If you wanted your Battlestar Galactica fix — and there's little doubt that the fans, myself included, did — "Razor" will do the trick. Coming nearly eight months after the third-season finale aired — and somewhere between three and four more months before the fourth season will finally premiere — this two-hour BSG movie fills the lengthy gap by providing, if nothing else, something to tide us over until March. In doing so, it plunges us into the dark and ugly world of Admiral Cain's Pegasus, not seen since the second season.
To that end, "Razor" is typical, solid BSG: dark, compelling, and uncompromising in its vision of its amoral main characters. If there's a problem with "Razor," it's that large chunks of it are both dramatically and thematically redundant. It's well made, solidly performed, deftly structured, and, at times, powerfully intense. But the bottom line is that there isn't much here we learn about the Pegasus or her crew that we didn't already know after "Pegasus" and "Resurrection Ship."
Still, there's an appeal to the idea that "Razor" allows, via flashback, for an actual dramatization of Cain's brutal command, which we had previously only heard about (when Fisk revealed them to Tigh in memorably ominous dialog scenes in the aforementioned episodes). Also, the saying goes that the truth lies in the details, and there are some interesting details here that we were not previously privy to.
Structurally, the writers find a way to do this in a way that connects past and present both logically and emotionally — via the character of Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen), who begins the story as a green recruit and finds herself drawn into Cain's inner circle after the chaos of the Cylon attack on the colonies.
It proves to be deft handling of a structure that had the potential to be confusing — because "Razor" does not simply contain flashbacks, but flashbacks within a flashback. (The whole story takes place in various stages of the past.) Its frame of "present" reference is actually right after second season's "The Captain's Hand" as Lee takes command of the Pegasus. He recruits Shaw to be his XO in an effort to address the ship's wounded pride (four commanding officers in a matter of weeks) and lend himself some credibility in the eyes of those who believed in Cain and now see Lee as a Galactica outsider. But Shaw comes with attitude and baggage. What "Razor" is ultimately about is the mentor/protege relationship between Cain and Shaw, the role Shaw played in Cain's brutal reign, and how that now informs the present.
In that present, a Raptor research team has gone missing, and Adama assigns Lee and the Pegasus to search for it — warning that excessive risk is not one of the parameters of the mission. "Meanwhile" (if that term means anything), in the past we see the moments on board Pegasus leading up to the Cylon attack, and then the harsh days in the aftermath as Cain and her crew realize the extent of the damage and decide what to do next.
Structurally, "Razor" is about as solidly built as it possibly can be. But it still suffers somewhat from its narrative momentum shifts. Every time the story switches back and forth between the past and the present, we are pulled out of the moment at hand and into the parallel story. It's fortunate that both threads of the story are interesting, but the flashback structure has its inherent drawbacks.
Most of the flashbacks dramatize things we already knew — granted potently. We see the attack while Pegasus was still docked. The shipyards burning. The desperate blind jump out of the battle to Anywhere But Here. Later, Cain makes a speech to her crew that is as reminiscent of the speech in the miniseries that Adama made to his crew as it is a stark, contrasting reminder that the Pegasus took a different tack: Rather than running to try to preserve humanity, under Cain they took it to the enemy in a guerrilla style quest for revenge.
And then there's the order Cain gives to send in a wing of fighters that is virtually suicide — an order the XO (Steve Bacic, of Andromeda fame) refuses, resulting in Cain shooting him in the head in full view of everyone in CIC. We'd heard about this via Fisk's monologue in "Pegasus," and it's equally effective on-screen as it was off, possibly because of the mounting suspense in knowing it's coming.
Still, on a series that has always benefited from the fact that we never know exactly what lies around the next corner, all of this feels slightly redundant. Or perhaps it's an exercise in Dramatic Irony. We know, for example, that Gina Inviere (a key point in the "Pegasus"/"Resurrection Ship" storyline) is a Cylon spy who ultimately will kill Cain (not to mention blow up the Cloud Nine), and that makes her presence as a Pegasus crew member — right down to joining the "So say we all" rallying cry — all the more distasteful.
