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Firefly: Bushwhacked Ep. 3 October 30, 2007

Posted by Chris in Firefly.
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This episode is the first written and directed by Tim Minear — Whedon’s right-hand man for the series. Appropriate to his reputation as a “dark” creative force, this episode flirts with the horror/sci-fi genre a la Alien. This episode is also the first one to revolve around the dreaded “Reavers” — Whedon’s contemporary and more PC-version of the “wild Indians” of early westerns. These cannibalistic men-gone-mad serve as a useful plot device to highlight River’s emerging character as an Alliance-created telepath.

As usual, the writers deftly use humor to simultaneously relieve and ratchet-up the tension. Jayne’s cruel but hilarious joke on Simon — tricking him into thinking he needed to wear a spacesuit when the salvage ship is fully pressurized — shows both Simon’s innocence and Jayne’s antagonism towards him. Simon, equal to the challenge, manages to regain some of his lost pride when Jayne is attacked from behind by the ship’s lone survivor-turned-Reaver. When the crew finds this somewhat small-sized attacker hiding in an air duct Simon remarks, “Oh yes…he’s a real beast! It’s a wonder you’re still alive,” to which Jayne retorts, “Looked bigger when I couldn’t see him.”

Minutes later, Jayne is the butt of another joke. Discussing the idea of going back into the salvage ship to put the dead there to rest, Jayne shows his self-centered approach to life saying, “I ain’t goin’ over there with them bodies…no ruttin’ way, not if Reavers messed with ’em,” to which Zoe says with more than a hint of sarcasm, “Jayne…you’ll scare the women.” Here, Minear and Whedon show their twist on western themes and feminism. While women in old western movies would have to be protected from the mere mention of frightening people, Zoe puts this idea to rest in one quick, sarcastic remark that shows her to be braver, more practical and equally able to dish out the insults as Jayne.

Here’s another thing that occurs to me when watching this episode: there is a bit of a disconnect between this episode’s implied reasoning of how the Reavers became Reavers and the explanations provided in the Serenity movie. In claiming that the survivor is basically turned into a Reaver just by witnessing their atrocities against his shipmates, they imply that the Reavers themselves went crazy through some horrifying experience. Mal mentions the theory that they reached the edge of space, saw the emptiness and were driven mad. The movie gives us the “real” reason for their madness, telling us how they were the victims of an Alliance experiment with psychoactive drugs meant to supress aggression but actually amped it up. So, if the Reavers were chemically altered to bring out their Reaver-dom, why would this victim of their crazed attacks become like them without chemical interventions? Admittedly, this inconsistency isn’t airtight. We could have two forces at work here — one chemical and one experiential — that cause Reaver-like behaviors, and I’m guessing this is how Minear and Whedon would explain themselves today. Furthermore, if it’s really just the experience of witnessing those atrocities — if it’s only post-traumatic stress syndrome in space — then this guy might be rehabilitated, in which case, Mal’s view that killing him is the only solution is questionable. Though perhaps unintentional on the part of the writers, this seeming inconsistency serves a larger purpose in pointing out Mal’s flawed sense of morality and judgement.

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Firefly: The Train Job Ep. 2 October 26, 2007

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Every time I watch this one, I think about what it would have been like to see it as the pilot in the order used by the network’s broadcast. I think this is one of the weakest episodes of the 14. First, the basic premise seems so cliched. A train robbery!?! I know the western motif of the ‘verse is in play here, but a train job on a science-fiction space show? Flying/space travel is how they got there! It seems like you’d use the long-distance travel mode that got you there. Now, I’m in transportation and have some high hopes for the future of public transit, but it just struck me as unrealistic to think that a train would be an effective long-haul mode in this situation. The bulk of the old west’s population (by the 1880s) almost certainly got there by train — they, I expect, would use a train for their long-haul journeys assuming it went where they needed to go. If it didn’t, they would fall back on the most speedy and efficient mode available to them. This is exactly why I protest. Flying is so much more flexible (particularly since all their ships seem to have VTOL so they can take off and land almost anywhere) that land use patterns would be widely dispersed and difficult to serve with a track-dependent train.  Almost no-one would put the huge capital costs up front to build track — particularly not to a transitory land use like a mining town. How many frontier, resource extraction areas do we see with trains running through them today?  Much of Alaska falls in to this category, even today. Aren’t roads more widespread there than trains? I’d guess that the train system that does exist in Alaska was built during the pre-auto era (I’m talking when autos first came into wide use…say 1920s or post-war 40’s). Even those impoverished, starving Oakies and Arkies escaped the Dust Bowl in cars, not trains! Anyhow, I know I digress heavily, so I’ll drop this. All I know is that the idea of a train job in this ‘verse stretched my willingness to suspend disbelief.

