Battlestar Galactica

"Flight of the Phoenix"

2.5 stars

Air date: 9/16/2005
Written by Bradley Thompson & David Weddle
Directed by Michael Nankin

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"Flight of the Phoenix" is a decent episode that could've been better. There are good moments here that are heartfelt and nicely performed, but they don't quite pay off and the episode never really comes together into something truly cohesive. It instead becomes a victim of its own split personality. This is by no means a weak episode, and I liked it more than "Final Cut," but I'm scoring it a near-miss.

I think the main hang-up is that the jeopardy plot and the human story don't seem like they're a compatible fit. They tend to get in each other's way and might've been better suited alongside different subplots, or perhaps on their own. The stories feel crammed to the very last second into a limited amount of screen time that does not seem adequate to hold all the intended beats and nuance. Here's an episode that needs to breathe but is so pressed for time that it cannot.

In plot A we have a Cylon computer virus that is running rampant on the Galactica, and in plot B we have Chief Tyrol undertaking the construction of a new stealth fighter from scratch, which is his way of giving himself and the crew something to focus on besides the unremitting doom and gloom. Plot A is technical, plot B is emotional, both have their good qualities, neither has very much to do with the other, and neither quite pays off to full effect.

We do have a number of good character-oriented scenes, including the early bits where Helo gets the cold shoulder at the card game from the other pilots. It's a case of guilt by association: He shared a bed with a Cylon, so he has therefore been compromised. Racetrack in particular shows a major attitude. Starbuck stands up for Helo, because she went through a lot with him, but for those who weren't there, Helo is about one step up from being a Cylon collaborator. What's lacking in these scornful pilots is a sense of empathy. I suppose empathy is hard to muster when a lousy card game is the high point of your day.

On the flight deck, Helo and Tyrol get into a heated brawl over Sharon, which continues to be an intriguing love triangle of the most uniquely screwed-up kind. What's interesting to note here is that these two share an understanding that Sharon is not simply a Cylon traitor, but also an individual who was (and still is) important to them. Cally gets out of the brig, and we can see that the once-close friendship between her and Tyrol has been left in ruin by her actions.

Morale on the ship is low. Gaeta shouts at Tigh in full view of the CIC. Racetrack, for the second episode in a row, comments about not being particularly worried about dying. Roslin visits the doctor, only to get bad news: She has mere weeks to live, a month at best. There's a scene later where she returns the book she borrowed from Adama all the way back in "Water" (Adama gave it to her as a gift at the time, saying, "Never lend books") and you can't help but think that she's putting things in order in anticipation of her own death. It raises the interesting question of what exactly is going to happen to Roslin. Are the writers going to find a way to save her, or are they truly going to carry through on this apparent death sentence? I await a brave and sincere answer.

When the Cylon computer virus strikes, we learn that it has been lying in hiding since it got into the networked system in "Scattered." It has since been learning and adapting to the computer systems such that it can take control and turn the Galactica's systems against the crew, but I question the strategy effectiveness of such a brilliant virus to first announce its intentions by dropping hints such as knocking Dualla out of her chair with a Star Trek-style exploding console, or shutting off the oxygen in the firing range.

The scene in the firing range, by the way, doesn't work. It starts with an apt moment where Lee is blasting the hell out of a target with Sharon's face on it, but then it turns into ho-hum jeopardy with Kara laughing deliriously because of oxygen deprivation, Lee collapsing to the floor, and then the two of them rolling around on the ground trying to shoot holes in the door to escape. There's little suspense to a scene like this (gee, y'think they'll survive?), and I was not able to suspend my disbelief enough to see this as anything but actors doing their best to convey a strange (goofy?) situation.

The computer virus strikes me as a little too much like a Trek sci-fi tech device to be used so urgently. Like the Borg, it learns and adapts and is evidently implacable. This is not unique to Battlestar. Not that it's a huge problem, but it feels like plot rather than story or character, and this series is more interesting as story/character than as mechanical plots.

