One of the common characteristics of an energy narrative is labor inequality. The narrative will discuss poor labor practices, process malfunctions that lead to injury, the resistance that labor unions face, and there is usually some element of insurrection or strike. The Battlestar Galactica episode, Dirty Hands, is a prime example of this type of energy narrative.
The episode starts with the camera focusing on tylium fuel being pumped into a raptor. Shortly after the raptor takes off from Galactica one of the raptor’s engines catches on fire and stops functioning. The pilots are forced to eject from the raptor and the raptor crashes into President Roslin’s office on Colonial One. In the next scene Admiral Adama is helping Roslin move her supplies from her office to another part of Colonial One. Adama says that the raptor lost control because the tylium fuel was contaminated with impurities in it and that it was likely the result of a problem in the refining process. Roslin then mentions that she has been receiving complaints from the tylium refinery ship and Adama mentions that his patience with ship chief, Zeno Fenner, is growing thin:
The refinery used to be the most reliable ship in the fleet and now every day I start with a stack of messages from that chief…complaining about working conditions and deliveries and spare parts and compensation, if you can believe that. We’re on the run for our lives and the guy wants to talk about overtime bonuses. –Laura Roslin (Dirty Hands)
In the following scene Roslin and Adama meet with Fenner. He mentions that his men have been working 18-hour shifts for the last six months. Adama counters with the statement that the fleet only has enough fuel to do one or two FTL jumps if they come into contact with the cylons. Roslin then says to Fenner, “just get the gas flowing and then we’ll talk, I promise you that.” Fenner responds that “it is always later” that his requests are heard: “You know, it’s funny that when the gas flows my phone calls don’t get returned, but the minute there’s a glitch in the fuel supply I’ve got face time with the president and the admiral? Hmm…maybe we should just start having more glitches.” The president then has Fenner arrested for “extortion and interrupting vital services in a time of war.” This scene is yet another example of the idea that fuel is expected to be a certainty. It’s just supposed to be there when we need it.
Adama places Chief Tyrol in charge of the tylium ship. When Tyrol comes aboard the tylium ship his friend and now employee, Cabbott, shows him the dwindling supply of raw tylium ore. Cabbott claims that they will be lucky if they make it out of the star system. Next on the Chief’s tour is the refinery process. Cabbott says that when the operation is up and running it’s “as loud as an A-bomb and about as safe.” The Chief tells Cabbott to fire up the refinery line so he can see how it works but a kid (CHILD LABOR) tells him that the process will not work. Cabbott says that the kid, Milo, is the best grease jockey he has. The Chief asks why the process will not work but Cabbott and Milo refuse to give him an answer. The Chief discovers that the pressure seals for the machinery are missing and that the process will not work without them. Milo answers, “I guess they got lost.” Cabbott says that once working conditions improve and the president lets Zeno out of jail they will find the pressure seals, but until then the ship is not going anywhere.
The Chief reports to Adama that he cannot find the seals. Adama threatens to put the workers in jail but the Chief urges him not to, considering that this act is nothing compared to the sabotage the workers could have done to the fleet if they wanted to cause any real harm. The Chief makes the case that the workers have not had a day off since the original attack on the colonies and that is “slave labor”. Adama tells him to stop being ridiculous and the Chief responds, “The men and women aboard that ship are stuck there. They can’t leave. They can’t transfer. They have no control over their lives.” Roslin claims that the fleet is filled people working under horrific conditions trying to take care of food and waste and to provide water and so the tylium ship needs to suck it up. The Chief maintains that if the president releases Zeno and begins to work on improving working and living conditions than the strike will end. Roslin answers that extortion is not an acceptable means of protest and demands that the Chief give her a list of the leaders. Chief tells her that Cabott is leading the protest and she has him arrested.
