NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Three: “Maelstrom”

Air Date: 04/03/2007

Director: Michael Nankin

Writer: Bradley Thompson & David Weddle

Synopsis: Plagued by disturbing dreams and starting to see things in her waking moments, Starbuck is forced to confront her destiny as the Fleet refuels above a gas giant.

I feel like I’m losing my mind here.

Review

OK, here we go. A lot of people trace the downfall of BSG as the gold standard of sci-fi from this episode, and it all comes down to the decision to kill off (temporarily anyway) Starbuck. It’s a huge Hail Mary, both within the narrative environment of the show itself, but also from the production team. In the first instance we must remember that no main characters in the shows run have died yet – the biggest names to be permanently killed off at this point are Billy in “Sacrifice” and Kat in “The Passage” I suppose – so deciding upon this course of action represents a fairly momentous shift in plot. I can understand it from the perspective that Starbuck as a character has hit a bit of a dead-end – even she at one point in “Maelstrom” calls attention to the fact that she is “right back where we started” – with the Apollo/Sam triangle played out and the shows major emphasis in Season Three remaining on Baltar, and soon Adama and Apollo. But that doesn’t mean that killing her off is a good call, it just means that more productive ideas could not be found. Oh, and they’re just going to reverse it in a while, which I will cover when we hit the end of Season Three.

In the second instance, the decision represented what we can only call a deterioration in long-term planning for the show, with the choice to kill off Starbuck made less in service of a grand over-arching plot where Ronald D. Moore and everyone else knew she would be back and would serve as a sort of prophet role for Season Four, and more out of a short-term desire to shock first and foremost, and then maybe something about destiny and what have you. A lot of stuff was starting to fall through the cracks in that regard, as BSG struggled with lasting a bit longer than the creators had properly planned for, and this whole idea is the first really stand-out example of trying to cobble together something to make sense of various threads. In this specific case we have Leoben’s ramblings in “Flesh And Bone”, the apartment from “Valley Of Darkness”, the parental abuse alluded to in “The Farm” and the mandala in “The Eye Of Jupiter”. Just to take one of those, the mandala wasn’t anything that the writers factored into the long term narrative, it was something that Katee Sackhoff pressured them into making a bigger deal of then than were initially planning to. I won’t spend too much time on this, other than to say that on its own “Maelstrom” is fine, good even, but in the larger context of BSG’s longer-term plot it has an undeniable hint of desperation: to shock the audience and find a way to make the word “destiny” mean something in terms of story.

This is a full-on Starbuck episode: in fact it’s quite rare that BSG focuses as much on a single character as it does here, with the closest equivalent maybe being Kat in “The Passage”, also a death story. From the off something is very wrong, as Kara experiences vivid dreams of having what appears to be consensual sex with Leoben as the shadow of the mandala looks on, not at all in line with her deeply creepy experiences with the man going back to “Exodus (Part Two)”. The dreams seem to indicate that Thrace can’t keep running away from things any more as, like the mandala she tries to paint over, they’ll just keep coming back.

Because Starbuck does run away a lot. In many ways she’s always running from something. She’s running away from Apollo this season, as evidenced most strongly in “Unfinished Business” and “Taking A Break From All Your Worries”, but he’s still very much in her life. She’s running away from a marriage with Sam, though he keeps coming back to her. She’s running away from a date with destiny, though she’s hardly likely to win that race. And, most importantly, she’s running away from her past, especially the memories of a mother who was emotionally and physically abusive from childhood right down to the last moment the two saw each other. All this running has left Thrace a profoundly damaged person, and the kind of personal growth and healing that “Scar” showcased so vividly appears to have all been for naught. This is just fundamentally who Starbuck is, someone who would rather flee from inter-personal conflict than handle it in any way.

Through the metaphor of a vortex storm that Starbuck flies into twice in the episode we get right down to the heart of the matter, as BSG attempts to reveal the singular trait that makes Thrace who she is. When it comes to threshold’s to be crossed to reach such a revelation, I can’t really think of many that could be called more spectacular, and it’s at least a somewhat decent way to fulfill the promise of the mandala since we first saw it again in “The Eye Of Jupiter”. It carries with it an interesting, if a little frustrating, vision quest courtesy of some manner of angel, probably not dissimilar to Head Six and Head Baltar, who decides for whatever reason that it’s best if it takes the form of Starbuck’s would-be rapist, which I find a tad odd looking back.

