Doc Cottle: The Smoking Doctor of Battlestar Galactica
Character: Major "Doctor" Cottle, Chief Medical Officer, Battlestar Galactica
Fandom: Battlestar Galactica
This essay contains spoilers for all of the episodes of Battlestar Galactica. Consider yourself warned!
In the second season Battlestar Galactica episode "Fragged," a white haired man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, barrels down a ladder – telling off a Marine on his way – dodges past Billy Keikeya, and hurries into Sickbay to the bedside of the critically injured Commander Adama. There he snuffs out his cigarette -- in an emesis basin -- and slips into his surgical garb, all the time getting an update on the condition of his patient, making a diagnosis and formulating a plan of care.
He is curt, blunt, and focused on his patient and the problem at hand.
Since I am a surgeon, I was immediately intrigued by this character and soon came to know him as Major "Doc" Cottle the Chief Medical Officer of the Galactica.
II. First Impressions
The first and most obvious thing about Doc Cottle: He smokes!
More than thirty years ago, like most of the public, characters on TV smoked cigarettes. The tobacco companies sponsored many shows. But when the dangers of smoking cigarettes became public knowledge, there was a campaign and smoking and tobacco ads were banned from television. So characters on TV don’t smoke cigarettes anymore – except for the bad guys.
And, Battlestar Galactica is a science fiction show: characters on sci-fi shows don’t wear glasses, don’t have frailties, and they certainly don’t smoke!
Plus, Cottle is a physician—a DOCTOR. He of all people should be aware of the dangers of cigarette smoking. Still, he smokes.
And that is the foundation of Doc Cottle’s character; he’s a mass of incongruities.
III. The Character -- Incongruity
Major (Doctor) Cottle doesn’t appear in the mini and isn’t seen in the series until Episode 1.04 "Act of Contrition" when Laura Roslin visits the Galactica’s Sickbay. Doc confronts Roslin’s long denial of her cancer.
Doc: Would you mind telling me young lady why you waited five years between breast exams?
Roslin: Yes I do mind. It’s none of your business. I was busy.
Next Cottle gruffly and directly outlines the treatment for her cancer and the side effects of that treatment. He derides her request to "explore alternatives."
Doc: Oh gods, you’re one of those.
But he acquiesces to her wishes and as he leaves, he turns and looks at her with compassion.
Doc: I would … seriously … consider prayer.
As the series continues, Doc makes periodic appearances. His bedside manners are vile. He engages in ridicule and satire of his patients.
In "Six Degrees of Separation" (Episode 1.07), Cottle confronts Kara "Starbuck" Thrace’s reluctance to leave Sickbay.
Doc: Sorry we’re weaning you off the magic pills, starting today --besides I need ‘em for myself.
Thrace: He’s a son of a bitch.
Later he interrogates Roslin about her medications.
Doc: How many of these did you take, young lady? One? Two?
(Doc gives Roslin a disbelieving look.)
Doc: Three times the dosage. Must work three times as fast then, right? Everybody wants to be their own doctor. You are lucky you didn’t lapse into a coma. You can’t cure cancer by overdose.
But then he’s empathetic to her predicament and offers to help get her on her feet and in front of the Press so she can allay everyone’s fears.
Doc: I could give you a shot … but you wouldn’t like the side effects.
Roslin: Just do it.
Doc: You know, the time is going to come when you are not going to be able to hide what you’re going through.
Roslin: ‘kay. (She starts to roll up her sleeve.)
Doc: It’s not that kind of a shot.
After Commander Adama is wounded, Cottle arrives in Sickbay where a worried Colonel Tigh awaits him. Cottle is curt and rude to the Galactica’s executive officer.
Tigh: Will he make it?
Doc: How do I know? I’m not psychic! Now get out of here.
Later Tigh returns to Sickbay to check on the Commander, and Cottle immediately reassures Colonel Tigh.
Doc: He’ll live.
He berates Baltar during a CT scan in Episode 2.07 "Home, Part 2".
Doc: Will you stop going crazy in there?
Baltar: I’m not crazy
(Doc gives him a dirty look.)
Later Baltar and Cottle study the CT scan.
Doc: Nothing. Nothing. More nothing. Are you satisfied?
Baltar: Yes. Yes, I am. Thank-you very much Doctor. It’s just … uhm … we’re absolutely positive aren’t we that there’s no … uhm … unidentified objects … uhm …
Doc: Well you can obsess over these as much as you like on your own time. Frakking hypochondriac -- one on every bloody ship.
Cottle follows the wishes of his patients by keeping Roslin’s cancer a secret, and performing abortions.
Doc: Pretty straight forward really. I get a note that a girl is on the way, she arrives, I do my work, and she leaves. I don’t ask a lot of questions. (Episode 2.17 "The Captain’s Hand").
But he also agrees to abort the Cylon fetus in Episode 2.13 "Epiphanies". Obviously against the father’s –- Helo Agathon -- and the mother’s -- Cylon Sharon -- wishes. He participates in Roslin’s plan to convince Helo and Sharon that the baby is dead. Even though Cottle is disturbed by the charade.
Roslin: I know this has been awful for you.
