Jammer's Review

Battlestar Galactica

"Litmus"

***

Air date: 2/11/2005
Written by Jeff Vlaming
Directed by Rod Hardy

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

Perhaps the lesson to be learned in "Litmus" is that now is an especially bad time to be breaking military protocol. Sort of like saying "it's tha bomb" audibly at an airport. What might seem innocuous can get you into big trouble. I speak from experience: One time, I got caught making out at Schindler's List.

Sharon and Tyrol are still sleeping together. She's his superior officer, and that's against protocol. Tigh ordered her to stop in "Bastille Day," but they haven't, and now it's going to bite them — and more than just them — in the ass.

A Cylon agent — a copy of Doral (Matthew Bennett, himself a copy of Kevin Spacey, but I jest), who was put off the ship in the miniseries — blows himself up in a suicide bombing that kills three people and does some damage to the Galactica but was intended to do a whole lot more. An independent investigation (i.e., tribunal) into how Doral breached security is immediately opened, and Adama, Tigh, and Roslin reluctantly decide that now is the time to make known to the fleet that Cylons look like humans (thus uncorking the paranoia bottle).

Roslin makes this announcement from Colonial One in a room full of reporters, who are abuzz over this new revelation. Once again I found myself amused at the fact that roughly 1/1,000 of all civilization is made up of news reporters. Outside of military personnel and pilots, they might be the luckiest profession to have survived the fall of civilization.

Roslin's announcement brings us to the other lesson for the characters to learn in this episode: that of the dangers of the witch hunt — a more obvious and frequently dramatized cautionary tale to be found in TV and film stories. "Litmus" employs this tale reasonably well, in what is an appropriate storyline for this series' subject matter, but does not represent thrilling originality.

Adama appoints Sgt. Hadrian (Jill Teed) to head up the tribunal. Meanwhile, Roslin warns Adama that tribunals have a weird way of running off the rails of what they were originally intended for and searching not simply for true accountability, but for scapegoats. Her prediction is nothing short of prophetic.

Hadrian's investigation centers on someone's failure to close a crucial security hatch just before the bombing occurred (the bomber slipped through the opened hatch to gain access he should not have had). Hadrian quickly zeroes in on Chief Tyrol, simply because (1) he lies and (2) his lie is not ironclad enough to bear real scrutiny. Her follow-up interviews with Tyrol's staff reveals a number of young crewmen loyal to their chief, but who have conflicting stories that make Hadrian's job of uncovering lies that much easier. These scenes employ a quick-moving Law & Order style of progress that makes the show an efficiently entertaining story about fact finding.

Before long Hadrian detects the scent of Tyrol's counter-protocol affair with Lt. Valerii, and has hauled them before the tribunal board for trial-like questioning (providing the scenes for the indispensable "courtroom episode"), where neither one is willing to admit to the affair. It's at this point we begin wondering what this tribunal is really about — finding the security leak or embarrassing the military for other indiscretions. (Sort of reminds me of the Kenneth Starr investigation.) The painfully wry irony of this situation is that Sharon is a Cylon (which even she, of course, does not know) and that in her process of a sexual rendezvous with Tyrol, might have gone through the very hatch in question and left it open deliberately but — again ironically — unaware that what she did was a deliberate act. Ultimately, one of Tyrol's young deck crewmen takes the fall to protect the chief out of an arguably misguided sense of loyalty.

For Tyrol, this mess again raises an interesting question of responsibility. What is his responsibility in carrying on this affair? Certainly he's not responsible for the security breach, since that would require him to suspect any and all of his fellow shipmates, not to mention his lover, of being possible Cylon agents. But he is responsible for the lie that ultimately leads his crewman to fall on his own sword, and I liked the scene where Adama tells Tyrol that. Edward James Olmos is masterful at conveying quiet yet forceful sternness.

What the episode perhaps fails to consider is that Sharon, as a commissioned officer, might be the one who should be asking these questions. It might have made for a more interesting dynamic had the Cylon — who already has the unknown internal conflict — had to face a known conflict in making the tough decision. As it plays out, Tyrol breaks off the relationship — explaining that its cost is too great and compromises too many people — which leads to an icy scene that makes one wonder if it could push Sharon's subconscious further into the clutches of her Cylon self.

Meanwhile, with Hadrian asking questions that do no good but to embarrass the military, Adama must shut down the very tribunal he gave power to. The concept of the witch hunt is always worth a look (I was reminded of TNG's "The Drumhead"), but given the state of society and the fleet, Hadrian's attempts to forge ahead seem somewhat petty and ill-motivated, and her attempt to arrest Adama when he shuts down the tribunal strikes me as unlikely. Fortunately, she's taken none too seriously by anyone else in the room. But one has to wonder what Hadrian honestly hoped to accomplish, other than holding onto the power she had been granted.

Caprica update: Boomer talks with her fellow Cylons about the plan involving Helo as a guinea pig. After vanishing at the end of last week's episode, the Cylons want to see if Helo will move on without her or go back to find her. When he elects to go back to find her, the Cylons beat Boomer up to enhance the illusion of her "capture." Boomer then allows herself to be "rescued" by Helo. It's at this point I begin to see the Caprica arc as a lot of effort for some very slow progress.

And, once again, I ask: Where are all the people? Like Helo, somewhere on a Cylon chessboard, I suppose.

