Torture is a funny thing.
Most people would probably agree that torture is bad. But in fiction, as with other forms of violence, torture takes on a certain air of respectability. When the good guy has captured the bad guy, and the audience knows the bad guy is really the bad guy, is it really so awful to torture him a little bit? There’s no danger of ambiguity in Flesh & Bone: Leoben is a Cylon and everyone knows it, because Adama killed a Leoben model in the miniseries; it’s not like Starbuck is interrogating someone who’s merely suspected of being a Cylon.
And unlike even the scummiest of villains on 24, Leoben isn’t human. So really, what’s the harm in beating the crap out him while trying to find out where he hid a bomb? Is one Cylon life more valuable than hundreds or thousands of innocent humans? “Of course not”, you’d say.
But torture is framed in a very particular way on Battlestar Galactica. We’ll come back to the issue in Season 2, when the Pegasus and its merry crew of sadists show up, but the dynamics of Flesh & Bone are carefully orchestrated to make torture acceptable this time around.
Watching Starbuck (female) torture Leoben (male) doesn’t seem too bad. But would the audience have tolerated Colonel Tigh having Boomer or Six beaten and drowned? Would it even have been okay for Starbuck, with the help of her two male marines, to smack around a female Cylon?
Probably not. Battlestar Galactica tread on some morally ambiguous ground – the good guys use suicide bombers, for god’s sake – but some subjects would have damned the characters for good.
(A female Cylon might even have been a logical plot development: In the last episode, a Cylon showed up to frame Baltar. Maybe they could have caught her in this episode, which would even creat a bit of ambiguity since no one would be sure she was a Cylon. But no, they have to bring in the guy who is absolutely a Cylon. That said, I like Callum Keith Rennie’s performance; it’s a pity his character wasn’t used more often.)
I heard a writer for The Simpsons talk about writing a scene in which Homer strangles Lisa, as he’s done to Bart so many times. As soon as they saw the rough animation, everyone agreed that it just felt wrong. It’s odd that a cartoon father strangling one child can be funny while strangling another makes everyone cringe, but that’s just the way it is.
The same is true on Galactica: Even if the audience knows and understands that a Cylon is evil and inhuman, the optics of Grace Park or Tricia Helfer being beaten and abused would make the scene a non-starter.
But that’s more of a thematic issue with the entire show. In the here and now, Flesh & Bone is a nicely done episode. Aside from the psychological battle of wills between Starbuck and Leoben, we get the first real sign that President Roslin isn’t the wimpy naive liberal we might have assumed her to be in the miniseries. Throwing Leoben out of the airlock is probably one of the coldest things any member of the cast does in this season; I doubt anyone other than Tigh would have done it. Roslin was unprepared for being President, but that doesn’t make her stupid, nor does it prevent her from feeling anger at the Cylons for wiping out most of humanity.
- Leoben’s “bomb” – a helpful whisper that someone important might be a Cylon – never gets followed up on, does it?
- Yeah, whatever. Starbuck can be an interrogator now. I give up.
- This episode doesn’t make too much of it, but it begins a Very Bad Thing: Magic and Prophecy. Nothing makes me lose interest in Galactica faster than ridiculous magical nonsense being taken seriously. It’s one thing when the person experiencing it might be crazy, as with Roslin’s visions, but it gets totally out of hand by the end of the series. I’ll complain about it more when it really starts bugging me.