[Warning: Spoilers! This is my attempt to sum up, review, and quantify BSG in layman’s terms]
Flesh and Bone“Each of us plays a role; each time a different role. Maybe the last time I was the interrogator and you were the prisoner. The players change, the story remains the same. And this time – this time – your role is to deliver my soul unto God. Do it for me. It’s your destiny… And mine… ” -Leobon Conoy aka NUMBER 2
When the Abu Ghraib scandal and Guantanomo Bay were plastered all over the news, and America was in over its head in two wars, network television was mostly steering extremely wide around reflecting anything negative in their programming… well… except for 24, and that’s not til next “files.” The Bush years were the years of the news stations, everyone was watching horrible news all day, and didn’t want to see it in their escapist fiction during primetime. Instead America was hooked on shows like Lost, The Office, and Project Runway…
Other than the exploits of Jack Bauer and the gang at CTU, there was only one other show on television that was brave enough to show main characters water-boarding, torturing (not that the two are mutually exclusive), and executing prisoners of war… and I think you know which one I’m talking about. Onboard the Battlestar Galactica, Starbuck is given the loathsome duty of interrogating a cylon sleeper agent. At a time when America was so scared their neighbors were going to gas them they put duct tape on their windows, BSG was giving us a glaring mirror to look into. Starbuck, aka Kara Thrace, finds herself face-to-face with the extremist, genocidal enemy she’d feared now for months on end, Leoben Conoy… aka, number 2.
Leobon is one of the first cylons we meet on the show, and he is a slippery, silver-tongued devil of an infiltrator. During the mini-series, when Galactica jumps to the Ragnar Anchorage to refuel and rearm- Adama gets stuck deep within the bowels of the station with the man he doesn’t know is a cylon… in fact, no one even knows that cylons are able to take human form at that point in time. The number 2 is a pseudo-philosopher who challenges Adama’s beliefs during their time on the Ragnar station, and ultimately is called out as a “toaster” when he becomes extremely sick due to the radiation of the nebula around them (which only affects synthetic organisms, not humans).
When episode 8 of season 1 begins, President Laura Roslin is in the grips of an intense chamalla-induced dream (the mysterious medication given to her for her “terminal” cancer). She is walking through a misty forest at night, bathed in the white light of her sleeping gown, and she is unafraid. The bushes begin to move in the darkness, and figures start to dart between the trees. Laura doesn’t see the shadowy people running through the forest after her, instead she sees a cylon… Leobon Conoy, the number 2 that Commander Adama had spent a significant amount of time with in the first episode. He is shouting at her to turn around, there is danger, and she turns to see black-clad Colonial Marines running toward her. Laura begins to run, and Leobon catches her, quieting her as the marines run by… then he is sucked backward through the forest and disappears. When the President wakes up, she is told that there has been a cylon prisoner found, and it is Leobon… she immediately calls for his interrogation.
Starbuck arrives at the holding cell to see the prisoner, who is sweating heavily in the heat of the ship. Her and the watch commander notice that “it is sweating,” and muse on the implications of it. “Gods they go through a lot of trouble to imitate people… Why do you think they do that?” (Oh, that watch commander had no idea...) She enters the cell to find the machine with its head on the table, and asks it if it was sleeping… He sits back in the chair and says, “Praying…”
The humans of BSG are followers of a polytheistic religion, believing in “The Gods,” such as Zeus, Athena, and Apollo (not just great call signs for Viper pilots, if you delve deep enough- quick enough, you realize that the ancient Gods were just older-school Viper pilots who the humans deified during the last time this happened… WOAH). So when Starbuck tells Leobon, “I don’t thing the Gods answers the prayers of Toasters,” he responds with the first true identification of the monotheistic beliefs of the cylons- “God answers everyone’s prayers.”
As their interrogation continues, Leobon tells her that somewhere in the fleet there is a nuclear bomb ticking down, and it will explode in 9 hours. The true brilliance of Battlestar Galactica comes out seeping out of the screen at this point. Most of this is due to absolutely solid performances by Katee Sackhoff and Callum Keith Rennie, but the writing in this episode is just as good. The plot device of the nuke and the countdown really take second stage to the implications of the dialogue between Starbuck and Leobon… because by now we’re chomping at the bit to find out more about this “Earth” place… and that’s not reallt what this episode is about anyway.
