This follow up post to yesterdays’ look into ‘great writing’ is the first in a series of blog posts where I examine examples of great writing in modern media. The idea is to view the construction of the writing in terms of plot, character, theme and their interaction. Today I’m looking at season two episode fifteen of the excellent sci-fi series ‘Battlestar Galactica.’
The season two episode of Battlestar Galactica entitled ‘Scar’ is a self contained tale of the everyday lives of viper pilots (fighter pilots) in a post apocalyptic war torn universe. Being waged in a war of attrition by unrelenting machines, viper pilots die, never to return while the machines keep coming. This is a dismal existence, and the shows portrayal is quite dark, pulling very few punches. Early in the episode we are placed in a scene following the death of a viper pilot, his belongings having been distributed among the remaining pilots. Among the items is the picture of a young girl – now long dead she was once the girlfriend of the deceased pilot. For Kat her inability to remember the young girls name weighs on her – was it Kathy? Katherine? Kassie? Karen? No one can seem to remember. The Colonials, as a culture, embrace their lost loved ones by immortalizing them on a memorial wall on ‘Galactica’ – the last remaining war ship in the fleet, and the home of all of the shows characters. For the shows protagonist “Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace,” the practice is pointless – simply remembering them cannot bring them back, and in her case she admits to not being able to even remember their names.
As the plot moves forward more pilots are killed and Kara struggles with the eventuality of her own demise. From a writing perspective the episode treats each pilots death as an opportunity to characterize Kara as a drunk on an increasingly downward spiral. With each death her drinking and schmoozing increase, affecting her performance as a pilot. The show also uses the plot to establish Kara and Kat -a young pilot – as rivals, with Kat besting Starbuck many times throughout the episode. It is the juxtaposition of these two characters as mirrors of each other that reinforces the main theme of the episode: the fear of not just death, but of being forgotten. For viper pilots death may be certain, but a sign of having lived is something worth dying for.
For Kat every death is something that could have been prevented, for every life lost there is little left remaining to show for it aside from items traded amongst survivors and pictures lacking context. She is young and finally coming into her own as a pilot, having been drafted into the service long after the ‘war’ began. For Starbuck death is an eventuality. For her every day is a chance to go out with a bang, in a way no one will ever forget – something all those nameless pilots were unable to do. Kara has been around the military her whole life, and has lost loved ones before – that youthful glimmer of optimism has long gone out in her.
Ultimately the plot faces Kat and Starbuck off against their greatest fear – where Kara looks death in the eye and rather than go out in a blaze of glory she chooses to live to fight another day. What is interesting about the writing in this episode is how previously the character of ‘Kat’ was quite minor and undeveloped. As previously mentioned this episode uses that character to lift a mirror up to Kara – to show her (and the audience as well) the person she used to be by reflecting the two over and over again throughout the plot (Kat is suddenly a hotshot viper pilot, she beats Kara’s old records, she points out mistakes she makes in briefings, and a character even describes her to Starbuck as being ‘like you before..’).
Where I think the writing truly shines is in Starbucks denial of the ‘Kat mirror.’ The plot pits the two characters at odds from the start of the episode. Kat bets Kara that she will be the one to destroy the menacing enemy known as ‘Scar’ and in turn become the fleets ‘top gun’ – a title currently reserved for Starbuck. Kara battles with Kat all through the episode culminating when the two actually come to blows after Starbuck shows an amazingly accurate perception of Kats greatest fear – to be forgotten like the dead pilot’s girlfriend. What drives the episode home plot wise, character wise and theme wise is Kara’s revelation at the end that she does indeed remember the names of the fallen pilots – or at least as many of them as she can. This revelation – and the act of willingly passing the ‘top gun’ goblet over to Kat – destroys Kara’s denial of the Kat mirror and ties the two together – Kara too fears being the girl no one really remembers, whose name almost comes to mind but never fully comes off the tongue. ::Super Spoiler Alert:: This bond is proven by the end of the series, where Starbucks picture is ultimately placed next to Kat’s on the memorial wall. ::end super spoilers::
While I would describe ‘Galactica’ as being a very heavy plot and character focused series, the show does a good job of consistently bringing themes in to make the shows actions and characters more substantial. ‘Scar’ on its own is a great example of using a top down design, starting with themes to create excellent character development and depth, while using a fairly common plot vehicle (the Johnny come lately rival) to tell the story. In this case the episode references some themes that become staples for the series. The sense of loss and hopelessness that permeates this episode is something that comes up often in the series. The strength of it makes those few fleeting moments of hope and happiness that much more effective and all the more tragic.