RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Battlestar Galactica (1978): “The Man With Nine Lives” (Story 11)

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Man, I’ve got to write these things shorter. Granted, the last Galactica ep had a ton of important stuff in it to cover, but still it ran seven pages! I’ve got to find a way to do these things without killing myself or my fingers.

PLAY BY PLAY

It’s either twelve days or twelve months since the previous episode. Thanks to the inconsistent use of Colonial measures of time, it’s hard to say, but I’m leaning towards the “Days” end. The Seraphs and Iblis have not reappeared, and the directions they gave to earth give no sense of distance. They could find earth tomorrow, or years down the road. (Given the whole “Seed and nurture new civilizations” thing, it’s obviously intended to be years). Adama feels the end of the road isn’t far away, and morale in the fleet is at an all-time high. In fact, the warriors are being rotated through much-deserved leave and all of Blue Squadron is off duty for the time being. Starbuck, Apollo, Boomer, Jolly, and Sheba are headed to the Rising Star for a little R&R

Meanwhile, on the civilian shuttle “Canaris,” an old guy named “Chameleon” is chatting up (And being chatted up by) an old lady named “Siress Blassey.” Oddly, Chameleon pronounces his name as “Sha-mee-lee-on,” but since he’s played by Fred Astaire, and I’m trying to save my fingers, we’ll just call him “Fred,” how ‘bout that? No, really, it’s Fred Astaire! This isn’t his final screen appearance, but it’s darn close. They’re watching TV during the flight (the IFB network), which is showing recruitment commercials, and interviewing the “Warrior of the day,” which happens to be showcasing Starbuck. He reveals that he’s an amnesiac who was found as a child wandering the Thorn Forests of Caprica following a cylon raid on the farming town of “Umbra.” There were three thousand or so kids in the same situation as him, most of their families killed in the attack, so he (And most of them) were raised as orphans. This is the second reference we’ve had to Starbuck having an unusually lonely childhood, and a vastly more detailed explanation of it than we’ve had before. It explains nearly everything about him, really.

The ticket collector tries to take Fred’s ticket for the flight, but Fred distracts him with talk of showcasing the poor schmo on IFB, claims to be the news director for the network, and tells the guy to go there after work to be interviewed. The man is so thrilled he forgets to collect the ticket.

On the Rising Star, Fred cons Siress Blassey out of some money and into a date. They head to the disco, because Fred’s a dancer, y’see. Jolly and Boomer are already there, watching an act involving chicks in tight bodysuits and Lucite rods, which sounds kinda’ dirty and exciting, but the truth is much, much more mundane. Jolly seems way too into it, however, so maybe it’s cultural. Starbuck has connived Apollo into backing him in the casino while he tries out his new system. Apollo - who evidently doesn’t gamble - isn’t thrilled since Starbuck has a history of losing him lots of money. Sheba doesn’t come aboard, so maybe she’s just the taxi driver for the time being.

In the disco, some Borellian Nomen walk in, and scare everyone. The youngest of them - Tava - sees Fred and pulls a “Laserbol” - basically laser bolos - which can’t be de-activated once they’re triggered. Everyone freaks out, but Boomer - as always very levelheaded - takes command of the situation and resolves it without anyone getting hurt. He asks the Nomen to give up their weapons, but it’s against their religious code, so they say they’re leaving and head to the departure lounge. Fred heads to the casino, where he gets dealed into a game of Pyramid next to Starbuck. He warns Starbuck that his system is full of holes, and saves him and Apollo a bundle. In gratitude, they buy him a drink and get to talking. He spins a cock-and-bull story of how he’s a genetic tracer, trying to reunite kids in the fleet with their parents, if any. He says he lost his baby son in the Cylon attack on Umbra, basically spinning Starbuck’s own story back to him. Starbuck falls for it hook line and sinker, and they escort him back to the Galactica to run a paternity test, basically. They take him right past the Nomen, who can’t do anything about it.

Preliminary tests show that Fred and Starbuck *are* related within ten generations, but Cassie is quick to point out that the same could be said of at least 100 other guys in the fleet. Boomer and Apollo figured out the whole Borellian Nomen thing on the shuttle flight over, but when they question him about it he manages to quell their fears and make them actually feel guilty about asking with a charmingly effortless mixture of truth and lies. The man’s a pro!

As Fred tries to determine how far to take the con, Starbuck finds out Boomer and Apollo were checking up on Fred and goes stupidly furious, swearing both of them off forever. To Apollo: “My father and I will be in the mess hall if you want to count the silver, otherwise stay away from me!”

The Nomen, meanwhile, enlist in the Colonial Forces, and are shipped to the Galactica as recruits. They sneak away. In the hangar bay after hours, Starbuck tells Fred that if Fred *is* his daddy, he’s going to resign his commission and help Fred with his (nonexistent) job reuniting orphans and parents. The Nomen attack, and actually Fred saves the day in a fairly obvious but still clever scene.