The revelation itself is that Starbuck carries with her a fear of death that has influenced just about every aspect of her personality since she had to confront the reality of her ailing mother years previously, with the mandala she has drawn repeatedly a sort of visual representation of this: it’s the gravity well of death that she knows she can’t escape, even as she tries to give the concept the middle finger through her piloting and other exploits. Until she reckons with that fear of death, she won’t be able to fulfill her destiny. Which is all well and good, I just wish that the show had the foresight to introduce more of this theme beforehand, instead of bundling it all into this one episode (it doesn’t even reference Zak Adama, which you would imagine would be an equally powerful brush with death in Thrace’s backstory).

So much of everything seems to come down to the mother of course. She’s the source of Starbuck’s mental trauma and physical scars, but also the person that drove her into the military, and to excel in the military. Complicated feelings are only to be expected, and the nature of their final encounter only maximised that. In so many ways Thrace has always been a person who lives life dealing with a terrible mix of emotions: lust and grief in “Act Of Contrition”, admiration of Cain and loyalty to Adama in “Resurrection Ship (Part Two)”, attraction to Apollo and a desire to avoid an entanglement in “The Eye Of Jupiter”, the whole back-and-forth with Sam since the moment they meet. Here we get her sheer rage at an uncaring mother matched with a desperate fear over the reality of her illness. Starbuck runs in the face of this terrible medley of pain, and carries the regrets from that flight for the rest of her life.

Leoben, or rather this angelic figure assuming his form (again, why him of all people?) grants Starbuck the chance to right some wrongs, in an extended visitation of that moment, and then with the opportunity to actually get some closure with her mother on the woman’s deathbed. The point appears to be to allow Starbuck the chance to face death so she can overcome her fear of it and thus do what needs to be done regards her destiny (which appears to be, well, to die, for now anyway). You can’t help but think that this is a bit of an extreme way to get to that point, a convenient one to shoe-in some personal drama into the Starbuck arc in the process of filling in destiny-related plot-holes. One could argue that fear of death is both natural and, in a certain way, to be encouraged: why are the powers that be, whether it’s God or anything else, requiring Starbuck to die in order to fulfill her destiny? What do they get out of it? And given Starbuck’s previous propensity for behavior bordering on the suicidal, especially in “Scar”, is this really the best way to get to this point?

It’s important to note, no matter what other issues I might have with “Maelstrom”, that Sackhoff does give an outstanding performance. She always knocks it out of the park when there is a Starbuck episode, and I do think she is especially good in Season Three: this is just the latest example. She captures the fragility of the character in line with her occasional bravado very well, and we also get to see a very emotional display in scenes that include Starbuck’s mother. In fact this whole episode is a tour de force for the cast, with Olmos the other big stand out.

The only other person in “Maelstrom” who deserves some time is probably Apollo. This episode starts a major end of season arc for him, and the initial picture is not great. Apollo is “Maelstrom” is prone to vacillation, a man who can’t bring himself to make the very hard decision to ground a clearly unwell Starbuck. He justifies this by saying that Thrace’s identity is wrapped up with being a Viper pilot, though this ignores the many times she has been forced out of the cockpit at critical times – “The Hand Of God”, “Resurrection Ship (Part Two)” to name just two – or other times when she has proven herself adept at non-fighter pilot situations, such as in “Bastille Day”, “Kobol’s Last Gleaming (Part Two)”, “Home (Part One)” and “Hero”. It also ignores Apollo’s grounding of Thrace in “Torn” after poor training performance.

Apollo seems like a curiously indecisive man in “Maelstrom”, as if his romantic dalliance with Starbuck has fudged his ability to act with her, despite a firm declaration here that he’s past such things as a possibility. His indecisiveness proves critical when he allows Thrace the chance to fly back into the storm, despite a large evidence sheet indicating she is not of sound mind. This hubris is something we will have to see play out in consequences covered in later episodes: for now its enough to say that Apollo bears some responsibility for what happens to Starbuck, though the characterisation that gets him to that point is more than a little curious.

