By Todd VanDerWerff
Every season, Battlestar Galactica does a Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) episode, which delves into the character's motivations and her dark past. How much you like these episodes usually hinges on how much you like borderline melodrama and how much you like Sackhoff's performance, but I've tended to find them pretty reliable studies of a character that could feel been-there, done-that but has always had a kind of livewire confidence that makes her fascinating to watch. I'm sure there were a good number of fans as frustrated by "Someone to Watch Over Me," the final script from David Weddle and Bradley Thompson and the final directorial effort from Michael Nankin on the series, since it featured very few major plot revelations, which were all crammed into the last five minutes, and since it was, again, a leisurely character piece, but I thought it was pretty terrific and maybe the best of the show's "Starbuck episodes."
To be fair, there was some stuff here that walked right up to the edge of the cliff of overdone implausibility. It made sense to have Boomer impersonate the trusted Athena (both Grace Park) since the show has noted that humans can't tell one Cylon from another to any degree of accuracy, but having Boomer seduce Athena's husband, Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) just felt too much like every scene you've ever seen where the evil twin pops in and twirls her metaphorical mustache. The episode ultimately earned this by showcasing Athena's rage, but it was touch-and-go there for a while. It also must be said that since The Sixth Sense hit theaters in 1999 and repopularized the old narrative gambit of a special helper only one character can see or hear, every time the gambit pops up again, it feels a little more tired. As soon as I figured out piano player Slick (Roark Critchlow) wasn't really there, I kept waiting for the scene where Starbuck realizes, amazed, that she's been talking to a hallucination (or a projection, but more on that in a minute). To the show's credit, though, they didn't play this in a big way. Slick was there one moment and then he was gone the next. The audience was largely expected to have figured it out a while ago (probably when Starbuck was the only one clapping for Slick after he finished a piece), and the storyline was less about its "twist" and more about its psychological exploration of the great, unanswered question of Starbuck's life: how she feels about her abandonment by her father.
There's probably a great debate to be had as to whether Slick actually IS Starbuck's father (or, rather, her hallucination of him), but he's obviously a paternal stand-in regardless. So much of the story of Starbuck has revolved around her relationship with her abusive mother that her father has always seemed kind of an afterthought. We've known he was a musician for some time, but we've never known just how much of a role he played in her life before he took off for reasons we're still not fully clear on (though, again, more on that in a minute). With the fond stories of learning the piano at the side of her father, of the happy-sad songs he taught her, we saw just how much of Starbuck's persona is her bluster designed to cover up some of her sadness at losing the man who provided a vital part of her personality, the warmth and vulnerability she keeps buried down as deep as she possibly can. After her father left, Starbuck gave up the piano, yes, but she also gave up the other things she associated with him, shunting aside what appears to have been a kind of incipient artistic gift in favor of trying to make herself even more of a warrior than her mother and finding herself terrorized by said mother at every turn. Starbuck's father didn't just leave his wife and kid (just like Slick did, hint hint); he also, to a real degree, CREATED STARBUCK. Before he left, there was Kara Thrace, and after he left, there was a new persona in the place of that sweet little girl, determined, now, not to be hurt again and not to give in to the sorts of things that might remind her of her pain.
A real reason we're able to go with Starbuck on this voyage into the subconscious is because the episode does such a good job of placing us in her frame of mind. The teaser is almost entirely hypnotic, edited to convey the terrible drudgery of Starbuck's attempts to just keep getting up in the morning, to just keep herself and everyone around her going. One of Battlestar's best character decisions has always been to play the thin line between Starbuck's determination and her desperate depression, and since the fleet found Earth and Starbuck discovered her own corpse, she's crossed over that line almost completely. She's drowning. She has no purpose and nothing driving her forward, and she's finding herself lost in resurfacing memories, in trying to deal with a past that she kept buried underneath her bravado and her constant attempts to push towards newer and bigger goals. To a real degree, she's the best of the best, and now, she's found Earth and found it lacking. Those opening passages expertly conveyed the dull monotony of just trying to hold out against the very real and creeping fear that there is nothing ahead for these people but death, as supplies grow short and the Galactica itself starts to fall apart. The words Starbuck recites to her pilots about how they're going out to try to find habitable planets become a kind of liturgy, a thin chain that Starbuck clings to just to keep going. Otherwise, she'll probably just die.
