In brief: A well-paced and well-executed combat episode that features some interesting crew tension and interaction.
If for no other reason, "D Minus Zero" is a triumph because it moves effortlessly forward thanks to its underlying simplicity. After last week's extremely disappointing "To Loose the Fateful Lightning," which tried to build a complex moral play out of messy, implausible parts that didn't hold any water, "D Minus Zero" plays like an opposite — the narrative is clean, confident, and exciting in a way that doesn't try so hard to be "cerebral." There's plenty going on under the surface, but what's proven here, I think, is that what goes on at the surface is every bit as important for making a good hour of television.
About underlying simplicity: We've got Our Heroes, and we've got the Bad Guys. The bad guys come out and open fire within the show's first three minutes. Who are the bad guys? It's to the story's credit that we don't find out (and I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of them). They're a faceless enemy shrouded in mystery. The point here is that they're aggressive and not at all willing to communicate. In the High Guard, this day would've been known as "D Minus Zero" — the first day of hostilities. And as Dylan points out, the top priority on D Minus Zero is to learn as much as you can about your enemy. The problem in this case: How do you learn about an enemy when the (silent) horse's mouth is your only source of information?
"D Minus Zero" uses this basic premise as the backdrop to establish some of the series' ground rules for space combat and, most importantly, further flesh out attitudes held by the characters. There's tension and personality here, which grows organically out of the characters as we've seen so far.
The tone is set in the first act, when the shooting starts and Beka attempts to overrule Dylan's decision to return fire rather than retreating. He's not happy about being countermanded in the middle of battle where timing is everything. She doesn't like that he's tempting fate while putting her crew at risk. Both have a point. Dylan's case is supported by the fact that, well, it's his ship and command can't work if his authority is undermined — and he's been through real battles before. Beka's case is a good one too: Most of the crew are her own people — her friends — and she feels a great deal of responsibility for them and intends to look out for their safety.
Still, for this arrangement to function, Beka's going to have to put some faith in Dylan's abilities as a commander. (Beka: "I'm not big on trust." Dylan: "Then it's time to learn.")
What's also good is that Dylan realizes he's part of the problem. Being 300 years out of your element can't be easy, and there's a discussion here where he confides in Andromeda about the possibility he is the weak link in this uneasy new group. Andromeda, nicknamed here "Rommie" (which for simplicity's sake I will use henceforth to refer to the ship's personality), provides him with moral support. I like their rapport, and there's a poignant little moment where a miniature Rommie hologram reaches up toward a photograph of Dylan as if to stroke it affectionately. The idea of a sexual tension between Dylan and Rommie was established in the closing moments of "Lightning," and this seems to continue that sense in an appealing, unobtrusive way. We realize that if it weren't for Rommie, Dylan would truly have been alone in this time frame.
In addition to the core aspect of the Dylan/Beka conflict, there's also a strong Dylan/Tyr aspect to the episode. Keith Hamilton Cobb gets a chance to carry some important character scenes, which he does with a laconic riff that's perhaps familiar (Trek's Worf was equally laconic, albeit with a different style and less sarcasm), but which suits the character quite well. He has a ruthlessly funny line after the ship takes heavy damage: "Blind and crippled. If Andromeda were my child, I'd drown it." (Although it remains to be seen, perhaps with some luck I'll get my weekly dose of laconic, cynical one-liners from Cobb now that Steven Hill is no longer on Law & Order.)
Tyr has an impetuous battle ethic and opinions he's not afraid to voice. When Harper can't adequately pilot a remote fighter to fend off an assault, Tyr takes his own fighter out of position to compensate for Harper's "incompetence" — a strategically unwise move that leaves Tyr's own zones vulnerable. When Dylan confronts Tyr for his tactical disobedience, Tyr points out one of Dylan's own problems, which is pretty well stated: "You haven't the first idea how unforgiving this universe has become, and I will not allow you to forget at my expense." It's good that Dylan realizes he's dated, but it's also good that the other characters call him on it.
