EXPERIMENT IN TERRA

Review By Matthew Wharmby

PREMISE: Apollo (or is it Starbuck?) does a spot of unintentional freelancing for the Beings of Light, has his fifteen minutes of fame and averts a nuclear war, but all this and he's not on the right planet after all.

THE STORY:

The Eastern Alliance's runaway destroyer tears towards Lunar Seven at star speed, pursued by Blue Squadron. The fascist (or national-communist, if you like, as I think they've got as much East German to them as Nazi German) Enforcers note the pursuing vipers, and in an unfilmed scene (which you can read here) makes plans to lure the Galactican ships into a trap, assuming nearby destroyers can rendezvous in time. However, that's the last we see of Commandant Leiter and his crew, as Apollo is suddenly diverted. As he peels away from the rest of Blue Squadron's vector to make doubly sure there are no additional Alliance destroyers lurking, his ears are assailed by the unmistakable signature whine of the Ship of Lights, which pitches up behind him and swallows him up before the rest of Blue Squadron can blink.

As Boomer and Starbuck are wondering why their patrol leader has suddenly disappeared into thin air, Apollo awakens in a surprisingly familiar place, his uniform and laser bright white as before. Although his memories were wiped after the momentous events of 'War of the Gods', he recognises the Ship of Lights. Conveniently, an envoy materialises and greets Apollo with a cheerful 'hello'. This is John, engendered for the reassurance of corporeally-based beings such as Apollo, and played by Edward Mulhare (instantly familiar as Knight Rider's Devon Miles). We'll begin to see that all is not as it seems, for a very interesting reason - the script was actually written for Starbuck, and not Apollo. Thus we see Apollo acting quite out of character in many ways, and it's a strange sensation. Try and put that out of your minds, though, and keep reading.

The Guardians, angels, Seraphs, call them what you will, have a mission for Apollo, brushing aside his petty little concerns about his squadron. He's going to be sent to stop the impending war between Nationalists and Alliance on Terra itself, but the time constraint is such that Apollo can't do it as himself. Thus, he is going to have to assume the identity of a player in the Terran conflict, one Colonel Charlie Watts of the People's Nationalist Force. Watts has been imprisoned on Nationalist-held Lunar One, but has escaped. Apollo will take his place in order to deliver news that will hopefully put the Nationalist President off signing a misguided peace treaty with the Alliance. The predictable question, such as 'but won't I look different from him?' are answered briskly by John with a reassurance that Apollo will appear indistinguishable from the missing Colonel Watts. 'Actually, he's quite a good-looking fellow', John quips, showing that these otherwise deadly serious angels do have a sense of humour. As Apollo is sent on his way, however, John is none too convinced of the mission's likely success, pleading to an unseen superior higher above that he's working with primitives.

'Got to give up the late nights,' Apollo chuckles, very Starbuck-like, in his cockpit, believing he's awakened from a corker of a dream. 'My uniform's turned white!' he then gapes in amazement. Even more baffling is that Terra is now visible dead ahead, despite Blue Squadron's position being some considerable distance away. John appears on Apollo's monitor and explains the discrepancy. Far away, in Starbuck and Boomer's vipers, Apollo's beacon suddenly winks on again. Starbuck has no idea how Apollo got so far away in such a short time, but intends to find out. Boomer is instructed to keep after the fleeing destroyer while Starbuck heads for Terra to find Apollo.

Apollo puts down in a desert on the Nationalist side of the surface of Terra - not unnoticed by local authorities - where Charlie Watts's girlfriend Brenda is waiting. As soon as she meets Apollo, and gets him into her ground car (which has been dubbed with a suitable futuristic sound, but what, through the darkness, looks suspiciously like a '76-90 Chevrolet Caprice with enough landram-borrowed roof lighting to gut the battery in mere minutes), she starts bellyaching about how she got called in the middle of the night to come and pick him up in the middle of nowhere, with no warning.

