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Monday, February 2, 2009

'Battlestar Galactica' fulfills its 'Oath' with latest episode

A friend of mine recently suggested that "Battlestar Galactica" be nicknamed "As the Basestar Turns." Although it takes place on spaceships, at times the acclaimed Sci Fi channel series seems more soap opera than space opera, given that plot points have involved terminal illness, adultery, alcoholism, unexpected pregnancy, surprise resurrections and evil twins. Some of the android Cylon characters have, in effect, hundreds of evil twins. Take that, "Days of Our Lives!"

So it's a relief that the show's Jan. 30 episode, "The Oath," proved such a compelling, almost unbearably suspenseful return to form. The third of the show's final 10 episodes (nicknamed "Season 4.5," to distinguish it from the 12 episodes of Season 4 that aired in 2008 -- got that?), "The Oath" offered a prime example of the show's ability to embed knotty moral dilemmas into thrilling action tropes. It's like the Jan. 16 season premiere, with its game-changing revelation about Earth, were just build up to "The Oath."

Before getting into "The Oath," however, you may have heard about what happened with the "Battlestar Galactica" season premiere broadcast in Canada: A pivotal moment on the episode was followed immediately by a breathtakingly inappropriate commercial break. A clip capturing the unfortunate juxtaposition has already taken on viral life of its own, known as "Worst Commercial Placement Ever" (both in terms of song choice and dominant image). You don't have to know "Battlestar Galactica" to appreciate it, but if you're interested in the show and haven't seen the episode yet, DO NOT WATCH THIS, because it hinges on a huge spoiler.

The one-legged guy in the scene above, Lt. Felix Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani), proves instrumental in engineering an uprising against the Galatica officers (i.e., the good guys) in "The Oath." For the show's first seasons, Gaeta served as a reliable, rather mousy background character, so having him evolve into a fiery, ingenious mutineer has been a surprise, almost like seeing Radar O'Reilly turn into Fletcher Christian. The change doesn't come from out of the blue, though: Seasons Three and Four have built up Gaeta's motivations for such an act. I strongly recommend the recent, 10-part "webisode" "The Face of the Enemy," which offered a "ticking clock" adventure aboard a stranded spaceship, along the lines of Apollo 13 or Marooned. In addition to answering some gossipy questions about Gaeta's sexuality, "The Face of the Enemy" provides the character with so much backstory and motivation, it's a direct prelude to "The Oath."

Almost reminiscent of Valkyrie, "The Oath" showed Gaeta and terrorist-turned-Colonial-Vice-President Tom Zarek stage a daring, meticulous coup d'etat against Admiral Adama's command of the Galactica (and by extension, the rest of the fleet) as well as against disillusioned president Laura Roslin. The horrors as Gaeta's more sadistic followers round up Cylons, their spouses and young children turn to excitement when Starbuck and Apollo reunite and take up arms, while Adama and Tigh prepare for what seems like a Wild Bunch-esque last stand.

But "The Oath" isn't just a matter of pitting good guys against bad guys. Throughout "Battlestar Galactica," some of the show's most compelling conflicts have been not humans vs. Cylons, but humans vs. humans. The second season began with series of heart-in-your-throat confrontations that basically pit the military leaders against the civilian government. The "Pegasus" episodes flipped the script, pitting Adama and the Galactica's military forces against an even harder-line admiral on another Battlestar. The Third Season began with humans chafing under Cylon rule on a dismal colony and unspooled grim subplots involving the resistance forces lashing out against the human collaborators and "Vichy" government.

Gaeta's uprising doesn't quite qualify as a "surrender to the dark side" kind of twist. Gaeta and his followers largely object to Adama, Roslin, et al's plans to strike an Alliance with "rebel" Cylons. Given the fleet's long struggles with the robotic adversaries, combined with widespread despair over the discovery of Earth, one can see why Adama's plan might encounter such bitter resistance. And while it's exciting to see Starbuck rescue Apollo from a possible execution, her bloodlust leaves a bitter aftertaste. One of the show's most memorable details is way it keeps close track of the surviving humans -- 39,643 at the beginning of "The Oath" -- so even expendable characters, the equivalents of "Star Trek's" red-shirted crewmen, still count. In the long run, any death counts as a defeat.

"The Oath" also took a break from some of the weird mysticism and murky twists that have permeated Season 4, including the discovery that four primary characters have unwittingly been mechanical Cylons for all their lives, as well as a storyline that turns war criminal and all-purpose weakling Gaius Baltar (James Callis, who could be Hugh Laurie's evil nephew) into the messianic leader of a monotheistic cult. After "The Oath's" cliffhanger finale this Friday (and the inevitable mopping-up), "Battlestar Galactica" will no doubt return to big questions involving Earth, the mysterious "last Cylon" and how Starbuck apparently found her own corpse on Earth.

Pointless speculation: friends of mine suggest that time travel is involved, and theorize that Starbuck's body comes from her own future and that Earth could be settled, in the past, by some combination of Galactica survivors and "good" Cylons. Hopefully "The Oath" will offer just enough momentum to see the show through to the end.

The series finale is scheduled for March 20, but there's also a stand-alone movie, called The Plan, that will air sometime later. Incidentally, people who watch show on its Hulu page should heed this message:

Episodes 13-17 will be posted on Hulu the day after their TV broadcast. Subsequent episodes will be posted 8 days after their original broadcast date. Season 4.5 episodes are available for 28 days.

You may have to find an alternate venue for viewing it.

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