The effort to eradicate the virus brings all the major minds to the effort, including Baltar, who is, refreshingly, employed without the presence of Six. The way the problem is eventually solved — amid a countdown scenario before a Cylon fleet swoops in and destroys the Galactica — involves Sharon's Cylon tech knowledge being tapped after Adama comes to the difficult decision to try trusting her as the defector that the Galactica crew is not particularly ready to accept her as. Adama comes to this decision only after a crucial scene where he confides in Roslin — a scene that indicates that their relationship is indeed very much repaired. She recommends that he trust or distrust Sharon based on "common ground," and the common ground Adama uses is the common desire to live.

Sharon is brought to CIC where she has a plan to stop the Cylon fleet while Gaeta wipes the Galactica hard drives and reinstalls from backups, which is perhaps the most straightforward and believable solution to the problem that could've been written. Sharon disables the approaching Cylon fleet by cutting into her hand and inserting a fiber-optic cable into the vein in her wrist, and sending a virus back to the Cylons. This hits maybe a little too close to Locutus-of-Borg territory; I found myself MST3K-ing Data's line: "I put them all to sleep."

The writers need to be careful with how the human-looking Cylons can interface with technology, lest Sharon become the equivalent of Seven of Nine, whose nanoprobes became an all-too-handy and overused plot device for the Voyager writers.

Similarly, the writers also need to be careful with how bull-headed they write Colonel Tigh when he's being a skeptical hard-ass. There are perhaps too many scenes in this episode where, for the sake of adding conflict, it's clear that he's taking the losing side of what would obviously solve the story's problems. Conflict makes good drama, but making Tigh too transparently wrong doesn't serve the character or the audience. I did, however, appreciate a scene where Tigh was willing to listen to Tyrol's plight, and the nice touch where Tigh takes a jar of alcohol as if it's his prerogative.

Tyrol's storyline is a nice example of finding hope in a desperate situation, and I appreciated the way members of the crew were initially skeptical but slowly came around and rallied around his project. Unfortunately, this story doesn't segue smoothly into and out of the other plot involving the computer virus and Cylon attack fleet. It feels rushed, particularly at the end, where the story picks up the human threads in haste after the technical threads have been resolved.

The key emotional moment in the episode comes when Tyrol's new fighter is unveiled and christened at a ceremony that almost really works and is wonderfully performed ... except that logically it doesn't quite add up because there's no scene that adequately sets it up. Quite simply, I was puzzled by the fact that Tyrol and the deck crew decide to name the ship Laura in Roslin's honor. It's a moving gesture, but for me it had a slight head-scratching effect, because we've never really seen that there's a bond between the deck crew and President Roslin. Certainly there could be, but we've never been given that sense on-screen, so this scene doesn't quite add up or pay off.

Which is too bad. I certainly like the intentions here, and it's wonderfully staged. It reminds us that this series can be sentimental despite the darkness and despair. But it also seems like there are scenes missing from "Flight of the Phoenix," and without those scenes it's not quite complete.

Previous episode: Final Cut
Next episode: Pegasus

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24 comments on this post

Graham Pilato
Wed, Oct 31, 2007, 1:08am (UTC -6)
Right on, Jammer. This is everything I would say about this very disappointing yet very pretty episode. It would have been better off, perhaps even, as two episodes -- one for each plot, to better develop them and give the characters some time to deal with the revelations therein. I mean, let's keep building the love a bit more clearly for Sharon the Cylon before raping her next week, right? Rather than simply making her look cool for a few minutes, let's look at what it means to have the Cylon save the fleet... as well as lead us to the Tomb of Athena.

I like how you point out a major difference between BSG and Star Trek here in terms of how they manage plot time and character development time allowances. This episode has just the same problem as episodes such as DS9's "Shadowplay". And I think I could forgive DS9 for this sort of thing a lot more, too, because that kind of plot juggling is standard there. But then there's a recent episode of Heroes... (which is such crap this second year of it... I wonder what you think of it as series, Jammer? Have you seen it?) where this problem is exasperating and overwhelmingly widespread from episode to episode, with very little happening and every plot stretched so thin across a whole season while so many threads are only very gradually expanded. And it begins to make one hate the characters because one can never see them do very much at all, let alone develop and have them relate some internal insight or connect to others around them.
Sat, Jan 17, 2009, 4:11am (UTC -6)
This is actually the episode that got me into BSG. For along time, I didn't think I'd like it, and clicked past it, but then I saw, hey, they're /building/ a space fighter. After that I became aware of the excellent characters and plot now I'm hooked. I've managed to watch all the episodes during the hiatus, and I was just as pumped as any fan for tonights ep.
Tue, Mar 31, 2009, 2:47am (UTC -6)
When Helo proffered Sharon the printouts of the virus's output and she went into a sort of shock, I was very intrigued by what I thought the writers were suggesting. The human-cylons, biological yet also technological, can be hacked into via numeric algorithms even by simply reading the code. To me at least, it sounded strikingly original with some sci-fi Cool Factor to boot.

