The rank-structure of the Colonial Fleet

The Racetrack Chronicle mentions two ranks of the Colonial Marine Corps that seem to follow uncontroversially from canon: Brigadier and General, the CMC equivalents of Commander and Admiral. Natalia Caldwell receives a brevet to the former at the end of Poseidon, and General Ishawa is mentioned as heading the Colonial Forces Training Command. Commandant of the Colonial Marine Corps General Kim Bratton, plays a supporting role in the next book, and General Hague (spot that reference, sportsfans) instigates an important event in its backstory.

More controversially, the Maggieverse implicitly discards a rank that has been presumed to exist. Fanlore bifurcates the Colonial Lieutenancy into two ranks, junior-grade and full, relying on a blog post from RDM and a slight difference in rank-devices worn by different actors playing different Lieutenants. I’m skeptical, and I wrote the Chronicle with an assumption that the Colonial Lieutenancy is a single rank.

Assumptions, canon, and the costuming-department.

Watching a show like BSG, we generally assume that what we see on-screen are specific instances of a broader, coherent world. Thus, for example, we assume that the uniforms worn by Cdr. Bill Adama in the Miniseries are typical for a Commander in the Colonial Fleet, and the badges worn on-set by actor Edward James Olmos that correspond to the character Adama’s rank-devices are, in-universe, the rank-devices that ordinarily denote the rank of Commander. Thus, when we see Jurgen Belzen wearing the same uniform and rank-devices as Col. Tigh, we infer Belzen’s rank and position. This insinuation of a world beyond the frame—one that is consistent with but larger than the on-camera environment—creates a veracity and suspension of disbelief that to draw us into the portrayed world.

Let’s start, then, with the badges and ensigns of the Lieutenancy as they appear on-screen and in the canon.

On-screen, the portrayed universe shows us junior officer ranks that progress linearly through spearhead-shaped rank-devices: Major (three chevrons), Captain (two chevrons), and Lieutenant (one chevron):

But there is a common variation of the Lieutenant badge—in fact it was the most commonly-worn badge on-set—with a short chevron that doesn’t hang over the side of the badge:

For purposes of this post, I’ll refer to these as the “long” and “short” badges, meaning only the IRL badges worn on-set, not whatever the might denote in-universe. Alessandro Juliani, playing Lt. Felix Gaeta, for example, wore the short badges, while Katee Sakhoff, playing Lt. Kara Thrace, usually (but not always) wore the long badges prior to Thrace’s promotion to Captain:

(During his brief demotion to Lieutenant, Lee Adama also appears to wear them interchangeably, although the resolution is too low to be sure.)

Fanlore—citing this RDM post written after season one—treats these badges as distinct rank-devices connoting distinct ranks. RDM explained that “[f]or our internal purposes, we’ve decided that the ranks are indeed a mixture of naval and army nomenclature and are basically as follows: … Ensign, Lieutenant JG, Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Colonel, Commander, Admiral.” This list can be thought of as an addendum to the show bible: It’s not canon, it’s a guide for the writing staff’s assumptions. And like the show-bible, ex natura, it is and proved subject to revision. Significantly, for example, RDM’s list omits Lieutenant-Colonel, Jack Fisk’s rank in “Razor.” (And that of Galactica second-officer Nathan Blake in the Chronicle.) The list wasn’t intended as, and in fact can’t be, an exhaustive, well-considered taxonomy of the ranks of the Colonial Fleet.

I accept that as products of the costuming department worn by actors on-set, the short and long badges are distinct. (They are, confessedly, more distinct than I thought when I formed my conclusions on this issue, which was before I had access to the resolution provided by Blu-Ray disks.) But as to what if anything their distinction connotes in-universe, that is, whether they are in fact different rank-devices in-universe, connoting different ranks (rather than, for example, older and newer patterns of the same rank-device)—that’s another question.

The two best canonical arguments for the bifurcated lieutenancy come from very early in the show. In the Miniseries, the nameplate JRLT SHARON VALERII “BOOMER” is visible on Boomer’s Raptor, and in “33,” a captured Helo verbally offers the familiar prisoner-of-war formula: “Agathon, Karl C. Lieutenant, junior grade, Colonial Fleet. PK789-9348….”

Taken in isolation, I concede that these point toward a bifurcated Lieutenancy, albeit not with certainty and not without some minor difficulties. For one thing, they aren’t quite consistent: If the rank is called “Lieutenant, Junior Grade,” why not LTJG? For another, that isn’t Helo’s serial-number; Propworx auctioned his dog-tags, which give his serial number as 384162. (1 Propworx, at 145, lot 390.) That sounds like splitting hairs, I know, but if we can to infer canonical information about the world from props, it would seem odd to say that only some props count.

