No Hero of mine

No one throws a perfect game. Even the best shows have iffy episodes, and it’s fitting that the worst episodes of particularly-great shows are particularly-bad. For Battlestar Galactica, that’s “Hero,” a disastrous hot-mess from the third season, penned by David Eick. 1

BSG had cranked out mediocre episodes before, especially in season two’s midseason swell. But the worst that one can say about “Black Market” and “Sacrifice” is that they’re dull filler episodes; yeah, we get a bit of context on why Lee is such a prick when we met him in the miniseries, and yeah, we get a mostly-good guest turn from Dana Delany as a forgettable character to send off Billy—yawn. Luciana Carro singlehandedly rescues “Scar”; she had by that time locked into Kat, and was fast developing her into one of the most interesting characters on the show.

But “Hero” is uniquely awful. It is bad fanfic that made it onto the screen because it happened to be written by a showrunner. No other episode is so riddled with problems, still less threatens to seriously warp the canonical timeline, and for that reason, it is the only episode that I expressly excluded from any level of canon that I accept for purposes of writing The Racetrack Chronicle and another backburner project in the same continuity. (Project index BSG5, for those counting.)

In this post, we’ll look at what went wrong.

What makes “Hero” a bad episode?

In “Hero,” set two years after  the Fall, a Colonial pilot—captured a year before the Fall on a mission behind “the armistice line”—manages to escape the baseship where he was held, stealing a jerry-rigged raider, and jumps around randomly, pursued by more raiders, until he happens upon the fleet. He reports that the Cylons on said baseship had become mortally sick—a plausible claim for both the audience and in-universe given the events of the preceding episodes—affording him an opening to break free.

In a cold-open flashback, Admiral Peter Corman 2 briefs then-Commander Adama about a mission; “we may never have this opportunity again,” he says (why?), and underscores that the mission is off-books and cannot be discovered. In the present, we learn that this flashback took place about a year before the Fall. What was the mission? The story that Adama initially tells to a visibly-skeptical Laura and Tory is that Tauron colonists were drilling for minerals on a moon close to the Armistice Line; the admiralty was fretting that this could provoke the Cylons (why?), so Bulldog was sent to recon the situation, and the colonists shot him down. Seeing no ejection on DRADIS, Adama left without further investigation (why?). Laura isn’t buying it, but Adama blows her off and says that it’s his mess to fix.

Meanwhile, Tigh has been relieved of duty to deal with lingering PTSD from the events on New Caprica, and is confined to his cabin, seething at Adama. He, too, knew Bulldog, and when Bulldog comes to visit, Tigh lets slip the truth, which the audience learns in an intercut scene: The Valkyrie shot Bulldog down on Adama’s order. Adama confesses the real story to Lee. The Valkyrie was on a secret recon mission intended to ascertain the likelihood of a Cylon attack on the Colonies. Some in the admiralty believed (correctly, as it turned out) that the Cylons were building a war-machine in anticipation of attacking, and Adama was sent to put a stealth recon bird “just beyond” the armistice line—“stick our nose over, gather evidence, see if there was any suspicious activity.” Lee catches onto what’s been eating at Adama these last two years: Adama feels personally responsible for starting the war. He led a mission that the Cylons might have seen as an act of war had they detected it, and he’s convinced that they indeed detected it. With Bulldog “two clicks” (sic.) over the line, an unknown contact jumps in, takes out Bulldog’s engine, and jumps out, whereafter two more contacts jump in, closing rapidly on Bulldog’s disabled stealth ship. To ensure that the incursion is not detected, Adama destroys the stealth ship with a missile, not realizing that Bulldog has punched out, whereafter Bulldog is presumably captured.

Starbuck finally figures out that it’s a setup (duuuuuuh), that the raiders pursuing Bulldog must have missed on purpose. Naturally, she takes her evidence to the CAG. No, wait, she doesn’t. She takes it to Adama… No, wait, she doesn’t. Instead, she goes and sees the suspended XO, because… Reasons. Good timing; Bulldog is understandably pissed at Adama and is beating him to death with a pipe. Tigh arrives to intercede, puts Bulldog on his ass, and launches into a soliloquy:

Tigh: You don’t wanna believe it, do you? I know. The truth hurts, Bulldog, but it’s better to know the truth than to live a lie. We’re all soldiers, Danny. We’re all expendable. And we did what we had to do to protect the mission; it’s ugly, but there it is. The Cylons let you go. The question is why? Ask yourself that, Danny. Because up until a minute ago, you were doing exactly what they wanted you to do. Come here, and learn the truth, and seek revenge. And that’s exactly what you did. You almost gave them what they wanted. I’ll tell you a dirty little secret: The toughest part of getting played is losing your dignity. Feeling like you are not worth the oxygen you are sucking down. You get used to it. You start to believe it. You start to love it. It’s like a bottle that never runs dry, you can keep reaching for it over and over and over again.

