Home > Reviews > Original GALACTICA thoughts, Ep. 14-16

Original GALACTICA thoughts, Ep. 14-16

“Fire in Space”: In a tense opening, a massive Cylon attack turns into a suicide bombing run that heavily damages the bridge and the landing bay.  Yet somehow, even though the sensor screen showed hundreds of Raiders and two base stars closing in, once the two suicide Raiders have done their job, the Cylons disappear, and the rest of the episode is The Towering Inferno in space as the crew struggles to put out the spreading fires inside the ship; Adama is injured and in need of surgery under risky battlefield conditions; and Boomer, Athena, and Boxey are trapped by the fire and running out of air.

The first act or so is very effective.  No episode since the pilot has been as effective at creating a sense of danger for the Galactica and its crew, and the scenes of the bridge blowing up are very effective (a particular highlight is the shattering of the glass map display that’s been such a prominent element of the bridge set).  What follows is a workmanlike disaster episode, one that gives the whole cast a chance to contribute.  It’s Athena’s biggest role in a while, Boomer gets to be more than just the sidekick, Tigh commands the bridge, and even bit player Omega gets his most lines yet.  It’s also the biggest role yet for George Murdock, who does a passable Dr. McCoy impression as Dr. Salik.  On the downside, there’s also a big focus on Muffy, who uses his skill to sniff out “mushies” (some kind of pastry) to travel through the ductwork to the bridge in order to bring breathing masks to the trapped personnel (and for some reason Tigh handles this personally instead of delegating it to one of the dozens of background crew).

The episode unravels when you think about the logistics and physics involved.  How can the landing bay be on fire when it’s open to the vacuum of space?  The fire is ultimately quelled by blowing hulls in the hull and letting the vacuum “smother” the fire, and yet the landing bay fire that’s already in vacuum is burning unabated.  It’s one thing for a fictional story to contradict real physics, but if a story contradicts its own rules, that’s a much bigger problem.  Even a pure fantasy should be consistent within itself.

Realistically, putting out a fire in a spaceship should be easy.  You don’t even have to vent atmosphere, so long as you have the ability to shut down the artificial gravity.   Under gravity, the air heated by a fire becomes lighter and rises, carrying it away from the fire and allowing new air to rush in, maintaining the fire’s oxygen supply.  This is why flames lick upward.  But in microgravity, that convection process doesn’t happen.  Unless there’s some other source of air circulation, the oxygen-depleted air around a flame just stays there and smothers it.  So you could put out a fire in a spaceship just by shutting off the gravity and the ventilation fans, if you were unable to vent the compartment to vacuum.  But of course, spaceships that are actually Hollywood sets never lose gravity.

And yet when Apollo and Starbuck go out on top of the ship to plant charges and blow the hull, they’re in complete weightlessness, even though there’s gravity inside the ship just a few meters below them.  Every sci-fi show and movie does this, assuming that a ship’s artificial gravity comes to an abrupt halt at the hull, as if gravity were conducted by atmosphere or something.  It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense; obviously solid matter is not opaque to gravity, or we’d all be floating weightless right now.  So a ship’s gravity field should realistically extend beyond its hull.  I know I shouldn’t expect this show to get that right if even Star Trek gets it wrong, but it’s a chronic pet peeve of mine and I can’t resist griping about it.  Also, the spacesuits and the wire work here are just so cheesy.  When Apollo misses a handhold and goes flying, he doesn’t continue on a ballistic trajectory — he swings backward and then forward again like an actor hanging from a wire.

But despite the episode’s conceptual holes, it’s still tons better than any prior one-part episode of this show, simply by virtue of having no Convenient Human Colony of the Week.  True, it’s just as much a disaster-movie knockoff as two of the previous one-parters were Western knockoffs, but as imitations go, it’s a much better fit.  It feels like a story that belongs to this show’s particular narrative rather than being a generic ’70s space opera episode shoehorned into it.

“War of the Gods”: BSG’s mythology jumps to a new level in a 2-part episode that crosses Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a Biblical morality tale.  When Viper pilots begin disappearing, abducted by a mysterious cross-shaped UFO known behind the scenes as the Ship of Lights, Apollo, Starbuck, and Sheba head to a nearby planet to search for them and instead find Count Iblis, played by Patrick Macnee, whose voice has been heard every week as the pre-title narrator as well as the Cylon Imperious Leader.  Iblis presents himself as the survivor of a mysterious crashed ship, but he’s evasive and manifests signs of strange powers.  He gains a hypnotic control over Sheba and spreads his influence throughout the Fleet, boasting of his infinite power (he uses the word “infinite” at least three times in the first half of part 1 — more of Glen Larson’s clunky use of language) and offering to lead them to Earth in exchange for their obedience.  He even uses his mind mojo to make Baltar turn himself in, as well as seemingly making the crops grow overnight.  But Adama draws on his knowledge of ancient lore to recognize that Iblis is a representative of a more highly evolved ancestral race of humanity, one with nigh-godlike powers.  They are like unto angels, and he is the fallen one who leads mortals into temptation.  Could he be, hmm, oh, maybe… Satan? (As Dana Carvey used to say.)