Nevertheless, there are quite a few bright flashes of dialog and plot twists — even in this lowest of the Firefly episodes. I loved the humor/cruelty/balls of Mal pushing Niska’s muscle into the ship’s engine intake when it became clear that he wasn’t going to stop hunting them and, “…the last thing you will see is my blade.”

Jayne’s whole, “You know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I go get and beat you with ’till you understand who’s in ruttin’ command here….and you can’t change that by gettin’ all…bendy…” scene and his drugged manners later are satisfying comedic moments.

All I can say is, if I’d seen this episode first (before the pilot), I’m not sure I would have stuck with the series.

BSG Season 3: The Passage October 25, 2007

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Now that the writers have dealt with some of the leftover, “Unfinished Business” and other outright plot diversions, we return to the main story arc (sort of) as the humans find they are suddenly out of food. Inexplicably, they seem to know that there’s a nearby planet with edible algae, but they have to find their way through a star cluster with lethal radiation.

Kat’s past comes back to haunt her in the form of a strung-out looking low-life “civie” refuge that accosts her in the corridors of Galactica. Meanwhile, the truth about D’Anna’s present come to light, as Baltar confronts her about her habit of killing and resurrecting herself repeatedly. At the same time, Saul confronts his past by returning to duty.

Starbuck finds out about Kat’s past and revels in the power she has over her sometime rival. She manages to resist the temptation of revealing Kat’s past to Adama, but the act of digging pushes Kat over the edge. Kat’s deterioration — both in body from the radiation and spirit from her past uncovered — leads her to suicide by radiation overdose on her last mission through the star cluster, even as she redeems herself by saving the ship she sheppards through the radiation belt. That’s it for Kat as Kara gives her suicide pills to finish the job.

BSG Season 3: Unfinished Business October 25, 2007

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Boxing is the theme of this episode as old antagonisms come to a boil. Sam versus Kara versus Lee versus Duala — and Kara versus almost everyone. But mostly this is about Kara and Lee.  Their frustrations with each other and themselves. They just can’t figure out if their friends, enemies, or lovers.

Long flashbacks to life on New Caprica before the Cylons arrive. Through these, we learn how far the flirtations between Lee and Kara went and how this led to their getting into the ring together.

Adama’s grudge match against the Chief seems a little contrived. They try to explain it by showing flashbacks of how the Chief wanted leave the service and live on New Caprica to start a family. Adama resisted the idea at first, but gave in when he began to think that they might really be safe from the Cylons there — that they’d really escaped. It’s implied that this decision holds symbolic significance for Adama — it represents everyone’s willingness to lower their guard against the Cylons. This all makes sense and the overarching conflict and regrets Adama has have veracity. But the personal conflict between the Chief and Adama doesn’t ring quite so true.

Nice juxtaposition between Kara and Lee fighting and making love back on New Caprica. Adama’s total lack of a clue when telling Lee that Kara got married seems lacking, though — could Adama really be that unaware of his son’s feelings?

“Nice” bloody embrace at the end.

The Bloody Embrace

Firefly: Serenity Ep. 1 October 24, 2007

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Firefly:  Cheeziness, “Betrayal” and Redemption Through Humor

This is the show that “brought me back” to science fiction TV after a long hiatus. Not only had we banished the TV to a box in the basement, but in the years previous it seemed that there hadn’t been any good science fiction TV shows — perhaps since the last few seasons of Deep Space Nine. Thanks to my wife’s impeccable taste and likewise understanding of mine (she bought me the Firefly DVD set as a birthday present), I started skeptically watching the series soon after it was issued on DVD, thinking I was probably headed for disappointment. But just as Mal finds disappointment at Serenity Valley and redemption in his post-war life as captain of the ship called Serenity, the embryonic beginnings of the show are redeemed through the introduction of the main characters and their evolving story together. 