Adama: So how do you put that bottle away, Saul?

Tigh: I don’t know. One day you just decide to get up and walk out of your room.

Adama thereafter offers Laura his resignation, she refuses, gives him a medal honoring his years of service, Adama tells Bulldog that they still need him as a pilot, Tigh comes to mend fences with Adama, aaand it’s an episode.

Nothing makes sense.

Nothing in “Hero” makes any sense. Let’s start with the obvious, small-bore stuff:

  • Adama tells Corman that there’s only one pilot whom he trusts to fly the stealth-ship that is to be involved in the clandestine mission. How convenient; why?
  • The President of the Colonies wants to meet Bulldog; why?
  • You feel that we’re supposed to boo-hoo about those warmongering admirals who feared that the Cylons were preparing a strike and who were willing to take risks to detect and defend against it. Maybe I’m inferring too much, maybe I’m being skewed by knowing too much about the times in which the episode was made and the political views of the producers, but I think that Laura’s cynical suggestion that Corman played Adama to provoke a war puts a fine point on that feeling. We know, however, and in-universe Lee knows, and Laura knows, and everyone knows, that those admirals were right. That is exactly what Cavil was doing. Corman is what Admiral Marcus should have been in “Into Darkness,” had the production not stupidly changed him into a mustache-twirling villain in the bottom half of the movie: He is the guy who looks out to the horizon and sees the storm coming and says “boys, we’ve gotta find shelter.”
  • Racetrack not in this episode.
  • Three’s Nyquil-daze allows Bulldog an opportunity to lamp her, whereupon she struggles back and it looks like he’s killed her. But that doesn’t explain how he got out of his cell. Only later does Bulldog claim that the cell door was left open; only 1) it wasn’t, we saw, and 2) even if it was—for realsies? It takes the characters way longer than is plausible to see the holes in Bulldog’s story. It’s left to Starbuck (of all people) to start asking obvious questions: How come the raiders couldn’t hit a sitting-duck? How exactly did Bulldog escape? How exactly did he manage to stumble onto the fleet, a task akin to throwing a dart from orbit and hitting a particular minnow in the middle of the pacific ocean?
  • Tory observes that “this year marks Adama’s 45th year in the Colonial fleet,” which is problematic albeit not fatal, and we can talk about the timing later. (The nub of it is that the math says Adama must have been an underage enlistment.) And Adama’s “commission” refers to him as a petty officer, which is an enlisted rank, even though it’s well-established that only officers fly planes.
  • Bulldog’s raider is brought into the bay on a gantry that 1) is hitherto-unseen, even when it would have been useful in, say, the “Razor” flashbacks, and 2) physically can’t possibly go all the way into the elevator on which the Raider must have come into the hangar-deck.
  • The med-bay monitor monitor has weird 3D graphic that you’d expect to see on Star Trek, not BSG.
  • We cut directly from Cottle telling Adama that Bulldog’s captors kept him well-fed to Bulldog wolfing down noodles like he’s not eaten in months.
  • “Stealthstar, Valkyrie, we register you on DRADIS.” Think about that for a moment. “Hi, stealth plane designed to be invisible on radar, this is air-traffic control, we register you on radar.” What?
  • “I’m exactly two clicks past the line.” You’re exactly… two thousand meters… past a line… in space. I can’t even. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
  • Adama shoots down Bulldog to avoid detection of the incursion. But the cat’s already out of the bag! A raider (presumably) has already jumped in, identified the target, and fired on it.
  • “Meet me on the port hangar-deck for the ceremony.” What?! The port hangar-deck? Okay, “Hero,” you’re going out of your way to draw attention to set-reuse?!
  • The episode is laced with production weirdness and errors, too, as if the production team just shrugged and said “It’s a David episode, let’s just get through this.” The photo of Adama and his command-staff in the Valkyrie’s CIC not only includes Bulldog for no in-universe reason, 3 it shows then-Commander Adama wearing an Admiral’s rank-device. They didn’t bother to swap them out on the jacket. This is perhaps a nitpick, but the production-quality on BSG was very high (you don’t realize how high until you watch it on blu-ray), perhaps because the doco filming-style meant that the production team had to assume that literally anything could be on camera and therefore had to be right. “Hero” itself has an instructive comparison: Adama’s resignation letter. The production team could have worked up a letterhead and filled the letter itself with lorem ipsum, but no, they took time to actually write Adama’s resignation letter even though it’s in-focus on screen for all of three frames.
  • In this episode, it bothers me that Adama leaves his reading-glasses on when he’s not reading. I realize that Olmos was consistently inconsistent about this, but in most episodes my mind just lets it go. In this episode, watching with a skeptical eye, it’s a constant irritant.
  • The characterization is off, too. An instructive comparison is between the scene in which Adama finds himself alone in his quarters after Bulldog and Laura leave and the cognate one in “Pegasus.” Seeing Adama physically lash out feels very strange.
  • Why does Adama confess right now, and why to Lee?
  • Racetrack still not in this episode.
  • Tigh’s soliloquy—with a caveat to which I’ll return below—makes no sense at all. It has no connection to the situation whatsoever; it sounds like a speech that Eick had had in his back pocket for a while, pasted awkwardly into that scene as spec dialogue, and never got around to revising.
  • “You’re not getting off that easy; once a pilot, always a pilot, Bulldog.” And we never saw him again. (That medal, either.)
  • The episode cuts from Adama on the hangar-deck receiving a medal in dress greys to Adama on the hangar-deck sending off Bulldog in duty-blues to Adama in his quarters back in dress-greys.
  • Lastly—because this one is hard to quantify, the episode feels fat and flabby, too. The editing is off and the writing is wooden and fanfic-y; in particular, a lieutenant calling a commander by his first name? A commander who’s now an Admiral? (I know Adama’s a soft-touch, but can you imagine even Starbuck, Adama’s ersatz daughter, calling him “Bill”?) .

