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October 9, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»galactica

Television Week, Part 1: The Precipice

Perhaps the most surprising change of the third season premiere of Battlestar Galactica has been the madness of Col. Tigh. Previously the alcoholic, easily-manipulated Executive Officer on Galactica, Tigh was captured and tortured between the end of last season and the beginning of this. Now he stalks around as head of the insurgency against the Cylons, one eye gone, muttering dark words in support of suicide bombings and other brutal resistance. "Which side are we on?" he asks. "We're on the side of the demons, Chief. We're evil men in the gardens of paradise, sent by the forces of death to spread devastation and destruction wherever we go. I'm suprised you didn't know that."

Tigh was never a stable or laudable character. Like much of the cast of Galactica he had significant weaknesses. It's a show about putting pressure on its protagonists, and where other shows would use that pressure to make diamonds of their heroes, on Galactica its purpose is expose those flaws and sometimes (particularly in the case of all-too-human Baltar) to crack them open entirely.

We should have known, really. When the second season ended by skipping ahead a year and completely changing the military dynamic of the series, it was a clue that the third season wasn't going to be a rehash of the first two. The cylon Sharon aboard Galactica has become the admiral's confidante, and a member of his crew. Baltar as president achieved power only to become even more a figurehead under the occupation. And Starbuck is now locked into an apartment with Loeben, the Cylon she waterboarded in the first season and who now insists that they were meant by God to be lovers. All of these are basically logical, but they're engineered to shine light on the same people from different angles, so that where we might once have seen something admirable it is now less flattering, or vice versa. Col. Tigh simply best illustrates this to me: formerly almost a running joke for viewers, he now radiates malice. Although he wouldn't have wanted to admit it, terrorist is a role that suits him, just as other Galactica characters have flirted with authoritarianism and genocide.

Waterboarding was a clue that Galactica has always been tinged with politics, but it's undeniable now. The use of "insurgency" and suicide bombers must bring certain conclusions to mind, as the writers must know, and turning them on their head to put the humans in the terrorist position will have conservatives screaming about moral relativism. I am less convinced that this was done out of liberal bias. It's more likely to be provocation, and nowadays that doesn't take much.

For example, one of the cliches of modern action movies is the scene where a hero is given an opportunity to solve his or her problem in a particularly brutal way. Tension is raised--will he really apply the electrodes?--before the protagonist casts aside the grisly instruments of torture and says the immortal words: "No, that would make us just as bad as them." I wonder sometimes if George W. Bush simply never watched any movies after, say, 1962. Perhaps that explains why he is capable of leading a movement to favor torture, rendition, and destruction of civil liberties--actions that imply we are "just as bad as them," and destroy our moral high ground. Only in this political atmosphere could Galactica's muddled moral compass be called liberal.

And it takes a simple mind to view this as "objectively pro-terrorist," or whatever phrases will be bandied about. The show clearly doesn't condone Tigh's suicide bomb tactics, any more than it condoned President Roslin's attempts to steal the election--another politically-charged plotline, especially since Baltar's victory proved so disastrous for the colonists. Galactica's stock in trade, both for plots and for its characters, has always been shades of grey. To reduce it to black and white is to miss the point, and to miss the finest moments that it has to offer. On most shows, when Caprica Sharon becomes Adama's advisor and puts on a fleet uniform, the moment would be treated with more reverence--a convert to the side of Good! But on this show, even those of us who have rooted for Sharon over all of last season find ourselves uneasy about her new loyalties. We know that these characters are more complicated than that, even if we don't know exactly which way their complications will lead.

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