The first few scenes of the pilot (“Serenity”) did not encourage me. I found the battle scene to be unrealistic, if I can say that about science fiction — a genre that is pretty much the furthest thing from realistic storytelling that we can find. It’s not terrible — it just looks like it was filmed on a sound stage. They could’ve done better than this.  And why don’t Zoe or Mal wear uniforms or helmets like the rest of their comrades in arms? I know these are little, nit-picky items, but first impressions are built on things such as these.  In science fiction, where plausibility is essential, the details count.

Then, the cut to six years later and the “salvage job” is underway.  Our soon-to-be heroes have obviously been living at the margins of life since the war.  The first shot of this scene showing Mal upside-down after the disappointment of Serenity Valley suggests he’s not quite right with the world — a hint of what’s to come.  Mal’s use of “the sticky” to corrode the lock of the ship’s hatch is a nice little touch.  I watched with more interest.  Then, Wash’s “Everything looks good from here…yes, yes this is a fertile land and we will thrive…”, speech with the dinosaurs turned it all around for me. The first sign of the strength in writing. I was sold. “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”

The details kept adding up:  the common, contemporary-looking cargo boxes on the salvage ship, the signs of wear and corrosion on Serenity that give it that lived-in feel. The “cry baby” distress signal Serenity uses to distract the Alliance cruiser while they make their escape. Even the actions and dialogue of the Alliance captain show great promise, as they choose to “…go help these people,” they think are sending the distress signal instead of chasing after the “low-life vultures” on Serenity. In just a few quick lines we see the ambiguity of life in Joss Whedon’s “‘verse”, with the supposedly evil Alliance (we know this because of the vaguely Nazi-looking cut of their uniforms)doing its best to help people in need and our heroes using this good-nature to get away with their nefarious business.  As Wash says in the following scene to Zoe, “Sweety, we’re crooks…if everything were right, we’d be in jail.” With this we’re asked to be active participants in the story, looking for clues and judging for ourselves whether the main characters are worthy of our affections.

The scene introducing Inara and her career as a companion shows a similar complexity. Her skillful handling of her young client, trying to let him down easy from his initial crush on her, is rewarded with his exiting comment that reminds everyone that she’s paid to play a role — a role that is motivated not by true kindness and love, but by money. Her inability to retort this jab shows her discomfort with the nature of her business, despite all the apparent stature her society gives to companions.

Zoe: “Sir, we don’t want to deal with Patience again.”

Mal: “Why not?”

Zoe: “Sir, she shot you.”

Mal: “Well, yeah she did, a bit, still…”

Great stuff. Brilliant use of humor to give a little background.

Nice introduction of Simon and the Alliance agent as they board the ship as passengers. The seeds of ambiguity are sewn here again, as Simon is the suspicious-looking character while the agent just looks to be an innocent — a trait that proves out as we see later that he’s a bit of a novice when it comes to undercover work.

Simon to Mal about Jayne: “What DO you pay him for?”

Mal: “What?”

Simon:  “I was just wondering what his job is…on the ship.”

Mal: “Public relations.”

I don’t really have anything to say here…I just love this dialogue.

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Oh, please… 

Oh, oh! Then fear and loathing. What a scare I got from the next, cheesy, gratuitous, pandering scene of Inara taking a sponge-bath.  I know this was probably meant to set-up the embarrassment of Book as he enters her shuttle, but this scene is so obviously put in to titillate the 13-year old male viewers that it made me question the motives of the writers as well.  “Hey,” I thought “are they in this just for the money, too?” This brand of ambiguity I did not need and it made me question for a moment whether we were starting a downhill slide. It reminded me of a similar bathing scene with the Vulcan character in the Enterprise pilot episode. That was all it took to turn me off of that show completely — never watched it again. Maybe this show wasn’t going to work out after all. Thankfully, the discussion between Book and Inara that follows does a good job of revealing their characters’ motivations and Mal’s — the show’s apperant concessions to the network’s ideas (I assume) of what will sell to the teen sci-fi fan set are redeemed through its depth of character.

