Television shows, and which actors appear on them, has changed quite a bit over the years, as there is no longer the stigma that use to be attached to it. Today big time movie stars are regularly appearing on such shows as America Horror Story, True Detective, and Game of Thrones, without giving it a second thought, but that was certainly not the case in the Seventies, when the only time you saw a major movie star on the small screen was when “an aged and retired” movie star was making a guest appearance on an episode of The Love Boat or Fantasy Island, and I believe Angela Lansbury single-handedly emptied out the Hollywood Hills Retirement Home by getting her old friends work on Murder She Wrote. Which brings us to tonight’s episode “The Man with Nine Lives” which guest stars the legendary Fred Astaire. Long after putting up his dancing shoes legendary actor Astaire stepped onto the Universal lot to star in this sci-fi show simply because his grandchildren were huge fans of Battlestar Galactica, thus one of the Hollywood giants brought just a little more class to our space adventure.
This episode begins aboard a shuttlecraft heading for the Rising Star, the one luxury liner in and amongst this ragtag group of ships that makes up our lovely fleet. One of the passengers is named Chameleon (Fred Astaire), who is literally charming the pants off Siress Blassie (Anne Jeffreys), while also trying to avoid paying the shuttle porter the required fare. You see, Chameleon is a con man, and he’s broke. This is almost exactly the same character he played in Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno, an ageing con man with a heart of gold.
Meanwhile, on a military shuttle from the Galactica Starbuck (Dirk Benedict), Apollo (Richard Hatch), Boomer (Hebert Jefferson Jr.) and Jolly (Tony Swartz) are also heading over to the Rising Star, to spend some of their hard-earned money at the casinos and lounge acts. Once again I question how an economy can function when your homeworlds have been destroyed, and all that is left is a few thousand people cramped aboard a bunch of spaceships. Apollo complains that Starbuck’s new gambling system is going to cost him another week’s pay, but once again who exactly is paying the Colonial pilots? Where is this money coming from? That we’ve seen ships overloaded with starving survivors of the Cylon invasion, and then we have the overstocked pleasure ships like the Rising Star, makes one surprised that they haven’t had an uprising that would make the French Revolution pale in comparison. Hell, this could have led to a cool steerage versus first-class battle years before Snowpiercer.
A pall is thrown over the festivities when three Borellian Nomen walk into the main lounge, Boomer is shocked by this as this race is not known to socialize with other humans, and of course, the real reason they are aboard the Rising Star is not to party but because they are on a Blood Hunt, a ritualistic vendetta they perform against an enemy. In this case, their prey is the lovely rogue Chameleon, but because Nomen sticks out in a crowd like a turd in a punch bowl Chameleon spots them quickly, and he slips out of the room. The youngest of the three Nomen spots their fleeing prey and recklessly draws his laser bola, but this is bad because once activated they cannot be turned off, and it will eventually go critical and explode. Boomer intercedes and orders the young Nomen to throw the bola at a support pillar so that it can discharge harmlessly, and after doing so the Nomen claims it is was an accident, and he promises to leave on the next shuttle.
Realizing the great danger he is in Chameleon immediately slides into self-preservation con mode. While flying over on the shuttle he had watched an inflight broadcast of an interview with Starbuck, where he learned that as a child Starbuck was an orphan found wandering in the thorn forests on Caprica – a near an agro community called Umbra – after a Cylon attack. Chameleon tracks down Starbuck and begins the Big Con, he tells Starbuck and Apollo that he works as a genetic tracer, someone who can reunite orphans with their relatives using genetic tests. and he casually mentions he got into this business when his wife was killed during a Cylon raid on Caprica, and how his son went missing there. When Starbuck learns that Chameleon is also from Umbra he immediately leaps to the conclusion that Chameleon is his dad. His puppy-like enthusiasm is quite endearing.
So they all head to the shuttle bay to get back to the Galactica, where they can presumably run tests to verify their relation. On the way out they pass the three Nomen, who have been waiting in the departure lounge, and Boomer is angered that they didn’t leave after they promised to, and he has the young Nomen arrested. Maga (Lance LeGault), the head Nomen, realizes their trail now leads to the Galactica, and that the only way onboard is to sign up to join the Colonial Viper service. Somehow this works.
Later on the Galactica Cassiopeia (Laurette Sprang) runs the first stage of tests, and she tells Starbuck and Chameleon that, “Well, you’re both from the same planet, and from the same tribe, and you’re at least related within ten generations.” Now she adds that at least a hundred other people in the fleet match these genetic criteria, but still that is one bloody awesome coincidence. Chameleon needed Colonial protection and he just so happened to pick a pilot that came from the exact same neighbourhood he did, which is downright astronomically insane, especially when you consider this is from a society of multiple worlds. Both Apollo and Boomer suspect that Chameleon was using Starbuck to escape the Nomen, but when Chameleon pushes to have the further testing done right away it makes them pause. When Starbuck hears that Apollo had a security background check done on Chameleon he completely flips out, and he dissolves their friendship.
“You may have saved my life countless times, and are like a brother to me, but because you have no faith in my dad our friendship is over!” Starbuck, Drama Queen.
Starbuck and Chameleon have a nice heart to heart in a Viper launch tube, where Starbuck informs his “dad” that he is going to resign from the fleet so that they can make up for lost time. This seems like rash action, but before Chameleon can dissuade from this career path they are attacked by the two Nomen. Starbuck and the Nomen exchange laser gun and laser bola fire, but just as things look bad for Starbuck, Chameleon fires the Viper’s guns down the launch tube, knocking both Nomen unconscious.
This is when we find out that Chameleon, during one of his many occupations, discovered that the Nomen were hoarding supplies in the hopes of building a Viper of their own. Chameleon posed as Captain Dmitri of a livestock ship, and the Nomen had paid him to smuggle enough livestock to live on for yahrens, but eventually, the Nomen discovered they were being conned and went on a Blood Hunt. While all this is being settled Cassiopeia reveals to Chameleon that he really is Starbuck’s father. Holy felgercarb, but that is some immense bullshit. This no longer a case of astronomical coincidences but must be the machinations of the gods. Chameleon begs Cassiopeia to not tell Starbuck because then the fleet would lose a great pilot, and so Chameleon leaves promising Starbuck that he will stay in touch.
The Nomen are interesting villains, and their dark skin and ridged foreheads pre-date the bumpy-headed Klingons in Star Trek: The Motion Picture by a year, but what makes this episode thoroughly enjoyable is down to how awesome Fred Astaire is. The chemistry between Astaire and Dirk Benedict is simply fantastic, and if they’d somehow managed to work in a plot that wasn’t so ridiculously contrived it could have been one of the better episodes of the series. As it stands the episode is only entertaining on the merits of Astaire and Benedict alone, and not the script.
Note: For some reason, Fred Astaire’s character’s name is Chameleon but is pronounced Sha-ME-lee-on, as opposed to Ka-ME-lee-on.
For the index of reviews click here: Battlestar Galactica: The Complete Series
The Man with Nine Lives
A fun and charming episode that introduces some cool villains, but is mostly known for giving us more time with the great Fred Astaire.