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In spite of my increasing disgruntlement with the show, I still feel a sort of fond protectiveness towards Battlestar Galactica's mid-second-season "Pegasus" arc. Partly this is because, even taking into account its weak ending, "Pegasus"/"Resurrection Ship" is the last genuinely good and satisfying story Galactica told, the last time the show was really as smart, nuanced, and thought-provoking as its die-hard supporters still believe it to be. Mostly, though, it's because if Galactica's fans and former fans don't stand up for "Pegasus," who will? Certainly not the show's writers, who in the two years since it aired seem to have taken every opportunity to debase the story of the deranged, vengeful Admiral Cain and the choices that her obsession with retaliation against the Cylons force Adama and Roslin to make. The story itself ended poorly, following up the harrowing "Pegasus" and "Resurrection Ship I" with a limp, underperforming hour of television in which all of the characters were spared making tough or meaningful decisions by a literal deus (or dea) ex machina. Then the consequences of the arc's events, for both the main characters and the new population which joined the fleet at the end of "Resurrection Ship II," were swept under the rug. And then we were treated to a shabby, soulless reenactment of the arc in the mid-third-season story "Torn"/"A Measure of Salvation," right down to the copout ending. And now we have the TV movie "Razor," in which the whole story is rehashed one more time. Sadly, for those of us hoping for an intelligent treatment of the question of morality versus expediency, third time is not the charm.

"Razor" proceeds in two alternating plotlines. The first describes events aboard Pegasus under Admiral Cain's command between the Cylon attack on the colonies and its meeting with the Galactica. The second takes place after Lee Adama takes command of Pegasus at the end of the second season episode "The Captain's Hand," and before the presidential election at the end of that season. In both stories, the main character is Lt. Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Chaves-Jacobsen), who comes aboard Pegasus just moments before the Cylon attack, and, as a result of the kind of rank inflation that is symptomatic of a career in the post-apocalyptic colonial fleet, is made its XO under Lee's command. (A third plotline takes place during the first Cylon war and stars a young, and improbably hot, Bill Adama. It was, however, cut for time, and features in the movie as only a single flashback. The remainder of this story has been made available as downloadable webisodes from the Sci Fi Channel's website.)

When I heard that "Razor" would revisit Pegasus under Cain's command, my immediate reaction was that this was a story that didn't need telling. In its earlier seasons, Galactica's writers seemed to embrace the famous maxim that a story should start as close to the middle as possible. Unfortunately, there's a trend towards completeness in storytelling these days, which perhaps dates back to the Star Wars prequels (not that these are a shining example of the concept's success). Having started in the middle, writers feels compelled to circle back to the beginning (which can sometimes mean going several generations into the past) in order fill in even the tiniest gap, even when what little seasoning of new information they sprinkle on their twice-told tale can't possibly justify their demands of the audience's time and patience.

I expected, in other words, that the pre-"Pegasus" segment of "Razor" would offer little in the way of new information, and that its appeal would rest mainly in the opportunity it would offer to spend more time with Michelle Forbes's terrifying Admiral Cain. (This, I suspect, is the primary impetus behind "Razor"'s existence, in the time-honored tradition of television shows bringing back beloved characters even though they have no idea what to do with them. See also Spike and Logan Echolls.)

To a certain extent, this is indeed what Ronald D. Moore and his fellow writers serve up. All the highlights of the Pegasus's history—previously laid out in maybe ten cumulative minutes in "Pegasus"—are reenacted in "Razor." Cain saves her ship by making a blind FTL jump away from the Cylon attack (an absolutely stunning visual effects sequence that gives the current holder of the title of Battlestar Galactica's coolest image—Galactica breaking atmo in the third season episode "Exodus II"—a serious run for its money); she shoots her XO for mutiny when he refuses to carry out her orders; the Cylon Gina earns Cain's trust and is discovered, jailed, and tortured ruthlessly and remorselessly; Cain strips civilian ships full of survivors of supplies and skilled personnel, leaving their remaining passengers to die in space, and orders her crew to shoot civilians who resist her orders.

