The multiple storylines that center around Zak Adama’s death have never been my favorite of the stories on Battlestar Galactica. Though it does serve to give us the term “Adama-drama,” as well as some delicious tension between Kara Thrace, Lee Adama, and Bill Adama, the thing itself is not really that compelling. In poor Zak’s defense, it’s not really his fault—it’s just that we, the audience, never get around to meeting him. Deprived of proof, it’s hard to just believe that Starbuck’s relationship to Zak was vital and important, or that Lee and the Commander were destroyed by his death. It’s reasonable, but it’s not a truth that is felt, and Battlestar Galactica is all about truths that are felt.
If I had to pinpoint one particular element of this doubleheader that rings false, it’s specifically the backstory ascribed to Zak and Kara Thrace. Nothing about the milquetoast, untalented Zak captures the imagination, and Starbuck’s mate would have to, wouldn’t s/he? If you’ll permit me a short digression: It would be a lot more plausible, and speak much more to the complications between Kara and Lee, if Starbuck’s last lover was not Lee’s brother but Lee’s sister. That would actually speak to the complications between the Commander and Starbuck, too—it would make the reveal that Starbuck and Zak were engaged a lot more dramatic. As it is, the relationship is oddly generic, devoid of the streak of unique energy that characterizes Starbuck.
No, Zak is just a plot device, and a poorly conceived one, at that. I don’t blame the writers of Battlestar Galactica for conjuring up a dead family member so that more interesting members of the family could emote about him. But I do blame the writers for “Act Of Contrition,” which is one of the weakest episodes in the whole series. Coming in sequence as it does right after the middleweight “Bastille Day,” it doesn’t even have forward momentum. To add insult to injury, the episode repeats multiple moments in what is supposed to be an ever-widening psychological vortex of doom but ends up reading like the producers were trying to use up runtime with whatever material they could find. The episode is framed, -ish, by Starbuck plummeting out of the sky through a yellowed atmosphere, watching her Viper disintegrate around her as she struggles to reach the ejection loop. It should be suspenseful foreshadowing. Instead, it’s outright boring, as the episode retreads the same territory.
It’s not until six minutes before the end of the episode that “Act Of Contrition” finally wakes up—signaled by Starbuck shouting into her mic, “Holy frak, we’ve got incoming.” All of a sudden, the stakes of the show snap back into place. Oh right: Cylons. And then she really does plummet to the surface of the moon the Galactica is orbiting. And then all bets are off, as we segue into “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
Both of these episodes were written by the same story team, in swapped roles: Carla Robinson is the story editor for “Act Of Contrition,” and the writer for “You Can’t Go Home Again”; the writing duo of David Weddle and Bradley Thompson are the writers of the former, and the story editors of the latter. It’s not necessarily a significant change—clearly, both episodes rely on each other in order to make sense, although some strong, terse writing could have easily combined the two into one episode. But it did interest me to learn that Weddle and Thompson came up in a lot of other televisual science fiction, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and more recently, Falling Skies and The Strain. Meanwhile, Robinson’s entire oeuvre is Battlestar Galactica—until last year, she didn’t even have another writing gig to her credit.
And it shows. “Act Of Contrition” frustrates primarily because it is such a conventional episode, with conventional weaknesses. Slow-moving. Reliance on flashbacks. Telling, not showing. Weirdly oversexualized, but the sex isn’t even sexy. And introducing a whole bunch of new people you have to care about, without adequately proving why.
“You Can’t Go Home Again” is this whole other beast—and so fittingly, it introduces a whole other beast. It’s one of the strongest one-off episodes about the show’s mythology, largely because it introduces a reality that so hard to imagine that it’s sort of unforgettable—that of the living, breathing spaceship, made of some unholy combination of meat and metal.
I’ve talked at length before about Starbuck, and how she’s a symbol of so much human purity for the show. When I wrote that, I wasn’t even considering this adventure, but this two-parter is the perfect encapsulation of that. Starbuck’s journey here is very powerful, very alive—and very human. The saving grace for “Act Of Contrition” is that while the backstory feels like a mess, Starbuck’s journey from joy to guilt to disenchantment to rage to reconciliation feels entirely real, and furthermore, entirely human. We know the Cylons aren’t just their programming, sure: But also, no one in their right mind would program anyone to feel like this.
