Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Battlestar Galactica: Razor (Universal Network Television, David Eick Productions, R&D Productions, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened a science-fiction film from the DVD archives since Charles and I are doing the ConDor science-fiction convention this Friday, Saturday and Sunday and I thought it would be a nice idea to get into the spirit of it in advance. The film I ended up screening was a 2007 Universal Television production called Battlestar Galactica: Razor, though the Battlestar Galactica itself doesn’t feature in the plot of this one at all. Written by Michael Taylor, “developed by” Ronald D. Moore (who apparently was the producer and writer in charge of the early-2000’s Battlestar Galactica reboot) and with Glen A. Larson credited with creating the characters for the original 1977 Battlestar Galactica and also listed as “consulting producer” on the credits of this one even though he had nothing to do with making it, Battlestar Galactica: Razor actually tells the story of another vessel in the space fleet of Battlestars, Battlestar Pegasus. It alternates between present-time reality, a flashback to 10 months previously and other flashbacks to 43 years before, at the end of the first Cylon war. Cylons, for those of you not up on Battlestar Galactica minutiae, are the malevolent robots who are the principal villains on the series — and who in the original 1977 incarnations looked as much like the Empire’s Storm Troopers in Star Wars (the property Battlestar Galactica was obviously ripping off — down to hiring John Dykstra, who’d done the model spaceships for Star Wars and for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey before that, to do the models here as well) as Universal dared without risking a plagiarism suit from George Lucas and 20th Century-Fox.

The new Cylons are skinnier and look more “mechanical,” but they also can shape-shift and assume human form, disguising themselves as people in order to commit espionage and thereby gain a leg up in the renewed hostilities between humans and Cylons that started up again 43 years after an armistice ended the First Cylon War. I was curious about this one for some of the same reasons I’d wanted to watch the recent Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: it was a way to re-enter the fictional universe without having to watch a whole bunch of shows in succession since it was billed as a one-off. It wasn’t, really: for the first third of this film Charles and I both found it awfully confusing since it presupposed quite a lot more familiarity with the Galactica universe than either of us could muster. The central character is Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen), a young woman who previously served on the officer corps of the Battlestar Pegasus but disgraced herself in some way we don’t learn definitively until two-thirds of the way through the film. Ten months earlier the Pegasus, then under the command of Admiral Helena Cain (Michelle Forbes), had encountered a Cylon battle fleet and barely survived the engagement. At one point, in order to replenish her crew, Cain had sent a landing party to a planet colonized by Earthlings in order to capture and forcibly draft people for the crew — an interesting transposition to science-fiction of the practice of “impressment,” by which British naval ships would board American vessels in the early 19th century and kidnap crew members or even passengers and force them to serve on the British ships (which was one of the issues the War of 1812 was about and is also at the heart of Melville’s novel, and Britten’s opera, Billy Budd). Earlier she had launched a direct attack on part of the Cylon fleet, contradicting her previous instruction that since her battle forces were vastly outnumbered by the Cylons, she’d only fight in guerrilla fashion — and when her second-in-command (her “XO,” to use the Galactica argot — it stands for “executive officer”) declined to obey her order, she pulled out an old-school pistol (one of the quirkier parts of the Galactica universe is that though it’s supposed to take place centuries in the future, some of the technology, including portable radios as well as small arms, looks like what we have today) and shot him on the spot.

This time she orders that if anyone on the planet resists impressment into the Pegasus crew, not only they but their entire family is to be killed — and Kendra Shaw carries out the order and kills 10 people before the rest of the people realize that resistance is futile and go along with Cain’s press gang. Word gets around that Shaw committed a war crime, and so 10 months later, with Cain having died in battle to preserve the Pegasus, no one will hire Shaw for an officer position — until the Pegasus’s new commander, the boyishly handsome Lee “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Bamber), who got the job because his dad, Admiral William Adama (Edward James Olmos), is a high official in the fleet, insists on Shaw as his XO. The intrigue involves a Cylon attempt to kidnap people and turn them into human/robot “hybrids” who can be used to take over … well, whatever the Cylons are interested in taking over instead of just destroying, since a passing piece of dialogue hints that the Cylons have already destroyed Earth and all its colonies, so the 60,000 people on board the various Battlestars are the only part of humanity that’s left — and the heroic decision of Kendra Shaw to blow herself up with a nuclear weapon in order to kill the hybrid as well, sort of like Sigourney Weaver at the end of the original Alien. (At least that’s how I read the ending of the original Alien — Weaver’s character killed herself in order to make sure the alien was destroyed before it ever got to Earth — though they put her through increasingly ridiculous revivifications in order to create the sequelae.) I liked Battlestar Galactica: Razor better than I had Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, though both had the same problem — they were ostensibly prequels to the series but they still presupposed a large amount of knowledge of the previous items in the oeuvre and really didn’t work all that well as one-offs. I’ll give Razor credit for several things, including making Helena Cain a Lesbian whose girlfriend turns out to be a Cylon spy and at least attempting to deal with serious issues like father-son rivalry and whether war crimes are ever justified because the enemy is so implacable and so relentlessly evil that any tactics, however inhumane or wrong, are morally acceptable to win.

Battlestar Galactica in both its incarnations is very much a story of its times: the first one came out in 1977 and I’ll never forget that the first five minutes of its premiere were pre-empted by the live coverage of the peace deal then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter brokered between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Then, when the special news flash ended and the series came on, the first dialogue we heard was about the fragility of alliances and how easily treaties were broken — as if the writers of Battlestar Galactica had set out to blunt the good news that Israel and Egypt had signed a peace treaty. Like Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica came out while Carter was still President but anticipated the trends in U.S. political and ideological thinking that would defeat him and elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, including the desire for “toughness” and “strength” both at home and abroad. And the reboot of Galactica came out in the wake of 9/11, when another Republican administration was proposing authoritarian “anti-terror” measures and arguing that they were justified and, indeed, necessary because the enemy we faced was so implacably evil any means to defeat it were morally acceptable. The very strong pro-military, anti-peace sentiment is common to both Galacticas and is as integral a part of this material as it was of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and the film based on it — even though Michael Taylor isn’t as good a writer as Card was and therefore he doesn’t communicate the message quite as powerfully. Indeed, this film piles flashback on top of flashback so relentlessly that at one point I joked, “Casey Robinson lives.” (Casey Robinson was the early-1940’s Warner Bros. writer who was known for piling flashbacks on top of flashbacks; he was also known around the industry for having written the love scenes between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca but declining screen credit because at the time he was taking credit only for films he wrote entirely by himself — which meant he did himself out of an Academy Award.) According to an “Trivia” post, Battlestar Galactica: Razor (the title is a reference to Cain’s advice to Shaw that she turn herself into a “razor,” a merciless, compassion-free instrument of war to ensure humanity’s survival) was originally intended for theatrical release, but eventually was sold as a TV-movie because by a quirk of Universal’s contract with Battlestar Galactica creator Glen A. Larson, Universal owned the TV rights to the property but Larson retained the feature-film rights — and he vetoed the release of this story, which he’d had nothing to do with making despite his “consulting producer” credit, as a theatrical feature.