RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Battlestar Galactica (1978): “Take the Celestra” (Story 16)

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Much as I’m enjoying reconnecting with the original Galactica (And I am, brother, believe you me, I am), it’s hard to work up any enthusiasm for these last two episodes. The show has passed its creative peak (As of last week, actually), and this episode seems oddly out of place. There’s nothing you can point to as specifically *wrong* about it, in fact there’s a lot of good stuff in here, and it’s not like I’m not used to digging through crap to get to the diamonds in this series - I actually kind of enjoy it, truth be told - but this time out, somehow, it just doesn’t work. They’re coasting, which is a bit disappointing following the Terra arc.

And in the next episode, the show will be actively backpedaling.

And then they’ll be dead.

PLAY BY PLAY

Long, long ago, when Adama was a junior officer, he served as the aide to Commander Kronos, aboard the Battlestar Rycon. Kronos is extremely spit and polish. His credo is “The first rule is that there can be no deviation from regulations. The second rule is to make sure there is no deviation from the first rule.” A couple years before the Cylons attacked the colonies, the Rycon and its fleet are involved in a massive battle at the Cosmagora Archipelago (Whatever that is), and Kronos took a grievous wound. They won, however, and took out three Cylon Base Ships. Afterwards, Kronos is retired. Presumably the Rycon was retired, too, since it clearly wasn’t a going concern when the series started out.

Starbuck is reputed to be a playa’, despite never actually having sex during the course of the series, insofar as we can tell. (A possibly unintentional running gag that I missed the first time through this series as a kid, but it’s pretty funny now) Despite his reputation for having lots of women - including the daughter of his commander/best friend’s sister - and despite our repeatedly being told none of these except Athena were much more than physical relationships, we now have it dropped on us that he was serious about a girl named Aurora back in the day. The night the Cylons raided the Colonies, he went to Aurora’s house to look for her, but it had been completely destroyed. She was dead, he was devastated.

(Seriously, how does this track with anything we saw in the first episode? Starbuck is clearly semi-seriously involved with Athena, he’s willing to make it permanent, evidently out of shock, but times it badly, recovers quickly and he’s flirting and joking around with Cassiopeia, eyeballing women left and right, and trying to find a new source of income so he doesn’t have to fly fighters anymore. There’s not a lot of room in there for another dead serious girlfriend, either emotionally or in terms of narrative)

Kronos ‘comes out of retirement’ during the evacuation of the Colonies, and Adama puts him in charge of the Celestra, the fleet’s electronics ship (It’s the hammer-headed one we see in a lot of the fleet scenes). Kronos commands the ship with his typical efficiency, but appears to leave most of the day-to-day running of stuff to his executive officer, Charka. Or Chaka. Or maybe Chakra. It’s hard to be sure. Everyone pronounces it differently, and everyone kinda’ mumbles through it. Let’s call him “Nick” instead.

Anyway, “Nick” is kind of a bastard, he makes everyone on the Celestra work double shifts all the time (Including, we’re told, families, though we never actually see any kids aboard), cut rations if quotas aren’t met, draconian punishments. It kinda’ sucks. The crew is disgruntled, but what can they do? They’re refugees, they’re under constant attack for the first half of the series, there’s food shortages, they just naturally assume the entire fleet runs this way. And maybe it did at first - things looked pretty dire there for a while, you know? But the crisis eventually improved, and “Nick” never bothered to tell the crew.

The Crew grew to see a class structure in the fleet, with the Warriors at the top, ship officers in the middle, and “The little people” at the bottom. Aurora - surprise, surprise, not dead - is miffed that Starbuck never searched the fleet for her after the exodus (Which is kind of selfish, you know? It’s not like she tried to find him either, and he clearly has more crucial duties than her. I mean, he blew up a planet and saved a million people fer’ gosh sakes!), and though he came to the ship several times for maintenance on his Viper since then, she hid her continued existence from him. During this period she hooked up with some guy with a really bad afro. I mean, yeah, everyone on this show has 70s hair, and it really doesn’t look good on anyone excepting Athena and Starbuck (It’s particularly bad on Apollo), but it’s never so tragically 70s as among the crew of the Celestra. “Celestra: Providing Electronics and Bad Haircuts to the Fleet since CY 6999.”

Ok, enough backstory, let’s actually start the episode now:

The fleet is happy, despite being utterly screwed over by having Terra be a red herring last week, and they’re passing a *lot* of habitable planets (Evidently uninhabited). Having settled into a stable routine, and not evidently being perused by anyone, they’ve gradually been reintroducing music, theater, and the occasional ceremony. Adama decides to recognize Kronos for his service to the fleet since the exodus, and promote him to command of the fleet’s service ships: two other ships in addition to the Celestra. Kronos accepts the post with dignity, will do a good job with it, but is dismissive of its actual importance (“This collection of floating derelicts isn’t a fleet, it’s a convoy”).