On the use of the everyday stuff:  I love this, and on watching the show again now — the post-Galactica remake era where this use of contemporary or even dated technology for props looks natural — I have to remind myself of how strange and thrilling this was when I first saw Firefly. The use of guns instead of high-tech lasers/blasters, the airline food compartments in Serenity’s kitchen, the mix of western historical with space-faring technologies — these all looked strange and discordant at first, but helped sell the ‘verse to us as a unique vision. I, for one, quickly bought into it and accepted the use of the commonplace as commonplace.  And

Mal: “I believe that woman’s planning to shoot me again.” Snappy dialogue. Whedon’s flair for bringing out the humorous side of a dramatic build-up gives us reason to love these characters despite the dirty business they’re in.

One of the things that bugs me about this episode is the way they wrote the Fed’s character. As I said before, he’s obviously a novice and a bit of a hot-head — not exactly the type of person you want to send out looking for what we soon find out is the killing-machine that is River. Compared to The Operative that comes after River and Serenity in the movie, we have to ask ourselves whether the Alliance is really all that menacing if they can’t figure out the right agent to send until roughly a year later. A friend and fellow fan has suggested that the Alliance was simply sending the nearest available agent when they realized River had been taken.  I like this explanation, not only because it rings true, but also because it suggests that the writers intentionally showed the Alliances as a fallible and “human” entity, capable of evil acts, sure, but essentially like the rest of us — just muddling through.  So, the Alliance — just like the other characters in Firefly — have depth and complexity.  Their flaws are redeemed.

Mal’s shooting the horse to bring down Patience and then his quick shot that brings down the Fed both show the dubious side of his character. He’s apparently willing to sacrifice the innocent (the horse) or put them at risk (shooting past River to hit the Fed) to achieve his aims, so while we cheer him on, we’re also shaking our heads in tune with Book’s later questions about Mal’s actions.

Seems like it’s Zoe’s job to state the obvious for viewers who may not be keeping up with what’s going on:  “Ain’t no way they can come around and follow us now,” and earlier when Mal’s telling the others about his lie to Simon that Kaylee had died, “…and Kaylee’s really OK?”, seem out of place among the otherwise crisp, tight dialog. Reminds me of what I once heard Nichelle Nichols say about her role as Uhura on the original Start Trek: she was just there to explain what had already just been shown. Hmmm…two African-American characters in two sci-fi shows roughly 30 years apart, but playing the same functional roles with regard to plot exposition…gives me pause. And before I let go of this race thread, I need to ask: with all the references to Chinese culture and the back-story surrounding the Alliance between China and the U.S., where are the Chinese characters in this show? Where are the Asians (except as exotic background extras)?  Okay, okay, I can make excuses for Whedon et al. by blaming the Hollywood system and it’s treatment of non-Europeans over the years, but on a great show like this where African Americans — including Zoe’s character — are written with depth and nuance, why couldn’t they go the last mile and avoided these pitfalls?

Even with these criticisms, I love this show!  Time and time again, it manages to redeem itself through the effective use of humor, intelligence, intriguing stories and excellent character development.  Even with it’s hokey elements, the pilot always manages to pull me back in — to make up for its minor transgressions.

BSG Season 3: Hero October 13, 2007

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This episode is the first sign that the season is going downhill.  Moore has said that anytime they do a “stand-alone” episode that isn’t a direct continuation of the overall narrative they lose their mojo — this episode really confirms it.  It’s not that it’s all that bad, but the brief sabbatical from the overall story arc is a little jarring.

So the Cylons were faking their own infection to Bulldog?  Must be a pretense to making his escape feasible. I’m basically on board with this logic, but it’s stretching credulity by just a hair.

Interesting that D’Anna’s growing obsession with death seems (spoiler) to be shared with others of her model, and judging from later episodes, her motivations are shared as well.  I’m not clear on the intricacies of what the Cylons share between indivduals and when (or if) they are ever actually indivduals at all.  Caprica Six seems to be on her own with her feelings and actions vis-a-vis Baltar, as does Athena for Helo — their model counterparts don’t back them up on these actions, but D’Anna seems to have the backing of her model line.  Is this revelatory of D’Anna’s “special destiny”?

