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245[BSG] Jammer's Review: "33"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    May 2, 2005
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      Note: This review contains significant spoilers.

      Battlestar Galactica: "33"

      With no sign of relief, the human convoy must remain a step ahead of a
      pursuing Cylon fleet that stages an assault every 33 minutes.

      Air date: 1/14/2005 (USA)
      Written by Ronald D. Moore
      Directed by Michael Rymer

      Rating out of 4: ****

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

      "33" is a relentless hour of riveting television empathy, where by the end
      you will know what it *feels* like to be threatened with a Cylon attack
      every 33 minutes for five straight days, having had little or no sleep.

      You will also come to know, without any doubt, the gravity of the situation,
      in which humanity is down to its last gasp, on the run, with the looming
      possibility that the entire survival of the race depends on the fleet's
      successful execution of the next FTL (faster than light) jump cycle in 33

      On Colonial One, President Roslin has a white board with the "head count"
      written in dry-erase marker, which stands at just below 50,000. She makes
      revisions throughout the episode -- mostly downward -- to reflect the new
      survivor count as the latest casualty reports come in.

      Yes, "33" is most definitely grim and heavy, exhausting and unremitting --
      and quite powerful. If you're not interested in going to a fairly dark
      place, this will not likely be your cup of tea. Here's a story that believes
      with utter conviction what it's conveying. It feels like it is *actually
      happening* -- rare, for an hour of television. Filmed nearly a year later,
      the story takes place almost immediately after the events of the
      miniseries/pilot. As a follow-up to the events of that story, in which the
      12 colonies were attacked and the handful of survivors were forced to flee,
      it grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. It's the necessary miniseries
      epilogue that shows what is at stake.

      The teaser sequence is a tour de force of execution -- a masterpiece of tone
      wonderfully directed by Michael Rymer, who also superbly directed the pilot.
      It balances action/suspense, functional dialog, strong images, and
      intriguing levels of wakefulness. The Galactica crew has gone 130 straight
      hours without sleep, and it shows. The Viper pilots, on patrol for Cylon
      Raiders, struggle to keep their eyes open. Baltar sits in a passenger seat
      on Colonial One, drifting between half-asleep and half-awake. Analog clocks
      tick toward the deadline of 33 minutes: tick, tick, tick. The sound echoes
      through Baltar's dreamscape. Sometimes he's awake in the midst of that
      dream, talking to Number Six as if she were sitting next to him. Sometimes
      he's in fantasy mode, back at his house on Caprica. Dreaming, awake -- is
      there even a difference for him? "There are limits to the human body, the
      human mind," he says. One could say he's already passed his, talking out
      loud to an imaginary woman.

      A Cylon base star appears. It's a frightening sight, with a foreboding
      shape, like some sort of sea predator. The fleet jumps away, safe for
      another 33 minutes. The clock is restarted: tick, tick, tick. Between jump
      cycles, the crew has 33 minutes to make preparations for the next jump --
      and to think about whether the Cylons will find them again.

      In the pilots' ready room, strategic plans are discussed for the next
      jump -- but hell, Apollo says, you don't need to hear these plans again,
      because you've already been through this 237 straight times. As the pilots
      exit the room, they affectionately touch a photo on the wall. It has a
      soldier in the foreground, his back to the camera, and destruction in front
      of him. The exact context of the photo is never explained, for which I'm
      glad, because it doesn't need to be. We understand the emotions completely.
      These people are still grieving for the fallen colonies of Kobol. It's a
      poignant moment, and exposition could probably only have lessened its

      Even more poignant is a scene in the corridors: hundreds, maybe thousands,
      of makeshift memorials. It reminded me of 9/11, when people posted photos of
      their missing loved ones along the streets in New York, hoping they would
      come home.

      This episode is somber but not sentimental, serious but not funereal. It has
      a plot, and it has moments of real suspense. But it does not cheat its
      premise, and it does not let anyone off the hook.

      In the Viper hangar, Kara blows up at Lee because he doesn't reprimand her
      for insubordination ("We're not friends; you're the CAG"). She starts to
      laugh and cry simultaneously, which can't be a good sign of mental health.
      Usually when that happens, you're probably under more stress than you know
      what to do with.