At the ceremony, Starbuck sees Aurora, who’s now Kronos’ shuttle pilot. He bolts after her, but she’s rather bitchy and defiant, and storms off. This of course gets him in dutch with Cassie, who’s just gotten the last two tickets to the Spheroid concert later that night. I can totally understand her excitement, Spheroid totally kicked ass in the day, and this was when their big hit “What do it do?” was all over the star circuit. Remember that one?

Oh, wait, that was Zanzibar. And that was after they found earth…my bad.

Anyway, turns out Aurora and Mr. Bad Afro are mutineers, and she used her post to get some navigational data from the Galactica while she was there. En rout back to the Celestra, Kronos tells “Nick” that he’ll be retaining direct command of the ship, and not giving him command. “Nick” is treacherously crestfallen.

Back on the ship, Aurora and Bad Afro hatch a surprisingly clever plan: Sabotage the engines *just* enough that the ship will have to stop briefly for repairs, but not enough that it’s a real danger that would require the entire fleet to wait for them. Once they’re out of scanner range (20 minutes or so), they’ll steal a shuttle and head to the 22nd planet of a recently-surveyed solar system they’re passing. Wow! 22 planets! Well, at least 22 planets, and it’s “The most habitable” of them, implying more than one. Wow!

On the Galactica, Starbuck decides he may have feelings for Aurora (Which Apollo immediately and correctly identifies as fear about getting too close to Cassie), and flies to the Celestra for “Maintenance” (Eh-hem) on his “Viper” (Eh-hem). He badgers Apollo into going along with him, since Apollo is theoretically the star of the show, but never has anything to do. They get there just as the mutiny/malfunction is underway, and inadvertently foil the whole thing. Man, if Aurora was pissed about Starbuck randomly assuming she was one of the hundred and ninteen billion, nine hundred and seventy million people who died the night of the Cylon attack, you know darn well she’s gonna’ be livid over this.

She is.

Mr. Bad Afro - who clearly had been hoping to make Aurora “Mrs. Bad Afro” someday - is an ineffectual 70s liberal type (Actually, the entire crew of the Celestra appear to be CPUSA members, going on about the workers and the ruling class and whatnot) so he mostly just broods and wonders if a better hairdryer and maybe wearing more musk would fix things.

Kronos bundles the mutineers aboard his shuttle, along with himself and Starbuck and Apollo, and heads over to the Galactica to put ‘em in custody and press charges, leaving “Nick” in charge of the ship. “Nick,” immediately cites a second, more successful mutiny by feeding the shuttle completely fake navigational data, and sending them off into space away from the fleet. By the time they realize what’s happened, they won’t have enough fuel to make it back. “Nick” also goes into silent running so they’ll be harder to find.

Since we’ve got a lot of time to kill, Starbuck comes to grips with his feelings, and patches things up between Aurora and Mr. Bad Afro (Who he basically accuses of being stupider than his appearance would imply, and believe you me, his appearance is pretty stupid, even among the low standards of the Celestra. Aurora is a major catch: her hair is merely bland, not awful) and Kronos learns of how awful “Nick” has been treating the crew. (How could he not have known this, really?) Once they have no more stuff to figure out, they discover they’ve been screwed, so the warriors and their prisoners are forced to work together to jury-rig a system that’ll help ‘em find their way home. (They do this in exchange for a promise of a jury trial).

Back on the Celestra, Apollo et al re-take the ship, and Kronos dies a rather forced death saving the ship from a rather nebulously defined peril that apparently involved it careening out of control and crashing into…uhm….nothing, really. They make it clear they’re in the middle of nowhere.

Back on the Galactica, they hold Kronos’ funeral (Shoot him out the launch tubes! In a Glass-topped coffin! Sweet!), Starbuck patches up things with Cassie, and that, rather ineffectually, is that.

OBSERVATIONS

Laid out linearly like that, it actually sounded kind of interesting, didn’t it? Don’t You Believe It! Every interesting bit was laid out in expositional backstory in the blandest fashion imaginable. In essence, all the good stuff happens offscreen. It’s dull. Deadly dull.

While our heroes never quite seem like guest stars in their own series, they aren’t exactly front-and-center in this one. That’s not as damning as it’d be in, say, Star Trek, since Galactica always had a rather flexible format (Read: they never quite figured out what they wanted to do), but it’s odd this late in the game to have major characters like Adama, Tigh, and Boomer barely making cameos. Sheba and Cassie do better, having one good scene together, and Cassie gets some mileage out of taunting Starbuck about going to the concert with someone else. Bojay and Greenbean get name checks. Boxey and Athena are conspicuously absent. Neither has been seen since “Greetings From Earth” three weeks ago. I know we never see Athena again (It’s said she was fired, it’s said she quit, it’s said she had health problems, it’s said she was hard to work with, but Hatch and Benedict claim the cast adored her, so I don’t know what to think. All I know is that she dated Don Henley for a bit, and I hate him for that.*) I dunno if we see Boxey again, but I doubt it. It’s weird to get name checks for minor characters, but not actually see major ones, even if they wouldn’t have had much to do.

