Sunday, February 05, 2006

Starbuck Is Dead, Long Live Starbuck and Other "Scar" Thoughts

Update 3/07: Hello people searching for some variant on 'starbuck dead'! This post is about the episode "Scar", but if you'd like to read my thoughts about "Maelstrom", click here.

Reading over the various responses to Friday's Battlestar Galactica episode, "Scar" (there's a nice selection over at 13th Colony), I'm surprised at the negative tone that many of the reviewers are taking towards Kat. More precisely, I'm surprised by the fact that so few of the reviewers seem to have recognized the obvious and deliberate parallels that the episode draws between Kat's behavior and the kind we've come to expect--and, for the most part, enjoy--from Starbuck. Kat's attitude during Starbuck's briefings is a precise mimicry of many of Starbuck's own performances; the confrontation in which she claims that Starbuck has lost her edge and crawled into the bottle is very nearly a shot-by-shot recreation of Starbuck's own confrontation with Tigh in the miniseries; not to mention the numerous, nearly uncountable incidents of Starbuck being as belligerent, boastful, casually violent and unthinkingly competitive as Kat is in "Scar", if not more so.

There isn't anything that Kat does in "Scar" that Starbuck hasn't done already (and usually been called charming and daring for doing), and it seems to me that if the object of her scorn were someone other than Starbuck, the episode's reviewers wouldn't necessarily be giving her such a hard time (although it certainly doesn't help that, as directed in this episode, Lucianna Carro lacks Katee Sackhoff's effervescent charisma and movie-star good looks). "Scar" may be, as many commenters have said, an episode about Starbuck coming to terms with the reality of death, but to my mind a more powerful theme in the episode is a profound change in Starbuck's personality and priorities.

At the episode's close, Starbuck has vacated her role as the ship's hotshot, the top-gun pilot who is crazy enough to get any job done. Kat is the new Starbuck, by which I don't necessarily mean that she is Starbuck's equal as a pilot or tactician. The episode makes it pretty clear that Kat lacks Starbuck's experience and wits--Kat's eyes may have been sharp enough to spot a Raider before Starbuck, but it's Starbuck who realizes that Scar is luring Kat into a trap (and in so doing, almost certainly saves Kat's life). It's doubtful that Kat would have been able to destroy Scar without Starbuck's help. That Kat fails to acknowledge this is hardly surprising--after all, how often have we seen Starbuck be gracious in victory?--but what is surprising is Starbuck's willingness to walk away from glory and act, for the first time in our acquaintance with her, like a team player. What Starbuck comes to realize in the celebration scene and in her closing conversation with Helo is that Kat is welcome to her new role--Starbuck has moved on.

Katee Sackhoff deserves a tremendous amount of kudos for her physical work in this episode. Starbuck as we have come to know her is a live wire, a bundle of barely suppressed energy held together by skin and an infectious grin. She does everything--talk, walk, fly--loudly and hugely. In "Scar", however, Starbuck seems to be trying to retract into herself. She walks stiffly, talks in a barely-audible monotone, her face is expressionless and her eyes are almost dead. The woman who lit up a cockpit with her smile, who was always incandescently, manically joyful at yet another remarkable flying feat in which she snatched victory straight out of the jaws of certain death, is nowhere to be seen. In her brief moments of animation, Starbuck is a frightening parody of herself, a person moving because she knows that to stop moving will mean death and is terrified by that knowledge. Reviewers have called this physical and emotional transformation a downward spiral, and to a point they are correct, but the crisis that precipitated this downward spiral is, to my mind, a good and necessary one--a process of growth. In "Scar", Starbuck is desperately trying to hold on to a person she can no longer be. The tension we see during the episode is the pain of growing up while still trying to hold on to a younger personality.

My mother, who worked for most of her professional life at Israeli Aircraft Industries, likes to repeat a story related to her by a former test pilot. This man claimed to be able to tell whether a fellow pilot was married, and how many children he had, by the height at which the pilot buzzed the ground on his test flights. The unmarried, unattached young turks would hug the ground, but with each addition to their list of attachments--with marriage, and with the birth of each child--the distance they kept from the ground would grow. You can't have attachments in the world and still act as though you don't care whether you live or die. I'm not exactly pleased with the notion of Anders as the person who gives Starbuck a connection to the world, but if I accept it there's no denying that it makes perfect sense that once she realizes she loves Anders, Starbuck can no longer find it in herself to risk her life thoughtlessly (there's a reverse parallel here with Apollo in "The Hand of God"--the more grounded, connected pilot trying to recall his maverick instincts). Starbuck tells Lee that she's "hung up on a dead guy and it's driving [her] insane", but the truth is that Starbuck can't handle the dissonance between being the maverick, devil-may-care pilot, and being in love. As Helo--the only pilot we know who isn't fighting simply for the thrill of the fight--tells Starbuck, the very fact that she acknowledges her feelings for Anders gives her something to live for, and this both cripples her as a pilot and strengthens her as a human being.