However, she was just stunned by the implications of this Mother of All viruses. That's fair too, I guess.
Sat, Nov 21, 2009, 7:31am (UTC -6)
I enjoyed these mid-season 2 days of the Tyrol/Helo/Sharon "triangle.". It's interesting to me how well-written and intriguing this idea was. I missed the Tyrol and Helo interaction later on, and the writers' bungling of their show's big quadrangle was puzzling. Strange how they handled some relationships so well and mucked around with another for too long.
Mon, May 24, 2010, 11:13am (UTC -6)
I'm just watching BSG for the first time and, of course, reading your reviews as I go. I'm not really surprised that out of all reviews so far, this is where you mention Star Trek (and Voyager in particular) several times. Flight of the Phoenix, aside from a couple of good character moments, bore strong resemblance to Star Trek at its most mediocre (in my opinion, that is). Sudden threat, the ship's systems break down and a "nanoprobe-solution" to avert the crisis. All the while Tyrol and the others build a whole new ship in a time which seems like a couple of hours, days at most. At least they spared us the unnecessary technobabble.

Perhaps I'm just a tiny bit let down after stellar first season and the first seven episodes of the second season, and I'm sure the series will pick up probably much sooner than later. Two not-excellent episodes in a row isn't a disaster, after all.
Mon, Jun 21, 2010, 3:35pm (UTC -6)
I only saw this episode the one time at original airing, and just rewatched all these years later on DVD. While some of the episodes I remember not caring for are better than I remember, this one is worse.

I mean, I love Star Trek: TNG but in a fantasy suspension of disbelief light entertainment way. This episode should have been called Star Trek: BSG. "The ship goes nuts and attacks the crew!" how many times have we seen this?

And it's just so disjointed as you say.

About Tigh... he says "what the hell?!" four times in the battle scene in CIC. FOUR times. It was like the writers were making a joke or something.

Only truly great bit was the Tyrol/Helo scene
Sun, Apr 3, 2011, 10:03pm (UTC -6)
This episode certainly could have used an extended version, but I think it works as it is, and both stories are character driven. As most readers have guessed by now, Sharon is my favorite character. They drag her to CIC in chains, she SAVES THE FRAKKING FLEET, and then they just haul her back to the brig, and she takes it. All because she loves Helo.

The only scene I thought which didn't work was the over-the-top Tyrol/Helo fight. I felt like I was watching a soap opera. Sure, they're confused, they may even be angry at each other. But coming to blows? I didn't buy that.
Sun, Apr 10, 2011, 6:59am (UTC -6)
Good points in the review, though this is the best episode of season 2 so far for me (watching it on DVD) minus the firing range scene. Not worried about star trek comparisons or DS9, as this series stands on its own. besides nothing is really truly orginal anymore.
Nick P.
Tue, May 3, 2011, 11:03am (UTC -6)
Certainly not a memorable ep, but miles better than final cut. I agree with Mark that When Sharon froze reading the printout I thought she was actually dowloading some evil program, actually there are 2.5 seasons left, maybe she did.

And like the other Nic, I love sharon, far and away my favourite character. What keeps her going? Love for Helo? Maybe love for tyrol? I don't know, but i love watching it. although the fight was kind of silly.

BTW, I think this episode would have worked far better in place of Final Cut. OR maybe the "Laura" ship scene could have been the last scene of Earth 2. It actaully made me tear up, but I agree, what the hell does the flight crew care about her.