But all this is as naught compared to the big problems.

First, the notion of an “armistice line” in space is mind-boggling—it takes the already-tenuous concept of a “neutral zone” and amps it up to eleven—and the idea that any useful intelligence might be gleaned by putting a plane two kilometers over it is simply stunning. What did they hope to find? Baseships amassed on the border, as if they have to assemble there like an army in the Napoleonic wars, poised to march into Colonial territory? Seriously? One of the things that distinguishes BSG from, say, Star Trek, is that while it isn’t hard sci-fi and doesn’t pretend to be, it is certainly and consistently aware of the scale and scope of the universe. The very fact that Adama can see a raider or baseship on DRADIS from the Colonial side of the line from a battlestar-sized array shows why the whole mission is absurd. (Recall that in “Pegasus,” the initial DRADIS contact is at a range of “1700”—which at the scale of space cannot be meters, it must be at least kilometers.)

Second, while I’m not in the business of defending Starbuck, the idea that Bulldog could jerry-rig a Raider in the same way that Starbuck does in “You Can’t Go Home Again” seems to drain the force out of Starbuck’s accomplishment, making it seem like hotwiring a car. Leoben’s remarks about Kara’s feat in “The Plan”—chronologically-sooner than “Hero”—underscores how unlikely this is. Heck, Bulldog even figures out how to use the wireless! Even the preternatural Starbuck couldn’t figure out that trick.

But let’s give that one away. It’s the notion that Bulldog could hotwire a raider and stumble onto the fleet, randomly, that’s too much to bear. This strains credulity far beyond breaking-point. And, morever, it’s well-established that a ship can’t be tracked through a jump, and even though the implication of “33” would seem to be that the Cylons can figure it out in about 33 minutes, we’re presented with a “hot pursuit” scenario. So how did the two pursuit raiders keep following the one stolen by Bulldog? How did Bulldog possibly stumble onto the fleet in the vast ocean of space? And once they jump into range of the Galactica, two raiders—machines built to hit targets—can’t hit a target raider hacked up and flown by a prisoner who’s never flown one before, over several minutes of screentime? Can we really be expected to believe that no one thinks that this is all far too suspicious to believe until Starbuck starts looking at the gun-camera footage?

What makes it a terrible episode?

All these problems, however, merely plunge “Hero” to the depths of “Black Market”—perhaps a little lower. What makes it terrible is that it creates a dense tangle of tension and contradiction within the A-canon.

Canon establishes unequivocally that William Adama had commanded the Galactica for several years before the Fall. In the Miniseries, on the day of the Fall, Kelly implies her has served under Adama for some time and Gaeta is explicit that he has served under Adama for “these past three years.” In “Act of Contrition,” two weeks after the Fall, Adama says that he and Starbuck have been aboard “this ship for over two years.” In “Litmus,” seventeen days after the Fall, Adama says that Tyrol has “been under my command for over five years, and if he really wanted to take this ship down, he could.” (In “Resistance,” Tyrol lists the ships on which he has served; the Valkyrie is not one on them.) In “The Farm,” two months after the Fall, Adama says that Boomer “was aboard my ship for almost two years,” to which Tigh adds in “Sacrifice” that Boomer “reported aboard two years ago”—an odd phrasing if she reported aboard a different ship.