Still, JRLT is a plausible substitution of “Lieutenant Junior Grade” for that purpose. It’s two other issues that really scuttle the theory.

First, if Boomer and Helo are our prototypical JGs, it bears noting that although Grace Park (playing Boomer and later Athena) wore the short badges throughout the show, Tahmoh Penikett (playing Helo) wore the long badges throughout season one:

Helo has no opportunity for a change of clothes in the 62 days between being marooned on Caprica in the Miniseries and his escape in the middle of season two. He was assuredly not promoted between episodes 101 and 103. Future promotions notwithstanding (were “Final Cut” our only evidence, one could argue for offscreen promotion), he left Caprica holding the same rank with which he arrived. If the long badges are taken as denoting a discrete rank, full Lieutenant rather than the JG as which he seems to identify himself to Six, this is a discrepancy.

Second, no other pilot has a JRLT nameplate on their plane—even those who wear the short badges. Luciana Carro’s Louanne Katrine (AKA Sasha Billings in Vespers) was a Lieutenant until her promotion to Captain. But Carro wore the short badges until or even after Kat’s promotion to Captain; if the Colonial Fleet had a JRLT rank, Kat’s pre-promotion nameplate should have read JRLT LOUANNE KATRAINE “KAT”. It didn’t. Her nameplate styled her LT. (2 Propworx at 286, Lots 785 et seq.) The same goes for her on-again-off-again lover (fight me), Bodie Olmos’ Brendan Costanza. Olmos wore the short badges throughout the show; if the Colonial Fleet had a JRLT rank, Hot Dog’s nameplate should have read JRLT BRENDAN COSTANZA “HOTDOG”. It didn’t. His nameplate styled him LT. (2 Propworx, at 287 lot 789.)

“Ah,” I see you getting ready to say—”but why assume that Raptors and Vipers follow the same nameplate conventions?” Alright: Leah Cairns wore the short badges throughout the show, but Racetrack’s Raptor was always designated either LT MARGARET EDMONDSON “RACETRACK” or LT. MARGARET EDMONDS. “RACETRACK”, never JRLT M EDMONDSON. (2 Prp. at 288 Lot 793.) The same goes for “Sharon Mark II.”After Grace Park’s Sharon Agathon received a field-commission, her Raptor styled her LT SHARON AGATHON “ATHENA”, not JRLT, notwithstanding Park continuing to wear the short badges.

With all this in mind, it is reasonable to assert this much: Canon doesn’t settle the question. At best, there is canonical evidence consistent with the existence of the JG rank, and there is other canonical evidence that cuts against it. Each set of evidence can be attacked on the IRL grounds that it was later retconned or was a production error, but when all’s said and done, canon is ambiguous on this point. And ambiguities in the canon should be resolved in favor of coherency.

Why fight it?

Very early in the writing-process, I needed to resolve a knot of closely-related issues about the career-paths of some key characters, which meant engaging with deployments, time-in-grade requirements, and rank-structures. I wanted to understand the trajectory of my characters through the Colonial Fleet’s normal world.

You have to start somewhere, so I started here: Cairns (Racetrack) and Park (Boomer, Athena, Number Eight) are the same age and each wore the short badges. In trying to reconstruct Racetrack’s career path, I started with an operating assumption that she and Spitfire were the same age as (and so reported aboard at the same time as) Boomer, whose arrival we can bracket from canon. In “Sacrifice,” Tigh says that Boomer reported aboard “two years ago.” That episode isn’t dated, but its timeframe is bracketed by “Epiphanies” (day ~217) and “Downloaded” (day 270). Accordingly, the timeframe in which Boomer, Racetrack, and Spitfire reported aboard the Galactica is approximately days -513 through -460. At Zero Hour, then (i.e. the Miniseries, or chapter four of Galactica), our heroines had been aboard the Galactica for between fifteen and seventeen months. The original operating assumption may not have been sound, but it yielded a workable initial number.

The ordinary naval life.

In peacetime, U.S. Navy officers are not eligible for promotion before serving a minimum period in their existing rank—the time-in-grade (“TIG”) requirement. And ships, especially aircraft-carriers, operate on activity cycles comprising deployments, maintenance phases, and time in port. These are perfectly reasonable, comprehensible patterns that any well-ordered military operating aircraft-carriers or their analogs might be expected to follow. It stood to reason that the Colonial Fleet would have similar cycles.

More canonical facts fill in more blanks. We know that the Pegasus’ maintenance-phase was to last three months (“Pegasus”). We know that at Zero Hour, Gaeta has been aboard the Galactica for “three years” (Miniseries), which is unlikely to mean 36 months to the day. And we can presume that the Galactica is at the end of a deployment at Zero Hour because she is on the cusp of being decommissioned. (A scene scripted and shot but excised in post would have canonized that the ceremony was not held in advance of the event, and that the Galactica was in fact no longer a commissioned warship at Zero Hour.)