Tyrol is also becoming one of my faves, he really is going through the love lost that all men have gone through at some point, and it really is heartbreaking.
Nick P
Tue, May 3, 2011, 11:04am (UTC -6)
BTW, I meant "Home, 2", not earth 2.
Fri, Sep 2, 2011, 8:19am (UTC -6)
Just watching BSG now and loving it. One comment about the review, regarding Tigh taking the moonshine as though it was his prerogative -- I didn't read it like that at all. When caught by Tigh, Tyrol had explained that he had to distill alcohol to trade for engine parts. I expected Tigh to shut him down, since he thought the whole project was idiotic, but instead he essentially gives Tyrol two engines (by assigning him to pick up used engines off another ship) -- taking the booze was a perfect touch, made him part of the team in a way.

Or maybe he just gave him the engines in order to get the booze because he's such an alcoholic. Either way, it was a "fair trade", not an officer taking advantage.
Fri, Jan 20, 2012, 2:54pm (UTC -6)
I'm on my second time around with BSG, and it's so fascinating to watch the characters develop now that I already know where they're headed! Even without the element of surprise, the series holds up splendidly.

Jammer, I want to thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking exegeses of these shows. I can only imagine how many hours you've invested, and I hope this site provides you with lots of satisfaction and pride.

I've been reading the Trek-related reviews, too, and this is my first post. I was finally moved to comment because I'm not really a critical viewer--I'm usually happy to accept whichever way the plot goes, with or without logic--so it's especially interesting to me to read other people's insights. (This episode, for instance, didn't strike me as particularly weak.)

I watch the shows with my partner and we discuss them often and at length, but I know very few other people who take an interest. (And the watchers I do know didn't check out "Caprica"! How could they have not even given it a chance?) So thank you all, friends, for sharing your thoughts.
Nick P.
Fri, Jan 20, 2012, 3:27pm (UTC -6)

I liked your post, that is how I feel too, about everything. EXCEPT Caprica. I will defend us anti-watching-Capricans. there are 3 reasons I will not watch that show.

1. The show did not finish complete season, which imlies to me, people did not like it, and these ARE probably BSG fans who wanted to make it work. I trust them. Odds are high I wouldn't like it.

2. Suppose I would like it? In that case I will watch the first season, and be frustrated, since it was canceled. Why knowingly punish myself.

3. It was nothing more than a way to cash in on BSG. We all know this. I felt BSG was a perfectly run show, there is no point in trying to pretend like it is still going through an extension, which by most reviews, WAS terrible.

At the end of the day, I have 2 kids a full time job and enough other entertainment options out there to keep me busy than a considerably weaker show that was just trying to run in the far superior shadow of one of the greatest shows I have ever watched.
Fri, Jan 27, 2012, 9:23am (UTC -6)
Hi, Nick P! Thanks for your comments!

I readily concede that Caprica isn't as good as BSG. And if I hadn't watched it from its inception, I might not be inclined to check it out at this point--I know what you mean about the guaranteed frustration of its premature ending.

But I think the reason it failed was because people weren't watching in the first place. I'm aware that there was plenty of criticism from the git-go--just as there's been for TNG and everything since.

As for cashing in, aren't all teevee series about making money? Clearly, the networks are more interested in ad revenue than artistic merit. But who's to say that the writers and directors and other creatives behind Caprica were strictly in it for the money? (Maybe you--I don't really know the production backstory.)

They did manage to do a quick wrap-up in the final episode of Caprica, since they knew it was over--but that made me even sorrier, since the plotlines had such terrific potential.

My true regret is that more people didn't tune in at the start, which is why I was (mildly) annoyed with the couple of people I do know who liked BSG. There are plenty of people unaware or dismissive of BSG who'd appreciate it if they'd give it a chance. I think the same is true of Caprica.

There, now. I'm really not trying to get you to watch Caprica; I understand not having enough time to invest. Thanks again for your response!
Sam S.
Thu, Mar 8, 2012, 2:11pm (UTC -6)
Jamahl, I have to disagree about one point. It's possible that in revealing her condition to the entirety of the fleet, the President's gesture of revelation led to empathy from everyone. This general set-up more than explains why the flight crew would dedicate a plane to her.
Nebula Nox
Fri, Jan 11, 2013, 12:08pm (UTC -6)
My two favorite characters are Tyrol and Helo. I guess it's because they're such solid guys. Interesting that they both fell for Number 8.
Mon, Jun 17, 2013, 3:02pm (UTC -6)
I found BSG improved, deepened in several ways by being preceded by Caprica.
Mon, Jun 17, 2013, 3:12pm (UTC -6)
BTW, I don't think we know how long it took to build *Laura*. IIRC, there's a cut after the defeat of the Cylon fleet and before the completion of the new bird. Any amount of time could have passed.
Wed, Aug 21, 2013, 9:53pm (UTC -6)
One thing that always stood out to me that ripped me out of the episode to some degree was the timing of Helo's introduction to the rest of the officers. If Cali was released simultaneously, but spent 30 days in the brig, wouldnt one assume that in the span of those 30 days, Helo would have already met (and been shunned by) those same officers?