Apollo, of course, has no idea what this pretty(ish) but distinctly neurotic young woman is on about, and his attempts to try and get some basic information out of her don't do altogether well. 'What was your name again?' he can't help but ask. 'Amnesia,' Brenda diagnoses in one, rolling her eyes. 'That's a pretty name,' attempts Apollo. Actually, come to think of it, this isn't as non-Apollo as it looks. Where Starbuck would have probably taken the opportunity to exercise Charlie's privileges with Brenda and quickly, Apollo comes off like a complete klutz with women, which is rather endearing - and definitely Apollo.

Back at Brenda's fashionable flat in the city, she lets 'Charlie' get his bearings while she goes upstairs to change, or freshen up, or whatever it is women seem to spend two hours in the bathroom doing. What she's really doing is calling the law! Some welcome, and some girlfriend! The rationale is that Charlie's been acting dead strange since he got back from captivity, and may be ill or traumatised. Downstairs, Apollo is completely stumped as to what to do next, when John appears. 'Hello,' he chirps again, but Apollo is less conciliatory this time. How is he going to avert this war when he doesn't even know who to get in touch with, for example? Brenda is even more suspicious when she comes downstairs (wearing not a great deal - she's changed all right) and sees 'Charlie' conversing with what appears to be an imaginary friend. When Apollo attempts to introduce John, the Seraph warns apologetically that she can't see him. When the doorbell rings, Apollo gets suspicious, but the two Nationalist military police have him covered before he can pull his laser on them. He is carted off angrily, cursing John as much as he does Brenda.

Aboard the Galactica, Tigh and Adama muse over the Terra situation after receiving Starbuck's report, and sanction his long haul to Terra in lieu of pursuing the Alliance destroyer. 'We could be flying into a war zone,' Tigh warns. Down on Terra, word has reached the Nationalist President Arends that Charlie Watts has escaped, but the President has ideas of his own that Colonel Watts's reappearance threatens to scupper. Apparently, none of the general population knows that the Eastern Alliance has captured all of Terra's satellites from the PNF. If Watts were to spill this information, it would derail Arends's grand plan to sue for peace with the Alliance's Supreme Commandant. Therefore, Charlie, and anyone in contact with him, are a threat. Accordingly, Apollo soon finds himself joined in prison by General Maxwell and Brenda. Across the hall, sympathetic Colonel Stone has also been imprisoned. Apollo is now able to reveal his true identity to the Nationalist dignitaries, who only now begin to understand him. If peace were signed so rashly, nothing would be able to defend the Nationalist side from the long-feared Alliance first strike. Anguished, Apollo can only plead to an invisible John for help. In the lab attached to the prison block, Dr Horning is puzzling over Apollo's laser and communicator, noting that the latter begins to receive transmissions from Starbuck. The Nationalist authorities, not least of them the President, are suitably alarmed that a second alien ship has infiltrated their airspace within hours. As it happens, John has to compete for angel status on this episode, as Starbuck has arrived. Landing next to Apollo's viper, he has barely got out of his cockpit when police forces in helicopters appear and set down close by. Cannily absolving himself of any blame should he 'accidentally' waste this local law enforcement, Starbuck records into his communicator 'Let the record show that in first contact with people from Terra, my laser's set for stun'. Five Nationalist military police dismount from each flying craft and line up in front of Starbuck, who is crouching down behind his viper. After a brief exchange, the Nationalists make a move to apprehend him, but Starbuck shoots first, dropping all ten with stun fire. He then, extremely gratuitously, blows their two flying craft to smithereens.

