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Battlestar Galactica 2K: "Colonial Day"

Cylons and politics -- is there a back in the entire cast which hasn't been stabbed?

Since this is the first BSG2K commentary I'm doing, there will be a bit of introductory ruminations on the characters which don't necessarily relate to this episode, so bear with me.

"Colonial Day" features the return of Tom Zarek, played (for those of you joining us late in the program) by Richard Hatch, the actor who was Captain Apollo in Classic BSG. Hatch tried for many years to revive Classic BSG as a movie, spending a great deal of time, and his own money, in the effort. I'm not entirely sure who owns the rights to what, but as it happened, the revival idea was shelved and the "re-imagining" of BSG was what ended up being filmed. Understandably disappointed, Hatch fought the new version at first, but when he met with writers and producers and actors, he found that the people involved were committed to making a high-quality product -- not the same product with the same goals as Classic BSG, but a damn fine show nonetheless. Hatch relented. He was offered and accepted the role of Zarek, and from events in "Colonial Day" it appears he'll be returning.

I bring this up not just for the sake of behind-the-scenes gossip, but because I think it provides some context for Hatch's performance and for Zarek as a character. Hatch has spoken frequently in many interviews of his love for and dedication to the craft of acting, of how seriously he takes each job. Even in truly crapola films like Iron Thunder, Hatch can take sub-mediocre material and give it surprising weight. So when he gets a really complicated and deliberately mysterious part like Zarek, it's going to be gold. Okay, so he's prone to over-speeching, but that's partly the script's fault too. Hatch is still a vivid presence among several solid actors, and Jamie Bamber repeatedly looks pale and uncertain in his wake.

Zarek got more airtime in "Bastille Day," the episode which introduced the character at the beginning of the season, but what we see here is both more revealing and more muddying. I don't think Zarek is purely power-hungry; I think at least some of his propaganda is genuine. I think he does want to lead a proletariat revolution and overthrow the status quo government because it and society no longer work according to the old models -- but the key word is "lead." It isn't that he doesn't want freedom, rights, food, etc. for 'the people,' but that he also wants followers. And not just allies, but people devoted to him personally. That makes him much more intriguing than someone like Ellen Tigh, who just wants power for its own sake -- for the ability to order other people around, for the benefits and trappings and luxuries, for being In The Know. We assume he has a secret agenda, but is it evil? Or just politics? Or is it more of what he was thrown in jail for?

Hatch plays Zarek as though he's not a bad guy -- I think Hatch doesn't see Zarek as a murderer, but as a revolutionary. That brings a fascinating edge to the performance, because Zarek is behaving as though he's a crude Nelson Mandela rather than a sophisticated Fidel Castro. It keeps the audience guessing. We don't know whether he actually is bad or good. He's both at the moment -- capable of atrocity, but also of brilliant political thinking. He's absolutely right about reinventing their society. Not everything needs to be scrapped, but certain things have to be reimagined and rebuilt. Does there need to be currency? Could a real communist/socialist society function? There's still freedom of the press, there are still elections, there is still a Quorum of Twelve. Basic rights which we (the West) have should not be abrogated. But what things can be cast aside? Is it necessary to rebuild as it was, or could things be planned better? Zarek is the only one bringing up these questions. Granted, he's able to because he doesn't have the day-to-day responsibility of keeping the fleet safe from the Cylons or all the administrative details which go into running a government. But he is thinking of things beyond the way they used to be, which nobody else is doing publicly, and that may be the best way of keeping the society alive.

You know, I hate that they run a spoiler-preview in the credits of each show. In fact, since we figured that out in the second episode, we haven't sat through the credits once. We were watching "Colonial Day" and "Kobol's Last Gleaming" to refresh our memories and hubby noted that since we don't ever watch the opening sequence, the music is entirely unfamiliar.

Six writhes slowly like she's so turned on all the time she can't help but squirm -- but it works for the character. In contrast to the last two Trek incarnations, the siren is a siren, she's meant to be a siren, and she knows it, dresses it, acts it, and uses it as a weapon. I have no problem with Six's blazing sexuality because she doesn't have a problem with it. It's rather refreshing. (It's better than when she gets religious and preachy, which got on my nerves earlier in the season.)

So what kind of technology do they have on the Cloud 9? Is the backdrop painted, leading to Kara's comment about the horizon not being very good? They have some kind of artificial sunlight, and something to make the atmosphere feel planetary. Why wouldn't some of that be torn apart and shared among the other ships which are struggling? Why is a luxury liner allowed to continue operating as such?

The Kara-Lee water fight was a lot of fun. These two have an interesting relationship -- it's part brother/sister, part captain/lieutenant, part they-might-be-lovers-eventually. Because Kara was originally involved with Zak, Lee had to see her as My Brother's Girl, but it's been long enough that he can now see her in her own right. But that doesn't obliterate the earlier more familial feelings, nor does it allow him to ignore his duty when called for. We never quite know how these two will react to one another.

Ellen Tigh is actually more dislikable than Baltar, to me. They're both liars, manipulators, and backstabbers, but Ellen takes a malicious glee in her deliberate machinations, while Baltar is as much a puppet of Six's as a traitor in his own right. He's a spineless coward, which makes him pathetic. She's in control even when she's drunk out of her mind. On the receiving line, she's the perfect political wife: bright plastic pleasantries and calculated gestures designed to get her, and Tigh, "ahead" in whatever game she's playing. At the bar, she flirts greasily with Zarek because she sees the potential for future power and wants to start building alliances (and building up favors) now. Baltar's treachery is casual, almost impersonal. Ellen is a deliberate snake.