And the cold open of “Act Of Contrition” introduces a concept that isn’t even named, but is so important to the series: human error. That’s what kills Flat Top and 13 other pilots; that’s what killed Zak, too. Basic human fallibility, packaged in the form of a stray communication drone that wasn’t buckled in or a check mark that shouldn’t have been checked off. It’s different kinds of human error, for sure—but it’s certainly a measurable failure rate, which is in stark contrast to the monolithic and deadly Cylons, who, as the beginning of every episode reminds us, “have a plan.” It even crops up with the normally levelheaded Commander Adama, who loses his mind, trying to find Starbuck, putting the whole fleet in jeopardy as a result. Human frailty comes in many forms.
What Starbuck spends the whole of “You Can’t Go Home Again” doing is proving to someone—herself? The rest of the humans who are looking for her? The Lords of Kobol? The Cylons? We, the audience?—that human error is also human strength. Starbuck’s will to power in this episode is off the charts. She goes from the void to a hostile planet to an enemy ship with barely an hour or two of oxygen, and despite a few moments of panic and despair, it’s also very obvious that she is loving it. It’s that maniacal laughter that kicks in when she finally figures out how the raider flies; it’s the monologue to the ship, laced with a flight instructors’ litany and a run of jokes that no one will ever hear. She is on the very edge of death, but she has never felt more alive.
And of course, there is the most important moment in the entire two episodes, when she is lying on her back underneath the raider, trying to figure out her way inside. She feels her way around a metal disc that is some kind of soft, pliant, organic material; she pushes, and it slides open, revealing blood-red muscle inside. “Frak me, are you—alive?” she asks, touching it with an exposed blade. The raw muscle flinches, responding to the pain, and Starbuck doesn’t even hesitate: She guts it, stabbing it hard in its raw underbelly, killing it for good (and finding her way inside).
Sound familiar? This scene is almost note-for-note a perfect mirror to the first scene of Battlestar Galactica: Six verifies the life of the human she finds, and then moves to destroy it—to not just destroy it, to inhabit it; she shoves her tongue down his throat, just as her compatriots invade and occupy the human colonies. In “You Can’t Go Home Again,” Starbuck eviscerates the raider—or to be exact, she leaves the guts, but removes the “brain.” And just as the new Cylon models take on the shape of humans, Starbuck takes on the shape of a machine. It’s an echo, a callback, a reliving: It’s the most important question in the series, replayed backwards.
Before I go on, there’s something else bubbling under the surface here: This whole sub-story takes on sexual relations in a weird way. As I mentioned above, Zak and Kara’s physical intimacy is more awkward than sexy. And in “You Can’t Go Home Again,” Six, when she does show up to torment Baltar, is so sexed-up that the primary takeaway is less erotic and more… well, trashy. And I don’t say that to impugn Tricia Helfer at all—it’s clearly a deliberate choice. Six is wearing some kind of turquoise wrap dress that exposes most of her stomach and shoes with Lucite soles, which are literally stripper heels. And in one moment, she actually spreads her legs towards the camera, before sucking on Gaius’ fingers (in case you had any doubts about her sexual availability).
Look, Six is hot. And Six’s physical attractiveness is a huge part of her character. But I found this scene so incredibly unsexy that I have to assume it’s not there just to titillate the viewer. Instead it seems to be present to create this intense and unavoidable connection between sex and death, which is hella Freudian. Because Six shows up to wave her vagina at Baltar while intoning words of terror; she’s asking, sexily, whether or not he’ll survive the search for Starbuck. And Zak and Starbuck’s sex scenes can’t escape death because—he is dead, and this is all just a flashback.
It comes up again and again. Helo is interrupted from making breakfast for a slightly disrobed and very cute-looking Sharon by a Cylon trying to kill them both; Lee and Kara are flirting like crazy while painting Flat Top’s helmet for his 1,000th landing, and their energy is quickly quenched by an explosion and 13 lives lost.
It’s not even possible for me to try to summarize how loaded tying the two concepts together is—it’s a huge part of Freud’s work, a huge part of Foucault’s, and occupies the minds of philosophers and scientists alike. And it is front-and-center in Battlestar Galactica, right from the miniseries, where Commander Adama stares at Dee and Billy across the room and announces that the dying human race needs to have babies. Because the two drives are fundamental to humanity; and of course, they are exclusive to humanity, or at least to Earth-based life-forms. At this point in the series, we still don’t know that much about Cylons, but they’re copies. Their drive to procreate and their fear of dying, if they exist, are very dissimilar from humans.