      The plot is simply: How do we escape the Cylons, who are somehow tracking us
      to our new position with each jump? But the plot is also about a man named
      Dr. Amarak, a passenger on the luxury liner Olympic Carrier, who knows
      Baltar from the Colonial Ministry of Defense, and tells President Roslin
      that he has an urgent message about a "traitor in our midst." Just hearing
      the name Amarak throws Baltar into a state of internal panic: Did Amarak
      find out that I gave Six access to the defense mainframe? Baltar, ever the
      self-preservationist, instantly begins thinking of ways to get out of this

      A minor mix-up in CIC causes the Olympic Carrier to be left behind when the
      fleet makes the jump. Dualla (Kandyse McClure) can't account for it, and it
      may have been her mistake. Under the circumstances, where pilots are popping
      stimulants like candy and most people are walking zombies, the error seems
      understandable. But, on the other hand, there were 1,345 people aboard the
      Olympic Carrier, now presumably dead or captured by the Cylons. Colonel Tigh
      has a brief speech about the need for performance under these pressures, but
      I like even better the understated simplicity of Adama's speech: "We make
      mistakes, people die. There aren't many of us left." No wasted words or
      raised voice, because the facts of that statement carry all the weight, and
      additional emphasis is unnecessary.

      The plot thickens: After 33 minutes, there is no Cylon assault. Adama
      suspects that perhaps the Cylons were tracking the Olympic Carrier -- or
      perhaps a Cylon agent on board the Olympic was giving away their position. A
      while later, the Olympic reappears, which proves to be a test of Adama's
      theory on the Cylons' all-too-adept pursuit skills. Did the Cylons let them
      escape deliberately? What other explanation can there be?

      Baltar's stake in this is amusingly self-serving. When the Olympic vanishes,
      Six calls it a miracle that God has granted him. When the Olympic
      resurfaces, Six tells him that it's God's punishment for his lack of faith.
      Baltar, a staunch atheist, begins rethinking that stance. The religious
      debate between Baltar and Six (or perhaps we should say the imagined debate
      inside Baltar's head) is interesting, but what's even more interesting is
      how Baltar ultimately decides to find religion for purely self-serving
      reasons. He repents his sins in the hope that the Olympic Carrier will be
      destroyed such that he can be saved.

      The fate of the Olympic, by the way, makes for a riveting sequence of its
      own. With the suspicion that the ship has been compromised, and the
      realization that the Cylons are again just minutes from another assault,
      *and* the detection of nuclear weapons on board the Olympic, the Galactica
      attempts to stop the Olympic from approaching the fleet. The Olympic runs
      the blockade and doesn't acknowledge orders to stop, leading to an
      unthinkable decision on which Adama and Roslin both concur and Apollo must
      carry out: Destroy the Olympic Carrier.

      Visually, this plays out with a compelling you-are-there believability, as
      the camera peers into the windows of the ship (seeing no people, Apollo and
      Starbuck speculate the ship is empty) and then shows final shots from
      Apollo's point of view before he pulls the trigger and destroys the ship. I
      really hate to bring up 9/11 again, but on that day there was talk that
      shooting down commercial airliners might've been necessary if they'd been
      known to have been hijacked, and this scene plays out how we imagine such a
      scenario might've felt for a military pilot.

      The subplot of "33" takes place on Cylon-occupied Caprica, where Helo is on
      the run from the Cylons, after having volunteered to be left behind several
      days earlier when Sharon returned to Galactica with their Raptor. This left
      me wondering how he survived, and what happened to all the other civilian
      survivors who were present at that scene. I guess I'll save those questions
      for another day, since that's what "33" does. A copy of Sharon shows up and
      rescues Helo, claiming that she returned to Caprica for him. The opening
      prelude to "Battlestar Galactica" says the Cylons "have a plan," and it
      would seem Helo is a part of this plan.

      The episode ends on a necessary note of hope (a baby is born, leading the
      "head count" to increase by one), signaling that perhaps after this grueling
      test of survival, a corner has been turned and things will get better. "33"
      is excellent television drama. If the series can stay this good, it will be
      TV viewing time well spent.

      Irrelevant footnote: The way Edward James Olmos says "previously on
      Battlestar Galactica" at the beginning kicks ass. He should say it every

      Copyright 2005, Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...