Jammer's Review

Battlestar Galactica

"33"

****

Air date: 1/14/2005
Written by Ronald D. Moore
Directed by Michael Rymer

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"33" is a relentless hour of riveting television empathy, where by the end you will know what it feels like to be threatened with a Cylon attack every 33 minutes for five straight days, having had little or no sleep.

You will also come to know, without any doubt, the gravity of the situation, in which humanity is down to its last gasp, on the run, with the looming possibility that the entire survival of the race depends on the fleet's successful execution of the next FTL (faster than light) jump cycle in 33 minutes.

On Colonial One, President Roslin has a white board with the "head count" written in dry-erase marker, which stands at just below 50,000. She makes revisions throughout the episode — mostly downward — to reflect the new survivor count as the latest casualty reports come in.

Yes, "33" is most definitely grim and heavy, exhausting and unremitting — and quite powerful. If you're not interested in going to a fairly dark place, this will not likely be your cup of tea. Here's a story that believes with utter conviction what it's conveying. It feels like it is actually happening — rare, for an hour of television. Filmed nearly a year later, the story takes place almost immediately after the events of the miniseries/pilot. As a follow-up to the events of that story, in which the 12 colonies were attacked and the handful of survivors were forced to flee, it grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. It's the necessary miniseries epilogue that shows what is at stake.

The teaser sequence is a tour de force of execution — a masterpiece of tone wonderfully directed by Michael Rymer, who also superbly directed the pilot. It balances action/suspense, functional dialog, strong images, and intriguing levels of wakefulness. The Galactica crew has gone 130 straight hours without sleep, and it shows. The Viper pilots, on patrol for Cylon Raiders, struggle to keep their eyes open. Baltar sits in a passenger seat on Colonial One, drifting between half-asleep and half-awake. Analog clocks tick toward the deadline of 33 minutes: tick, tick, tick. The sound echoes through Baltar's dreamscape. Sometimes he's awake in the midst of that dream, talking to Number Six as if she were sitting next to him. Sometimes he's in fantasy mode, back at his house on Caprica. Dreaming, awake — is there even a difference for him? "There are limits to the human body, the human mind," he says. One could say he's already passed his, talking out loud to an imaginary woman.

A Cylon base star appears. It's a frightening sight, with a foreboding shape, like some sort of sea predator. The fleet jumps away, safe for another 33 minutes. The clock is restarted: tick, tick, tick. Between jump cycles, the crew has 33 minutes to make preparations for the next jump — and to think about whether the Cylons will find them again.

In the pilots' ready room, strategic plans are discussed for the next jump — but hell, Apollo says, you don't need to hear these plans again, because you've already been through this 237 straight times. As the pilots exit the room, they affectionately touch a photo on the wall. It has a soldier in the foreground, his back to the camera, and destruction in front of him. The exact context of the photo is never explained, for which I'm glad, because it doesn't need to be. We understand the emotions completely. These people are still grieving for the fallen colonies of Kobol. It's a poignant moment, and exposition could probably only have lessened its impact.

Even more poignant is a scene in the corridors: hundreds, maybe thousands, of makeshift memorials. It reminded me of 9/11, when people posted photos of their missing loved ones along the streets in New York, hoping they would come home.

This episode is somber but not sentimental, serious but not funereal. It has a plot, and it has moments of real suspense. But it does not cheat its premise, and it does not let anyone off the hook.

In the Viper hangar, Kara blows up at Lee because he doesn't reprimand her for insubordination ("We're not friends; you're the CAG"). She starts to laugh and cry simultaneously, which can't be a good sign of mental health. Usually when that happens, you're probably under more stress than you know what to do with.

The plot is simply: How do we escape the Cylons, who are somehow tracking us to our new position with each jump? But the plot is also about a man named Dr. Amarak, a passenger on the luxury liner Olympic Carrier, who knows Baltar from the Colonial Ministry of Defense, and tells President Roslin that he has an urgent message about a "traitor in our midst." Just hearing the name Amarak throws Baltar into a state of internal panic: Did Amarak find out that I gave Six access to the defense mainframe? Baltar, ever the self-preservationist, instantly begins thinking of ways to get out of this jam.