And then there’s Starbuck, who distinguishes herself continually in the show as being not just human but the uber-human. She’s so indestructible that it’s sort of like she’s above death—she’s just untouchable. So similarly, sex would seem unnecessary, too. It’s why the intimacy with Zak feels so pointless, I think. And might be why I continue to be invested in her relationship with Lee—it’s not sexual, and in some ways, that’s because they can’t get their shit together, and in other ways, that’s because it’s not the intimacy that Starbuck needs. She’s a force of nature—indeed, “God,” to her nuggets. And when she prays to the Lords of Kobol, on a desolate moon, she gets what she asks for.
And if that all sounds completely insane, and too perfect for just one character—well, you might have a point. I buy it, though, because she spends a lot of these episodes becoming a symbol, more than a person. And not coincidentally, Starbuck’s most intimate moment in this entire series so far has been with the Other: The Cylon raider. She has entered it and smelled its stink and become slick with its fluids. It is grotesque intimacy: The scenes inside the Cylon raider are blood-and-guts FX on the level of The X-Files gross-out scenes. There’s goo dripping all over everything, and it smells terrible, and Starbuck has to literally inhabit it. And become the machine, or the living machine, the human-machine hybrid.
“You Can’t Go Home Again”’s title is not immediately obvious to parse—who is it referring to, and how?—but my interpretation is that it’s the first time the show makes clear to its humans, through a web of subtext and semiotics, that humans will have to be something other than human in order to survive. It’s not clear what, for sure. But this transference of sexual imagery to the machine—and then Kara’s transformation from a ground-crawling human to person that can kind-of-sort-of fly, using her feet and hands—is not an image that is just thrown into the story for funzies. There is something very intense here—a meditation on humanity, a meditation on survival, a reckoning of the very drives that make us people. And an exhortation, perhaps, to walk in someone else’s shoes—or to fly with their wings—or to look through their eyes, after you’ve given them over to the Commander.
So say we all:
- Original airdates: 1/28/2005 and 2/4/2005
- Survivor count: 47,960
- Six theme count: 4
- Adama speech count: 1 (and the beautiful delivery of, “I love you like a daughter. I don’t deserve that.”)
- God, there is a lot of Lee/Kara stuff to untangle here. As I said above, so much of its power is that it’s platonic. But also? Apollo is a kind of force of nature, too. He’s not quite as vital as Starbuck, but he’s a very good pilot, and also foolhardy brave, and better than he ought to be at most things. It’s not surprising at all that he ends up flying out to meet the incoming raider solo, just as Starbuck went out to meet the eight incoming all by herself. And their whole relationship is in their dance as Viper and raider—if anything, it seems like their cat-and-mouse firefight is the most physical intimacy those two will ever really need. His primal yell when he spots her flying the raider echoes her own insane laughter inside the ship—that sheer joy at being human, whatever the risks. And then she literally like, takes him under her wing, so he can read her call sign? Put a fork in me. I’m done.
- This episode sees the appearance of the Galactica’s attitudinal doctor, Dr. Cottle. I do not like him much, but he’s here now. Sharon has taken the opportunity to disappear, also.
- Maybe the most egregiously frustrating thing about the flashbacks were the Missus Adama, heavily veiled so they could cast her later if they needed to.
- Tigh is sick of your Adama-drama: “It’s complicated. It would take about three weeks to explain.”
- It is actually a bit confusing that they ended up rewarding Hot Dog for disobeying orders. If I were the commanding officer, I’d be furious. But I actually don’t know anything about aeronautical tactics, so.
- I’ve expressed frustration at the father/son Adama-drama before, but Lee tearing up when the Commander tells him that “if it were you, we’d never leave”—when they both are convinced that Kara is dead, because they talk about her in past tense? Yeah, that slayed me.
- “You idiot! Didn’t anyone teach you intercept protocol?”
- “Holy—the Cylon is now flying formation with me?!”
- Helo accidentally gets the attention of the Cylon sentry with a toaster. ICWUDT, show.
- Office of the XO: I am trying to make #throwfrakthursday a thing. Tell your friends.
- And now it’s your turn: If you got to choose, would you rather be a Cylon or a human? (Bearing in mind that you might end up being a Cylon raider or one of the toasters on the ground, or a lowly nobody in the civiliam fleet.) I’d like to think I’d prefer humanity, but I don’t know, Cylons kind of have it made.