Previous episode: You Can't Go Home Again
Next episode: Six Degrees of Separation

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13 comments on this review

Jason - Sat, Apr 5, 2008 - 10:55am (USA Central)
OMG. The look Adama gives Tyrol when he tells him "he can't".....

If he gave me that look, I'd probably crap my pants. Edward James Olmos is such a gifted actor.
Brad - Wed, Apr 16, 2008 - 12:34am (USA Central)
I've only recently started watching the show, so (as of this very moment) I'm only current to 'Litmus'.

This seems the weakest episode. It was sloppy. The characters did not act with the intelligence I've come to expect. If someone had asked a simple, hypothetical question, "How many human-Cylon agents are hidden in the fleet?", the entire thing would have fallen apart, precisely because there can be no answer (and surely Gaius isn't the only one capable of imagining 'sleeper agents'). That an investigation would find someone guilty based on the fact that he admitted to leaving a door open strains all credibility. Further, I am astounded that Adama could shut down the tribunal, call it a witchhunt (accurately), and then STILL leave his man to hang. I think it would have been more daring to conclude with the President announcing that, even though there are Cylon agents, there is no way to determine their number or identify human from Cylon. It was the case before the invasion, even though humans didn't know, and it is still the case after the tribunal.

All that said, I do realize one thing: I like that the person selected to do the job turned out to be terrible at it. It is a nice cry from the Star Trek officer mold where anyone can do or be anything.
Sci-fan - Wed, Jun 3, 2009 - 7:13pm (USA Central)
This episode was VERY weak. The behaviour of the characters simply wasn't believable and it was just a sloppy version of TNG's excellent "The Drumhead".
ZZ in WY - Mon, Aug 31, 2009 - 4:33pm (USA Central)
I have to admit I really like this episode. I understand the points brought up by Jammer and Brad, but Aaron Douglas and EJO really brought their caracters to life, and the score was fantastic. And I agree w/ Jason, in that scene where Tyrol confronts Adama, and the look Adama gives him... Its a classic.

Cheers
breadbohn - Fri, Nov 6, 2009 - 10:28am (USA Central)
Agreed, the scene between Adama and Tyrol was a powerful one. Another thing I really liked about it was the model ship Adama was working on. Can you imagine the stress this guy is under? Good thing he has some way to unwind, if only temporarily.
mp - Wed, Jan 6, 2010 - 7:55pm (USA Central)
The Reporter Issue:

I've always assumed there were so many reporters because on the day of the attack, Galactica was being decommissioned. Remember the grandiose ceremony and fly-by? All that stuff?

Seems like there's be plenty of reporters, probably from different news networks, all there to see such a momentous event.
bigpale - Sat, Jan 22, 2011 - 11:51pm (USA Central)
It seems to me the motivation for the Master of Arms is to cover her butt. Tyrol pointed this out in his time at the Tribunal: The jurisdiction of the weapons locker falls to the MOA.

I just watched this episode for the first time in a year, and when I first saw it I struggled to understand her motivation. Now it seems like petty scapegoating. Once I figured that out, I enjoyed the episode more.
Michael - Fri, Nov 11, 2011 - 3:56pm (USA Central)
Mmmmm, a delicious episode.

@Sci-fan:
"The behaviour of the characters simply wasn't believable[.]"
I don't know about that. I didn't think anyone acted in an inapposite or unpredictable way.

It was a political, intricate and dramatic show. Adama is an awesome actor.
chris - Thu, Oct 11, 2012 - 4:24pm (USA Central)
The "50 reporters" thing is just lame. Of course they were onboard when the Cylons attack and thus saved, but how many newspapers and tv network are still broadcasting in order all these reporters to be still needed?

And the tribunal scene was a mediocre "Drumhead" ripoff.
Rosario - Tue, Nov 13, 2012 - 7:59pm (USA Central)
Good episode but I have a hard time believing one could keep up the lie when being questioned about that. When someone thinks you're a cyborg spy you fess up to mere nookie!
Peremensoe - Thu, May 30, 2013 - 9:41am (USA Central)
We should consider that, at this point, there isn't much for most of the civilians (who are not actually crew of their respective ships) to DO. Maybe the fleet/society has more reporters now than it strictly needs, but there's no particular reason for them to stop being reporters.
Sarah M - Thu, Jun 13, 2013 - 10:23am (USA Central)
Yeah, it echoes "The Drumhead" too much without being as good. Part of what made "The Drumhead" work was that the Admiral spear-heading the witch-hunt was in a higher position of power than Picard, so she was always a credible threat. Adama is a proponent of creating the tribunal, and even when Hadrian has theoretical power and over-reaches, he's still Commander Adama and is able to shut the whole thing down.

The Caprica stuff is much improved on rewatch, because I know where it's going and I'm invested in Helo and Sharon as characters this time around. I watched these episodes on Sci-Fi when they first aired, and I remember being confused and annoyed by Helo's Post-Apocalyptic Road Trip.

That scene with the toaster is one of my favorites.
zzybaloobah - Thu, Nov 13, 2014 - 11:14pm (USA Central)
RE: Adama and Tyrol: Adama is awesome. He speaks softly and doesn't even need a big stick.
The witchhunt is a little silly, but the Adama/Tyrol scene makes up for everything.

And it's also amusing to see Starbuck suggest to Baltar that maybe he was the target of the bombing.....

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