Wow, there were four writers on this one! That might explain a lot of the problems. Two of the writers never apparently worked on the show before, but two of ‘em co-wrote “Fire in space,“ and “Murder on the Rising Star.“ Neither are brilliant, but both are better than this one.

Despite the flat direction, bland acting, and generally poor writing, I’ll give the writers credit for attempting to address several obvious issues in the fleet: privation, discipline, social structure, privilege, social inequity. This is good stuff, heretofore only touched on with the mention of crowding and food shortages, so that’s welcome. Showing Cassie’s fear was a nice touch, and the idea that some people in the fleet are really, really, really angry, and even abused is an eye-opener. Unfortunately it’s done in a manner that so stresses this is *only* a problem on the Celestra that it renders the episode even more ‘why bothery.’ Just the same, even attempting to address the lives of the three million or so people in the fleet is a good thing, even if badly done.

What about crime in the fleet? There’s never a single mention of that in the entire run of the series.

We’ve talked about the “Terra Arc” quite a bit, and it provides the obvious focus for the final half of the series, but in fact there’s a second less-defined arc that I didn’t quite realize until now: “Life in the Fleet.” We’ve had “The Man with Nine Lives,” “Murder on the Rising Star,” “Baltar’s Escape,” this one, and to a lesser extent, “The Magnificent Warriors.”I guess it’s always been there, but up until “War of the Gods,” it was very rarely touched on, probably because it didn’t involve combat, and was kind of depressing to see people living in cargo containers. In the second half of the series, there’s a concerted effort to explore this, and while it’s not as exotic or as exciting as they would have liked, it is actually kinda’ neat. (Though as a kid these episodes bored me stupid, and probably hastened the decline of the show.)

The obvious reason for these changes of direction were budgetary: Cylon episodes were expensive, they were running out of Cylon costumes, they couldn’t afford new space battle effects, and location shoots - particularly nighttime ones the show inexplicably favored - are really expensive. Alternating between location shoots and comparatively cheap fleet-based ‘bottle shows’ allowed them to stretch out their budget. Though it wasn’t what the fans wanted, and they never quite nailed the ’fleet’ formula, I think it was really wise from a pragmatic and storytelling point of view. Nearly everything we know about the Colonies comes from these episodes. All the world building is here.

There’s a really cool scene where two vipers taxi up in the Celestra’s landing bay. The problem is that there was only one full-sized viper prop, the other was a partial. The full-sized one is in the background in this shot, the partial is in the foreground so that most of it is out of frame, and we’ll just assume it’s a full-sized one as well. But if you look close you can see they set the camera a hair too low, and you can see the bottom front of the nose of the fighter is missing, with wooden struts showing. I never noticed that before last night.

We *almost* - but not quite - get to see a warrior’s battle jacked buttoned up. Starbuck starts to do it, then gets distracted. So, wait, have they been out of uniform this whole time? Dialog implies they have. I don’t know why this fascinates me, but it does. I actually really like the uniforms, but the jackets look like they’d be really uncomfortable if you actually fastened them. Like Napoleonic uniforms, I guess I just assumed the buttons were fer showin’, not for actually holding things together. Well, they’re not buttons in this case, but large spring buckles like you’d see on briefcases from the period, but you get my point.

Adama’s not on screen much during this ep, which at first I thought odd, but then I realized that in general he’s frequently just telling Boxey bedtime stories or saying “Bring the fleet to full speed.” It’d be interesting to go through the show with a stopwatch and actually clock how much screen time the guy has. Sure, he’s large and in charge in episodes like “Saga of a Star World” and “War of the Gods’ and “Lost Planet of the Gods” and any other ep that has “God” in the title (Such as the series finale, “The Hand of God,”), but then there’s episodes like “The Lost Warrior” and “The Long Patrol” and this one where he barely appears.

I completely missed this episode when it first aired. ABC was wildly jiggering the show around in the schedule by this point, deliberately trying to drive down ratings in order to justify cancelling it. (They couldn’t afford this expensive a success, it would bankrupt them. It’s the “Cleopatra” phenomenon, where the movie with the biggest box office of the year ends up being the biggest financial loss. Rare, but dangerous) I didn’t actually see it until the early 80s when it started showing up on cable. Ordering of the episodes was occasionally somewhat random, so I didn’t actually realize until last night that this episode took place *after* “Experiment in Terra.” I think that’s part of the problem: It totally doesn’t fit there. It just feels out of place. Had it taken place in the stretch between “Fire in Space” and “Greetings from Earth,” I don’t think I would have thought twice about it - in fact, that’s where I assumed it had gone prior to last night - but here, after all we’ve been through, it’s just one note too many. It’s a coda that doesn’t fit the score.