Whereas this is mostly a Dylan/Beka/Tyr episode, in supporting character mode are Harper and Rev. Harper has a laid-back theory on fate and death ("The universe hates you; deal with it") that is akin to a bug hitting a windshield. He's pragmatic, and wants to do his part to help Dylan even if Dylan is crazy for taking on a mission of such ambition.
Rev shows up as the voice of keen observation: After a rough battle where the ship takes a pummeling, he approaches Dylan to convey the concern of generally overwhelming circumstances. The way he conveys this concern is what's interesting: no explicit suggestions, no griping or complaints, but simply a quick rundown of his observations.
I'm glad I can discuss "D Minus Zero" in terms of characterization even though the story's real action revolves around a series of space combat sequences and tactical maneuvers. Particularly noteworthy is that the weapons in this universe all seem to be missiles or other projectile-based explosives rather than phaser-like energy beams. At one point Andromeda runs as a slew of missiles chases the ship through space. And the idea of remote fighters controlled from the Andromeda command deck is plausible.
There's a familiar sequence where the Andromeda hides out in the corona of a star to evade the enemy, who lurk in high orbit waiting for the inevitable moment when the Andromeda must flee the heat. Most of this is pretty well executed, and there's the sense that the enemy is a formidable foe. At one point Dylan asks out loud, "Who are these guys?" (Were Miller & Stentz thinking of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Because I was.) The pacing and effects are right on target.
The primary tactical revelation comes when Dylan has Harper build a device that can be installed on the Eureka Maru that will make it look like the Andromeda. The plan is that the Maru will be flown out as bait, at which point the Andromeda will swing around and blow away the bad guys. This weaves reasonably into the story of the tension on board the Andromeda, right up to a turning point where Beka and Tyr announce that they plan to take their chances rather than wait for Dylan to act. The hurt on Beka's face when Trance and Rev say they will not be bailing on Dylan with her is a good moment sold by Lisa Ryder.
"D Minus Zero" is not perfect. There's an underlying contrivance in that I didn't understand the need for Dylan to keep his brilliant plan (using the Maru as a decoy) unannounced to most of his crew until some of them have grown so impatient as to nearly walk out on him. This is hardly a time to be testing the limits of your crew's patience — when they're looking for a sign of your competence. It's more of a writer's conceit to permit us the dramatic twist where Dylan reveals he intends to "light up the Maru like a Christmas tree" (which, by the way, is a neat moment, even if manufactured by the plot).
I'll also have to admit I was somewhat annoyed by the bombardment of Beka's quips toward the end ("See ya, wouldn't want to be ya," etc.). I don't have a problem with non-serious anachronistic dialog, but I'd prefer a bit less of it considering here it seems to exist for the sake of itself.
Last, I must repeat that I don't yet understand Trance's purpose on this series. While "D Minus Zero" gave good moments to all the other characters, Trance fell by the wayside again. Yes, she's young, she's mysterious, she's apparently being routed into the series' medic role, but she's still not striking me as remotely interesting or necessary. (In "An Affirming Flame" Trance took Dylan's side as she does here, but there was more conviction in that case, whereas here it's more arbitrary.)
Overall, the episode works simultaneously as a combat episode and a show that highlights emerging dynamics between members of the crew. Perhaps some of the key strengths of "D Minus Zero" can be summarized in terms of the moment when the bad guys explode. Interestingly, they blow up by their own hand — an apparent self-destruct after having been outwitted and forced into a position of surrender. Tyr was just about to swing around with a remote fighter and blow them out of the stars anyway — against Dylan's orders — but he never got the chance. Tyr notes how Andromeda has been cheated out of victory. Dylan notes how the aggressors destroying themselves prevents him from obtaining the type of knowledge he'd hoped to gain on D Minus Zero.
Both are interesting points from very different philosophies, with some conflict running through it all. It reveals how this universe — nothing like the Commonwealth of 300 years ago — stands in a mysterious, ominous chaos. It's especially mysterious, I think, to Dylan.
Next week: Tyr's treachery. ("I did it all for the nookie, the nookie...")
Clever critic's temptation of the week: Any negative reviews of "D Minus Zero" might require great efforts of self-control to avoid drawing obvious pun-like connections between the title and the grade.