The next scene shows a mentally unstable Cabott scratching at the walls of the cell he shares with Zeno when the Chief comes to check on them. Zeno reveals to the audience that Cabott was held in a cylon detention cell on New Caprica and that he is having a posttraumatic stress reaction to being held in the cell. Zeno asks that they be moved out of the cells and the Chief realizes that the best way to go about this is to tell Adama where the seals are hidden. The Chief uses Cabott’s distress as an interrogation technique to get Zeno to tell him where the seals are. It is unlikely that the Chief wanted to end the strike this way and found it ethical to use Cabott’s PTSD as an opportunity to do so. Rather, it is more likely that he knew that the best way to get Adama to agree to let Cabott out was to get him the location of the seals.
With the seals replaced the Chief restarts the refinery. While he is watching the process he notices all of the children working and discovers that Milo is only eleven. The Chief meets with the president about this problem and while she agrees that it isn’t ideal to have the children working that it is likely that they are doing so under the supervision of their parents who are training them in the process. The Chief then argues that jobs are starting to be inherited and that children should not have to have the same jobs as their parents. The president smiles at this and tells the Chief he has made a good point and then has her assistant make a list of all the people in the fleet who have work experience that would prepare them for working in the refinery. The president tells the Chief to hold a public lottery with the names and to recruit those people to work shifts in the refinery, but of course this means that people without the ideal skill-set are sent to the refinery.
With the new labor force, the refinery is up and running again but the machinery malfunctions. The Chief tries to shut down the line but Zeno warns him that if that happens that the machine will explode and that they must quickly fix the problem while the machine is running. They locate the source of the problem but the Chief is unable to pull out the part that is caught in the machine. One of the new laborers is successful at pulling it out but severely injures his arm in the process. The Chief looks around at the distraught laborers, pulls the switch to stop the refinery and calls for a strike.
The Chief expands the strike to the deckhands on Galactica and is arrested. Adama tells the Chief that his actions are mutiny and that the punishment for that is death. Adama has the Chief’s wife, Cally, arrested and he threatens to shoot her. The Chief calls off the strike and Adama lets both Cally and the Chief go. As Adama opens the Chief’s cell door he tells him to go speak with the president.
While he is talking with the president the Chief suggests that some of the “dirty” jobs be allocated to the high ranking individuals in the fleet to help even the playing field. Roslin agrees. The Chief also asks for a formal training program, which will allow the laborers some time for R and R, but Roslin says that this has to be an area where the union gives ground. The Chief is confused at first because there is no union but Roslin assures him that he is the head of the Colonial Workers Alliance, a union that was on New Caprica, but fell apart after the cylon occupation. The Chief realizes that the president is suggesting that they continue the union and that the Chief head it so that the workers will have more of a voice within the fleet.
When I first watched this episode I was unsure if it was an energy narrative. While tylium is the primary fuel source in the BSG universe and the episode centers around the tylium refinery ship, I thought that the episode was more of a comment about labor in general rather than a specific energy narrative. Though, as I mentioned before, issues surrounding labor are often characteristic of energy narratives, sometimes you can simply replace the energy resource with Coca-Cola or any other product the narrative would still by the same. However, as Roslin mentions in the episode there are plenty of other ships performing hard labor in the fleet. The reason the tylium ship is the focus of the episode is because without it the fleet is stranded, unable to continue to pursue earth and is in danger of being unable to run from the cylons. Fuel is expected to always be there as Zeno mentions when we is speaking with Adama and Roslin. People hunt for food and water; they are corporeal to every person, but fuel is abstract. Therefore when the tylium workers go on strike, the president and admiral are outraged. This episode is an example of a negative energy narrative. There is a weaker force (the laborers) exploited by a stronger force (high ranking colonial officials) to work to produce energy. It is also a dystopian energy narrative since the fleet is fighting for the survival of the human race after what was essentially the apocalypse. This complicates the narrative because in a time of war not having sufficient fuel to out-maneuver an enemy can endanger the lives of many people. Therefore, is the Chief’s action to declare a strike mutiny in a time of war? Or is the Admiral just acting like the bully in a negative energy narrative? Does the wartime status of a country effect its duty to protect people and the environment? Is it okay for the United States, for example, to use unethical practices to make sure that its military is able to provide fuel for its soldiers on the front lines?