Perhaps the most interesting new nugget of information is the fact that Cain and Gina were lovers. The fact of this relationship more fully informs the severe bitterness Cain held for Gina in "Pegasus," because it shows that Gina's betrayal was a personal one of the most intimate and humiliating kind.
Now for a digression that I just can't help myself on. Following the Cain/Gina revelation, in the bumper after the act-out during the TV broadcast, we get: "It's been revealed! Helena Cain and Gina Inviere are lovers! Brought to you by Quizno's!" This is one of the most absurd — and in retrospect, hilarious — things I've ever seen. The intended context of this message was apparently in connection with a poll question on SciFi.com, but for any viewer who didn't know that at the time (including me), it was positively weird randomness bordering on the sensationally ridiculous. (It almost seemed to say: "Look! Lesbians! Wow! Quizno's!" Beyond goofy.)
And we're back. In other ways, however, the Cain/Gina relationship feels like a missed opportunity. While the very knowledge of it informs our understanding of Cain's bitterness, that's really all it does. In every other way, it's meaningless. It changes nothing about Cain's character and adds no new depth or insights (or even clever plot points of Gina betraying Cain). The thread is so subtly established that it barely seems real. One can hardly picture that these two actually had a relationship, because one can hardly picture that Cain, always so serious and duty-minded, has the capacity for a relationship at all. Really, as a character Cain is barely social and basically asexual. So I don't quite even buy that these two were involved.
But there's one particularly interesting storytelling choice to arise from this. When we get to the second Really Dark Tale (also previously established in Fisk's Tales of Darkness) — namely, the massacre on the Scylla and the plundering of the civilian fleet for parts — there's the icy moment when Cain orders the shooting of resisting civilians while staring directly at a battered and raped Gina in a holding cell. It's as if she gets her resolve to take this unspeakable action by looking into the eyes of an enemy who was once a friend and letting the rest of her humanity go because she's already come this far. In that moment, she sees everyone as a potential threat to her authority.
Does "Razor" more fully "humanize" Helena Cain? I suppose that depends on your definition of human. Yes, she's human in that she is deeply flawed and at least has feelings and realizes that her humanity is being stripped away. But her ability to make such amoral choices is chilling. She feels she has no choice, but does that justify her position? Cain has a telling speech to Shaw, which ends, "This war is forcing us all to become razors, because if we don't, we don't survive, and then we don't have the luxury of becoming simply human again." An argument like that plays like the opposite of Adama's question in the miniseries where he asked if humanity was worth saving.
It's to the writers' credit that they are brave enough to simply observe rather than judge Cain. Still, I found myself not just questioning Cain's morality, but also her sensibility and pragmatism. How, and why, do you continue to wage a war that's over and where the only possible outcome is defeat? When she orders her XO to send in the reserve fighters in what's tantamount to a suicide mission merely to make a point, and then shoots him in the head when he refuses, what does she really end up proving? That sending in that attack leads to a devastating loss (more than 800 soldiers; a third of the crew) that leaves the ship reeling.
And if you're going to plunder a civilian fleet for parts and personnel following such a devastating loss, and leave the rest of them stranded and defenseless, just what is your military protecting, exactly? Nothing, except its own stubborn will. Based on pure results, Cain is a leader who seems determined to win the battle at the cost of the war. The writers may be unwilling to judge her, but I'm not. She's a dangerous cancer.
Michelle Forbes makes this character utterly believable, even if I find Cain's philosophy no easier to comprehend than ever. If you are looking for insights into Cain, there are few new ones to find here. We see more, and we understand the Pegasus' hardships, but I still don't see how Pegasus had it much harder than Galactica. Maybe it's all about balance, and how Cain didn't have any. Adama at least had Roslin to stand up and challenge him. Cain was the proverbial emperor with no clothes.
Our witness to all this is Shaw, and she bridges the past and the present. She's a drug addict who's as screwed up as anybody but wears the Cain protege label like a badge of honor. "I wouldn't be alive if not for the decisions she made," she says at one point. Maybe not, but hundreds of others might not be dead, either. Watching Shaw's hero worship is revealing and scary. You see how a mentality of tyranny begins to make sense under the circumstances, and how some become enamored with it. Cain is not without her appeal and worthiness of respect, until you stop and think about what it has cost. If you think back to "Resurrection Ship," you see that history was actually repeating itself, because in that episode Cain was (successfully) bringing Kara into the very same mentoring program.