"Razor" does a little to expand on these events, but hardly enough to justify the lengths at which it depicts them. There is, for example, confirmation of the theory that Galactica's fans have been treating as fact almost since "Pegasus" first aired, that Cain and Gina were lovers, but the two are hardly ever on screen together, and we learn next to nothing about the level of intimacy they shared or the depth of feelings they had for each other. On those occasions, however, when "Razor" tells us something new, we could easily be forgiven for wishing the writers had kept their mouths shut. We learn, for instance, that the reason Pegasus was able to escape the Cylon attack is that its computer network was offline for repairs when the attack happened. But the person performing those repairs is Gina—as if it weren't bad enough that we have to handwave away the Cylons' choice to launch their carefully coordinated, meticulously planned doomsday attack the day before the one ship capable of resisting their weapons was due to be decommissioned.

This is, however, a minor plot hole, and far more egregious are the blows that "Razor" strikes against "Pegasus" and the flawed, complicated woman at its core. Written when Galactica was still at the height of its complexity, "Pegasus" worked hard to avoid easy indictment or approval of Cain's actions. She came off as a person who had gone astray, who had spent so long struggling to survive that she forgot to wonder what she was surviving for, and whose self-identity as a soldier had taken precedence over the soldier's purpose—to protect the state and its citizens. One could imagine Cain making one slightly questionable choice after another, veering, ever so slowly, further and further off her moral course, until she finally arrived at the monstrous person we meet in "Pegasus," who plots to assassinate her fellow officer and to unseat a legal government.

This is not the character as "Razor" presents her. There is no gradual attrition of Cain's morality here. The initial escape from the Cylons, the murder of Pegasus's XO (for objecting to a mission that ends up costing the lives of 800 crewmembers in order to destroy an insignificant target, and which is clearly motivated solely by Cain's desire to strike back at the Cylons), Gina's discovery, and the murder and abandonment of the civilians all seem to take place within days, a week at most, of one another. We never see Cain struggle with her choices or question herself. She seems to have become a monster the moment the Cylons attacked—or perhaps was one already. Thus is one of Battlestar Galactica's most fascinating characters reduced to a common lunatic.

More interesting, and to my mind more successful, is the nearer past plotline. Writing about "Resurrection Ship II" soon after its original airing, and attempting to justify its copout ending, I said:

As we saw when the Pegasus crewmen came to attack Helo and Tyrol, Admiral Cain's choices have had a ... corrosive effect on her crew, and there's no question in my mind that Cain's death will solve very little in the short term. Some of her crew will no doubt reassess their behavior in the wake of their exposure to the fleet and its more normative moral compass, but others have crossed a line that can never be un-crossed.

Galactica's subsequent season and a half did very little to make good on my prediction, but "Razor" finally does, albeit in a less than exhaustive manner (although it addresses the effects of Cain's orders on the people who followed them, the movie doesn't discuss her victims—the civilians she press-ganged and whose families she murdered, who presumably joined the fleet's general population at the end of "Resurrection Ship"). It does so through the new character, Kendra Shaw. In the far past plotline, Shaw is an observer, and occasionally an extension of Cain's will. In the more recent past, she is, as she tells Lee, "Cain's legacy," someone who has imbibed Cain's ethos of expediency triumphing over morality and soldiering as an end in its own right, and who is struggling to come to terms with the choices she made and the horrors she witnessed under Cain's command. The story—which involves a missing science mission, a prototype of the Cylon-human hybrid previously seen as both navigator and oracle for the Cylon basestars, and, hilariously, a return of the chrome-plated, synthesizer-voiced original flavor Cylons from the 1978 series (or, as the current series would have it, the first Cylon war)—is told through her eyes, and if "Razor" is at all successful, it is due to this character and to Chaves-Jacobsen's gutsy, unsentimental performance.

Like the best Galactica writing from days of yore, Shaw's characterization is achieved through its absence. She barely speaks, unless it's to blankly respond to Lee's queries or to issue orders to her terrified subordinates in an equally blank tone. Blank is, in fact, as good a word as any with which to describe Shaw, but is she blank because she's tamping down her emotions lest they overwhelm her, or because her actions have hollowed her out and left her incapable of feeling anything at all? This is "Razor"'s central question. Following the murder of the civilians, Cain tells Shaw that she must become a razor if she ever hopes to have the chance to become human again, but "Razor" suggests that the choice to dehumanize oneself is not so easily reversed—it's possible that there is no salvation, no redemption, for Shaw.

