"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.
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