There's something about the documentary-within-the-narrative structure of a show like "Final Cut" that is somehow both gimmicky and self-defeating. Putting cameras in front of the cameras adds an extra layer of artifice to something that is already artificial (although ostensibly real). Watching the episode through an extra level of video cameras is innately distracting. Plus, "Final Cut" has a twist ending that is unnecessary and frustrating.
Despite its flaws, "Final Cut" nearly transcends its structure. It has admirable qualities, like its focus on supporting characters and its obvious allegorical intentions. The premise brings a TV news reporter (if they call it TV) named D'Anna Biers (Lucy Lawless) to the Galactica, where Adama grants her unlimited access to do a story on the ship and crew. He does this because the distrusted military needs a PR outlet to put a human face on those who protect the fleet, particularly in the aftermath of the "Gideon massacre," where four people were shot and killed when Tigh sent marines to retrieve supplies from the civilian ship Gideon (see "Resistance"). Biers says that what she reports will not be a propaganda piece. Adama is fine with that, but he warns her: "If you start shooting anything that compromises the safety of this ship, it'll be cut."
This is an allegory for the role of the press in our current times, with our embedded wartime journalists, PR damage control teams, and endless political spin. By nature, I suspect, many people will automatically side with Adama and against Biers, for the simple fact that we are in sympathy with Adama while reporters like Biers are perceived as an annoying, interfering, hostile presence. There may be some truth to that characterization, but the press serves a legitimate purpose in real life because it ensures that someone will be held accountable for their actions (or inaction).
Coming less than two weeks after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, "Final Cut" has a certain magnified timeliness. On Sept. 2, President Bush famously (and idiotically) said, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," to FEMA Director Michael Brown, in the midst of a desperate situation in New Orleans where thousands of people were still stranded without food or water. A day earlier, on Sept. 1, Brown had gone on Nightline and actually admitted that he didn't know until that day that there were thousands stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center, something that had been reported on TV. It could be argued that FEMA was not doing a heck of a job. Brown resigned on Monday, in large part because the media — right or wrong — tore him to pieces and dug into his qualifications, until ultimately he became the sacrificial lamb. Politically, someone had to pay. (No, he wasn't fired, but he might as well have been.)
Now, I'll be the first to say that we should work the problem now and play politics later. But there was a certain arrogance in Bush commending Brown on a response effort that was barely under way and obviously inadequate. And the reason the slow response was obvious was because day after day we saw these images on TV being reported by journalists on the scene. There was a wide disparity between the initial attempted spin (or ignorance) and the facts on the ground.
Anyway, that's what I'm sure D'Anna Biers thinks she's about — someone to dig beyond the sound bites and show what's actually happening. As such, she has one particularly good exchange when Adama confiscates a tape-of-happenstance showing a pregnant Cylon named Sharon in sickbay whom the civilian fleet doesn't know is in custody. He asks her if the repercussions of reporting the facts matter to her less than the fact that she can report it. Her response will be familiar in our post-war-on-terror, partisan world: "I'm sick to death of people like you questioning my patriotism. We all want this fleet to survive." It's a good point.
The question is, does D'Anna Biers serve the same purpose in the post-Colonial downfall as the press in current-day America? I'm not so sure. With only 47,853 survivors, and most of them having no chance to survive without the Galactica, mistakes along the lines of a slow hurricane response aren't likely to upend anybody or anything. Colonel Tigh is not going to be replaced a la Michael Brown of FEMA for making a bad call or looking bad in the press. Simply put, there's no one to replace Tigh unless it were to become absolutely necessary — and by absolutely necessary, I mean gross incompetence or death.
Apart from comparisons to current headlines, I'd better cover the plot. There isn't much plot, really, as this episode is pitched as a "day in the life" episode. Fine and good; less plot often means more character, and in the case of this episode, we get some nice moments that get into the heads of minor supporting characters, like Kat and Racetrack, and more prominent supporting characters like Dualla and Gaeta. We also learn all of their names, first and last. Kat in particular gets her own little storyline, documenting her gradual decline of mental health as she takes drugs to stay awake on duty. Her confession at the end about being ashamed is a poignant moment. The interview footage of these characters works well.
What works less well is all the on-scene switching back and forth between the episode's cameras and the pixilated, scan-lined video cameras within the story. It gets distracting and somehow has a way of betraying performances as performances rather than reality of the moment.
If there's a "plot" here, it's about Tigh's death threats resulting from the Gideon tragedy, although how this plays out is just a little too banal. Lt. Palladino (Jeremy Guilbaut), who led the Gideon mission, turns out to be the culprit, although I have my doubts that if he's seeking "justice" that he'd first go to the trouble of making poetic threats on mirrors. I also doubt he would potentially put other people's lives in jeopardy by sabotaging a ship he knows Tigh will be aboard.
Strangely, the interviews with the main characters are less insightful than the supporting characters. While Lee has a good speech about how his officers deserve respect, Kara has an overly cliched Starbuck Scene where she's attacking a punching bag and remarking on how a good flight candidate is "one crazy enough to follow me into combat." Yawn. Then there's Baltar, whose antics here seem like needless filler. He's desperate to be interviewed, egomaniac that he is, and yet has the gall to force Biers to schedule an appointment so he can clear his already-empty calendar. What a toolbox. I suppose this is consistent with his character, but it's not the least bit interesting. And Six seems especially superfluous here; I'm eagerly awaiting the return of ponytailed Six.
One thing that seems like a missed opportunity is that there's no interview footage addressing the fractured and subsequently repaired relationship between Adama and Roslin. The episode doesn't go there. Maybe it doesn't need to, but it might've been an intriguing choice.
Lucy Lawless proves to be a good choice for Biers; personable but with an edge, with the capacity of being self-serving but not necessarily doing so. Not to mention tall and formidable. She's fair, but doesn't shy away from tough questions. Watch her interview with Tigh, where the first thing she does is pour them both drinks. There's also a subtle moment that demonstrates the relationship between the reporter and camera operator; Biers asks her cameraman to get a close-up of some mundane piece of equipment; he says, "Yeah, sure," then rolls his eyes and doesn't bother. He, like her, spends a lot of time in the editing room.
The story they end up with is not a propaganda piece, but certainly sees the military favorably overall. One wonders if the real-world press would come away with that story or if they would come away with a story about a Cylon prisoner being hidden from the public. I guess it comes down to your level of cynicism and how bad things in the world really are. Our present press would probably report on the Cylon, but then we haven't been virtually wiped out by them, either.
I didn't care for the ending, in which we see the Cylons watching the news story on Caprica. It wasn't that part that bothered me; indeed, there are some relevant story points, where the Cylons are delighted to see that in the cut footage Sharon is still alive and carrying the hybrid child, and the implications that "the baby must be protected at all costs." No, what I really could've done without was the needless "shocker" that Biers is actually a Cylon who helped get this footage to the Cylons. It muddies the whole meaning of the story.
Before the twist, the story is about how a reporter holds back major information on a story because she believes it's in the better interests of society to do so. But by making Biers a Cylon, that entire point is thrown out the window, because now it's about her Sinister Cylon Agenda. Or maybe here's the point: that no real reporter would actually hold back on that story, and her being a Cylon is the justification for it. I don't know. What I do know is that it feels like a needless cheat that turns the character into a device.
All that said, "Final Cut" is consistently watchable and sometimes compelling. But it's not on the level of what we've had so far this season.