If “Hero” is right, all of these statements (and probably more that I’m forgetting) are wrong.

Before some clever-clogs jumps up and says “maybe Adama was on loan to the Valkyrie for this one mission”—well… Maybe? There’s evidence for that. Adama tells Corman that he’ll do the mission on one condition, that he has to have his men, which is a weird line if Adama’s command is the Valkyrie; why wouldn’t he have his men? And the Galactica has Bulldog’s DNA on file, which—because this isn’t Star Trek—would be weird had Bulldog not been assigned to her. So you can perhaps argue that Adama’s command is the Galactica and Corman loans him the Valkyrie for the mission.

But that’s weird, too. Why not just send the Valkyrie? Why Adama? It feels very fanfic: It has to be Adama, of all the commanders in the fleet, because he’s our character from the show, that’s why. And besides, the episode itself provides compelling evidence that points the other way:

  • At the very start of the episode, we see a “publicity shot” from the Valkyrie’s press office, showing the senior staff (caption “Cmdr Adama with the command crew on [sic.] the CIC”). You don’t take publicity-shots for one-off secret missions. The photograph, if it means anything, means that Adama conned the Valkyrie before his assignment to the Galactica, whenever that might have been, a fact that I do accept as canonical in the background materials.
  • When Bulldog and Tigh meet, Bulldog wants to know how Tigh ended up “on this old bucket, anyway? What happened to the Valkyrie?” Tigh insinuates that Adama was relieved of the Valkyrie and assigned command of the Galactica as retribution for mission on which Bulldog disappeared.

Perhaps the coup-de-grâce is that BSG itself never treats “Hero” as canon. Adama never again wears that medal, even though we repeatedly see him in dress-greys. We are told that Adama grew up in Qualai, CA, but in “Blood & Chrome” he insists that he’s from Caprica City, CA. And, again—even though Adama makes a song-and-dance about how they need all the pilots they can get 4and we never see him again.

None of this is to say that “Hero” doesn’t have its moments:

  • Opening the episode on Tricia Helfer’s legs is a can’t-lose opening-gambit.
  • As always, the cast does its very best with the material, and with actors of this caliber, their best is very good notwithstanding the material. Carl Lumbly, the guest-star playing Bulldog, hits all the right notes. Good to see Carro back as Kat, and Donnelly Rhodes’ Cottle would have won the Bob Newhart Award for doing a lot with very little had Leah Cairns not locked that up early and often. Lucy Lawless is effortlessly-charismatic in a brief scene as a desperately-ill Three (“do I look that bad?” she asks Bulldog; no, Lucy fLawless, no you do not.)
  • Gaeta’s bewilderment at Adama’s decisions picks up a card for season four.
  • Bulldog’s joke when asked how he escaped is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny; it’s so good that I half-suspect that it was ad-libbed on set, and the chemistry between Olmos and Lumbly is good.
  • Our first real glimpse of a Valkyrie-type battlestar—a design that the Pican Racetrack will in the Chronicle dismiss as the ugliest thing she’s ever seen, and her Virgan inamorato David as “very Scorpian,” resembling a “predatory insect” 5 —is exciting. The production did a great job of finding a design that looked like a plausible bridge between the Galactica, the mercury-type Pegasus, and the old Galactica model from the original series.
  • Bamber and Olmos are fabulous together as Adama confesses, and McCreary’s sound-design is astute. Abstract, distant percussion redolent of vast industrial machinery or a distant thunderstorm clatter in the background, and an orchestral cue borrowed from “Exodus”—the scene in which the camera pulls back from a seemingly-doomed Galactica, alone, taking a beating from multiple baseships—underscores the centrality of honor to Bill Adama, a Caprican by birth but of Tauron heritage. Moreover, Eick’s choice to have Adama come right out with it up-front and then explain the context is wise, and the tension ratchets up much faster because they’re not hiding the ball. And if I could buy into the underlying premise, Olmos’ portrayal of grief that this man personally demonstrated to the Cylons that war was coming and that their only option was to strike first (whether true or not) would be heady stuff.
  • “It wasn’t just you. They put you there … you had no choice … You were one mission, you were one man. One man.” “It only takes one.” That was fabulous—well-written, well-acted.
  • The deteriorating relationship between the Colonies’ civilian and military leadership in the days leading up to the Fall was hinted at as far back as “Home,” and it’s a thread that I pick up in BSG5.
  • I have ignored the B-story, Three exploring the interstices between life and death on the baseship. It’s good.
  • Tigh’s soliloquy is, if severed from the context, it’s actually really good in vacuo. So, too, is the banter between him and Adama at the very end of the episode.
  • Laura laying down the law on Bill never gets old.