There's a lot more to "Razor." In the present plot, the missing Raptor crew has been captured by an old Cylon sect dating back to the first war (called the "Guardians," who protect the first Cylon Hybrid). There are even flashbacks to 41 years ago during the first war, where we see a young William Adama (Nico Cortez, who has the Olmos faces down to a T) having witnessed the scene where the original Hybrid was built via nasty bio-experiments. These scenes feed into the series' mythology. I also enjoyed the idea of using the original-series ships and Centurions to depict the outdated Cylon Guardians. The Centurions get a few lines, and the writers even work in "By your command." Nice touch.
The rescue attempt aboard the Cylon base features the other staples of BSG war footage: much machinegun fire while soldiers hold down X position. The mission's goal is to rescue the survivors and then nuke the installation. This action is routine as these things go: competent but not exactly pulse-pounding or suspenseful. When the remote on the nuke is damaged, Someone Must Stay Behind, although I wasn't exactly clear on why Lee would've ordered Kara to do it. If Shaw led the mission, wouldn't it be her duty to stay behind? If that's not how it works, then why not the most expendable (that no-name chick)? But then I don't know much of anything about military protocol. I guess as drama it just plays better to make it Kara.
Shaw won't have it, and pulls a gun on Kara so Shaw can stay behind. She'd rather die for the mission than keep living with her past choices, one of which — in a surprising reveal — was that she was the one who fired the first shot on the Scylla. (The way the flashback is staged, it's almost as if her thinking was that someone had to invoke the tragically inevitable, so why not me?) Before blowing up the joint, Shaw has a conversation with the omniscient Cylon Hybrid, which makes for "Razor's" most intriguing and haunting scene. The Hybrid is spooky in his utter calm, his seeming desire to impart wisdom, his ability to tell you your past and predict your future, and his offer to forgive your sins. Call him God; he doesn't have a problem with it. And his message for Shaw, which she is not able to communicate to anyone, is that Kara Thrace is "a harbinger of death" that will "lead humanity to its end."
It provides a clever way to reveal something that ostensibly took place during season two and yet will cast its shadow onto season four. Kara's return in "Crossroads, Part 2" is turned on its ear from a prophecy of hope to a prophecy of doom. If we can believe the Hybrid's doublespeak, anyway.
But I've gone on for far too long. "Razor" is a compelling if not groundbreaking BSG outing that offers up an experience that is, really, more introspective than visceral. The visceral impact is blunted somewhat by its inevitability. But what it does, it does well. The horror of "Razor," above all else, is in the way its characters are fully aware of their descent into an amoral abyss — and yet are still willing to go there, knowing that they are sacrificing their humanity in the process.
Extended DVD edition notes:
- A superfluous exposition scene of Shaw on Caprica has been restored.
- The Adama flashbacks have been extended, including a notable FX action sequence that was previously in the SciFi.com "minisodes" but not the TV version.
- There are flashbacks to Cain's past during the first Cylon war, where she had to make a tough choice to leave her sister behind, who was apparently kidnapped by the Cylons (X-Files style).
- Baltar actually gets a scene. He was cut from the TV version.
- There's more blood when Cain shoots her XO and during young Adama's visions of Hybrid bio-experiments.
- Kara and Shaw have a scene before the rescue mission that gives their relationship a little bit more depth.
- That priceless, 100-percent-Starbuck smile that Kara has as she walks away after catching Shaw about to shoot up has inexplicably been removed from the extended version; it's in the TV version. Now there's instead a weird edit.
- There are a lot more cryptic lines from the Hybrid during the scene on the Cylon base. Probably pages of them.
- Acts-in/out have been seamlessly removed.
- Movie-style end credit sequence features Bear McCreary's score.
- And, finally, from a BSG DVD release we get a passable menu design rather than something that looks like it was created half-assed on the fly in Photoshop (see season 1 and 2 DVD menus).