The Nomen are arrested, and Cassie tells Fred that the test is a 100% match: he *IS* unquestionably Starbuck’s daddy. Fred begs her not to the him, since it means he’ll quit the service and throw away everything that means anything to him. She reluctantly agrees.

Fred comes clean about everything: He was conning the Nomen by pretending to be Captain Dmitri of the Agro Ship, and was selling them food and stuff. He discovered they were hoarding stuff, and had gotten their hands on enough parts to build a viper, with nefarious but nebulous intent.

Fred is remanded to the custody of Siress Blassey on the “Senior Ship,” and Starbuck makes it very clear that he likes Fred and intends to keep palling around with him.

The End

OBSERVATIONS

Then-living legend (And now-dead legend) Fred Astaire asked specifically to do a guest shot on Galactica since it was his grandkids’ favorite show at the time, and he liked the idea of staring in something they’d actually want to watch. This episode was specifically written for him, and both the producers and Fred had hoped the character would be a recurring one. Alas, the show was cancelled.

Casting him as Starbuck’s n’ere do’ell dad is actually serendipitous. They both ooze charm, they’re both rather spry, both about the same height, pretty similar builds, there’s even a slight similarity in the artificial hesitance they use when they’re playing a scene that requires them to act like they’re thinking while talking. They look similar enough, and have similar enough temperaments that it’s easy to believe they’re related. It doesn’t hurt that there’s some genuine chemistry there, and in real life I’ve gotten the strong sense that Dirk adored Fred.

This is the first and only episode in the entire run of the series not to have a single scene of a Viper in flight. There’s also no planet-of-the-week and no Cylons. They’re deliberately avoiding their clichés, and God bless ‘em for it. This is also the second episode to make a serious attempt to show what life in the fleet is like.

Another thing: On shows with a major guest star like this, it’s all too easy and all too common to make it entirely about the guest, to the point where the main characters feel like guests in their own show (The Martin Short episode of Arrested Development is a good example) or to feel like their appearance is being wasted. This one strikes a very good balance. I think they put extra effort into it because they knew this was likely the one episode anyone over age fifty would ever see, and they wanted to make a good impression.

We discover that there’s civilian broadcasting between ships, and civilian passenger transit, with the Rising Star functioning as a kind of a hub. All these things were amazing to me as a kid, as I’d never bothered to think about ‘em. We also discover that there’s an Orphan Barge that is evidently pretty crowded, and a “Senior Barge” or old folk’s home in space called “The Crucible.” (The name comes from an outtake), and that there’s more ethnic and social diversity in the fleet than we’d assumed.

It’s become a matter of fanon to say that the Nomen are aliens, the aboriginal inhabitants of Caprica before the Colonials came. This is, of course, crap: they specifically say in one scene that they’re human. Their Neanderthal looks? Well, they make it clear that they’ve been keeping to themselves for a few thousand years, living in a very harsh environment. I think we’re supposed to take that as a racial distinction, and nothing more. The Nomen live on the freighter “Borella.”

The Nomen are clearly supposed to be an analog for Arabs: They live in the desert, they wear robes, their religious code is very severe, they’re terroristy, they use our own freedoms against us, and so on. These things may not be true, but it was (and frequently is) the popular perception. The rise of Islamic Fundamentalism was a problem in the ‘70s.

We get more new sets: the departure lounge on the Rising Star, the interior of the Canaris, the Rising Star casino, and a bar on the Galactica which appears to be built out of elements of other sets, and not a simple redress. These are less garish than the new sets we’ve seen over the last couple weeks, but they’re obviously cheaper than the stuff from the first half of the season. After “War of the Gods” experiments in way too much fill lighting, we’re back to a pleasant gloom on the Galactica now.

While I don’t think it’s played out as strongly as it could be - Dirk’s decision to ditch his old life in favor of Fred seems way too abrupt - I do think this episode tracks very strongly with what we’ve seen of Starbuck before. He’s always been played as a laughing-on-the-outside-crying-on-the-inside type, and he’s even tacitly admitted it from time to time. Finding out he’s an orphan explains a lot of that, and I don’t find it hard to believe that the thought of getting back the normal life he never had might overwhelm him. It tends to drive home how lonely he is on some level. It works, but it’s not written very well on screen.

Regular readers will remember that I’ve spotted an under-the-radar running gag with Starbuck in this series: He’s a hotshot pilot who’s repeatedly shot down; a gambler who never wins a game; and a lothario who never scores. He got shot down by a hooker in the first episode, for gosh sakes! Starbuck fancies himself as something of a con man besides all that, and yet he’s effortlessly conned by Fred, who is just frankly so much better at all this subterfuge and manipulation than Starbuck is.

