NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “Act Of Contrition”

The bottom line is that your son didn’t have the chops to fly a Viper… and it killed him.

Air Date: 08/11/2004

Director: Rob Hardy

Writer: Bradley Thompson, David Weddle

Synopsis: After an accident results in the deaths of numerous Viper pilots, Starbuck is called upon to train in a new batch of recruits. Still hiding the secret of her indirect role in Zak Adama’s death from his father she struggles with the task, ahead of a fateful showdown with the Cylons.

Review

It might seem like a bit of a surprise, given that she’s a main character and so much of the pre-release talk surrounding BSG was about the gender swap, but we honestly haven’t really seen much of Kara Thrace so far in the series. Bar her confession to Apollo in the Miniseries’ “Part Two”, her flirting back-and-forth with Baltar in “Water” and her repeated clashes with Tigh, she really hasn’t had much to do, character wise. That changes big time here, in what is the first part of a two-part arc.

Say one thing for BSG, it’s remarkable how quickly the mood of the show changes. The jokey, ribbing happiness of the prologue, wherein all the characters appear to be having a good time for once, is shattered so quickly that it is hard to credit in a way. BSG has been so grim so far, that shutting off such an obvious chink of light so quickly seems extra cruel. But it is the starting off point for what constitutes BSG’s second big character-arc episode, after Boomer in “Water”. The seemingly random chance of a malfunctioning drone creates this weeks crisis, but it’s much harder one to take than what we have seen before.

Poor Starbuck is put through the ringer here, in some many ways: she’s forced to mourn for many dead comrades, something that arguably the episode does not spend as much time with as it should; being called upon to train their sub-par replacements, a difficult task only made worse by the apocalyptic consequences of failure; fighting with Apollo, with a heady mixture of guilt, lust and genuine affection at the heart of it; dodging the Old Man’s queries, but unable to dodge for too long; and, oh yes, the singularly thorny issue of one Zak Adama. Like I said, she is put through a lot here, but it is an engaging series of problems for the characters to face.

There is a fair amount of “Act Of Contrition” that I am really not all that fond of, as I will get to, but one thing I did like is the way that Rob Hardy gets across the messed-up state of Thrace’s mental state, in the form of her focusing intensely on memories of sexual encounters with Zak in moments when such remembrances seem like such odd intrusions, namely a funeral and a high-stakes card game. The scenes where Starbuck actually touches her ear in memory of being touched there by Zak in an intimate, sexually charged way, this mingling of lust, regret and heavy conscience, is very powerful. It would have been easy to have such flashbacks be declarations of love or Zak proposing, but instead they went with something a bit edgier, and I like that. It suits BSG more than the other option, and feels realer.

Of course that glimpse into Starbuck’s fraught emotional state is just preamble to when she goes off the rails more concretely. In the second half of the episode we get to see her drillmaster facade, as she puts the “nuggets” through their paces and washes them out as quickly as anything. This comes ahead of a brilliant showdown with Apollo, where for the first time he’s able to see right though her and what she is so obviously doing: projecting her guilt over Zak’s death onto her present-day job, going into overkill on the “never again” sentiment. Apollo, a practical man in many ways, is almost part the Zak revelation, willing to move beyond it in the circumstances, and he can;t let the viability of the ship’s Viper contingent be effected.

That leads into the most powerful scene of the episode, and maybe the series so far, where Starbuck confesses her sin to Adama. And it is a confession: Kara plays supplicant, Adama is the priest (or more, see below) there are things admitted and penance doled out. But that makes it sound far more cathartic than it really is, and the power of Edward James Olmos’ performance leaves you in no doubt as to the extent of his barely restrained anger at what Starbuck is admitting to. You really connect with Starbuck in this moment, admitting to something horribly, and I’m sure we could mirror her body language, the tremulous nature of her words, from memories of our own lives.

The penance that Starbuck must perform is to give the nuggets another shot, and in pursuing that penance it’s clear that Thrace is already finding a degree of catharsis and relief. With the weight lifted off of her shoulders she is a better teacher, free of past misdeeds. But there’s more to be done. The final combat showcases Starbuck’s skill as a pilot and as a daredevil, but is still more obviously the narrative way that she is going to get back her honour and find a way to sleep at night. Climbing that Purgatorial mountain will have to wait for the next episode.

