Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Coherent Plots are Overrated and Other "Dirty Hands" Thoughts

I surprised myself by enjoying this week's Battlestar Galactica entry, "Dirty Hands." By the standards of television in general, the episode was no great shakes, but compared to the level that Galactica has been striking in recent weeks, especially in its 'issue' episodes, it was quite an improvement. It certainly helps that Aaron Douglas is one of the few younger cast members who can hold his own against Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos, and that appearances by Starbuck, Apollo, and the love quadrangle that will not die were kept to a bare minimum. Liking the episode, however, doesn't mean that I accept its premise. Even as I was watching and enjoying "Dirty Hands", I found myself listing the ways in which the episode's plot doesn't make sense. Here are but a few:

The story hinges on the existence of a deep-seated prejudice against poor, rural colonies, extended to the fleet's post-colonial reality. It's not impossible for me to accept that such a prejudice exists--although the references made, way back in the first season, to the exploitation of certain colonies were quite vague--but am I honestly supposed to believe that people need Baltar to point out its existence? The working class in particular, having been confronted with them since early childhood, should have a keen awareness of the limitations of their options in life. If the idea that only people from rich colonies become officers comes as a surprise to Tyrol, then there can't be that much truth to it--otherwise, it would be an accepted fact of life.

Within the fleet's post-apocalyptic setting, the episode tells us, the prejudice against poor colonies is expressed by using their survivors as manual labor while the former rich colonists live comfortably. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, complete and utter crap. I'm willing to believe that doctors, scientists, and engineers--professionals from Caprica and other rich colonies--would find a place of honor in the fleet. The folks who, before the apocalypse, worked as accountants, however, or regional sales managers, or directors of personnel, will have by now either learned a usable skill or been put to work pushing a broom. I'm perfectly willing to believe that there's an underclass in the fleet, but under no circumstances would it be comprised of skilled laborers, whose knowledge and experience are vital to humanity's survival.*

For neither the first nor second time, the writers are trying to map a real-world issue onto their invented universe without ensuring that the two situations overlap, counting on the audience's preexisting emotional associations to compensate for an incoherent plot. The two characters who cross the class divide in this episode are a case in point. It's very sad that Danny the college student is forced to work in an unfamiliar environment and nearly maimed, but has the kid been living in a bubble for two years? How is it possible that he's learned no new skills since the Cylon attack? Similarly, Seelix's promotion at the end of the episode is very stirring, but what's actually happening on screen is that the fleet loses a talented, experienced engineer and gains a rookie pilot--hardly a profitable trade.

As my mother pointed out this morning, "Dirty Hands" would have made sense had it been set early in the first season, several months after the Cylon attack. Coming as it does more than two years after the attack--two years during which the fleet's makeup was even further shuffled when a sizable portion of it left to colonize New Caprica--without any explanation as to how the institutions and attitudes of the old Colonial system could have had such an unnaturally long afterlife, the story beggars belief. Are we honestly supposed to accept that for two years there has existed an upper class within the fleet whose members have spent their time twiddling their thumbs because they have no usable skills in a post-apocalyptic situation? Not only that they would have been allowed to live in such indolence, but that they would choose to do so, doing nothing all day but contemplating the fact that their life might come to a brutal end at any minute?

On the character level, at least, the episode works as an extension of what came before it. I particularly liked the juxtaposition of Roslin and Baltar's attitudes towards the fleet, but I wish someone had pointed out to Roslin that the kind of behavior she exhibits in this episode is precisely the reason why she lost the election to Baltar in the first place. Baltar is a liar. He doesn't care about the people and his book is merely an attempt to garner sympathy before his trial (although frankly, it's quite astonishing to me that it should be successful). When he lies, however, Baltar tells the people to speak out and think for themselves. Roslin, with perfect conviction, tells the people to shut up, do as they're told, and leave the thinking to her. I think there was room in the episode for some acknowledgement that Roslin is trying, yet again, to herd rather than lead.

Still, at least Roslin is still a likable character. With "Dirty Hands", Adama completes the transition he began at the beginning of the season, and becomes a thoroughly despicable person. I'm not talking about the threat to shoot Cally**, but about the reasons for it. Adama isn't Cain. He doesn't have it in him to shoot a crewmember for threatening the crew's cohesion. He will, however, do a hell of a lot worse to you if he thinks you've turned your back on him, which is why Cally nearly ends up in front a firing squad. Worst of all, once Tyrol caves, Adama all but pats him on the head and proffers a reward--the meeting with the president--gazing deep into the Chief's eyes as if to say, see what a good guy I am, deep down? Well, no, Bill, you're not a good guy. You're a control freak, and dangerously psychotic to boot, and I would much rather work for someone who would shoot me for impersonal reasons than for you. I truly wish the episode had ended with Tyrol taking his family off Galactica.

But other than that, it wasn't a bad episode.



* As usual, it's more interesting to imagine the stories that might have been written for this show then to consider the ones that actually were. Wouldn't it have been cool if the protagonists of this Norma Rae story had been former white-collar workers, now exploited by the people they had previously looked down on?

** There seems to be a profound dislike of this character in fan circles which I simply don't get. People seem to resent her murder of Boomer, but since Boomer has turned out to be either a horrible person or not a person at all, I'm inclined to let that slide. The beginning of her relationship with Tyrol was indeed a bit creepy (although I can't help but feel that the writers don't mean for us to find it so, but that they couldn't be bothered to show us the characters falling in love), but in the present they seem to have a good marriage--there's a sense of partnership, of camaraderie, between them. It's not high romance, but given the way other married couples are depicted on this show, I find the quiet ordinariness of Cally and Tyrol's marriage is quite sweet.

2 comments:

Matt Ruff said...

As long as we're listing things that don't make sense, would it be overly nitpicky to point out the weirdness of having the upper- and working-classes *planets*? I mean it's one thing to say that Planet X has a much lower Gross Planetary Product than Planet Y, that its sports teams all suck, etc., but even a relatively poor planet is going to need a huge professional and technical class to support things like space travel.

Dotan said...

Every episode that focuses on the civilian life of the fleet, or anything that isn't Cylon-related or main cast personal issues related, just drives home that there isn't any invented world there: the survivors of the 12 colonies are just stand-ins for post-9/11 Americans, and their entire civilization is made up of analogies, parables and allegories decorated with Thilium, algae and clipped-corner-paper.

I just saw both this episode and Maelstrom tonight; watching Galactica has become an onerous task I do with very little enthusiasm, mostly so I can enjoy your commentaries and make a little small talk with my sister.

Post a Comment