As Starbuck enters the city, he is puzzled to hear a strange voice coming from behind him. John appears, touches him on the shoulder and says 'And now, you remember.' Looking down at his now white uniform, it all comes back to Starbuck. Making his way into the prison block, he is threatened by guards whom he has to stun (or rather, frighten them off by shooting a light fitting off its mountings and onto the floor). Dr Horning picks up Starbuck's shout of warning 'Stop or I'll blast you!' on Apollo's communicator and drops the device in startlement. When Apollo sees Starbuck come to rescue them, he is overjoyed and needs to convince the Maxwells and Stone no further as to who he says he is. The Nationalists are indeed using the peace plan to mount a first strike, and Apollo must get to the Presidium where Arends is about to make his 'peace in our time' speech, and waylay the President's foolhardy quest for glory. The Galactica, meanwhile, has left the fleet, and is charging headlong towards Terra at light speed, with not a moment to lose before it can bring its weapons to bear to avert nuclear war over Terra.

On the Eastern side, a dark bunker is the setting for the Eastern Alliance's Supreme Commandant to bombast his own ideas of 'peace in our time'. Gleefully, he announces that the time has come to ready all missiles for immediate launch. We then see stock footage of ICBMs on trailers being moved to launch positions.

Starbuck has Brenda drive him back to his viper so he can get in range to inform the Galactica that all hell is about to break loose. Brenda is appropriately awestruck when she sees the Colonial viper in her headlights (plenty of them, as I mentioned earlier!). Starbuck can get his spot of flirting in, but this time he doesn't even get a kiss goodbye. Oh well... In the Terran Presidium, Arends has delivered his speech, which has produced the desired effect among the audience - shock and muted approval. However, Arends is stunned to see that his political adversaries have escaped and are presenting a counter-argument of their own, spoken by Apollo. The Galactica's strike leader then makes a splendid speech in which he wistfully outlines the tragic recent history of the Colonies (although making sure not to mention anything or anyone by name). In a stinging slap at one-sided peace dreams, he notes bitterly that 'the opposite of war isn't necessarily peace. More often, it's slavery.' Only strength alone can keep opposing sides apart. On the other side of the planet, the Supreme Commandant pushes the button. Scores of intercontinental ballistic missiles breach their silos and charge into the sky...

President Arends doesn't seem too ruffled at his opponents' attempt to spoil his party, and doesn't look threatened enough to have them re-arrested, but it's all academic when General Maxwell steps up and informs them, sotto voce so as not to spread panic, that the Alliance has launched their first strike. More angry than terrified, if not completely resigned, Maxwell states blankly 'We've got about six minutes.'

Starbuck gets airborne and desperately attempts to contact the Galactica, now arriving in the sector. Helped out by John, he gets through to Adama and can just about blurt out what he needs to say. 'Hurry up Commander, they're gonna blow each other up!' Tension rises on the bridge as Adama sounds battle stations. Omega tracks the rising missiles, reporting that the Nationalists have simultaneously launched their automatic counterstrike. As the warheads reach the ionosphere and begin to make their approach curve, the Galactica activates a powerful shield over Terra's surface. The missiles simply impact the shield and explode harmlessly, and the Galactica continues to extend this shield until the entire stock of Terran ICBMs is depleted. Down on Terra, both sides are bemused as to why a) they aren't dead, and b) neither are their enemies. Apollo winks knowingly, looking at the shock on the faces of his Nationalist counterparts, who don't know quite what to believe. Not so long afterwards, even the President is chastised when a direct communique comes through from the Supreme Commandant, who has suddenly gained a desire for peace of his own. The gobsmacked Nationalists look over to thank Apollo for his action - but he has disappeared.

On a Terran sidewalk by night, Apollo wanders along, with John by his side. As John prepares to take his leave, Apollo begs one last question. 'Is this Earth?' John looks skyward for permission, as Apollo protests after all he'd done for them. After some conferring, John gives the answer. 'I'm sorry, Apollo... your journey is not over'.