But “Act Of Contrition” has its problems all the same, the biggest of which is a sense of obviousness in the script and in the narrative. The drone that kills the pilots is lampshaded to a huge degree, Adama’s speech to Starbuck about how she isn’t to blame for Zak’s death couldn’t have more unintentionally pointed words, Six randomly walks by the restaurant that Sharon and Helo find and there is little subtlety in the way that the episode goes about presenting Thrace as projecting her problems onto others. I think there’s a lack of faith in that regard, in the audiences ability to just get it without it having to be spelled out. It’s a bit distracting, and is is as much a visual direction issue as a script issue I think.

The structure of the episode also has its weaknesses. The comparing and contrasting of the funerals and the flashbacks are fine – indeed, that funeral sequence is actually inspired in many ways – but “Act Of Contrition” errs in introducing new plot points late-on, like Roslin’s visit to Doc Cottle, or the switch to Cylon-occupied Caprica. Some of the most interesting characters of the series thus far, like Boomer and Baltar, barely get a look in here, with the absence of Baltar/Six interactions very noticeable (though Callis gets a slightly juicy scene at the card table at least). BSG committed itself to having a large cast from the get-go, and with that decision comes the necessity to try and keep balls in the air, or just leave them aside for a week. In “Act Of Contrition”, there is a sense of trying to have cake and eat it too in response to this problem.

And while it’s not a bad thing inherently, this is yet another “Crisis of the week” episode. We had the persistent Cylons in “33”, the titular lack of H2O in “Water” and the hostage-taking in “Bastille Day”, now we have the pilot tragedy. At least “Act Of Contrition”, being half of a two-parter, is the beginning of a bucking of the trend. It also has a decent closing finale in the sudden arrival of the Cylons, and I do like that last little duel that Starbuck gets into with the opposing Raider. A “To Be Continued” ending might enrage some, but I thought it worked well enough, especially since Starbuck’s descent into the planet’s atmosphere was seen from the start.

Caprica gets only one scene here, as Sharon and Helo find a fallout shelter. It’s of course some manner of set-up, as Six’s unnecessary presence makes abundantly clear, and it’s an odd insert into the episode otherwise. It feels like this is BSG spinning its wheels a bit with the Caprica plotline, when it’s moving full steam ahead elsewhere, at least in the case of Starbuck. We could have gone without seeing Helo and Sharon for one week I feel, with this insert just not fitting in properly. Swings and roundabouts: a few great moments, a good number of not so great ones, is what marks “Act Of Contrition”.

And walk out of this cabin while you still can.

Notes

-The episode’s title refers to Christian prayers dedicated to expressing to God regret for sins committed. In this instance, it would appear that Adama is the God figure, only an episode after Tom Zarek referred to him as “Zeus”.

-One thing I remembered watching this one: whomever says “Previously on Battlestar Galactica“, is always the main focus of the episode.

-“Act Of Contrition” uses an in medias res structure, framing each act with glimpses of a future where Starbuck is plunging into the atmosphere if what looks like a hostile planet. While a little “Three weeks earlier” in a way, I think that it is executed well-enough, giving the episode a few high-octane beats to focus the mind,

-The opening does allow us to catch a glimpse of informal Colonial military culture, in the form of the ad-hoc ceremony for making 1’000 landings. It’s a nice addition to the canon, knowing that this kind of thing takes place, has a structure and tradition, and is an exercise in joy, as opposed to rigid military protocol (like, say, the funerals it can be contrasted with). We also get to see Apollo and Starbuck as Adama’s goofy kids, pointing at each other when he asks who is going to clean up the spilled paint.

-But the tragedy is a bit too lamp shaded really, in the first instance of “Act Of Contrition” not knowing when to hold back. It isn’t enough to see the drones aimed at the pilots, we have to see the strap start to fail, and the then the tense music and then a few more cutbacks. On this watch it all seemed very Holby City.

