So yesterday, I rented the first disc of the actual series, and watched four episodes. The first two were quite good. The third, Bastille Day, was a bit of a dud. And it brought up an issue that shows up with alarming frequency in SF, and is usually handled badly. No exception here.
Bastille Day is about a prison riot. The fleet of about 50,000 people is running out of water, thanks to some sabotage in the previous ep. They've found an ice moon, but mining it will be labour intensive. They need workers. For some reason, the Commander Adama and President Roslyn decide that prison labour will be just the ticket. (The 40,000 or so civilians on passenger liners and cargo ships were busy, I guess.) There happens to be a transport ship of convicts that made it into the fleet. The labour will be voluntary, and the prisoners will earn "points" towards their release by participating. (Interesting aside: the prisoners were on their way to parole hearings. Some of them should, in all likelihood, already be released by this point. Nice of the powers that be to offer them "points towards release.")
When Captain Lee "Apollo" Adama and a few other crew and civilians go on board the prison ship to make the offer, they are ambushed and captured by the prisoners. The jailbirds are being led by a terrorist/freedom fighter called Tom Zarek. There is much bloviating among the cast members about which category he falls into, and it seems from their exposition he blew up a government building, with people inside. So I'd say he falls more on the Timothy McVeigh side of the ledger, whether he was standing up for his oppressed people or not.
(As a side note, Zarek is played by Richard Hatch, one of the stars of the original Battlestar Galactica. He couldn't act then, he can't act now. It's like watching a block of wood. Why, why couldn't they have stuntcast Dirk Benedict instead! Give us cheese!)
To this point, my response to this episode is "Eh." I've seen this plot, or a variation of it, several times before on SF shows and military/cop/politicial dramas. Star Trek: TNG and DS9 used the Maquis for this particular plot device, on Babylon 5 the Martian colonists sometimes filled this role. It gives the writers a chance to talk about when you cross the line from a just rebellion to terrorism.
Unfortunately, the writers almost always give in to the need to make things simpler. The lead bad guy usually turns out to be either A) a snake who only wants personal aggrandizement or B) an ideologue so warped that he is willing to destroy anyone and anything to get his way.
Bastille Day has it both ways. From Television Without Pity, here's part of the episode recap where Apollo realizes Zarek's "plan" just as commandos storm the prison ship.
In the control room, Apollo realizes, "You want them to storm the ship."
The Marines begin to cut through the hull of the Astral Queen.
Apollo continues, "You don't want elections, you don't want your freedom -- you want a bloodbath." He says that Zarek's been forgotten for twenty years, and that this is a chance to "go out in a blaze of glory."
The Marines enter the Astral Queen and move past a prisoner that they've already tied up and gagged. Before he could sound the alarm. Gee, that was lucky.
Zarek enters full-on crazy as he declares, "Once Roslyn uses Adama's soldiers to massacre the people on this ship, prisoners and hostages alike, the people in the fleet will never, never forgive them. The entire government will collapse." Yay?
Real world freedom fighters, even real world terrorists, usually have much more transparent aims than this. They're pretty up front about what they want. Even al Qaida openly acknowledges that they're trying to spark a big war between the evil, nasty, secular west and purified Islam. But in TVland, everybody's got some weird, psychological, hidden motivation.
Anyway, Apollo saves the day, interestingly, by saving Zarek from getting his brains splattered by a sniper. (Usually writers kill these terrorist characters off.) Apollo then promises free elections, and leaves the prisoners in charge of their ship, taking off the crew and guards. It's the first novel thing this episode has done. Then Apollo has to go explain himself to the higher ups, including his father, the military commander.
The Prez is stuck on the idea of holding elections within a year. Apollo notes that former President Adar's term is over in seven months, and according to the law, there should be elections then. Adama growls that Apollo sounds like a lawyer. Apollo clenches his jaw and says that he has sworn to defend the law, and that the law says there should be an election. He adds, "If you're telling me [that] we're throwing out the law, than I am not a captain, you're not a commander, and you are not the president. And I don't owe either of you a damned explanation for anything." And once again, I love their different reactions to this. The Prez looks rueful, but like she agrees, as she says, "He's your son." And Adama just looks infuriated as he rasps, "He's your advisor." He glares at Apollo for a second and says, "I guess you finally picked your side," before leaving. Which...yeah, I don't know. The side of the law? Stupid laws!
It's a better ending than I was expecting. The convicts will mine the ice, voluntarily. They're dependent on the rest of the fleet for food resupply and protection from the Cylons, so they have a powerful incentive to not attack anyone else.
But the final explanation of why Apollo did what he did left me cold. I actually think that you should do what's morally right regardless of the law. But this kind of thinking, that the rule of law should always trump everything else, shows up in a lot of modern culture, from the West Wing to Star Trek. It implies that all laws are just and wise, which history (and the present) shows is simply not true. And there is another undercurrent, as exemplified by the final scene, that also bothered me.
The Prez is reading the book she got from Adama when Apollo enters her quarters. Apollo wants to explain that he wasn't being disloyal to her, and the Prez says that she admires his principles. Then she asks him to sit down, and after a slight hesitation, she tells Apollo that she has cancer. She swears Apollo to secrecy, saying, "Whether or not I survive this, it is of great importance to me that there's a future for the people. And I fear that knowledge of my illness will erode hope." Apollo assures her that she can trust him.
An ongoing subplot, never shown, is that there are riots in the civilian ships over water rationing. The military characters mock the civilians for their lack of discipline. Then the president decides to hide her illness, because the common people couldn't handle that, either. And the higher ups are hiding the fact that the Cylons have human-appearing infiltrators. Zarek doesn't tell his own supporters about his ultimate plan.
The ultimate lesson seems to be that the mass of people are too stupid and panicky to deal with the whole truth. In television, where the viewer ultimately has the most knowledge, we are invited into this elite club of the powerful. We assume ourselves to be as wise and calm as the leader-characters we watch. When in reality, 99 per cent of us would be on the outside.
Ironically, this episode about democracy has become a powerful example of elitism and anti-democratic thinking. The most disturbing thing about this is the fact that I can think of a number of other examples of similar plots on a variety of television shows.
Compare and contrast that with the plot of Serenity, or with the X-Files. Mulder, Scully and the Lone Gunmen were always trying to fight against just this sort of top-down, authoritarian secret-hoarding. Just like we should be in real life. The masses are not that stupid. Arguing that they are is just one short step from thinking that they shouldn't be able to make any decisions for themselves - like who to vote for.