Kat, who has nothing to tie her to the world beyond her role as a fighter, fears being forgotten. Starbuck, in contrast, fears forgetting--both the men and women she sent to their deaths and the man she left to his fate. But forgetfulness is actually Starbuck's refuge throughout the episode--she pretends to be able to move on, to let go of the people she's lost and still be the same person she was at the beginning of the day, but this disconnection has gradually become impossible. Starbuck is being crushed beneath memory and guilt, and the more she tries to drive them away--through drinking, through sex, through violence and simply through noise and movement--the more they haunt her. Starbuck regains her balance by rejecting forgetfulness, by remembering the names of her lost pilots and the love she shared with Anders. Instead of crushing her, these memories build her up.

I'm not entirely certain how I feel about the decision to humanize Scar to the point where his multiple deaths have caused him to hate humans, mostly because I think it's an important theme in the series that Cylons are just as incapable of cruelty and hatred as they are of kindness and sympathy (we might, however, choose to think of Scar as the Raider equivalent of Gina--both cut off from the Cylon commonality and forced to experience pain, through which they both achieve a measure of individuality, and humanity, which other Cylons are incapable of), but I do like the choice of Scar as a moniker and as a way of individualizing this Raider. Scars are a sign of experience, a record of our failures and successes, of the things we've gained and lost, and mostly, of the passage of time. The episode draws deliberate parallels between Starbuck and Scar--two grizzled old flyers most comfortable in a dogfight. Unlike Starbuck, however, Scar is merely an intelligent machine--it can learn, but it can't change. Kat is absolutely right when she tells Starbuck that Scar won't pull away in their game of chicken--it isn't capable of changing its inherent nature to the point where its life has a meaning beyond fighting. Starbuck is, and by choosing to accept that change, she saves her own life. I think the most moving image in "Scar" is the one in which Starbuck gazes out of her window at the wreckage of her former enemy. It's a moment of loss, as Starbuck surrenders her old roles and recognizes the change in herself, and, in some way, I believe that she both pities and envies the dead Raider for not being capable of that change.

Ladies and gentlemen, Captain Kara Thrace is growing up. I'll be very sad if this process of growth means that we'll never again see Starbuck burst into laughter in the cockpit of her Viper, in sheer exuberance at the joy of being alive and in motion, but maturity is a worthy accomplishment at almost any cost. A few weeks ago, in a discussion of Emma Bull's by now infamous essay about Galactica's treatment of gender, I wrote that despite my reservations about the writers' original concept for Starbuck's character, I'm enjoying the way that they've slowly been expanding and moving away from that concept. To quote Neil Gaiman, in life one must either change or die, and I'm tremendously pleased to see that Kara Thrace, and Galactica's writers, have chosen the former.

6 comments:

Telepresence said...

Yeah, I feel the same way about the reaction to Kat this ep. If you don't mind, I'm just going to repost what I wrote about it at TWoP:

"I'm not drinking the Kat haterade. Yeah, she's annoying, but I see her as a classic younger sibling/angry pupil. She's thrust into a super high pressure learning situation, and her primary teacher is...uhm...quirky. And has issues. Kat, like all the others, is forced to perform in the real world for real stakes far too soon, and she's cracking. Everyone is cracking.

Different people are cracking in different ways. Apollo is having existential angst leading to depression and suicidal behavior. Starbuck is drinking the world away. Kat's fellow nuggests are dying at a steady clip, and she needs some kind of plan, some kind of system, some kind of template, if she's going to keep on living. She needs a way to feel like she's found an effective angle to work, or else she's got to walk around fully exposed to the liklihood of being a random smear somewhere like Chuckles, and having to marinate in the prospect of your own vulnerability like that 24 hours a day is unbearable.

She starts with the stims, and when that path proves untenable and gets shut down, she decides to become A Starbuck. Not Kara. A "Starbuck". An abrasive hotshot pilot who's in your face and calls you on your shit and doesn't respect authority. It's like she's working her way down a checklist. Because Starbuck is a lot of things, but for Kat, consciously or not, she's 1. Not dead, despite all the odds., and 2. Someone with what seems like a halfway stable place in the heirarchy of the universe. Kara has achieved Starbuck-ness, a sort of singular iconic identity not particularly related to Kara Thrace as a human being. (I'd argue no one, not even Lee, really thinks Lee has achieved "Apollo-ness", let's not forget that for the people in this society that name means something rather more than it does for most of us.)

Of course, Kat going all behaviorally Single White Starbuck is a problem, for a couple reasons. One, because her process is unavoidably hopelessly accelerated and artificial, it's also crude and flawed. She's picking up the high notes mostly and her version of the song feels garish, there's no nuance there, she's just hitting the internal checklist as hard as she can. Again, I doubt it's even conscious, and I bet the process really kicked into high gear post Hand of God when at least two of the nuggests in her same class bought it.

But Kat is a bind, because when Kara starts to lose it, Kat's is required to resent the hell out of that. Fucking Kara messing up The Starbuck! Because Kara losing it simultaniously screws up Kat's template, and forces Kat to employ one aspect of it harder and harder, the "A Starbuck resents/criticises the weaknesses and failings of colleagues and superiors". That's such a nasty emotional trap. To be like the mentor, she's got to work up a big head of dislike for the mentor, one part of her has to attack while another part of her is panicking because the template is being damaged by some asshole who...is...herself...crap. It doesn't help that I don't think Kat is, by nature and especially at her age, very introspective. So in whatever downtime she has, I doubt she's really processing this stuff, and the ship doesn't appear to have too many shrinks.