-The incident is apparently inspired by the USS Forrestal in 1967. A power surge set off a rocket that ignited the fuel tank of a Skyhawk, and 134 people were killed in the ensuing fire. It draws a line under the realism of BSG, that such a disaster can be so easily transferred to its setting.

-“Services for the dead” is Apollo’s opening line after the titles, and it hits you like a truck, with the emotion in his voice.

-I do like Adama’s description of the Viper pilots as the “guardians of the Fleet”. It’s a good way of bigging up their role as the Fleet’s main offence and defence, and in another way of emphasising the immense pressure they are under.

-Zak Adama is played by Tobias Mehler, replacing Clarke Hudson who portrayed the character in the photograph Starbuck prays to in the Miniseries, doctored here. No idea why he was changed. It took me a while to twig where else I’ve seen Mehler, and it’s actually a small recurring role as a SGC tech in Stargate: SG-1.

-Nice moment where Adama holds Starbuck’s hand at the funeral, standing apart from his ex-wife and eldest son. It’s very much a familial tie between the two: Adama’s “You’re like a daughter to me” line was not needed to make clear explicitly.

-Another moment of bad structure: We get a flashback to Starbuck’s Miniseries confession to Lee, after it was already included in the “Previously on…”

-That conversation between Starbuck and Adama where he goes on and on about how Zak’s death could not possibly be her fault is the worst written of the series so far. It’s remarkably on the nose: all it is missing is Adama going “And I know you would never lie to me, right Starbuck?”

-Having been casually dismissed from the card table in “Water”, Gaeta is now happily sitting there, just watching. The corruption continues.

-Seriously, Six lingering outside the restaurant on Caprica was a bit mental. What if Helo saw her? It really wasn’t needed to get across the idea that the bunker was a Cylon set-up.

-If you look closely during that sequence, you’ll see that one of the books that Sharon knocks over has a swastika on it, so presumably a history book. Also, no cut corners.

-We get our introduction to Doc Cottle here, played by Donnelly Rhodes, and he’s going to be another of the supporting cast who is going to make a serious impact, even if he’s just “gruff Doctor” stereotype here.

-Case in point, talk about a bad bedside manner: “I would seriously consider prayer”.

-Starbuck has to try and get the nuggets flying pretty much straight away, leading to a sequence where she supervises landings. It goes badly, but is a very nice set-piece.

-“Step. Back” Apollo isn’t willing, this time, to tolerate Starbuck’s bravado. It’s a marked change from their goofy child-like glee in the opening scene.

-The set-up for the final conversation between Starbuck and Adama still feels weird to me, all these years later. It’s like a bad sitcom misunderstanding, with Apollo getting the wrong end of the stick.

-And Apollo’s realisation that he has said too much comes with its own sudden zoom, which only provoked a laugh from me.

-I did like that Starbuck’s confession to Adama came with basically the same lines as she had previously said to Lee, it got the across the idea that it was something she had rehearsed a lot.

-Olmos knocks it out of the park in that scene. I don’t know if any other actor can get across silent rage as well as he can.

-That being said, there is something a bit off about how threats of physical violence were a mainstay of the episode, from Apollo and Starbuck to Adama and Starbuck.

-“Never leave your leader” is a good lesson for Viper pilots, but again felt like lampshading a step too far.

-Two Vipers, one of them a nugget, are able to account for eight Cylon Raiders in the conclusion. At the time this really makes the enemy look like chumps, but I feel like subsequent revelations about the nature of Raiders – essentially, they are all nuggets too, at this point – make it a bit easier to buy.

Overall Verdict: “Act Of Contrition” is another bit of a stumbling block for BSG, a good idea for an episode let down by its inability to embrace subtlety in its structure and in its script. Perhaps the studio interfered a bit, or maybe the production team needed to have a bit more faith in their audience. Still, it does have a good arc for Katee Sackhoff to show off what she can do, and sets things up nicely for the concluding part.

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4 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “Act Of Contrition”

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  4. Pingback: NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One – “Kobol’s Last Gleaming (Part Two)” | Never Felt Better

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