In the fourth episode of the first season of Battlestar Galactica, a tragic accident forces Starbuck to take up flight training to gather new pilots. In the process, she lashes out at the new cadets to atone for a mistake she made years ago. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Battlestar Galactica.
I was curious to see when we’d get a much more Starbuck-based episode from Battlestar Galactica because, frankly, I think she’s been underused so far. It makes more sense now why the writers waited to give us this episode, and in doing so, we’re shown a stunning story about guilt and contrition.
It seems that from episode-to-episode, we’re seeing the crew of the Galactica grow, change, and adapt to the harsh reality of a life in eternal pursuit. It’s something I can’t even comprehend personally; even though I have moved a lot, I still have some semblance of a stationary home, especially these days. (No, seriously, in the past eleven years, I’ve lived at over twenty different addresses. The life of a runaway is so ~glamorous~.) While dealing with the discomfort of living in close quarters (which most seem to manage well), the cold open of “Act of Contrition” gives us both an in media res story, concerning Starbuck, and the unfortunate existence of fatal accidents. And maybe this is something I just missed about what the purpose of this re-imagined series was supposed to do, but this might be the least “sci-fi” science fiction show I’ve ever seen. (Firefly is close behind, for what it’s worth.) I was totally floored that the death of thirteen pilots wasn’t because of sabotage from Boomer. It was an accident. The end! In fact, every episode of the first season sort of concerns itself with logistics: how to avoid the Cylons; how to get water after sabotage; how to deal with prisoners; and now, what to do when there is a need for new pilots. Obviously, this is a fantastical series, but as I’ve said before, there’s no need to make realism mutually exclusive to the idea, and this might be the best example of how fantastical narratives can be grounded in a sobering realism.
For the record, I have avoided looking up anything regarding this show, including any background interviews, and now I realize I might sound rather repetitive or unoriginal, as it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that this show was created to specifically address this, and I’ll look a bit like a fool. But that’s okay! The whole point of Mark Watches is to experience these shows in the best self-constructed vacuum that I can pull off, and if this show was meant to act just as I’d said, then that just means it’s written really well. (FYI, as long as you don’t spoil me for anything to come, it’s totally okay to give me the context for what Ron Moore intended for this show. Again, though, please think through what you drop in the comments because I hate having mods delete them!)
In terms of the way that “Act of Contrition” is edited, I was impressed with how well Starbuck’s flashback’s to Zak’s funeral were integrated into the story. By having these flashes appear in a jarring manner, switching in between the funeral, laying in bed with Zak, and the first time Starbuck met Commander Adama, gave me the appearance of how thought actually works. Hell, it was sort of like we were viewing a daydream in real-time, as if Starbuck’s mind couldn’t focus on a single memory, jumping between connected thoughts and relating them to the present. And being a huge fan of LOST, that means I personally adore flashbacks used to give context to the present time, and “Act of Contrition” succeeds in giving us some much-needed information about Starbuck. It’s striking to me that in her flashbacks, she seems far less abrasive than she is here in the present, and it leads me to wonder if Zak’s death and her subsequent guilt over it is related to how she developed her sassy attitude. I mean, I do believe that Starbuck naturally has a great sense of humor, but even in “Act of Contrition,” it partially feels like a defense mechanism, as a way for her to mask the terror she feels in her heart.
It’s obvious that when Adama asks her to teach new pilots that Starbuck still hasn’t gotten over the emotional baggage of what she’d done years ago. But this is Starbuck we’re talking about! If there’s anyone who can push through pain, it’s her. However, it becomes clear that this is not just about giving a tough appearance. The problem she has with her own conscience is a lot stronger than she anticipated. There’s a neat narrative trick, though, that gives a later scene a lot of power. Adama was smart to point out that he knows Starbuck might have problems teaching because of Zak’s death, and this is when Starbuck flashes back to telling Zak he passed flight training, even though he didn’t. When it cuts back to Adama, he says that Zak’s death is not her fault. It’s so seamless that I believed we’d seen one of those moments where the flashback was told to another character, but we just saw the flashback itself. So I believed that Adama had just brushed off Starbuck’s concerns over inadvertently leading to Zak’s death.
Seriously, it’s like I purposely make myself unprepared.
