Note: This review contains significant spoilers.
Battlestar Galactica: "Bastille Day"
Adama and Roslin attempt to enlist the inmates of a prison transport vessel
for a difficult water reclamation mission, but Tom Zarek, a convicted
terrorist, seizes control of the prison ship and takes several military
Air date: 1/21/2005 (USA)
Written by Toni Graphia
Directed by Allan Kroeker
Rating out of 4: **1/2
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
After a stellar launch of this series, "Bastille Day" is the reality check
proving "Battlestar Galactica's" fallibility -- or at least its capability
of producing exceptionally average television. There are good moments and
dialog in "Bastille Day," to be sure, but on the whole the episode is way
too familiar, and inconclusive in some key ways that short-change the
Following up the events of "Water," it turns out that harvesting that water
is not going to be easy. It's more like an icy mining operation, and is
going to require hard labor in a dangerous environment. Ideally, this would
require a work force of 1,000 people. It so happens that included in the
fleet is a prison transport vessel, the Astral Queen, which was transporting
inmates for parole hearings when the Cylons attacked. Roslin is quick to
point out that these prisoners are not slaves, so Lee recommends pitching to
them the idea of an optional work detail that would give them points toward
earning their freedom.
The prisoners are not what you would call receptive to this idea. On behalf
of the entire population, a prisoner named Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch, who
played Apollo in the 1978 "Battlestar Galactica") declines the offer. All
the prisoners chant "Zarek, Zarek" when he does this. He is highly respected
among his fellow inmates.
Who is Tom Zarek? He's from Sagittaron, the apparently second-class colony
that was long exploited by the other 11 colonies. Zarek is a terrorist
according to some, a freedom fighter according to others. He's serving a
sentence for the bombing of a government building. He's a famous and
controversial figure even among the regular characters. For example, the
president's aide, Billy Keikeya (Paul Campbell), has some sympathy for
Zarek's plight. But Petty Officer Dualla (Kandyse McClure), who is actually
from Sagittaron, labels Zarek a maniac and says he does not speak for the
Sagittaron people at all.
One of the problems with "Bastille Day" is that Zarek is a somewhat sketchy
character. There's a difference between complex and muddled, and Zarek it
the latter, not the former. His backstory is left vague and open-ended,
making it very hard for us to determine what he's really about. Okay, so he
bombed a government building. Whose building was it? How many were killed,
and who were they? The reference of a bombed government building makes us
instinctively think Timothy McVeigh, but Zarek's clearly intended by the
writers as more of a political prisoner. But he's not a "political
prisoner," because what he did was clearly criminal.
And, for that matter, what about Sagittaron? The notion of it being the one
colony exploited by the other 11 strikes me as something worth exploring.
Was there warfare? Threats of secession from the colonial structure? What
was the political climate of Sagittaron, and indeed all the colonies, when
Zarek's bombing happened? The episode offers precious little in terms of how
the politics work and how the colonies were allied or in conflict.
Consequently, it's hard for us to get a feel for whether Zarek's extreme act
was even vaguely justifiable under the political circumstances, or simply a
The bigger problem is that the plot at hand is too routine. With several
military personnel aboard the Astral Queen, there's a prisoner uprising and
Zarek takes hostages and starts making demands -- turning the episode into a
crisis/standoff between the prisoners and the Galactica. It's almost as if
the writers said, "Okay, we have this prison ship we talked about in the
pilot, so time to do the prison riot episode!"
The hostage standoff has predictable results: demands, attempted
negotiations, rejections, and setting up for the sniper to take the subject
out. The sniper is Starbuck. One of the hostages is Lee. Lee has a running
dialog with Zarek, much of which centers on his arguments for freedom, the
demand that Roslin resign, and that the people get a fair election. Under
the circumstances, given that most of society has been destroyed and Roslin
has been sworn in under the law, I don't see what possible good could come
of elections right now, which would more likely be anarchy. Of course, it
probably doesn't help that Zarek continuously uses the word "freedom" as a
Grand Idea with little Actual Content supporting it. (The utility of that
word has been whittled away thanks to its ridiculous overuse by the Bush
administration, but never mind.)
The show's best scenes happen in the periphery. For example, there's Tigh's
ever-so-slight loopiness in an early scene after he's had his morning drink.
This subtly revisits his alcoholism in a way that seems plausible, since
anything more overt would have us questioning why he wasn't cashiered from
the service years ago. Tigh has some other good scenes as the hard-assed XO,
including another run-in with Starbuck; he objects to how she makes light of
her pilots' mistakes. A few scenes later he has a brisk little speech when
he orders Sharon to stop her affair with Tyrol: "Back when the ship was
being decommissioned we let you two get away with it. Hell we let everyone
get away with murder, but that was then and this is now. We're at war, this
is a combat unit, and you're his superior officer. Put it a stop to it."
Meanwhile, Adama finally calls Baltar on his BS over the Cylon detector.
Baltar responds with more clever BS, saying he needs the plutonium from a
nuclear warhead in order to make the detection process work (the Galactica
has only five warheads). I'm not sure where this is going, but Adama seems
to go along with this fairly easily considering the magnitude of the request
and the overall oddness that is Gaius Baltar.
On Caprica, Helo and Boomer have reached a city and go walking through empty
streets. The city is completely deserted -- "like a movie," Helo says. Yeah,
a contrived movie. Where are all the people and/or bodies? Okay, rats are
eating a corpse, but there's only ONE corpse. And all the buildings in the
city are standing and unscathed. Why wasn't the city destroyed when the
Cylons attacked? And since the city *wasn't* destroyed ... where are all the
people? This subplot is going to get tedious if it's week after week of
Sharon and Helo walking around "Cylon-occupied Caprica." On the plus side,
we do finally see some Cylons watching over these two, hinting that Helo's
presence is part of their "plan."
There's some decent material in the episode's endgame. While I found the
notion of "Zarek is doing all of this for headlines and publicity" to be
lame and obvious, Lee gets some good speeches about democracy and elections
and ensures that Zarek doesn't become a martyr. He has a clever solution and
makes a deal with Zarek that Adama and Roslin both argue wasn't his to make.
The genius of his deal, however, is that it's true to the law. And if we're
throwing out the law, Lee says, "I'm not a captain, you're not a commander,
and you're not the president."
So would the prisoners then be so willing to follow Zarek's lead and carry
out the water operation? I'm really not so sure. I have my doubts that a
ship full of prisoners would be so unified as to follow one man, however
popular, about anything. Just as the people on board the Galactica don't
agree on Zarek, I doubt that the inmates would either.
The bottom line is that Zarek is a puzzle, and "Bastille Day" is at times
less than convincing, even when it isn't employing hostage and prison
Copyright 2005, Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
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Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...