So how come they figured Bulldog could maintain radio contact on his trip into Cylon territory?  No duh that he’d be noticed.  Was this part of the Admiralty’s plan — did they sacrifice him?  Seems like this deviousness would have been obvious to Adama, so if true I have to believe he knowingly went along with it.  But then he says, “All those years I told myself that I didn’t know what they were…”, implying that he thought it might have been renegade humans that intercepted Bulldog in Cylon space.  Wouldn’t Bulldog have been aware that any wireless transmissions from his ship would have revealed his whereabouts?  Are we supposed to guess and then accept that they had some sort of scrambled signal — something that made the transmissions appear to be nothing but more random signals against the background cosmic radiation.  Again, they’re stretching things a bit here, but I’m still willing to go along for the ride.

BSG Season 3: A Measure of Salvation October 13, 2007

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Why isn’t Athena wearing a helmet?  Did they just think she’d look silly in one — a little like Dukakis riding in the tank?  Are they just illustrating her vulnerable side?  Strange.

Lee isn’t wearing goggles on his helmet in one shot, then in the next shot they’re on again.  I’ll make no excuses for them on this…no hidden brilliance here, they just screwed up.  Could be worse, though.

D’anna:  “How long have you planned to betray us, Giaus?”

Is this the follow-through from the previous episode where Deanna strangely comes on to Baltar?  Was she just trying to set him off guard to reveal whether he’s working for or against them?  Maybe, but it seems more likely that Deanna and Caprica Six’s questioning him at this point is primarily driven by their suspicion that he led them into the trap with the beacon.  I guess what I’m seeing here could be the writers showing the ambiguity of Deanna’s character — she’s growing to love him while she’s also suspicious of him.  I know that attributing this to the brilliance of the writers is a bit too fawning, but I calls ’em likes I sees ’em.

“We want a new beginning, just like you.”  Ahhh, I was wrong in my previous post that there weren’t any references to the Cylons wanting to reach Earth for the rest of the season.  This was another teaser. 

I’m not clear on why the disease would spread beyond the first Resurrection ship.  They’ve never explained the functional links between Resurrection ships and the rest of the Cylon civilization, but I feel like they glossed over this point and didn’t give it enough explanation.

Interesting that their laws don’t allow the use of biological weapons without Presidential permission, but nukes are a-okay (spoiler) as proved later.

And so why is it that the Cylons would just bring their resurrection ship to the scene of a direct fight with Galactica?  Seems like a risky move, when we’ve been led to believe that the resurrection ship doesn’t need to be immediately proximate to serve its purpose.  Seems like they dropped the ball here…like it’s just a plot device to allow the humans to know when to snuff the prisoner, infected Cylons.  They should have just left it ambiguous, with the humans never knowing for sure if the disease would actually spread once they offed the prisoners.

I sure am gettin’ tired of seeing that same “combat landings” shot recycled over and over again.

BSG Season 3: Torn October 13, 2007

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Imaginary Six:  “I’m an angel of God sent here to help you, just as I always have been.”

Well, I guess by the way I attribute that quote it shows that I’m pretty convinced that she is just a screwed-up part of Baltar’s subconscious.  I could be wrong, I’m aware of that fact, but the way her nature changes depending on Baltar’s moods seems to confirm my view.

Deanna:  “Yes, we’ve decided that Earth’s going to be our new home…”  This statement is just left hanging that way through the rest of the season.  It seems rather startling that this was never explained, let alone referenced (as far as I can recall) again.  Why would they think Earth would be good for them?  And if they really mean something else…something more diabolical in nature, then what is their real aim?  I understand that the writers are trying to hold us in suspense — milking it for all its worth — but I don’t think a whole lot is gained by this ploy.  Maybe they have a surprise to pop later that will make this all worthwhile…it wouldn’t be the first time they’d pulled this trick off.