Well, yes and no.   Larson is clearly going for religious allegory here, but he does in in a sci-fi vein, painting the demonic Iblis and the angelic inhabitants of the Ship of Lights as highly evolved humanoids with a more advanced version of the mental powers that are allegedly innate in Colonial humanity — Adama himself manifests a hitherto-unsuspected telekinetic ability, something he says was a subject of study at the military institute (so I guess Adama was one of The Men Who Stare at Goats — as befits a Caprican).  Still, it couldn’t be more faux-Biblical in the way it’s presented, right down to the angelic choir in the soundtrack when Apollo, Starbuck, and Sheba are taken to the heavenly “dimension” of the Beings of Light at the climax.

I’m having a hard time assessing the quality of this episode.  My tendency is to look askance on stories with this kind of religious symbolism — not just as a matter of belief, but because it’s something of a cliche.  I prefer stories with more nuance, ambiguity, and individual free will to those where everything can be reduced to a simple, Manichaean good and evil.  But to be fair, religious allegory was part of Larson’s intent in creating this show, and this is really the first time since the pilot that he’s managed to develop that aspect of the concept.  At least it’s truer to the show’s intent than Westerns in space.  The show seems to be asserting its own voice better now than it did in the first half of the season, when it couldn’t seem to decide what it was about.

On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s really two hours worth of story here.  Iblis is so clearly untrustworthy from the beginning that it doesn’t seem it should take as long as it does for his malevolent intentions to be confirmed.  If there’d been more ambiguity, if it had been credible that he might be well-intentioned so that the people who followed him didn’t come off as chumps or mind-control dupes, then two hours of this would’ve been more interesting.

And Sheba in particular comes off badly here.  I said in reviewing “The Living Legend” that I hoped she’d come off stronger as time went on, but my initial assessment of her as weak and simpering was only strengthened here.  It’s very ’70s writing — more like ’60s, in fact — in that the woman is weak-willed and easily seduced by the charismatic man that the smarter, less emotional males see through right away.  Sheba, meet Marla McGivers and Carolyn Palamas.  But it’s not just the writing.  Anne Lockhart may be nice to look at, but I’m getting annoyed just listening to her mewling voice.

Still, this is the first episode in a while where Lorne Greene actually seems to be making an effort.  For weeks now, when Adama hasn’t been sick or injured, he’s been weak and distracted.  Here, though, Greene seems to be finally back in the game, giving Adama the strength in standing up to Iblis that he lacked when standing up to Commander Cain.

One strength of the episode is that it gives us a look at the ragtag fleet for the first time in a while; in particular, the fact that some of the poorer refugees are still undernourished and malcontented is revisited for the first time since the pilot.  Yet at the same time, a lot of the episode focuses on sports.  Apparently Apollo, Starbuck, and Boomer are not just top fighter pilots, but suddenly top athletes as well, fleet champions in the basketball-like game of triad.  (In this continuity, pyramid is a card game and triad a team sport; for some reason, the names are transposed in the revival continuity.)  There’s an attempt to rationalize it as a necessary escape for the war-weary populace, but it seems incongruously frivolous.

Also, it’s never explained why the Beings of Light abducted nine Viper pilots if it was Iblis they were after.  It was just thrown in because abductions are part of the UFO lore that was experiencing a surge of popularity in the wake of CE3K.

The arrest of Baltar and the introduction of the Ship of Lights herald a new direction for the show, getting away from the whole “fleeing from the Cylon tyranny” angle for most of the rest of the season.  The abruptness and casualness of Baltar’s arrest, which is practically an afterthought, has the tinge of a network-mandated retool.  But Larson manages to spin it as an enlargement of the story rather than a derailment — the human war with the Cylons is just one battle in the larger war of cosmic good and evil.  (The familiarity of Patrick Macnee’s voice is even acknowledged by Baltar, with a hint that Count Iblis was the one who programmed the first Imperious Leader and started the Cylons on their path to conquest.)  Too melodramatic for my tastes, but in a way, it foreshadows the revival series and its more subtle “angels” manipulating events from behind the scenes.

One notable detail about this 2-parter: it guest stars both Superman and Batman.  An elderly refugee is played by Kirk Alyn, the first actor to play Superman in live action (in the 1948 and 1950 film serials), and the caretaker of the “Agro ships,” Carmichael (previously seen in “The Magnificent Warriors”), is played by Olan Soulé, the first actor to voice Batman in animation (in Filmation’s 1969 Batman cartoon and later in Hanna-Barbera’s Superfriends).

So all in all, this isn’t my favorite, but it’s not actually bad, and it’s certainly one of the more important storylines of the series.  And one of the more memorable.  Even after I outgrew this show back in the ’80s and my memories of it faded, I still remembered Patrick Macnee as Iblis.  Though maybe that’s more due to having once owned the novelization than to a direct memory of the episode itself.  (Although I misremembered the climactic confrontation on the planet — I thought it was Iblis against Adama, not Apollo.)

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  1. February 11, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    I can’t tell you how much I hated War of the Gods as a kid. No action at all. That’s basically what I loved back then. As an adult, this is probably my second favorite episode, though, behind the pilot.

    Fire in Space always seemed too much like a disaster movie rip-off, but you’re right about the opening 10 minutes. There was a genuine sense of danger in it, unlike the episode where the agro ships got blown up.

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