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[BSG] Jammer's Review: "Razor"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Note: This review contains significant spoilers. ... Battlestar Galactica: Razor Lee Adama, the new commander of the Pegasus, selects Admiral Cain s protege
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 5, 2007
      Note: This review contains significant spoilers.

      Battlestar Galactica: "Razor"

      Lee Adama, the new commander of the Pegasus, selects Admiral Cain's protege
      to serve as his XO in an effort to maintain an identity for the ship's crew.
      This choice comes with baggage, however, as the traumas from Pegasus' brutal
      past resurface during a dangerous rescue mission.

      Air date: 11/24/2007 (USA)
      Written by Michael Taylor
      Directed by Felix Alcala

      Rating out of 4: ***

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

      If you wanted your "Battlestar Galactica" fix -- and there's little doubt
      that the fans, myself included, did -- "Razor" will do the trick. Coming
      nearly eight months after the third-season finale aired -- and somewhere
      between three and four more months before the fourth season will finally
      premiere -- this two-hour BSG movie fills the lengthy gap by providing, if
      nothing else, something to tide us over until March. In doing so, it plunges
      us into the dark and ugly world of Admiral Cain's Pegasus, not seen since
      the second season.

      To that end, "Razor" is typical, solid BSG: dark, compelling, and
      uncompromising in its vision of its amoral main characters. If there's a
      problem with "Razor," it's that large chunks of it are both dramatically and
      thematically redundant. It's well made, solidly performed, deftly
      structured, and, at times, powerfully intense. But the bottom line is that
      there isn't much here we learn about the Pegasus or her crew that we didn't
      already know after "Pegasus" and "Resurrection Ship."

      Still, there's an appeal to the idea that "Razor" allows, via flashback, for
      an actual dramatization of Cain's brutal command, which we had previously
      only heard about (when Fisk revealed them to Tigh in memorably ominous
      dialog scenes in the aforementioned episodes). Also, the saying goes that
      the truth lies in the details, and there are some interesting details here
      that we were not previously privy to.

      Structurally, the writers find a way to do this in a way that connects past
      and present both logically and emotionally -- via the character of Kendra
      Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen), who begins the story as a green recruit and finds
      herself drawn into Cain's inner circle after the chaos of the Cylon attack
      on the colonies.

      It proves to be deft handling of a structure that had the potential to be
      confusing -- because "Razor" does not simply contain flashbacks, but
      flashbacks within a flashback. (The whole story takes place in various
      stages of the past.) Its frame of "present" reference is actually right
      after second season's "The Captain's Hand" as Lee takes command of the
      Pegasus. He recruits Shaw to be his XO in an effort to address the ship's
      wounded pride (four commanding officers in a matter of weeks) and lend
      himself some credibility in the eyes of those who believed in Cain and now
      see Lee as a Galactica outsider. But Shaw comes with attitude and baggage.
      What "Razor" is ultimately about is the mentor/protege relationship between
      Cain and Shaw, the role Shaw played in Cain's brutal reign, and how that now
      informs the present.

      In that present, a Raptor research team has gone missing, and Adama assigns
      Lee and the Pegasus to search for it -- warning that excessive risk is not
      one of the parameters of the mission. "Meanwhile" (if that term means
      anything), in the past we see the moments on board Pegasus leading up to the
      Cylon attack, and then the harsh days in the aftermath as Cain and her crew
      realize the extent of the damage and decide what to do next.

      Structurally, "Razor" is about as solidly built as it possibly can be. But
      it still suffers somewhat from its narrative momentum shifts. Every time the
      story switches back and forth between the past and the present, we are
      pulled out of the moment at hand and into the parallel story. It's fortunate
      that both threads of the story are interesting, but the flashback structure
      has its inherent drawbacks.

      Most of the flashbacks dramatize things we already knew -- granted potently.
      We see the attack while Pegasus was still docked. The shipyards burning. The
      desperate blind jump out of the battle to Anywhere But Here. Later, Cain
      makes a speech to her crew that is as reminiscent of the speech in the
      miniseries that Adama made to his crew as it is a stark, contrasting
      reminder that the Pegasus took a different tack: Rather than running to try
      to preserve humanity, under Cain they took it to the enemy in a guerrilla
      style quest for revenge.

      And then there's the order Cain gives to send in a wing of fighters that is
      virtually suicide -- an order the XO (Steve Bacic, of "Andromeda" fame)
      refuses, resulting in Cain shooting him in the head in full view of everyone
      in CIC. We'd heard about this via Fisk's monologue in "Pegasus," and it's
      equally effective on-screen as it was off, possibly because of the mounting
      suspense in knowing it's coming.