That why Kat being such a jerk this episode (and her moments of jerkiness in recent-ish eps after starting off as just sort of nervous and sweet and slightly girly and goofy) worked for me."

smonsterbite said...

I really like everything you've said. The Kat/Kara parallel makes a lot of sense, and I hope you're right about the evolution of Starbuck. I just thought it was handled sloppily and many aspects were not well developed; Kara's alcohol abuse, her feelings for Anders vs. her feelings for Lee, Kat's attitude.

Thanks for giving me another lens through which to see this episode.

Eektruffle said...

I agree with all of the comments that you had about the episode. Very well written and thought out. Cheer!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Thanks a lot for reprinting that post, telepresence - I usually watch episodes a day or two after they air, by which time it's much too late to catch up with the TWoP episode threads, so I certainly wouldn't have seen it on my own. It's very insightful and definitely expressed a lot of what I felt about the character but hadn't bothered to put into words, since my focus was on Starbuck. I like the idea of 'The Starbuck'.

smonsterbite, I suppose in some ways we could say that a lot of what happened in "Scar" came out of the blue - in particular I'd like to know why the writers decided to stress this aspect of Starbuck's character instead of the 'flinching' issue she raised at Cain's funeral, and I certainly think some mention of Zack Adama was warranted when she complained about being hung up on a dead guy - especially given her audience for that little outburst. I've noticed recently that BSG's writers have developed a worrying habit of picking up character threads and dropping them soon after. Lee is a good example - granted that the episode was focused on Kara, but what happened to his existential angst, and why is the man who only a week ago was so afraid of intimacy that he paid a woman to play house with him rather than risk an actual relationship with Dualla now complaining that Starbuck isn't willing to take a chance on him?

Still, taken as a single piece and ignoring the lack of continuity, I thought the episode showed tremendous growth for the character in ways that were organic to her. I hope it'll stick, although I'm not so naive as to think that Starbuck is now whole and complete. This was a good step forward, but by no means the final one.

adonis23 said...

Great post, Avi. Here are some of my thoughts on this from the TWoP forum:

I like "Scarbuck" alot, and the idea that this is the reincarnation of the stolen raider. Kara has a scar, too, which they've neglected to show us until now, coincidentally. And they show it when she's working out, trying to "get Anders out of her head" - i.e. juxtaposing her physical and emotional scars.

Kat did indeed kill both Scar and the old Starbuck, for good. I think this was very deliberate symbolism, and was emphasized by their presentation of the battle as equally psychological. Scar only dies after Kara decides to let go of the old Starbuck persona and her obsessive, destructive drive to win at all costs. The way her gaze lingers over that flaming wreck says volumes.

And even as the old Starbuck died, she was reincarnated in the newly rising legend of Kat.

But now I get the feeling that the new Starbuck is becoming something more, not less, than the old Starbuck. When she walks up to Kat and does the toast, you can see Adama, Tigh, and Apollo - the wisest, most experienced pilots in the room - with this kind of knowing look on their faces, like they recognize this as a transformation that every warrior has to go through as they transition from being a hotshot to being a wise, effective and inspiring leader. Gretsky and Magic will always be remembered as being head and shoulders above any merely great shooter because of their amazing tactical awareness of the whole game at once, and their ability to get the ball/puck to the right player at the right time. They were leaders and gifted tacticians, and even Jordan was at his best when he learned to lead, pass, and coordinate rather than just take the ball to the hoop every time. He still had the ability to be Top Gun, but he developed the maturity to realize that others could score too, but not everyone could control the flow of the game like he could.

Rather than getting off on direct personal acheivement alone, a leader learns to take pride in the accomplishments of others, nurturing, motivating and mentoring them, which is a less direct, yet more lasting and satisfying sense of acheivement. Kara's toast shows that she's ready to stop selfishly repressing her grief over her fallen nuggets, ready to support and encourage Kat, ready to be a leader rather than a dictator. By giving Kat the acoutrements of alpha-hood, but reclaiming the leader's prerogative as keeper of the collective memory, she bolsters the confidence of her best pilot and boosts morale, while effectively asserting her dominance of the pack. Sure, Kat can have the mug, but everyone knows that Starbuck found Scar and set up the shot, and they'll respect her even more for giving it up, knowing what it meant to her.
And now they know that their hardass CO has a heart of gold, she'll never forget them and will fight to protect her tribe of pilots, not just for her own glory.

That makes her the alpha female, in my mind.


And since you asked nicely, here are some highlights (completely objective, of course) from the TWoP threads on Starbuck:

http://forums.televisionwithoutpity.com/index.php?showtopic=3122148&st=405


http://forums.televisionwithoutpity.com/index.php?showtopic=3132129&st=645

Anonymous said...

thanks for the thoughtful review. starbuck's death in maelstrom is in fact a metaphor for growing up through the acceptance of her mother's death and her own mortality, which frees her to become who she really is.

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