Wednesday, March 07, 2007

This is Not the Post You're Looking For and Other "Maelstrom" Thoughts

Monday was the busiest day in AtWQ's history. Nearly five times as many visitors as I get on a regular day visited this site, the overwhelming majority of them coming through web searches for some variant on the phrase 'starbuck dead,' and ending up at this post (lying, at the time of this entry's writing, in seventh place for that search string)--a year-old response to the second season episode "Scar". The pleasure of watching my stats climb through the roof is somewhat undercut by the certain knowledge that 95% or more of the people who clicked through to the post didn't read more than its first sentence before realizing that they'd come to the wrong place and hitting the Back button. On the other hand, maybe that's something to be thankful for. "Starbuck is Dead, Long Live Starbuck" may very well be the most wrong-headed thing I've ever written about Battlestar Galactica, a complete misapprehension of where the show's writers were taking the character and what they had planned for her.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Captain Kara Thrace is growing up," I wrote in the entry's concluding paragraph, convinced that Starbuck's choice to surrender the glory of destroying the Cylon raider Scar, thus saving her own life and defining herself as more than a hotshot pilot, was a harbinger of things to come. (Not at all coincidentally, "Starbuck is Dead" is one of the last overwhelmingly positive posts I wrote about Galactica.) In general, I have a tendency to make over-optimistic predictions about plot and character arcs on Battlestar Galactica. A lifetime of television watching has conditioned me to expect heroes who--eventually--learn their lessons, make peace with themselves and their loved ones, find their inner strength and do the right thing. Galactica is at the very far end of the scale in this respect, but as a whole television has been moving away from this template, experimenting with darker and less admirable protagonists. Most of the reactions I've seen to this transition towards morally grey--and sometimes just plain black--protagonists have been wildly enthusiastic, but I remain skeptical. I like The Sopranos as much as the next guy, but it seems to me that a vital ingredient of good storytelling is often lost in the shuffle.

To appeal to an audience, a character--I'm talking here about characters in all storytelling media, not just television--has to be one of two things. They can be likable: the kind of person you'd want to spend time with. Someone funny or sweet or cool or admirable in some respect. And they can be interesting: the kind of person you'd want to watch. Someone who says things you'd never have thought of yourself, whose actions are at the same time surprising and perfectly in accordance with the character's most fundamental traits. The best characters are both. Mal Reynolds is a good example: funny, irreverent, loyal and heroic in spite of himself but also capable of great cruelty and selfishness, a man whose choices are chaotic in the strictest sense of the word--impossible to predict but, once they've been made, clearly the only course the character could have taken. My own preference is for interesting characters--Al Swearengen (before the Deadwood writers gentrified him), Mr. Bennet, Lila Morgan--over likable ones (although where would we be without our Wallaces and Macs, our Xanders, our Chief Tyrols), but a character has to be at least one of the two. It's because its writers never grasped this fundamental truth, for example, that I never fell in love with House. The character is deliberately unlikable, and the parameters of his disfunction are laid out in the first episode and never exceeded. In general, I can't help but feel that a lot of television writers are ramping up their characters' unlikability--because that's what's cool these days--without even trying to compensate for it by making these lowlifes interesting.

Kara Thrace was interesting for about five cumulative seconds back in the miniseries, when she belied her carefree exterior to pray for the soul of a fallen friend, or to confess her culpability in Zach's death. The traits the character has accumulated since that point, however--aggression, ambition, promiscuousness, self-loathing--were predictable almost from the first moment of her introduction, and if Katee Sackhoff's not-inconsiderable charisma and talent were enough to give the character depth and appeal, they weren't up to the task of making Starbuck any less of a stereotype. Still, Starbuck was likable--lovable, even, in spite of her foibles, her tendency towards selfishness and self-destruction.

Clearly, something had to be done.

Carefully, with great deliberation, and for the better part of the third season, Battlestar Galactica's writers have worked to make sure that no one in their right mind could ever like Kara Thrace. By the time "Maelstrom" aired, the very sight of her on screen was enough to induce groans and a few calculating glances at the fast-forward button. She's the person who nearly killed Gaeta because she just wanted to hurt somebody. The person who self-righteously drove Kat to suicide. The person who married poor, lovable Sam Anders (if someone had told me, around the beginning of the second season, that one day I'd like Anders better than Starbuck, Apollo, and Dee put together, I'd have thought they were crazy) to get away from Lee, and screwed around with Lee to get away from Anders. Her self-involvement has transformed into an all-consuming selfishness, a black hole of neediness from which nothing, no compassion, no sympathy, no thought for the feelings of others, can ever escape. Because it derives from the same flaws which were so predictable back when the character was likable, this deterioration isn't even interesting to watch.