A minor mix-up in CIC causes the Olympic Carrier to be left behind when the fleet makes the jump. Dualla (Kandyse McClure) can't account for it, and it may have been her mistake. Under the circumstances, where pilots are popping stimulants like candy and most people are walking zombies, the error seems understandable. But, on the other hand, there were 1,345 people aboard the Olympic Carrier, now presumably dead or captured by the Cylons. Colonel Tigh has a brief speech about the need for performance under these pressures, but I like even better the understated simplicity of Adama's speech: "We make mistakes, people die. There aren't many of us left." No wasted words or raised voice, because the facts of that statement carry all the weight, and additional emphasis is unnecessary.

The plot thickens: After 33 minutes, there is no Cylon assault. Adama suspects that perhaps the Cylons were tracking the Olympic Carrier — or perhaps a Cylon agent on board the Olympic was giving away their position. A while later, the Olympic reappears, which proves to be a test of Adama's theory on the Cylons' all-too-adept pursuit skills. Did the Cylons let them escape deliberately? What other explanation can there be?

Baltar's stake in this is amusingly self-serving. When the Olympic vanishes, Six calls it a miracle that God has granted him. When the Olympic resurfaces, Six tells him that it's God's punishment for his lack of faith. Baltar, a staunch atheist, begins rethinking that stance. The religious debate between Baltar and Six (or perhaps we should say the imagined debate inside Baltar's head) is interesting, but what's even more interesting is how Baltar ultimately decides to find religion for purely self-serving reasons. He repents his sins in the hope that the Olympic Carrier will be destroyed such that he can be saved.

The fate of the Olympic, by the way, makes for a riveting sequence of its own. With the suspicion that the ship has been compromised, and the realization that the Cylons are again just minutes from another assault, and the detection of nuclear weapons on board the Olympic, the Galactica attempts to stop the Olympic from approaching the fleet. The Olympic runs the blockade and doesn't acknowledge orders to stop, leading to an unthinkable decision on which Adama and Roslin both concur and Apollo must carry out: Destroy the Olympic Carrier.

Visually, this plays out with a compelling you-are-there believability, as the camera peers into the windows of the ship (seeing no people, Apollo and Starbuck speculate the ship is empty) and then shows final shots from Apollo's point of view before he pulls the trigger and destroys the ship. I really hate to bring up 9/11 again, but on that day there was talk that shooting down commercial airliners might've been necessary if they'd been known to have been hijacked, and this scene plays out how we imagine such a scenario might've felt for a military pilot.

The subplot of "33" takes place on Cylon-occupied Caprica, where Helo is on the run from the Cylons, after having volunteered to be left behind several days earlier when Sharon returned to Galactica with their Raptor. This left me wondering how he survived, and what happened to all the other civilian survivors who were present at that scene. I guess I'll save those questions for another day, since that's what "33" does. A copy of Sharon shows up and rescues Helo, claiming that she returned to Caprica for him. The opening prelude to Battlestar Galactica says the Cylons "have a plan," and it would seem Helo is a part of this plan.

The episode ends on a necessary note of hope (a baby is born, leading the "head count" to increase by one), signaling that perhaps after this grueling test of survival, a corner has been turned and things will get better. "33" is excellent television drama. If the series can stay this good, it will be TV viewing time well spent.

Irrelevant footnote: The way Edward James Olmos says "previously on Battlestar Galactica" at the beginning kicks ass. He should say it every week.

