Jean de Segonzac, who directed "Torn," is a television veteran whose name I recognize from his many outings on the various Law & Order series and on Homicide. Those shows, while very different from one another, come from a documentary school of thought concerning cinematography and editing. So it seemed to me that Battlestar Galactica, with its similar documentary sensibilities, would be a natural extension of Segonzac's arena.
Such knowledge could not possibly have prepared me for what "Torn" turns out to be. This is by far BSG's furthest venture to date into the art-film aesthetic, and also by far its furthest venture into hard, cerebral science fiction. There are times when this series only vaguely resembles sci-fi, and "Torn" is definitely not one of those times. After the very grounded-in-straight-drama "Collaborators," "Torn" is an aesthetic shift so jarring that, at first, I found it downright distracting. But the more I watched, the more fascinated I was, and the more I respected the artistic value. "Torn" contains things that this series has never attempted.
It also requires viewers to look at the Cylons as creatures of sci-fi more here than ever before. Often times, the Cylons are depicted simply as an alternate version of human beings, with different philosophies and an anti-human agenda that turned to genocide. But here, the Cylons are seen in the full light of their alien biotechnological makeup. They aren't simply people with an agenda but a whole race of very different, peculiar beings. The way they coexist with their technology is shown here in what can only be called a seismic shift in tone. Here's a storyline where one half exists in the straight military drama setting, and the other half exists in the Star Trek Borg arena, or for that matter, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Many, if not most, BSG viewers will be comfortable with the genre, so it's not a problem. The question is whether BSG pulls off the shifts in tone successfully. The answer is: good enough. The tone changes are jarring, but not a problem.
I didn't mention Baltar's storyline in "Collaborators." He had a subplot there, but I had more pressing matters to discuss and I knew I would have a chance here. Baltar is now aboard a Cylon basestar, and there's a question as to whether the Cylons will even keep him around. In "Collaborators," it was revealed that the deciding vote lay with the Sixes, which is a notable turn of events because the Sixes were presumably in his corner before, but apparently on the fence now. Six felt that she allowed herself to go astray and she might be reasserting her Cylon allegiances now.
In the opening scene of "Torn," D'Anna asks Baltar what he knows regarding the whereabouts of Earth, which the Cylons have decided shall become their new home. Baltar clumsily talks his way into keeping himself alive a little longer, explaining how when he was on New Caprica, he did quite a bit of studying on finding Earth. His research notes are also aboard the Galactica and may help them in their own mission to find Earth. They don't know, however, that Baltar is still alive, nor that the Cylons want to find Earth. I guess we can consider the hunt for Earth the new collision course between humanity and the Cylons.
The scenes on the basestar with Baltar and the Cylons play almost like experimental cinema when you juxtapose them with the typical BSG style. There are a lot of dissolves (even within individual scenes), and Bear McCreary's score (often featuring piano solos) seems like it was inspired by Philip Glass minimalism. There are shots here that have striking artistry. Do such shots fit in the BSG universe? I suppose the bigger question is whether they fit the tone of the individual scenes, and the answer is yes, they do. Baltar's (and thus our) experience aboard the basestar is a strange and educational journey, where we see how Cylons interact with their technology and we learn the aesthetics of their habitat. We also learn about how they "project" within their surroundings rather than imagine them, such that their imaginations become all but real. Baltar hypothesizes (or is it Imaginary Six doing the hypothesizing for him?) that he might himself be a Cylon. How else to explain his canny ability to see the imagined as so real?
These scenes are intriguingly envisioned, and yet I can't shake the feeling no depiction of the Cylon habitat could be satisfactory. Life aboard their ships has been such a mystery, and now that those mysteries are shown to us, they can't help but take the form of familiar (albeit high-minded) science-fiction settings and practical sets. The wizard behind the curtain has, in a way, been revealed.
Still, there are unanswered questions posed here, like the fact that we know seven of the 12 Cylon models but not the other five, which the Cylons here refuse to speak of. They are apparently not part of this Cylon fleet. Is there some sort of ideological divide?
And there is also the new notion of the "Hybrid" — a pseudo-biological Cylon that is also partly mechanical, tied into a vast network of electronics by her spine. She controls the basestar like the hub of a hive mind. She's a melding of all sorts of sci-fi concepts, from the Borg Queen to the precogs in Minority Report to the very notion of being plugged into the system in The Matrix. Is she merely a derivative blending of several familiar sci-fi ideas? Perhaps, but it still makes for a memorably haunting sequence when she jumps the ship. Is she alive? Aware of what she is? Does she suffer? Some Cylon models, like Leoben, thinks she speaks the very word of God.
So, yes, "Torn" is at its core much more sci-fi than BSG has probably ever been. It also has a plot: The clues to Earth take another basestar to a place where it's crippled by a deadly virus that's highly contagious to the Cylons. When the Cylons aren't sure how to investigate without being infected, Baltar volunteers to board the basestar. "A truly selfless act," notes Caprica Six. Like hell. (Only with Baltar can self-preservation be calculated so many moves in advance as to appear noble. Still, I would think Six would know him well enough to see through him, and not be fooled the way she is here.)
Baltar's mission to the crippled basestar reveals that the Cylons were infected by a beacon that they found floating in space along the apparent path to Earth. Was it left there as a roadblock by the 13th tribe? Baltar's encounter with a deathly ill copy of a Six leads to a murder that you probably always knew Baltar had in him, but are still a little startled by because of the desperate near-insanity that lies behind the emotions of the act.
The plot aboard the Galactica is, as expected, more down-to-earth. Lee has lost the weight; in one of the lamer segues of the series, we see him finish a workout and he steps on a scale and the camera reveals him as back to his pre-fat self. (How long after "Collaborators" is this supposed to take place? Certainly not long enough for him to drop that kind of weight.)
More crucially, the story continues Kara's and Tigh's threads to their next logical step. These two characters, damaged on New Caprica, are now acting out their issues in full public view on Galactica. They are happy to play the roles of malcontents, much to the rest of the crew's detriment. They make speeches in the rec room that essentially declare anyone who didn't suffer on New Caprica as untrustworthy. It's clearly unprofessional behavior, not excusable, but also not without its reasons.
The best scene in the episode comes once Adama has lost his patience with the situation. He goes down to the rec room, throws his sidearm on the table, and then asks either one of them to pick it up and shoot him. In his quiet but very stern and authoritative fashion, Adama gives them a lecture that is blistering, honest, and true. When he knocked Kara out of her chair, I sat up and took notice. Likewise when Tigh told Adama that the man he used to know no longer exists. Despite all the sci-fi efforts of "Torn," these are the scenes that I live for on this show.
Perhaps what I don't live for, though, are bizarre anticlimax endings that seem truncated instead of finished. You almost get a sense that the ending of "Torn" wouldn't even make sense if they hadn't tacked on the "to be continued" sign. "To be continued" is generally an audience-insulting cliche that isn't necessary because the executive producer credit already tells us that. The ending of "Torn" is so sudden that you almost have to have "to be continued" as a point of confirmation.