Starbuck might be growing up besides all that: he makes it clear in this that he feels like his job isn’t really all that crucial, and that he doesn’t feel like he’s making much of a contribution to society. He wants to do something constructive instead of destructive. He also admits that Cassie is the first woman he’s ever been serious about, and he’s thinking about marrying her.

Richard Hatch plays the gambling scenes with a really great air of boredom and grim resignation.

Sheba is…well…Anne Lockhart is really super-pretty, and she can cry on cue, and I adore her mother June, but she’s not really pulling off this character. She’s got the wrong tone, it doesn’t match the characters she’s playing off of, and now that she’s a regular she’s lost all the bravado and sass that made her interesting in “Living Legend.” The chick in this episode didn’t feel like the woman who told Starbuck “Careful, lieutenant, you don’t want me blowing the mission to avoid winning the bet.”

I really like Boomer, and I don’t understand how it is I didn’t notice what a great job Herbert Jefferson, Jr, brought to the part. It could be such a one-note character, but he’s been transformed into the guy who takes charge and restores order. That’s a quality that neither Starbuck nor Apollo have. In fact, aside from Adama, no one on the show has that quality. Fan film makers, there’s your concept: “The Adventures of Commander Boomer.”

As always, gambling remains a bit odd on this show: They’re using cubits - coins - as chips, and when they leave the game, Starbuck hands a stack of ‘em to the dealer and says “Cash me out.” What? You just handed her money! What’s she going to do to cash you out, hand it right back to her? Speaking of money, Blassey mentions “Cubits, Markers, and Orion Checks” are all in common circulation in the fleet. What’s a marker? Like an IOU? Scrip? What?

Continuity problem: In the pilot, we’re told the peace conference takes place ‘at the dawn of the seventh millennium of time.’ The impression I got was that it was an agreed-upon time for the formal end of hostilities, much like how World War I ended at 11:11 PM on November 11th. I’d always assumed it was taking place on New Yahren’s Eve, 6999. In *THIS* episode, we’re told that the attack on Umbra took place in 7322, and this episode takes place 20 years after that, making it 7342.

Another one: Fred says he lost his baby son in the attack on Umbra. That makes Starbuck 21 or 22 now! I get that the actor is playing a character younger than he himself is, but come on! The actor is obviously in his mid 30s! And even if we take all this at face value (See what I did there? Because of the A Team…) 21 or 22 is simply too young for the character to reasonably be.

On the impressive side of continuity, however, our parade of fifth-string characters continues: Bree turns up again, being chatted up by a warrior, and remember the waiter guy from “The Long Patrol?” I called him “The Waitre’d?” He’s back again, in the same role, at the Rising star disco. He doesn’t have any lines, but he’s there. Crazy! I'd love to ask Leann Hunley what that was all about. Athena and Baltar are conspicuously absent. We also get an appearance by “Corporal Lomas.” He’s played by Bruce Wright, whom you’d know if you saw him. He’s really really young here, and has turned up several times in the series, but curiously he’s not playing his normal role here. Normally he plays a security guard, and everyone hates him and he’s sarcastically called “Blackshirt.” This time out, he’s playing “Corporal Lomas,” who’s clearly not the same guy. So that’s odd. Athena and Baltar are conspicuously absent.

Lomas has a laptop! We don’t get a look at the keyboard or the screen, but it’s obvious that he’s poking away at what is intended to be a portable computer. This is decades in advance of the real thing. Speaking of which, they just let Starbuck openly use a calculator while he’s at the table playing cards? In Vegas they’ll break your kneecaps for that!

There’s an offhand reference that implies the Female Pilots from Lost Planet of the Gods are celebrities in the fleet. Certainly, the dude in the hallway seems to dig Bree.

A couple mentions are made of a major casino on Pineus, and an alien three-handed dealer.

COLONIALISMS:

“I feel like an equus’ astram!” = Horses’ Ass.
“Volton” = Volt
“Comtel Ship” = Communications ship
“By the Lillian moons!” = By Jove!
“Wagerer” = Gambler
“Chancery” = Casino
“Scorpius” = Scorpion

DELETED SCENES:

* The casino scene goes on longer
* Boomer exposits to Jolly a bit about “The Deserts of Borella” and the Nomen
* Blassey chats up Fred a bit more aggressively on the shuttle
* A really neat video phone call from the Rising Star to Adama using a public Videophone. I like this one because you can see through the glass at the back of the booth, across the hall, and into the disco.
* The shuttle scene taking Fred to the Galactica has a few extra lines of dialog
* Adama pours Fred a drink and then explains how protective he is of Starbuck, and how upset he’ll be if the boy gets hurt by all this. Fred admits - apparently honestly - that he’ll be upset if that happens, too.
* There’s a long B-roll shot of the entire bar conversation that’s a good deal longer.
* Adama’s log entry at the beginning is longer, and has considerably different wording.

Hey, I brought it in at five pages! That’s not too bad for me…

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