(Episode 2.18 "Downloaded")
Cottle helps Roslin and Lee Adama flee the Galactica after Colonel Tigh declares martial law. Despite the fact that Cottle knows that it’s wrong.
Roslin: Doctor I need your help. But it’s illegal, dangerous, and in violation of your oath as an officer.
Doc: You’re a lousy salesman.
(Episode 2.04 "Resistance")
There are the incongruities; he’s bluff, blunt, surly, curt, brusque, frank, gruff, ethical, direct, crusty, beguiling, compassionate, caring, and kind.
IV. The Character -- Expertise
But there’s more to Doc Cottle than his contradictions; after all he is a doctor.
He has unbelievable skill in his profession with a broad and deep knowledge of medicine. He displays expertise in Trauma Surgery when he cares for Adama’s gunshot wounds and the crew injured in explosions aboard the Galactica.
He treats the Cylon Sharon and her chimera fetus – even delivering the child prematurely by emergency cesarean section and caring for her afterward. This shows he has knowledge of Obstetrics, Gynecology, Neonatology and Pediatrics.
Cottle is able to practice Oncology when he treats Roslin’s cancer. He also has skills in Public Health -- as evidenced by his care of the civilian Fleet.
And of course Cottle knows Aerospace Medicine, since he is the Chief Medical Officer of a space going aircraft carrier.
Cottle is also a scientist. He’s not a technical genius like Gaius Baltar but he is still enough of a medical scientist to analyze the Cylon fetus’ blood and realize its unique properties.
Doc: I'm no expert in genetics, but I can read a blood test. That Cylon fetus is showing some very peculiar genetic abnormalities.
Adama: (to Baltar) I haven't seen any of this on your report, Doctor.
Baltar: No, um. Well, as Dr. Cottle says, he's- he's not an expert, and I am. Um, I've been through the tests and I-I wouldn't say that there was anything conclusive.
Doc: Didn't say conclusive, just damned odd.
(Episode 2.13 "Epiphanies")
And there’s Doc’s expertise. He’s the complete physician, surgeon, and medical scientist.
V. The Character – Mystery
In the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica, very little is revealed about Doc’s background and history. No mention is made of his home Colony or any family. It is unknown if Cottle is married, divorced, or a confirmed bachelor.
As to friends, some things can be inferred. Cottle knows Commander Adama and Colonel Tigh, and he knows them well. It’s clear that he’s known Adama for some time, perhaps even before he came aboard the Galactica.
Tigh: When will he wake up?
Doc: Knowing him when he damn well wants to, probably.
(Episode 2.03 "Fragged")
Cottle knows the Commander well enough to be able to challenge Adama – at least a little.
Doc: Pretty straight forward really. I get a note that a girl is on the way, she arrives, I do my work, and she leaves. I don’t ask a lot of questions.
Adama: You’re gonna start.
Then as Adama urges the girl to consider her parent’s feelings…
Doc: Some people might say she was a victim of political persecution. Hell, she could apply for asylum.
(Adama glares at Doc.)
(Doc frowns, looks chastened, and makes a quick exit.)
(Episode 2.17 "The Captain’s Hand")
Cottle knows Tigh well enough to point out Tigh’s mistakes in the public forum of Sickbay.
Tigh: Four civilian dead. How the frak could this have happened?
Doc: What did you expect genius? You put a pilot in charge of crowd control!
(Episode 2.04 "Resistance")
Beyond this any details of these friendships are unknown. How did Tigh and Cottle meet? How did Adama and Cottle meet? When did they meet?
There are many other unanswered questions concerning Doc Cottle.
Did Doc have a family on one of the Twelve Colonies? Where did he grow up?
Why was Doc Cottle aboard the Galactica? Presumably it was to be his last tour before retirement, as he appears old enough. But, Doc has enormous expertise in medicine. Why is he the Chief Medical Officer of the oldest battlestar in the Fleet?
Why with all Doc’s experience is he still a major? What has kept him from attaining a higher rank? Does his incongruous personality outweigh his expertise?
Why are his bedside manners so bad? Was there some tragedy in his past that causes him to act this way? Is this same tragedy the reason he smokes?
Did he serve in the First Cylon War? And if he did serve, was he mustered out for some period of time, like Tigh and Adama? If so, when and why did he return to the Colonial Fleet? Does he suffer from post-traumatic stress and instead of drinking like Tigh, does Cottle smoke to deal with his demons?
And there is the mystery of Doc Cottle: many unanswered questions.
Now as Doc says,
You're done here. I'm kicking you out of here and sending you back to work. (Episode 2.20 "Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2")
For more about Doc Cottle see:
thesmokingdoc A Doc Cottle Fan Community. This journal contains discussions, fanfic, video clips, screen caps, and pictures featuring Doc.
doc_cottle Doc's journal for the theatrical_muse community -- includes speculations on Doc's past.
william_adama A William Adama/EJO Fan Community
admiral_adama The Personal Log of Admiral William Adama
These journals include some interesting conversations between Doc and the Admiral.
and of course the very fine television series Battlestar Galactica on the Sci-fi Channel. (But you'll have to wait until October for new episodes.)