Also central to the Starbuck storyline was the suggestion that the fan speculation just might be right and that Kara Thrace was the original Cylon-human hybrid. The description of the long-lost Cylon seventh Daniel seemed to suggest that he was the type who would be a composer of classical pieces, and this episode also revealed that Starbuck's father's first name, Dreilide, which is definitely what I'm naming my firstborn son, starts with D (and, hey, the recording of him says that he was playing in an opera house—ring any bells?). Plus, as it just so turns out, the song Starbuck's father taught her as a child is the Battlestar universe's version of "All Along the Watchtower" (much to the astonishment of Tigh's (Michael Hogan) great, buggy eye), AND Starbuck draws the inspiration that leads to her performing the song from a drawing given to her by our one confirmed Cylon-human hybrid, Hera. The sequence where Starbuck puts all of this together, intercut with Tigh, Tory (Rekha Sharma) and Ellen (Kate Vernon) sharing drinks and the kidnapping of Hera, is another terrific editing job, concluding in a beautifully orchestrated overhead shot that starts on Starbuck's fingers pounding at the keyboard and pulls back and back into a wider shot. (A friend speculates that Hera suggesting her drawing of the "All Along the Watchtower" notes is actually a drawing of stars may indicate that the song itself is a kind of star map to the fleet's final destination, which is a cool idea, even if I'm not sure how that would play out, exactly.)
Before we talk about how all of this might suggest that Starbuck was just projecting Slick, though, we should go back and catch up with the episode's other major thread, which finally revisited the long dormant love of Boomer and Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas). Ever since Tyrol was revealed to be a Cylon, this was a relationship that anyone who was interested in the show wanted to see revisited, since a huge portion of the first season was tied up in Tyrol attempting to help Boomer out as the two of them grew increasingly suspicious that she was a Cylon and just how affected their relationship was when it was revealed that, yeah, she was one after all (though, obviously, the audience knew this from the first). Tyrol first dumped Boomer, then watched her die in his arms after she was shot by Cally, whom he later married and ostensibly had a kid with. Now, he's having a really bad year, even for someone on board the Galactica, as he's discovered he's a Cylon, lost his wife AND found out his son wasn't really his son (though I still don't get why he's turned over full-time custody, seemingly, to Hot Dog). You can forgive the guy for falling for Boomer's leading him on. While Boomer seems legitimately conflicted over what she does to Tyrol (at least some of her old feelings for him still exist), she's also on a mission from the villainous and still lurking Cavil (Dean Stockwell), so she expertly uses projections of an imagined life with Tyrol in a world where no Cylon massacre of the colonies ever happened and the two of them had a kid, despite all the obstacles standing in their way. These sequences in the projected home are shot with all the seductiveness that such a normal life would hold for someone like Tyrol, who's been through the ringer, and that makes it that much more horrible when he realizes that when he helped Boomer escape, he inadvertently helped her kidnap Hera and bring destruction to the Galactica. This whole plot throws Tyrol's actions this season into new relief. Since he's found out he's a Cylon, he's been all over the place, but we increasingly realize that's just the guy looking for a normal life, a world where he can feel like everything won't be pulled out from under him at a moment's notice. Tyrol's efforts to help Boomer by springing her from the brig are played with a mounting horror at just what he'll do to attain that life, but they feel absolutely like the actions of an imperfect man trying to deal with things beyond his comprehension.