Gaeta:  “At first, I thought the Doctor be off his meds as well, sir…”

This does serve to remind us that the first thing the Cylons gave him after he’d been alone on the base ship for three days was a bottle of pills.  This is the first reference I’ve seen that he’s on any medications, and is another interesting teaser.  But again, we see that they’re quite willing to take small, short statements like these and stretch them out taught with suspense by stretching out the resolution.

Speaking of taught almost beyond the breaking point, Helo’s character is becoming caricature…everything is oh so very serious.  It’s getting a little weary.  I feel a bit sorry for the actor, who has to play his charachter more earnest than Gomer Pyle.

Adama calling Tigh and Kara to the mat is very effective.  Olmos can do menacing talk like nobody’s business.  Nice change of tone when talking directly to Tigh.  He suddenly tries a softer approach, immediately rejected and pounced upon by Tigh.  Adama doesn’t miss a beat, and lays into him with just as much vigor as before with Kara.  Good stuff.  Nice acting all around and the dialogue is convincing.  Kara does a (little too) nice job cutting her hair with a jackknife and then having her old “bob” hairstyle back in effect.  I guess there must be a hairdresser civilian hanging out on board.

BSG Season 3: Collaborators October 13, 2007

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So what happened to Caprica Six’s imaginary, idealized Baltar?  I thought that was an interesting technique and I was rather looking forward to when all four of them would be in the room together, with side conversations going on between each of the real characters and their imaginary love projections.

And why is Deanna coming on to Baltar so hard now?  I don’t quite understand her motives unless she’s just playing with him.  Seems like a hole in the writing, but it does foreshadow (spoiler) the coming three-way between Baltar, Caprica Six and Deanna.

Baltar’s “you need me” speech starts off very well for him, but at a certain point, he just goes over to the edge to self-serving platitudes.  Nicely done.  Just when you’re thinking he’s got a point, he’ll let a little something slip that shows how self-serving he is.

Kara:  “I just want to hurt someone and it might as well be you.”

Booooooooo!!!!  That sounded cheesy.  Sackhoff played it a bit too over-the-top too.

They get a little preachy about the necessity of representation to ensure justice.  I know it’s supposed to be reflecting our own situation with that idiot president of ours, but it was all a little too ham-handed. Using the “Truth and Reconcilliation Commission” term was also a little too obvious.  Nice sentiment, though.

BSG Season 3: Exodus Pt. 2 October 13, 2007

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Ellen’s last moments are fittingly the best for the actress playing her. For a character that seemed to ring somewhat hollow and too simply evil at times, her final speech is the most convincing.  Sounds trite, I know but I just thought it was both well-written and well-acted for this character — something we haven’t always seen seen.

Beautiful special effects at the beginning of the attack where the Raptors fire the decoys and we’re given a series of sots to show us the Raptors, the missiles, New Caprica and the baseships in the far distance.

Where did the Centurions go that were fighting the resistance in the streets?  After Galactica does it’s little drop and pop maneuver, Tyrol says “hold it, hold your fire” or something like that and the centurion(s) are gone.

Drop and Pop!

Galactica Does the Drop and Pop

After that, the battle scene that follows where Galactica is about to be wiped out and Pegasus saves the day is near flawless.  I like the Pan Am logo on the tailfin of one of the Humans’ ships as it takes off and immediately “jumps”.

The following scene where Baltar talks his way out of another tight spot is good in tone, even if the logic of what’s being said sometimes doesn’t follow.  Why is Baltar the only one who can stop Deanna? I guess he must have some idea of where the nuke is, but I’m not clear on how he would know. 

Cylon: “Oh hey, Mr. President…just want you to know where we keep the nukes, and they’re right over here…”, pointing to a canvas tent among thousands, “…right beside the tent where we have all the human ships’ launch keys…”

Baltar: “Note to self…”

So why didn’t the Cylon base ship “jump” out of the way as Pegasus slowly advanced to the point of ramming it?  Dramatic moment, no doubt, but it didn’t completely ring true. 

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Pegasus Rams the Flatfooted Baseship — What’s wrong, can’t jump out of the way?

How come Roslyn just instantly re-installs herself as president and everyone goes right along with it?

Mary MacDonald does a powerfully understated delivery of her statement, “This is not about us…this is life.” Very humbly played.