After a stellar launch of this series, "Bastille Day" is the reality check proving Battlestar Galactica's fallibility — or at least its capability of producing exceptionally average television. There are good moments and dialog in "Bastille Day," to be sure, but on the whole the episode is way too familiar, and inconclusive in some key ways that short-change the audience.
Following up the events of "Water," it turns out that harvesting that water is not going to be easy. It's more like an icy mining operation, and is going to require hard labor in a dangerous environment. Ideally, this would require a work force of 1,000 people. It so happens that included in the fleet is a prison transport vessel, the Astral Queen, which was transporting inmates for parole hearings when the Cylons attacked. Roslin is quick to point out that these prisoners are not slaves, so Lee recommends pitching to them the idea of an optional work detail that would give them points toward earning their freedom.
The prisoners are not what you would call receptive to this idea. On behalf of the entire population, a prisoner named Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch, who played Apollo in the 1978 Battlestar Galactica) declines the offer. All the prisoners chant "Zarek, Zarek" when he does this. He is highly respected among his fellow inmates.
Who is Tom Zarek? He's from Sagittaron, the apparently second-class colony that was long exploited by the other 11 colonies. Zarek is a terrorist according to some, a freedom fighter according to others. He's serving a sentence for the bombing of a government building. He's a famous and controversial figure even among the regular characters. For example, the president's aide, Billy Keikeya (Paul Campbell), has some sympathy for Zarek's plight. But Petty Officer Dualla (Kandyse McClure), who is actually from Sagittaron, labels Zarek a maniac and says he does not speak for the Sagittaron people at all.
One of the problems with "Bastille Day" is that Zarek is a somewhat sketchy character. There's a difference between complex and muddled, and Zarek it the latter, not the former. His backstory is left vague and open-ended, making it very hard for us to determine what he's really about. Okay, so he bombed a government building. Whose building was it? How many were killed, and who were they? The reference of a bombed government building makes us instinctively think Timothy McVeigh, but Zarek's clearly intended by the writers as more of a political prisoner. But he's not a "political prisoner," because what he did was clearly criminal.
And, for that matter, what about Sagittaron? The notion of it being the one colony exploited by the other 11 strikes me as something worth exploring. Was there warfare? Threats of secession from the colonial structure? What was the political climate of Sagittaron, and indeed all the colonies, when Zarek's bombing happened? The episode offers precious little in terms of how the politics work and how the colonies were allied or in conflict. Consequently, it's hard for us to get a feel for whether Zarek's extreme act was even vaguely justifiable under the political circumstances, or simply a violent crime.
The bigger problem is that the plot at hand is too routine. With several military personnel aboard the Astral Queen, there's a prisoner uprising and Zarek takes hostages and starts making demands — turning the episode into a crisis/standoff between the prisoners and the Galactica. It's almost as if the writers said, "Okay, we have this prison ship we talked about in the pilot, so time to do the prison riot episode!"
The hostage standoff has predictable results: demands, attempted negotiations, rejections, and setting up for the sniper to take the subject out. The sniper is Starbuck. One of the hostages is Lee. Lee has a running dialog with Zarek, much of which centers on his arguments for freedom, the demand that Roslin resign, and that the people get a fair election. Under the circumstances, given that most of society has been destroyed and Roslin has been sworn in under the law, I don't see what possible good could come of elections right now, which would more likely be anarchy. Of course, it probably doesn't help that Zarek continuously uses the word "freedom" as a Grand Idea with little Actual Content supporting it. (The utility of that word has been whittled away thanks to its ridiculous overuse by the Bush administration, but never mind.)
The show's best scenes happen in the periphery. For example, there's Tigh's ever-so-slight loopiness in an early scene after he's had his morning drink. This subtly revisits his alcoholism in a way that seems plausible, since anything more overt would have us questioning why he wasn't cashiered from the service years ago. Tigh has some other good scenes as the hard-assed XO, including another run-in with Starbuck; he objects to how she makes light of her pilots' mistakes. A few scenes later he has a brisk little speech when he orders Sharon to stop her affair with Tyrol: "Back when the ship was being decommissioned we let you two get away with it. Hell we let everyone get away with murder, but that was then and this is now. We're at war, this is a combat unit, and you're his superior officer. Put it a stop to it."
Meanwhile, Adama finally calls Baltar on his BS over the Cylon detector. Baltar responds with more clever BS, saying he needs the plutonium from a nuclear warhead in order to make the detection process work (the Galactica has only five warheads). I'm not sure where this is going, but Adama seems to go along with this fairly easily considering the magnitude of the request and the overall oddness that is Gaius Baltar.
On Caprica, Helo and Boomer have reached a city and go walking through empty streets. The city is completely deserted — "like a movie," Helo says. Yeah, a contrived movie. Where are all the people and/or bodies? Okay, rats are eating a corpse, but there's only ONE corpse. And all the buildings in the city are standing and unscathed. Why wasn't the city destroyed when the Cylons attacked? And since the city wasn't destroyed ... where are all the people? This subplot is going to get tedious if it's week after week of Sharon and Helo walking around "Cylon-occupied Caprica." On the plus side, we do finally see some Cylons watching over these two, hinting that Helo's presence is part of their "plan."
There's some decent material in the episode's endgame. While I found the notion of "Zarek is doing all of this for headlines and publicity" to be lame and obvious, Lee gets some good speeches about democracy and elections and ensures that Zarek doesn't become a martyr. He has a clever solution and makes a deal with Zarek that Adama and Roslin both argue wasn't his to make. The genius of his deal, however, is that it's true to the law. And if we're throwing out the law, Lee says, "I'm not a captain, you're not a commander, and you're not the president."
So would the prisoners then be so willing to follow Zarek's lead and carry out the water operation? I'm really not so sure. I have my doubts that a ship full of prisoners would be so unified as to follow one man, however popular, about anything. Just as the people on board the Galactica don't agree on Zarek, I doubt that the inmates would either.
The bottom line is that Zarek is a puzzle, and "Bastille Day" is at times less than convincing, even when it isn't employing hostage and prison cliches.