Previous episode: The Miniseries
Next episode: Water

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13 comments on this review

Jhoh - Sat, Dec 8, 2007 - 4:43am (USA Central)
I started watching BSG because of this review. Also because a friend told me that it was good, and after reading this it sounded good.
Derek - Sat, Apr 12, 2008 - 8:21pm (USA Central)
Just wanted to mention that I agree with your assessment of EJO's "Previously on Battlestar Galactica" delivery. No one else can compare.
Alexey Bogatiryov - Mon, Mar 2, 2009 - 12:38am (USA Central)
It was this episode that convinced me that BSG was something special. I started watching BSG towards the end of the second season based on Jammer's recommendation, but going back and watching the first season was a marvel. I am glad that BSG is around, at least for a few more weeks, to give sci-fi junkies like me something to look forward in between living our pointless, boring, and debt-burdened lives.

Thanks Jammer for introducing me to BSG! This episode was my favorite until Crossraods! Never got tired of the dark tone that it established.
Keiren - Thu, Jun 21, 2012 - 8:05am (USA Central)
i found the Olympic Carrier sequence cliche...seen it before, military types dont wanna fire on civillians, they have to blah, blah blah! see it in every military program :O
Justin - Sun, Jun 24, 2012 - 1:30pm (USA Central)
Having just seen "33" for the first time and not yet having read this review I'd like to go down on record as saying that this is one of the most emotionally powerful hours of television I've ever seen. The ending literally had me in tears and I don't cry easily. As it happens I am also quite sleep deprived right now, but...onto the next episode....
Justin - Sun, Jun 24, 2012 - 1:34pm (USA Central)
I'd also like to add my observation that the exposition in this series is, so far, almost completely dramatic. That is a very hard thing to do in sci-fi...
NCC-1701-Z - Sun, Aug 19, 2012 - 2:06pm (USA Central)
Just started watching this series. Oh. My. God.

Where to begin? Well, from the standpoint of a fan of Star Trek TOS and the original BSG, it's a complete change of pace and tone. Gone are the relative optimism, sense of adventure, and camp that made up those two series (esp. old BSG), and in its place is harsh, dark unforgiving realism. Let's face it - newBSG basically gutted 95% of what made oldBSG oldBSG and completely reshaped it in trying to make it more contemporary. That's all right with me; if the series can deliver this sort of dark, unforgiving human drama with this top-notch quality, I'm in.

I watched the old BSG pilot, "Saga of a Star World" just before putting on "33", and, well, there is just no way to compare them. "Saga" was pretty good overall (3 stars in my book) but its tone was all over the map and it sacrificed believability for standard cliches (for instance, would the colonials really go down to the surface of a planet to party after THEIR ENTIRE CIVILIZATION IS DESTROYED and THE CYLONS ARE CHASING AFTER THEM?! Also, Boxey and Muffit are annoying beyond belief. That's one thing I'm glad RDM threw out).

Anyway, "33". Well, every one of the actors, down to the last extra, put in their all. It shows, because it *feels* real, and they all look like they're genuinely tired, and not faking it. Have to single out EJO, Michael Hogan, whoever played Dualla, James Callis, and Mary McDonnell for praise; their performances were just brilliant. Honorable mentions go to Aaron Douglas, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, and whoever played Cally. Especially during the final scene. The CGI work was excellent too.

Of course, it's no use having quality actors and visuals if the writing sucks. And I'm glad to say that the writing doesn't suck. The plot is boiled down to the bare essentials, and that only makes it more powerful. All the little moments, such as the guy at the desk managing photos for the memorial wall and the memorial wall itself, only added to the power. Even though, in hindsight, destroying the Olympic carrier was a standard military show cliche, it was so well executed that it felt fresh. I was riveted to the screen and saying "They wouldn't dare!" during that part. That was an extremely potent moment. Very remniscent of 9/11 when Bush ordered military pilots to shoot down any hijacked commercial aircraft. Thankfully, no one ever had to do that, but this ep makes you think of how those pilots must have felt to receive that order, and what everyone involved would have felt if they had had to execute that order. Scary thought.