I even initially believed that Starbuck was being harsh on the cadets because Tigh had chastised her for being so lax and humorous the last time she led a meeting of the pilots. I expected Tigh to walk in and be impressed. (That would come later, actually. So I was like…25% right!) But it became clear to me that Starbuck was bordering on being both insulting and patronizing, far too strict to pilots who’d never flown a Viper before in their lives. She’s overcompensating, I thought, but oh lord, was I underestimating her guilt! (Also, I was so distracted by her calling them “nuggets.” That word is forever associated with the word “chicken” in front of it, and then I got a craving for them. Damn it.)
Guilt isn’t solely for Starbuck in this episode, though. Roslin’s first visit to the doctor on board the Galactica isn’t devoid of some guilt either. We learn just how serious the cancer is and that she’s suffering from breast cancer specifically. (Was that mentioned earlier? I can’t remember when I think back. Maybe it was implied?) Roslin takes offense at the doctor’s invasive question about why she waited so long for a breast cancer screening, but you can hear the guilt in her voice when she admits she was “busy.” It’s even worse when she later confesses that she watched her own mother suffer through treatment for two years before dying. The truth is….well, Roslin’s outlook is pretty grim. There’s still the hope that maybe the Chamalla treatment might work, but with a limited human populace, there might not even be any Chamalla extract to help her. PLEASE LET HER BE OKAY.
Still, the bulk of what “Act of Contrition” deals with focuses on Starbuck, and I did like that aside from another brief glimpse of the situation on Caprica, Katee Sackhoff is the star of the whole story. God, I already want more episodes with her running the show, and this episode is evidence that she can carry the dramatic weight of an entire episode on her shoulders. Seriously, her performance during the painfully awkward card game with Baltar is one of many to show Sackhoff’s range as an actress. From this, we watch her train the pilots on their first day flying the Vipers, and she is uncompromising and brutal, failing all of them on their very first day, masking her guilt instead with disgust at these recruits. I honestly felt bad for Starbuck; her fear of repeating the mistake she made with Zak has caused her to refuse to give any of these students a chance. Thankfully, though, her actions could not be more obvious to Lee, who can read through this the second he finds out she washed out all of the pilots. Of course, she’s dismissive of Lee’s concerns, and it’s clear she just refuses to face the fact that she is overcompensating because of what she did before.
When Lee takes his concerns to his father and is unable to convince him that something is wrong, I realize I was completely fooled by the flashback during Adama and Starbuck’s conversation about this very issue. As soon as Lee mentioned what Starbuck had done for Zak, I could see in Adama’s face that Starbuck had not told him what she’d done. SHIT. JUST. GOT. REAL.
I know that I’m deep into my eighth review and I haven’t found much to complain about (THAT’S A GOOD THING!!!), and I’m seriously trying to. I am! Yet, I’m not going to complain about anything right now. Instead, I am going to heap a mountain of praise on Katee Sackhoff and Edward James Olmos for the confrontation scene. That is some of the best acting I have ever seen on a television show. And I intend every bit of that hyperbole, by the way. As talkative as Sackhoff is, so much of what makes that scene is entirely unspoken, from facial expressions to eyes brimming with tears, and Olmos’s silent rage and pursed lips tell us so much more than words ever could. I haven’t even experienced enough of this show to have an emotional investment in these characters, and I couldn’t help but tear up during this scene. It’s not easy to watch, especially Adama’s final line warning Starbuck to leave the cabin while she still can.
Holy shit, that is some good television.
This scene informs what happens when Starbuck takes the pilots out for a training session and Cylon raiders arrive unexpectedly. I’m guessing that when the Cylons show up, Starbuck feels a need to prove herself to Adama, choosing to face all eight raiders entirely on her own. Unfortunately, Hot Dog decides to stick with her (I’M SORRY, BEST NICK NAME EVER), and his amateur fighting gets her thrown into the orbit of a nearby moon or planet. The images we saw from the cold open are finally given their full context: Starbuck, in a need to prove herself as a good pilot, is now plummeting towards some mysterious world, completely alone.
AND THEN THERE IS A GODDAMN “TO BE CONTINUED” SCREEN. What the hell??? I DIDN’T KNOW THIS WAS A TWO-PARTER. oh god OH GOD WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON.
- Zak and Starbuck were engaged. My creys. 🙁
- Who else saw Boomers extreme discomfort during the card game when Crashdown brings up the Cylon test? OH GOD.
- I DON’T GET WHAT THE CYLONS HAVE PLANNED FOR HELO. And you know what? That intro during the title sequence where it says, “AND THEY HAVE A PLAN,” feels like it is specifically teasing me. DAMN IT.