Cuts We Love

By Liza Cardinale

How did the humble SyFy network’s reboot of Battlestar Galactica (developed by Ronald D. Moore) get on Time Magazine’s “100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME” list, win a Peabody award and numerous Emmy® nominations? It wasn’t the action, space travel, or sexy robots, though their presence secures the show’s place in the pantheon of great American science fiction. It transcended the genre to achieve such accolades through sophisticated writing and compellingly complex characters. The rich texture of Edward James Olmos’s performance as Admiral Adama is rivaled only by the deep crevices in his face, suggesting wisdom and years of anguish. Adama’s leadership is respectfully shared with President Laura Roslin, played with subtle elegance by Mary McDonnell. She’s an unpredictable woman (of sometimes moral ambiguity) battling political discord, religious fanatics, genocidal robots, and terminal cancer. Through the response to her character’s inherited position we come to realize that this is a world beyond sexism. Men and women alike are addressed as “Sir,” and a woman can be punched out in a bar brawl just as readily as any man.

In the pilot, the robot Cylons annihilate most of mankind in a massive nuclear attack. The few survivors retreat to outer space, hoping one day to find the mythical land known in their spiritual texts as “Earth.” Only one Battlestar remains to protect them on this quest, the Galactica. It’s a polytheistic society on the brink of extinction, prone to using the made-up expletive, “Frak!” when angry, scared, or frustrated, which is pretty much all the time.

Between Seasons Two and Three, humanity had a year of respite on a planet they discovered to be habitable called New Caprica. This lost year was partially revealed in the ninth episode of Season Three, “Unfinished Business.” The episode is exclusively focused on character and relationships, with no Cylon in sight. Throughout a recreational boxing tournament, we flash back to the crew in happier times when they let their guard down and remembered how to live without fear. Adama and Roslin bond while smoking dope, and fighter pilots Starbuck and Apollo consummate their repressed love for each other.

What this episode lacks in a greater story arc, it makes up in style with a graceful, nonlinear structure and beautiful cinematography. Always open to reinventing the script in editorial, Moore’s direction to editor Michael O’Halloran was, “Give me a lyrically orchestral love poem.” As an assistant editor, this was O’Halloran’s first opportunity to edit his own episode and he committed himself fully to the task. He scrutinized Raging Bull for inspiration and used the film’s punch sound effects in his temp mix to give the boxing cinematic gravitas. He took the “lyrically orchestral” direction literally, and used composer Bear McCreary’s most lush and dramatic score in scenes that usually called for action cues. The result is an unusual episode that Moore considers one of the best in the series. He loved it so much he released the one and a half hour Editor’s Cut on the DVD box set in addition to the air version.

The poetic storytelling is most evident in the teaser where mysterious imagery during the fight hints at what is to come later in the episode. I summarize the intercut scene with Starbuck and Sam in the barracks to focus on the flow of New Caprica flashbacks with the boxing.

CUT 1 Open on close-up of bright light. Boxing gloves come in and obscure it as they strike each other.

CUT 2 Close on one boxer holding a protective glove to his face, identity unknown. Camera is loose and wandering.

CUT 3 Medium shot of soldier waving money from the sidelines and cheering them on. Apparently there’s a wager on this one.

CUT 4 Scoreboard reveals “Apollo” as one of the contenders, camera wanders down to more onlookers.

CUT 5 Close on dog tags being dropped into a box full of them. This is how random opponents are drawn, so the fight remains impersonal.

CUT 6 Wide shot of the bright boxing ring and a mass of spectators in the surrounding darkness.

CUT 7 Medium shot reveals Lee “Apollo” Adama is indeed one of the fighters. He takes one in the face, but shakes it off.

CUT 8 Medium shot reveals Karl “Helo” Agathon is Apollo’s partner in the ring. He throws a serious punch at Apollo’s head.

CUT 9 Extreme close-up of Apollo’s bloody ear as he receives the blow. Sweat flies from his brow, eyes hazy.