Helo being guilty by association could have made great material. However, here it becomes a plot contrivance shoehorned in for effect rather than character development and plot.
Lucien D
Mon, Aug 24, 2015, 10:11am (UTC -6)
One thing that's always confused me about the two Sharons is how Helo's Sharon has the memories of Tyrol's Sharon and their relationship together.

The two Sharons coexisted simultaneously - one on Galactica and one on Caprica. Tyrol's Sharon evidently didn't die and download at any point before Cally's intervention, so where did Helo's Sharon get those memories from? How does she remember her life on Galactica when she never experienced it?

Is this explained at any point? Did I miss a line of dialogue anywhere?
Sun, Oct 16, 2016, 11:50pm (UTC -6)
Regarding Lucien D's question: BSG's science advisor mentioned in an interview that his idea was that of an incremental backup which would happen on a regular basis, but was never mentioned in the show.

What was mentioned, though, is the existence of a memory database for each copy that can be accessed by at least all copies of the same model. The update would also happen when a copy's memories were transferred into a new body ("The Hub").

In the episodes following FOTP we also learn about the resurrection ships.

My explanation: The Cylon fleet, including a resurrection ship, needed to follow the Galactica long enough to update Boomer's data, so Sharon on Caprica could access and use them for their mission. That doesn't explain why the Cylons had no clues about Sharon's whereabouts in "Final Cut". I guess the "skinjobs" had the ability to block updates, which would also explain why the Six and Doral models on Caprica quickly figured out that Sharon had switched alliances.

It's one of those technical things that the writers never bothered to explain and left to the audience's imagination, for which I'm grateful, because it's not really a sci-fi show but a drama.
Thu, Sep 14, 2017, 3:45pm (UTC -6)
What I don't get is why the Cylons are trying to wipe out Galactica in the first place - weren't they super thrilled that Sharon's baby survived in the last episode? So would they not leave Galactica alone or try and get Sharon back, instead of attempting an assault that would almost certainly kill her and the baby?
Fri, Feb 3, 2023, 8:12pm (UTC -6)
I think an episode where morale/hope gets rebuilt was needed, and this one hits the right notes in the end but the 2 main plots never should have been resolved so conveniently and favorably/efficiently. It's just too farfetched by BSG standards. The Cylons look like idiots here with Sharon reprogramming dozens of raiders with a virus of her own. And Tyrol & others building a fighter in the span of days??

What is good is the recognition by Tigh of how important the project is to Tyrol and a growing team -- he was the most skeptical. And he plays the role of a skeptic well. It provides a good balance to Adama who is becoming way more collaborative, especially with Roslin. The best scenes in this episode were between Adama and Roslin and their growing understanding. Roslin returning the book she borrowed is kind of foreboding -- she has at most a month to live...

I think it was also about time we saw nerves fraying, Helo/Tyrol fight, Gaeta loses his cool, etc. Interesting that there was no No. 6 "guiding" Baltar -- that much was welcomed as her schtick has grown tiresome.

2.5 stars for "Flight of the Phoenix" -- just barely. This episode is a bit too contrived but it's clear what it was meant to accomplish and now is not a bad time for it given the heavy stuff S2 has been thru thus far. Tyrol / Helo "make up" as does everybody else and Sharon's back in the brig. Many scenes I didn't care too much for. Would also question why they named the new fighter "Laura" -- that seemed to be pushing things.
Fri, Feb 24, 2023, 9:46am (UTC -6)
I was really bothered that Sharon was able to interact with a fiber optic cable. Which means she had an internal interface - some sort of tech. Sort of invalidates the mystery around Baltar's cylon detector - because all you would need is just basically a metal detector lol.

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