“Maelstrom” deserves some comments on its structure too, which is odd for BSG. The set-up and middle sections match much of what we have come to be experienced with before, but in the last act of the story things take a very strange turn: the question of whether or not Kara is losing it changes hugely, and part of me disliked the way the dichotomy of what the audience knows compared to what the characters know was thrown off. The episode slows to a crawl for its lengthy sojourn to the otherworldly, and I’m of two minds on the whole thing really. On the one hand it’s another element of what I have to call a misfiring episode that rankles, with the shift in setting, tone and mood so jarring that you feel like it should have garnered its own entire episode. On the other, it does give Starbuck the space to explore the theme of being afraid of death and finding a way past that, and has to be considered the episodes main highlight. It’s experimental for sure, but the juries out on whether the experiment was worth it.

So what now? That’s the question facing us as we head into a vital series of episodes that will define what is left of BSG. Starbuck’s dead, and as far as we know at this point her destiny has been totally fulfilled. BSG has at least kept you interested to see what gets made of everything, but it’ll need to really knock things out of the park in its last three episode to make sure it was all worth it. I’m not terribly confident that it can. Onto the last arc.

Just let me go…

Notes

-The title refers to a storm, specifically a whirlpool that sucks in ships, which is apropos.

-The “Previously on…” section features some jarring staggered close-ups on Starbuck at the end of “The Eye Of Jupiter” which was a bit soap opera-like.

-In her dream, Starbuck whitewashes the mandala from her Caprica apartment, only for it to re-appear. The symbolism isn’t that hard to grasp.

-Man, Hot Dog looks damn creepy staring at Starbuck as she emerges from her sex-heavy dream.

-Starbuck starts seeing a young girl in places, which I assume is meant to be her younger self. I’m probably not the only one who thought at first it was Kacey, last seen in “Torn”.

-The Aurora figurine that Starbuck is given by the oracle calls back to her possession of similar figurines for other Gods that we saw in “Flesh And Bone”.

-Also, “Aurora” is another Roman deity after the liberal use of Jupiter earlier this season. The Greek equivalent would be Eos, which maybe doesn’t trip off then tongue as nicely.

-I don’t think the show will ever get into how exactly oracles know the things that they know, other than the seemingly supernatural properties of the drugs they take. The tears here were interesting though, as if the physical person was crying while something else spoke through them.

-The oracle mimics the line Leoben gave in “Flesh And Bone” here that “You were raised by a woman who thought that suffering was good for the soul, so you suffered”, and it still strikes me every time.

-The oracle isn’t taking any of Starbuck’s nonsense at the same time, warning not to confuse “the messenger for the message”.

-The count, for the first time in a while, is unchanged.

-Sam may not really be Starbuck’s husband anymore, but he’s still in a position to be brutally honest with her: “…that whackjob Oracle, she’s got a point. Your mother frakked up your head long before Leoben ever got to you.”

-Starbuck outlines an example of her mothers abuse, where she got her fingers broken for scaring her with rubber spiders. It’s a gruesome memory, but one that sounds all too real. I also like Starbuck’s insistence that “It was worth it though”.

-Some good continuity in the episode, as the Fleet refuels following the resolution of the refinery strike in “Dirty Hands”.

-Love the effect of blue skies the Viper pilots get to experience by flying upside down over this gas planet. Very clever.

-Some clumsy exposition from Tigh here, as he helpfully explains to the CIC staff why DRADIS isn’t working right, as if they wouldn’t know.

-I like that Cylon ships have their Colonial nicknames: Raiders are “Sparrows” and Heavy Raiders are “Turkeys”.

-Decent CGI is evident throughout the episode, with Starbuck’s dogfights well-realised. You know we’re heading towards the end of a season when it picks up.

-The storm is obviously meant to be a bit of a riff on Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, but works well enough.

-A big plot point here is the “hard deck” of a planet, a colourful way of describing a minimal safe altitude. I’m pretty sure it’s a show invention.

-I like that the CIC crew is quick to come up with excuses for Starbuck’s non-appearing Heavy Raider, but the reality is right up there on the DRADIS screen: as mucky as it is, it’s not seeing anything.

-Cottle has declared Starbuck “an emotional basket case” but it doesn’t matter in the circumstances with Apollo: “In peacetime he’d ground us all”.

-Where is Adama getting that whiskey after all this time?

-What a question for the pilots to ask each other: where on the wall of remembrance do they want to be put when they “bite the big one”? Apollo has a nice answer at least: “You can put me right here, next to Duck and Nora. Good card players. Nice way to spend eternity.” Kara naturally wants to be left next to Kat.