CUT 10 FLASHBACK to medium shot of Apollo waking up in a terrestrial, sun drenched field. Unclothed, he looks around, confused. The orchestra swells, echoes of the fight prelap as we…

CUT 11 BACK TO PRESENT flash to Apollo’s face, close-up, in the ring. He’s in a protective stance with gloves up. He starts to swing.

[“This teaser was originally scripted as just a straight fight,” said O’Halloran. “I added flashback intercuts to create the feeling of a ‘love poem’ and bring more subtext to the violence.”]

CUT 12 Two shot favoring Helo blocking Apollo’s punches. They circle each other as the camera wanders quickly between them.

CUT 13 Close-up of Apollo in slow motion staring Helo down. Camera pans to Helo, matching his intensity. He gnashes his mouth guard.

CUT 14 Medium shot of Apollo, determination on his face.

CUT 15 – FLASHBACK to medium shot of Starbuck facing the camera, smiling and dancing in a circular motion.

CUT 16 BACK TO PRESENT medium shot of Apollo. He’s facing Helo, uncertain of his next move.

CUT 17 Medium wide of Apollo trying to clear his head. The crowd cheers silently, we hear only the strains of the orchestra. Helo beckons him to get back to business.

[“I constructed a memory in Apollo’s head of the time he spent with Starbuck on New Caprica. Sexual tension that’s been building on the ship is finding outlet in the ring,” said O’Halloran.]

CUT 18 A pan from crowd to gloves as the fast and furious punches kick back in. We’re thrust out of Apollo’s head by sounds of the fight and crowd overtaking the orchestral score.

CUT 19 Medium wide of the crowd cheering. They love it bloody.

CUT 20 Medium shot of Helo as he dances toward Apollo and swings.

CUT 21 Extreme close-up of Apollo’s face taking another serious blow.

CUT 22 – FLASHBACK to medium two shot of Apollo walking determinedly toward Dualla who stands by a Viper jet on New Caprica.

CUT 23 Close on him as he grabs and kisses her, the sun behind them flaring between their lips. (This is one of the most beautiful shots in the episode.)

CUT 24 Medium shot of Apollo and Dualla kissing passionately in the sunshine. The orchestra swells.

CUT 25 BACK TO PRESENT wide shot of the ring. Helo clocks Apollo across the face, he reels back.

CUTS 26 to 30 Starbuck and Sam lie together in a bunk. He’s hurt by the obvious fact that she used him for sex.

CUT 31 Back at the ring, an unknown soldier cheers from the sidelines.

CUT 32 Medium two shot of Apollo and Helo still going at it. Apollo is dishing it out this time.

CUT 33 Angle on Helo putting up guard as Apollo continues his ruthless attack.

CUT 34 Medium shot of Sharon “Athena” Agathon shouting encouragement at her man, Helo.

CUT 35 Athena’s POV, Helo ducks to avoid Apollo’s swing and punches him in the side.

CUTS 36 to 52 Back in the Officers barracks, Starbuck continues to dress, eager to get to “The Dance.” Sam pleads with her to recommit to their marriage. Cold and distant, she makes no response.

[“Starbuck was always a pleasure to cut,” said O’Halloran. “Her eyes are incredibly expressive, she can say so much without uttering a word.”]

Sounds of the fight prelap and take us back to…

CUT 53 Close-up of torsos and gloves. Someone is taking a beating, though we can’t see whom.

CUT 54 Medium close-up tracking Starbuck as she walks along the platform, at the boxing ring. Leaning over the rails, the camera aims over her shoulder at the ring below.

CUT 55 Close-up of Starbuck watching. Her smile fades slowly as we…

CUT 56 FLASHBACK to close-up of Starbuck, sleeping peacefully on what seems to be Apollo’s bare chest from the previous flashback. She wakes up blinking at the sun then looks down at him, concern clouding her expression.

[“Ron would have me change the subjectivity a lot,” said O’Halloran. “He had me play this moment from inside Starbuck’s head even though it wasn’t shot or planned that way.”]

CUT 57 BACK TO PRESENT close-up of a stoic Starbuck. She rockets out of frame and heads for the ring, ready to tackle the unfinished business between her and Apollo.