Congratulate me for I am no longer a disgrace. I call myself a fan of science fiction, but until recently I had never seen a single episode of Battlestar Galactica. I know. How dare I? For years, I would hear people say things like “Cylon” and “Pythia” and “You are the harbinger of death, Kara Thrace” and I would have no idea what they were talking about. Fortunately, the situation has now been remedied, and after some diligent binging, I have seen the complete re-imagined series. (But not yet the original—worth it?) Battlestar Galactica truly is the perfect show for binge viewing because it is so all-consuming in its thoroughly inventive world. It is dark and desperate, yet hopeful, complex and fully realized, yet ambiguous, and altogether ripe for obsession. I finally understand what all the hoopla and “So say we all”-ing is about.
I now feel part of this family. I have composed an interpretive dance to the opening theme like a good, responsible fan (don’t pretend you haven’t), and I’m ready to share in our collective belief that Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell are beautiful spirits descended from an acting utopia who deserve all the Emmys. Being somewhat exempted from the fandom because I waited years to watch, however, I’m largely ignorant to the general fan reaction to various episodes and characters. For instance, do others find Lee Adama as infuriating as I find him? Let’s hope so. Controversial statement alert: I would also rank both Helo and Anders above Lee on the official BSG Character Hotness Scale. Discuss.
Will my episode ranking be similarly controversial? Let’s find out.
5. “Revelations” – Season 4
In “Revelations,” the identities of the Final Five are at the crux of a tense standoff between Galactica and the Cylons, each side desperate for the path to Earth that the Final Five possess.
When the long-simmering secret of their identities is finally revealed to Admiral Adama, it provokes one of the show’s more stirring scenes as he breaks down in his bathroom, fragile, completely devastated, and powerless. His world, and mirror, are shattered. (Yay symbolism!) The rest of the episode is then an exercise in profound, near-mental-illness-inducing emotional shifts as the discovery of the path to Earth puts all that tension and bathroom crying on hold to be replaced by immense relief.
The ship is suddenly all serene music, inspiring speeches, and better kinds of crying. Lee even turns into a stripper and flings his jacket into the crowd. Everyone is downright happy. A little too happy, if you know what I mean, and Battlestar does. Not only is there still half a season to go, but the show revels in moody bleakness and is most successful at its darkest. Obviously, this joy must die.
And die it does in the most magnificently desolate and deflating reveal in the series, a spectacular contrast to the previous delight as the crew silently surveys a dreary, ruined wasteland.
4. Kobol’s Last Gleaming, Part 2 – Season 1
Battlestar Galactica consistently nails the art of the season finale by delivering floods of action and cliffhangers, and this conclusion to the first season is one unrelentingly brilliant wave of drama after another.
President Roslin and Wise Prophecy Lady are firm in their belief that the Arrow of Apollo holds the key to finding Earth, so Roslin commissions Kara to retrieve it from Caprica, resulting in a truly badass kickboxing fight between her and a menacing Six. Meanwhile, Adama is equally firm in his own belief that the president is a big, raving, drugged-up cuckoo pants and threatens to stage a military coup against her. The conflicting agendas and destinies in this episode establish so much of the choices to come as Adama and Roslin wrangle over what’s best for the future of humanity, Boomer is physically confronted with the truth of her identity by a creeptastic parade of naked versions of herself, and Baltar’s mental Six begins to reveal the prophecy of the opera house.
What’s truly memorable about this episode, however, is the shocking final moment. Battlestar is always willing to upset the few constants we had come to rely on, and when Boomer arrives in the CIC fresh off the glory of her mission and suddenly lifts up that gun, everything changes.
3. “Flesh and Bone” – Season 1
You can have your Sixes and your Eights. Leoben is my favorite Cylon. He is the creepiest, most cunning, and most enigmatic of his people, the great master of the Cylons’ most dangerous weapon: provoking fear and mistrust among the fleet.
In “Flesh and Bone,” a Leoben copy is captured, and Roslin orders him to be interrogated. What follows is one of the most intense sequences of the series, both mentally and physically, as Kara questions then tortures Leoben while they spar about the nuclear warhead he claims to have hidden in the fleet as well as faith and the nature of humanity.
As Leoben reveals how much he knows about both Kara’s background and the humans’ future, he provides a gripping teaser to the importance of destiny and prophecy in the series, and he begins the slow march toward Kara’s realization of the larger part she must play. Their interplay also illustrates the two competing sides to Kara that make her such a captivating character: she is cold and brutal in her willingness to torture him but fragile and lost in her need to hear the answers about her destiny he seems to have. The conflict with Leoben also provides an interesting early glimpse at Roslin’s pragmatic ruthlessness as she has no qualms about sending him out the airlock after he cooperates.