And I like the way the dialogue is spoken in a way that it feels real, rather than being plumped up into an artificial moment of realization as 9 out of 10 movies would do. Take the Adama quote "We make mistakes, people die. There aren't many of us left." Most movies would probably have tried to plump it up into something dramatic (indeed, oldBSG did this a lot in "Saga" and it got worn out after a while). This series, however, assumes viewer intelligence and lets it lie there to speak for itself, instead of flagging it with dramatic pauses or music or something like that. I like it.

If there are any weak points, it's that the Baltar/Six scenes tend to break up the flow, but they do fit in fairly nicely into the story so I don't think this does any major damage to the episode.

It's still a bit jarring to me. This show feels more like human drama alone, and not really sci-fi. The only thing sci-fi about it, really, is the setting in which it takes place. However, if the show can continue delivering at this rate, I'm all in. I'm ready to try something new.

4 stars, easy. (Perhaps 10 out of 4?)
Rosario - Sat, Nov 10, 2012 - 8:58pm (USA Central)
Good episode, can't say much more than what's been said already on the Pro side of things. The scenes with Six though... always in the middle of something compelling I'm suddenly ripped away to this chick saying, "Do you believe in God?" Seems almost every 10 minutes this happens. It doesn't add much to the story and even takes away from the tension of a scene or the pace it's trying to maintain. By the time the hallucination is over the original enthusiasm has been defused. The story can do entirely well on its own without this weasel and his mental issues. Conversely, the president and her aide acknowledging his instability was quite funny. Also the girl that looks like Dolf Lundgren was much more tolerable in this episode, although, I did want Apollo to slap her and drag her off.

Cut out all of the Gauis' hallucinations and this would be 4-star for me. As is, it's 3 stars. Too much tension breaking.
Sintek - Wed, May 22, 2013 - 9:39am (USA Central)
being a fan of Mass Effect's brand of military sci fi I tried to give the show another chance, but it's so far up its own ass I was unable to penetrate the pretension.
Sarah M - Mon, Jun 10, 2013 - 10:43am (USA Central)
I'm rewatching the series now, and I figured I'd revisit these reviews while revisiting BSG. Just got through "33" last night.

I love how the show just drops you in the middle of the action - in a grim place at that - after the somewhat hopeful note the mini-series closed on. Love the worn-down, exhausted look of everyone in the cast. It really is an episode almost entirely about atmosphere. It puts you in this place, with these people, while they're pushed and pulled. And the 'win' is surviving long enough to get to do it another day, with a little more sleep, and a +1 on the whiteboard.

BSG sets the tone right up front. If you aren't on board for a ride like this, I'm not sure you'll ever embrace the series. If you are, it grabs you for the duration. It did for me, at least.

4 stars is about right.
Latex Zebra - Wed, Jun 26, 2013 - 3:15am (USA Central)
Very brutal episode. The acting is very good as they really convey that utter despondency that comes with forcing yourself awake.

I thought the line that 'Sharon was a Cylon' because she never looked tired was a really clever touch.

4/4 easily.
SlackerInc - Sun, Feb 23, 2014 - 3:17am (USA Central)
Such a great episode. This series would have really gone down as one of the greatest works of television ever had it ended right after "Resurrection Ship Part 2". (You could add in the Razor movie, and if you could get Apollo's courtroom speech in there somehow that would be nice too.)

I am now rewatching with my kids, and we did the miniseries a couple months back, took a break, and just tonight watched this ep. My plan with them is to halt right where I mentioned above, after RSP2. I will tell them they can go on further on their own if they want to, but I wouldn't recommend it as they'll only end up being disappointed. And that is what I recommend to anyone reading this who is watching the series for the first time.

Can't say you haven't been warned!
Yanks - Thu, Jul 24, 2014 - 9:18am (USA Central)
I remember when I first saw this episode.

Wow! Riviting, suspenseful, pounding steady pace, just draining television.

After all this episode brings in the suspense/empathy department, what really caps it off is when the baby is born and our President adds a number to the tally. (snif)

Just a tremendous hour of television. Hard to match. (in any series)

4 stars EASY.

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