Further assuming that rooks typically reported aboard when a battlestar deployed rather than when she went in for maintenance, I could posit a sixteen-month deployment based on Boomer’s arrival. The numbers then lined up nicely: Gaeta reported aboard after the Galactica’s penultimate maintenance phase, then served a sixteen-month tour, followed by a three-month maintenance-and-training phase, followed by another sixteen-month tour (the one I chronicled in Galactica from the perspectives of Maggie and David). That gives us to a nice round and close number of 35 months for Gaeta’s pre-zero-hour tenure on the Galactica.

(Sixteen months is a long time, to be sure, but given the exigencies of real-life spaceflight on the scale of the Cyrannus system, it seemed a plausible unit, especially when a sixteen month tour could cleanly break into shorter deployments strictly-defined. At any rate, I gave Blake a line about exactly this point in Galactica.)

Apart from lining up the numbers in a pleasing way, this hypothesis would suggest a few more things. First, at the beginning of the miniseries, Gaeta was probably under consideration for a promotion before his next assignment. Second, Boomer, Racetrack, and Spitfire would have reported aboard together on the deployment after Gaeta, and would have been eligible for promotion to captain approximately halfway through the sojourn over New Caprica but for the Fall. (It does not require a particularly astute reader to realize that both Simon actual and Maggie are somewhat traumatized by the idea of where these characters would have been had life gone on as everyone expected, and Future Imperfect was, without doubt, the hardest and most emotional bit of writing in the book.) Third, it contextualizes the remark that I gave Racetrack in Rubicon about a 55-month deployment: Colonial officers expect deployments in units of three, eight, or sixteen months and assignments of 35 months.

Sorting into ranks.

But when it came to the rank-structure, there was a problem. Some oddities of the show can be ascribed to wartime exigencies; Adama continuing to wear a Commander’s piping after his field-promotion to Admiral, for example. That’s one of the caveats to the presumption of regular order I mentioned above. But when it comes to the presented world before the Fall of the Colonies, we assume regular order. And there isn’t room in a regularly-ordered rank-structure for a bifurcated Lieutenancy.

At Zero Hour, Apollo is a Captain and Gaeta is either a Lieutenant, or, if such exists, a JG. Thus, we must posit a rank-structure that can reconcile Apollo being a Captain after not more than four years in the service (“Daybreak”) with Gaeta, an ambitious go-getter (“Final Cut”) with around four years in the service (Miniseries; “The Oath”) still being a Lieutenant. If the JG rank exists, then, even if Lee is a freshly-minted Captain (never stated in canon but surely canon-compliant), even if Gaeta had been due for promotion immediately after the Galactica’s deployment ended, no amount of string-pulling-by-daddy (a thumb on the scale that would be in tension with several canonical facts) could satisfyingly explain Apollo managing to progress from JG to LT to CPT in the same (arguably less time) that Gaeta was a JG. Not unless Gaeta was shockingly incompetent, that is—but that seems wildly inconsistent with the character.

The discrepancy between Apollo and Gaeta exists (and the epicycles required to explain it need be incanted) only if we presume a bifurcated lieutenancy. The problem disappears if there is no JG rank.

Absent contrary evidence, we assume that a character’s approximate in-universe age is consistent with the apparent age of the actor on-set. (Sidebar/tangent: I wrote Racetrack as three years younger than her actor. Cairns would have been 30 when KLG2 was shot in spring 2005; in-universe, Maggie was 27. Carro would have been 24; Vespers noted Sasha’s age right before Zero Hour as 22.) Alessandro Juliani (Gaeta) and Jamie Bamber (Apollo) are approximately the same age; Bamber is slightly older, and while age isn’t dispositive as to rank, it seems entirely plausible that Gaeta is just a step or two behind Apollo. It also becomes less critical that Apollo’s promotion have come fast.

Another age-related point worth noting: Michelle Forbes was 40 when “Pegasus” was shot, but Helena Cain can’t have been much younger than seven in the “Razor” flashbacks, which makes her ~47 in “Pegasus.” That is very young for an admiral, and this is where the TIG requirements start to really bite. If the Colonial Fleet has two ranks of Lieutenant through which Cain’s career had to progress, her rise is even more meteoric, or else she is significantly older than the actress who played her. But if there is no JG rank, her rise is merely fast rather than astonishing,

Difficulties with three more field-promotions likewise disappear if there is no JG rank. Kat and Helo are each promoted to Captain during the New Caprica sojourn. (The exact dates of their promotion are a subject for another time.) If Helo was in fact a JG notwithstanding Penikett wearing the long badges, he jumped a rank. And Kat definitely did: Carro went directly from wearing the short badge in “Occupation” to wearing Captain’s badges—days later, in-universe—in “Exodus.”