If you've spent any time online over the last few weeks and care even a little about this show, I don't imagine you managed to avoid being spoiled for Starbuck's death--or should I say "death"--in this episode. When I first read the news, I imagined that Starbuck's self-destructive behavior was finally going to catch up to her in one form or another, that her death would be the final result of the unbearable downward spiral she's been caught in all season (and no, I wasn't exactly broken up about the prospect of a respite, however brief, from the character). If "Maelstrom" had gone down this path, and been a bit better plotted, we might have been able to speak of Starbuck's tragic character arc--the first instance of such a device in I can't remember how many episodes. Instead, "Maelstrom" is taken up almost entirely with rewinding the past, bringing Starbuck back to where she was in the first season--Adama's surrogate daughter (the two haven't had a conversation since the one in which Adama knocked Kara to the ground and called her a cancer), Lee's sister (I've always liked these characters better as friends than as lovers, but it's hard to believe that, after everything they've put each other through, that's a state they can go back to), a lost girl who hurts herself more than she hurts others. For the first time in months, Kara looks outward. She sees that others care about her, and doesn't try to hurt them for it. She sees that they judge her by her actions, and doesn't seek to lower their opinion of her as far as it can possibly go. She recognizes that she is part of a larger organism, both personally and professionally, and tailors her actions accordingly. Even delusional and preparing herself for what I would have to call a suicide, Starbuck is more functionally human in "Maelstrom" than she's been all season.

So what I'd like to know is, why? Why drag the character through the muck only to turn it all around at the last minute, with almost no explanation of where her newfound sense of perspective came from? What "Maelstrom" offers by way of insight into Kara's psyche is a paint-by-numbers tale of abuse I might have jotted down after watching "Flesh and Bone," simply because I've watched television once or twice in my life, and all of this has happened before and will again. What it gives us in terms of catharsis is even less impressive--Kara gets a second chance at Closure, and stops being afraid of death (which, as Tigh points out, is actually a very stupid thing to do), and then... what? Who was Starbuck talking to? What is the meaning of the Eye of Jupiter? Who is waiting for her on the other side? What is her destiny, and how does allowing herself to die further it? I have no idea. A hell of lot happens in "Maelstrom", but none of it amounts to a plot.

So, is Starbuck dead? Of course not. At some point in the fourth season we're going to find out what the plot of "Maelstrom" actually was, what was happening behind the scenes--beneath the cloud cover--while we were occupied with Kara's mommy issues. Starbuck will return and the whole rigamarole will start up all over again (I suppose it's possible that Starbuck will return different, but I'd consider that something of a cheat, in much the same way that I still resent the choice to elide over Sharon's transformation from the kind of person who would justify rape camps to a loyal Colonial officer). That knowledge is the final nail in the coffin of "Maelstrom"'s emotional resonance. At the end of "Starbuck is Dead, Long Live Starbuck", I quoted from Neil Gaiman's Sandman--"in life one must either change or die"--and went on to conclude that the show's writers "have chosen the former." I was wrong, obviously, in my interpretation of "Scar", but if the the writers had simply chosen to go the other way--to kill the character rather than change her--I would have been happy to be wrong. With "Maelstrom", I can't help but feel that Galactica's writers have chosen to do neither.

11 comments:

A.R.Yngve said...

Other factors than just the writers are at play in a TV series: budget, actors, licensing of characters, etc.

When/if Starbuck is killed, I immediately ask:

A) Did the actress quit?
B) Did her contract run out?
C) did she get pregnant?
D) Was she fired/transfered for getting greedy during the pay negotiations?

Television: it's more than what you see on the screen.
:)

Jennifer R said...

Well, from what I've read, the answers to that are:
(a) No
(b) No
(c) No
(d) No.

Unfortunately, it sounds like Katee has moved on to other parts and there are no plans whatsoever to bring her back that she knows of.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

As Jennifer points out, A.R., it seems that the decision to kill Starbuck was organic to the show. However, my post isn't really about the back-room decision making on the show - there are plenty of examples of shows on which exceptional storylines emerged from circumstances outside the writers' control. My post is about the handling of that death within the story, which I maintain is ham-fisted and plotless.

Jennifer, if "Maelstrom" is truly supposed to be the end for Starbuck's character, then my opinion of it plummets even further. Beyond the fact that it is ham-fisted and plotless, the episode hits every one of the 'fake TV death' buttons. I find it very difficult to believe that even Ron Moore is so tone-deaf as to fail to realize the impression he's created.

Raz Greenberg said...

