, making it sound like she’s right onboard with the Chief and then making it entirely his problem to deal with. You know she doesn’t think he can come up with a solution, she wants him to experience the depth of the problem.

-The kid who confronts Tyrol on the flight deck really sums up the problem succinctly by saying “Now I’m a farmer?” on the basis of a summers work programme once. It’s a ridiculous system.

-The same kid asks “Who am I supposed to talk to?” and Tyrol has nothing to say. Because there is no answer. These people have no voice, and no real advocates of any real standing.

-The page of Baltar’s book we see here has a few lines wherein Baltar claims to “wash my hands of the phony democratic system” which involves a Caprican elite tossing “placatory crumbs” into “the barnyard” now and then. Perhaps more concerning is the next line, which claims some similar thinkers are ready to take up arms on the point.

-Baltar declares Roslin “an accomplished liar” as he Tyrol confirms he’s read parts of his book. We’re a log way from “Lay Down The Burdens (Part Two)” when he said that “Laura Roslin is many things but…she’s not dishonest”.

-Tyrol has a hard time imagining Baltar “milking cows and shovelling manure”. Baltar gets to indulge his own sense of wit by remarking this simply show Tyrol’s lack of imagination.

-I adore the moment when Callis gets to change his accent from that very refined “Caprican” way of speaking to, essentially, a Yorkshire one. Callis was born in London, but did go to college in York.

-I love how the camera actually pans down to Baltar’s mouth for the accent change, as he starts taking about “consonants scraping the back of the throat”.

-“Oh, to be Caprican”. Baltar segways back into his “normal” accent in an instant, and conjures an image of a Colonial Rome, the centre of the universe for everything important.

-Baltar isn’t new to betrayal, as he makes clear here: he turned his back on his family and his heritage to become Caprican, and he did it without much remorse. Even that far back he was all about his own side.

-Baltar casually remarks that there isn’t any point focusing in on his family really, seeing as how they’re all dead now. His loss in the holocaust is not something we’ve ever really contemplated, since they were people he gave up for dead years ago.

-Baltar’s final question is a potent one it has to be said, and entirely reasonable: who else other than the Adama’s would ever be permitted military control of the Fleet?

-One of the problems of “Dirty Hands” is the extent of the problem of the refinery ship: it’s described as “a giant bomb”, and what seems like a fairly innocuous jam on the main conveyor belt can set it off. How have things gotten to this point?

-I love that everyone in this moment is looking at Tyrol, waiting for him to make a move. He’s the union leader, whether he wants to be or not.

-The full on version of “Dirty Hands” gets its airing here, and it is a grimly evocative track to play over such a moment.

-It’s not a total strike at least, as the deck hands are happy to put a CAP in the air. But it is “vital missions only”, mirroring similar policies practiced by emergency personnel on strike.

-“You know what we do to mutineers? We shoot them Chief”. Adama isn’t kidding around.

-A desperately sad aspect of things is added as Tyrol is obliged to bluff Cally into thinking the strikers have won the argument. She buys it too. She really thinks Tyrol can do anything.

-The question has to be asked: why not open with the fact that Tyrol will be meeting with the President? Is the threat to kill Cally just a really demented powerplay from the Admiral?

-What’s different really, as we hit the scene between Tyrol and Roslin? The Fleet still needs its fuel, but suddenly the President seems to have undergone a personality change.

-There are high minded words here about the union and making sure people have a future they can believe in, but it’s hard not to think on Baltar’s words of the lower-class being satisfied with the scraps thrown to them.

-I do appreciate the playacting between Tyrol and Starbuck as Thrace comes to collect Seelix. This is a happy moment, even if getting to it means the episode takes a turn I didn’t like.

-I also like that it is Tyrol who gets to pin the officers pips on, even if he is essentially promoting Seelix above him at the same time. It’s a sign of that bond previously explored.

Overall Verdict: This episode is one that I really do want to like, because it offers some of the most compelling glimpses of the Fleet that we ever get in the show’s run, and introduces a commentary on socio-political divides in Colonial society that is long past due. But the manner in which it characterises Adama and Roslin, combined with the nature of the last act resolution, leaves the unmistakable impression that “Dirty Hands” was a rushed affair, wherein the writers decided that a resort to the status quo, or pretty close to it, was preferable to anything else. For that, I have to label the episode a disappointment. For now, we move on to the business end of Season Three.

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7 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Three: “Dirty Hands”

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