Some drugs have mild side effects. Dizziness, the occasional constipation, reduced libido. Chamalla extract is not one of those drugs. The episode opens with an ethereal President Roslin being chased through an ethereal forest (that’s how the forests of the Canadian Pacific coast look in real life even without the use of drugs), only to be rescued by a sweaty Leoben. Except it’s a dream, a prophetic, ball-trippin’, hallucinatory dream, induced by the medication Roslin is taking for her cancer treatment.
Alas, there is no time for the President to deal with her shit because a Cylon has been discovered among the fleet. And woah, it’s (he’s? Are they objects or subjects?) a Leoben. Though Commander Adama wants to immediately destroy the Leoben, Roslin orders an interrogation by someone who won’t be “easily confused” by this model’s “double talk and half-baked philosophy.” Enter Starbuck.
This is one of the first episodes of BSG to really directly tackle one of the main themes of the show, the subject-object binary and the question of what it is to be human, to be distinct from machine. It’s been loosely addressed in other contexts, particularly with Head Six and Baltar, but it’s when the human characters of the show knowingly interact with Cylons or Cylon technology that the issue of othering starts to unfold: Commander Adama is insistent on calling Cylons “machine” or “it,” while Boomer sings lullabies to the captured Raider.
The interrogation begins. Particularly at the start, I am reminded of one of the final scenes of The Matrix where Agent Smith is going on and on to Morpheus about how much humans suck and how much they stink. Without going all woo-woo Matrixy (which pill would you take?), there’s definitely some interesting parallels in the man-machine debate between the two mythologies (and it’s not just that machines think humans stink).
Gemenon Captain: Well, he does look like a person.
Gemenon Captain: They all full of wires inside?
Starbuck: No, you cut ’em open and there’s blood, guts, the whole thing. It’s sweating.
Gemenon Captain: Well, I’ll be. Look at that. Gods, they go through a lot of trouble to imitate people. Why do you think they do that?
Starbuck: I don’t care why. But the fact that these things sweat, now that’s interesting.
It becomes apparent through the interrogation that the character of Leoben is a vehicle for Cylon faith. He is a mystic, maybe even a prophet. Starbuck’s knee-jerk reaction is to spit on his faith and deny him access to soul and God(s). Machines don’t have souls, they can’t pray, they can’t even feel pain. Or if they do they can shut off the programming for pain and thus deny their humanity, because to be human, is above all things, to suffer. Leoben repeatedly asks Starbuck her name, which like everything else, she denies him. Unfortunately for her, he guesses correctly who she is. It clearly gives her the wiggins, but fortunately for her he’s willing to talk and tells her there’s a nuclear warhead planted aboard one of the ships in the fleet and it’s set to go off at 1830 hours. Adama alerts the captains of the fleet and has them do a radiological sweep on every ship.
The interrogation continues and Leoben gets all quotable: To know the face of God is to know madness. I see the universe. I see the patterns.
“What is the most basic article of faith? This is not all that we are.”
Starbuck: How’s your lunch?
Leoben: You know how it is. When you’re starving, everything tastes good.
If that’s not a metaphor for the human condition, I don’t know what is.
Meanwhile, Boomer has decided that she needs to prove to Chief Tyrol that she’s not a Cylon so she visits Baltar and his Cylon-detector. After some prodding by Head Six, he agrees to test Boomer.
Back on Caprica, Doral and Caprica Six are discussing Helo’s Sharon. Caprica Six dislikes and distrusts Sharon because “in the scheme of things, we are as we do.” (Cylon words to live by, which ultimately make the man-machine distinction irrelevant.) She thinks Sharon is bad news, but really she’s just jealous that Sharon’s banging Hot Hot Helo. When Sharon shows up she announces the aforementioned sex and that Helo loves her. I mean, he hasn’t said it, but he totes does. The plan is to convince Helo to stay and start a life with Sharon, otherwise kill him. But there’s a complication. Sharon loves Helo too. So they run. For real now.
Half a universe away, the interrogation continues. Leoben continues to be all mystical and quote-worthy (“I am God… We’re all God,” etc.). And Starbuck continues to laugh in his face. So Leoben flips the table they sit at and starts to choke her out. It’s not the time to kill her, just the time to show her he can kill, oh and he has a surprise for her, but no, not quite yet. Obviously, attempting to choke Starbuck out elevates the stakes. She’s pissed. When humans are pissed they lash out. That’s called human nature. Or something. Torture by non-toilet swirly ensues, but time is closing in.
Starbuck threatens to kill Leoben with what she thinks might be permanent death. He’s too far away to transfer his consciousness, maybe this time when he dies, he dies for keeps. Scary existential stuff right there. But he goes on to tell her how he knows her, her past, who she is and how damaged she really believes she is. Leoben is all about looking at the stories we tell ourselves both individually and culturally and recognizing them for what they are – stories.
On Galactica, Baltar determines the truth about Boomer. “Green, you’re a normal human being. Red, you’re an evil Cylon.” Guess who’s an evil Cylon? But then, we already knew that. What we didn’t know is that Baltar has a working Cylon-detector. Given that the Cylons are known for killing humans, and given that Baltar doesn’t know the lengths a Cylon will go to protect her secret, he lies to Boomer and tells her she’s human. Cowardly jerk.
After another creepy Leoben dream, President Roslin decides to intercede on the interrogation. Which is good because Starbuck is getting nowhere; she and Leoben circle and circle until Starbuck looks like she’s going to cry.
Or like she’s going to believe him. He tells her, “The players change, the story remains the same,” and that she will find Kobol and Kobol will lead them to Earth. Enter President Roslin.
President Roslin has different tactics. She offers Leoben safety in exchange for the location of the bomb, and maybe peace. Believing her, Leoben reveals the truth (though at this point, with the bomb set to go off in minutes, what does he even have to lose?), there is no bomb. He was just buying time. He asks that they go easy on Starbuck, it’s not her fault that she got nowhere with him. She’s a product of the military and “the military, they teach you to dehumanize people.” Score one for the Cylons.
Then he whispers to Roslin that Adama is a Cylon. As a thank you, she orders him out the airlock, but before he is ejected he and Starbuck share a moment. Hand-to-hand with glass between them they mirror each other. As Leoben is sucked out into space, Roslin recognizes a scene from her dream which fulfills some of the scripture Leoben quoted: All of this has happened before, and will happen again.
As always, Starbuck is conflicted. She prays to the Lords of Kobol to take care of Leoben’s soul if he had one. Nothing about the nature of consciousness, of what it is to be human is resolved. If anything, it’s all the more blurry. If ever the colour gray existed.
Elsewhere, Adama and Roslin are decompressing when he asks her if something is wrong. Yeah, something is seriously wrong. Humans are acting like Cylons, Cylons are acting like humans. Chamalla extract fries your brain, and oh yeah, the commander of the fleet might be a Cylon. She tells him everything is fine.
Photos: Leoben’s universe from wikicommons, BSG screenshots from Goddess Monchichi.