(I wrote this in response to a review. YMMV)
Fair Warning – there are MASSIVE spoilers in this post. If you haven’t read The Shadow of Cincinnatus, you may want to skip the rest.
One of the most important issues in writing space opera – or having movies/TV shows that are effectively space opera – is that it’s all about the people. Great special effects are fun, but the people are truly important. This is far more important when handling an arc-based show like Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica (Reimagined). A show like Star Trek: The Next Generation is far more forgiving of characters that basically stay the same throughout seven seasons.
Babylon 5 showcases an excellent way to have characters grow and develop – or fall – over four seasons. (I tend to ignore the fifth.) Battlestar Galactica is far weaker in this respect; of all the major characters, only Baltar and Gaeta show any real character development, particularly after midway through season three (when, IMHO, the entire show lurched off the rails.) Gaeta, in particular, is worth observing. He starts as an enthusiastic young officer, bonding in particular with Baltar (on whom I think it’s clear he has a crush), but is rapidly betrayed by his father figures. Colonel Tigh tries to rig the election, Adama lets Starbuck get away with shooting Gaeta in the leg, Baltar betrays all of humanity when the Cylons invade New Caprica and (to add insult to injury) Gaeta is nearly killed for suspected collaboration, by people who don’t know he spied on the collaborators for the resistance.
In the end, it isn’t really surprising that he goes bad. When he sets out to do something good (calling foul on the rigged election) it results in humanity trapped at the mercy of their enemies. Life took a highly-idealistic young man and turned him into a butt-monkey. The mutiny against the fleet’s leadership – the only episodes of season four worth watching, was largely inevitable.
In many ways, Marius Drake has a similar problem.
Drake is a career military officer. He was a midshipman during the Blue Star War (70 years prior to BATG) and spent that time working his way up the chain of command. He doesn’t have any real experience of life outside the military, nor does he have any real sympathy for civilians. How can he?
Drake is a strong believer in the ideals of the Federation. He knows that individuals can be corrupt, but puts a great deal of faith in the Federation itself. Unlike politicians, Drake’s seen enough of life at the sharp end to know that relaxing and granting rights to aliens (there is a strong streak of xeno-racism in his makeup) is likely to end in disaster. To Drake, Justinian and his fellow warlords are traitors, because they cannot help, but weaken the Federation. Drake would not have considered overthrowing the government himself because it would have weakened the Federation. He took that oath seriously!
Drake, finally, is a believer in the ideals of the military. He might not expect people to obey orders unquestioningly, but he does expect them to obey orders. The military is a hierarchical organisation and Drake, as of BATG, is very near the top. Drake believes in being loyal to his subordinates and expects loyalty from them in return.
By the end of BATG, several things have gone wrong.
Drake was nearly killed by Blake, his aide, at the orders of the Grand Senate. This was an absolute betrayal, all the more so as Drake’s best friend was killed saving his life. (This had the unfortunate side effect of removing one of the few people who could argue with Drake as a friend, as well as a comrade.) Drake’s faith in the civilian government, already weakened by the discovery that his surrender terms had been repudiated, snapped. He led his fleet back to Earth, overthrew the Grand Senate and took power. (And executed most of the Grand Senators personally.)
Personally, I wrote that scene as the moment where Drake loses his own moral compass.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t end the story. Drake finds himself inheriting a mess, a mess he cannot solve with the tools at his disposal. He’s used to thinking in terms of military operations, not fixing a badly-weakened economy. (This is why most military governments, no matter how popular at Day One, tend to develop problems with remarkable speed.) The idea of weakening the Federation, of loosening control, is inconceivable to him. Drake has no illusions about the Federation’s (lack of) popularity. To surrender control, to let the economy breathe, would start a chain of events that would eventually tear the Federation apart.
And then the Outsiders attack.
Drake finds himself in the same position as Stalin, 1941. He needs to organise the Federation for war against treacherous rebels, despite the Federation’s economic weakness. Surrender is not an option. This is a man raised to believe that aliens are ready to stab the human race in the back at the first sign of weakness, facing a human faction that – horror of horrors – has allied itself with a pair of alien races. He views the Outsiders with as much enthusiasm as Stalin would view a Ukrainian Freedom Fighter who allied himself with Nazi Germany, complete with planned Final Solution for Russia’s teeming masses. (This might not, of course, be a logical view. But emotions are rarely logical.) By the time TSOC reaches its climax, he’s prepared to do anything to hammer the Outsiders so hard they never recover.
Now, if you don’t think someone would snap under that kind of pressure, I have a lovely white house in the centre of Washington to sell you <grin>.
This happens quite a bit, if you start out with strong moral principles. You compromise them, slightly. And then you compromise them again, slightly more. And again, and again, and again, until you can no longer tell right from wrong, or reach the point where you can justify anything to yourself, and keep telling yourself you’re doing the right thing when you jumped off the slippery slope a long time ago.
Drake’s real tragedy is this – the problems facing the Federation, the problems caused by over a century of mismanagement, are largely impossible to solve with the tools he is willing to use. Unfortunately, this is true of far too many military officers who take power by force.
Why didn’t this happen to Cincinnatus? His problem was much – much – smaller.
YMMV, of course.