What I liked about this episode: this was a rare example for "Galactica" of how writers SHOULD use flashbacks. I think about 99% of the flashback sequences seen in the show so far were lame plot-devices, meant to push this or that storyline by telling us all these little unimportant things from the characters' past that we never knew before and we'll never hear of again. This is a lazy, ugly and stupid way to tell a story, and it doesn't serve characters very well either.
The flashbacks in this episode, on the other hand, did work because they gave us an insight into Starbuck's character: what shaped her personality? What's behind her self-destructive impulses?
Not that I didn't have any problem with other elements (I agree that the ending was weak), but I thought that in terms of characterization this episode was actually a huge improvement. And hey, next time they'll give us such a deep look into a character, they might decide to let it live in the end. I'm optimistic.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I agree that flashbacks and the revelations they offer should flow organically from what we know of the characters (the revelation that, oh, wait, Adama was actually responsible for goading the Cylons into attacking the colonies and somehow neglected to mention this for two years is a perfect example of how not to do this sort of thing). On the other hand, flashbacks should also have a reason for existing. They should - as, in fact, almost all storytelling should - tell us something new. The flashbacks in "Maelstrom" can be said to have built on what we already knew about Starbuck, but I think a more accurate way of putting it would be that they told us exactly what we already knew about her - what we had been told back in the first season.

So, yes, better than "Unfinished Business" or "A Day in the Life" or even "Epiphanies", but still not good writing or a good use of the device.

Anonymous said...

Starbuck is not dead and I am shocked at the number of fans who seem to think she is. Did no one else notice the split second camera shot of her hand on the yellow 'seat eject' switch?

She ejected - was picked up by the Cylon Raider and is going to appear at the start of next season having undergone some spiritual reawakening at the hands of Leoben and company. Heck, she may even be one of the final five...

Abigail Nussbaum said...

having undergone some spiritual reawakening at the hands of Leoben and company

Oh, I don't know. However close she's come to rock bottom, I doubt Starbuck is so hard up as to require spiritual guidance from the likes of Leoben or any of the other Cylons. Talk about the blind leading the blind.

And since I've already committed myself to the character's return, why don't I cement the potential for my embarrassment: I think that Starbuck's father, of whom we've heard almost nothing in the past and absolutely nothing in this episode (and who was apparently already absent when she was a small child) is one of the final five.

Andrea said...

"And since I've already committed myself to the character's return, why don't I cement the potential for my embarrassment: I think that Starbuck's father, of whom we've heard almost nothing in the past and absolutely nothing in this episode (and who was apparently already absent when she was a small child) is one of the final five. "

I was thinking the same thing.

I have a more charitable interpretation of this turn of events.

1. I think the flashbacks weren't so much meant to merely echo previously known information, but to echo and then recast them. As the oracle said--she learned the wrong lessons from her mother. BEfore, we were shown how her mother broke her, made her someone who believes that "fear kills you and anger keeps you alive." Now we're meant to see that her mother saw something of her eventual destiny in her.

I wish they'd found a better way to do it than the ghost of trauma past, though.

2. I think this is leading into a pretty clear Joseph Conrad Hero's cycle story arc. She's the chosen one--she was sent off on an adventure, battling enormous odds--now it's time for her sojourn in the underworld (either the space between life and death, or a cylon ship, or both), after which she will re-emerge as a transformed character, in some sense, and then fulfill her Special Destiny.

I don't know that I'm expecting her to come back as Katee Sackhoff, though.

(By the way--hello, nice to meet you.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hi Andrea,

BEfore, we were shown how her mother broke her, made her someone who believes that "fear kills you and anger keeps you alive." Now we're meant to see that her mother saw something of her eventual destiny in her.

I've actually been working pretty hard to ignore this aspect of the episode, which so cavalierly forgives Starbuck's mother her inexcusable actions. I agree that Starbuck took the wrong lesson from Socrata's actions, but that lesson shouldn't have been 'deep down, your mother really loved you' but rather 'your mother was a piece of shit who isn't worth your grief and self-loathing,' and while it's true that Starbuck should forgive Socrata because holding on to guilt and anger is corrosive, it doesn't follow that Socrata deserves to be forgiven.

I think this is leading into a pretty clear Joseph Conrad Hero's cycle story arc. She's the chosen one--she was sent off on an adventure, battling enormous odds--now it's time for her sojourn in the underworld

(Joseph Campbell, right?)

This is probably true, but again the deciding issue is not the device they choose to implement but the effectiveness of their implementation. I can't say that "Maelstrom" gives me great hope on that front.

I don't know that I'm expecting her to come back as Katee Sackhoff, though.

That may very well be the case.

Andrea said...

Hmm.

See, I didn't get that. What I got was, "Your mother was a really shitty person who chose a terrible way to teach you an important lesson." Although, speaking as a person who comes from a home environment that bears some uncomfortable similarities to Starbuck's, I can also say that "Deep down, she really loved you" is also a legitimate part of that process sometimes.

Campbell--yes, sorry.

No, I don't think I expressed myself clearly: in your post you said you think the writers chose neither transformation nor death for the character. My point was, I think they chose both. There may have been better ways to do it, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and wait to see when and under what circumstances the character returns.

A.R.Yngve said...

There's a leaked preview of the season-ending episode (posted on Ain't It Cool News), which reveals whether A Person Is Alive Or Not.

Just sayin'.

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