      Still, on a series that has always benefited from the fact that we never
      know exactly what lies around the next corner, all of this feels slightly
      redundant. Or perhaps it's an exercise in Dramatic Irony. We know, for
      example, that Gina Inviere (a key point in the "Pegasus"/"Resurrection Ship"
      storyline) is a Cylon spy who ultimately will kill Cain (not to mention blow
      up the Cloud Nine), and that makes her presence as a Pegasus crew member --
      right down to joining the "So say we all" rallying cry -- all the more

      Perhaps the most interesting new nugget of information is the fact that Cain
      and Gina were lovers. The fact of this relationship more fully informs the
      severe bitterness Cain held for Gina in "Pegasus," because it shows that
      Gina's betrayal was a personal one of the most intimate and humiliating

      Now for a digression that I just can't help myself on. Following the
      Cain/Gina revelation, in the bumper after the act-out during the TV
      broadcast, we get: "It's been revealed! Helena Cain and Gina Inviere are
      lovers! Brought to you by Quizno's!" This is one of the most absurd -- and
      in retrospect, hilarious -- things I've ever seen. The intended context of
      this message was apparently in connection with a poll question on SciFi.com,
      but for any viewer who didn't know that at the time (including me), it was
      positively weird randomness bordering on the sensationally ridiculous. (It
      almost seemed to say: "Look! Lesbians! Wow! Quizno's!" Beyond goofy.)

      And we're back. In other ways, however, the Cain/Gina relationship feels
      like a missed opportunity. While the very knowledge of it informs our
      understanding of Cain's bitterness, that's really all it does. In every
      other way, it's meaningless. It changes nothing about Cain's character and
      adds no new depth or insights (or even clever plot points of Gina betraying
      Cain). The thread is so subtly established that it barely seems real. One
      can hardly picture that these two actually had a relationship, because one
      can hardly picture that Cain, always so serious and duty-minded, has the
      capacity for a relationship at all. Really, as a character Cain is barely
      social and basically asexual. So I don't quite even buy that these two were

      But there's one particularly interesting storytelling choice to arise from
      this. When we get to the second Really Dark Tale (also previously
      established in Fisk's Tales of Darkness) -- namely, the massacre on the
      Scylla and the plundering of the civilian fleet for parts -- there's the icy
      moment when Cain orders the shooting of resisting civilians while staring
      directly at a battered and raped Gina in a holding cell. It's as if she gets
      her resolve to take this unspeakable action by looking into the eyes of an
      enemy who was once a friend and letting the rest of her humanity go because
      she's already come this far. In that moment, she sees everyone as a
      potential threat to her authority.

      Does "Razor" more fully "humanize" Helena Cain? I suppose that depends on
      your definition of human. Yes, she's human in that she is deeply flawed and
      at least has feelings and realizes that her humanity is being stripped away.
      But her ability to make such amoral choices is chilling. She feels she has
      no choice, but does that justify her position? Cain has a telling speech to
      Shaw, which ends, "This war is forcing us all to become razors, because if
      we don't, we don't survive, and then we don't have the luxury of becoming
      simply human again." An argument like that plays like the opposite of
      Adama's question in the miniseries where he asked if humanity was worth

      It's to the writers' credit that they are brave enough to simply observe
      rather than judge Cain. Still, I found myself not just questioning Cain's
      morality, but also her sensibility and pragmatism. How, and why, do you
      continue to wage a war that's over and where the only possible outcome is
      defeat? When she orders her XO to send in the reserve fighters in what's
      tantamount to a suicide mission merely to make a point, and then shoots him
      in the head when he refuses, what does she really end up proving? That
      sending in that attack leads to a devastating loss (more than 800 soldiers;
      a third of the crew) that leaves the ship reeling.

      And if you're going to plunder a civilian fleet for parts and personnel
      following such a devastating loss, and leave the rest of them stranded and
      defenseless, just what is your military protecting, exactly? Nothing, except
      its own stubborn will. Based on pure results, Cain is a leader who seems
      determined to win the battle at the cost of the war. The writers may be
      unwilling to judge her, but I'm not. She's a dangerous cancer.

      Michelle Forbes makes this character utterly believable, even if I find
      Cain's philosophy no easier to comprehend than ever. If you are looking for
      insights into Cain, there are few new ones to find here. We see more, and we
      understand the Pegasus' hardships, but I still don't see how Pegasus had it
      much harder than Galactica. Maybe it's all about balance, and how Cain
      didn't have any. Adama at least had Roslin to stand up and challenge him.
      Cain was the proverbial emperor with no clothes.