This is odder still, since I know it was filmed at roughly the same time they were filming “Murder on the Rising Star” (Kronos has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in that one, and no lines, and Adama‘s narration is entirely in keeping with the “We‘re getting close to earth and here are the signs“ candor of that batch), so I suspect it was probably intended to air then, but got held back for whatever reason. Presumably because they realized it was kind of a turd. This is all kinds of bad, though, since “Experiment in Terra” was more-or-less the conceptual end of the season: the resolution of one chapter, the setup for another. Following that end with crap like this, and the non-ending that is “The Hand of God” kills it.

But more on that next time.

In any event: Watching this episode immediately after “Murder on the Rising Star” would probably help it quite a bit, but not fix it. So, if you’re watching this series for the first time, that’s where it’s intended to go. Stick it in there.

Actually, it’d fit even better if we ignore Kronos’ cameo in “Murder,” and place this one prior to that ep: Thus we have Starbuck pulling back a bit emotionally from Cassie, and in Murder actually finally committing in the jail cell scene. That gives Starbuck a nice emotional arc - hey, he’s growing up! - and avoids the annoying “I know I said I want to marry you two weeks back, but now I kinda’ feel like I need my space, but lets still have sex at my discretion” aspects of this one. I’m a romantic. No, really, I kinda’ am.

Commander Kronos was played by Paul Fix, and he was seventy-eight when the filmed this episode, though honestly he doesn’t look that much older than Lorne Greene, who was only 62 at the time. Fix is best known for playing the Marshall in “The Rifleman,” and the judge in “To Kill a Mockingbird,“ but among geeks like us he’ll always be “Doctor Piper” from the second pilot of the original Star Trek. And that, my friends, is exactly what’s wrong with geeks like us. There, I’ve said it, I don’t care. He had a lot of minor genre credits besides: A Twilight Zone, a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a Wild Wild West, a Land of the Giants, and the infamous Night of the Lepus, which co-starred DeForrest Kelly

Anna Alicia played Aurora. She’s got minor genre credits in Galactica 1980 and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and non-genre credits in BJ and the Bear and The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, all four of which were Glenn Larson productions. Evidently he liked her. She did 178 episodes of Falcon Crest, and appears to have retired in the late 90s.

Nick Holt played “Chakra” or “Chacka” or “Mumbly Pete” or whatever. This was actually his final screen credit and the end of his career. His only other genre credit was his first, “Invasion from Inner Earth,” so his career is bookended by SF.

COLONIALISMS

“Centon” is used to mean both “Minute” and “Hour” in the same sentence tonight. They really aren’t even trying to keep this stuff consistent.

“Sectar” - which generally means “Week” or occasionally “month” - is here used to mean “Second” (“Gimme a sectar, will ya?”)

“Micron” shows up meaning “Minute,” used interchangeably with “Centon.” It’s really annoying.

“For Sagan’s Sake” turns up again after a long absence, used in the same exasperated way you’d say, “For God’s sake!” This was a running in-joke, since Carl Sagan was popular at the time, and thought to be really smart. Thus, I guess, the Colonials worship a God named “Sagan.”

“Duckets” are what the colonials call “Tickets,” though this time and this one time only the two words are used interchangeably.

Apart from the bridge, the interiors of the Celestra were all the interiors of the Rising Star. The Celestra Bridge was built specifically for this ep, and was a pretty sloppy set with the silliest navigation system seen this side of “The Far Out Space Nuts.” Seriously, it couldn’t have been more obvious if it had a big sign over it saying “Precariously designed to be used as a plot point later.” The shuttle interior has been redressed. There’s a new consol in the middle of the floor behind the pilot and copilot, for Kronos to sit at, and we see a long hallway heading aft to cabins that aren’t normally there. Externally it’s the same old Galactica shuttle, though we’re told it’s a civilian variant. It all kind of fits: the shuttles are all really big, and carry a small garage, so it’s reasonable to assume we’ve only really seen one room on ‘em.

The redress was actually done for the episode “Baltar’s Escape,” but the scenes were cut, and the updated set makes its debut (And subsequent exit) here.

We get a couple nice new FX shots of the Celestra, and one new shot of the shuttle in flight. There’s also a new pull-back from the Galactica that *might* be new, or at least very seldom used.

Immediately after this episode aired, ABC announced the show had been cancelled. The final episode - which was contractually obligated - amounts to a desperate-bid pilot for a second season. We'll have more details on that in a bit.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS EPISODE?

Will anyone?

* - To be fair, I kinda’ hated him anyway. I loathe The Eagles, as do all good-hearted people.

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