Starbuck believes with every fiber of her being, that this machine before her, is just that… a robot created and programmed to do the things it is doing, like sweat, bleed, act like it is feeling pain, and finally… to drown. Water-boarding was the buzz-word du jour for many of the mid-2000 years, and this “reporter” remembers many other “reporters” undergoing the “simulated-drowning.” Well it’s not simulated anything, it’s postponed drowning… it’s slow drowning… there’s nothing simulated about it- it just doesn’t kill you right away. It’s wet, it’s bloody, and it’s disgustingly cruel, and yet with the threat of a timer-detonated nuclear weapon somewhere in the fleet (or so Leobon claims), Starbuck needs answers… all she’s getting from her prisoner is gibberish about fate and “seeing the universe for what it is, a river of time.”
It’s not until she begins to see this machine gasp and spit and struggle for life-saving air that cracks start to emerge in the black-and-white world of human-cylon relations… just as at the same time in America cracks where appearing in the black-and-white reality of our wars and the threat of terrorism… It’s not until we too see the pain and the fear in the eyes of the beings we believe wholeheartedly to be pure and unadulterated evil, that we begin to see ourselves in their own shoes. Starbuck looms over the cylon as it spits and coughs, her stern fists clenched by her own sides, her blonde hair hanging in her face, “You’re sick. You’re not a person, you’re a machine that’s enjoying its own pain.” She growls at it, believing that this thing that has destroyed her civilization, killed 50 billion people, and mercilessly hunted humanity across the stars, is messing with her.
It’s then that Leobon, through labored breathing, spouts the immortal words that spin the arcing mythology of BSG out across four more seasons: “All of this has happened before… and all of it will happen again…” Professing it is Starbuck’s destiny to deliver him to God, and also adds:
“…And I told you I had a surprise for you. Are you ready? You are going to find Kobol, birthplace of us all. Kobol will lead you to Earth. This is my gift to you, Kara…”
Suddenly President Roslin bursts in and puts an end to the torture, hauling Leobon out of the cell and drying him off (escorted by black-clad Colonial Marines). She pleads with him to disclose the whereabouts of the nuclear bomb, and he confesses to having made it up to buy time. He, in turn, asks Laura to go easy on Starbuck for torturing him, “The military, they teach you to dehumanize people…” he says, even though he is a cylon (brilliant stuff here)… However Roslin has had enough of his lies and his “insidious ideas,” and orders him flushed out the airlock. In a flash of cylon speed he grabs Laura and hugs her, thanking her… and whispering to her that Adama is a cylon.
In a very poignant scene, Leobon is in the airlock standing behind a sheet of glass while Starbuck and the President discuss the merits of keeping broken machines around that “threaten your people.” He walks up and places his hand upon the glass, to which Starbuck capitulates, stating, “He’s not afraid to die, he’s just afraid his soul won’t reach God…” and places her hand on the glass. A single tear traces down the side of her cheek as the President signals to the watch commander, and he opens the airlock. Leobon, as in Laura’s dream from the beginning, looks up at her as the air is sucked from the room. He keeps the stare as he is sucked backward out the airlock and spins off into the frozen abyss of space. It isn’t until that moment that Laura realizes what is going on, that she had dreamt this, and she thinks maybe she missed something. Later she is talking with the Commander and it is obvious that the number 2 has planted a seed of doubt in her mind about Adama.
Starbuck later is seen praying to two small idols for the safe journey of her prisoner’s soul… her own preconceptions about the “toasters” shattered… and little does she know that now the number 2 is infatuated with her, and will chase her across the heavens for his own reasons.
SO: WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
This is really the point in time where the writers knew where they wanted to go with the show, and fought to get it done. Both plot-wise and social-commentary-wise, BSG begins to head toward a destination at this point in the show. While Adama has told the people he will get them safely to Earth, and the prophecies from the old world tell of a dying leader that will lead mankind to the promise land, it isn’t until the cylon number 2 tells Kara Thrace that she will find Kobol (the original home of humanity), and in turn, find Earth… that anyone actually (including the audience and the writers) believes it could actually happen... And it isn’t until this point that the “difference” between cylon and human begins to get murky.
Coming Up on the BSG Files:
Kobol and the Arrow of Apollo (aka This Has All Happened Before…)