Likewise Kendra Shaw, who is promoted to Captain (“Razor”) while wearing the short badges. If a JG rank exists, Cain skipped Shaw over a rank. All three of these promotions are more plausible if the Colonial lieutenancy is a single rank, because all three examples then become a straightforward promotion from one rank to the next rank up: LT to CPT.

Still, there is a counterargument to be acknowledged: Wartime exigencies. Helo and Kat received their promotions in order to take up specific positions, and one can argue that their promotions were to ensure the consistency of the chain of command. The CAG must outrank the next-most senior pilot, that argument goes, and the XO must outrank the next most senior line-officer aboard, so Adama skipped JG Agathon and JG Katraine over the full lieutenant rank in order to give them the rank required for their position.

That theory doesn’t quite work, though. If we’re skipping ranks to preserve the integrity of the chain of command, why skip only one? Why promote Kat merely to parity with the squadron-leads (“The Passage”) instead of making her a Major, giving her rank over all the remaining pilots and the LSO? A fortiori Agathon: If the argument is that Adama had to promote him in order for the XO to outrank the next most senior line-officer and would skip ranks to do it, why not make him a Major, giving him authority over the new CAG, Cpt. Katraine, and parity with the most senior staff-officer, ship’s surgeon Sherman Cottle, nominally a Major?

The theory also fails to explain Shaw, whose promotion is a reward rather than required to fill some exigency. Note also that Shaw is later promoted to Major when she becomes the Pegasus’ XO; if skipping ranks is acceptable, at least in the circumstances, why not Lieutenant-Colonel? Why not a full-bird? Granted, there are plausible explanations; Major is probably the minimum rank required by the T.O. for a battlestar’s XO (thus explaining Apollo’s promotion to that rank in “The Captain’s Hand”), and perhaps, insofar as we know the Pegasus had several Captains in her company but know of no line-officers ranking Major in her company, no jump in rank was necessary for Shaw to outrank the next-highest-ranking line-officer aboard. The significant point for now is, once again, that canon fails to resolve the question definitively, leaving the question ambiguous.

(Concededly, Lee Adama is promoted directly from Major to Commander. But that promotion seems bespoke, and one can imagine several in-universe explanations ranging from “proud poppa” to “T.O. requires that the CO of certain classes of vessel hold the rank of Commander.”)

Conclusions

Ambiguities in canon should be resolved in favor of coherency. We have seen that canon is ambiguous as to the existence of the JG rank, and that it would create difficulties if that rank were held to exist. Accordingly, in the Maggieverse, it does not. Instead, the Fleet’s rank-table with time-in-grade requirements is:

Note that this makes Cain at least 22 years into her career, which, if 47, means she was graduated from one of the Academies no later than age 25. That seems reasonable, and leaves some breathing-room to finesse her age downward, closer to Forbes’. It also puts her in the ballpark of the expected duration of service for a new USN Captain (O6), leaving intact the idea that she rose through the ranks quickly compared to the norm.

This supplies a simple rank structure that reconciles Apollo and Gaeta and we can explain the otherwise-anomalous single year in which Gaeta served somewhere other than the Galactica: Ensign, with a one-year TIG requirement; Lieutenant, with an eighteen-month TIG requirement, and then Captain on up. Thus, Racetrack served at least one year in the Colonial Fleet as an ensign before her commission as a Lieutenant and sixteen-month deployment aboard the Galactica—sufficient time for the bloom to come off the rose.

To be sure, the show sometimes made costuming mistakes. The CO’s jacket and Admiral’s rank-devices in which Costuming vested Michael Hogan in one scene in season four don’t require us to imagine a whole subplot in which Tigh receives and loses a promotion. In the same vein, I have no doubt that Sakhoff’s pins in “The Hand of God” were a mistake. At the same time, it’s important to remember that characters sometimes lie and sometimes make mistakes, and sometimes things in–universe don’t mean what we assume them to mean based on analogies to our own experience. Maybe Helo lied to Six. Maybe JG is a thing that exists in-universe but means something other than what we understand as a discrete rank.

At all events, though, creators’ intent is not the same thing as canon, and we should construe canon in a way that promotes the coherence of the portrayed world. Inferring a whole discrete rank introduces a number of problems and for that reason, my continuity operates on the assumption that the Colonial Fleet and Marine Corps have a single O1 rank, Lieutenant, and that Racetrack, Starbuck, Helo, Kat et al all held the same rank, even if some had more seniority than others.

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