This brings us back to Starbuck and her hallucinations. I don't think it's coincidence that this was the episode to reintroduce the concept of Cylon projection, and I also don't think it was a coincidence that virtually every Starbuck sequence was somehow intercut with the Tyrol storyline, even when there were occasionally other places to cut to (like Adama (Edward James Olmos) and Roslin (Mary McDonnell) realizing the Galactica has only a handful of jumps left before it crumbles and takes everyone with it). What's more, many, many of the Tyrol sequences had Slick's piano scoring (or Starbuck's father's piano playing) laid underneath on the soundtrack. Notice, for example, how the episode cuts from the scene where Slick talks about how composer's block is hell to Tyrol's increasing desperation as he goes down to those working on the ship's hull to find another Eight to replace Boomer with, knocking out the power in the process. From there, the episode cuts to Starbuck and Slick, shot in silhouette, wreathed with red light, Slick's cigarette smoke drifting up into frame. It was as if the two were in a weirdly literalized Hell, one shared by Tyrol, unable to cope with finding the love of his life again (or so he thought) only to realize moments later the terrible, terrible mistake he'd made.
On just about every level "Someone to Watch Over Me" was Battlestar at its best, and I'd suggest to any that think it's moving too slowly that the series simply doesn't have enough masterplot LEFT beyond ironing out these character stories. You either like the character stories on the show, or you don't, but I still maintain that Battlestar's dedication to illuminating every aspect of these characters is what has kept it from just falling into a trap where it tells the same stories, the same ways, over and over. "Someone" perfectly sets up the series' final three episodes (spread over four hours), and it's an absolutely terrific showcase for so many things the show does well.
Some other thoughts:
- I really should have written about Bear McCreary's score in the review proper, but I just didn't find the place for it. Suffice it to say that McCreary's piano compositions for the episode were striking and managed to find just the right place between playful and melancholic to keep the episode rolling along. I still think his composition for the end of "Revelations" is a better piece of music, but this was probably his strongest score for a single episode, top to bottom, and that's saying something, as he just might be the best composer working in TV today, even doing some interesting things with the far more generic soundtrack breaks on a VERY network-y show like Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. McCreary's been asking fans to suggest which tracks they'd like from Season Four on the Season Four soundtrack, and I'm hopeful he can include a full suite of songs from this episode.
- I really, really hoped that when Tyrol just burst into his fake daughter's room like that, she would look up and throw something at him and scream, "GET OUT OF MY ROOM!" like most of us might have at eight or nine, but I guess it was a fantasy world in every sense of the term.
- So, uh, what are we to make of Roslin just collapsing like that at the end of the episode? The series has always linked Roslin and Hera fairly explicitly (as well as the opera house), so it makes sense, to a degree, but it could also be the cancer.
- Loved the shots of the various Galactica occupants looking up as the power flickered on and off or the Galactica's hull creaked ominously. Also, the decision to frequently "score" dramatically intimate scenes like Helo and Boomer having sex while Athena watched with the sounds of the ship creaking and crackling in the dead of space is one that the show has made on several occasions, and it usually works pretty well. (As a matter of fact, the last time I remember something like that happening was in ANOTHER Weddle/Thompson/Nankin episode, the pseudo-season premiere "Sometimes a Great Notion." Maybe those three should work on a film adaptation of Dan Simmons' The Terror, a great novel that relies, to a large degree, on the feeling of being all alone in a big ship that could snap like a twig at any given moment.)
- We're starting to say our farewells to people who've been with the series from the beginning. Weddle, Thompson and Nankin have given the series many of its greatest episodes. Weddle and Thompson wrote such terrific scripts as "Downloaded," "Exodus" and "Revelations," while Nankin has directed episodes like "Maelstrom," "Faith" and "The Ties That Bind."
- McCreary's got an insanely detailed tale of the production process on this episode up at his blog, and he includes the notion that this out-of-tune piano in the Galactica bar might just be the last piano in the universe, just as that toothpaste is the last toothpaste in the universe. It's a deeply romantic notion that fits in well with the show's sense of grand apocalypse.
- On a personal note, I was pretty much predisposed to like this episode from the get-go. I actually spent most of my childhood and adolescence building towards a career as some sort of concert pianist, but once I got to college, I realized I would always be good but never GOOD ENOUGH, so I largely abandoned it. I play the piano rarely now, even though I always intend to start up again at the local church, so every time I hear the instrument, it's like a door being unlocked directly into my childhood.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.