Next page… The top 2 BSG episodes… and the #1 Worst.
2. “Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2” – Season 2
Will Gaius Baltar become president of the colonies? It appears so once Baltar uses the discovery of a habitable planet to swing the election in his favor by advocating immediate settlement. Sure of the profound disaster both settlement and the words “President Gaius Baltar” would wreak, Roslin schemes to steal the election. Though she is ultimately unsuccessful, Roslin is clearly willing to compromise whatever principles need compromising in order to protect humanity and maintain at least a glimmer of hope in the promise of Earth.
Battlestar Galactica is masterful at producing a deeply consuming atmosphere, and this whole episode carries a darkness and tremendous sense of foreboding. From the Cylons inexplicably abandoning their attacks on the Caprica resistence, to Cavil’s inscrutable message of a reprieve from hostilities, to the inevitable doom of Baltar’s election, every moment is permeated by the visceral sense that the greatest disaster of all is yet lurking in the shadows.
Instead of ending the second season on this note of foreboding, the show takes the unexpected and thrilling leap of flashing forward one year to the settlement on New Caprica. Foreboding transforms into devastation and depression as we see the depravity of Baltar’s presidency, the emptiness of Galactica, the frigid refugee camps of New Caprica, and perhaps most alarming of all, the new body shape of Lee Adama. Everything is slower and sadder. That is, until the Cylon ships appear and Baltar utters those fatal words, “I surrender.”
1. “Taking a Break from All Your Worries” – Season 3
If there is one thing Battlestar Galactica may do even better than season finales, it’s interrogation scenes, and this episode boasts two, both of them dark, raw, revealing, and exhausting.
Gaius Baltar has been captured and imprisoned by Galactica following his time with the Cylons, and the episode begins in the utter despair of his failed suicide attempt. As much as the fleet wants him dead, they need to keep him alive for information, and President Roslin takes it upon herself to interrogate him. Roslin is usually so stern and calculated, with a quiet and pointedly enunciated anger, a pursed-lipped, whispering fury. That is how her interrogation of Baltar begins, but when he shows no sense of culpability, she changes into a Roslin we have not seen before. As she brings out the photos of the victims and begins throwing them at him, she unleashes a stream of white-hot, seething frustrations that is beautiful and cathartic in its ferocity, all the more affecting for being so out of character.
While frenzied and brilliant, the Roslin/Baltar screaming match yields no real rewards, so Roslin and Adama resort to more questionable tactics, injecting Baltar with a torture serum that manufactures anxious hallucinations and truth-telling. We experience this interrogation from Baltar’s perspective in as haunting a scene as the show ever produced, delivering absolute claustrophobia as he bobs in and out of the water on the verge of drowning and is petted by the dirty, diseased hands of the colonial victims. Under the influence of the serum, Baltar becomes desperate and scared, almost childlike, and we see him for the confused and pitiable character he is.
A final attempt to use Gaeta to play nice ends up becoming an assassination attempt, and Roslin realizes that she will never get what she truly wants out of Baltar—an admission of guilt. Instead, she will give him his trial.
Black Market – Season 2
I mentioned my frustration with Lee Adama, and this section seems an excellent opportunity to discuss the reasons. “Black Market” is a particularly forgettable episode (What happens? Right, nothing) that also highlights Lee’s misguided virtue. He’s always trying to do the right thing, even when it’s stupid and makes everything worse, which results not only in his making terrible decisions but his being proud of those terrible decisions.
In this episode of CSI: Lee’s Miserable Personal Life, a somewhat murder-y black market has arisen on the fringes of the fleet and Lee is tasked with stopping it. But first, he has been seeing a hooker with a heart of gold and buying weird presents for her daughter, which is not the point of a prostitute at all. Ugh, Lee. You can’t even do prostitutes correctly. His investigation into the black market puts Heart of Gold in danger, but that’s okay because now it means he gets to save her! Lee finds Heart of Gold, kills a baddie we don’t care about, and then lets the black market continue anyway. (Misguided heroic forgiveness!) The end.
Unhelpfully, “Black Market” also teases the Lee/Dualla relationship, and two wet blankets have never deserved each other more. Is the episode even saved by a haunting Cylon tableau or someone muttering something cryptic and awesome? No. We’ve got nothing.
Now it’s your turn. Do you agree? Am I obviously a Cylon? More importantly, what is your BSG Character Hotness Scale?