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.