President Laura Roslin is a remarkable character. Her political skills are astonishing. She plays almost everyone around her with steel and silk. Adama is the only person she can't consistently sway, which is as it should be. She accepts Zarek graciously in the receiving line, to give him enough rope to hang himself with, but doesn't do it again at the party at the end because she does not in fact want to ally herself with him. She guides the quorum firmly without strangling it, never losing her cool even turning some insanely stressful moments. (Baltar seconds Zarek's motion to put the vice-presidential nomination first on the agenda, and she turns like a tank turret, face completely locked, to bore her eyes into his face. Even I cringed.)

The actress, Mary McDonnell, plays Roslin with a tense stillness. She's coiled, tightly withdrawn, as though her political power is a whip or an energy blast she has to be careful about unleashing. When she has to tell Gray to drop out and he zings her for being too astute a political animal, she's looking up at him; he walks off, and she just... holds... that... position for several seconds. She sighs, or gasps, but that's it. And something else to watch: during really high-stakes moments...she doesn't blink. For minutes at a time. She holds her eyes open and her expression unmoving. It's a bit frightening.

Six tells Baltar "Love isn't about can have any woman you want, but always remember -- I have your heart." (Then she adds "I can always rip it out of your chest if I need to." brr!) I think this backfires on her in "Kobol's Last Gleaming," but more on that in the commentary for those eps. One of the Cylon agendas is about the exploration of Love -- they're fascinated with it. Is it because that's what defines humans, what makes them the Favored Children of the god(s), what makes them better? If the Cylons can experience Love, does that make them Real, rather than mere machines, and therefore equal or superior to humans? Caprica Six and Doral were insistent that Caprica Sharon get Helo to love her. When Helo debates if he's seeing Cylons which look like humans on Caprica, the first thing Sharon says is that she wonders if Cylons could feel love. This might be a key to their defeat later on.

Zarek is absolutely right about having a vice president in place before too much more is decided about rebuilding. And it galls Roslin no end that she didn't think of it first.

The cinematography on BSG2K is much different from what we're accustomed to on Trek. There's depth to the sets -- you really feel like they're airplane hangars. The camera zooms in jerkily, in small increments on people or large swoops on ships. (This was started on Joss Whedon's Firefly, whence the camera folks came.) Passim scenes are edited choppily to indicate the emotional charge. One particular trick which varies in effectiveness is to sit the camera immediately behind someone's shoulder so that the person's head or hair takes up a blurry third of the frame. If it's overused it gets tiresome, but as an occasional shot it adds nice visual texture. I should comment on the background music as well -- it errs on the side of overdramatic, with bass and drumbeats and violins (and a bagpipe?) trying to emphasize what we're already feeling, but it generally works. If it becomes noticeable, it's not bad.

Lee was absolutely wrong to pick the bar fight. Even though Roslin wanted him to be aggressive in taking care of security, arguing with one of Zarek's supporters doesn't fall under that category. When the Sagittaron guy said he wanted Zarek's speech back on, Lee should have finished his drink, told the barkeep to put it back on, and then left if it bothered him that much. Lee was wearing a Colonial Warrior uniform. He represented the military, who are also the police. It was his responsibility to see that in a politically charged, emotionally intense atmosphere, the situation did not escalate in exactly the manner it did. The fight was his fault. As a private citizen he can argue about Zarek until he's blue in the face, but as a law enforcement officer, his job was to shut up and smile. There was no way for Lee or Kara to know that there was an assassin, much less that Valance had a gun or was in the bar at the time.

Then we have the interrogation. I guess I'm too accustomed to Trek, but I can't see how that kind of abuse is going to advance their case. (They also weren't very good at it. Lee has the gun... and Kara threatens to airlock the guy. Couldn't they at least have organized their threats?) Is there really no due process? Would no one believe that a Colonial Warrior is capable of that kind of violence? The Sagittarons are already clamoring about a conspiracy against the poor -- wouldn't this just add fuel to the fire? Similarly, I thought Lee sneering to Zarek "You're next" was unnecessary and tactically stupid. What purpose did that serve? Zarek had enough support that if he reported the threat, he'd have been believed.

One thing I hope is trimmed in S2 is the double conversations Baltar has with Six and whomever else is in the room. It's even more annoying than the preaching. I loathe fish-out-of-water moments, and Baltar's repeated oopses and rewording his comments to Six so that they address the rest of the room is exhausting. It's masterful storytelling that the audience can still find something with which to sympathize in the main villain of the series, but I almost want them to fish or cut bait -- reveal him as a traitor already! Let us like him or dislike him more cleanly!

The bathroom scene was great -- both Roslin and Baltar know she hates him, but they're both getting something out of the deal, so it's worth it. It's also a kind of reverse-echo of Classic BSG, where Baltar was one of the original Quorum of Twelve before the Destruction.

In an interview with two of the show's writers, they revealed that it was actress Katee Sackhoff's idea that her character, Kara, should wear the dress at the party in the closer, which set up both another layer of her interaction with Lee and previewed the beginning of KLG. And it's nice to see the various military women (Kara, Boomer, Cally) relaxed and dressed up and having a good time with the military men. It reminds us that despite the horror of the war and the duty which has become their permanent career, everyone does have a life outside the service.

I won't be keeping a Food Chain for BSG, although I will point out notable Recycled Actors if I recognize them.