“Hero” and “Caprica” demonstrate precisely why a project of this scope has to be (as the Chronicle and BSG5 are) undergirded by a spreadsheet that assigns precise dates to everything. 6 BSGW tries to contain the damage by excising the time-markers, but it shares my skepticism of the episode. For my purposes, “Hero” is radioactive, and it has to go. It cannot be part of the canon. The best way to deal with it, I think, is to imagine that there is a deleted-scene at the end in which Adama wakes up with a start, shakes it off, and says “well that was a horrible dream,” and goes back to sleep. Olmos has the panache to pull that off, and it would preserve the good while paring the bad.

Notes:

  1. The “production” side of the Moore-Eick dynamic duo, as compared to Moore, the “writing” side.
  2. Identified in BSG5 as the Chairman of the Admiralty Board and Deputy Chief of Fleet Operations to Edward Nagala, the CFO.
  3. This would be like me photoshopping Racetrack into a photograph of the Galactica’s command-staff on her last deployment—Cdr. Adama, Col. Tigh, Ltc. Waters, Gaeta, Dualla, etc. If any pilot were to be included in such a photograph, it would be the CAG—which is, as Lee points out, the book says to be a job for a captain or a major, not a lietenant.
  4. A claim that is false even by its own lights; just two episodes earlier, Racetrack noted that with the Galactica absorbing the Pegasus’ pilots, there are “too many pilots not enough birds,” and frankly, I trust Racetrack to know the roster that better than Adama.
  5. In background notes for The Racetrack Chronicle, I have some backstory on the disconnect between the Galactica’s design and those of the Valkyrie and the Pegasus. During the war, you had the original twelve battlestars as the capital ships of the new colonial fleet. As the war expands and drags-out, it becomes apparent that twelve ain’t going to cut it, so production would be standardized and centralized, probably on the model of the Virgan and Caprican battlestars, the Bretannia and her sister-ship the Galactica, squeezing out variant designs. We can make smaller ships faster, but we still need battlestars (i.e. FTL-capable fighter-carriers with big guns), and we need to churn out a lot of these things, so we need a smaller, cheaper variant that’s faster to produce, so the Scorpians design the Valkyrie-type and start cranking them out while other facilities build the bigger, heavier Galactica-type and experiment with other variants. After the war, you’re not going to throw ships away. You’re going to keep operating what you have. But the admiralty is also going to look to the future and say, “okay, look, we no longer need to operate four shipyards, but we do want to be mindful about replenishment of the fleet over time.” So Scorpion Yards gets the nod, they become the fleet shipyard, and naturally they build what they’re tooled for: Valkyrie-type light battlestars. And they start developing a new heavy battlestar replacement patterned on the same tooling, which will eventually become the Mercury-type. Over thirty years or so, the older ships are phased out, and the Mercury-type becomes the mainstay, giving us battlestar groups comprising a Mercury-type, a couple of Valkyrie-types, escorts, and supports.
  6. In the commentary to CAP: “Apotheosis,” we learn that Willie Adama was intended to be Bill Adama, but they botched the math on his age. For want of a spreadsheet, a retcon was born.

Comments (2)

  1. Metatron_Fallen wrote::

    Pretty sure the Cylon Raider was brought into the hangar deck by the same piece of equipment (that you called a gantry) that was used on Bulldog’s. A piece of equipment like that would be common enough in that sort of environment. We don’t see them physically get the Raider out of vacuum in either case so we don’t know how that was handled. At any rate, it isn’t evidence of a bad episode.

    Also, maybe the Cylons kept Danny well fed but he hadn’t eaten for the whole day? Not eating for a whole day will make you pretty hungry. And maybe those are really good noodles.

    Adama also wears his glasses most of the time, only taking them off for emphasis.

    I agree with you overall though. Hero isn’t the best episode. It doesn’t bother me overly though.

    Saturday, October 22, 2016 at 5:43 pm #
  2. Metatron_Fallen wrote::

    Sorry, I meant to add the Cylon raider that Kara captured in Season One was brought into the hangar deck by the same…

    Saturday, October 22, 2016 at 5:45 pm #