      Our witness to all this is Shaw, and she bridges the past and the present.
      She's a drug addict who's as screwed up as anybody but wears the Cain
      protege label like a badge of honor. "I wouldn't be alive if not for the
      decisions she made," she says at one point. Maybe not, but hundreds of
      others might not be dead, either. Watching Shaw's hero worship is revealing
      and scary. You see how a mentality of tyranny begins to make sense under the
      circumstances, and how some become enamored with it. Cain is not without her
      appeal and worthiness of respect, until you stop and think about what it has
      cost. If you think back to "Resurrection Ship," you see that history was
      actually repeating itself, because in that episode Cain was (successfully)
      bringing Kara into the very same mentoring program.

      There's a lot more to "Razor." In the present plot, the missing Raptor crew
      has been captured by an old Cylon sect dating back to the first war (called
      the "Guardians," who protect the first Cylon Hybrid). There are even
      flashbacks to 41 years ago during the first war, where we see a young
      William Adama (Nico Cortez, who has the Olmos faces down to a T) having
      witnessed the scene where the original Hybrid was built via nasty
      bio-experiments. These scenes feed into the series' mythology. I also
      enjoyed the idea of using the original-series ships and Centurions to depict
      the outdated Cylon Guardians. The Centurions get a few lines, and the
      writers even work in "By your command." Nice touch.

      The rescue attempt aboard the Cylon base features the other staples of BSG
      war footage: much machinegun fire while soldiers hold down X position. The
      mission's goal is to rescue the survivors and then nuke the installation.
      This action is routine as these things go: competent but not exactly
      pulse-pounding or suspenseful. When the remote on the nuke is damaged,
      Someone Must Stay Behind, although I wasn't exactly clear on why Lee
      would've ordered Kara to do it. If Shaw led the mission, wouldn't it be her
      duty to stay behind? If that's not how it works, then why not the most
      expendable (that no-name chick)? But then I don't know much of anything
      about military protocol. I guess as drama it just plays better to make it

      Shaw won't have it, and pulls a gun on Kara so Shaw can stay behind. She'd
      rather die for the mission than keep living with her past choices, one of
      which -- in a surprising reveal -- was that she was the one who fired the
      first shot on the Scylla. (The way the flashback is staged, it's almost as
      if her thinking was that someone had to invoke the tragically inevitable, so
      why not me?) Before blowing up the joint, Shaw has a conversation with the
      omniscient Cylon Hybrid, which makes for "Razor's" most intriguing and
      haunting scene. The Hybrid is spooky in his utter calm, his seeming desire
      to impart wisdom, his ability to tell you your past and predict your future,
      and his offer to forgive your sins. Call him God; he doesn't have a problem
      with it. And his message for Shaw, which she is not able to communicate to
      anyone, is that Kara Thrace is "a harbinger of death" that will "lead
      humanity to its end."

      It provides a clever way to reveal something that ostensibly took place
      during season two and yet will cast its shadow onto season four. Kara's
      return in "Crossroads, Part 2" is turned on its ear from a prophecy of hope
      to a prophecy of doom. If we can believe the Hybrid's doublespeak, anyway.

      But I've gone on for far too long. "Razor" is a compelling if not
      groundbreaking BSG outing that offers up an experience that is, really, more
      introspective than visceral. The visceral impact is blunted somewhat by its
      inevitability. But what it does, it does well. The horror of "Razor," above
      all else, is in the way its characters are fully aware of their descent into
      an amoral abyss -- and yet are still willing to go there, knowing that they
      are sacrificing their humanity in the process.

      Extended DVD edition notes:

      * A superfluous exposition scene of Shaw on Caprica has been restored.

      * The Adama flashbacks have been extended, including a notable FX action
      sequence that was previously in the SciFi.com "minisodes" but not the TV

      * There are flashbacks to Cain's past during the first Cylon war, where she
      had to make a tough choice to leave her sister behind, who was apparently
      kidnapped by the Cylons ("X-Files" style).

      * Baltar actually gets a scene. He was cut from the TV version.

      * There's more blood when Cain shoots her XO and during young Adama's
      visions of Hybrid bio-experiments.

      * Kara and Shaw have a scene before the rescue mission that gives their
      relationship a little bit more depth.

      * That priceless, 100-percent-Starbuck smile that Kara has as she walks away
      after catching Shaw about to shoot up has inexplicably been *removed* from
      the extended version; it's in the TV version. Now there's instead a weird

      * There are a lot more cryptic lines from the Hybrid during the scene on the
      Cylon base. Probably pages of them.

      * Acts-in/out have been seamlessly removed.

      * Movie-style end credit sequence features Bear McCreary's score.

      * And, finally, from a BSG DVD release we get a passable menu design rather
      than something that looks like it was created half-assed on the fly in
      Photoshop (see season 1 and 2 DVD menus).

      Copyright 2007, Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

      Jammer's Reviews - http://www.jammersreviews.com
      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...
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