The choice to center one's story around a character who may be damned is a bold one, and if there's any justification for the character assassination "Razor" commits on Cain it is that this choice gives us Shaw, a character whose fate, unlike Cain's, is not known at the beginning of the movie (though given that she's a high-ranking officer who is never heard from again it's not difficult to guess how things work out for her). In the far past storyline, Shaw never questions Cain's actions and even justifies and enables them. Her unquestioning loyalty leaves the viewers a gap through which they can come to the opposite conclusion without feeling that they've been hectored into it. In the nearer past, Shaw's similar no-nonsense, unapologetic attitude towards her own sins is both refreshing and challenging in a show that has become so unbearably talky, in an all-sizzle-and-no-steak sort of way, about moral dilemmas. It encourages us to wish for her salvation even as we begin to doubt that it is possible. Shaw invites us to judge her without ever offering a single excuse or explanation for her actions. She makes it clear that she couldn't give a damn what conclusion we, or her fellow officers, come to, but at the same time she is clearly yearning for some higher power to pass judgement on her. Shaw herself doesn't know if she wants to be punished or forgiven, and though the movie's ending does both, it is left to us to decide which one she truly deserved.

Unfortunately, this is the new new Galactica, whose viewers can't be allowed the luxury of coming, unaided, to their own conclusions about a character. Nor can they be trusted to realize that conclusion-drawing is in order, and so the movie ends with a coda in which Lee and Bill Adama rehash its events and Cain's actions—thus turning her, and not the infinitely more interesting Shaw, back into the story's focal point.

Adama trots out the justifications and explanations for Cain's actions that fans came up with after "Pegasus" aired—the ones invalidated by the preceding 90 minutes of television. Cain had no one around to call her on the monstrousness of her actions and keep her honest—but as we've just seen, she did, and her response to his criticism was to put a bullet in his head. That for the rest of Cain's tenure as Pegasus's commanding officer, not a single one of her underlings dared to question her orders, though they clearly doubt, and are appalled by, many of them, is rather obviously because of a justifiable fear for their lives. Cain was doing what was necessary to keep her people alive—this is using a definition of "her people" which conveniently excludes the 800 lives lost to a hopeless, pointless attack motivated purely by a desire for vengeance, not to mention the murdered and abandoned civilians.

If "Razor" does anything to rehabilitate Cain, it does so by drawing a comparison between her and Bill Adama, who in this scene is putting the finishing touches on his famous three-step dance of managerial incompetence and general mindfuckery. Step one: proffer trust in an underling. Step two: micromanage and undermine said underling, most especially at crucial, public junctures (Adama does this twice in "Razor," first when he appoints himself Pegasus's backup commander during the rescue mission, and later when he belays Lee's order to sacrifice the rescue team and their targets when contact with them is lost). Step three: wait for your codependent victim, now riddled with doubt and thoroughly emasculated, to come to you for solace and validation. Against this manipulative, passive-aggressive bullshit, Cain's straightforward, albeit occasionally homicidal, managerial approach is very nearly a relief.

In the end, however, my greatest and most meaningful complaint against "Razor" is one that will seem, at first glance, like sheer pettiness, and that is that the prop we see Cain fondle throughout the movie, which she bequeaths to Shaw and which Shaw passes on to Starbuck, is not a razor but a knife. It has a pointed blade, the better to stick in things (or people), which a razor is most emphatically not supposed to have. This is because, as several dictionaries will attest, a razor is not a weapon but a tool, and this, in turn, invalidates the movie's central metaphor—Cain's line about becoming a razor in order to survive. The prop, in other words, is entirely correct for the point the writers think they're making. It's their words that are inaccurate—possibly because "razor" sounds cooler than either "knife" or "blade" (and the latter, at any rate, has very different connotations in an SF context).

This is not, however, a mere nitpicking observation. This simple, easily-avoidable prop and language mix-up is, I believe, an illustration in miniature of everything that's gone wrong with Battlestar Galactica since "Pegasus" aired. From a challenging, thought-provoking series, Galactica has become the kind of show that tells us we're seeing one thing (suicide bombings, sexual chemistry, genuine leadership skills) while actually depicting another (kamikaze attacks against military targets, the Lee/Dee romance, musical montages of the admiral patting people on the shoulder), and the kind of show whose writers prefer to say something that sounds cool or transgressive—so long as it's not examined too closely—over saying something genuinely meaningful.

Abigail Nussbaum ( works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in the Internet Review of Science Fiction and the Israeli SFF quarterly the Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.

Abigail Nussbaum is a blogger and critic. She blogs at Asking the Wrong Questions and tweets as @NussbaumAbigail.
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20 May 2024

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