-The irony of Apollo telling Thrace to “Get some rest, or you will start seeing things” just as she sees another vision of the mandala.

-It’s been a while since we’ve had the “What do you hear?” interaction between Adama and Starbuck, but it gets re-visited here. It’s half-hearted though, awkward. Something has changed here.

-Starbuck gifts Adama the Aurora figurine. It’s a bad sign really: always be wary of someone who seems in a negative place who starts giving away possessions.

-Tyrol isn’t having it when Apollo suggests the Chief be the one to approach Starbuck: “You talk to her”. He’s right too.

-Starbuck gingerly asks Apollo how things are between him and Dee. It’s hard to read her response at the answer that things between the two are “better than ever”. Is there regret there, and if so is it a meaningful or fleeting one?

-I like the transition between the cockpit alarm to the alarm clock in Thrace’s apartment. Very suitable for a dream state.

-A first we might be forgiven for thinking that we are looking at a different kind of Cylon projection in this vision, that Leoben is somehow reaching out across the universe to bring Thrace into his head. But, no, it’s more than that.

-I will never get over Leoben as the Ghost of Christmas Past here. It’s a choice of Avatar that makes no sense in context. It’d be like Roslin having Baltar fulfill the same role.

-Thrace’s mother, Socrata, is listed as a Corporal in the Marines, though I remember later episodes referring to her as a Sgt Major, a rather stark difference.

-Starbuck was good enough to rank 16th in a class of 117 when it came to piloting. I wonder where the top 15 ended up.

-Thrace’s mother is suitably straightforward in relation to her diagnosis, as only a Marine could be: “The game is over”.

-Starbuck’s vengeance on her mother is to leave her to her fate alone, but it’s an empty triumph the moment she leaves the apartment.

-Leoben declares that there is “nothing so terrible about death….it’s beautiful”. Despite his aversion to admitting a Cylon nature, it seems a deliberate nod to D’Anna’s words from “Torn”.

-“You’re not Leoben”. “Never said I was”. He’s not going to elaborate too much all the same.

-The comment that Thrace must discover something that lies “between life and death” only makes the Cylon connection more obvious.

-Starbuck makes clear her own advancement to her mother, as she moves past the paralyzing nature of death: “I’m not afraid anymore”.

-The dive in to the storm carries an obvious allusion of descending into a bleak underworld, as the threshold between life and death is crossed.

-Light and dark is played with nicely in the cockpit as we reach the pivotal moment, with Starbuck’s passing marked with storms and lightning.

-There was a scene filmed for this moment when Luciana Karro reprised the role of Kat, flying alongside Starbuck as a final indicator that everything is alright and she can join her in the afterlife. Probably for the best it was cut, we’d already gotten the message.

-There was apparently a bit of a cast revolt, led by Olmos, when news of Starbuck’s death became common knowledge, enough that previous plans to keep the surprise of her future resurrection secret had to be nixed.

-At least the episode makes no bones about Starbuck possibly surviving this moment. Her Viper explodes, and there’s no hint of an ejection.

-I love Apollo’s explosion of horror when Starbuck’s Viper explodes, it’s the kind of emotion we could stand to see more of from him.

-Apollo can’t tolerate the false hope of his father, ala “You Can’t Go Home Again”, but has only limited words to describe what Starbuck did: “She went in…she went in”.

-Adama’s grief in the CIC is very well carried off by Olmos, as the Admiral struggles to keep himself together in this awful moment.

-“Maelstrom” has time for only a brief coda as Adams finishes his model ship and then immediately destroys it in a grief-induced rage. The use of the Aurora figurine pays off in this moment, though we might consider it a convenient insert just for this episode.

-Famously, Olmos was unaware that the ship wasn’t some cheap prop when he ad-libbed this destruction (you can even tell the cameraperson was surprised, the way the shot jumps back), it actually was a museum piece and cost a great deal. It was insured though.

Overall Verdict: It is easy to see why “Maelstrom” has the reputation that it does. Taken purely on its own merits I think it’s OK, with a strong central performance from Sackhoff and some interesting ideas for its final act. In terms of killing off a main character, it’s not bad. But it’s in its relationship to what comes after that “Maelstrom” falls down. We’ll get to it.

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9 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Three: “Maelstrom”

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