As @BSGMuseum’s #bsgglobalrewatch2016 gets ready to head into the last stretch of season three, “the trial of Gaius Baltar,” Laura observes that “for all his crimes, he’s one of us,” and the question is put: Upon first watch, would you have found him guilty/innocent before his trial?
That’s not straightforward to answer. The easier answer takes for granted our knowledge as the viewer, so let us set aside the epistemological problem for a moment and assume that we are to judge Baltar on the basis of what we know qua the near-omniscient audience.
On Caprica before the Fall, Baltar was a “top consultant for the ministry of defense on computer issues,” with extensive access to the defense mainframe. He was involved with a woman; he seems to have believed that she worked for a defense contractor and, because of his relationship with her, he allowed her to use his access to “pok[e] around inside the defense mainframe” in the belief that it would help her company bid on a contract. The colonial equivalent of the United States Code surely includes crimes for which Baltar could be tried on these facts; unauthorized use of defense information, for example. (Cf. 18 U.S.C. §§ 793(d) et seq.) But to charge him with espionage, collusion, conspiracy, or even, preposterously, genocide (as the Roslin administration later presses Prosecuting Attorney Cassidy to do) would require something much more: Intent. And as the audience, we know he didn’t have it. It could not possibly have occurred to him that she was a Cylon agent. No one had seen a Cylon in forty years, and the last time someone did, they looked “like walking chrome toasters”; Baltar could not possibly have anticipated the transition to organic bodies. And his reaction when she tells him approximately ten minutes before the attacks confirms that he did not know. Accordingly, knowing what we know, Baltar must be thought not guilty on the explosive charges that President Roslin would like to level against him.
The case that Cassidy ultimately brings against Baltar instead hangs on his conduct on New Caprica. Shortly before the first post-Fall election, Margaret “Racetrack” Edmondson and Hamish “Skulls” McCall discover a habitable planet in a freak accident. The military and civilian leadership appears to have let word get out, and when Baltar—by then the candidate opposing Roslin in the election, and trailing in the polls—made settlement his signature issue, he won. (Worthwhile sidenote: With the permission of President Roslin, her Chief of Staff Tory Foster conspired with the Galactica‘s XO, Col. Tigh, to rig the election for Roslin; when Gaeta-supporter Lt. Gaeta discovered this play in media res, Admiral Adama lost his nerve and failed to back Tigh’s play; the fraud was outed and Baltar declared the winner.) Settlement proceeded, but a year later, the Cylons discover the planet, what remains of the fleet flees, and the Cylons take de facto control of the planet, making the Baltar administration its puppet. (Three later remarks that formally, the Cylons are there simply as aides and advisers to the legitimate government of the colonies.) Baltar is left with little choice but to do as they say: In at least one instance, his cooperation is forced at gunpoint. What exactly Cassidy charges him with is never specified, but knowing as we do that Romo Lampkin and Lee Adama are correct that Baltar’s choice was between cooperate and do whatever he could or resist and die and become the proximate cause of the extinction of the entire human race, it seems fair to say that whatever Cassidy charged, duress would excuse Baltar’s conduct.
Let us now deal with the knottier problem of how we might apprise Baltar in-universe. The epistemological problem is this: We as the mostly-omniscient viewer are privy to more information than any or all of the characters, and we have more emotional remove. To see this problem in another context, consider the mutiny: Most of the crew, to say nothing of the people of the fleet, have not (as we have) looked over Adama’s shoulder in private meetings. They haven’t seen the challenges that Roslin and Adama have worked through. They don’t know that we’re in the back half of the last season, so don’t worry, guys, it’s almost over. What the average person in the fleet knows is: The Cylons are the bad guys, they killed almost all of us, they’ve hunted us for several years at this point, Adama’s promise to get us to Earth turned out to be worthless (even if it was technically fulfilled), and now all of a sudden we’re being told “oh, don’t worry, these Cylons, you can trust, oh, and by the way, the XO is one of them, it’s cool.” Come again? Now add to that: You might think to yourself, you know what? What did President Zarek ever do that was so bad? And because gossip travels, you might also remember, hang on, didn’t Adama vote to acquit Baltar on charges of collaborating with the Cylon enemy? Didn’t Gaeta turn out to be a hero of the resistance to that enemy? You might even recall (as Racetrack does explicitly in “The Turning Point”) that your friend Felix, diligent, nerdy, loyal, reliable Felix, lost a leg so that Starbuck—very likely a Cylon herself—could run off to collaborate with the enemy. Is it really so clear that, on the information available to them, that they were wrong?
How then are we to assess whether Baltar is innocent or guilty without access to the information that we would have as an omniscient viewer? From whose viewpoint are we to decide? Adama’s? Laura’s? What do they know? In fact: Frak-all. Laura’s direct knowledge of what Baltar did behind closed-doors is almost nil; her testimony and Col. Tigh’s seek to impute guilt by association, speculation, and hearsay. Ah, but surely Gaeta, who served as Baltar’s Chief of Staff, has the goods? He does not. If he did, he could have testified to events that he witnessed, without having to perjure himself as to events he did not witness. In fact, none of the witnesses called by Cassidy are able to offer relevant testimony, and every single one of them is masterfully impeached by Romo Lampkin, esq., with the exception of Gaeta whose perjury is essentially beyond rebuttal. We are left with a vague charge supported by vague, unreliable evidence. If we take the position that the best place from which to assess Baltar’s guilt or innocence is that of a judge at his trial, we cannot but agree with one of the judges: “The defense made their case; the prosecution didn’t.”
Ultimately, it is hard to disagree with a single word of Lee’s de facto closing argument (and a towering Jamie Bamber performance):
Did the defendant make mistakes? Sure, he did. Serious mistakes. But did he actually commit any crimes? Did he commit treason? No. It was an impossible situation. When the Cylons arrived, what could he possibly do? … What would you have done? If he’d refused to surrender, the Cylons would’ve probably nuked the planet right then and there. So did he appear to cooperate with the Cylons? Sure. So did hundreds of others. What’s the difference between him and them? The President issued a blanket pardon. They were all forgiven. No questions asked. Colonel Tigh used suicide bombers, killed dozens of people. Forgiven. Lieutenant Agathon and Chief Tyrol murdered an officer on the Pegasus. Forgiven. The Admiral instituted a coup d’etat against the President. Forgiven. And me? Well, where do I begin? I shot down a civilian passenger ship, the Olympic Carrier, with over a thousand people on board. Forgiven. I raised my weapon to a superior officer, committed an act of mutiny. Forgiven. … I’d say we’re very forgiving of mistakes. We make our own laws now, our own justice. We’ve been pretty creative at finding ways to let people off the hook for everything from theft to murder. And we’ve had to be. Because … we’re on the run. And we have to fight to survive. We have to break rules. We have to bend laws. We have to improvise. But not this time—no! Not for Gaius Baltar. No, you, you have to die. Because we don’t like you very much. Because you’re arrogant. Because you’re weak. Because you’re a coward. And we the mob, we want to throw you out the airlock because you didn’t stand up to the Cylons, and get yourself killed in the process. That’s justice now. You should’ve been killed back on New Caprica, but since you had the temerity to live, we’re gonna execute you now. That’s justice!
This case is built on emotion. It’s built on anger, bitterness, and vengeance. But most of all, it is built on shame. It’s about the shame of what we did to ourselves back on that planet. And it’s about the guilt of those of us who ran away. Who ran away. And we are trying to dump all that guilt and all that shame onto one man, and then flush him out the airlock and hope that that just gets rid of it all. So that we can live with ourselves. But that won’t work. That won’t work. That’s not justice. Not to me. Not to me.