RATING: 3 out of 5 (Good). There's a lot of heavy-duty Cold War politics in this one, which is hard going at times, and the episode needs watching more than once to fully get the hang of it. Once the low-rent Commandant Leiter and his bully boys are out of the way, we get to the source of the Terra business, and in doing so learn a bit more about the contemporary conflicts on our own mixed-up little planet. John's already said that Apollo's speech encapsulates the Galactica philosophy in one, and I concur, with the only proviso being that Apollo's coming from a 'once bitten, twice shy' standpoint that we never had to face - and thankfully so, given that Maggie and Ronnie were just gagging to push the button. President Arends is actually a nasty piece of work. He may look and sound like Chamberlain, but what sort of 'democrat' would imprison his own aides for leaking sensitive information? He does actually get away with it, as all are suitably shown the error of their ways by a) the missile launches and b) the deliberately unspecified Galactica in turn wiping them out casually, but I think the episode might have benefited from a snap resignation and cautionary change of government at the death. The 'bad' Supreme Commandant suing for peace on his enemy's terms is ever such a slight cop-out, although you could argue that maybe the Alliance thought the Nationalists had knocked down their weapons (and maybe not fired any of their own). Uncannily apposite, what with Star Wars (that's SDI, not Luke Skywalker et al) rearing its head again!

THOUGHTS:

* So THAT'S why this episode was so strange. All these years I had no idea that the script was actually written with Starbuck as the primary character, not Apollo. I'm surprised that Richard Hatch didn't do a bit more to take the Starbuck out of it. (Editor's note: The roles of Starbuck and Apollo were switched when Richard Hatch complained that Apollo was being de-emphasized in favor of Starbuck. It should be made clear, though, that he never asked for the script to be changed)

* I'm sorry, but I thought the final scene was tremendously weak. All that buildup to a good scrap, heart-stopping music included, let down with a pathetic green shield spat out of the front of the Galactica. And from a terrible angle made necessary by two separately matted halves; one of Earth and one of the Galactica's underside. And you don't mean to tell me that the Galactica could extend such a shield over the whole planet? If so, why couldn't she have performed the same thing over Caprica in the pilot, and let the attacking Cylon fighters blow themselves up in it?

* Almost as bad were the Nationalist aircraft, which appear to be nothing more than two klieg lights, from which the five soldiers 'climb out' most unconvincingly (it looks like they lined up one behind the other, then stepped out in opposite directions!) They did blow up quite nicely, though (lots of pretty sparks and firework effects).

* When Starbuck enters the prison and threatens the guards, he shoots at the light fitting and we see it blow up (in a very big explosion). But then we see the undamaged bulb fall to the floor and smash! Did the censors not go for that one? (Silly question, really...)

* More swipes at big government and woolly pacifism are tempered by equal snubs to unilateral acts of violence and political naivete.

* Terra is yet another planet we only see by night. With the money saved by doing day shoots, they could have bought more Dykstraflex for better special effects than that green shield!

* Nobody seems too panicked about the impending nuclear annihilation! I don't know about you, but when us kids growing up in the late Cold War used to speculate nervously about the four-minute warning, the usual consensus was that we'd be doing, well, what it takes four minutes to do. 'You can do it twice,' the girls would quip.

* Tons of stock footage of missiles launching, and even ten full seconds of the big end falling off the Apollo XI rocket! (which i think was meant to symbolise a silo coming open)

* Charlie Watts is of course the Rolling Stones' legendary drummer!

* I'm not mad keen on Brenda's attitude. If every girl who had boyfriend trouble called the Old Bill on such a weak pretext, there wouldn't be a bloke alive out of prison! I remember now that John warned Apollo that Charlie Watts had a bit of a reputation (funnily enough, he was the least likely of the Stones to do all that groupie stuff!). Anyway, for our purposes, this made the initial assignment of the role to Starbuck a bit easier to handle. Actually, I quite like the unintentional mismatch - it's endearingly refreshing to see the normally confident Apollo so out of his depth (but he doesn't half make up for lost time by the end of the episode).

* Wouldn't have minded a bit of closure to Commandant Leiter and his boys. I'm sure these ideologically hidebound political soldiers would be disgusted to discover upon their return that peace is at hand. And I can't imagine the Borellian Nomen, who tagged along for the ride off the Galactica, being terribly thrilled at being flown to a totalitarian dictatorship where not only their religion, but their physical appearance, would come under threat.


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